Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thanksgiving dinner: the blow-by-blow

This might be boring for most of you, but each of the moments captured below has its own little story to tell, so I'd like to tell all those little stories.

I noted that I'm a very slow cook, and that, had I really wanted to eat my Thanksgiving meal while it was still Thanksgiving here in Korea, I should have started prepping the previous day. But I didn't, so here we are.

When I take pictures with my phone's camera, the file name assigned to each picture includes a series of digits representing both the date and the exact time, down to the second. So a photo with the file name "20161124_191024" was taken on November 24, 2016, at 7:10:24PM. I'll be referring to those file names throughout this post—but in plain English, simply by noting the time a given photo had been taken (I doubt I'll be so anal-retentive as to list the exact second). This will give you some idea of what I was doing when, and how I prioritized the various stages of what turned out to be a pretty ambitious culinary project.

All in all, the project bore tasty fruit. Despite tasting fantastic, the turducken can't be classified as a success, but I learned a lot while making it. I'll be talking about the things I learned as well, if you're not too bored by this little scrollshow of mine (can't call it a "slideshow," given there are only photos on a scrolling "surface" made of photons).

So if you're still with me after the above intro, please enjoy the following words and images.

L'aventure commence

It was only this week that I conceived the idea of making my own Thanksgiving dinner. The boss had belatedly floated the prospect of going out for a Thanksgiving lunch, but my coworker said he'd already made plans with his girlfriend to hit a place in Itaewon for a full-on Thanksgiving dinner. He didn't want to stuff himself before that time, so he wasn't keen on a company lunch. To be honest, neither was I. I'm an introvert, and as much as I like my boss, I see our relationship as fundamentally professional, not buddy-buddy. Thanksgiving is therefore either family time or me time. With no nearby American relatives with whom to appreciate Turkey Day, I opted for me time.

This meant writing up a list and buying a ton of food—this after having just bought a ton of food for the recent gathering at my place. I may be spending over my budget, but hell—it's the end of a wild year. I visited Haddon Supermarket and High Street Market; I avoided a trip to Costco, but did a lot of shopping at my building's grocery store and at the larger grocery in the building where I work. The concept of a mini-turducken crystallized while I was shopping; I found all the meats I needed at my building's grocery, but the chicken wasn't in deli-style slices: what I purchased was, instead, a single pre-cooked breast in a figure-hugging plastic package, marinating in some sort of liquid, with a sprig of rosemary gilding one side. I've seen these breasts sold at various convenience stores and had previously passed them over as shite meat, but some intuition made me graviate toward them this time, and as it turned out, the meat was just fine.

All the shopping was strenuous enough to make me put off meal prep until Turkey Day itself; my shopping list underwent several changes during the countdown to Thanksgiving. One major disappointment was that High Street had run out of peas, which I had been counting on as a staple for a standard Hominid Family meal (we always have peas at Thanksgiving: it's those other folks—the ones we don't talk to—who do green beans). I mentally switched from peas to broccoli, which I had seen on a shelf in my building's grocery. Alas, when I went down there for one final spree, there was no broccoli to be had. There were, however, heads of red cabbage and packages of shelled chestnuts, so I grabbed those and, following an utterly random impulse, I grabbed a dragonfruit that seemed to be whispering my name.

The shopping done—and that was the extent of my prep—I worked until 6:30PM on Thursday, then got home around 7 and started cooking.

Une série de priorités

What to tackle first? I decided to peek at my chicken, work on making some gravy (much depended on having stock ready), then do a French side dish.

7:10PM: I check my slow-cooking chicken (see pic below). I had bought a five-dollar package of cut-up chicken parts; they were meaty, but I could see they were also bony, and since I wanted to make stock, I went to my apartment during my lunch hour, dumped the frozen chicken into my crock pot along with some leftover chili peppers and a mirepoix, plus some salt and pepper.

By the time I got home, we had achieved stockitude:

7:17PM: I've started making gravy by scooping out some stock, adding a tiny bit of powdered Korean bouillon and some cornstarch, then cooking until the mixture thickened nicely. The gravy was smooth and tasted quite chickeny, which is what I was looking for.


I had originally wanted gravy to put on my mashed potatoes, but I eventually decided against mashed potatoes in favor of Hasselbacks. We'll get to those in a bit.

Below: it's 7:29PM, and I'm turning my attention to my homage to France: choux rouge aux marrons, i.e., red cabbage with chestnuts. There's no shortage of chestnuts in Korea, and while the shelled nuts are more expensive than the regular ones, I'm happy to pay extra for the convenience of not having to waste time doing an imperfect job of shelling those bad boys. This dish is one that my French Maman made years and years ago; I loved it the first time I ate it, mainly because of what the cooking process does to the chestnuts. My version is a severely stripped-down travesty of what Maman made; the real recipe has loads of ingredients and requires far more loving attention to detail than I could spare. I tried to hit the main points, though: the broth in which you cook the cabbage and chestnuts ought to be savory; since I had chicken stock on hand, that's what I used. Also, the addition of some sort of fruit that goes with the cabbage/chestnut flavor profile is always welcome; when I did this last time, I used persimmons, which were amazing; this time, I was more conventional and threw in some leftover apples that I had diced and mixed up to be a pie filling. Didn't even bother to rinse off the filling: I simply glopped the apples into the pot; the sweet apple-pie filling dissolved into the larger savory mixture and added a new layer of flavor. It smelled great.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here are the main raw ingredients:

It's 7:35PM, and here's a shot of the choux and marrons in purgatory:

At 7:45PM, I take a shot of the small potatoes that will play the role of Hasselbacks this evening. I've got my skewers ready; the object of the game is to cut the potatoes almost all the way through, thus forming slots or pockets that will hold plain butter plus a drizzled mixture of butter, olive oil, garlic, and parsley.

Here we are, right before the cutting begins:

8:01PM: the cabbage is done and ready to be taken off the heat and (eventually) drained:

8:21PM: Hasselbacks are now prepped and ready for the oven. Some potatoes have been cut too deeply to stay "shut," so I'm using a muffin tin to hold everything closed. It's a gamble because, now that the potatoes are all sitting at an angle, the butter, when it melts, will run in the direction of gravity and not cover the taters evenly. I've tried to anticipate this by coating as much of the potatoes' surfaces as possible with the butter-oil mixture:

At this point, with the Hasselbacks baking, I've turned my attention, finally, to making the stuffing. When I went to High Street Market earlier in the week to buy my Western components, I had hoped the store would have American breakfast sausage in stock. It didn't, so I looked through what the store did have and saw English bangers, which I know about mainly thanks to JK Rowling's descriptions of them in the Harry Potter novels.

I'm not really sure whether High Street's bangers are authentic: in the package, they look suspiciously regular, like American hot dogs. They also seem thinner than the bangers I'd eaten at a pub in the Pacific Northwest while on my long walk in 2008 (see for yourself, and here's my own pic from 2008).

At any rate, these High Street bangers smelled and tasted very sage-y, as if they were very close cousins of American breakfast sausage. Here's a pic, at 9:04PM, of the stuffing ingredients, partially assembled:

You might be asking yourself what the hell I was doing between 8:21PM and 9:04PM. Meditating? Being lost in a sudden fugue state? Fighting crime? Well, part of that time was probably spent doing dishes. Clean as you go, as all the good chefs say. I was also (1) starting to work on steamed carrot strips and (2) assembling the ingredients for cream-corn pudding, which would turn out to be an ambitious undertaking.

Here's what I consider the most beautiful (despite being out of focus) image in this whole damn presentation: stove-top stuffing in the process of coming together. I especially love the green highlights from the celery, which provided the brightest flavor. The sage added a more subtle note, and the onion undergirded everything with its natural umami.

Stuffing under construction (9:15PM):

Stuffing ingredients, near as I can remember them:

• sausage (bangers)
• celery (leaves + minced stalks)
• dried onion (had run out of fresh)
• raisins
• apples (same source as for the choux)
• mushrooms (Korean variety pack, which included pyogo, i.e., shiitake)
• chicken broth, added gradually to moisten & prevent burning
• salt, pepper
• extra sage
• pizza-style chili flakes
• panko crumbs

I thought the stuffing turned out great. When I brought leftovers into the office on Friday, my coworker raved about both the stuffing and the Hasselback potatoes. By the time he got to the corn pudding, however, he had eaten so much that he described trying to work his way through the pudding as "a chore," which is not something that any cook wants to hear. But I understood my coworker to be paying me a backhanded compliment by admitting he had gorged himself on my victuals.

Another shot of the stuffing (9:23PM), now all panko'ed up:

I imagine that there are purists who turn their noses up at the thought of using panko as the bread component, but my response is: why knock a good thing? Panko crumbs are already dry; because they're finer than homemade or store-bought croutons, they mix better into any stuffing and create almost the same consistency. If anything, panko stuffing is smoother in texture given the fine-grained nature of panko crumbs.

All the work I've done so far is mere buildup to the main event, which is when I fry up my turduckens. Just a few more things to get out of the way—like this salad, for instance:

That was 9:33PM. I can't take credit for the salad: the veggies were store-bought, as was the balsamic dressing. All I did was flop some leaves into a bowl, drizzle on some dressing, toss the foliage, and voilà. Not much to it at all.

Next up: a closer look at cream-corn pudding in the making! I got this recipe from the humorous but weirdly sing-songy Chef John at the YouTube channel Food Wishes. Here's his video on how to make corn pudding.

And here are most of the pudding ingredients (9:56PM), ready to be blitzed :

Below, my carrot strips at 10:59PM:

I guess the one-hour jump was caused by a need to do more dishes (lots more dishes), take a break, and figure out the rest of my cooking strategy. At 11:20PM, I took the following shot of the dragonfruit, which I'd saved until much later to prep because I knew the prep would take only a few seconds.

Dragonfruit comes from Southeast Asia. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at, but disappointingly, it has almost no distinct taste at all. A while back, I'd eaten some dragonfruit candy, which misled me to believe that dragonfruit itself would be sweet and succulent. Alas, it turns out to be one of the most boring fruits on the planet, but I will say this: it seems to tilt ever so slightly away from sweetness and toward savoriness, which makes me think that, if you salted it and otherwise jazzed it up, it might actually turn into something interesting. I'll have to look up a few recipes that incorporate dragonfruit. Such research could prove... fruitful.

Da fruit, which reminds me of an enlarged human heart:

And this is what it looks like when you lop off one end (11:23PM):

And here's the final prep. The grayish/whitish flesh is easy to scrape out with a spoon, and while dragonfruit lacks any distinctive taste, it's got a nice texture. I'd be tempted to make some sort of sweet sauce or jam out of it, but I'd have to jazz it up pretty radically. If nothing else, I now know a lot more about dragonfruit. This was educational.

Fruit: prepped. It's 11:26PM. I had hoped to be eating by 10.

And now: the main event: TURDUCKENS. Below (11:40PM), you see the dredging station I've set up (the classic "dry-wet-dry" method of flour, egg, and breading), along with a whole chicken breast that will be sliced thinly and wrapped in turkey and duck. Behold:

We interrupt this turduckening to show you footage of the corn pudding, which is now out of the oven at around 11:49PM:

Below: the filling and wrapping begin (11:55PM). Barely visible as the bottom layer is a thin, circular sheet of Vietnamese "rice paper" spring-roll skin. This is the subtle element that will, like the Force, surround and bind and the turducken's various elements, keeping everything from exploding in the oil. My buddy Mike saw my pics of the duck and wondered aloud, on Twitter, what part of the duck this was; I'm pretty sure that what you're seeing is a smashed-up amalgam of duck parts, with plenty of the much-coveted duck fat:

Below: filling completed (11:59PM). Stuffing, cheese, and cranberry sauce have all been added; the object of the game is to produce a confection that's crunchy on the outside, then meaty, then stuffing-y, then molten and sweet on the inside—a rapid-fire tour through several layers of taste and texture. Alas, the roll you see wasn't a success: that's way too much filling, which I discovered to my chagrin not two minutes after having taken that photo. I re-rolled later on with half the stuffing and meat, and two-thirds of the cheese (leftover Edam, in case you're curious), and that proved to be just the right amount.

Here are the nicely rolled successes (12:21AM—after midnight now!):

The above rolls each took several minutes to make, so time ticked by as I worked. This is definitely the sort of prep that it would behoove me to do well in advance of Turkey Day, should I ever decide to try this stunt again.

Below—the horrorshow at 12:36AM. The turduckens ended up overcooked, and probably still cool in the middle because the oil was way too hot (I didn't have a thermometer), which made for a super-short cooking time. Sad. I had to finish these in the microwave to ensure that the cheese had melted. But this was a learning experience, and overcooked isn't the same as out-and-out burned, so the results weren't completely tragic. The mini-turduckens actually tasted great. As a proof of concept, I think the concept succeeded. It just needs tweaking. (And this is, by the way, why you should NEVER experiment on your friends and family members! I'm glad I did this while alone. In a social situation, this would have been a disaster. As it was, I was alone, so I could laugh at my own mistakes.)

Le repas en son entier:

And here at last, at 12:56AM on Black Friday, is a shot of the full meal. It doesn't look like much; it certainly doesn't look like something that took seven hours to prep. I'm sure I could have eaten much earlier had I prepped more on Wednesday, but it was not to be.

I placed inside the white bowl everything that was reheatable via microwave; all of the food had cooled by the time I was ready to settle down for a Black Friday meal. I wish the darker food had come out looking brighter than it does in the photo below, but until I get a better camera and better lighting, this is the best I can manage.

Et voilà (click image, then right-click on enlargement, then "open image in new tab"):

Turducken lessons learned:

1. Be modest when adding the filling. Leave at least a one-inch margin around all edges.

2. Use regular flour egg-roll skins or mandu skins next time. Panko overcooks too easily, overshooting the golden-brown state within 60 seconds. The other problem is that Vietnamese rice-paper spring-roll skins instantly become sticky and gooey when they hit the oil, which is why several turduckens ended up fusing themselves to my metal slotted spoon when I lowered them into the oil, forcing me to shake them off.

3. Buy a thermometer to monitor oil temperature. I used to have one when I lived in the States, but I gave that away, along with most of my other kitchen equipment, which I now think may have been a mistake. Since coming to Korea, I've basically had to build myself back up again, often with inferior kitchen tools and appliances. (Sturdy, American-style equipment can be found in Korea, but it's expensive. Way expensive.)

4. The basic concept is sound. Just work on execution.

And my final shot is an afterthought: the beverage. Of course, it can only be Australia's finest: Bundaberg ginger beer. A wonderful accompaniment to what was, overall, a very tasty meal. The turduckens tasted fine, but were overcooked; however, the stuffing was perfect; the choux was almost like what Maman had made; the Hasselback potatoes and the carrot strips were both delicious; the corn pudding was addictive; the salad was fresh and tasty; the cranberry sauce was just what the doctor ordered. Thumbs up, all in all.


So it was a fun, if laborious, Thanksgiving, which bled over into Black Friday. And as consumerist Americans spent Black Friday killing each other in bloody race wars over flat-screen TVs, I sat in my office and digested my meal with peace in my heart and a smile on my face while my boss and coworker chowed down on leftovers, which received raves—from my coworker, anyway: my boss tends to be stingy with praise when it comes to food, although he also shows his appreciation by actually eating a lot of my cooking.

And there we are. I do hope your Thanksgiving was good and meaningful. Thanks for accompanying me on this educational culinary journey.


Charles said...

Wait... so you spent all that time on Thanksgiving dinner and didn't actually eat it on Thanksgiving? I guess at least you could eat in honor of that great American pastime of people killing each other over Christmas shopping.

Kevin Kim said...

"Wait... so you spent all that time on Thanksgiving dinner and didn't actually eat it on Thanksgiving?"

Yes, do rub it in, why don't you.