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Nestled in its elegant, fan-shaped shell, the lustrous and translucent scallop is one of the ocean’s greatest beauties. When removed from its protective housing and placed in a hot pan, grill or oven, it transforms into one of the culinary world’s most delectable foods.
Thanks to its plump and juicy yet firm flesh, mildly sweet flavor, ease of preparation and overall sustainability, this bivalve has become one of my go-to seafood choices.
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When talking about scallops, I usually mean sea scallops. I most often see this type in refrigerated seafood cases and on restaurant menus. Larger than the other category of scallops, bay scallops, they range in size from 1 1/2 inches to 9 inches in diameter. They are farmed on coastlines around the world and harvested year-round, making them widely available and relatively affordable.
Their tiny relation, the bay scallop, grows to only a half-inch in diameter. Sweeter and more tender than sea scallops, the bay scallop is less common and, as a result, costs considerably more.
Whether classified as bay or sea, all scallops filter feed on plankton. To do this, they draw in particle-filled water, strain out the plankton for consumption and then push out the cleaned water. They share this tidy method of eating with clams, mussels and oysters, the other members of the bivalve family.
Scallops score high on sustainability
The ability to filter impurities from water means scallops are considered eco-friendly creatures. Their lack of dependence on fish feed and predilection for eating from the bottom of the food chain further increases their good environmental standing. Good for the environment and likewise safe for consumption, they can be enjoyed by both children and adults at least four times a month.
Unquestionably, I appreciate the scallops’ solid sustainability rating. What I also like is how little effort is needed to prepare them. Unlike other bivalves, I never have to shuck a bunch of scallops.
Simple ways to boost scallops’ flavor
Because their shells never close completely, scallops spoil easily. To avoid the risk of spoilage, fishermen shuck the scallops right after harvesting them. Everything but the meaty abductor muscle — and, if you live outside the U.S., the orange-colored roe sack — is discarded.
U.S. consumers know the pearly abductor muscle as a scallop; in America this is what we cook and eat. Elsewhere people have the choice of buying and cooking scallops with or without the roe intact. Having tried it both ways, I have to vouch for the use of the rich, slightly salty roe. It adds complexity to and also balances out the scallop’s mildly sweet flavor.
Because I don’t have the option of including the roe, I sometimes toss in an extra ingredient or two to boost the scallops’ taste. Herbs such as basil, chervil, parsley, tarragon and thyme and seasonings such as cayenne, black and white pepper, salt, brandy, vinegar and dry white wine complement this shellfish. So, too, do avocados, bell peppers, carrots, chilies, corn, garlic, ginger, shallots, lemons, limes, mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes. This is a companionable and versatile seafood.
Tips for buying scallops
When shopping for scallops, I consider odor, color and luster. The flesh should smell sweet rather than pungent or fishy. It should have a bright sheen and appear somewhere between pale pink and light beige in color. Unless soaked in a solution, which increases its weight and, therefore, cost, a scallop will not appear bright white.
Additionally, the meat should not look flabby but instead be firm and well formed. Floppiness or limpness is another sign the shellfish has been languishing in liquid. Because I don’t want to pay more for less and, more important, buy seafood that’s been bathing in preservatives, I ask my fishmonger for dry-packed or untreated scallops.
Lastly, I request either diver-caught sea scallops from Mexico or farmed sea scallops; as you might suspect from the name, diver-caught indicates a diver has hand collected the bivalves from the ocean floor. Both methods of harvesting have low environmental impact.
Because I’m one of those uptight buy-right-before-cooking cooks, I tend to prepare my scallops as soon as I return from the market. If I have to deviate from this practice, I immediately refrigerate the scallops. They will keep for up to two days in the refrigerator.
When cooking scallops, I have a plethora of techniques at my disposal. These include sautéing, pan searing, grilling, broiling and poaching. Along with serving them on their own, I’ve put them in gratins, seafood pies, stir-fries, ceviches, tartares and stews. Light and flavorful, they are a wonderful, all-purpose seafood.
This spring enliven your cooking with simple, tasty scallops. They’re good, and good for you!
Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction
This recipe is from “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013) by Kathy Hunt.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 scant tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 cup sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound large sea scallops
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
1. In a small frying pan, heat the olive oil on medium. Add the minced shallot and sauté until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
2. Pour the sherry vinegar into a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and stir in the brown sugar and shallots. Simmer until the liquid has thickened and reduced to 1/2 cup or 1/3 cup. When finished, the sauce will be syrupy in texture. Set aside. (Note: You may want to reheat this slightly before dressing the cooked scallops with it.)
3. In a large, nonstick frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil on high. Add the scallops, season with salt and pepper and reduce the heat to medium-high. Sear the scallops until brown on the bottom. Flip them over and fry the other side until browned. Depending on the size of your scallops, the cooking time will take between 6 to 8 minutes total.
4. Place the scallops on the dinner plates. Drizzle the shallot-sherry vinegar reduction over the scallops. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt
Think St. Patrick’s Day is all about chugging green beer and minty shakes and sporting avocado-colored sweaters, emerald top hats and Kiss Me, I’m Irish or Erin Go Bragh T-shirts? Think again.
In Ireland, where St. Patrick lived and died, the day stands for far more than carousing in garish clothing. It is a day of cultural and religious significance with nary a dyed beer or milkshake in sight.
As an insatiable traveler married to an Irish-American and fellow redhead, I’ve experienced my share of St. Patrick’s Days in Ireland. Whether I’m in a major city such as Dublin or rural village in County Clare, I never miss a parade. Although New York City receives credit for holding the first St. Patrick’s Day parade, way back in the 18th century, Ireland wholeheartedly embraces this festive event.
St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland a family affair
Depending upon the locale, I’ve watched processions of marching bands, costumed dancers and professionally made balloons as well as festooned farm tractors, hand-painted banners and homemade floats. No matter where I am, one thing remains constant: the large number of families in attendance, cheering on the participants.
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Along with seeing parades, visiting fairs and listening to live music, families in Ireland go to church services on St. Patrick’s Day. The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick served as the country’s bishop during the fifth century and is credited with helping convert the Irish to Christianity. On the Emerald Isle, the date of his death, March 17, is a religious and public holiday.
In his teachings St. Patrick used the shamrock to represent Christianity’s Holy Trinity. Today, as a symbol of their belief, the devout continue to pin these three-leaf clovers to their clothing. So much for my silly childhood belief that shamrocks went together with leprechauns the way that rainbows came with pots of gold or chips accompanied fish.
Food likewise plays a prominent role on St. Patrick’s Day. In the past, pubs remained closed on this holy day. With the public houses shuttered, family and friends would gather in homes to share simple, wholesome meals.
Then as now, potatoes starred in a variety of dishes, including the pancake known as boxty. They remain the primary ingredient in the mash of cabbage or kale and potatoes called colcannon and mash of scallions and potatoes called champ.
Potatoes also feature in meaty cottage and shepherd’s pies, boiled bacon and cabbage, Irish stew and, a personal favorite, potato soup.
For me, nothing says wholesome, Irish cooking like a bowl of hot, savory potato soup. It’s the perfect warmup for a brisk and damp March day spent outdoors at a parade or fete.
In a country surrounded by water, it comes as no surprise that seafood appears on holiday menus. Although outsiders tend to reduce Ireland’s fish specialties to breaded and deep-fried cod or haddock served with chips and peas, Irish cooks serve far more than this greasy — albeit tasty — mainstay. Cockle soup, seafood chowder, smoked haddock potpie, steamed mussels and cod cakes are among the country’s wondrous seafood dishes.
Contrary to the American custom of drinking green-colored ales on St. Patrick’s Day, in Ireland people usually reach for dark, smoky stouts. Originally just a stronger version of a porter, stout has become a category of its own for many beer connoisseurs. With its creamy texture, full-bodied flavor and rich mouthfeel, it leaves consumers fully satisfied. Drink of pint of hearty stout and you’ll feel as though you’ve consumed your St. Patrick’s Day meal in one glass.
Probably no stout is more renowned or available globally than Guinness. Yet, Ireland does have other stout brands, including the Cork-based Murphy’s and Beamish, both of which have been acquired by the Dutch beer company Heineken.
This St. Patrick’s Day, skip the green clothing, tinted drinks and boozy benders. Instead, celebrate the authentic Irish way — with good food, family and fun.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
7 ounces leeks, washed and sliced
1 pound, 10 ounces russet potatoes, washed, peeled and chopped
7 cups chicken stock
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
1. In a large stockpot melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks and sauté until softened and translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, stir to combine and cook for another 1 minute.
2. Pour in the chicken stock, raise the temperature to medium-high and bring the soup to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 25 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and leeks are translucent.
3. Turn off the heat. Add salt and ground black pepper to taste.
4. Using either an immersion or traditional blender, puree the soup until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed. Serve hot.
Main photo: Although they may seem as whimsical as leprechauns, shamrocks hold special religious significance in Ireland. The three-leaf clovers symbolize the holy trinity as taught by the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick. Credit: Copyright Sean Dippold
Growing up with a father who suffered from cardiovascular disease, I learned at an early age how to eat healthfully. Hot dogs, fried chicken and steaks rarely graced our dinner table. Instead, we ate boatloads of low-fat and vitamin- and mineral-rich seafood, grains and produce.
Among the fish we consumed, sardines still top my list of favorite heart-healthy foods. Available in fresh and canned forms, these oily fish are chock-full of flavor and omega-3 fatty acids.
What’s so great about omega-3s? According to the American Heart Association, these fatty acids lessen the risk of abnormal heartbeats and reduce high triglyceride levels that may contribute to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. They also have a positive impact on high blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.
“It has long been appreciated that societies who eat diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids have a lower incidence of heart disease. For example, prior to the western influences of fast-food chains, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia had a diet predominantly of fish and had very low heart disease rates. We discovered that one of the main components of the fish diet that was beneficial was omega-3,” says Dr. Paul Checchia, director of cardiovascular care at Texas Children’s Hospital.
Along with sardines’ wholesomeness, I love these petite, iridescent fish for their versatility. They go well with an array of other heart-healthy foods, including spinach, tomatoes, red bell peppers, carrots, walnuts, oranges, raisins, kidney beans, black beans and whole grains. They also partner with other omega-3-rich seafood such as anchovies.
Sardines lend themselves to many preparations, flavor pairings
When fresh, sardines can be grilled, broiled, baked, poached, sautéed or marinated. Their dark, oily flesh responds well to direct heat, making them the perfect fit for barbecues and charcoal grills.
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Their bold flavor likewise engenders them to simple preparations. Sprinkle ground black pepper, vinegar or citrus juice over your cooked sardines and, in a snap, you’ve got a delicious repast.
Although they tend to be overlooked by today’s home cooks, sardines have a long and storied culinary past. Named for the island Sardinia, where they were found in abundance, they have supported generations of European fishermen.
Sardines live in both Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In fact, from the 1920s through the 1940s, they served as the backbone of America’s largest, most profitable Pacific Coast fisheries. Monterey, California’s, famed Cannery Row owes its success to sardines.
Canned sardines, in turn, owe their existence to the French and Napoleon Bonaparte, who needed a way to store and transport protein-rich rations for his troops. Through the ingenuity of French brewer Nicolas Appert and British merchant Peter Durand, sardines became the first canned fish and one of the first canned foods.
The French weren’t the only ones to benefit from sardine canning. In the 20th century these 10- to 14-inch fish fed American soldiers during two world wars. They also provided jobs for vast numbers of workers.
As is often the case, rampant popularity led to the sardine’s downfall. Overfishing and the ocean’s natural growth cycle depleted the supply. Without sardines in the supermarkets, shoppers turned to canned tuna for cheap, portable and easy-to-prepare meals.
In recent years sardine populations have rebounded in the Pacific. This is wonderful news for environmentally minded, health-conscious consumers. As small-sized bottom feeders who eat plankton, sardines don’t take on heavy metals and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) as other fish do. Low in contaminants and high in protein, vitamins B-12 and D, and omega-3s fatty acids, Pacific sardines have been deemed a “best choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
When shopping for sardines, I have the option of fresh or canned. With fresh sardines, I look for shiny, silvery skins; plump bodies; bright eyes; and firm, pinkish, moderately oily flesh.
Because these fish are fatty, they spoil easily. To ensure my sardines are safe to eat, I do a quick sniff test. If a sardine smells overly fishy or pungent, I skip that fish. Highly perishable, sardines should be cooked the day of purchase.
Packed in thick, clear oil, canned sardines possess expiration dates and should be consumed accordingly. Until I’m ready to use them, I store the cans in a cool spot in my kitchen and periodically flip them so all the fish are coated in oil.
If you peek into my kitchen cupboard, you’ll invariably see at least two tins of sardines tucked in there. I use them in everything from bread spreads and vegetable dips to pastas and pissaladières. When I crave an especially heart-healthy entrée, I make the following dish, Sardinian Tomatoes. Featuring lycopene– and beta-carotene-rich tomatoes; fiber- and iron-packed barley; vitamin C- and A-filled red bell peppers; and, of course, sardines, it’s a delightfully nutritious meal.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 stuffed tomatoes
8 large, ripe tomatoes
1 red bell pepper
1/2 small red onion
8 ounces canned sardines, drained and patted dry
1 1/2 cups cooked barley
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley
3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for greasing the baking dish
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs
2 teaspoons granulated onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a large baking dish with olive oil and set aside.
2. Slice off the tops of the tomatoes. Scoop out the seeds, leaving an inch of flesh inside the tomatoes.
3. Dice the red pepper and onion. Slice the sardines into bite-sized chunks and put them, along with the pepper and onion, into a mixing bowl. Add the barley to the bowl.
4. Roughly chop the parsley. Add it, the thyme and black pepper to the bowl and toss to combine. Drizzle the lemon juice and half of the olive oil over the mixture and toss again.
5. In a small bowl combine the bread crumbs, granulated onion and salt. Add the remaining olive oil and stir until all the crumbs are coated.
6. Put equal amounts of sardine-barley stuffing into each tomato, filling each to the top. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture over the filling. Place the stuffed tomatoes in the baking dish and bake, uncovered, for 12 to 15 minutes or until the tomatoes have softened slightly and the crumbs have browned. Remove and serve warm.
Main photo: Sardinian Tomatoes. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Whether you have vowed to eat more healthfully or are just contemplating the addition of seafood to your diet this year, eventually you may find yourself staring into a refrigerated seafood case, wondering which fish is not only safe and eco-friendly but also a pleasure to eat.
No need to wonder. I have a list of wholesome winners for you. The lineup includes a hearty fish that satisfies meat lovers; one for those preferring mild, “non-fishy” fish; and a versatile, no-fuss shellfish.
The perfect seafood for meat lovers
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First on the menu is Atlantic mackerel. In the same family as tuna, the torpedo-shaped mackerel possesses firm, oily flesh and a rich, beefy taste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no fish offers more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than mackerel.
Healthful, flavorful and flexible, this fish can be braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed or seared as well as pickled, salted or smoked. Its bold flavor marries with acidic ingredients such as citrus, tomatoes and vinegar and balances out more mellow foods such as lentils, potatoes and mushrooms.
When shopping for Atlantic mackerel, I look for fish sourced from Canada. Caught using purse seines rather than fishing trawlers, it possesses the highest sustainability rating by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Other mackerel varieties, such as Spanish and King, have elevated mercury levels, making them a less favorable choice.
A ‘gateway’ fish
I think of farmed, American channel catfish as the gateway to seafood consumption. Its subtly sweet, low-fat and pliable meat puts it on the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from mackerel. It also makes catfish an excellent choice for reluctant or picky fish eaters.
With a flattened head and eight long, whisker-like barbells dotting the region around its nose and mouth, this creature bears a strong resemblance to its namesake. Typically, though, I don’t see whole catfish, with whiskers intact, in markets. Instead, what I find are skinless catfish fillets. Iridescently white to off-white in color, they often get lumped into the broad category of “white fish.”
Virtually an all-purpose fish, catfish can be baked, braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed, steamed and deep-, pan- or stir-fried. It goes well with countless ingredients, including avocados, bacon, chilies, olives, tomatoes, tomatillos and wine.
Farmed channel catfish from the U.S. is among the most sustainable seafood available today. Be sure to purchase U.S.-farmed rather than imported Asian catfish, which also goes by the names “swai” or “basa.” Although equally low in mercury, imported catfish is not as eco-friendly.
A shellfish to get you started
Maybe you prefer the colorful looks, flavor and texture of shellfish but also desire seafood low in cholesterol and mercury; high in protein, vitamins and minerals; and with moderate levels of omega-3 fatty acids. I have the bivalve for you: mussels.
Inside a mussel’s hard, oblong, green or blue-black shell rests creamy, sweet, juicy meat that tastes like lobster but lacks the high cholesterol or price tag of that crustacean. Rich in protein, vitamins B-12 and C, iron and omega-3s, this shellfish packs a powerful nutritional punch.
Yet another adaptable seafood, mussels may be baked, broiled, grilled, steamed, stewed or smoked. They partner with bold, tart, spicy or mild ingredients such as beer, garlic, mustard, lemon, tomatoes, wine, chilies, curry powder, paprika, pasta, rice and zucchini. They also pair with other seafood, including clams, shrimp, squid, John Dory, snapper and monkfish. If you’ve ever tried the Provencal seafood stew bouillabaisse or Californian cioppino, then you know how nicely mussels combine with these fish and shellfish.
Although dozens of mussel species exist, I usually find farmed blue or common mussels at markets. Grown in abundance and available year-round, farmed mussels garner the coveted “best choice” label from Seafood Watch.
More good seafood choices
Along with this nourishing trio, I would suggest adding littleneck clams, farmed rainbow trout and char to your must-try seafood list. They all possess high nutritional and sustainability ratings. Couple these rankings with ease of preparation and agreeable taste, and you’ve got three more champs to add to your dinner menus.
Fans of bolder foods should also check out Pacific sardines and trap-caught sablefish. Both receive rave environmental, nutritional and cooking reviews, and both provide ample flavor and need little, if any, seasonings to shine.
No matter which type of seafood you favor, aim to make 2015 your year of healthful, sustainable and succulent fish and shellfish.
Smoked Mackerel Jackets
From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013)
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 stuffed baked potatoes
4 large russet potatoes
1/3 cup skim milk, warmed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1 bunch scallions, sliced
1 pound smoked mackerel fillets, flaked
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Using a fork, poke holes in the potatoes. Microwave them on high for 8 to 10 minutes or until hot and softened.
3. Cut the potatoes in half and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving behind a small rim of potato in each skin.
4. Place the potato flesh in a large bowl and, using a fork or spoon, mash together lightly. Add the milk, butter, salt and pepper and mash again until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add the cheese, scallions and flaked mackerel and stir to combine.
5. Spoon equal amounts of the potato-mackerel mixture back into the skins. Place the filled skins on a baking sheet and bake until warm and golden brown on top, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Seafood on display for customers. Credit: Kathy Hunt
As someone who loves to invite people over for any and every occasion, I’ve developed a short list of what’s needed to pull off a successful soiree. Besides having a good playlist and ample food and drinks, the right tools, and enough of them, will ensure your party is a hit.
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Believe me, running out of clean glasses, forks or plates may make the evening memorable, but it’s not the wisest way to throw an unforgettable celebration.
Through poking around restaurant-supply stores and dishware shops and raiding my late grandmother’s and mother’s dinnerware collections, I’ve amassed enough inexpensive utensils to host half the East Coast. Although you may not have the time, space or obsessive nature to stock up to that extent, you should consider buying, borrowing or renting the following items if you like to host friends and family at your home. Elegant and useful, they’ll impress your guests and reduce your stress.
From sautéed shrimp and ratatouille to mashed potatoes and garlic peas, I use my chafing dish to keep festive foods hot and palatable. Because the dish heats with Sterno, I don’t have to worry about guests tripping over extension cords or accidentally unplugging it. It’s a win-win tool.
I’ve lost track of the number of gatherings spent watching my coffeemaker dribble out 10 cups. I’d pour the steaming coffee into an insulated carafe, toss out the used grounds and make another pot, repeating this ritual until all the caffeine addicts had their sobering fix. Eventually, I grew tired of barista duty and bought a 20-cup coffee urn. Now I fill up the urn, flip on the brewing switch and encourage people to pour a cup of hot coffee whenever they want. It’s the best $25 I’ve ever shelled out.
If you don’t have room to house a coffee urn, invest in a large, insulated carafe instead. Never again will your guests drink cold or burnt coffee. Place your carafe alongside creamers pitchers or gravy boats so guests can have coffee however they like.
Creamers, small pitchers and gravy boats
Pick one of the three and then buy several. In my case, I opted for large, white, nondescript creamers, which I fill with milk, cream, gravy, sauces or syrups. To keep the gravy, sauce or syrup warm, I place the creamers on another entertaining must, a warming tray.
What you don’t spoon into your chafing dish, you can set on a warming tray. This comes in handy for large items such as a platter of roast meats or multiples such as creamers, pitchers or gravy boats. As its name indicates, your food stays warm on this tray.
Punch bowl, with or without cups
When I inherited my mom’s punch bowl set, I thought, “What will I ever do with this old albatross?” The answer, I learned, was serve gallons of mulled cider, spiked eggnog, white sangria and other boozy beverages. The beauty of the punch bowl is you can select a signature cocktail for the night, make the drink right before the guests arrive and then direct your partygoers to help themselves. Better yet, withhold the alcohol, leave a bottle of spirits by the bowl and let your visitors decide whether to imbibe.
Even if you don’t bake, you’ll benefit from owning a cake stand and an optional cake-stand cover. You can layer cookies, brownies, candies, quick breads or flatbreads on its pedestal. You can serve pies, tarts, muffins and cakes from it. Classically stylish, it keeps your treats fresh and appealing.
Oversized plates or platters
Perfect for appetizers, desserts, cheeses, crackers, breads and any other food you might serve, oversized plates or platters are a fundamental part of any large or small feast.
Tongs, pie servers and serving spoons
Even if you’re just offering finger foods, you don’t want your friends’ fingers literally in the food. Inexpensive tongs, pie servers and serving spoons ensure cleanliness and classiness at your fete.
I store party silverware in bain-maries, but you could as easily put your flatware in a cloth napkin-lined basket, Mason jar or decorative box. The goal here is orderliness and not to have mounds of forks, knives and spoons sprawled across your dinner, buffet or coffee table.
Glasses, glasses and more glasses
You can celebrate in style without the linen napkins and tablecloths, metal flatware and ceramic or china dishes. You can likewise revel without lavish decorations or floral displays. What you can’t do without is glassware. Depending on the theme, I set out two or three types of glasses — beer, wine and cocktail. Pint beer glasses can be used for soda, iced tea, lemonade, seltzer, water and, of course, beer. Stemmed wine glasses are ideal for wines, punches and non-alcoholic drinks. Less essential but no less delightful are martini or cocktail glasses. Possessing a conical-shaped bowl, this glass works well with cocktails, punches and bubbly beverages.
Main photo: Plenty of glassware is key for a successful party. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Most of my friends possess heartwarming tales about Thanksgiving, of a day spent roasting aromatic turkeys, peeling and mashing potatoes and hanging out with their families in warm, inviting kitchens. My stories have a far less romantic bent. For me, this holiday brings back memories of my parents bickering over whether to stuff or not stuff the turkey.
In my mother’s eyes, a stuffing-filled turkey was tantamount to serving her guests a platter of salmonella. If you craved a savory dressing, you baked it in a separate dish. In any case, you always roasted your turkey au naturel.
My dad took a different stance. He argued that without a moist, herb-laced stuffing bundled inside, the turkey would be dry and flavorless. So too would the filling isolated in another pan. The two had a symbiotic relationship and needed each other to shine.
Keeping this in mind, he often snuck into the kitchen and shoved a halved onion, celery stalk, slice or two of bread, dried thyme and butter into the bird’s empty cavity. With that, the annual stuffing war commenced.
Over the years I’ve struggled with which position to take. I know history favors the stuffers. Since classical Roman times cooks have filled meat and poultry with sundry foods. Roast pigs packed with sausages and black pudding and geese overflowing with bread, onions and sage commonly graced the Roman dinner table. These additions were used to dress up the main course and make dining less mundane.
By the 19th century, French cooks had upped the ante on dressings. To spice up their offerings, chefs would shape minced and seasoned veal, pork or chicken, which are known as forcemeats, into whimsical shapes. They tucked these objects into roasts, whole fowl or fish. When diners cut into their entrees, they were surprised and amused to find ball-, egg- or carrot-shaped treats inside.
Throughout the ages people have used stuffing to stretch their meals. During tough times, when meat was expensive and scarce, cooks would extend their protein allotments by filling them with hunks of inexpensive bread and seasonings. The starchy stuffing absorbed the roasting meat’s rich juices and produced a hearty side dish.
Is stuffing in the bird a food-safety risk?
Although my dad had tradition and practicality on his side, my mother had the ultimate ally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because of the risk of salmonella poisoning, the USDA advises against stuffing turkeys.
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The problem with filled poultry involves bacteria and undercooking. Unless the stuffing reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 F, bacteria from the turkey will survive and thrive in it. This tainted filling can, in turn, give diners a nasty case of food poisoning.
Common sense tells me to increase the cooking time and temperature of a stuffed turkey. These steps would kill off the bacteria and eliminate the risk of illness. Yet, if I do this, I could end up with fully cooked stuffing and a parched, inedible main dish.
Over the years, I’ve come up with a suitable compromise. In deference to my mother and the USDA, I bake my dressing in a greased baking dish. To keep the stuffing luscious and full-flavored, I may add extra butter or turkey drippings to it. Fat doesn’t dry out in the oven, nor will it turn bread crumbs gooey the way stock sometimes does.
In honor of my dad and his desire for a succulent, full-flavored bird, I also slide a few celery stalks, sliced onions, sprigs of rosemary and thyme and chunks of butter inside the turkey. As the turkey’s temperature nears the requisite 165 degrees, I remove and discard the produce.
For those who have never had to play peacekeeper and stuff or not stuff at will, I offer these bits of advice. If you decide to fill your turkey, cook and then cool your dressing before putting it in the turkey. To prevent bacteria from forming, add the bread crumb mixture right before putting the turkey in the preheated oven. Lastly, loosely and lightly pack the filling so everything cooks evenly.
A dressing that satisfied both my parents’ preferences is this Apple Cider-Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing. Loaded with flavorful fruit and herbs, moistened with apple cider and then baked in its own dish, it’s a delicious detente for the longstanding Thanksgiving stuffing debate.
Apple Cider-Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1 cup apple cider, plus more if needed
1/3 cup chicken stock
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
5 cups toasted cornbread crumbs
1 cup toasted wheat bread crumbs
1 1/4 cup diced Granny Smith apples (about 1 1/2 apples)
1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Place the cranberries, cider and stock in a small bowl. Allow the cranberries to steep in the liquid for 20 minutes or until plumped up and soft.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a large baking dish.
3. In a small sauté pan, heat half the butter. Add the onion and celery and sauté until soft but not browned, about 5 minutes.
4. Spoon the sautéed vegetables into a large bowl with the bread crumbs. Add the cranberries and cider mixture, apples, parsley, rosemary, thyme and salt and stir until the ingredients are well combined. Taste the stuffing to ensure it doesn’t seem too dry. If it needs more liquid, sprinkle up to 1/3 cup cider over the stuffing and stir to combine.
5. Loosely layer the stuffing in the buttered baking dish. Dot the top with pieces of the remaining butter.
6. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the foil and continue to bake for an additional 10 minutes until browned. Serve warm.
Main photo: Apple Cider-Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing. Credit: Kathy Hunt