Category Archives: Cooking

What is the Maillard reaction?

My local grocery store just came up with some Vidalia onions. They are the best onions, and I’m cooking with them every day so I can eat them all before any go bad.

When you cook onions to the point where they brown, they become sweet tasting and great smelling. That is the Maillard reaction. Cooking meat enough gets you a similar effect. Toast. All kinds of foods.

“All sorts of things happen in this reaction. But eventually, you get to flavor town.”

Here’s a short video that gives you the science of the Maillard reaction:

How do you pronounce it? Mai yard. More or less. Skip past the “ll” part.

What is the meaning of Thanksgiving and how do I prepare a Turkey?

These are important questions, though I must say it is a little late for you to be asking considering that Thanksgiving is right around the corner!

Thanksgiving is a feast, and feasting is something humans do in many cultures (but not all, probably). A while back I wrote a piece of feasting that you should read to prepare yourself for Thursday:

The Feast (A Thanksgiving Day Story)

There’s a lot of ways to cook a turkey and everybody has their favorite. But this way is the best:

How to cook a turkey

In case you were wondering about the origin of the turkey, here’s the info on that:

The Domestic Turkey and the First Thanksgiving

In case you were feeling bad about cooking the turkey (or other animals) you can find out how to do a Vegan Thanksgiving here.

Meanwhile, you might want to make gravy, in which case you will need information on how to make stock as well:

How to make stock

How to make gravy

The perfect gift for anyone who does not have … a banana slicer

… which I imagine is a lot of people. It is brilliant. Yellow, so you can find it among your other utensils and remember that it is for bananas. Banana shaped, which makes it godly, almost, as you all know. Safer than a knife. But what is most wonderful about the Hutzler 571 are the product reviews on Amazon’s site, which rival (almost) the product reviews for Bic’s “pens for her” (remember that?). Check it out!

The Science of Good Cooking

Does grinding your own meat make a better burger? How does adding fat to your eggs create the perfect tender omelet? Why should you have patience before carving your roast?

Discover the science behind everyday cooking with Christopher Kimball from America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated. Join us as we explore the fundamental science explaining how — and why — your recipes work.

How To Cook A Turkey

First, consider cooking something other than a turkey

Cooking turkey is actually kind of a dumb idea. Most people don’t ever cook turkey. Turkey is like chicken … it’s a domestic bird that is familiar to all Americans … but it is very difficult to cook in a way that does not ruin it. So once a year, you cook this huge bird and try not to ruin it, and invite everybody that is important to you over to see if it worked.

As a result of this the truth is that many people have never had good turkey. They’ve only had ruined turkey. And for each of these people, what they think turkey tastes like is unique to the particular way their family’s turkey cooker learned to ruin the turkey every year.

How to cook a turkey

… you might as well try doing it the most difficult way possible. But before considering that, try this idea on for size: Cook more than one a year and use different methods to see how it turns out! (Jeesh, you’d think this would be obvious.)

This isn’t the only way, but it is a good way. It is also the hardest way that I’ve done it.

My daughter, Julia, is named after two people. One of them is Julia Child. I happen to think Julia Child has had more influence on American society than most other people, by helping to make varied and interesting cuisine part of American culture.

One day when Julia was a very young child (my Julia, not Julia Child), I was out walking her in her carriage. I turned the corner around the Van Serg Building on the Harvard Campus and practically ran into Julia Child, who was walking in the other direction on her daily constitutional.

“Oh, what a cute child,” she said. (And she was a cute child, I assure you.) “What’s her name.”

Well, that was an interesting conversation…..

Anyway, I want to suggest that you use a recipe invented by Julia Child for cooking your Thanksgiving Turkey this year. It is called “Laid Back Turkey.” It is, in my view, the best possible way to cook a turkey.

But it is not for the faint of heart….

Laid Back Turkey a la Julia Child

You can find more specific instructions in The Way to Cook by Julia Child. Julia made this on her show once, so somewhere out there is a video of this process. Here, I’ll just give you the basic idea. If you are the kind of person to even try this, the you are also surely willing to experiment and take some chances. All you should really need is the basic theory. If you are the kind of cook who prefers specific instructions and actually follows recipes, then hang up now…

The first thing you need to do is to remove all but a few of the bones from the bird.

Lay the uncooked turkey on it’s front. Slice down to the bone along the spine. Use this slit as the starting point to expose the entire skeleton, working your way around the rib cage, etc., all of which you will remove except for the wing bones and the distal leg bones. Cut through the wing and leg joints at this point in order to free the “outer” part of the bird from the main skeleton.

Caution: As you work your way around to the front … to the breastbone … your chances of cutting through the skin increases. Don’t do this.

When you’ve got the skeleton out of the turkey, lay the deboned bird on it’s front, exposed flesh facing up, and brush the livid tissue with an appropriate oil based marinade. I recommend half grape seed oil and half olive oil with lots of thyme, some black pepper, and a little salt.

In the meantime, make a huge pile of stuffing. Put this pile on a flat pan with very low sides big enough to hold the turkey. You are going to lay the turkey on this pile later. If possible, put the stuffing on a cookie sheet that, in turn, fits into a large low-sided baking pan. You can even fashion the pan from aluminum foil or from those disposable pans you get in the spice and cooking supply aisle of your basic grocery store. You’ll see later why this method … the cookie sheet set into a crushable aluminum foil pan … is useful.

Now, back to the turkey. You’ve got the exposed flesh facing up, and you’ve put it on some kind of a pan, temporarily. Fire up the broiler and slide the bird in there. Watch it closely. You want to brown the exposed flesh and hopefully get it cooked a quarter to a half inch deep. The more cooking at this stage, without burning, the better.

Now, take the large, floppy bird that is now covered with hot oil (so be careful!) and lay it flesh side down over the big pile of stuffing. Manipulate the corpse to make it look like nothing’s happened, like it is supposed to be this way. Brush the skin, which is now facing up, with your favorite substance for these purposes. I recommend coating the skin with oil and sprinkling copious amounts of dried green spice (thyme and basil … avoid oregano) for this purpose.

Put this in the oven and cook until done. It will take a fraction of the time that a “normal” turkey will take. It is also a good idea to make sure the stuffing is not cold … in fact, it could be heated up in advance .. when you put the turkey on there. You want to avoid partly cooking bird-meat, cooling it down, then cooking it again. Makes it a bit rubbery.

Now, here comes the fun part.

When the bird is done, wrangle it onto a huge cutting board, big enough to hold this laid back bird. This is where the cookie sheet inside the big pan is helpful. You could poke a hole in the pan and drain it into a bowl sitting in the sink, then cut away one side of the pan, and then use this fenestration to slide the bird-bearing cookie sheet out of what is now a scrap aluminum mess. To cut the turkey properly, slide it off the cookie sheet onto a huge cutting board. Have a mop handy. Might be good to wear rubber boots with a good tread, as the floor tends to get slippery at this stage.

Get a whopping big knife, which you have sharpened, the biggest spatula you have (maybe two) and possibly something large and flat and metal like a cookie sheet cut in half down the long axis. Maybe a flattened hubcap. Whatever you’ve got that is big and flat and thin.

Having an assistant help you with this step is a good idea, if it is someone you work well with.

Get the plates ready … the plates you will be serving dinner on.

Cut the laid back turkey right down the middle, the long way, in half. Using large flat devices, separate the two halves by a couple of inches.

Now, cut a slice about a third of an inch from this freshly exposed cut … so you are cutting a saggital section from near the midline of the bird. Use your flat devices to keep this slice from falling apart, angle it onto the flat surface, and move it over to one of the plates. Now, carefully slide this big slice onto a plate. You will probably have to curve the ends in to make it fit on the plate.

Now, look at what you’ve done. You have a slice of white meat and a slice of dark meat, nestled along side a slice of stuffing, all in one glorious unit. Because both forms of meat will cook much more nicely with this method than the usual ways of cooking turkey, your guests will enjoy both even if they’ve come to the table with preconceptions about their preference for dark vs. light meat.

Repeat this slicing operation, working from both halves of the turkey. As you work your way laterally, make the slices a bit thicker if you want all of the servings to be similar in total mass.

If the slicing procedure does not work well, don’t worry. Just cut the bird up and serve as normal. The flavor will be far superior to any other method you’ve ever tried, and the meat will be moister and tastier.

An interesting variation of Laid Back Turkey is Laid Back Flock. Here, you get a few birds, like a few of Cornish game hens, two big chickens, and a medium sized turkey. You totally fillet the smaller birds (cut off the wings and the distal legs and get rid of the skin) and arrange them over the giant pile of stuffing, and cover them all with the turkey. This can produce astounding results.

The frame of the turkey can be used for stock. Also, don’t forget to make some excellent gravy to go on this dish.

Cabin Cooking Tips

Tip 1: Get some corn-on-the-cob and a large pot for which you have a tight fitting top. Husk the corn while you boil a large amount of water in the pot (salted if you like, for flavor). Put the corn-on-the-cob in the water and leave the heat on only for a minute, put the top on and turn off the heat. Since there is no more boiling the corn will not likely overcook. In ten minutes or so it will be ready, but it will sit there in the hot water for a long time (did you remember to keep the to on?) as long as you keep the top on.

Variation: If you have a smallish pot, microwave the corn for a few minutes before you put it in the boiling water. You’ll get less long term holding because there is less heated mass.

Tip 2: First, decide if you want to use catchup or ketchup. If you find people objecting to the use of either, call it Umami Sauce. Then, put the Umami sauce and the mustard on the hot dogs BEFORE you grill them. Ketchup, er, I mean, Umami sauce and mustard makes an excellent BBQ sauce. Add any available cooking oil to make more spectacular fire.

Tip 3: The main use of inexpensive bottled beer is to manage the above mentioned fire. Acquire long-necked bottled beer. Hold with fingers around neck, thumb over opening. Shake lightly and using thumb to regulate flow, the beer bottle now becomes an effective and tasty fire extinguisher. As the amount of beer goes down more shaking will be needed. When it is mostly gone feed it to the dog and get another one.

Tip 4: You probably don’t really want to feed that to the dog.


More “Notes from the North Country” here

Photograph by Amanda Laden, used with permission.