Monday, February 20, 2012

At First Sight: Turkey Mac (SPOILER ALERT)

I warned you, and now it's time: If you don't want to know how At First Sight ends--did you know this was one of about four books by Nicholas Sparks that brought the author to tears?--scroll down to the dotted line.

As you may already know, At First Sight is the sequel to True Believer, the story of Jeremy and Lexie. At the end of True Believer, Lexie tells Jeremy that she's pregnant--which is a surprise to both of them, because doctors told Lexie she would never conceive children after a miscarriage she had years ago. In At First Sight, Jeremy and Lexie get married and prepare for the birth of their child--a girl, whom they've decided to name Claire. When the time comes for Lexie to give birth, they rush to the hospital were Lexie goes through a relatively uneventful labor--until at the moment of birth, something goes terribly wrong. Turns out that unbeknownst to doctors, Lexie had developed an embolism during pregnancy, and when Claire emerges into the world, the embolism travels to Lexie's heart and she dies instantly. Now Jeremy is faced with raising his daughter alone--and life without his wife, who he's only known for barely a year.

Jeremy had come to Lexie's hometown of Boone Creek to investigate some mysterious lights that appear from time to time in certain conditions in an old graveyard. Lexie's grandmother used to bring her to the cemetery when she was a little girl, and Lexie took comfort in the thought that the lights were her parents, who had died in a car accident, telling her that they were all right, and they were looking after her. As an adult, Lexie doesn't really believe that anymore, but she still treasures those memories; and thinks of her parents whenever the lights appear.

After Lexie's untimely death, Jeremy decides to stay in Boone Creek to raise his daughter. When Claire is about five years old, she begins to have nightmares. One night Jeremy decides to bring Claire to the cemetery after a particularly disturbing dream, and the two of them watch the lights together and think of Lexie. What does all this have to do with cooking, you ask? The night Jeremy first brings Claire to see the lights, they eat their favorite meal together--turkey and macaroni and cheese.


Okay. So if you're just joining us, we're making macaroni and cheese with turkey.

I thought about maybe making this a Thanksgiving post last fall, because in my family, macaroni and cheese is a staple dish to serve with the traditional turkey. I knew this would be difficult, though, because we're often traveling on Thanksgiving Day, and someone else has already cooked (or has started cooking) the turkey by the time we arrive. Such was the case this past Thanksgiving. Then I thought maybe I'd have turkey for Christmas instead of our traditional ham, and cook mac & cheese that day too; but I decided to go with beef tenderloin roast. That left me with figuring out a good way to combine the two without having to cook an entire turkey. I could roast a turkey breast, and share my own mac & cheese recipe--which isn't really a recipe at all; just my way of throwing stuff together. I was chewing on that thought when the latest issue of Fine Cooking arrived in the mail--and I had my answer.

In the February/March issue, there's an article about the gazillion different ways you can make macaroni and cheese. You can use just about whatever kind of pasta you want, whatever kinds of cheese you want, and throw in just about any ingredients, or "add-ins," that you want. Normally when I make mac & cheese, I use several different kinds of cheese. Fine Cooking recommends three; to choose one or two as a "base cheese," (which I normally do anyway--I use about half cheddar and a combination of cheeses for the other half), and one "accent" cheese to supplement. (You can go online and make your own mac & cheese recipe with ingredients that they suggest--check it out!)

I grated up some cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Swiss.

Then I made some bread crumbs from gluten-free bread. (I save the heels and store them in the freezer for times such as these. No one can tell the crumbs are gluten free.)

I used them to prepare the topping:

1 small clove garlic, mashed into a paste or pressed (optional)

1 1/2 oz (3 Tbs.) unsalted butter, melted (Unsalted butter? What's that? I ALWAYS use the salted kind.)

2 cups coarse, fresh breadcrumbs, lightly toasted (I didn't toast mine.)

Kosher salt

2 Tbs. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or percornino (optional)

If using the garlic, stir it into the butter. Put the breadcrumbs in a medium bowl and drizzle the butter over the crumbs. Add a pinch of salt and the Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino (if using). With your hands, toss to combine. Set aside.

I always look for excuses to cook with bacon, so I diced up some and browned it,

and I diced up some nice turkey tenderloin cutlets I had found and cooked the pieces in the bacon grease. (This was where I deviated from the recipe--turkey is not one of the ingredients that Fine Cooking suggests. I also used more add-ins than I was supposed to. What I love about cooking is that I can do it my own way if I want; I often see recipes as guidelines and sources for ideas. There are no boundaries.)

After I started the pasta (just regular elbow macaroni, and gluten free rice ziti for myself) I made the sauce:

2 oz (4 Tbs.) unsalted butter (Like I said--don't know what that is.)

1 1/2 oz (1/4 cup) all-purpose flour (Instead of flour I used about 2 Tbs. cornstarch)

3 1/2 cups whole milk (I used reduced-fat milk since it's what I had on hand)

Kosher salt

Melt the butter in a heavy-duty 3- to 4-quart saucepan. Whisk in the flour and continue to whisk over low heat for 3 minutes--the butter and flour should gently bubble and froth without coloring.

Slowly add the milk, while whisking constantly. Be sure to whisk around the edges of the pan to get all the lumps. Whisk until the sauce is smooth and has the consistency of heavy cream, about 6 minutes. Taise the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, whisking occasionally for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and gently whisk in your choices of base cheese(s), accent cheese (if using), and herbs and spices, if using. (I threw in some pepper, and a little bit of Cayenne.)

I mixed up the pasta with my bacon, turkey, some chopped fresh parsley and thyme (which technically I was supposed to add to the sauce, but whatever), put some aside for Moe, who is allergic to milk, and mixed in the sauce. (I did the same with my gluten free pasta. Next time I think I'll just make gluten free mac & cheese for everyone; it will be much easier and they won't know the difference.)

The Result:

My Gluten Free Version:


Adapted from Fine Cooking, No. 115, pp. 36-43

Oh, and I almost forgot to tell you: It was delicious!

I hope nobody is giving up steak for Lent, because THAT'S what's coming next!

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Lamb Chops in Red Wine Sauce and Creamy Baby Potatoes

We're taking a little side trip, leaving Nick and the Outer Banks for a little bit to visit Sweden. (I hear it's cold there this time of year.) Last summer I read Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire; The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), and was very intrigued both by the story and by some of the interesting fare that was cooked in those books. If you haven't read this series, I highly recommend it; just a warning, though--it's quite intense with plenty of sex and violence, but lots of suspense and excitement too. I even watched the Swedish-language films and loved them. I almost didn't notice they were subtitled. (If you saw Sherlock Holmes 2, you might remember a petite and pretty, yet tough kick-ass gypsy girl who joined Watson and Holmes on their latest adventure. The actress who played her, Noomi Rapace, was the tattooed girl Lisbeth in the Swedish films. She ROCKS. I haven't seen the recently released English version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo starring Daniel Craig; when I finally watch it on DVD I hope I'm not disappointed because that Lisbeth isn't Noomi.)

I don't think I'm going to bore you with too many plot details, except for a brief Who's Who: Lisbeth Salander is a troubled young woman, covered in tattoos and piercings; a loner who doesn't relate to people very well. She has a brilliant mind, a photographic memory, and she's a skilled hacker who can gain access to anyone's computer or cell phone with a few clicks and a phone call to a reclusive hacker friend. And she isn't afraid of anything. (The two main characters on the TV show Person of Interest kind of remind me of her in a way; the introverted tech whiz who builds a machine that watches everyone all the time, and with his seemingly invincible Jack Bauer-type partner, solving crimes by hacking into people's computers and cell phones, spying on unsuspecting citizens, and beating up bad guys with martial-arts punches and kicks. My favorite thing Lisbeth does? Subduing a very large villain who, as it happens, doesn't feel pain, by pinning his feet to a floor with a nail gun. Brilliant.) Anyhow, Lisbeth is fighting a troubled past, and has spent much of her life in a mental institution--not because she's mentally ill, but because a band of slimeballs are conspiring to ruin her life; and now she's living on a kind of probation and must have a guardian assigned by the state to manage her money and such. Even though she can get by just fine on her own, in spite of her quirks.

The other main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is an investigative reporter for a major Swedish magazine, Millennium. He's recently published an expose' of a prominent businessman in which he revealed some shocking scandal and corruption within the company, and now he's been accused of slander by said businessman. He will eventually serve jail time, but meanwhile he's been hired by another prominent businessman, Henrik Vanger, to find out who murdered his beloved niece Harriet, who went missing in the 1960's. Mr. Vanger and several members of his family live on the fictional island of Hedeby, and Blomkvist moves into a little rustic cabin near the Vanger mansion. He hires Lisbeth to assist him with his investigation, and she moves into the cabin with him.

(I do want to pause here and vent a little bit about Blomkvist. He's one of the good guys, a likeable and even honorable character; kind, trustworthy, on the side of justice, and the fair treatment of all. The thing that just makes me want to shake him silly is his casual attitude about sex. He isn't married, and his lover is his longtime friend and co-worker, Erika Berger, who IS married. Erika's husband knows about her affair with Blomkvist, and get this: he doesn't care. Erika often calls him up and says, "Oh, hi, darling, I'm staying with Mikael tonight. I'll see you tomorrow." and he'll say, "That's great, sweetheart! Have fun, and tell him I said hello." Sheesh. Mikael sleeps with several other women throughout the trilogy as well, including Lisbeth. He deserves a few dope-slaps for that kind of behavior.)

Okay, so now for the food part: One night in the cabin on Hedeby, Mikael makes a dinner for himself and Lisbeth of lamb cutlets, with potatoes and cream sauce. Then fast-forward to the third book in the series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, and we find Mikael cooking lamb once again; this time for his new girlfriend, Monika--and it's lamb chops in red wine sauce.

So what did I decide to cook? Lamb chops in pomegranate-red wine sauce, and baby potatoes with cream sauce. And I nearly had another Cooking Nick's Books anxiety attack.

It was the day after New Year's, and I stood in the butcher shop eyeing the lamb chops, trying to talk myself into buying them. Or maybe I was trying to talk myself out of buying them. They were nearly as expensive per pound as the beef tenderloin I had just cooked a week before. I thought, I must be completely insane. Here it is, the day after New Year's, I've just spent the last week entertaining people. I should be spending the last evening before everyone was heading back to school just relaxing and ordering out, and I'm seriously thinking of cooking lamb chops tonight?? The last time I tried cooking lamb chops, before we had kids and before I learned to cook, they were awful. I didn't know what I was doing and I overcooked them and they tasted like crap. I finally reasoned that if I only cooked just enough for everyone to have a small portion, then at least I wouldn't have wasted all that much money and time.

I chose five good-sized chops, and found a recipe from my favorite magazine, Fine Cooking:


12 lamb rib chops*
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced shallot (about 1 large)
1/2 cup pomegranate juice (such as Pom brand)
1/4 cup full-bodied dry red wine
1/4 cup homemade or low-salt chicken broth
1-1/2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
1 Tbs. fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
1/2 Tbs. honey
2 Tbs. cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

*My butcher didn't have rib chops; they had a thicker bone-in chop instead, and I only bought five.

Liberally season the lamb chops with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat until very hot. Sear the chops in two batches, until well browned on both sides, about 2 minutes per side for medium rare, 3 minutes per side for medium. Keep the chops warm on a platter covered with foil. Pour off and discard all but about 1 or 2 Tbs. fat from the pan.

Add the shallot to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the pomegranate juice, wine, chicken broth, vinegar, thyme, and honey and cook, stirring, until the liquid is reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium low and swirl in the butter until it melts. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.**

Transfer the chops to dinner plates and serve with the sauce.

**Since my chops were thicker than rib chops, I browned them on all sides, and after making the sauce I returned them to the pan and cooked them in the liquid on low heat for about five additional minutes, maybe less.

"I don't know about these..." I kept saying. I remembered my long-ago lamb disaster and just knew these would be equally awful. When I served the chops, and Joe and the boys prepared to take their first bite, I literally had knots in my stomach. But guess what? They were delicious. I could have ordered them at a four-star restaurant, they were that good. (HAPPY DANCE!!!)


For the potatoes, I decided to look online and found a recipe on a site called The Orgasmic Chef. Of course, with a name like that I HAD to try it. (I'll have what she's having.)



10 baby (chat) potatoes
2 tbs butter
2 cloves garlic minced (you can use less if you don’t like garlic)
3/4 cup cream
2 tbs fresh parsley chopped (or 1 tbs dried parsley)
salt and pepper


1. Wash and cut potatoes in bite sized pieces
2. Boil over low heat until just done
3. In a saucepan melt butter and add the garlic and over low heat cook the garlic for 2 or 3 minutes
4. Add cream and reduce til thick enough to coat the potatoes. About 10 minutes.
5. Drain potatoes and add to cream sauce
6. Add parsley, salt and pepper

(Source: The Orgasmic Chef)

Now, I will admit, I cheated just a little bit: I still had quite a bit of gorgonzola sauce left over from Christmas dinner, so I warmed that up in the microwave, added a bit of parsley, and stirred it into the potatoes. They were delicious.

There is more wonderful-sounding food in the Millennium trilogy, and I hope to have more adventures from that series soon. Meanwhile, I think I will revisit Nicholas Sparks' At First Sight with a T-bone steak and maybe some macaroni and cheese; and I will be revealing the ending, so brace yourself!

I also wanted to tell you that I was interviewed recently for an article about blogs in our diocesan Catholic newsletter, and the writer asked me questions about Musings of a Catholic Mom, my other blog. Click here to check out the article! My only regret is not mentioning Cooking Nick's Books in the interview. Ah, well...

Have a wonderful weekend!