About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Private Chefdom - Part 3: The Audition

Part 3 of a 9-part series
Over the course of the next week I worked hard on developing three impressive, balanced menus.  I was trying to show off what I considered my specialties while incorporating them into well-rounded, harmonious yet diverse menus meant  to demonstrate my flexibility.  At last I had a trio I was proud to present.

I called Karen on the phone and read my menus to her (this was well before faxes were so common), making clarifications as necessary so that she could present my ideas to The Family.

A couple of days later she called me with their choice.  Choices actually.  They had used my carefully designed meals like columns on a Chinese restaurant menu, “one from column ‘A’, two from column ‘B’…” and so on.  So much for well-rounded harmony and balance, but we certainly had diversity well covered.  Frustrated, but anxious to get on with it I said “fine” and we re-confirmed the audition for the coming Friday evening.  She said that there would be The Husband, The Wife, she (Karen) and two of the grown children (who lived elsewhere)  at the meal.

“Total of five people, beginning the appetizer course at 7PM, this Friday”, I double checked all the particulars.

“Right, and don’t forget about the diet analysis of the menu, OK?  I  told her OK.
The night of the audition came quickly but I was well prepared.  I had pre-prepped as much as I could figure out how to at home so I didn’t have to arrive until just an hour before service time.  I pulled up, parked, grabbed the first milk crate of ingredients and headed for the door.  Before I got there, Karen came out.
“Don’t use the front door, go around back”.  She pointed around the left side of the house.
By the time I had completed the detour she had gone through inside and was holding the kitchen door open for me.
“Where have you been?  The Family thought you weren’t going to show up!”
“Why would they think that?  We didn’t set a time for me to be here, just a time for the meal to be served.”  I was truly puzzled.
“I know, I know, but they fuss about these things.  They thought you’d have to have been here hours ago to be ready.  They were sure you weren’t coming.”
“Well, I’m here, and dinner will be on-time.  Give me a hand bringing in a couple more boxes of stuff OK?”
We got all the crates into the kitchen and as I unloaded things Karen pointed to where the various utensils, serving plates, mixing bowls etc. which I inquired about were located.  Once I had found everything I’d brought and made sure it had made the trip in one piece, I took a minute to put on my chef-ing togs.  I had been wearing the nicely creased black pants so all I really had to do was slip into the crisp white double-breasted jacket (with my name and “Executive Chef embroidered on the pocket), attach my kerchief, pop on the toque, tie on the good-old four-fold apron and I was ready for business.
No sooner had I finished dressing when Karen strolled in and about fell over looking at me.  An absolutely tremendous grin stretched across her face ear-to-ear.
“Wow!  You look so…so…official!  Fantastic!  They’re going to love this!” 
After getting a couple of things into the oven and refrigerating the dessert components, I collected all of the serving plates, bowls, and underliners I would need to plate up the food.
As I was setting up a plating station at the end of that magnificent granite slab countertop, Karen breezed through.  She was carrying a couple of bottles each of red and white wine (and darned fine ones too I could see).  She saw me and stopped mid-stride.
“Um, ah, you’re not going to put any food on that counter top are you?”
“No” I said lightly, “I’m going to try really hard to actually put it on the plates!”
She just stared at me for a couple of seconds then turned away muttering something like, “dear, dear, dear” and scurried off.  In seconds she was back again minus the wine but with a large, thick table clothe tucked under her arm.
“Let’s just play it safe and put this clothe down to cover the counter.  You have no idea how upset Madam would get if we got this granite stained.”
“You mean that this entire, gigantic kitchen counter top, (which is nearly the size of my whole kitchen at home by the way) can’t be used for cooking or food prep?”
“Well, no.  Not really.  They were going to have it sealed but decided it might mute the colors too much.  Isn’t it pretty though?  One time somebody spilled a little spot of something greasy on it and it took us months of work to get it so you can hardly tell.  There!  See that spot there?”  She was pointing now.    “You can barely tell it’s there now.”  Oh brother, what next?
We put the cloth on the counter and I re-set my serving station, stacking piles with five of each of different the service plates, in the order they would be used.
“Oh”, Karen said.  She was wiping all the silver (and very nice sterling silver it was). “Didn’t I tell you?  The kids aren’t going to be here for dinner, but might show up for dessert”.
“So now it’s only the three of you?”
“Yes.  That’s right”.
What a pain in the butt these people were turning out to be!  What was I supposed to do with the other two peoples-worth of food I had already prepared?
“Can’t you just divide it between the other plates?” Karen asked, sensing that I was beginning to not have a very good time now.
I could have done that, of course, BUT if I did then all that work I had done with the diet analysis  of the menu would have been worthless.  The analysis, naturally, depended on portion sizing for its calculations.  It also would have made for a lot of food to serve on each plate.  I told Karen that since they were paying for all the food anyway I’d just wrap anything left-over and throw it in the fridge for the next day, or when ever.
“The Family isn’t really very fond of anything left-over.  They would prefer not to see anything a second time…”
“Whatever.  Give it to the maid for lunch if you want to.  It’ll be in there.”
Things started to come together better after that.  Everything was on schedule and I was ready.  I gave the printed menus and menu analysis sheets (all five sets) to Karen for distribution as she saw fit.  
The food smells that were beginning to waft about were great and I think it prompted The Family to finally come in to meet me.  As the older-looking couple came in Karen jumped up to introduce them.
“Mr. and Mrs. Quire, this is David.  David, these are the Quires”
I shook both sets of hands.  Mr. Quire seemed preoccupied and disinterested.
“Smells good in here”
“Wait until you taste it” I returned, but he was already half way out the door, shuffling a little, staring down at the floor as he moved.
I turned to see Mrs. Quire had maneuvered behind me and was looking into pots and bowls and poking through some of my prepared garnishes on the counter.  With a twinkle in her eye she snatched up from its ice water bath, one of the intricate curled carrot flowers I was planning on using for the salads, and popped it into her mouth.
“Ummm, that was pretty” she said.  She had an interesting guttural “old country” accent.  Suddenly her eyes got wide and she quickly bulled past me shouting, “OY!  no, No, NO, NO!…”
Her destination was a cutting board on which I had the shrimp all lined up, ready to go into the pan for their appetizer.  She snatched up the cutting board and with surprising agility, flung the crustaceans unceremoniously into a nearby bowl.  Within a second she was at the sink with the cutting board scrubbing it with bleach water.
“Never, ever, the fishes on the boards!”  She turned away from the sink long enough to shake an admonishing finger in my direction.  “Stinky, stinky phew!  Always will stink now.  Forever!”  She scrubbed furiously.  “Have to throw out and get new one now.”  Scrub, scrub, scrub.
Satisfied that she had either scrubbed all the shrimp smell off the cutting board, or resigning herself that she was going to have to throw it away, she eventually stopped, tossed the cutting board into the dish drainer and dried her hands.  She then turned to address me.
“Always the saran” she said in a now patient tone, as though addressing a child, “Always saran before fishes.”  Now she was making a smoothing motion with her hands over and over, miming herself  pressing the plastic wrap onto the cutting board.  “OK?, Yes?”
“Yes” I said, and she was on her way like a tornado, slowing only long enough to snitch a piece of warm bread from its basket on the counter before disappearing toward the dining room.
“Wow”, I turned toward Karen, “Are there any other minor little house rules or laws I’m apt to break in the next couple of hours that I should know about?”
“Actually, there are a few, but let’s not worry about them for now”.
“If you say so…”  I had the feeling that this was probably the only meal I was going to be cooking for these folks anyway.
I checked the time and it was a little past 7 but The Family still wasn’t seated.  Karen said not to worry, just make up the food and they’d show up to eat it.  So that’s exactly what I did.  Starting at the top of the menu I started making and serving each course.  Karen would bring in the plate when they were done with a course and I’d get the next one out.  They seemed to be enjoying everything but I noticed that one of the entrĂ©e plates came back almost untouched.
“Was there a problem with that one?” I asked Karen as she was unloading it near the dishwasher.
“Oh, not really.  That was Mrs. Quire’s plate.  She says she’s getting full.  Don’t worry, it was probably just the sandwich she had before.”  Or the bread, or the garnishes or who-knows-what-else she had snitched before the meal I thought.
“What sandwich?”
“Well, I told you that they didn’t think you were really going to show up right?”
“Well, at about 5:30 she had me make them some cheese and salami sandwiches.”
“At 5:30 they were already so convinced that I was a no-show that they had you make them dinner?”  She shrugged as if to say “Yup, that’s the way it is around here, it’s no biggie” and left.
At last, the dessert course went out, fresh strawberries in puff pastry with Bavarian cream, and I was done.  Actually there was a fair amount of clean-up to do but I was done performing. 
 While I was packing and cleaning, Karen came in with the last of the table clearings.  She brought with her the remnants of the two wines the Quires had been drinking and asked me if I wanted a glass.  Of course I did.  I had a little of the white, a rich Pouilly-Fusse that was really wonderful and a little bit more of the deep, mellow Cotes du Rhone red.  I’m sure that I didn’t get near enough of either of them for my tastes. 
Perks like that would be very interesting but, while the food that went out was near perfect, I thought my personality and theirs was too much of a clash to work.  I wasn’t going to hold my breath, waiting for them to call with an offer .
As it turned out I didn’t have to wait.  Karen called the next day and said that the Quires were "most impressed" with last night’s dinner and that they were pleased to offer me the job.  A short time, and a bit of negotiating later and I was a full-time Private Chef.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Private Chefdom - Part 2: The Interview

Part 2 of a 9-part series

So I called the number in the classified ad and spoke with a woman named Karen.  Karen was the personal secretary for the Lady of the House and she was also the right person I needed to speak with about the job.  I told her a bit about my background and experience and she told me a little about the job:  There were, basically just two people to feed lunch and dinner usually 5 days a week (but sometimes more).  There were also business lunches to prepare from time to time for meetings at the Husband’s office (a separate building on the property) and occasionally business dinners, dinner or lunch parties, family gatherings or other special events.  Karen mentioned, several times, what a nice working environment it was, what a beautiful quasi commercial kitchen they had “with every piece of equipment imaginable”.  

She mentioned a salary range “depending on experience and other factors” which sounded acceptable so I set up a time a few days later for an interview.

Showing up a little early for my job interview I was quite impressed as I drove up the long, winding, private road toward the main house.  Along the road I could make out numerous out-buildings; a 6-car garage, a horse barn, a work shop and several more further along.  There were several romping horses visible as I drove past a pond full of ducks and acres and acres of manicured grounds.

The main house itself was gorgeous.  A huge 200-year old farm house was at the center of what looked, from my vantage point on the driveway, like dozens of very sympathetic and very well executed additions.  I guessed the house to be 10,000 square feet in size and absolutely flawlessly modernized and maintained.
As I approached the large front door it was opened by a young woman who greeted me coolly and introduced herself as Karen.  She gave me a quick tour of a few of the first floor rooms as we headed towards the kitchen and I was saw that every room was well furnished with an extraordinary collection of  magnificent antiques.  One piece, a small, unusually-shaped, table made from tiger maple caught my eye and I made a comment about it.
Karen had been somewhat aloof up until then but seemed surprised that I had an interest in the antiques.  She warmed a bit saying, “You have a good eye.  How interesting.  That table is quite unique and has been written up in several antique magazines”.   “It’s priceless”, she added as an afterthought. 
We proceeded on past a tall bank of windows which looked out onto their back yard where she pointed out the two guest houses out past the pool and tennis courts.  As we passed through a swinging door Karen stepped aside and let me go ahead of her.  It was the kitchen and it was impressive, as promised.
The focal point of the large room was a huge center island, probably 12 feet long and 5 feet across. About ¾ of the counter top for the island was an enormous slab of polished pink and gray granite and the rest was solid cherry wood.  Above the island hung a large, oval, wrought iron rack on which was hanging 30 or 40 gorgeous copper and copper-clad pots and pans which twinkled and gleamed brightly.  The rest of the kitchen had white Corian countertops over brilliantly polished cherry wood cabinets and there was a 6-burner commercial gas range, as well as a double set of doors for the two built-in Sub-Zero refrigerators. 
“Nice” I said in approval as we slid tall bar stool-type chairs up to the island were we were apparently going to sit and talk.
Karen began the interview by having me tell her about my family, my recent work, what kinds of food I liked to make and such.  I answered, succinctly and positively.  Giving an up-beat and professional accounting of myself (at least I’d hoped I had), doing my best to toot my own horn.
She spoke more about The Family (there was no question that she was capitalizing the words) telling me that both the husband and wife had been interred in concentration camps by the Nazis during the Second World War.  Mentioning their great suffering and losses during the war, she went on to describe their arrival in the USA with nothing and their eventual attainment of their wealth through years of hard work.  The Husband ran his own commodities investment business from a building just down their private road, trading via satellite on the Chicago Markets daily.  He had a number of employees working for him there.
There was also a household staff consisting of a full-time maid, head grounds keeper, mechanic, a driver and, of course, the cook.  There were also numerous other miscellaneous gardeners, pool men, handy men, maintenance guys, stable guys working on the property at any given time.  It was Karen’s job as a sort of Chief of Staff, to oversee all the house help and the Wife of The Family oversaw her.
“You know”, she said, “The Family has never had a real professional chef cooking for the them.  Just had housewife-type cooks.  As a matter of fact”, she went on, almost to herself, “they’ve never had a male cook.  I wonder what they’d think of that?”
I asked Karen if she liked working there.  She said she’d been with them for seven years and had always found The Family to be good employers, generous and hard-working themselves (not the type to just sit with their feet up and boss others around).  She went on to say that The Family had definite ways that they wanted things to be done, but that there was nothing outrageously weird.  She said “It’s a good job”.  She had not actually answered my question but I hoped that it was an innocent oversight, and that she was not being evasive.
I asked her a little about the family’s (I mean The Family’s) eating habits. She said they knew  much about and enjoyed good food and wine (they had an extensive climate-controlled wine cellar in the basement).  They often traveled to Europe and would bring back interesting food stuffs with them.  They also went into NY City regularly, several times a month on business or just for shopping and would bring back whatever goodies caught their eyes.  In counterpoint to this, she said that they were both conscious of being overweight and tried to keep it in check.  The Husband had had heart surgery and was trying to lose 20 lbs.  He was currently on the Scarsdale Diet, but it didn’t really effect the cook too much.  The Wife, she said, always counted calories but wasn’t actually dieting.
She asked about my hobbies.  I told her I did some wood working and drawing but recently I had gotten into learning about computers.  PC computers were still pretty new and not in general usage and while I was sure that The Husband had some kind of computers in his trading office I had noticed that Karen had but an IBM Selectric typewriter on her desk.
“Ooh, computers”, she remarked, “I really don’t know anything about them.  What kind of things can you do with one?”
I was definitely no geek but I told her about word processing and how much easier it was than typing.  I told here about spread sheets and how useful they were for bookkeeping chores.  I said there were animated games which could be played.  Admittedly, these were all extremely crude, and often cumbersome applications (running in DOS, switching out 5.25” floppies because there were no hard drives and looking at it all on a little amber screen) but at the time it was pretty cutting edge.  She seemed fascinated by it all and I had an idea.
I had just recently gotten a program called Diet Analyzer.  With it you could enter the amounts for ingredients for a menu item and it would calculate dozens of different dietary values for the dish.  With it you could put together the dietary impact for a whole meal including calorie counts, vitamin amounts etc. and relate it all to the recommended daily allowance guidelines published by the US Government.  And it was all available to print out to my little 9-pin dot matrix printer.
As I began to tell her all about Diet Analyzer, I could see her face light up, hear the wheels turning in her head.  Heck, I could almost smell smoke!
“Does that sound like something that The Family might be interested in; the ability to easily calculate meal calories and the like?” I asked.  I could see in her eyes that this was really exciting for her and knew her answer before she said…
“Oh yes, I think that might be just the kind of thing they would be interested in.  How fun!”
She had made her decision about giving me the job but it wasn’t all up to her.  She said that I needed to do an audition for The Family, where I would come cook them a dinner.  That was fine with me.  We set up a tentative date about two weeks down the road.  Karen asked me to come up with two or three complete menus as suggestions and to submit them to her.  She would discuss them with The Family, pick one and that’s the one I’d prepare for them.  She said that they would reimburse me for the cost of the ingredients.
With that, the interview was over.  Well, almost.  On our way out, just as I was going through the door, Karen asked, “Do you know what would really impress The Family?”
“That Diet Analyzer thing.  I you could bring  a copy of the analysis for the menu you are doing for your audition, I think they’d be fascinated.  Would you do that?”
I agreed.

Private Chefdom - Part 1: Introduction

I recently read an amusing article about chef Darren McGrady.  McGrady, originally from Great Britain, is currently a private chef in Texas and is a philanthropic cookbook author as well but the most interesting bits on his resume revolve around his work cooking for various members of the royal family at Buckingham Palace from 1982 until 1997.  I too spent some time working as a private chef during that time (1989 for me), though at nothing near McGrady's level of service. 

There was a particularly precious line in the article about his "giving everyone the royal treatment, regardless of whether [the meal] was destined for President Clinton's plate or the Queen's twelve Welsh corgis" that struck a chord with me and has inspired me to share my own story from that segment of the business...

Private Chefdom 

“ The British Broadcasting Corporation, like the British tabloids, adores aristocrats. Their houses are big and their servants are cute and, when they aren’t eating immense amounts of overcooked food, they stand around on their broad, rolled lawns like croquet hoops waiting for history to pop through the holes in their heads.” 

John Leonard, “Television: Costumes without Drama” New York 30 Apr 84
In chatting with friends while attending culinary school the talk often turned to the future.  The future was pretty important since the present, for most of us, was pretty banal.  We needed to look to the future and to dream about the lives that were before us.  One of our favorite discussions centered, naturally, around our future jobs.
We would try to guess what we would be doing 2 years, 5 years and, 10 years from graduation.  Some of us wanted to own our own restaurant or be head chef at a world-renowned venue.  Many wanted to eventually get into management.  There was a guy who was focused  on  being a TV chef and another one whose dream was to be a test kitchen director for a major food corporation.  Despite the differences in our visions, two themes almost always showed up in everybody’s dream career at some point:  Working on a luxury cruise ship and being the private chef for a millionaire.  Just about everybody thought that a private chef career would be about as good as it got.
I’m not sure what it was about this job that sounded so appealing.  None of us had actually had, or even knew anybody who had, held a private chef position in reality so details were sketchy.  I don’t think that it was money related since we didn’t really know what kind of wages these chefs might expect to make.  It could well have been the allure of travel, exotic locations, or famous people but I don’t think that was quite it.  My best guess is that it was the appeal of a job where you got to work with the very best ingredients, of your own choosing, making meals that you planned from the start, working in plush (even pampered) conditions, probably even scheduling your own hours.  I think the concept of “Culinary Freedom” might sum it up best.
In the autumn of 1989 I was living in Millerton NY. had recently completed my work as Executive Chef at the Interlaken Inn in CT.  I'd taken a little time off to work on the old farmhouse we were restoring but was ready to get back to work in a kitchen.  I started periodically scanning the newspaper classifieds looking for anything interesting.  There weren’t very many cooking jobs out there at all and for weeks there hadn’t been anything even remotely interesting to me.  Then, one day, I spotted an advertisement for an open position for a private chef position for a family.  The location was in a lovely and very rural area just North of the CT State line in Massachusetts.  So I called the number for some more information.
Private Chef position eh?  I called the number for some more information.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Post-Holiday Report

Unbelievable!  Over a month since my last post!  Well, as predicted, we got hit with our busy Holiday season here like a row boat facing a tidal wave; no matter how sturdy the craft, competent the rower, and well-plotted the course, that boat is gonna get swamped.
And swamped we were! As a 2-person operation, already working at near-peak efficiency running the goat cheese dairy there isn't a whole lot more we can do to when candy season rolls around except work more hours to fit everything in. 
This year things were made even more challenging than usual in that we are normally in the process of "drying off" the goats by the time we need to get serious about candy making. Usually The Girls, once bred and with the days getting noticeably short and the weather getting considerably colder, start dropping their milk production all on their own.  With very slight encouragement from us (say by going to milking once a day) they will start reducing their milk production pretty quickly. 
This year "The Girls" had other ideas about that.  (Kathryn has a new favorite saying  "People plan.  Goats Laugh")  Even though most of them were well into their pregnancies, they kept cranking out the milk so we kept cranking out the cheese.  Our traditional "Let's go to once a day milking on Thanksgiving Day" turned into "Let's try milking everybody twice a day through the first week of December" and finally to "You know we've REALLY got to get some of these girls dried-off, whether they want to or not"!  It's important to give the does the last 8 weeks or-so of their pregnancies off from milking so that they can rest their bodies a bit, concentrate on building their kids (babies), and prepare for the next season.  Some of these girls were already inside that time frame.  So we drew our line in the sand and just started telling some of the does that they couldn't come in for milking, regardless of their desires.  I guess somebody has to be the adult in the family.
The end result... We continued milking most of the string and kept making cheese through most of the candy season.  As of this writing, we are still milking a quarter of our full herd and making cheese!
Candy Season was phenomenal, as had been the rest of the year for us.  Most of our long-time customers came back again this year with their gift lists for us to fill.  All of our last year  wholesale, corporate and business-gifting customers returned (and with larger orders than in previous years) and we added some new corporate customers and re-connected with some others.
2010 Customer of Note: Reconnected with a corporate executive who we had worked with supplying (and doing some catering for) in Tucson before coming to the Ranch in 2000. He had retired to a beach in Mexico 10 years ago but it apparently didn't take.  He's back in the corporate world (in Pago Pago AS, no less), and again doing his business gifting through us.
So now we're entering Winter Break mode.  Candy season is over and we're about finished with commercial cheese making for the season.  Lots of personal cheese making still happening to get us stocked up for the coming year with specialty and hard cheeses (Blue, Brie, Cheddar, Gouda, Swiss, Havarti, etc).  Lots of charcuterie and smoking work to do on beef and pork we've previously butchered and now will have time to work on.  Lots of misc projects on the books for the break to get ready for the coming season (kidding pens, welding jobs, deck awnings, garden preparations, etc) .  And a few new things planned for the break:  gonna learn to perfect my bagels, do some more food writing and get back to doing some pen-and-ink drawing again.  The break lasts until about mid-February when kidding season starts and it starts all over again.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Puddle Turkey

I've always had a lot to be thankful for and with Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday) right around the corner, I find myself thinking about some of the big family gatherings we had when I was a child.  The magnificent spreads my Grandmother always laid out.  How, as children, we would wait to see how quickly "Uncle Jimmy" would fall asleep on the couch after the meal (as he invariably did every year), snoring so loud that the walls of the old farmhouse almost shook. The year that it snowed so hard our family could barely make it the one mile back from my grandparents' farm to our house.  The sad first Thanksgiving after my grandmother, the perennial culinary ringmaster of family gatherings, passed away. 
Some more recent Thanksgivings also stand out.   
2000: A Bachelor Thanksgiving
For our very first Thanksgiving after having moved here to the Ranch in 2000, we had barely gotten running water and rudimentary off-grid electricity going.  The kitchen was effectively non-functional and Kathryn had to travel to Kansas to see her family.  The "bachelor Thanksgiving" ended up being a pre-gurgitated turkey roll, instant mashed potatoes, fake gravy from a powder and a store-bought mince pie, eaten all by myself.  It was completely pathetic. 
1998 The Neighborhood Event
Then there was the time in Tucson AZ in the late 1990's when we invited all our neighbors who "didn't have family" to dine with us.  It was a huge feast for which I prepared four types of turkey (traditional roast, smoked, deep fried and grilled)  plus dozens of sides, salads and relishes, assorted breads and rolls, all followed by 3 types of pie (pumpkin, mince and apple - with ice cream)  - all home made, from scratch, of course.
And speaking of different ways to cook a turkey, here's one Thanksgiving that will always be remembered in our family...
The year of the Puddle Turkey
We were all gathered in Cornwall CT in the early 1980's.  I was put in charge of doing the turkey and stuffing for the family gathering.  Others were taking care of the sides and rest of the meal.
My mother had reminded me that there’s almost never enough stuffing to go around for the requisite third helpings or for leftovers and to make sure that there was plenty.  Now, I have something of a reputation for over-doing my cooking quantities and this was one of the few times I can ever remember anyone in my family actually cautioning me not to make too little of anything and I was up for the challenge.  
My mom was right (of course!); there is almost never enough stuffing.  Many, many years before, a family holiday tradition was born in order to help alleviate this problem.  Realizing that the whole problem was that the darned turkey birds were just too small inside (never mind that we never cooked anything less than a 24-pounder) to hold enough stuffing, somebody had the brilliant idea of making “Outside Stuffing” as well as the traditional “Inside Stuffing”. 
Granted, warming up a pan of stuffing is nothing new (restaurants almost never actually cook any stuffing inside a bird for numerous logistic, timing and health & safety reasons), but my ancestors decided that the Outside stuffing should be something special.  What they did was cook it slowly for a LONG time, so long that the top half inch or so of the crust dried almost completely into marvelously crunchy bites, almost like herby croutons - only better.  When mixed up, the Outside Stuffing was a real adventure for the mouth, each bite a mix of moist, buttery bread intermingled with crispy herbed crunches that explode against the teeth.  Another big bonus of the Outside Stuffing is that it can hold a lot more gravy (another turkey dinner accompaniment of which there is seldom enough!) without getting soggy.  Wonderful good, that Outside Stuffing is!
Even with that one approach to the stuffing shortage problem already accomplished and still I had been warned not to run out.  What to do?  Well I figured the only other thing to do was to make more Inside Stuffing.  But how to do that?  I mean a turkey is only so big on the inside… or is it??  I had an idea!
I had heard about a Paul Prudholmn specialty called “TurDucEn”.  It was a Boned-out turkey, stuffed with a boned out duck, stuffed with a boned out chicken, each of the birds also stuffed with a different and appropriate stuffing.  Paul’s trick was to bone out each of the birds without breaking the skin, or cutting it apart in any way.  In culinary school I had seen a weathered old black chef de-bone a chicken without breaking the skin (“keep da meat on da meat and da bone on da bone” he would mutter over and over as a mantra as he worked) so I even knew the rudiments of what to do.  All I had to do was apply what I knew about doing a chicken to de-boning a 20-something pound turkey whole, fill it up with stuffing and voila!  With all the bones gone there would be lots more room for stuffing right?  Hey!  Even a bonus, I could brown up the bones, make a stock the day before the big meal and be able to make extra gravy to boot.  Great Idea!
Well, things never really go as one plans do they?  As it turns out turkeys are a lot tougher than chickens to work with.  I mean their bones can be BIG and hard and inflexible, much more so than those in a chicken.  I’ve done this exercise on chickens since then several times and they are a piece of cake compared to that turkey.  I swear it fought me every step of the way, but I kept the “meat on the meat and the bone on the bone” as the old chef had taught me and eventually it was done.  Every single bone from that bird, except those in the drumsticks and wings, was in a pile on the counter and I was left with…  
Well, it’s kind of hard to accurately describe what a big fully de-boned bird looks like if you haven’t seen one.  My wife had certainly never seen one and it was at this time she strolled into the kitchen.  Kathryn is something of a traditionalist when it comes to holidays (aren’t most of us?) and Thanksgiving is the kind of holiday where things are supposed to be “just so” and not to be messed with.  I had not told her of my brainstorm for stuffing survival so she had no idea what I was working on when she came in.  For the longest time she just stood there staring at the cutting board and the pink and white blob sitting there.  After a bit her hand came to her mouth and she said “OhmyGawd! That’s the TURKEY??!!”.  
I did what I could to reassure her that it would turn out OK (though my own confidence was a bit shaky by this time).  I mean it really looked BAD.  I explained my whole plan and after taking it all in she finally said she could see the potential of the project.  Eventually we were laughing pretty hard about the poor bird’s sorry/saggy looking condition.  Kathryn then came up with the less-than-complimentary (or so I thought at the time) name for the dish of  “Puddle Turkey” because of the way it looked on the cutting board.  The name has stuck to this day.
We played with the bird for a while, lifting up the different parts, peering through the gaping hole in it from one end to the other, waving its wings around etc.  Eventually Kathryn says “Gosh, that’s really going to take a LOT of stuffing to fill it up, don’t you think?”.  I hadn’t really looked at the size of the opening until now and I saw what she meant.  There was a LOT of room in there.  The whole plan had been to be able to re-assemble the bird, truss it up and roast it so it looked like a normal holiday bird.  Nobody was supposed to be able to tell it was different until I, with a flourish of the carving knife in front of all the guests, sliced clean through it’s middle, exposing all that wonderful stuffing.  Surprise!
Now I was a bit worried.  We had stocked up on Pepperidge Farm Herbed Bread Stuffing.  (Let me interject here that I am an unabashed and complete stuffing snob.  There is no other stuffing in the world as far as I’m concerned and if you come near me with any of that stove-top crap I’ll likely throw it right back at you!  So there!)  Anyway we had 4 or 5 bags of stuffing which I quickly made up and shoved into the orifice.  It barely began to fill the void.  Oh-oh.  Kathryn was good enough to go out and buy up the remaining stock of PF Stuffing at the nearest store, returning with 8 more bags.
I made up two more batches of 4 bags each and started working in earnest on the bird, getting the stuffing into every nook and cranny, making sure to pack it solidly.  I worked steadily and as quickly as possible, trying to judge if Kathryn might have to make another stuffing run (she had already called and confirmed the availability of 7 more bags between two different stores within reasonable driving distance).  I thought things were going pretty well when I realized something.  The stuffed turkey was getting bigger than the whole un-stuffed one had been.  The darned thing was STRETCHING!  It was puffing up like a balloon and getting all out of shape.  NOW what was I supposed to do?  I wasn’t even sure it was going to fit in my roast pan anymore.  Arrrrrrrrrrgh!
A short time-out and a quick glass of wine later and I was calmed again but no easy solution came to mind.  The bird was getting harder to work with, kind of floppy even with all the stuffing in it, I was getting really low on more stuffing AND it just didn’t look right at all.  Kathryn then made some comment about the poor thing needing a face-lift, tummy tuck or maybe a botox treatment.  And I got another idea (Ain’t she a great inspiration?).  I gently rolled the bird over and did a big tuck on the backside, gathering up several inches all along where the backbone had been and tied it together with twine, taking up most of the slack in the body, in effect giving it a lift!  It worked pretty well.  With a little more stuffing and some minor trussing it did look mostly like normal stuffed turkey.  It fit in the roast pan with just a bit of persuasion and it even still fit in the oven!
The cooking time was a little different than on any of the charts, taking longer than usual because bones apparently conduct heat through the body during the cooking of a normal turkey.  I was prepared for this and it got to the correct internal temperature and it came out, on time, with everything else.  After transferring it to the carving platter, I trimmed up a few strings and brought it to the table.  Nobody, at least, laughed or said, “What the hell happened to your bird?”  I really don’t think anybody noticed anything different about it at all.
As planned I parted the beast right down the middle with a single clean slice of the knife to the ooooohs and ahhhhs of everyone around the table.  The bird was well cooked and flavorful, the stuffing tasty and more than plentiful.  As a matter of fact there was actually too much stuffing, not really a surprise having used 12 bags!  Everybody thought it was a novel and creative way of solving the stuffing dilemma but no one actually asked me to do one ever again (which was most definitely just fine with me).
2010 Thanksgiving
Nowadays, here on the Ranch, we grow almost all of our own food.  From the heritage beef, whey-fed pork, and free range chickens we raise and butcher right here, to the bounty from our gardens and greenhouse, every meal is a kind of harvest festival for us but Thanksgiving is still a special holiday. This year I think we'll go uber-traditional all around and leave the Puddle Turkeys to someone else.

Here’s the full menu for T-day (subject to modification)…

·         Assorted Black Mesa Ranch goat cheeses with "sour doe" toasts.
·         Twin Roast Baby Turkeys*
·         Bread Stuffing w/ Apricots & local pecans ("inside" and "outside" versions)
·         Giblet Gravy
·         Buttery Mashed Potatoes
·         Fresh Yams with cinnamon and chipotle
·         Winter Vegetable Medley (carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas etc)
·         Brussels Sprouts w/ Mushrooms in Goats' Milk Sauce with nutmeg
·         Cranberry Sauce (2 kinds)
·         Deep dish Apple pie w/ homemade vanilla bean ice cream
·         Pumpkin pie, Bourbon whipped cream

* OK, these are not technically "baby turkeys". I've never cooked a turkey smaller than 22 lbs for Thanksgiving before (even if it was just the two of us) but the grocery store in town apparently got severely shorted on their bird order this year and the biggest ones they had were all under 14 lbs. So I got two. They look like big chickens to me but I was lucky to get any at all. 
Fair warning... It's getting into our crazy time here at the Ranch with the Holiday crush coming on fast.  This will likely be the last post for a while!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Caramel Dipping Day

Candy Season is moving into full swing here on the Ranch and I'm starting to get a lot of orders in from our regular wholesale customers.  The early part of this week was very busy on the Dairy/Cheese Making side of things (totally sold out again) and then we had some friends come up from Phoenix for a visit and to bring us our new Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) puppies (more on them soon).  Anyway, the end result is that I'm completely IN THE WEEDS with candy making for the week and will have to work double-time to get caught up between now and our next shipping day which will be next Tuesday.

Got some really good candy production in today.  Cut and hand-dipped about 850 caramels in dark chocolate and dipped another couple hundred apricots.  It's days like this that make us toy with the idea of getting a small chocolate temperer/enrober.  Now, I know that it doesn't sound like all that much production compared to what some shops put out but it's not like that was all we had to do today…
With the goat cheese dairy being our core business we had to do all of that work today and some general Ranch work  too.  That included milking the 30 goats twice (morning and evening), make a batch of cheese (today was fresh goat cheese), ladle and hang the curds from yesterday's cheese making, work with the feta from the previous day.
It's also breeding season so we had to cycle a few girls through with their designated bucks. 
We also worked outside on some more winterizing the compound area - it going to get into the teens tonight, so all the auto waterers had to be disconnected etc. 
The new puppies (just their third day here) needed an expanded run so we puppy-proofed the rest of the goat kid pen area for them.  The kid pen barn camera (a closed circuit video link we have run into the dairy and our living quarters) was not working right so we had to trace a wiring fault and repair that so now we can watch the pups and make sure they don't get into too much trouble in their expanded digs.  Moved a couple tons of feed for the does and got the bucks some more grass hay. 
Oh yeah, and do some candy work.

Cutting one of the caramel slabs

Some of the caramels, ready to dip

Dipping the caramels

Caramels ready for boxing

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Venison Swiss Steak

This is another recipe I developed after my truck vs deer encounter in 1987.  Much of the meat was very tender and needed only brief cooking but some of the cuts, naturally, were tougher so a few braised dishes evolved to deal with them.

True story...
We had my sister over to our house in Millerton NY for dinner one night and served my Venison Swiss Steak.  She liked it so much she asked for some venison and the recipe so she could make it for some guests she was entertaining in a few weeks.   I was happy to comply.

The day of her dinner party I get a call... 
"David, there's something wrong with my Swiss Steak.  It doesn't taste like yours".  My sister is not shy about calling me, her private cooking hot-line, whenever she has a culinary question and I try to help here out.  This time I just asked her to go through the recipe as she had made it, hoping to find where the problem was.  It didn't take long.  
"...so then I added the 4 crushed cloves", she went on.
"The what?" I asked.
"CLOVES, the recipe calls for crushed cloves".
"Ummmm... I don't think so.  Check again."
"Oh-Noooo!.  The recipe calls for 4 cloves... of GARLIC! I didn't read the whole line!"  "I thought that cloves were a funny ingredient for Swiss Steak, but wanted to follow the recipe".

Well you can't really get the flavor of cloves out of a sauce like that but it all turned out OK and her guests liked HER version of Venison Swiss Steak just fine. 

Venison Swiss Steak

2 lbs cubed venison leg steaks
well seasoned flour (salt, pepper, onion & garlic) for dredging
8 oz bacon fat (or lard)
1 lb diced tomatoes (canned is fine)
1 pt water
1 each large onion, copped
1 each medium bell pepper, thick julienne cut
4 cloves GARLIC, crushed
salt & pepper

  1. Cut steaks into serving-size pieces. 
  2. Season the steaks with salt & pepper. 
  3. Dredge the meat well in the seasoned flour.
  4. Brown both sides of meat well in the bacon fat (or lard). 
  5. Pour the remaining ingredients over the steak and simmer over low heat until meat is tender.  Add more water, if necessary, to keep the meat partially covered. 
  6. Adjust seasoning with additional salt and pepper if necessary.