Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's Christmas Time!

After two post-Thanksgiving, leftover-stuffed days of "I'm just not feeling this Christmas thing", it hit me all at once today.

I ended up going out to see the new version of "A Christmas Carol", which I found thoroughly enjoyable, even though it's the same story we've heard/seen a thousand times. The animation and the 3D actually make it worth seeing, even if you can recite Scrooge's lines by heart (which I can). 3D is getting better and better, and there were no tricks and gimmicks in this movie - just an immersive feeling of actually being IN Dickens' London. It's really gorgeous.

And despite the fact that this is ostensibly a cartoon, you recognize most of the actors - not just Jim Carrey as Scrooge, but Gary Oldman (as Bob Cratchit, no less), Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, etc., etc.

Definitely consider going if you need a little push in the "Christmas spirit" direction.

And a nice eggnog latte from Starbucks (my first - and probably only - of the season) doesn't hurt either.

Once home, I kicked on my Irish Christmas music and began to get out my Christmas china and decorations. I don't think I'm doing a tree this year; haven't decided, but it seems like a lot of trouble since I won't be home Christmas day. But we'll see. I will get a wreath, at minimum.

But I trotted out the Yule Buck (more about him later), set up my snow village, hung stockings, and filled the hurricane lantern on the coffee table with glittery pine cones.

It's definitely starting to feel like Christmas around here.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

My day was just too busy - and my stomach too full - to take many pictures today. But if my awesome Thanksgiving could be summed up in one image, this is it:

The gang, contemplating a grey sea, right after dinner.

And now that Thanksgiving is (nearly) over, here's a little something to get you into the spirit of the next winter holiday:

Stella Claus says: "OH, HAI!"

I hope your Thanksgiving day was as great as mine, and you got to spend it appreciating all the people you love. Who could ask for more?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Countdown: Wednesday

Wednesday is the big cooking day, where I put most dishes together to go into the oven on Thursday morning.

Here's what I did:

1. Brined the turkey.

2. Picked up the pies. I got a pumpkin pie and a chess pie, which is the closest thing to pecan pie that the bakeries around here make. If I ever break down and make my own pies, it'll be because I can't get pecan any other way. Anyhoo...

3. Froze the vanilla ice cream. Too bad I didn't think to take pictures. It always looks so cool when it's churning.

4. Finished the gravy.
Altogether, it took me the better part of a day - spread out over yesterday and today - to finish off the gravy. On the plus side, that's my pretty orange Le Creuset dutch oven, absolutely brimming with gravy. There'll be no shortage of gravy in my house, people.

5. Made the stuffing.
I made two pans: one with sausage and one without. I'll pop them in the oven when the turkey comes out. I take several shortcuts with my stuffing, including using packaged breadcrumbs, and this cool package of fresh onions, celery and herbs, already chopped. Sure, I've made my own from scratch before, but it's a lot of trouble, and it really isn't all that much better than this way. So, I save myself some trouble and people still love it.

6. Assembled the casseroles.
First, there's my mom's famous candied yams (or sweet potato casserole, take your pick of names - it's all delicious).

Then, good ole green bean casserole, complete with french fried onions.

7. Made dough for sausage balls.
These will be the only appetizer tomorrow. I don't usually do apps with such a big meal, but a while back I had a party where I served these. One of the guests, D, was on a restricted diet at the time, and couldn't eat them. She told me she's thought of them ever since. So, they're on the menu for her tomorrow.

I made the dough and will pop them in the oven when the guests arrive. Fortunately, the recipe (which I'll post soon) makes a ton, so I made some for Bailey and I tonight.

8. Set the table.
More specifically, watched Bailey set the table. It's her one job every year, and as you can see, she tackles it with artistic flair.

9. Took a walk along the seawall at sunset.
If I needed a reminder of everything I have to be thankful for, this was it...

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Make-Ahead Turkey Gravy

This is a dark, rich - almost brown - gravy. It can be made up to three days in advance; I usually make it on Tuesday. If you make it prior to your frozen turkey thawing out (which I usually do), you can usually procure turkey necks or extra turkey gizzards at the butcher's. Just substitute those for what you'd pull out of your turkey.

Last year after Thanksgiving, I made turkey stock from the turkey carcass, and froze it. I substituted that this year for the chicken stock, and I have to say so far that the taste is really worth it. But regular chicken stock will certainly do.

Make-Ahead Gravy

Reserved turkey giblets, neck and backbone, hacked into 2-inch pieces*
1 medium carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 rib celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 small onions, chopped coarse
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 cups dry white wine
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place turkey trimmings, carrot, celery, onions, and garlic in large roasting pan. Spray lightly with cooking spray and toss to combine. Roast, stirring every 10 minutes, until well-browned: 40-50 minutes.

Place roasting pan over burner on high; add chicken stock and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits on bottom of pan.

Transfer contents of roasting pan to dutch oven. Add wine, 3 cups of water, and thyme; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until reduced by half, about 1 1/2 hours. Strain stock into another container, and cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until fat congeals, at least 1 hour. (Note: I usually do this on Tuesday and put it in the fridge overnight, then finish the gravy on Wednesday.)

To finish, skim fat from stock and reserve. Pour stock into another saucepan through a fine-mesh strainer and discard any solids. Bring stock to a simmer over medium-high heat. In a second saucepan, heat four tablespoons turkey fat (note: I use a little butter if I don't have enough fat) until bubbling; whisk in flour and cook, whisking constantly, until combined and honey-colored, about 2 minutes. Continuing to whisk constantly, add hot stock by the ladleful, then reduce the heat to medium low. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

Note: Gravy can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Reheat in a medium saucepan over medium heat until hot - about 8 minutes.

*Honestly, I don't usually bother with the hacking part. I throw the trimmings in whole and it comes out fine.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Countdown: Tuesday

Tuesday is when the real pre-work for the Thanksgiving feast begins. I do a lot of prepping of dishes that will need to be finished over the next few days: making stocks, custards, etc.

Here's what I worked on today:

1. Prepared the stock for the gravy.
I make my turkey gravy ahead of time, which saves a whole lot of stress on Thanksgiving morning. A lot of people marvel at that, but it's actually pretty easy. I roast some turkey necks and parts I buy frozen with some basic vegetables (carrots, celery, onions, etc.). Then, I combine them with water and white wine and cook that down into a stock. I then use the stock as a base for the gravy. It's time-consuming, but again, worth it not to have to stand over a hot stove at the last minute, frantically stirring a roux.

(And yes, I double the recipe. I like gravy.)

2. Made fresh cranberry sauce.
I use the Pioneer Woman's recipe. And yes, I still buy the stuff in the can, because some people just have to have it. But this stuff is amazing. Plus, it looks pretty packed in a Mason jar and set on the table.

3. Made custard for vanilla ice cream.
I don't really do pies (never been too good at it), and with a great bakery just down the street, why would I? I let them handle dessert, and my stress levels go down accordingly. However, good as their pumpkin pie is, it's even better with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. And since I can do it ahead of time, it's easy to add to the menu.

I made the custard tonight to chill overnight. I'll freeze the ice cream in the morning.

4. Started the turkey brine.
I brine my turkey, which makes it really moist and flavorful. I've heard brining is becoming passe, and everyone salts their turkeys now. Whatever. To me, nothing gets the kind of flavor into the meat the way brine does. I used to make my own solution, but I fell in love with Williams-Sonoma's last year. You add apple cider to the mix while the turkey brines, and then stuff the turkey cavity with apples. Heaven.

After boiling the brine, it needs to come to room temperature and then chill, so I do it the day before I want to brine the turkey (which is the day before I want to roast it). So, I did that tonight.

I also cleaned the house a bit, and made a trip to Michael's for table decorations. I got a lot accomplished, but have a long Wednesday ahead to finish everything in time.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving Countdown: Monday

Today, I:

  1. Bought groceries. I stocked up on everything I'd need for the meal, including fresh cranberries and turkey necks (for the gravy). Of course, Thanksgiving would not be complete unless you forgot something; I have to go back tomorrow for onions.
  2. Organized my kitchen cabinets. No one will see this but me, of course, but it's easier for me mentally to cook that much if my cabinets are organized.
  3. Tracked down my baking and serving dishes. I'm missing one bowl and need to buy a couple of more glasses. A Target run seems in order.
  4. Set the frozen stock out to thaw. It's all homemade stock - some chicken and some turkey that I made with the remains of last year's Thanksgiving turkey.
  5. Cooked dinner for the week. I always feel bad for cooking non-stop for two days straight, and then being too tired to make Bailey dinner. So, tonight, I made a huge pot of Chicken Bog (an easy chicken, sausage and rice dish - I'll post the recipe soon). That will give her something warm and tasty to have while I'm getting the main meal ready.
Tomorrow the real work begins...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving Countdown: Sunday

Over the next few days, I'll be documenting my crazy pre-Thanksgiving prep in all its glory. Here is what I accomplished today:

1.) Put the turkey in the fridge to thaw. And yes, that's the $7 Safeway frozen turkey, and not a fancy-schmancy expensive fresh organic one. And you know what? I am not ashamed!! You see, last year, I was in the grocery store right before Thanksgiving, and ran into the chef at my favorite local restaurant - and he was buying this turkey for his own family Thanksgiving. If it's good enough for him, it's darn sure good enough for me.

2.) Made my grocery list. Or, more specifically, my grocery spreadsheet. Yes. I have a spreadsheet. It lists every dish I'm making, the ingredients and amounts, and the timing of when I'm cooking it.

Tomorrow, I'll be buying all the groceries I need, gathering up all my serving and baking dishes, and getting the house ready.

Holiday Recipe Testing Day

Every good cook or baker knows you don't try a new recipe for the first time on a special occasion, so Risey and I got together for what I hope is a new annual tradition: the Holiday Recipe Test.

The concept is simple: we each picked a new recipe we wanted to try or technique we wanted to practice (in our case, both - she wanted to learn piping while I tried my hand at glazing sugar cookies). With ingredients and equipment in hand, B and I trekked over to Risey's house, where she'd made a fantastic vegan brunch (with bacon just for Bailey). After brunch, Bailey camped out on the couch with her computer, Risey turned on some Christmas music to get us in the mood, and her kitchen exploded in flour and sprinkles.

Here are some pictures from the afternoon:

Lovely Risey, measuring out ingredients for her vegan Mocha Cupcakes.

That's my disembodied hand, cutting butter into flour a piece at a time.

The glory that was Risey's Mocha Cupcakes. Note the different piping styles.

Risey and I, very focused on glazing sugar cookies.

Still life of half-decorated sugar cookies.

Ignore my parti-colored finger. Had some trouble with the food coloring.

Risey looked at this and said, "That's KIND of a good idea."

Well, it was a better idea than her tree decorated with red lips.

This is from Risey's "Blob Period".

Bailey and Sweet Boy, happily ignoring the commotion in the kitchen.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Cake People

I love where I work.
(And I will explain what the above shot of cake has to do with that in just a second - don't be alarmed.)

I know how lucky I am to be able to say that; so many people don't. (And I haven't in the past.) Part of it is just that I love my actual job, I'm good at it, and it's a good environment to work in. But mostly, it's the people. There are some great people who work there, and who make it a pleasure to go in every day. Fortunately for me, some of those people have become true friends - in and out of the office.

Those friends are what I call "The Cake People." These are the people who are so high up on my list that I would put myself through the ninth Circle of Hades - i.e., bake a birthday cake - for them.

See, baking a birthday cake to bring to the office is a royal pain in the ass. First, there's remembering their birthday (no mean feat - ask my mom, who gets birthday wishes every March 3rd, then reminds me that her birthday is May 3rd.), then remembering to borrow the cake taker. Then there's the shopping. Then, I bake the layers the night before, wrap them and place them aside to cool. Then, I get up at 5am the day the cake is due, make the frosting, fill and decorate the cake.

Then I pack it up in my borrowed cake taker (why don't I have one of these, Bueller?), and schlep it all the way into the city on the bus. THEN, I get to walk ten minutes from my bus stop to the office, past about 100 people who think they're uniquely funny when they say "Can I help you with that?!"

I really, really have to like you to bake you a birthday cake.

Well, one of my friends at work is someone I really, really like apparently: I call him The Russian. Even though he's Ukrainian. And over the past few months of patient translation of Russian movie trailers and shared soccer fervor, The Russian has clawed his way to Cake Person status.

Behold, The Russian's birthday cake:

The Russian is apparently broken and doesn't like chocolate (didn't realize those people existed), so he requested something with fruit, preferably raspberry. Therefore, I made him Dorie Greenspan's Perfect Party Cake: a buttermilk cake scented with lemon sugar, and frosted with a lemon-flavored Swiss meringue buttercream frosting. Inside, I brushed the layers with raspberry jam before filling them with the buttercream, then added a ring of raspberries to the top.

It went over a storm, and The Russian seemed genuinely happy with his cake. He kept it in his cube until the whole row smelled like lemon, and growled at anyone who got too close. In the end, he did share it, and we all pretty much made ourselves sick on it. One girl declared she "doesn't like cake" - and proceeded to have two slices.

See the hand in this picture? That belongs to a guy in the office who was slowly working his way into the rarified Cake Person stratosphere. Then, while devouring my masterpiece, he pointed out that he didn't actually have to make me like him enough to become a Cake Person. He just had to make friends with the other Cake People, and then he'd get their cake.

Guess who is never going to become a Cake Person?

Anyway, here's the recipe:

Perfect Party Cake

For the Cake

2 ¼ cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups whole milk or buttermilk (I prefer buttermilk with the lemon)
4 large egg whites
1 ½ cups sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

For the Buttercream

1 cup sugar
4 large egg wites
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 large lemons)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For Finishing

2/3 cup seedless raspberry preserves, stirred vigorously or warmed gently until spreadable
About 1 ½ cups sweetened shredded coconut

Getting Ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9-x-2 inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

To Make the Cake: Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl.

Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter, and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light. Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs, beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2-minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and will aerated. Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch- a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up. (The cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.)

To Make the Buttercream: Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or other large heatproof bowl, fit the bowl over a pan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream. Remove the bowl from the heat.

Working with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes. Switch to the paddle attachment if you have one, and add the butter a stick at a time, beating until smooth. Once all the butter is in, beat the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6 to 10 minutes. During this time, the buttercream may curdle or separate-just keep beating and it will come together again. On medium speed, gradually beat in the lemon juice, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more, and then the vanilla. You should have a shiny, smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream. Press a piece of plastic against the surface of the buttercream and set aside briefly.

To Assemble the Cake: Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each layer horizontally in half. Put one layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. Spread it with one third of the preserves. Cover the jam evenly with about one quarter of the buttercream. Top with another layer, spread with preserves and buttercream and then do the same with a third layer (you’ll have used all the jam and have buttercream left over). Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake and use the remaining buttercream to frost the sides and top. Press the coconut into the frosting, patting it gently all over the sides and top.

Makes 12 to 14 servings

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

TWD: Sugar-Topped Molasses Cookies

This week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe is Sugar-Topped Molasses Cookies. Mmmm....molasses.

I was excited about this recipe, partly because I plan to give away cookies as Christmas gifts this year. I don't actually have a ton of good cookie recipes, so the possibility of a solid, spicy-gingery-molassesy recipe filled me with excitement.

Cause my life's boring, obviously.

Unfortunately, the cookies didn't quite live up to what I'd built them up to be in my head. This may or may not be a good thing. Let's start at the beginning, though.

These mix up really easily. They mostly consist of things I have in the pantry (I'm Southern, so yes, molasses is a pantry staple.) The dough is soft and sticky, but you divide it into two pieces, wrap them in plastic wrap and chill them in the fridge for a half hour or so. This was one of the parts of the recipe I liked best; I was able to make just a handful at first, keep the dough in the refrigerator (it can stay there for up to three days) and come back the next day to make more fresh cookies with little fuss.

Once they're chilled, you roll them into balls, roll them in sugar, and then tamp them down with the bottom of a glass. Then you bake them a few on a sheet at a time, because they spread like wildfire.

I used turbinado sugar on the first ones instead of granulated sugar, and I liked the turbinado a lot better. Also, I used dark brown sugar instead of the light brown sugar the recipe called for. I was scared they would taste too much of molasses because of it (brown sugar is flavored with molasses, with a heavier concentration in dark brown), but they were fine.

Better than fine, actually. These cookies are flat-out delicious. Like, dangerously delicious. I was glad I'd only made a few at a time, because I couldn't stop eating them.

That's the good news.

The not-so-good news is that I wasn't thrilled with the texture. My friend J, who's a fantastic intuitive cook and baker, also thought they were oddly textured. The edges where they'd spread out were nicely carmelized and crisp, but the centers were soft and cakey. It's very possible that, due to the taste, we were expecting a crisp, gingersnap-type cookie. But these weren't that at all.

At first, I thought it was me. My first batch, I didn't press them down with the glass - just left them in balls. I made another small batch following the directions, and while these were better, they were still odd, and I actually had trouble getting them off the sheet without breaking.

The third batch I made, I actually made a lot smaller than the recipe called for. These came out much crisper and nicer, but still a little soft for mine and J's tastes. (Granted, we both ate every one of them.)

Our conclusion was that taste-wise, these were fantastic. But overall, we just couldn't get into the texture. Sadly, they will probably not be in my Christmas boxes. However, they probably will show up next to a pot of tea on non-fancy occasions.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Tax Dollars at Work

Usually, saying "my tax dollars at work" is a negative thing. In this case, I actually say it with a bit of pride, because my tax dollars actually went toward something I can get behind: our new hiking and biking trails.

I live very close to the ocean, and to a group of hills that overlook said ocean. The hills have always had trails in and around them, but they've been haphazard. A few months ago, the county took on a conscious effort to improve them, and I have to say, it makes life here even better.

There are lots of nice, wide, well-marked trails here, of varying levels of difficulty. Every sign gives you directions and distance to the next trailhead. This is the beginning of a nice short trail with a mild upward slope that I use as my daily walking trail.

These are the newest installations: a series of flat wooden bridges and walkways perfect for biking and walking. This whole area was uneven and unappealing, and turned into a giant mudslide in the rainy season. Now, it's the most inviting part of the area.

Strategically placed wooden benches provide seating, and I almost always see older people hanging out here and resting, or moms taking a break with their kids.

They even carved out this faux creek thing beside the walkway, which is very likely to become a real creek when the rains start in a couple of months.

The weather stays nice here until January or February (and is then yucky for only a couple of months), so hiking is the main way I stay fit. Now, it's just a little nicer.

Granted, that big check for property taxes on December 10th will still hurt, but I have to admit it will hurt just a tiny bit less when I'm out on our spiffy new trails.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thanksgiving Recipe: Candied Yams

So, I completely thought the whole "sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top" was an American thing, until I served it at an "orphan's" Thanksgiving dinner one year. As in, all red-blooded 'Muricans ate it at Thanksgiving. Apparently not. It's a Southern/Midwestern thing. And the rest of the country is seriously missing out, I say.

This is my Mama's recipe, and I print it as she gave it to me. This is one of those recipes that you kind of have to do by feel but, honestly, you smother it in melted marshmallows. How could you really mess it up?

Mama's Candied Yams (aka Sweet Potato Casserole)

1.) Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2.) Drain and mash 2 big cans sweet potatoes
3.) Mix in well:
1 egg
Dash of salt
Pinch of cloves
Some cinnamon (I heart this ingredient. Precise, no?)
Brown sugar to make it sweet (This is even more precise!)
A few chunks of butter
Handful of mini marshmallows (you'll need more for topping)
4.) Spread into a pan and cook until heated through, about 30-45 minutes.
5.) Remove from oven, and cover with mini marshmallows. Return to oven until the top marshmallows are ’melty’ (exact phrase ala Mama) and browned.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Thanksgiving Approaches

I was making plans for a project at work today, when I suddenly realized that Thanksgiving was just a couple of weeks away. I plan to take off the whole week (which does throw a wrench into things at work, but whatever).

I love cooking and I love feeding people, so Thanksgiving is pretty much my favorite holiday of the year. I start cooking on Monday night, and pretty much cook straight through until the end of the day Thursday. Funny thing is, we tend to eat a lot of pizza that week, because after spending all day in the kitchen getting ready for the big meal, I don't have the energy to cook dinner.

Every year, I say I'm not doing it...that I'll go have dinner at one of the fancy hotels in San Francisco. And every year, my daughter gives me her sad eyes and says, "But you're not cooking?!" and every year, I do. (Who can resist a child who loves their mom's cooking? No one with a heart, that's who.) I also say I'll just keep it simple, and then end up inviting someone for every seat at the table. My friend Shawn is always here, and the others rotate. This year, a couple who are some of my closest friends will be here, and they're bringing a coworker who's just moved down from Canada and would otherwise be alone. The more the merrier, I say. I cook too much, anyway.

Some of my favorite yearly traditions are based around Thanksgiving, and I look forward to the days of preparation preceding the meal almost as much as I do the meal itself. I'll cook while the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special plays in the background, and we'll watch the parade that morning while I get everything ready. We always watch the dog show, too, and of course, play games. Then we all pass out from the infamous turkey sleep drug, while cursing ourselves for eating too much.

And I have to admit, I can't wait.

I don't have anything formal or special planned for the blog in the days leading up to the holiday. I'll be showing off a few of my favorite recipes, and talking a lot about the menu and preparation, I'm sure.

If you want to read a real, proper "Countdown to Thanksgiving", check out Home Ec 101. (And if domesticity is one of your things, you should have this site bookmarked. For reals.) Heather threw a huge pre-Thanksgiving turkey dinner for 20 in order to bring us daily tips and near-daily recipes leading up to Thanksgiving. I've actually used some of her daily reminders to help me get ready this year, and I highly recommend it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Restaurant Review: Good Karma

I'm in San Jose, visiting my adorable friend Risey, who's house-sitting down here this weekend. I don't visit downtown San Jose that often; didn't even visit that often when I lived here. But I have to admit, it's clean and nice and most importantly, it has this:

Yes, you read that right: Good Karma Vegan Cafe.

As you may or may not know, I eat mostly vegetarian, avoiding animal products and dairy. I don't freak out about a little egg in my gluten-free bread (trying to avoid that, too) or a little honey, but I feel better since I've started eating this way, so there you go.

Risey discovered this place a couple of weeks ago, when our meat-eating friends took her here for lunch. They were impressed enough with it to consider going veg themselves, so that was good enough for me. We popped by for lunch today.

It's super casual and comfortable inside, papered with the expected flurry of liberal pamphlets and hipster club advertisements, with another hipster behind the counter. The food is kept cold in a deli case, and their dishes rotate daily. There's no menu, just hand-written cards on the containers. You choose two to three dishes, and they're piled on a plate with some mixed veggies and some brown rice, then nuked in the microwave.

Yes, the microwave.

And you know what? It's delicious. So, suck it haters.

I went the faux-meat route, above. I had ginger "beef" with portabello mushrooms, barbecue "chicken" (on a little stick to make it look like a chicken leg), mashed potatoes, rice and broccoli.

Risey also had the "chicken leg" and potatoes, but chose dahl as her third dish. It's an Indian lentil-based dish.

After dinner I had this:

Rocky Road pie!!! How do they get pie so creamy and mousse-like without eggs or dairy? No idea, but it was awesome. In fact, the pie was so awesome that two San Jose bicycle cops, who I doubt very much were vegan, were in having pie when we were there. One of them and I had this very mature exchange, while I dithered about which pie to get:

Cop: Oh, GAWD. Just get the plain pie!
Me: But...that one's Rocky Road!
Cop: So?!
Me: SO!

Yes, that conversation was as moronic as it sounded. Anyhoo, I got the Rocky Road, and it was awesome. The End.

All in all, I loved Good Karma, and will now visit my friends in San Jose more often, just to get to eat here. Get ready, guys.

And here, as a special treat, is beautiful Risey:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Party Meatballs

These meatballs are one of those dishes I'm "known" for, which I find hysterical in that "Isn't it Ironic?" sort of way. (Thanks, Alanis.) Because, I really do love to cook and I'm really good at it, and I cook some amazing, elegant things.

These meatballs are not one of those things.

For starters, I don't even make the meatballs. I start with frozen. Oh, sure, I could slave away over a hot stove frying lots of little balls of ground-up animals (oops, my vegetarian is showing - sorry), but why bother?

Why bother, indeed, because the heart of these meatballs is that rich, tangy, barbecue-y sauce. A rich, tangy, barbecue-y sauce that's made out of ... wait for it...

Grape jelly and chili sauce.

No, I'm not even kidding. You dump a jar of chili sauce and a jar of grape jelly over your frozen meatballs in a crockpot and turn it on. A couple of hours later, you have meatballs that your normally-loveable geeky guy friends will literally fight each other over, like snarling, rabid, yet loveable dogs.

I've been making this for probably close to twenty years (for serious), and I've never once had them be anything but a rip-roaring success. A standard size bag of meatballs feeds a crowd as appetizers, though on occasion I have doubled up to serve a really huge party. They are really popular, so better to have too many. (At my last party, some of the guys had huge platefuls of them - it was basically their dinner.) If there are leftovers, you can put them on grilled buns for cool meatball sandwiches.

I have found it's best not to tell people what's in them until after they've had one ... because then they won't care.

Here's the "recipe".

Party Meatballs

One bag of frozen meatballs (around 50-60 meatballs) - plain or Italian style (your choice)
One 120z. bottle of Heinz chili sauce*
One 15oz (or so...regular size) jar of grape jelly

Pour the frozen meatballs into your crockpot. Don't even bother to thaw them. Pour over the whole jar of chili sauce, followed by the whole jar of grape jelly. I like to smoosh them around with a wooden spoon to "combine" here, mostly because it's nice to feel involved. They won't really combine until they melt, though.

Turn the crockpot on low, and cook for 1-2 hours until the meatballs are heated through and the sauce is combined. You'll want to stir them once or twice to help them along and make sure they're all evenly coated with sauce.

The meatballs will keep on warm for a couple of hours, at least.

Note: Can you make this on the stovetop? Sure. I'd just get a dutch oven, put the ingredients in and heat them up on as low a setting as my stove would go. The crockpot works better, I think, because you can make them before people arrive, then just keep them warm for folks to serve themselves.

*Chili sauce is in a glass jar near the ketchup and such. It looks like this:

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Where's Foo Gone?

If I appear to have dropped off the face of the Earth, here's the culprit.

It's called Dragon Age: Origins, and I would declare it a giant timesuck if I were not so mesmerized by it.

Honestly, to call this a video game is kind of doing it a disservice. It's a fantastical movie, and you happen to be in the middle of it. Truly, at one point I had tears in my eyes at a plot point, and I'm only a few hours in.

This game has everything: love, betrayal, honor, violence, death and yes, even sex.

That's right. You can flirt with, woo, and finally, bed one of your NPC (non-Player Character, for you non-gamers out there) party members. I am currently working hard on a cocky young knight named Alistair.

This game has all the right video game moves: great graphics, realistic-looking monsters, good combat tactics and lots of blood.

But so far, I'm loving the storyline; it's very rich and nuanced, and even at this early stage I'm seeing patterns that - as a writer - I'm rather impressed with. The characters I've run into so far have also been fairly richly written. (My knight, for instance, is definitely sarcastic and flip, but he's also loyal and kind and somewhat unsure of himself. It's hard to write a character who's that nuanced in general, and I think it's especially difficult in a video game. It's certainly unusual for the genre.)

Altogether, I'm loving this game. Which means you probably won't see me until I emerge a few weeks from now, grimy and bleary-eyed and married to Alistair.

Sorry about that.

To see what it's all about, watch the videos. I highly recommend the one that loads when you land on the page, and the one titled Sacred Ashes. (They have some of the same footage, but the last one is worth watching. When J saw it, he turned to me, wide-eyed, and said, "I would watch that movie!")