Saturday, November 28, 2009

Buttermilk-brined turkey

Now if you know me, you know that I tend to be humble, but I make this statement with assurance and pride. I can make the best damn turkey. I've perfected this turkey after several years of modification and experimentation. Most importantly, each morning after Thanksgiving, I'm missing the 4am early bird sales because I am at home taking copious notes on what went well, what went wrong, and what should be tried to make the following year's turkey even better. With a cup of coffee in hand, I'm sure I annoy everyone as I conduct in-depth analyses, interviewing each family member on the intricacies of the turkey I just cooked the night before.

Here are my top three successful-turkey-cooking tips, followed by what is really what I've found to be THE recipe for the most tasty, succulent turkey. The recipe began as a Williams-Sonoma recipe for buttermilk-brined turkey, but has been modified a great deal. I'm also going to include my own time table for feeding about 10 guests on Thanksgiving. I ask my guests to arrive at 4pm, and we're usually ready to eat by about 4:30 or 4:45 pm. We usually eat on the early side because for all the years I've been cooking, kids and early bedtimes have been a factor.

OK, unless you can already cook a great turkey, you REALLY want to print this out and file it for next year! (I usually am fairly humble, right?)

Top three musts:

  1. Must use a fresh organic turkey (not frozen!).

  2. Buttermilk brine is the way to go. The combination of the buttermilk and the salty solution helps create a tender and juicy turkey.

  3. An instant-read thermometer is the most important part of cooking any meat, but especially a turkey (any cheap one will do).


1 14-16 pound turkey (for my table of about 10 guests with enough for leftovers)

2 cups turkey brine (usually a kosher salt and herb mixture. I've tried different brands, and any seems to work - you could make your own if you really wanted to)

4 quarts buttermilk

1 handful (total) of celery, carrot, onion cut in large pieces

1 stick of butter at room temperature

Large brining bag

6 tablespoons flour (for gravy)

About 1/3 cup Williams-Sonoma Turkey Paste (it's basically a thick mixture of grapeseed oil and dried herbs - you could easily make your own - and next year, I may try)


Wednesday Morning - the day before Thanksgiving:

In a small saucepan over high heat, combine the 2 cups turkey brine and 1 quart water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often, until the brine dissolves, about 5-10 minutes. Let the brine mixture cool to room temperature. While cooling, start the giblet stock.

For the giblet stock, use everything (including neck) except the liver. Simmer in a pot with 12 cups of water and the handful of veggies for 1 hour. Strain (unless you like the giblets in your gravy - I personally don't). Cool, then put away safely in the fridge for tomorrow.

While the stock is cooking and the brine is cooling, rinse the turkey inside and out and place in a large brining bag inside a pot (make sure you put in a pot or you could end up with a big mess if the bag breaks!). Be sure your pot will fit in the fridge.

Now that the brine is cool, add the brine liquid with all it's herbs, and the 4 quarts buttermilk to the bag with turkey. Zip it carefully, pressing out air, and shake it around a bit to completely coat the turkey. Refrigerate for 24-36 hours, turning occasionally (I do this by just taking the pot out and shaking it around a bit).


Thursday (Thanksgiving Day)

  • 12pm: discard buttermilk-brine. I do this by taking the bag out of the pot, putting it in the sink and clipping a corner of the bag. I drain the liquid first because this avoids any potential mess. Take the turkey out of the bag and rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water and pat dry. Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in a large roasting pan. Carefully slide your hand between the breast meat and the skin and add a generous amount of turkey paste (or oil/herb mixture). Let the turkey stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Also, take the turkey stock and butter out of the refrigerator.
  • 1:30pm: position a rack in the lower third of oven and preheat to 400 degrees F. Set aside 2 cups of stock to make gravy later on, and add the rest of the turkey stock to the bottom of the roasting pan. Rub butter on the outside of the turkey and then plop the stick right into the bottom of the roasting pan as well, right into the stock. Roast the turkey for 30 minutes, watching carefully that the skin does not brown too quickly. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F, and continue roasting, basting every 30 minutes or so with the pan juices. If the breast begins to brown too quickly, tent it loosely with aluminum foil. After about 2 hours of total roasting time, begin testing for doneness by inserting the instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, away from the bone. The breast should register 165 degrees, and the thigh, 175 degrees. Here's the important trick - if the breast is not at 165, set your timer for 10 minutes and check again. Relying on the right temperature and not overcooking is KEY. Using the timer so you don't forget to check often is KEY. The turkey will be done around 4pm or so. If you have never cooked an fresh and organic turkey, you'll notice they often cook a little faster than frozen turkeys.
  • When the turkey breast registers 165, remove from oven, transfer to a carving board, cover loosely with foil and let rest for 20-30 minutes.
  • To make the gravy: pour all the pan drippings into a gravy separator (not imperative, but a worthwhile tool to have - even if you use it once a year!). Add about 6 tablespoons of fat to a medium saucepan. Add 6 tablespoons flour, whisking constantly and cook till brown. Add the remaining 2 cups turkey stock and drippings (the pan juices only - no more fat). You may need to play around with the gravy adding water/stock to thin or more of a flour/water (slurry) mixture to thicken. The pan juices will be very salty, so if you choose to add salt, taste first.

Last thoughts - This is the recipe that has worked for me consistently for a few years and was probably as close to perfected this year as it's going to get. I realize there are all sorts of prized recipes (and I'd love to hear them!) whether they involve basting with a soaked cheese cloth, the philosophy of no basting, or being deep fried in gallons of oil. If you don't already have a great recipe - the buttermilk brine is the method to try next year!

Oh, and don't forget - in the words of Moose from Nick Jr. "When everyone's together, everyone is happy, we're thankful that we have so much to share".

Friday, November 27, 2009

...why someone would consider this blog "best"

... is totally beyond me!

Nonetheless, I have to thank Avis from (who shares mouth watering recipes and stories from her urban garden) and Deborah from Green Theatre (who provides non-stop inspiration for the outdoors and indoors) for this Best Blog Award!

I take this award very seriously and am not sure I can pass it along to any number of people fairly. For all the blogs I would vote "best" - see the blogs I've listed to the right under Gardening Blogs, and also below that under Other Sites To Visit. I read each blog regularly for motivation, education, laughs, and understanding.

To play along a bit, I will give an extra special "best blog" shout out to Rosey Pollen (Dung Hoe), Julie (The Little Things), and Grace Peterson who all make me laugh out loud. Lynn (Best in Bloom Today) is also the sweetest someone who I know I would like to friends with in real life. Autumn Belle (My Nice Garden) in Malaysia, is such an interesting person who will occasionally share cultural aspects that are sometimes very different, but sometimes remotely similar to my own.

To rebel a bit from this, I would also like to revert back to the Honest Scrap Award and tag Kathy Jentz from Washington Gardener magazine. Kathy is a crazy busy person, assuring that Washington DC area gardeners are kept abreast of garden happenings, best practices, trends, methods, etc. What we DON'T know though...who is the lady behind the publication, blog, enewsletter, and everything else she does???

Monday, November 23, 2009

Having a baking friend means...

...surprise gifts of cake!

After discovering the lovely arrangement on my doorstep from Grace yesterday, I received this delicious cake today from Anissa!

Anissa is my very sweet and thoughtful neighbor who found me in working in the garden last weekend as she was strolling with her husband. Lucky for her - and more for me - she stopped because after my generous sweet potato harvest from the side yard garden, I remembered I tucked a few plants in my backyard potager as well. I had just dug a bag's worth and passed them all along to Anissa. Sweet potatoes must be the "pay it forward" food. I can't tell you what is in the cake, but what I CAN tell you is that it's delicious with my glass of milk. A delightful late night treat!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Having a gardening friend means...

... surprise gifts of simple and very special arrangements!

I gave my friend Grace (photos of her gorgeous late summer garden here) a mini sweet potato casserole last week and on my doorstep yesterday was not just the empty dish, but a vase with one of her lovely reblooming irises, surrounded with sage. I can't believe her irises are still blooming and we're right up to Thanksgiving!

Perhaps I'll look around my garden and see what I can fill the vase with when I go to return it to Grace! Why ever give anything back empty? :)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Most invaluable tool: bird netting (with a tangent on Brood X cicada)

One of the most invaluable tools in my garden is bird netting. I bought this large roll of bird netting a few years ago to protect my young magnolia from the Brood X Cicada that invades my area only every 17 years.

A quick tangent... The Brood X Cicada was horrendous! For a period of several weeks, the cicadas were everywhere. If you're not a bug lover, all you need to know is this - they are large, loud, and horrible. There were soooooo many everywhere that I would hesitate before walking out because inevitably, several would drop upon opening the front door. Before going out to my car, I would seal the neckline of my shirt, seal my purse, cover my head, and then run so that they would not land on me. They are slow fliers, like to dive right at you, and like to land on you. At one point, it was impossible to walk outdoors without having a cicada land on you. Click here , scroll down and play the video to hear what I heard constantly for weeks. It was deafening outdoors. Towards the end of the season, the cicadas were beginning to die and could be found EVERYWHERE. Along the street curbs were pulsating mounds and mounds of dead and dying cicadas. Once, I was driving (with a pile of dead cicadas collected under the windshield/hood area) and a headless cicada began crawling up my windshield. It would not blow away and I resisted the urge to turn on my windshield wiper (cause we know what happens when we try to windshield wipe bugs - it's not pretty). But I digress...

Stores were out of bug netting so I purchased a large roll of bird netting and wrapped my tree two or three times. When cicada season was thankfully over, I began to find many uses for this netting:

  • In the photo above, my sweet potatoes were drying outside. To protect them from my thieving backyard enemies (squirrels, raccoons, who knows what else), I brought them to the front yard and protected them with netting. One time I watched someone on a walk steal my Sunday paper right from my driveway. Over my sweet potatoes, the netting would also serve as a "this is not yours to take" message.

  • The netting successfully protected my butternut squash all season. See my squash here.

  • This is an obvious choice for protecting berries from birds. My new strawberry patch was protected this spring with a layer of this netting while berries were forming. I use this with some fantastic stakes I may show you in a later post.

  • I use this netting in the garden after sowing any kind of seed (like lettuce, carrots, etc.) to prevent my cat from using it as a litter box - this is the most frequent reason for using the netting in my garden. After the seedlings begin to grow, I'll remove the netting. At this point, my cat will not dig around, and the garden will have been protected.

  • For fall bulb planting, I will often lay this netting down to prevent squirrels from digging up what I've just planted.

  • After patching up some bald spots in my backyard, I used some stakes and the netting as a simple temporary fence so no one would trample the area.

This bird netting goes way beyond its intended purpose in my garden. It will probably last forever and I have many pieces cut to size for a variety of uses. Perhaps it will be of use to you as well!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Crocus Sativus - producer of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world

Crocus Sativus - this delicate little autumn bloom is the producer of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.

Sure the bright orange-red stigma is striking against the lavender petals of the crocus, but why all the fuss? Consider the many uses:
  • Cooking - candies, liquors, breads, desserts, Spanish paella, and other food from practically every culture. Personally, I love saffron because it is used in many of my favorite Indian dishes.
  • Medicinal - cancer suppressant properties, antioxidant, antidepressant, mutation suppressant properties, protects the eyes, and general healing. Saffron has been linked to the healing of over 90 illnesses!
  • Other purposes - fabric dye, perfumery, general food coloring.

Believe it...

  • Saffron's history reaches back 4000 years.
  • One pound of saffron requires 50,000 to 75,000 flowers - the growing area equivalent to a football field.
  • One pound of saffron would cost between 500-5000 US dollars depending on the grade (color, taste, and fragrance).

Growing information:

  • Plant new bulbs in the very early autumn for bloom around October. To begin with, try planting about 2 dozen.
  • Crocus sativus will thrive in full sun, with loose well-watered and well-drained soil (what wouldn't??).
  • Bloom period is about 1-2 weeks.

To harvest the precious little threads:

  • Be sure to catch the blossoms when they open. Most blooms will last one day and will wilt as the day passes.
  • Pluck the 3 orange-red stigmas in the center of the crocus sometime in the mid-morning on a sunny day when the bloom is fully opened.
  • Let air dry then store in an air-tight container.

To use the most expensive spice in the world:

  • Steep about 1 teaspoon saffron in about 3 teaspoons of hot water or broth for about 2 hours.
  • Add both threads and steeping liquid early in the cooking or baking process.

IF, and this is a big IF, a cute little lavender flower doesn't appeal to you, IF you don't have a tiny patch of garden to plant some unassuming bulbs, IF you can't use a little extra color in October, and IF the process of harvesting your own very expensive spice from a very cheap bulb doesn't appeal to you, you could think about buying saffron at the store to try. Here are some tips:

  • Buy threads, not powdered saffron. The powder could be cut with turmeric, a cheap spice that imparts a similar color. It may be cheaper, but will require more to be used for the same flavor impact.
  • Sometimes saffron is dyed to give that red color cooks want. This is not good. You want to look for the real thing - the saffron thread should be red, but the tips should be slightly lighter in color.

Enjoy the color and fragrance of saffron in your favorite food tonight...

Monday, November 16, 2009

GBBD November: more blooms than before

I would not have thought that November would bring even more blooms than before. Lots of summer perennials are still going strong. Everything I posted in Not Quite Kaput (just a few posts down) is still going. In addition, you'll see below what is new or has changed. First, my favorite two shrubs. Sinocalycalycanthus is the tall yellow shrub. Remember I mentioned this shrub in the spring when I'll no doubt showcase it's beautiful maroon flowers. In the foreground is the fothergilla beaver creek. In an earlier post, you'll see the leaves green and red. This little shrub is gorgeous for a full 3 seasons.

New chrysanthemums in bloom below...

This one below has been in bloom for a while (and I'm sure is in an earlier post), but I had not taken a close up appreciation of the tips of each tendril.

Benikaze - maroon/green in the summer.

Diamond grass. I have 6 of these dotted on the slope in my backyard.

Below, a white knock out rose I just put in the ground, giving a nice preview of what's to come next year!

My favorite site of the season - new hellebores growth! (what's NOT my favorite site? Slug damage on new leaves)

Visit May Dream's to see what else is blooming on November 15th all over the world!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Merry Christmas (cactus) !

Christmas cactus greetings!

These two merry flowers may seem insignificant to the houseplant enthusiast, but they carry with them 18 years of history.

  • Purchased in a Stop and Shop in North Kingstown, Rhode Island in 1992, the Christmas cactus in full bloom enjoyed it's sunny window in a third floor apartment. Despite being the lean college years, the plant enjoyed a decadent life. The Christmas cactus was treated to a few drops of Miracle-Gro every once in a while, and was watered religiously. There is nothing that makes an 18 year old person feel more like an adult than meticulously caring for a houseplant.
  • In 1996, the Christmas cactus traveled in a Budget moving van 400 miles south to Maryland. Its next home was in front of a sunny window in another lovely third floor apartment in a horrendously horrible apartment complex. The moment the lease was up, we moved again.
  • From 1997 to 2001, the Christmas cactus enjoyed a sunny spot on the windowsill of a rented basement apartment in a charming yellow Victorian house. In the beginning, it enjoyed its new neighbors - many African violets and my sister's houseplants we inherited when she left for graduate school. When the baby came along, the houseplants that couldn't take care of themselves were tossed and the Christmas cactus remained.
  • In 2001, the charming yellow Victorian house was sold by the owners, leaving us without a home. Off with hubby, baby, 2 cats, dog, 1 houseplant to my parents' basement for the next 8 months. The Christmas cactus is now suffering not only neglect, but lack of any sunlight at all.
  • Spring 2002 to present - the people, animals, and 1 houseplant all move into the house we bought under the tall maple trees. The Christmas cactus is joined by a couple other houseplants, but goes through cycles of being the sole survivor of severe neglect as the number of people increase and the number of chores increase, preventing the Christmas cactus from receiving any care at all save for a watering every now and then.
  • From it's humble first home in Rhode Island 18 years ago, to it's only slightly-better situation today, this merry little Christmas cactus bids you a good day!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

sweet GEORGIA jets!

It was a muddy day, and I merely wanted to check on these sweet potatoes. If you grow anything that needs to be dug up, you know the excitement can be likened to a pirate finding booty. I found Gold (or red-orange to be more accurate)!!

To fully appreciate my bounty, one has to remember that I'm just a humble little backyard gardener. The first year, I got a few fingerlings. To be honest, they were really more like fat roots than actual sweet potatoes - another crop that my daughter would yell, "Mom! You're wasting it" upon catching me peeling the tiny potatoes. Not this time though. I think there were a few factors that made this year's harvest successful:

  • I didn't play around with different varieties and just focused on a variety of sweet potato that has proven to do well in my area (Georgia Jet).
  • I dug in lots of compost prior to planting and planted in hills about 18 inches high.
  • I kept the area mulched and weeded.
  • They were planted in a sunnier location than usual.
  • They were planted in my "magic garden". I can't go into the details here, mainly because it's still a mystery to me, but the little side yard garden has special powers and grows perfect lettuce, large garlic bulbs, many luffa gourds, edemame, whatever I put in it.

I really should have dug these sweet potatoes on a drier day. Perhaps I wouldn't have experienced this casualty.

Off to research some recipes!

And speaking of buried treasure, check out this root a farmer in China found...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Not quite kaput...

Alstroemeria 'sweet laura'

Salvia 'east friesland' started from seed, and blooming since June in its neglected container.

Marigolds in the vegetable garden will no doubt go on blooming forever!

Hiding under the Northern Sea Oats, a cyclamen (or should I say cyclaman?)...

This cane rose produces gorgeous red roses all summer...

This rose is my favorite. It's a tea rose and the fragrance knocks you out.

Lavender still going... I bought these and planted them just about a month ago.

Morning glory, the beautiful bane of my existence, still blooming and setting seed for all kinds of fun come spring time.

Crocus sativus - more on this wonderful little fall-blooming crocus in a future post.

Gaillardia - this tough perennial has been blooming for most of the summer. It was planted last fall. After it was in bud in the late spring, the deer leveled it. A few weeks later, it was in bud again when the deer came back for seconds. It finally had a chance to bloom, just before I moved it. After a little shock, it bounced back and made a fresh flush of leaves and blooms. I think this perennial deserves a space in every garden!

Some of my chrysanthemums...

The gorgeous "saga nashiki" chrysanthemum.

A little spotlight on one of my favorite shrubs, fothergilla 'beaver creek'. What else can beat the white bottlebrush blooms in the spring, lush green textured leaves in the summer, and beautiful autumn color?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Another scrap of honesty

Thanks Rosey for passing the Honest Scrap award along to me!

If I have to be honest, the creative juices were flowing the other day after Rosey posted her SCARY truths and passed along the award to me, but the well of creativity has not only gone dry, but the memory is going too and I can't remember what I was going to say before. Since my last MeMe award was a waaaaay too long dissertation on my hair (of all topics!), I'll keep this one short and sweet, writing whatever random facts come to me in the next 5 minutes.

  1. My older daughter is named Winter, after my favorite season. She is the opposite of her namesake though, and not the calm, serene, still, stark image I have of winter, the season. Rather, she is lively, warm, outgoing, and a bundle of fun and energy.
  2. My younger daughter is named Lyric, which is what gives meaning to music. Though she's the most adorable singer, she's shy and won't perform on demand, or in front of an audience. She has to be caught by surprise. And you can't clap or laugh b/c she'll get mad!
  3. I am not a fan of unnecessary medical intervention when it comes to my own health and had both girls via natural childbirth, having Lyric in a birthing center and having used self-hypnosis.
  4. I am obsessed with shoes. I developed this obsession only about 3 years ago. I am extremely particular, but when I see a shoe I like, I will usually wait overnight. If I dream about the shoes, and if I literally lay awake thinking about them, I will buy them the next day. I just used this method to confirm that I really needed the blue suede boots I bought yesterday.
  5. I love food. I love anything that is fatty, creamy, and buttery. I love anything that involves puff pastry. I love a European chocolate. I love cream based soups. I love my desserts warmed and a la mode. I love appetizers with melted cheese. I love risotto. I love rice, pasta, potatoes, bread (carbs!). I love spicy, creamy, curried Indian food. I love hollandaise sauce. I love scones with a double Devon cream.
  6. I like to work out (notice I didn't say love). I like to watch CNN American Morning while I'm on the elliptical machine at the gym. I like this awesome motivational spinning instructor at my 5:30am class when I can get up on time for it. I really like to run on the weekends when I don't stay up too late the night before - and I really like to stay up late.
  7. I have a grande skim latte from Starbucks every Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, I go crazy and get whatever special drink I'm feeling. I think this Friday, I'll be feeling the gingerbread latte.
  8. I really don't like pets. It took me a while to realize this b/c my parents only allowed my sister and I to have as my husband calls them "throwaway pets" (hamsters, parakeets, fish), but after having some "real" pets as an adult, I've realized I'm just not a pet person. Yeah, they're cute and all, but ultimately, I don't like to pet a dog and I don't like to scoop hardened urine balls out of a litter box every day.
  9. I pride myself on being idealistic. I try to balance this with a tiny dose of realism and aim not to be naive. I'd rather wither away and die than allow myself to be stuck in a situation - at least for too long! - I feel jaded about.
  10. I was a very wild and crazy young teen and took waaaay too many risks. As an adult, I'm still a very liberal thinker, but very safety-minded and probably overprotective of my kids.

I'd love to learn more about the following new cyber friends... Hopefully I'm picking people I haven't tagged already, and haven't participated recently, and might consider playing along.

Hortist - Only 5 posts thus far from new blogger Saif, but 5 posts that I read with great interest. I'm looking forward to hearing more of what Saif has to say.

Sylvana - The Obsessive Gardener - an awesome and inspiring vegetable grower!

Subliminal Intervention - A blog I've just recently discovered. Dreamybee is a voracious reader and seems to share the same approach to life as I do.

Janie - An Obsessive/Compulsive Plant Collector - a really sweet person whose comments I adore. She's from Texas and could whack a snake gone in 2 seconds flat (as long as it's small and Janie doesn't run away screaming first).

Catmint - Diary of a Suburban Gardener - all kinds of nature and reflections going on on her blog. A great read and super person!

Grace Peterson - In a word: Pink. Who knew it could be so utterly beautiful? Grace has must-see photos of her absolutely gorgeous garden with fun writing alongside. Check it out.

Green Theatre - A busy Canadian blogger who is constantly inspiring us with great ideas!

Sprig to Twig - I love reading about Ricki's escapades in the garden. Her energy is contagious!

Liz and the Professor - great stories and photos of beautiful tropicals from the southernmost point in the US - Key West!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fall landscape at Brookside Gardens (lots of photos!)

I'm taking a two-day landscape photography class at Brookside Gardens with Joshua Taylor, Jr., who is not only a great photographer, but has a really fun personality and is very inspiring as well. In our first session last weekend, we learned some basics in the classroom, then went outside to shoot our own photos with the instructor moving us along here and there, answering questions, and showing us how he was setting up his own photos. Among the many tips I learned, the most instantly helpful to me was setting the white balance on my camera to "cloudy". Here are some of my shots from the weekend. There are LOTS of photos below so if you have a slow connection, you may want to abort now!

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