The Challenge: A non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
The Reasoning: After my husband eats one leftover turkey sandwich and two bowls of turkey soup, I am solely responsible for consuming the remaining eight-to-12 pounds of turkey. And I just couldn't do it again this year.
The Strategy: Choose a recipe from our latest culinary obsession -- the cookbook Plenty -- and build a meal around it.
The Results: I hatched this plan several weeks before Thanksgiving, but held off on pitching it to my husband, Josh, because brining and roasting a turkey is one of his favorite things to do in the world. (Other things include "look at rocks," "talk about rocks" and "think about rocks" -- he's a geologist.)
I'm still not sure how I convinced him to forgo a traditional Thanksgiving meal, but he took up the challenge of cooking an Asian-themed meal with enthusiasm. It's definitely the cookbook more than my powers of persuasion. Have you bought Plenty yet? GO GET IT.
A previous, semi-successful experiment in cooking dumplings put us in mind of an Asian theme, but finding the recipe in Plenty for soba noodle salad with eggplant and mango solidified the plan. After a lot of time spent on The Googles, we decided on the following dishes:
• Starters: Miso soup with tofu and pork potstickers • Second Course: Soba noodle salad with eggplant and mango • Main Course: "Chinese New Year" chicken wings and Asian slaw • Dessert: Rice pudding
Josh and I make no claim to "authenticity" in any of these recipes, techniques or final flavors. Our goal was to work with some ingredients (mostly herbs and spices) we don't normally employ and to have some fun together in the kitchen. I do want to thank our great friend Yiming Wang for the "Chinese New Year" chicken inspiration. Yiming's Chinese New Year's parties were the stuff of legends in Fairbanks, and our version of her incredible chicken could never do justice to her recipe.
Miso Soup & Pork Potstickers
The miso soup was Josh's territory, and he kept it simple, which resulted in a lovely, light starter. He used this recipe from the 101 Cookbooks Web site as a guide, but omitted the noodles and most of the greens, sticking with cilantro and green onion along with tofu. For our first try, I think this soup turned out very well. We were happy to eat it over the next few days, and in fact it came in quite handy when I came down with a bit of a stomach bug.
Verdict Miso Soup: An unqualified success. I'm ready to add this recipe to our regular rotation, adding vegetables, greens and noodles to make it hearty enough for a main course.
We split duties on the potstickers: Josh made the filling the night before, while I took on the manufacturing and cooking of the dumplings on Thanksgiving Day. As you can see, my potsticker-making abilities far surpass Josh's.
The filling consisted of pork, sesame oil, soy sauce, green onion, salt and pepper; we used this recipe from UseRealButter.com as a guide. Even more important than the recipe are the instructions for folding dumplings. I cheated and used pre-made wrappers, but I am planning on a Day of Dumpling-Making -- including the from-scratch dough -- around New Year's Eve.
The cooking technique described at UseRealButter.com is also perfect: Heat oil in a large pan or wok until sizzling hot, fill the pan with dumplings and cover, cooking until the bottoms brown. [Here I used a splatter shield rather than a pan cover, and it worked quite well; it also makes checking the progress of the dumplings easier.] After the bottoms have browned, pour in about a half-cup of water -- quickly! -- and cover again, until the dumplings are steamed to a finish. I must say, these dumplings were the highlight of the meal for me. I can only take partial credit (the filling didn't taste good because of me, after all), but I do think they photograph beautifully, and that's all me, baby.
Verdict Dumplings: Time-consuming, but well worth the effort; the UseRealButter.com blog recipe and techniques are essential. I'll add mushrooms next time to add some earthiness.
Soba noodle salad with eggplant and mango
I had been eyeing this recipe since we bought Plenty several months ago. Eggplant is one of my favorite ingredients, but I have only ever prepared it in Mediterranean/Italian dishes. In spite of the insane amount of cilantro in this dish (two-and-a-half cups!), I knew I needed to try it. My stance on cilantro has been softening these past few years, and the recipe also calls for almost two cups of basil, so I thought this recipe had potential. Here is the recipe, which serves six (but we halved it):
Dressing Warm one-half cup rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons sugar and one-half teaspoon salt in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add two cloves crushed garlic, one-half fresh red chile (finely chopped) and one teaspoon sesame oil. After the mixture cools, add the grated zest and juice of one lime.
Salad • Heat sunflower oil in a large pan and shallow-fry two eggplants, cut into three-quarter-inch dice, in several batches until golden brown; transfer to a colander, sprinkle with salt and allow to drain. Repeat until all eggplant is cooked. • Cook noodles in salted, boiling water until al dente; drain and rinse well under cold running water. Shake off excess water, and allow noodles to dry off (but not dry OUT) on a dish towel. • In a mixing bowl, toss the noodles with the dressing, one large, ripe mango (peeled and diced), one-half thinly sliced red onion and half the herbs (about three-quarter cups chopped basil and one and one-quarter cups chopped cilantro); cover and set aside. When the salad is ready to serve, add the rest of the herbs (another three-quarter cups chopped basil and one and one-quarter cups chopped cilantro), mix and serve.
Verdict Soba noodle salad: We chose not to add the final mix of herbs, and felt the salad was perfect for us. This is truly a gorgeous salad, and the key is to really cook the eggplant until it's quite well-done so that it can marinate in the dressing without getting too mushy. The Soba noodles were a lot of fun, and I cannot wait to make this as a summer salad given its light, refreshing flavors.
"Chinese New Year" Chicken Wings and Asian Slaw
The Asian slaw was a dish we used to make in Fairbanks quite often, mostly because cabbage is one of the heartier items you can pick up in the produce aisle even in winter; in summer, there is plenty of locally grown cabbage to be had also. Josh took the lead on this dish, dressing the cabbage, carrots and peppers (yellow and red) with a dressing of peanut butter, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, cilantro, and salt and pepper. Though we made this on Thanksgiving Day, it's a great make-ahead dish because the cabbage stays crispy for several days. I thought the dressing tasted better on day two, mellowing out and losing a bit of the sharpness from the vinegar.
Verdict Asian Slaw: A forgotten staple that is going back into rotation.
Josh took inspiration from Yiming's chicken to another level here, adding a can of root beer and some bourbon to her list of spices -- star anise, coriander, crushed red pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, whole nutmeg -- to create a thick, syrupy reduction to coat the wings. He slow-cooked the wings (and drumsticks) for several hours, resulting in fall-off-the-bone meat; although I feared an overly-sweet sauce, there was plenty of kick from the crushed red pepper -- plus some chili powder -- to make the whole thing balanced.
Verdict Chicken Wings: I'd still rather have Buffalo style wings, unless Yiming visits from her new home in Germany, in which case I want the real Chinese New Year Chicken!
Success comes to a screeching halt. Here is the thing about Josh and me in the kitchen: Ninety-nine times out of 100, he's the guy you want on your team. Until it's time for dessert. Josh often mocks my inability to stray from recipes, but in no place does ad-libbing do more harm than in the dessert round. I set Josh up with several Web sites (including this one) to use as a guide for his "light" mango rice pudding, and then failed to properly supervise him. Knowing my husband as I do, this was a mistake.
I must admit, the smells coming from the rice pudding on the stovetop were heavenly, but when I heard him say "cardamom," it should have set off warning bells. He has this total obsession with cardamom that has ruined more than one dish, and our Thanksgiving Day dessert was doomed from the start. I took two bites -- and spit one out. It was really awful and I felt bad for Josh, although I have ruined so many more dishes in my life that I eventually found his sulking annoying. He just went too crazy, and instead of allowing the coconut milk, sugar, vanilla and star anise to do the work, he threw in a bunch of the stuff he had left on the counter after making the chicken sauce.
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Verdict Rice Pudding: Supervise Josh when it comes to dessert, otherwise Thanksgiving dessert consists of half a chocolate bar from the freezer.