Sunday, November 20, 2011

Anti-Consumer Holiday Gift Giving

Ah, its that time of year again. Time to go broke buying "gifts" that no one wants so that you can wrap it all up in yards of bleached paper and plastic string and make people "happy."

There is another way! You do not have to compromise your values during the holiest season.

I have a simple recipe for holiday success:

Step 1: Celebrate "Buy Nothing Day" the day after Thanksgiving. I offer to you my alternative to long lines and stampedes at Walmart: I host a turkey sandwich party with family, complete with board games and rental movies.

Turkey sandwich party - even better than a Walmart stampede

You can buy these here!
Step 2: Celebrate "Small Business Saturday" the day after Buy Nothing Day. Use your hard earned dollars to buy a special gift from an artist, crafts-person or small local business. Songcroft Naturals is a nice example of an independently owned company growing their own ingredients and making high quality products. Find similar companies in YOUR community. Even easier - Have you been to the online marketplace called Etsy? You will fall in love with all of these unique beautiful things that hard working hopeful people would like to sell directly to you. Especially awesome are the children's toys worth keeping for generations.I mean, really, how can you resist these little handmade booties or carved wooden tractor? As my friend Sarah says, even looking at these makes me ovulate.

My child will love this handmade toy. I will make sure of it. 

Step 3: Visit a craft fair or marketplace to support more hard working talented people with your holiday dollars. If you live in Seattle, you are lucky enough to have Pike Place Market every day of the year and the awesome Urban Craft Uprising a few times a year, including December 3rd and 4th. I would recommend bringing cash so that you do not go into debt at this better-than-you-are-imagining craft market. Who is coming with me?!

Urban Craft Uprising: promo from Behrens Films on Vimeo.

Step 4: Consider other creative ways to support things you believe in. Why not give a gift certificate to a CSA or other organic food delivery service? Everyone loves free food delivered during a busy week.

Have a favorite charity or cause? Donate in a friend's name and send a card saying that you did. I love KIVA, which gives micro-loans to small business people around the world. You even get your money back when they re-pay the loan and you CAN LOAN IT AGAIN! How fun!

Use your talents to say, "I love you." Offer a delivered meal or babysitting to a family with young children, use of your vacation property, eggs from your backyard chickens, whatever talents you have that can be shared! If you choose your gift and the recipient with careful thought, your efforts will not be unappreciated.

Wrap up the best books that you read this year and give them to a friend who is an avid reader and dying to find the next best read. Nothing beats a great book! (Did you read The Hunger Games yet?)

Step 5: Lastly, there is nothing wrong with a mass produced item. I did cry after all, when my parents gave me a KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas years ago. And I know my mom really appreciates the new Cuisinart that my siblings and I gave to her after her 20 year old food processor finally died. Just choose wisely. Give something that someone will actually appreciate and forgo the gifts that are given for the sake of gift-giving. No one really likes those trinkets and stinky candles anyway.

Most of all, take some time to remember what all the fuss is about anyway. Whether end of year celebrations are religious for you or not, it surely has meaning deeper than a big sale or fancy bow.

Happy Holidays!

Well Tested: The Best Pumpkin Pie Recipe

Last Thanksgiving, high from the thrill of so many people to keep my toddler busy while I partied in the kitchen all day long, I decided that one pumpkin pie recipe was not enough and declared it a good day for a pumpkin pie recipe contest.

I chose two solid recipes: one from the side of the Libby's canned pumpkin and one from Cook's Illustrated. Libby's represented a straight forward traditional recipe. Cook's Illustrated represented the "improved" version - highly tested and always focused on the best result over the easiest method.

cooking pumpkin and yam on the stove top

The Libby's recipe could hardly be more simple. Could a recipe that is so simple actually make a really good pie? The Cook's Illustrated recipe was more complicated for sure. The recipe calls for replacing some of the pumpkin with cooked yam and has the baker first cook the pumpkin-yam on the stove top to concentrate flavor. It calls for real milk and heavy cream instead of canned milk and then uses a multi-temperature baking process to avoid any curdling. 

The spice profiles differed between the two recipes. Libby's uses a small amount of ground cinnamon, cloves and dried ginger. Cook's Illustrated replaces clove with nutmeg and uses fresh ginger instead of dried.

The math teacher in the family was in charge of dividing the pies

The pies were laid out for the official dozen tasters. Whipped cream was provided for authentic pumpkin pie eating experience. The crusts used for both pies were the same so as not to sway results. 

When it comes to traditional foods, deciding which recipe is "best" is not as easy as it seems. Nostalgia is a strong force. Even if your new and "improved" recipe for an old family favorite is indeed improved - with a higher quality ingredient, let's say - the resulting dish may be declared as "off" or "not right" by your family members around the table.

This held true for the pumpkin pies. Libby's recipe won by a fair percentage, although the Cook's Illustrated recipe has its fans as well. I had a hard time deciding which I thought was "best." I liked the familiar taste of the Libby's straightforward pumpkin pie. I also appreciated the rich and complex flavor of Cook's Illustrated, but was it better? Maybe. Maybe not. 

Maybe is not reason enough for the significant extra effort involved. This year, I will be sticking with Libby's. No need to add yam. No need for stove top cooking. Canned evaporated milk solves the potential curdling problem. Here is what I will borrow from Cook's Illustrated though - they do have the best method for making crust (vodka!) and I appreciate freshly ground nutmeg and ginger instead of old dried spices, which only take an extra few seconds. 

Whether your family goes old school or high brow - happy pie eating and be sure to make plenty of whipped cream! 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Planning a Thanksgiving Menu that I actually look forward to eating

Thanksgiving - the epic meal of the year - is in a few weeks and I have begun thinking about the menu this year. I am not a fan of marshmallows, tins of fried onions, or canned green beans hiding under canned cream soup. But I do like tradition.

busy kitchen, thirty minutes to go
Each Thanksgiving, I cook for about 15 people. This leaves me with a turkey dilemma - roast one turkey or two? I can roast a big 22 to 24 pounder or two smaller turkeys and have tried both approaches. I am not sure which is best.

More exciting than the turkey is the rest of the meal. Brussels sprouts are necessary as are potatoes of some kind. My dad always requests mashed carrots and turnips, a family favorite. My mom requires a fruit salad with whipped cream served by heaping spoon fulls on the side. I have a favorite recipe for cranberry chutney that I really enjoy and is great for the turkey sandwich party I host the following day.
Pre-dinner snacks, very important!

Although I reserve the right to make last minute changes, here is my menu for this year:

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Cream - recipe here. Make extra and toss with pasta and provolone cheese later in the week.

Mashed Carrot and Turnip - Cut 6 large carrots and 3 small to medium turnips into a very large dice. Boil in salted water until tender. Drain well. Mash with a tablespoon or two of butter and a heaping teaspoon of dried dill. Taste and add salt if necessary.

Roasted Potatoes - peel your small to medium yukon gold potatoes. Use a fork to scrape around the surface of the potatoes to create a rough surface. Boil them in salted water for about 5 minutes. Drain them well. Toss with a generous amount of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast them in a hot oven until tender.

Cranberry Chutney - recipe here. My friend Meaghan commented on this previous post that it would be wise to visit the bulk aisle of the grocery store in order to save significant money on this recipe, and I agree.

I am on the fence about green beans this year. One year, I made a great green bean dish which involved tossing fresh green beans in anchovy paste, olive oil, minced garlic and a squeeze of fresh lemon, and then roasting them in a 425 degree oven. Now that was good. But do I need a third vegetable dish? Hmm.