Cranberry Relish or Aigre Doux? Give Both a Try

cranberry relish

The amount of pressure people heap on their plates at Thanksgiving is crazy. With all those magazines, websites, and poultry processors offering turkey hotlines and other disaster advice, it makes it sound as if all those three-miles-a-week kinds of joggers decided to run the same marathon while the rest of us stood by to assist in case of heart attack.

But here’s the thing. It’s food, not the end of civilization. Plus, there are some gimmees at the Thanksgiving table. Cranberry relish is one of them. It’s easy to make and it keeps for about forever. You could probably make it in June and it would still be good for Thanksgiving. (And if you have any left over, you could probably eat it until June next year.)

It is also easy to find the raw ingredients for making it this time of the year. [click to continue…]

Good Gravy

gravy for thanksgsiving

Gravy took on mystical importance at Thanksgiving when I was growing up. My mom would do the gravy grunt work, making a turkey stock a few days ahead and then making a gravy out of it. The gravy at this stage was always missing that mystical something. So when Louise came over, her job was to “fix” it. Louise, an amazing cook with a finely tuned palate, had a lot of tricks up her sleeves. She’d go to town, opening the cupboard, pulling out a few things, tasting, seasoning, tasting again until it was fixed.

I was too young to really understand want was going on at the stove, but I’m fairly certain that Louise was relying on the two key things that a lot of home cooks overlook: acid and salt. Acid could be anything from cognac and wine to vinegar (booze was inevitably involved), and salt was salt. It didn’t have to be fancy. We never had the same gravy twice, but we were always a satisfied group of eaters. There was never much gravy left at the end of the night.

The lesson here is that gravy can be done in advance, which saves some of the crazy-making parts of serving Thanksgiving dinner. It is so much easier to avoid not burning a roux (the flour-butter combo used to thicken gravy) when there is less going on in the kitchen.

But don’t think of made-ahead gravy as a finished product. Think of it as a base. And then do your best Louise and “fix” it right at the end.

Here’s how: [click to continue…]

This Thanksgiving, Make Stock the Week Before

turkey stock

A couple of years ago, I sat down with Heidi Krahling to talk about how she handles the holiday deluge at Insalata’s, her restaurant in Marin County. The restaurant not only stays open the day of but also handles take-out orders, including whole turkeys, the day before. She said Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the craziest day of the year.

“I start to twitch about it in August and September,” she told me.

Why? [click to continue…]

A Condensed Milk Tasting

condensed milk options

I’ve been trying to recreate Myanmar tea in San Francisco. I’m using black CTC (cut-tear-curl tea, the kind that resembles what you see in an English tea bag) I brought back from Myanmar. So the tea is not the issue. The issue is really the milk.

To make Myanmar tea, first brew really strong tea. To cut the tannic nature of the tea, add evaporated milk sweetened with condensed milk. I saw the process a few times in Myanmar and consumed a cup of it at least once a day, more if I was lucky. It’s really good, reminiscent in a way of Indian chai but without the spices.

But it hasn’t been easy to remake it at home. [click to continue…]

Fig and Goat Cheese Thumbprints


When a friend sent me a swag bag of various mission fig jams and California cheeses from Valley Fig Growers (yep—it was free, but no, they didn’t pay me to write this post), I shared the bounty with friends over a food-truck picnic earlier this month. The favorite jams were the ones with a savory edge, like black pepper or port, especially with blue cheese. Classic. But there was one, an orange-fig combo, that everyone felt was a tad sweet for the cheese.

Having a jam that’s too sweet for cheese is hardly a problem. I’ve been eating it instead on yogurt and imagine that it would work well as a glaze on roast pork or roasted onions. But I wanted to push its potential a little more. I had some fresh goat cheese on hand, and since the goat cheese had a similar consistency to cream cheese, my mind turned to baking. I figured that a simple cookie dough with goat cheese in place of some of the butter might be a solid way to complement fig jam. [click to continue…]

6 Things Mindy Segal Taught Me About Cookies


The cool thing about writing single-subject cookbooks is being able to go deep into the subject. In Cookie Love, the book I wrote with Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate in Chicago, I could talk about the best cookie sheets to use, the secret to shaping and cutting out cookies, and how certain sugars or salts could change the game. I baked through an entire chapter all about shortbread cookies—and wrote two pages about the best ways to mix, roll out, and bake shortbread dough. From that experience, I can now use Mindy’s basic shortbread recipe as a template to make up my own shortbread. It’s pretty cool. And that’s exactly what Mindy wanted to do in this book: get people to riff off her recipes. To do that, though, you need to give people a foundation from which to work.

With general books that also include recipes for pasta, vegetables, roast chicken, and so on, cookies get reserved for a few pages in the back, and the instruction has to be a little more general, a little shorter. There is nothing wrong with this! Sometimes that’s all you want. But when I get to do a deep dive—especially with someone as thorough as Mindy—I walk away with a lot more tricks of a very specific trade. Especially after baking batch after batch of cookies with her.

Mindy’s tricks are woven throughout the book, but I wanted to point a few of them that can be overlooked. Especially now that the weather is cooling off and we can comfortably think about baking again.

Tricks and tips from Mindy’s Cookie Love [click to continue…]

How to Season to Taste with Salt


While at the dentist last week, the dental hygienist and I got to talking about the challenges of learning how to cook, i.e., how to get something to taste better.

“I’ll taste it and not know what it needs,” she said. “How do you know what to add?”

The hard answer is it takes trial and error and time. Learning how to season is the single most important thing a chef and home cook learns how to do. And there are so many ways to add balance to a dish, whether it means adding more vinegar or lemon juice or a splash of hot sauce.

But let’s back up. There’s an easy answer, too [click to continue…]

Black Bean and Bacon Chili


The New York Times has this NYT Now app, which is useful for a couple of reasons. It sums up the things I need to know about when I wake up (including the local weather), and it links to content outside of the NYT for cool stories I missed, like this one. But the reason I remember to click on it is because it has these quickie crossword puzzles. This morning, when I stood on BART while heading to do some Burmese ingredient recon at the Oakland Chinatown farmers market, I tackled a crossword.

One of the clues: “Why do they call it ___ if it’s hot?”: Carlin.

Answer: chili.

Earlier in the week, I had a conversation with another Oakland resident about chili. She had made a batch, and she told me she was coaching her co-worker, a rookie cook, on how to make it. Chili is one of the best things to make when you’re learning how to cook because it’s hard to go wrong. You could dump everything in the pot at once, walk away, and after a few hours of simmering you’d have something decent. If it wasn’t quite right, you’d just have to adjust with some seasoning.

All this reminded me that I can’t remember the last time I made chili. Time to change that. [click to continue…]

Burma Superstar Recipe Testing is Happening

With friends of mine that freelance, Labor Day weekend is sort of bittersweet. You can certainly take it off and head for the hills or whatever, but so often there’s that “if only I can get ahead while everyone else is gone” kind of feeling.

I’ve been on the road so much this summer that heading to a crowded mountainside or beach didn’t hold the same appeal as it might have on other occasions. I did, however, have a gig housesitting in a kitchen bigger and brighter than mine. So why not give some Burmese recipes for this book a run-through? [click to continue…]