27 Nov
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The Butter Blanket

My insatiable, knows-no-bounds quest for The Crispy Bits in life began early.

Every year when my dad carved our small family’s small turkey, he would announce “The skin people can come in now.” An only child, I was the only skin people. It was Heaven.

The skin people are already here.

I have a crispness imperative. In my own small family now, Stella has a chew imperative; my husband’s imperative is visual, emotional impact in theatre.

Here are a few of my favorite things:

  • Pork skin crackling
  • Real Peking duck
  • The top of a creme brûlée
  • Pan-fried “grilled” cheese sandwiches containing a plethora of butter
  • The surface of a smoking-hot-pan-seared slice of foie gras that’s been previously dusted with spiced flour
  • Frico (lacy, melted-cheese “cookies”)
  • Lobster mac and cheese
  • Grilled pork confit
  • Apple Crisp, Crumble, and Betty
  • The puffed, golden crust of a pizza (aka corniche) cooked in my wood oven
  • Bacon

It is not only food that can be crisp. A view, a sentence, a performance, a paragraph, the memory of a fine day in a young love affair—all these things may be crisp. An argument can certainly contain crispy bits. My mother’s tone when disappointed was often crisp. I can awaken feeling crisp (aka brittle) after a night of too much wine—even exceedingly good wine.

Thanksgiving offers several crispy opportunities, and I would be a cad not to grasp them all. But the most important “crisp-ortunity” on the third Thursday of November is the skin. For years, I wet brined my turkey, thus forgoing crispy skin in favor of succulent flesh. No more.

Lifting the Butter Blanket

The “Judy Bird” as interpreted by Russ Parsons and presented by the estimable Food52 details the process of dry-brining better than I can. Yes, the recipe will produce a turkey with unimpeachably succulent, tender flesh—completely unlike any turkey previously executed with a wet brine. But skin of almost ethereal crispness can only be achieved with the addition of one extra step: The Butter Blanket. I’d like to think this process is my own invention—since I’ve been doing it since 1982—but I’ve never published the recipe and it does appear elsewhere in the lexicon of turkey recipes. With The Butter Blanket, there is no need to hassle with starting the turkey breast side down, then awkwardly turning the hot bird over. Skip the following paragraph if you are only here for The Butter Blanket.

Start with the recipe as published. (But I do suggest the following change—and several others: Use French gray sea salt in place of kosher salt. Pulse the salt in a mini-prep with a teaspoon or so each of ground fennel and dried thyme, plus two capful of Boyajean orange oil.) Proceed as directed, dry-brining your Diestel or other high-quality bird for three full days in a huge ziplock bag (the kind designed for storing winter clothes). Pat the bird as dry as possible (don’t rinse!) and then place uncovered on a rack in your refrigerator for about 12 hours. Remove from the fridge and stand at room temperature, covered with a clean kitchen towel, for at least 3 and ideally 4 hours. (Recipes never tell you how long it takes to bring a 16-pound turkey to room temperature—although they do say it’s crucial to do so—because they are afraid of the health department. An hour or two simply won’t cut it, and a bird that’s still cold inside will cook unevenly, yielding a tough, dry breast.) Do not stuff the turkey, please. Stuffing deserves a place at the table, but should never be cooked inside the bird.

Smoothing the Butter Blanket

The Butter Blanket: When your patted-dry, dry-brined turkey has been standing naked at room temperature for about 3 1/2 hours, preheat your oven to 325° (lower than the starting temperature given for the Judy-Bird; 300° if it’s a convection oven). Cut two lengths of cheesecloth long enough to cover the bird (on a rack in a roasting pan) from stem to stern. Open the fabric out flat, then fold each piece over so the cut ends meet. Stack. You have created a four-layer blanket of cheesecloth wide and long enough to fully cover your bird. Melt 6 ounces of salted European butter in a small saucepan and swirl in 8 fluid ounces of medium-dry Sherry or Madeira; grind some—or a lot of—pepper into the butter. Holding the cheesecloth blanket by the top two corners, dip the blanket into the butter mixture and thoroughly saturate (don’t let go of the corners or you’ll never find them again). Lift up and let drip for a moment, then smooth the blanket evenly over the bird, tucking it in around the edges. Brush some of the remaining butter mixture over the blanket, pour a cup of water into the roasting pan below the bird, and pop the pan into the oven, legs toward the back. Baste every 20 to 30 minutes, first using the remaining butter mixture from the pan and then using the pan drippings (the water will have now evaporated). When the temperature at the thigh reaches about 165° (after about 2 hours, give or take), remove from the oven and transfer the bird to a platter or a cutting board with a channel around the edge. Let stand for 30 minutes, then pull off and discard the (now very unattractive) cheesecloth. Ask someone capable and trustworthy to carve, while you deglaze the roasting pan with some of the wine in your glass—don’t worry, you’ll have enough later; just think sacrifice and bliss. Add the pan drippings to your mostly-made-ahead gravy. Sit down at the table and accept the praise.

Apparently, it takes a village to carve a turkey, because everyone wants to get into the act.

Almost enough Crispy Bits for all.








I’ve always felt that turkey was misunderstood in America, and its certainly misunderstood in other parts of the world. A bird so outrageously good deserves to appear at table more than once a year. Why shouldn’t this tasty t-bird feature in your dining plans for Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Easter?

20 Apr
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Wine Enough, and Time

A great French wine for a lovely California risotto.

When I was writing Joachim Splichal’s cookbook (Patina: Spuds, Truffles, and Wild Gnocchi), that highly-respected chef gave me a short, one-sentence piece of advice that permanently removed any fear of stirring. However, I know that, for home cooks, risotto ranks right up there with souffle in the “I can’t do it!” realm.

Here’s what Splichal told me, back when I was testing every incredibly-complex, restaurant-style recipe for his book in a home kitchen (with home-style skills and ingredients, natch): “Brigie, risotto must take eighteen minutes, from start to finish.” Period. End class, end fear of risotto. (For the full effect, imagine this being uttered in a deep and guttural German accent.)

To clarify, the eighteen minutes in question begins when you add the rice and ends when you remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the enrichment (butter, cheese), if any. So, when I decided to include a seafood-and-cured pork risotto in my upcoming book about cooking in California’s Central Coast wine country, the timing was never in question. Whenever I set out to develop a recipe (twenty-four cookbooks published, and counting), my first question is: How is this different, better, more finely focussed, than anything I’ve done before? What job do I want this dish to perform, what role will it take—value will it add—to the menu, or the recipe collection, of the buyer of this book?
Preparation, red wine risotto.

All ingredients should be assembled before the kick-off.
I must have been channeling travels and tables in Italy when I came up with this combo: Scallop, Smoky Bacon, and Red Wine Risotto. (I’ve discovered that starches—whether it’s pasta, rice, or even farro—ratchet up several orders of magnitude in flavor when simmered with some red wine, instead of just broth or water.)

No need for big, pricey, diver-caught scallops here—I want them bite sized and happily mingling with the plump, wine-swollen grains of Arborio—so little bay scallops are fine. For my cured-pork content, I wanted more than just any old bacon, so I sourced dark and smoky slices from the excellent New Frontiers market in SLO (San Luis Obispo). With all ingredients measured and assembled, I was ready to begin.

A little olive oil in the pan—about a tablespoon—helped begin the rendering process for the bacon, and smoothed the arrival of the next party-goer: red onion. Then came the scallops—but only for a minute or two—then I scooped everything out with a slotted spoon, leaving behind the smoky fat. In went the rice and on went my mental timer: 1:36 on a sunny Paso Robles Sunday afternoon.

I stir to coat the grains with smoky fat and begin a slight caramelization; when the rice starts to sizzle, in goes 2 cups of ’08 Zuma Vista, an earthy Syrah/Grenche blend made in Malibu by good friends. When most of the wine is absorbed, I commence adding my warm chicken broth. All the while, I regulate the heat so the liquid simmers excitedly but not explosively, keeping my eye on the clock and gauging my progress so that, when 1:54 pops up, I’m ready to return the scallop/bacon mixture to the pan, then pull it off the heat and stir in my enrichment (1 1/4 cups of grated Grana Padana) and my bright note (3/4 cup chopped baby arugula).

The reward for my efforts? A rich-bright-savory-smoky mound of seafood-flecked, wine-purple goodness. Happy faces, empty plates, and a truly estimable wine for quaffing with our wine-country lunch. Not to mention, another recipe for my next book that will enrich cook’s lives from Seattle to Sasketchewan. A recipe I can be proud of. I’d offer nothing less.