Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sugar, Sugar, Sugar & Spice Pecans

This is my family’s favorite holiday treat. I also bake enough to treat the neighbors. It helps the neighborhood peace and goodwill, plus makes up for those tools you never returned, and your dog pooping on their lawns. They will begin saying nice things to you – like “I like your nuts.”

I’m not sure where I found this but it might have been an old LA Times Sunday Magazine edition about 10 years ago.

If recipes were more aptly named based on ingredient portions, this one should be renamed Sugar, Sugar, Sugar, Sugar, Sugar, Sugar, Sugar & Spice Pecans.

Yields about 5 cups.

2 cups water
4 cups sugar, plus ¼ cup extra (Yes, I know, this is over a quart of sugar)
4 cups pecan halves*
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg (spice rack stuff works fine)
½ teaspoon salt

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

Pour water and 4 cups of sugar in a large saucepan, heat to boiling. Add pecans, cook for 3 minutes. The sugar is magically liquidated. They will be coated in a syrupy glaze. They will be cheerful pecans.

As the pecans are hot tubing it with the sugar babes, in a medium bowl, thoroughly mix the extra ¼ cup of sugar, brown sugar, spices and salt.

Drain pecans, pour into another medium bowl, and then coat with the sugary, spicy mixture. Distribute pecans onto parchment-lined sheet pans. Arrange pieces so they are not touching (sort of). Finger licking allowed.

Toast in oven for 10 minutes (see tips). Remove from oven, cool completely and store up to 2 weeks in an airtight container at room temperature (as if they would last that long).

· Every oven is different. After some trial and error (mostly errors), I now bake at 400 degrees for 9-10 minutes. The goal is to avoid charring on one side, though a little matters little. (That would be the bottom side.)
· Parchment paper is VERY important. I learned the hard way.
· Don’t worry about total separation of the pecans. Pecans are affectionate nuts. Besides, they are just looking for their better halves.
· No calorie or fat counts provided. But as mentioned in my previous post, it IS a good thing that Christmas comes only once a year.

*Guys might be tempted to buy pecans still encased in nature’s shell. If so, I recommend spreading them out on the garage floor and attacking them with a sledgehammer. It helps release holiday stress.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Getting Lit

The annual outdoor lighting tradition is never a jolly chore, even if chugging spiked eggnog. But we have appearances to maintain in our cul de sac. Boycotting the fantasy fa├žade would affect neighborhood karma, and the exchanging of tasty treats.

Domestic engineer guys just need to suck it up; the drill, not the eggnog. Your ATM machine loves peace and goodwill toward neighbors as well as arriving home and seeing her kingdom magically lit.

I deck out a fence, patio, balcony, trim, bay window, two posts, four bushes, and three hedges. I’m tired just writing this. The back of the house faces the street below, while the front faces the cul de sac. And we have a LONG driveway.

At each season’s end I bag the strands and label them, such as Back Fence, or Driveway - East Hedge.

Each new season I unravel the strands never remembering which end I began with or how certain sections connected. That combo package of the bay window and front posts always renders decidedly un-seasonal expletives.

If I were a real engineer or similarly anal, I would have diagramed the entire schematic into a computer file, printed and stored it with each strand and its proper bag. The replacement parts would be labeled and neatly stashed somewhere on or near the tool bench. Sure, and when pigs fly.

Then there are the sexually-active strands. No matter how carefully I layer them in the bags each year, they still entwine and nestle up during their annual hibernation. Untangling them is harder than separating slices of prosciutto.

Four hours after beginning, near dusk, I’m ready to power up, without fanfare. No Tim the Toolman exploding the fuse-box, or staging the ceremony to the soppy sounds of Debbie Boone’s You Light Up My Life. No, I connect them at five different fuse-box outlets, minimizing electrocution, while singing the Stones, “If you start me. If you start me up I’ll never stop.” Wishful singing. But like Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation, something always goes wrong. At least one strand refuses to cooperate, and lights my fuselage, enough to “make a grown man cry”. Apparently the strands’ planned obsolescence accelerates in the bags during hibernation, as well as bond with each other. I’d call the manufacturer but it’s a long distance call to China. Instead, I get lit.

The next day I make another Ace Hardware run and replace the defective fuses. It is a good thing that Christmas comes but once a year.

Don’t get me started on what the Christmas tree lights do with each other during the off-season.

Happy Holy, Holly Days!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Breakfast of Champions

For the literate and/or the ancient, Breakfast of Champions has dichotomous meanings. For the ancient, it is an ageless slogan for a cereal – Wheaties, hyped on 1950s TV by Bob Richards, an Olympic pole vault champion. For the literate and somewhat less ancient, fellow Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut borrowed the phrase to entitle a novel about decidedly non-athletic characters.

Recalling the Wheaties commercials will date yourself (and have a good time when you do – budumpbump).

But I digress.

I am a big breakfast champion. My theory is simple. If my last meal was consumed sometime between 6-8 PM the previous evening, waiting until Noon to power up with some protein starves the body. Granted, most of us could use some starvation now and then. But our body is not too crazy about that treatment. Just ask it. If like me, your body will talk back to you. Twelve hours between substantive meals is too long. A latte and a bagel just won’t get you past the mid-morning snack-attack urge.

Given the choice, I scramble in the morning. Sometimes I wait until nine or so, after feeding my coffee habit before 7:00. When I do, I am rarely hungry for loading up at lunch, and sometimes even skip it.

There isn’t much that cannot be combined with scrambled eggs. Egg scrambles are akin to casseroles. Once eggs get out from behind their shells, they are very user-friendly and compatible. You don’t even have to make a big production each morning and cook everything from scratch. Leftovers were made for scrambled eggs. Here is a list of ingredients I have included in scrambled eggs at one time or another:

Steak (any kind)
Salmon (smoked and regular)
Roasted red peppers
Sun-dried tomatoes
Onions (chives, yellow, and scallions)
Cream cheese
Cheese (mostly parmesan and cheddar)

With all of these flavors, who needs salt?

If you are cholesterol-challenged, use Egg-Beaters or your supermarket’s equivalent. In Southern California, the Safeway-owned Vons sells a brand called Best of Egg. I do not have a cholesterol problem but I still mix the Vons brand with 1-2 regular artery blockers. Do not scramble your eggs in butter or bacon grease. Use olive oil.

Frequently, when I wait until 9-10 AM, I go egg-less and just reheat some protein and vegetable leftovers. My body is not biased.

If this sounds like an Atkins morning, you’re right. Though not a devotee, I do agree with their program’s approach to jumpstarting my day. Pole vaulting is another matter. Heights make me queasy.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Kosher Turkey and Kosher Salt

Chalk this year’s Thanksgiving up to another notch on the learning tree. First, full disclosure - I am not Jewish. But I thought buying a kosher turkey seemed like a healthy idea. My local Trader Joe’s sold both a brined and non-brined kosher turkey. Since this was my year to switch from brining to a salted turkey, I bought a non-brined one.

Once home I searched fore and aft for the package of giblets, even sticking my head into the cavity. (It was a big bird.) No neck or giblets. Apparently those fowl parts are not kosher. I can live with that, though I’m unclear how turkeys live without them, or why the processor couldn’t have put the fowl parts into a hermetically sealed bag.

TJ’s loses a point from the consumer communication police for not informing us kosher-challenged Gentile-types.

Whole Foods gets a good-guy point for giving me a large neck and two portions of giblets, free of charge. Trust me, they made up for it from my other purchases.

Apparently kosher birds are already salted, but I had no way of knowing if it was as much as my salting recipe called for. Regardless, I followed the recipe – which called for kosher salt. Good call. The bird was the best ever – at least based on a survey of four.

I graded myself an “A” for the entire menu – based on the moans-and-groans meter. The frizzled leeks were fine, but next time I’m going for frizzled onions (sliced VERY thin, and deep-fried). I like leeks (onion’s second cousin) but I like the stronger taste of fried onions even better with this dish.

I used the turkey leftovers two ways – first as Turkey Salad Sandwiches (with pecans, red grapes, and tarragon), and second as a Turkey Pot Pie. Like the earlier “Not your Mama’s Green Bean Casserole” this could be renamed “Not Your Mama’s Turkey Pot Pie,” This recipe includes pearl onions, celery, cremini mushrooms, red boiling potatoes, leeks, and peas. It’s also a perfect use for leftover turkey stock. Now we have Turkey Pot Pie leftovers.

I’ve had so much turkey I’m beginning to sport a turkey waddle. (Also called turkey chin.) But that could be an age thing. I always thought waddle was how one walked when treating every day like a holiday.

I’m not sure about the weight gain on turkey day. I try not to torture myself daily. But it was a four-pounder holiday – the ultimate leftovers.