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Super easy Super Bowl recipe ideas

The big day is tomorrow, when millions will gather around televisions to cheer their team, boo the opposition and watch ridiculously fun commercials. Oh, and eat.

Super Bowl Sunday is as much about indulging in food as it is indulging in some serious TV time. While chips, dips, guacamole and wings usually rule the day, here are some other easy, last-minute ideas to get your party started.

Eat up and enjoy!

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5 foods to try in 2012

It’s the new year, that time when we make resolutions, ponder life’s big questions and wonder how that last year flew by so quickly. Oftentimes the first of these involves diets, and with them, vows to eat better.

Before you roll your eyes, don’t worry: This isn’t necessarily an article about nutrition or how to shed calories. Rather, it’s suggestions on five foods to try that may be new to you – all of which do happen to boost flavor in a relatively healthful way.

These foods are not usually eaten alone, and that’s the beauty of them: They can make a dish that’s tried and true better, and can be used in lieu of ingredients that are higher in fat and/or calories. They can introduce flavors you may not be familiar with, and are all ripe for experimentation.

Here are the five foods that top my recommended list of ones to try in the new year. I hope those that are new to you will find their way into your kitchen in 2012.

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Add flavor and flair with herbes de Provence

I love herbs. Fresh or dried, they are an instant way to boost flavor without adding fat or salt. Their varieties and flavors baffle the mind, and they can perk up dishes ranging from the simplest eggs to the finest steak to ice cream and hundreds of foods in between.

One of my favorite herb combinations is one I only recently discovered. It was love at first taste, and now I use it on everything from seafood to spaghetti: herbes de Provence, named after the southern region in France.

These herbs, sometimes labeled “herbs from Provence,” are dried and can be found bagged or bottled with others in supermarkets or even stores like Target. Herbes de Provence are a blend of herbs, but like so many other creations in cooking, the combination creates a culinary synergy that’s magic in your mouth.

Herbes de Provence generally are a mix of dried thyme, basil, marjoram, savory and fennel. Some blends contain additional herbs such as lavender, rosemary and parsley. Bottles cost anywhere from a few dollars for a house brand like Target’s Archer Farms (it’s quite good) to nearly $20 for “gourmet” versions found at specialty retailers and online.

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Give those bones new life with stock

The feast is over, and you are as stuffed as that turkey that’s now stuffed inside you. Now it’s off to a comatose state in front of the TV or, if you are one of those insane ones, off to bed so you can be up in a few hours for the Black Friday pandemonium. Oh, and then there’s that carcass, the culinary wreckage of a feast that only comes once a year.

Most people will just toss those bones and any scraps of meat left on them in the trash without a second thought. But did you know that you can actually resurrect them, giving new life to what is otherwise considered waste? Bones, believe it or not, are a crucial component to classical cooking. After they’ve been picked to, well you know, bones can be simmered in water to make stock. Stock, of course, is the base liquid for myriad other dishes in the culinary world, most often soups and sauces.

In fact, according to The Culinary Institute of America’s “The Professional Chef,” stocks “are referred to in French as fonds de cuisine, or the foundations of cooking.”

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Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a last-minute survival guide

Here it is upon us once again and all too soon: Thanksgiving.

You know what that means? Well of course it signals several helpings of turkey and a tryptophan-induced coma in front of the television soon after.  It also means that those other holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and  Chrismukkah — are just a blink away.

As things in the kitchen move into high gear, it’s good to slow down and remember to enjoy the process. If you can think of what you are doing as an expression of love instead of a load of work, it will make the day that much more enjoyable.

It’s also a good time to remind about basic kitchen safety of the fowl variety. Undercooked turkey, as we all know, does not make for good eats or safe eats. Here are some tips and facts to remember if you are cooking the bird yourself in the oven:

  • Be sure it’s thawed, but don’t do it at room temperature. Ideally, a frozen bird should have several days in the fridge to thaw, about a day for every four pounds. If you’re in a pinch, you can thaw the bird quicker by covering it in cold water, unopened in its wrapper. If you do it this way, be sure to change the water frequently, every half hour or so.
  • Before cooking the turkey, clear the cavity of the various parts we call giblets. Rinse the whole bird with cool water inside and out, pat dry, then proceed with seasoning, similar to roasting a whole chicken.
  • 325 degrees is the recommended oven cooking temperature from the experts at Butterball. A 10-18 pound bird will take from 3 to 4 1/2 hours. One as big as 24 pounds will take more than 5 hours. The general rule of thumb is about 12 minutes per pound for an unstuffed bird. Cook it breast side up.
  • The bird is done when it hits 180 degrees, as measured with a thermometer in the thigh. (Note: The USDA will let you get by at 165, but it’s better to be safe than sorry if you’re new at this.) And be sure to let it rest at least 15 minutes before you go carvin’ to let the juices recirculate.
  • For beginning cooks, I don’t recommend stuffing the bird, since this can increase your chances of picking up salmonella. The reason is, by the time the stuffing reaches the proper temperature — 165 degrees — the rest of the turkey can dry out. Make the stuffing on the stove and save yourself the headache and the risk.
  • Remember to thoroughly clean and sanitize absolutely anything that has come into contact with raw turkey before it touches anything else. That includes cutting boards, knives and your hands.
  • Toward the end of cooking, if the wings and skin are browning too much before the turkey is done, cover them loosely with foil.
  • If you want to brine your turkey, see my guide to brining.
  • If you need help cooking your turkey the day of, call the Butterball Talk Line, that famous line of yearly communication in which turkey experts will talk you through any Thanksgiving dinner anguish. The number is 1-800-BUTTERBALL, or 1-800-288-8372.
  • More helpful info can be found at butterball.com or here at fosterfarms.com.

If you’re not making the main event, remember there are plenty of other sides you can put together quickly and easily. The host will love you for it, too. Here are links to some on this site, with step-by-step photos on how to make them:

Remember to relish the day and don’t stress about the food. In the end, the most important thing at the table are the friends and family gathered.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Brining brings out the best in a bird

Confession: Much of my high school senior year was spent at the beach. During class hours. Yes, while I should have been absorbing formal education, I and a group of friends were instead absorbing sun, sand and most of all the ocean. We never skipped the whole day – just some selected classes we decided we’d rather not attend, or perhaps we were just dealing with teen angst the best way we knew how.

Our thinking was that nature’s saline solution that we knew as the Pacific could cure all life’s ills. And magically, somehow that saltwater did indeed make us feel better every time we took a dip.

Turns out, at least from a culinary standpoint, we were on to something. Saltwater really is magical stuff. While each component alone has too many uses to mention in the kitchen – water is used for everything from steaming to making stocks, and salt for everything from preserving to insulating – when used in tandem, they work a magic all their own.

Water mixed with salt is known as a brine, and it’s a classic way of making food flavorful even before the cooking process begins. Brining becomes especially popular this time of year because of Thanksgiving, when the process is used for turkeys.

If you’ve ever had a turkey that’s been brined, you probably already know the results: a bird that is moist and exceptionally flavorful, traits that brines help create. All done ever so simply by submerging food for hours in water and salt (you can experiment with other seasonings, too, from brown sugar to peppercorns).

Yet I sense your hesitation. “What if I get this whole brining thing wrong on the big day? Domino’s may not be able to rescue me if somehow I end up with a waterlogged turkey.”

No worries. Here’s what we’re going to do: practice. And not on a turkey, but something smaller and more manageable: a chicken.

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You’ll say bravo to bechamel

Last week I showed you how to make a roux, which is basically flour cooked in fat, and in doing so we laid the foundation for greater things.

Roux isn’t for eating by itself, of course, but is used to thicken such things as sauces and gravies, which themselves are used in a supporting role to build a main dish.

One easy sauce to build from a roux is béchamel, also known as white sauce. Don’t worry: It tastes better than its rather bland name. In fact, in classical French cooking, this sauce is so important that it’s known as a “mother sauce.” It’s called that because from it even more elaborate sauces can be made.

Béchamel is a thick, milk-based sauce. It gets its thickness from the roux, which also helps give the sauce a nutty, hearty flavor.

Some béchamel recipes call for cooking onions with the roux for added flavor, but you can leave them out if you’re not hot on onions, are short on time, or want a smoother sauce without the need for straining. Other than the roux and the milk, about the only other things this sauce needs are a couple of bay leaves and a dash of nutmeg. And some time, but not a whole lot.

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Roux is the root of great recipes

Learning to cook is kind of like learning to read in that, once you have the foundations down, you can create just about anything.

If you’ll go with this analogy, you can think of roux as a single word. In communications, a word by itself may not do much, but combined with others, it can help make a literary masterpiece.

Roux (say, “roo”) by itself isn’t much, but it lays a foundation for much greater things. Roux is just flour and fat cooked together. The flour is usually white wheat flour such as the all-purpose kind you use for making pancakes and other staples, and the fat can be just about anything: butter, vegetable oil, bacon grease or drippings from other meat.

Roux is not meant to be eaten by itself. Rather, it is used to thicken recipes such as soups, stews and gravies. In culinary school, roux is among the first things you make, and from there you learn to use it in dishes that may require some time to make, but are among some of the most flavorful on the planet, among them the kind of mac ‘n cheese you see above.

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Culinary word defined: What is roux?

What does roux and a kangaroo have in common? Luckily not much in culinary terms, but in phonetics a lot. The latter part of the fighting marsupial’s name is how you pronounce this classic foundation in so many dishes: Roux is simply pronounced “roo.”

So, what is the stuff?

Roux is just flour and fat cooked together. Two simple ingredients, but together they can do a lot.

The flour is usually white wheat flour such as the popular all-purpose kind, and the fat can be just about anything: butter, vegetable oil, bacon grease or drippings from other meat.

Roux isn’t meant to be eaten by itself, but is used as a thickening agent in soups, stews, gravies and sauces. Unlike, say, a cornstarch and water slurry, roux can lend dishes a nutty flavor and even color, depending on how long you cook it.

In the coming days I’ll show you how to make roux, and from there, how to make a lovely bechamel sauce. But wait, there’s more! From our bechamel, we’ll make a bangin’ cheese sauce.

Stay tuned for those coming attractions. For now, make sure you have some flour and oil in your pantry, and sprinkle in a “roo” here and there in your conversations.

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Homemade aioli is so easy

In the pantheon of culinary words, there are a few that seem to carry extra cachet. One of those is “aioli.” You may have seen this oddly spelled and easily mispronounced word (say “I-oh-lee”) on posh restaurant menus or heard it thrown around by your foodie friends.

No need to be overwhelmed. While the stuff is admittedly delicious, it’s also quite simple: Aioli is basically garlic mayonnaise, made with olive oil.

See, that wasn’t so bad.

Even better? You can make it. Easily. In a blender, no less.

Since aioli is basically mayonnaise with a couple extra ingredients, you can consider this recipe a two-fer: With it you can make homemade mayonnaise or aioli, depending on the ingredients you add.

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