Monday, November 30, 2015

YEAH, I'm thankful

The last Thursday of November seems to be a bad time to have a family holiday because the weather is usually terrible.  In Seward this year we thought we would beat the fates and we planned a four day weekend of snow sports and winter campfires.   The previous weekend we had enough snow that we got in the first ski tour of the season and the temperature was hovering the the pleasant twenties.   Sure we had planned to be skiing on last week's delivery of snow; sure we had planned snowmen and maybe some sledding at mile twelve hill; but two days and nights of rain made all those idyllic holiday plans into pipe dreams and brought us the reality of coastal Alaska, never put away your raingear.By the first of the week, the weather had warmed and forecasts were not good.  In fact they were terrible.  By Wednesday evening, our son and his wife drove through a near hurricane to get our rain battered home on Bear Lake  By thanksgiving morning, most of the snow in Southcentral Alaska was washed away and we were scooting around the yard on ice cleats.  My plans for a play day in the snow were not to be, but Iwas bound and determined that the Walker tribe would venture into the storm.

After a hearty late breakfast of moose bacon and blueberry buckle, we donned out raingear and headed for the beaches of Resurrection Bay where I knew we could at least avoid the ice.   By the time we got to Fourth of July beach, we had two surprises.  Half a dozen cars were already there and the rain had stopped.  As soon as we stepped out on the gravel we saw the dramatic breakers roaring in from the southwest and crashing onto the gravel shingle.   The cars belonged to the intrepid Alaskan surfers chasing the waves this storm delivered.  The clouds and fogs were low on the water cloaking the soaring peaks along the shore and covering any evidence of town across the bay.  Looking south however, the view was more open and the rugged shore of Fox Island and Caines Head were silhouetted against the clouds.  The wind had dropped to nothing and we opened our jackets as we marveled at the force of the water working it's physics on the steep shoreline.   Six foot walls of water would rise fifty yards off shore and seem to accelerate toward the beach with their foam tops tangled and foaming until they collapsed against the beach and washing ever higher to foam around our feet then suck back down in to the sea dragging the beach gravel with it so that the stones rattled and hissed.

Our dogs found a friend and played chase along the shore, up through the beach grass into the alders and back again long enough for an ear scratch from one of us.  We scattered, alone and in pairs, along the shore, each caught in drama of rowdy breakers and rain-washed beach and the nearness of family.   As I looked back down beach at the my family, their bright raingear lit up the black and white photo of their surroundings and I savored how the people in those colors brighten my life.  A wife, two children, a daughter and son-in-law, two grand children, they all add flavor and strength to me.  I am not prone to "religious experience" but this Thanksgiving morning I achieved a powerful moment of contented peace on that beach, at once made small by the physics of the sea, and feeling the power of family, and accomplishment of fatherhood.

So simple sometimes are the rich moments in our lifes that can make is truly thankful.   It doesn't have to be perfect, perfect weather, perfect plan perfectly executed, perfect choices.  In fact, that would have been a different beach if were were under a blue sky by a placid sea.  We might not have been there in that moment with the surfers in their black body suits holding their boards and looking out over the water, waiting for the perfect wave.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Turkey Gravy: Load up your Boat

In my family there is a tradition through the generations that gravy is the measure of a meal and therefore the cook. The roast can be tough and the turkey dry, but good gravy can save the meal and all will be forgiven. Your turkey, whether it’s rolled, roasted whole or chopped up in pot pie, is going to need gravy, and good gravy is no more work than bad gravy. 

Good gravy starts with good stock, and good stock means that you either buy chicken or turkey stock at the grocery store or you make your own. Stock is the liquid extract of meat and vegetables that you can produce in your own kitchen with basic ingredients.
Basic stock ingredients:  onion, celery, and carrots. I add any clean vegetable trimmings such as onionskin, lettuce scraps, and broccoli trimmings. These are simmered in water with the bones of whatever type of stock you are making fish, beef, chicken, and in our case turkey.  

The process:  brown the bones in the oven for 30-60 minutes, then cover with water and add vegetables. Important! Save the fat that renders off the bones during browning. Portions are highly flexible, but for a our turkey, a couple of carrots, an onion, and three stocks of celery with a bit of parsley should be enough vegetables and three quarts of water. Bring the pot to a boil and then let it simmer slowly for 4-6 hours. I have good luck making stock with a pressure cooker in about thirty-five minutes. Add the vegetables, water and browned bones to the cooker.  Cover and cook 30 minutes after it comes to pressure. 
How ever you make stock, strain it and let it cool.  Then skim as much of the fat as you can.  If you are making your stock from the bones of your rolled turkey, all this is being done a day or two before the big day. Now you have some turkey fat and a couple quarts of stock.
Before you get started building the gravy, get it in your head that this is an art not a science.  Or as mother used to say,  “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” Gravy is meat stock or milk thickened with some form of starch, usually flour. We are going to make flour gravy with chicken stock. The flour is where most people get in trouble. The flour in gravy has to be cooked or the gravy will taste like uncooked flour, the proverbial wallpaper paste. That’s the source of most bad gravy; the other danger is lumps.  

Basic turkey Gravy

Remove the turkey from the roasting pan and pour off any liquid into a Pyrex pitcher or stock separator. Add about a cup of stock to the pan and put it on the range top to heat so you can loosen all those tasty morsels stuck to the bottom of the pan. Once this is bubbling and things are loose set this aside or pour it in a bowl or pitcher. Using the fat you saved from roasting bones or butter and put it in a saucepan to heat about one half cup. Measure about the same amount of flour into this fat and simmer for about five minutes to make a roux. You need to be whisking or stirring almost
The Fat off just the roasted bones about 1.5 cups
constantly.  Now, add the pan cleanings and about a quart of stock stirring and heating as you go. As this heats it will thicken. Add stock to thin it or cook it down if it’s too runny. I like to simmer my turkey gravy a while and work it hard with the whip.  If I run out of stock and my gravy is still too thick, add the water from steamed veggies, wine, or beer. I remember the first time I saw mom thin her gravy with the water off of the green beans, I was disgusted.  Then she explained that I had been gobbling gravy made that way all my life. The gravy will need some salt and pepper, and I strain mine because lumps can occur and because I lined my roasting pan with vegetables so at this stage the gravy has chunks of onion celery and carrot knocking around in the pan. 

Now, the other way to skin a cat.You can make good gravy without adding all the fat that is in the roux. You do this by making a slurry of flour and water and adding it to the turkey stock. Put a couple quarters of stock in a pot and start it heating. In a bowl mix a half cup of flour and a half cup of cold water and make some wallpaper paste. Mix it well and then stir it into the stock and keep that whisk moving.  You really want those pan drippings and vegetable piece from the roasting pan for this gravy since you aren’t using all that flavorful fat you skimmed off.  Once this comes to a boil turn it to simmer and stir it often while it cooks for 10-15 minutes. If it is too runny, let it cook longer, too thicken add stock, water, or wine. 

If you made enough gravy you'll have some to pour over leftovers or to use in turkey pot pie.  
 If you made good gravy, you may have none left. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Rolled Turkey Revisited

This a post I originally presented last Thanksgiving.  I've added some detail and photos.  

Turkey is a problem.  Turkey's are large, cumbersome, and challenging to cook.  Add this to the fact that we serve them on the most celebrated meal of the year, and we have a serious problem.  And if that is not enough of an issue, all iconic images of roast turkey show a crisp, brown twenty-pounder brought to the table on a giant platter to be carved and served medieval style.  IF you want avoid all of these issues read on!

This problem starts with fitting it in the oven and then getting it cooked without drying out.  One way to solve this problem is to get a bigger oven, but it may be more practical to make the turkey smaller.  At our house we have a very small oven and have to make it fit the turkey.   The way I do that is to take the bones out so the meat is more compact -- it will cook more evenly and in a shorter time.  Boning the turkey can eliminate both the problem of fitting in the oven and cooking evenly.  And oh yes, a boned turkey is so easy to carve! You can impress your guests with your skill and cooking!
It goes something like this:  First remove the first two sections of each wing – save them for stock making.  

Turn the bird breast down and with a sharp boning knife cut along the spine and start filleting the meat away from the rib cage.  The intent is to remove the bone from inside the meat leaving the meat attached to the skin.  When you reach the thigh joint, separate the hip joint and work the knife along the thighbone to remove the meat
Here you have to make a decision whether to remove the leg bone (the drumstick) or leave it in (attached to the meat).  Recently, I did a turkey like this and left the leg bone in and it went very well.  Read the rest of this to decide which you will try.
Boned with drumsticks
If you are removing the leg bones, continue as you did the with the thigh but you will encounter some bonelike tendons that must be cut away or pulled out with pliers.  Working from the inside, remove the remaining wing bone.  You will now have a sloppy slab of meat with skin on one side.   Rub the meat with seasoning; salt, pepper, sage and rosemary are a good choice.  There are three ways to proceed now: rolled and tied; stuffed, rolled, and tied; or flattened.  
A rolled and tied turkey is rolled, skin side out and tied with butcher’s twine into something that looks like a loaf of bread. This will firm up while roasting and slice like a beef or pork roast.  A rolled, stuffed, and tied turkey is done the same way except that bread stuffing is prepared and wrapped in the center of your turkey rolled then tied.  Try to completely cover the meat with skin when rolling and tying to keep moisture in.  Some wooden skewers might be handy for bring the roll together.  The easiest way to handle the turkey is the third way, which I call flattened.  Boned and seasoned, the turkey is placed meat-side down in a roasting pan and sides pushed in so the meat is slightly mounded.  This works well if you want to leave the legs on.  When I use this technique I like to put a good layer of stuffing in the bottom of the pan and then

the turkey on top, or chunk up carrot, celery, and onion to lie under the bird for a richer gravy.  
All three techniques are cooked the same way.  Rub the seasons on the skin (with a little butter or oil if you want).  Cover with foil and cook at 300-325 until done 1.5 to 2 hours.  Remove the foil about 1/2 through for browning. 

Plan B — there is always a plan B: 
If this seems like entirely too much work.  Cut the turkey into quarters.  To do this, split the bird down the back, lay it skin side down and split the breast so you have two identical halves.  Then cut each thigh and leg away from the breast.   Season each section and roast in a pan skin-side up.  You may want to cut the breast meat away from the bone but that's a personal choice.  If you cover the bottom of your pan with chunks of carrot, celery, and onion and lay the meat on those to roast, you will have a good base for gravy or stock.
Note!  The breast will probably be cooked before the legs so pull them out early. 

Stock for gravy:  
If you bone your turkey, you can use the bones for a nice stock.  To make stock, season and roast the bones thirty to forty minutes then simmer them in water and vegetable trimmings for 4-6 hours.  Strain and skim the fat to get a rich stock for gravy.  Save that fat and the fat from the roasting pan too. 

Speed up the process with a pressure cooker and make the stock in 30 minutes.    We'll do gravy next —stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Winter Blows in on the Wings of November

Temperatures at the lake dipped below ten degrees Fahrenheit this week and the wind is blowing steady out of the north. This seems to be the typical weather of November, and it is at first a welcome change from the wet weeks of October with their dark and sinister aspect.  This week the days are bright and free of clouds blown away by the wind.   This too will wear thin as the near-constant wind tugs and pushes as us, buffets the house, and urges us to feed the woodstove with precious birch logs, but for now we are enjoying the dry and clean crispness of the first days below freezing. We only have enough snow to brighten the ground and record the passing of tiny forest critters that we forget about most of the year for they pass unnoticed.  Now, in the bright windy days of November we find their tracks in the fresh snow.    

 The lake itself is made raucous by the wind so that groups of late waterfowl look like adventuresome fishing boats challenging the waves.  Along the shore a family of swans is mistaken for the ice that’s now forming in chunks and pancakes where the water is lapping against on the land.   The floating dock and its land-tied finger are frozen together and coated in the ice formed when spray coats the wood.  The south cove where Bear Creek begins it’s run-out to the sea is frozen now but not ready for ice skates for the ice is like a rumbled bed sheet frozen on an unmade bed.  

The rest of the lake will not freeze until we have a few hours without wind.  If the temperature stays low and the wind drops, we will be able to watch the first skins of ice form minute by minute and, if enough acres freeze, the wind will whisk across it and leave it flat and smooth to freeze day after day until we are skating for a few days before the snows of December.    For now, we are content to walk the shore with grandchildren and admire the formations of ice constructed by wind and cold along the shore of a lake where November is a celebration of the interplay between wind, water, and cold. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Home and Family Anchors for the Spirit

Returning to Bear Lake is always a rich homecoming, regardless of whether we are coming back from a week of work or rich days on holiday.  The lake views from our porch, the mountain vistas, and the comfort and beauty of our house all contribute a an environment that we are never eager to leave.  What luxury to have all the personal amenities one would want coupled with solitude and wildness to enrich our spirits.

Today, I return as I do each time by turning left into the grave drive and looking for hints of change such as uncut blankets of snow or the trace of a moose or bear left in the driveway to puzzle me.  First I see the guest cabin on the right, dark and shadowed with its fat gables and full woodshed catching the edge of the truck’s headlights.  Just past the cabin the house comes into view where a porch light invites me home.  The compact, cottage sized house sits above the yard so one looks up at it and even in the bitterest storm the house is solid and safe looking like the cottage at the base of a storm-swept lighthouse.  Today, as often the case this time of year, the wind assaults me as I step out on the driveway.  The front patio will be clean and tidy unless the big winds have cleaned the north and west porches and swept the debris around the house to this side.   I look to the dog kennel where my dog sleeps, usually undisturbed by my return.  If I am lonely, I know that I can call Snape, and he will stick a sleepy nose out into the lighted yard and wag a tag in greeting. 

In a few minutes, I am standing on my porch sipping bourbon and toasting my good fortune to live in a place that gives the peace that most people go on vacation to find.  This time I am back from visiting family, and I am moved to think that the time we spend with family is a form of going home.  Whether we drive the four miles to visit our grandchildren or fly1500 miles to visit Madelyn’s dad, we journey to place ourselves amid those human features of home: relationships, rituals, and people.  This is not the same as the bonds of friendships we might have with our neighbors and others in our lives.  And, contrary to Facebook philosophers, friends are not the same as family.  Regardless of how we might wish it was different, friends are friends and family is family, and at least in my world, the people of family are intimate, more demanding, less fun, and arrive with more luggage than any friend we could imagine.  But family and home are inexorably bond together and to us, so we cannot remove them from our life without significant strain on our internal system. 

We can in fact imagine perhaps two concepts of home, two ways of viewing a similar bond for there is home as that place where the family gathers and reinforces or mends the bonds of familial relations.  In this case, home is less of a place than it is an experience or a gathering. There is also home where the body and soul find peace and oneness with the surroundings, a habitat fitting our psyche’.  I can remember places I have lived, and they have all had some semblance of home though they might not hold the ambience of my place at the lake.   This is home which is both inspiration and refuge, both shelter and showroom, a center of labor and of rest.  They say, home is where the heart is, but it is also true that in the heart is where home is for here one’s center, one’s spirit or Chi’ and here that spirit can come to rest and be the strongest.  Here is home.  As one who works from home, I find it interesting that at home I do my best work and get my best rest.  I can only reflect on my own experience when I say that this relationship with place is not always idyllic and few of us are always content with the flow of energy and joy anywhere twenty-four seven.   But if I were to be sad or mad or frustrated, I would prefer here than anywhere else to feel that way. 

Like home, family gatherings are not always warm and comforting.  In fact, family makes us suffer, but it also make us complete because through family we are  connected to our past and to our gene pool.  Without people and stories, without family, we are only names on a list without ties with any history.   Family grounds us in dna, in tradition, and connections to place and experience.  When we sit with family and share stories of back when, of the good ol’ days, of Uncle Charlie and Aunt Lou, we are making ourselves bigger than a single organism, more than just one person.  Family makes us immortal.  Home makes it worth the trouble.