Monday, November 26, 2012

Holiday leftovers fuel the creative cook

There’s something about the challenge of a refrigerator filled with leftovers that sends my cooking brain cells into a dance marathon. Turkey, rolls, dressing, stewed tomatoes, sweet potato casserole—what’s a cook to do?

Experiment. It’s low-pressure because you’ve already put in the time to prepare these items so forming them into something else can’t be too complicated. Once you do that, you’ll be happy you were able to eat them before you had to dump them. And the second time around, they might be even better.

Here are two quick ideas and a third recipe that worked for me.

Sandwiches—everyone has probably turned leftover turkey and ham into sandwiches. Boost the taste a few notches by making a Gruyere cheese spread (garlic, Dijon mustard, butter). Spread it on homemade bread, layer with turkey then roasted red peppers and put it on your Panini maker, brushed with olive oil on the outside, to create a warm and luscious sandwich.

Casseroles—I sometimes make “casseroles” in ramekins so we can eat our servings for one meals but not harbor more leftovers. This time around I shredded some of the turkey then mixed it with stewed tomatoes. They fill half or so of the ramekins. Next I put on a layer of sweet potato casserole then topped with dressing and a drizzle of gravy then baked 30 minutes, finishing it off for a couple of minutes under the broiler. Jim said the more the layers melded together, the better he found the taste.

Breakfast bake

I’m a French toast fan but sometimes don’t want to take the extra few minutes to prepare it first thing in the morning. I cured that problem with a prepare-the-night-before recipe that mimics French toast and turns into a light, fluffy breakfast bake. Here’s a recipe for two servings.

Fill the ramekins to ½ to 2/3 with small pieces of leftovers rolls. Add handful of your favorite fresh or frozen berries. I used raspberries from our garden. Mix ½ cup milk, 1 TBSP maple syrup, ½ tsp. cinnamon, one large egg lightly beaten and pour over bread. The bread will absorb most of it, but not all. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, get the ramekins out of the refrigerator and turn on the oven to 375. Bake for 20 minutes. In the meantime, toast a handful of your favorite nuts.

When finished, loosen with butter knife then turn on to plate. Add two small pats of butter if you like. Pour on your favorite syrup (I used our homemade strawberry syrup) and top with nuts. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Drying herbs makes the kitchen smell good!

As I crushed my recently dried herbs between my hands before putting into their storage jars, my husband walked into the kitchen to identify the smell. Indeed, herb perfume can be as enticing as the taste of any herb.

I’ve been growing herbs for a few years now, adding another plant or two every year. My favorites to dry are rosemary, oregano and basil. I don’t use an extraordinary amount of rosemary but love its scent. During the growing season, I have to run my hand up a stalk when I pass it in the garden. It leaves its small on my palm, a small gift of appreciation. Rosemary grows well in my garden and smells wonderful as it hangs to dry. 

The scents of other herbs tend not to be as strong as they dry, but they have their place as well. I usually run out of oregano and basil before the winter is over and the fresh plants begin to produce.  This year I made more of an effort to dry these two. I also added French tarragon, a new plant for me that did well. Fresh, the herb tastes like licorice. I didn’t bother drying my mint because I seldom use it except when it’s fresh.

My routine for harvesting herbs follows four simple steps:

1)      1) Cut the herbs before they flower.

 2) Bunch strong end of the stems of the same herb together with a rubber band. Attach a bread tie and wind it around a peg on a shelf in my dining room.  If I run out of pegs, I attach a long piece of strong or yarn to the bundle and place the end of it under something heavy that sits on the shelf, allowing the herbs to hang free. The herbs hang in the dim dining room, which is also one of our driest rooms, until they dry.

3)      3) When dry, I take down the plants and unbundle them. Using my palms, I rub the dried plants over a large bowl then break them down into smaller pieces with my fingers.

4)      4) Finally, I store in small, labeled glass jars. I have some cute octagon-shaped jars that a friend gave me a few years ago. They’re my favorites but I also save small jars I’ve emptied of other things to use. I prefer glass containers as the herbs seem to retain more freshness than if I put them in plastic.

We’ve now had a few hard frosts so the only herbs that are still alive in the garden are what I covered with dried leaves. A few more sprigs of fresh parsley to add to tonight’s chicken salad will taste good.