Pre-Thanksgiving Sunday Confessional

Heather says:

It’s a chilly rainy, November morning -and yes, this song is stuck in my head- I’m trying to get up the wherewithal to head to church across town. When it’s not my turn with the kids, I sometimes have a very hard time forcing myself to head to Mass even though I know I’ll feel better having gone. It’s more of an inertia problem than an I don’t want to.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these, right after my first vacation was the last, I think.

Life isn’t the perfection of magazines, TV, and Instagram. All of those platforms are framed and lit to show the best (or worst if that’s what you’re into) of a situation. No one is perfect. We all have our faults and insecurities. The Sunday Confessional is a chance to admit some of those faults rather than trying to live up to the impossible ideals of the media we subject ourselves to.

Here are the ridiculous things I do that I just want to put out there (and maybe learn some of you do the same?):

I add any old book title to my 7 year old’s stupid reading log. That child reads more than I do. There are books in every corner of my house, the car, and in her bookbag. It’s rare not to catch her reading and there is no way on God’s green earth I’m going to make her recount to me the title and author of every thing she has read that day. I don’t have time for that crap, it’s annoying. She’s met the quota.

Last weekend as part of my job at FeedBlitz, I created a screencast demonstrating how to create what’s called a re-engagement campaign. This a process publishers can use to make sure the people in the newsletter are actually reading and interacting. Ho hum… except I was using my own account to create the demo and the list associated with this website to populate the campaign, just to show how it really works. I finished my project and went back to my weekend and I completely forgot to turn off the dummy automated email I had scheduled as part of the project. And it gets worse, I also forgot to turn off the automated scheduled mailings of the posts here on this site. /facepalm  So not only did everyone receive a fake We Missed You, they also received two copies of the post. Good job, Heather.

I am getting rid of a piece of furniture via Craig’s List. Because I am ridiculously ashamed of the state of the fixer-upper, I’ve made my boyfriend handle the interactions. When a couple came over to look at it last night, I went and hid in the bedroom until they left. The house is clean, I just haven’t gotten to any of the rooms you see when you walk in the front door. The squatter did a number on the walls and door frames and I can’t deal with people thinking I did that my home. Even people who I’ll probably never see again.

Speaking of Craig’s List, I got all excited when Craig Newmark and I talked on Twitter not too long ago (I’m a big geek)

And the final one, the big and true one. . . I need to fix my priorities. The last few years I buried myself in work, it  was easier than facing the mess of everything. Now that my life is in order and I have the ability, head and heart-space to do so, I need to work on showing my friends how much they matter to me, by making them a priority, too. How do you show your friends they matter to you after you’ve neglected them for too long?

What do you have to get off your chest?

Gluten-Free Chicken Gumbo

Heather says:

I am ridiculously happy. I was recently doing my weekly shopping and found Pillsbury Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour Mix near the regular flour at Publix. It isn’t the fanciest of grocery stores, but it’s generally a step above of say Food Lion. Long story short, this gluten-free flour mix already contains xanthan gum which mimics the elastic nature of wheat gluten. Happy day, I can now make a gluten-free roux that doesn’t break down. The gumbo was still thick after re-heating to take pack for the kids’ lunch.

Easily Make Gluten-FrAee Chicken Gumbo

And even better than staying thick? It’s a one-to-one substitution. Please note, you may notice that the roux doesn’t get as dark as a traditional roux. I gave up on a dark roux after 15 minutes. I was starving and really didn’t want to crank up the heat only to have to start over if the roux began to break down, so it was a blonde roux gumbo, but it was gluten-free which made everyone happy.

Shortcut – substitute frozen trinity and onion / pepper seasoning mix instead of chopping everything, for a much faster prep. (Yes, working full time and commuting the chauffeur the kids does cause me to take some short cuts some nights. Please don’t ask how often we have breakfast for dinner, now be quiet and eat your scrambled eggs)

: Chicken Gumbo

  • 3 – 5 lbs bone-in, chicken (chicken thighs work perfectly)
  • 2 large onions, sliced
  • 3 celery ribs, with leaves, chopped
  • 2 bell peppers, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 lb andouille sausage
  • 2 Tablespoons Cajun or Creole seasoning -please check that the brand you use is gluten-free
  • 2 quarts cold water
  • 1 lb frozen okra pieces
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 1/2 cup gluten-free flour mix that contains xantham gum
  • 1/3 cup bacon fat or vegetable oil
  • OPTIONAL 1 tsp salt (to taste)
  • file seasoning (when serving)
  • Hot Sauce (Tabasco or my favorite Louisiana Hot Sauce)

  • In a large pot (6 quart minimum) add the water, chicken, sausage, onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic, and Cajun seasoning. Bring the water to a boil, immediately reduce to a simmer and cook over low – medium low heat for 2 hours.
  • Remove the chicken, cool enough to handle, and debone, discarding the skin and bones. Return the chicken to the gumbo along with the okra and tomatoes.
  • In a heavy skillet heat the bacon fat or vegetable oil until hot, reduce the heat to low and sprinkle in the flour and stir carefully to begin making roux. Cook the roux until the color is somewhere between peanut butter and milk chocolate, depending on your preference.
  • Whisk the roux into the gumbo and cook over low heat (at a simmer) for twenty minutes.
  • Taste and add additional seasoning, if necessary.
  • In each bowl, stir in a scoop of cooked rice, a pinch of file, and a dash of hot sauce.

Preparation time: 20 minute(s)

Cooking time: 2 hour(s) 30 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 8

Boneless chicken alteration

Use 2 -3lbs, weighed before cooking.

Brown the chicken and dice. Skip to the roux making portion of the recipe and make the roux, then add the onion, celery, bell pepper, and garlic directly to the roux, just as you would in shrimp étouffée. Then slowly stir in the chicken stock you have substituted for water and then add the Cajun seasoning, bay leaves, chicken, okra and tomatoes. Stir well and simmer for 20 minutes.

Enjoy!

One Week Until Thanksgiving

Heather says:

We’ve got one week to go until Thanksgiving. This means that it’s time to actually dig out your serving ware and make sure it’s clean. If you ‘re going to polish your silver (who has silver anymore?) it’s time to do that, too.

Make room in your refrigerator for your produce and the turkey itself. Yes, this means throwing out those science experiments and those condiments from 2010. Just let it go already.

If you are short on refrigerator space you can supplement it with a cooler kept in the pantry, garage, or even on the back porch. Just keep in mind that you’ll want to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator itself, if you want to be sure it thaws according to the 24 hour per 5 lb rule.

If you are buying a fresh turkey, make sure you don’t pick it up until Tuesday afternoon.

Will there be children in your home on Thanksgiving? Have you figured out something to keep them occupied?

If you’re not sure if you’re on track for Turkey Day, check out what we’ve covered so far.

I tried to keep it short and sweet today after my mailing bungle earlier in the week. I’m sorry about that. See you tomorrow!

Lasagna: The Company Dinner

The hearty sauce for this lasagna recipe is made from scratch and provides enough for a very large pan of lasagna. However, if you’re going to go the trouble of preparing a pan of lasagna, double the recipe and freeze one to bake at a later date. Also, don’t get overwhelmed looking at the ingredient list. The only things that get chopped are onions, garlic, and parsley. Everything else is a simple shake, stir, or squash in.

This is one of those meals, where you could sneak a book into the kitchen and rattle pans once in a while and people will assume you’ve been hard at work the whole time, even though there is a significant down time while the sauce simmers.

If you don’t want to go to all the trouble of lasagna, serve the hearty meat sauce over spaghetti noodles or toss with ziti and mozzarella. Add some fresh spinach or sauteed mushrooms, bell pepper or zucchini and skip the immersion blender for some variety. It’s not rocket science, as long as you don’t stray too far from the bones of this recipe, you’ll have a fantastic meal.

Company’s Coming Lasagna

Sauce:

  • 1 lb hot or mild bulk Italian sausage
  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 1 onion diced
  • 3 cloves garlic – minced
  • 1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 6oz can tomato paste
  • 2 6.5oz can tomato sauce (or just use one 15oz one, it’s not critical)
  • 2 TBSP white sugar (cuts the acidity of the sauce, omit if you use seasoned tomatoes as they frequently already contain sugar)
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried basil (or use 2 – 3x as much fresh
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
  • 4 TBSP chopped fresh parsley – divided

In a large, heavy pot brown the beef and sausage over medium heat, drain and set aside. I set the meat on paper towels to soak up any remaining grease. Do not wash the pot, all of the browned bits from the beef and sausage add flavor to the final sauce. If you’d like, give the pan a quick wipe to remove any excess grease.

Onion garlic seasoningPlace the pot back on the burner over medium heat and add the diced onion, dried basil (wait if you are using fresh), Italian seasoning, fennel, salt, and pepper. Once the onion begins to soften, add the minced garlic.

To the onions, garlic, and seasoning add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, sugar and if you choose, fresh basil. Return the meat to the pot, stir until well combined and lower the heat to low.

Cover and simmer for 1 – 1.5 hours. Alternately, place all the ingredients in a large crockpot and cook on low all day.

While the sauce simmers, boil 8oz of lasagna noodles according to the package directions.

Also, assemble the ricotta filling.

Add 2 TBSP of parsley at the very end of cooking, unless you skip the blender step. In this case, add all the parsley.

Immersion Blender

I don’t like big chunks of meat in spaghetti or lasagna sauce, except for meatballs. I never said it was rational, it’s just one of my quirks. So, I give the whole sauce a good whir with an immersion blender. I use this thing for everything from soups to smoothies; stick blenders can be found for as little as $25. I’m sure high-end ones are great, but I’ve been happy with my el cheap-o for several years. Add the rest of the parsley and stir.

Now it’s time to assemble the lasagna.

Ricotta filling:

  • 16oz ricotta
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
  • 1 lb pkg frozen spinach, drained completely, squeeze the ever loving life out of it! I mean it

Mix all ingredients well.
That was rough, eh?

Other ingredients for lasagna assembly:

  • 1 lb mozzarella – grated
  • 1 generous cup grated Parmesan (use a Parmesan Romano mix if you’d like)
  • boiled lasagna noodles (the number depends on the size of your pan, use your judgement)

To assemble:

Preheat the oven 375F.

sauce layer Spoon just enough sauce to cover the bottom of the pan.

noodle layer Add a single layer of noodles.

CHEESE Spread with 1/2 the ricotta mixture, sprinkle with 1/3 the mozzarella and parmesan. Repeat layers and top with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.

**optional tip** add a layer of thinly sliced zucchini, mushrooms, and summer squash.

Cover tightly, but do NOT let the foil touch the cheese or you’ll yank off all the yummy goodness when it is removed. Alternately, add a layer of parchment paper between the lasagna and foil, this works very well.

Bake for 25 minutes, remove the foil and bake for an additional 25 minutes. If the cheese isn’t nicely browned, broil just long enough to add some color.

**Warning, all the cheese makes this dish nuclear hot, allow it to cool some before serving.**

Enjoy.

Plan Your Thanksgiving Thaw and Cooking Timetable

Heather says:

The big day looms ever closer, but we’re well on track to getting ready. So far we’ve:

  • Found the dining room table and kept it clear
  • Figured out who, where, and when
  • Checked on seating and place settings
  • Begun following the chore chart and getting the house company ready so it’s not a miserable whirlwind of stress the night before
  • Created our Thanksgiving menu
  • Created our Thanksgiving shopping list
  • Begun shopping – no produce or fresh turkeys until next week, please
  • Ensured we have enough serving dishes and utensils

Today you need to grab your Thanksgiving day recipes and look at the cook times and temperatures and figure out to get everything cooked and ready at the same time.

If you oven roast your turkey, know that you’ll probably only be able to fit a baking sheet beneath the turkey, unless you have one of those super cool ovens with the rack that morphs to allow a bird and another item in the oven. I’m not that fancy. Are you? If so, I’m kind of jealous.

How to plan your Thanksgiving Dinner Timetable

Your turkey needs to be fully thawed by the morning of the 27th and since life is what it is, go ahead and actually aim for the 26th. A fully thawed turkey will be fine for more than 24 hours in the coolest portion of your refrigerator. Remember your turkey will need 24 hours in the refrigerator for every 5lbs.

Begin your timetable plan by adding 15 minutes of Oops factor into the scheduled serving time. If you want to eat dinner at 4pm, plan on 3:45. Remember the turkey needs to rest before carving, so plan on it coming out of the oven or fryer by 3:15.

Make sure you also have counter space or a table set up for the turkey to rest – Don’t be afraid to cover it  and set it out of the way somewhere like the laundry room or some other convenient surface, just make sure all family pets and scavenging children are accounted for before leaving the turkey alone.

You can often cook pies, dressings, and casseroles the day before, so all they’ll need is a quick warm up in the oven. Make sure you have enough racks and space to account for each dish and any refrigerated items should be taken from the fridge about an hour before they are scheduled for the oven. This will reduce the amount of reheat time needed.

Don’t be scared to utilize your stove, a roaster oven, toaster oven or crockpots on the big day. Some slow cookers have a warm setting that will hold gravy, so it won’t have to be made at the last second.

Use this information to create a schedule.

Start with the time you should get the turkey ready for the oven to get it in with the expectation it’ll be done 45 minutes prior to serving time.

Add each recipe name, the time it needs to be started, and its scheduled time and temperature in the oven. Put these in order so on the big day, you don’t forget a dish or procrastinate anything with a long cook time.

WATCH FOR CONFLICTS.

Some items aren’t going to be very picky, dressings are going to be okay at 350 or 400F. Delicate baked goods? Well you’ll need to adhere to their preferences and let the sturdier dishes cope.

If you are serving salad, don’t forget to allow time to toss it before taking it to the table.

If you are going to have helping hands in your kitchen you should probably write this time table down in legible handwriting or better yet, type it out. Post this in a prominent location so people can refer to the sheet when your hands and mind are otherwise occupied.

While you’re at it, print out a copy of each recipe. Put everything in a folder or 3-ring binder and put this in a SAFE location. Not a location you think you’re going to remember on Thursday. Heck, comment here with where you’re putting your notes. I won’t mind, I’ll be here on Thursday and you can come back and check to see where you hid it.

We’re getting close.

I’m getting excited.

How to Create a Thanksgiving Shopping List and Not Forget Anything

Heather says:

Here we are, two weeks out from Thanksgiving and it’s time to get serious about making sure we’re ready for Thanksgiving Dinner.

Today it’s time to make your Thanksgiving Day Dinner shopping list and because I firmly believe that with rare exception, businesses should be closed on the holiday. Let’s try really hard to not have any reason to run out for one last thing.

Making the list today will hopefully give you time to take advantage of some sales and spread the cost over at least two grocery runs.  In many households this makes the expense a little easier to absorb. Unless you’re paid monthly and then well, it won’t help at all, I’m sorry.

First grab your Thanksgiving Day Menu and all of the recipes, even if you think you know them by heart.

How to create your Thanksgiving Shopping list

Next open up a spreadsheet in Excel, Google Drive, or Open Office -have you ever tried Open Office? It’s free and compatible with Microsoft products, so you don’t have to shell out mega bucks for their proprietary software. There’s nothing for me to disclose, I simply love the tool. If you don’t want to install Open Office.

Once you have your spreadsheet open, list your recipes across the top, one per column. Under each recipe list the ingredients. If a recipe calls for apples, list the number after the ingredient apple x 3 or chicken stock x 2 qt. This won’t take up the whole spread sheet.  This creates mini-shopping lists for each recipe.

Next take a good look at your guest list for a rough headcount and then pull up this post: How to Estimate How Much to Make for Thanksgiving Dinner.

Now, multiply or divide each of your recipe ingredient amounts as needed for your Thanksgiving Dinner.

On the lower half of the spreadsheet start new columns. I like to divide my list up by grocery store departments: butcher, dairy, dry goods, produce, etc. Cut and paste each item into the appropriate column combining when appropriate ie 2 apples for the dressing  + 14 for the pies = 16 apples.

Save and print your grocery list and don’t forget to shop your pantry before heading to the store. (This just means crossing off the items you have on hand). Don’t forget, if you rarely bake to test your baking powder to be sure it is still effective.

Check your spices, too.

Oh and if you have a lot of company coming to stay, don’t forget extra toilet paper. Yes, it’s important, you’ll thank me later.

Remember, it’s still too early to buy your produce, save that for Thanksgiving week.

Just for fun, what recipe are you most looking forward to this year?

Serving Dishes and Large, Company Meals -Countdown to Turkey Day 2014

Heather says:
I hope you had a great weekend. (I did, we took a mini-vacation and I feel rested and truly happy, even after painting the living room yesterday -pictures at the bottom of the post to not annoy people who don’t care.)

Thanksgiving-Centerpiece

The holiday craziness kicks off in two weeks. I’ve noticed that many schools are out for the entire week of Thanksgiving this year. When did that start?

So far in our Countdown to Turkey Day we have:

  • Decided when and where
  • Located the dining room table and extension(s)
  • Reserved chairs and place settings, if necessary
  • Invited our guests -begin confirming and getting a head count
  • Created our Soft Thanksgiving Menu Plan
  • Begun working on getting the house company ready by paying attention to daily / weekly chores

Today, depending on how your house and kitchen are organized may be simple or quite the dive into storage.

Grab your Thanksgiving menu plan and at the very least your mental inventory of serving-ware. If you have moved, held a yard sale, or gone on a donating / purging binge, I do recommend that you lay eyes on each piece you plan to use.

Next to each menu item assign a serving dish AND the appropriate serving utensil.

Do not forget your cranberry sauce, gravy, butter, and if you put out crudites or antipasti before the meal, don’t forget those items need a dish, too.

If you find yourself short on serving-ware – begin looking.

If you have lots of storage in your home, check out your local thrift stores for cookware; you still have a little bit of time to find a bargain. If storage is at a premium, go ahead and use disposable/ recyclable roasting pans. Just be careful with this option if you are sitting at a table and passing dishes rather than serving from a buffet. You really don’t want Grandma to end up with a lap full of cornbread dressing.

Got it? One dish for each item + one serving utensil.

See, we’re getting there with this year’s Thanksgiving preparation. How are your plans coming along?

How did the room turn out? Pretty well. I still need to swap out the ceiling fan, the last person to live here was a smoker and the nicotine stains look terrible. I also need to paint the door. Someone had a dog that clawed up that paint, so the afters are rather cropped.. The flooring will all be done at once, in the beginning of next year… after I have finished all of the walls and baseboards in the house.

I don’t have a shot of the same angle… but you get the idea of how rough it was when we first started working on this place.

roomcollage

 

 

 

 

November 6, Finalize the Guest List

Heather says:

Remember November 1 when I told you to sit down and write down your tentative guest list? Have you officially invited your guests? Well, it’s time to do so. Emily Post’s guideline of two weeks’ notice is coming up, plan on getting the word out before Thursday.

I want you to remember that the reason for etiquette is to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible. (Sometimes this means only lessening the amount of discomfort, some situations are rough!) If there is someone you know that has no clue that you plan on inviting them to your Thanksgiving dinner, don’t invite them in a manner that creates pressure to please you. They may be extremely shy, they may have prior obligations, they may just be in a foul mood. Whatever the reason, don’t add guilt to that mix. Invite via email or a handwritten note, if at all possible. This helps eliminate any pressure to say yes to your face, when they really want to say no for whatever reason. This no-pressure means of inviting your guest will help prevent any uncomfortable situations, not all, unfortunately.

Yes, it’s nice when people step out of their comfort zones and try new things, but as an introvert, sometimes there are days where, even though I know it would be good for me, I just can’t face strangers and have to be “on.”

Whatever your method, make your invitations and keep a list of your confirmations and their allergies, if necessary.

The guest count is only an estimate.

Life happens.

Sometimes it is the flu and sometimes it’s just someone being inconsiderate, but no shows will happen. And sometimes people call at the last minute to see if they can bring their cousin who has two kids and just happens to be in town (even though they knew they were coming three months ago).

Things happen, being ready for them ensures bumps in the road don’t turn into disasters.

We will pick back up with the Countdown to Turkey Day on Monday morning. I’m heading out on a quick little getaway and I’m really excited. The move has been an adventure, but everything is settled. The house I was renting has a new tenant *whew*, the one I’m living in is coming along, and now it’s time for a short break from work and responsibility to recharge. (See, I’m learning to be less of a work-a-holic, but it’s a process.)

 

Let’s Practice – Countdown to Turkey Day 2014

Heather says

Today is pretty short and sweet, you have two goals:

1. Take your soft menu plan from Monday and go over it. Are there any recipes you haven’t tested? Is there a cooking technique in one that you haven’t tried? Have ever even roasted a chicken?

If the answer is yes to any of these, pick a day this week or weekend and practice. Don’t stress yourself out on Thanksgiving itself. You have enough to think about without worrying if a recipe will come out well or not.

If you’ve never mashed potatoes before, serve that as a side on Sunday.

If you’ve just moved, not naming any names Heather, and you don’t know your oven very well, do the toast test and get used to it. (I learned this from Nathalie Dupree and it makes a lot of sense. You buy a cheap loaf of white bread and arrange the pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet. Preheat your oven to 350 and place the baking sheet on the center rack. Then observe the bread as it toasts. What zone gets brown first? Which areas take the longest to toast? These clues let you get to know your oven’s hot and cool spots. Take a picture of the toast to help you remember and tape it to the inside of a cabinet door near your oven in for a reference the next time you bake something.

If you’re trying a gluten-free version of something you’ve only ever made with wheat flour, please give it a trial run.

2. Throw away, recycle, or donate three – five things that are just taking up space in your house. (And if it’s a set it only counts as one, no cheating.) Why? You’re going to have guests and the holidays are coming, you’ll appreciate the extra space.

While I’m thinking of it, how is that dining room table looking? Is it still clear from Sunday? No? Fix it.

Are you getting excited for Thanksgiving 2014?

 

Plan Your Thanksgiving Menu

Heather says

Countdown to Turkey Day 2014Today is pretty simple, it’s another pen and paper exercise. We’re going to create the soft menu plan for our Thanksgiving dinner. Why do I suggest this method instead of getting everything set in stone right away? This allows time to go over the menu a couple of times and really think about it.

Here is my Thanksgiving Menu Plan printable (don’t laugh it has the old site design, but it still works).  The menu plan printable has three columns, one for your ideal menu, another for your guests’ ideal, and finally we have the great compromise.

Why?

If it’s going to make too many people angry that there isn’t any green bean casserole, will it really hurt you to provide green bean casserole?

Have you ever noticed that sometimes holiday meals tend to feel like a potluck? This tends to happen when recipes are chosen at random. Meat? Check. Vegetable? Check. Starch? Check. The seasonings in one dish may not complement the flavors of another which leads to the potluck effect.

Back in 2012, when I last did the great Turkey Day photo shoot, I had an Italian theme:

In this example, the turkey has a fairly neutral seasoning, the shallot and rosemary gravy is where we start to get interesting. The rosemary in the gravy is also in the potatoes and butternut squash. The savory nature of the meal shows in the risotto, the stuffed mushrooms, and in the earthy flavor of roasted Brussels sprouts.

Typical Thanksgiving here

The usual Thanksgiving menu around here has a Lowcountry / Cajun theme with the Andouille sausage in the cornbread dressing showing up again in the collard greens. The cranberries in the cranberry sauce show up as dried cranberries in the broccoli salad and again in the apple and sage dressing.

This year, I’ll be adding a gluten-free hashbrown casserole.

Here is a post with some resources for vegetarians.

If you are only serving a few people, consider reducing the number of side you create. I recently posted a recipe for sweet potato risotto with bacon and blue cheese. If you substitute parmesan for the blue cheese, you’ve got a great dish that presents a lot of the flavors we typically associate with Thanksgiving dinner without the work of several side dishes.

If you are having guests bring sides, talk to them about the recipes. Not in a micro-manager I have to control everything way, but rather to discover what the main flavors will be. When you know what people are bringing you can adjust the recipes you choose to ensure there is a flow of flavor throughout the meal.

What will you be serving for Thanksgiving 2014?