Cranberry-Popcorn Strings: A Recipe For the Birds

“I like doing something nice for nature on Christmas.”

Ah, warmed my heart to hear my oldest daughter say that. And that she actually LIKED stringing cranberries and popcorn on Christmas morning — the kid is really into patterns these days — made me proud.

Santa's elves keeping busy

Santa’s elves keeping busy

So, while my husband was hard at work making sticky buns and readying the prime rib for our Christmas dinner the girls and I used the magic popcorn trick to make a quick batch of popcorn that we strung with cranberries left over from arranging the holiday table centerpiece. An almost magical Christmas snow had dusted the ground during the night so the thought of putting something out for the birds and squirrels really tickled the kids.

Are those reindeer prints in the snow?

Are those reindeer prints in the snow?

The squirrels were the first to find the treats, scampering up and through the forsythia bush to get to the goodies, but the jays, chickadees and tufted titmouse have all been foraging too.

This is something you could easily do with your kids on any day when winter break stretches just a little too long. I’d almost forgotten how fun it is to make these, especially for the first time. This may be the only time I’ve sanctioned the use of a needle and thread for the six-year-old, which made her feel oh-so-mature. The three-and-a-half-year-old was simply happy to have unrestricted access to a bowl of popcorn (her favorite)…but loved “feeding the wildlife” when we tromped outside in our pjs and boots.

Pjs and boots on Christmas morning...on our way to deliver treats for the wildlife in the backyard

Pjs and boots on Christmas morning…on our way to deliver treats for the wildlife in the backyard

Christmas may be over, but the birds, squirrels and chipmunks in your backyard will think it’s Christmas morning all over again if you hang out a strand or two of these festive treats. Have fun making, munching, and ultimately decorating the great outdoors!

Something for the birds on Christmas morning.

Something for the birds on Christmas morning.

Cranberry-Popcorn Strings

Big bowl of popcorn – check out our “magic popcorn trick” post and omit butter and salt
A pint or two of fresh cranberries
Needles and thread

Instructions are hardly necessary, but here’s how you do it: thread the needle, doubling over the thread and knotting it at the end into a length of about one foot — or longer if you’re daring, have a lot of cranberries and popcorn, and aren’t worried about getting knotted up while stringing. Start stringing the cranberries and popcorn in whatever pattern you wish (the six-year-old ultimately went for popcorn-cranberry-cranberry-popcorn-cranberry-cranberry once she got into the groove) until you’ve just about filled up your string. Cut the thread, knot the remaining end, and hang outside on a bush or tree and watch the wildlife gather.

Pattern power...

Pattern power…

Wildlife rating: I think the bluejays are giving this five stars. Plus the girls have been busy watching the birds and squirrels from the kitchen window, which makes this little project even more exciting: instant gratification for the time spent stringing the popcorn and cranberries. Happy holidays everyone!

Cherry-Almond Granola: In Our Home for the Holidays

It’s a noun. It’s a verb. It’s breakfast. It’s a snack. It’s granola, and it’s so easy to make that you just might forgo store-bought granola from now on.

Not to get all crunchy on you but there is more than one reason to make your own granola. First, it tastes great. Much fresher than anything you can pick up pre-made. Second, it’s much more economical. Third, you get to decide what goes into your granola, from your choice of nuts (or not), to flavorings that include your favorite dried fruits and other add ins. And anything you don’t want stays out, from preservatives to stabilizers to artificial sweeteners.

Once made, you can have it with milk, sprinkle it on yogurt, or snack on it straight from the bag.

Kids seem to love the versatility. Daughter 1, who recently turned 6,  likes hers either with milk in the morning or as a snack later in the day. Daughter 2 almost always asks for it on yogurt — and sometimes as part of a healthy banana spit.

We made a special holiday version recently, using dried cherries and almonds with a hint of orange zest. Once in the oven the six-year-old couldn’t stop asking when it would be ready. Personally, I’d like to see individual servings of these on a platter at a cookie exchange. While I love a good pfeffernusse, taking home a little breakfast treat along with the other offerings is right up my alley.

Take your breakfast to go: these would be great as part of a holiday cookie exchange

Take your breakfast to go: these would be great as part of a holiday cookie exchange

On the local front, I encourage you to look for honey made in your county or state. There is a great local apiary — Birds and Bees Farm — that is currently selling honey at the Slow Foods Central New Jersey Winter Farmer’s Markets. Good stuff. Do yourself a favor and check them out, or look for a similar distributor in your area.

Local honeys are always the best - this one from Birds & Bees Farm

Local honeys are always the best – this one from Birds & Bees Farm

And when I said this was easy to make I really meant it. One bowl, one baking sheet, 45 minutes in the oven and you’ve got granola. Because we all know you need to get on to other things, like dying yak wool with hand-pressed huckleberries. Just kidding. After all, you’re only as crunchy as you allow yourself to be. But hey — this is vegetarian and vegan, so you can feel good about that!

Get your kids in the kitchen with this one. They will be amazed at what they are able to make in under an hour…and it might make breakfasts go that much easier when they start asking for “their” special granola.

Making granola

Making granola

Ours is a loose interpretation of the Cook’s Illustrated Pecan-Orange Granola with Dried Cranberries. (You’ll need a membership to access the link.) Make them both, and then work on a combo of your own. Happy crunching!

Cherry-Almond Granola

1/3 cup pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 tablespoon grated orange zest (from one orange)
1/2 cup grapeseed or canola oil
2 cups (10 ounces) almonds
5 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 cups (10 ounces) dried cherries, roughly chopped
*Optional: 8 ounces melted semi-sweet chocolate

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the maple syrup, honey, light brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, salt, and orange zest. Whisk in the grapeseed oil, mixing until well combined.

Some of the ingredients that go into this granola

Some of the ingredients that go into this granola

In a food processor, pulse the almonds until they are roughly chopped, with distinct large and small pieces. Do not over process.

Fold the chopped almonds and the rolled oats into the ingredients in the mixing bowl until well coated.

Folding in the almonds and oats

Folding in the almonds and oats

Pour the mixture onto the parchment-paper lined baking sheet, firmly pressing down on it until it is evenly and compactly distributed in the pan.

Waiting to go in the oven

Waiting to go in the oven

Place the pan in the preheated oven for 40 to 45 minutes, rotating the pan half way through baking.

Remove the pan from the oven when the granola is a toasty golden color. Allow it to cool on the baking sheet for at least an hour.

Break the granola into chunks and mix in the dried cherries.

Granola will keep in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

*Optional: for a real holiday treat, drizzle 8 ounces of good-quality melted semi-sweet chocolate over the cooled granola on the baking sheet before breaking it into chunks and adding the cherries.

Makes approximately 9 cups of granola.

Kid rating: four stars. Daughter 2 loves hers with French vanilla yogurt. Daughter 1 liked everything but the nuts in this version. The next time we make it I may try a no-nuts version, upping the oat and dried fruit ratio to compensate for the almonds.
Parent rating: four stars. This smells like the holidays when it bakes and I love the versatility in serving it. I also love how easy it is to make. My husband thought the cherries were very “fruit forward” in this version. I like that, but think he prefers a more subtle flavor. Highly recommend the orange zest though — it brightens up the flavor and pulls everything together very nicely.

Spinach Manicotti with Homemade Pasta

I feel like I should use my best infomercial voice when I say this post is “two, two, two recipes in one.” The first recipe is for homemade pasta, which, if you’ve never tried to make it, is much easier than you undoubtedly think. The second is for the manicotti filling — rich, creamy, and, in this case, packed with spinachy goodness.

If you decide to give this a go you’ll definitely be rewarded. Fresh pasta is tender, silky and delicate, with a flavor unrivaled by dried pasta. Pair that with a savory manicotti filling highlighted by the tang of fresh ricotta and parmesan, the smoothness of fresh mozzarella, and the brightness of spinach and onions, and you’ve got a winning dish.

Manicotti, fresh out of the oven

Manicotti, fresh out of the oven

Homemade pasta is one of those things that, when you find out how easy it is to make, will have you rolling out batch after batch. How easy? Try four-ingredient easy…or even three, if you’re a purist and omit the olive oil. It also lends itself to a bit of experimentation once you get the hang of it, adding fresh pureed spinach or chopped herbs to the dough as desired. But…there is a little bit of a time investment in making your own pasta, and you’ll need some specialized equipment in the form of a pasta machine (or a lot of patience, flour for dusting, and a good rolling pin).

My pasta machine has followed me around since college and is none the worse for wear over the years. It’s also one of those things that can sit in a cabinet for months, years even, waiting for inspiration to strike. Which is what happened recently. It had, in fact, been years since I last made pasta, but Daughter 1 expressed an interest. More of a curiosity, really, when I decided to use up the last of this fall’s butternut squash to make ravioli (a post, perhaps, for another day…once we perfect the filling).

I should have realized just how much fun it is for kids to not only make dough, but to roll the dough through a hand-cranked pasta maker into progressively thinner and thinner — and longer and longer — sheets. Both our girls absolutely loved helping me, improvising by making “crackers” with the dough scraps and rolling and re-rolling any bits they could get their hands on. And no, no fingers were crushed in the process. Whew!

Rolling the pasta dough

Rolling the pasta dough

So, manicotti seemed like the perfect kid-friendly project. Once you roll out the long sheets of dough it’s easy enough to cut them into six-inch sections. Then it’s just a quick swim in boiling water before being stuffed and baked. This same pasta recipe, however, can be used for making plain old pasta, to be cut down into spaghetti or fettuccine and doused with a butter/garlic sauce or a ladle of marinara.

But back to the manicotti. I liked this filling for several reasons. Even though we included some meat in our batch it’s easy enough to leave the meat out for a vegetarian manicotti, which I think I prefer. We used extremely fresh ricotta and mozzarella from Fulper’s Dairy Farm, currently available at the Slow Foods Central New Jersey Winter Market among other places. The spinach we used was frozen, but you could use fresh chard or kale if you have it on hand. Just be sure to wilt it in a hot sauté pan first and squeeze out as much liquid as possible before adding it to the recipe.

I had a couple of champion rollers in our kitchen. Daughter 1 manned the pasta machine, and then did double duty by instructing Daughter 2 on how to fill and roll the manicotti (they are going to put me out of a job soon; good thing I’m still needed to boil water and work the oven). Daughter 2 impressed me with how carefully she spooned the marinara sauce over the finished rolls, and they both put on the finishing touches with a generous sprinkle of grated mozzarella.

Our expert roller - great job for a kid

Our expert roller – great job for a kid

We will definitely make this dish again. Now that I’ve dusted off the pasta machine I’ve got all sorts of pasta adventures in mind. But if you don’t have a pasta machine or are short on time, don’t let that stop you. A good-quality dried lasagna noodle can sub for the homemade pasta sheets — just boil the lasagna noodles longer, until they are al dente. That quick swap will definitely get this dish on the table quickly, and may just save your sanity on a packed weeknight.

Assembling the manicotti

Assembling the manicotti

One final note on the below recipe: the amounts here will make approximately 12 generously-filled manicotti, feeding 6 – 8 people. If you have fewer mouths to feed (and don’t want to make extra and freeze them, which you could easily do), I suggest making the full batch of pasta dough and only use half of it for the manicotti — it’s kind-of difficult to put in one and a half eggs, and two eggs will make this dough a little too wet. Then halve the filling amount. You’ll get 6 – 7 manicotti that way, and some dough to be rolled out and cut the next day for a big batch of fettuccine.

Here’s how we prepared our dish:

Spinach Manicotti with Homemade Pasta

Pasta Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
Generous pinch Kosher salt (about 1/8th teaspoon)
3 fresh eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil

Manicotti Filling Ingredients:
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 16-ounce bag frozen spinach, thawed and wrung in a clean kitchen towel to remove as much moisture as possible
1 garlic clove, finely minced
2 cups fresh ricotta cheese
4 cups grated fresh mozzarella cheese
2 cups grated fresh parmesan cheese
2 eggs
Approximately 1 cup cooked, crumbled and cooled Italian sausage (from 2 large links) or similar amount ground beef – optional
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to season, and additional salt for the pasta water
1 24-ounce jar marinara tomato sauce (when we don’t make our own, we’re partial to Wayne, PA-based Vesper Bros. Signature Marinara these days)

Begin by making the pasta. Mix together the flour and the salt and, on a large, clean surface (a large cutting board or marble slab works well). Mound the flour into a hill and then make a deep well in the center of it…large enough to hold the eggs. Break the eggs into the well, add the olive oil, and begin to slowly beat the eggs with a fork. Working carefully, begin to incorporate a little flour at a time into the eggs until a loose dough forms. When the dough is too stiff to use a fork any longer, begin using your hands to knead the dough, using the heel of your hand to press the ball of dough away from you and your finger tips to bring the dough back towards you.

Making the dough - eggs and olive oil in a flour "well"

Making the dough – eggs and olive oil in a flour “well”

When all ingredients are well incorporated and the dough is stiff but still pliable, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes and up to several hours. During this time the gluten strands will relax and the dough will become softer. It’s much easier to work with a dough that has rested because it won’t spring back when it’s rolled out.

The dough, before it has rested

The dough, before it has rested

While the pasta dough is resting, make the manicotti filling. Begin by sautéing the onions in 1 teaspoon olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the drained and squeezed spinach to the onions and stir well, breaking up any large clumps of spinach.  Add the garlic, stir, turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool.

In a medium mixing bowl, mix together the ricotta, 2 cups of mozzarella (save the additional 2 cups for sprinkling on top of the rolled manicotti), the parmesan, eggs, salt and pepper to taste, and any cooked and cooled meat you are using. Stir in the cooled onion/spinach mixture. Set aside until the pasta is ready.

Meanwhile, fill a large stockpot with water, salt it liberally, and bring to a boil over high heat. At the same time, preheat oven to 375 degrees and prepare a large Pyrex baking dish (4.8 quart, if you have it, or two 2-quart baking dishes…or whatever baking sheets you have) by ladling in several large spoonfuls of the marinara sauce, enough to coat the bottom of the baking dish(s).

Getting back to the pasta dough, remove it from the refrigerator after it has rested. Working with one-quarter of the dough at a time, run it through the roller of your pasta machine on progressively more narrow settings, going through the press twice on each setting. You do not need to go to the narrowest setting (which is “7” on my machine, but “9” on newer Atlas pasta machines) — this is a little too thin for the manicotti.

After the last time through the roller you’ll have a very long strip of dough that is 6-inches wide and many, many inches long. Lay it out on a flour-dusted surface (don’t allow dough to double over on itself or for the raw pasta sheets to touch one another…they will stick like crazy). Trim the uneven ends and, using a ruler, cut approximate 6-inch sections to make 6-inch by 6-inch pasta squares. Keep pasta squares separated from one another but covered with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Repeat these steps for the remaining dough quarters. You’ll get approximately 12 – 14 pasta squares in total.

When all your pasta sheets are cut, cook them by briefly sliding them, two to three at a time, into the stockpot of boiling salted water. They only need to cook for a minute or two. When they rise to the surface remove them with a slotted spoon and place on a clean plate or baking sheet.

Fill each manicotti by spooning a generous amount (between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup) of the filling along one side of each pasta square and rolling it up to enclose the filling. Place it, seam side down, into the marinara sauce in the bottom of your baking dish. Continue to fill manicotti and line them up in the baking dish…or dishes, depending on what you have on hand.

Rolling the manicotti filling in the pasta sheets

Rolling the manicotti filling in the pasta sheets

When all the manicotti have been filled, spoon the remaining marinara sauce over the top and then sprinkle with the remaining grated mozzarella cheese. If you want, drizzle a little olive oil over any exposed pasta at the ends of the manicotti (where the sauce doesn’t coat the noodles).

Waiting to go into the oven

Waiting to go into the oven

Place the baking dish onto a baking sheet (helps protect your oven if the sauce bubbles over) and bake for 45 minutes to one hour at 375 degrees. Dish is ready when the sauce is bubbling, the mozzarella cheese is melted, and the manicotti at the center of the baking sheet are hot. During the last minute or two of baking you may want to broil the top to slightly brown the mozzarella. Be careful not to burn the cheese.

Remove from the oven, allow to cool for about 10 minutes (or the manicotti filling will be quite loose), and serve.

Serves: 6 – 8

That first bite can be hot

That first bite can be hot

Kid rating: four stars. Daughter 1 prefers this dish without meat. She’ll eat two helpings. She doesn’t rate the meat version quite as highly though. Daughter 2, who normally professes not to like spinach, cleaned her plate.
Parent rating: four stars. This is like an easy lasagna, and we have in fact used the filling for lasagna before. Rolling it in delicate pasta sheets somehow makes this dish even better. Great winter meal. Warm and warming, and everyone can lend a hand getting it ready.

Enjoying the manicotti

Enjoying the manicotti

Very Berry Smoothies

Whenever I get concerned about our kids’ eating habits (is eschewing spinach at age three a habit, or right of passage?) I think about the advice a friend of mine got from her pediatrician. “They won’t eat any vegetables” my friend confessed about her children, thinking she was about to get a lecture on nutritional deficiencies and how all good parents find a way to coax and coddle their offspring into loving leafy greens. “Yes, but do they eat fruit?” her pediatrician asked. “Can’t get enough” she truthfully shared. “Then you’re fine” he told her. “It’s all good.”

All I can say is, whew.

And while veggies are, undoubtedly, something we should all make a habit of eating, it’s reassuring to know that fresh fruits do our bodies good as well. Our girls will eat just about any fruit we have in the house. During a recent shopping trip Daughter 1 talked me into buying a pomelo just because it was a fruit she hadn’t yet tried. But even they grow tired of one-too-many clementines or sliced apples packed in their lunch. To keep things fresh (pun intended), we make smoothies. As we get into the colder months it’s really hard to find fresh seasonal fruit in the Northeast. All I can say is, thank goodness for the freezer…or the freezer aisle in the grocery store. It may not be seasonal now, or here, but flash-frozen produce retains the benefits of fresh and can be a welcome reminder of the warmer months that have just recently passed us by.

Banana, frozen sliced peaches and frozen strawberries

Banana, frozen sliced peaches and frozen strawberries

Chances are good that 1)if you’re a parent and 2)you’ve ever struggled to get something nutritious into your child, that 3) you’ve made them a smoothie too. It’s a tried and true equation: A+B=C. Pulling out the blender can be a seminal light-bulb moment for many moms and dads whose tots have progressed past watery rice cereal. At least it was for us, with the added benefit of being FAST which, I don’t need to tell you, is important when you have a child for whom every decision of the morning is something to draw out and savor. And debate.

These days, the conversation in our house goes something like this:

Mom: “Guys, we only have half-an-hour until we have to be out the door. With teeth brushed and shoes on. Soooo….who wants a smoothie?”
Daughter 2: “Shoes on????”
Daughter 1: “Me! I want a smoothie!”
Daughter 2: “Don’t you mean boots?”
Daughter 1: “I want a smoothie!”
Daughter 2: “My boots don’t fit anymore.”
Daughter 1: “Can I help make the smoothie?”
Daughter 2: “My boots…hey, I want to help make the smoothie!”
Mom: “You can both help make the smoothie. Just promise me you’ll drink it quickly.”
Daughter 2: “Yes, quickly. Then, can I put on ballet shoes? Because my boots don’t fit anymore.”

Someone's idea of a joke...the whole banana, plus peel, in the blender

Someone’s idea of a joke…the whole banana, plus peel, in the blender

Part of the fun in helping make the smoothies is dumping ingredients into the blender. The other part is the blender itself. When I run it, both girls tell me it’s too loud. When they run it (with supervision!), it’s a magical kitchen appliance, turning whole fruit into a delicious purée in seconds. (“Is it ready yet?”) We have a VitaMix and I love its speed and power, though the price tag was daunting. If you make smoothies often, invest in a blender that can tackle frozen fruit and ice cubes. There is nothing quite as disappointing as making a smoothie and it not being smooth enough sip through a straw!

Fruit, yogurt and juice = quick & healthy breakfast or snack

Fruit, yogurt and juice = quick & healthy breakfast or snack

Another tip: you can always sneak some veggies into your smoothie if you’re stealthy enough. Try a little bit of baby spinach, which seems to work especially well in berry smoothies. Somehow, though, our girls ferret out the veggies. I have another friend who makes green smoothies every morning for herself and her boys and even puts parsley in them, which her kids love. I’m not sure our girls would go for that, but they are pretty open to new combinations.

Hopefully we’ve inspired you to break out the blender and try something new. If you’re curious about the smoothie that has my kids lining up, here’s how we most often make ours.

Brilliant color to this delicious smoothie

Brilliant color makes this delicious smoothie even more attractive

Very Berry Smoothies

1 ripe banana, peeled
Approximately 3/4 cup frozen sliced peaches
Approximately 1/2 cup frozen whole strawberries
Handful (about 1/4 cup) of frozen wild blueberries
3/4 cup no-sugar-added 100% orange juice
3/4 cup no-sugar-added 100% cranberry juice (or cranberry/blueberry/raspberry juice, or pomegranate juice…I personally prefer a no-sugar-added, 100% juice variety)
1/2 cup low-fat French vanilla yogurt

Place all ingredients in the blender, adding yogurt and juices last. Start to blend on a low speed, and progressively work up to the highest speed. (This will keep your smoothing from doing that thing where the bottom gets blended and the top doesn’t so it just sucks in a bunch of air, and you have to stop the blender and allow it to “burp” before continuing.)

The smoothie is ready when it’s pureed to a smooth consistency.

My least favorite task — cleaning the blender — is pretty easily handled by partially filling the now-empty container with hot water and dish soap and turning on the blender at a low to medium speed. Turn it off, give the canister a quick wash and rinse and you’re good to go. But you probably already know this trick.

Serves: 2

Parent rating: four stars. I love a quick breakfast. So much so that we don’t necessarily wait for breakfast time to make this smoothie…instead making it as a nutritious and easy snack.
Kid rating: five stars. Our girls consistently finish these, serving after serving. No added sugar or sweetener necessary since the sweetened yogurt and natural fruit sugars do the trick. If you can sneak in a little spinach or other greens you get bonus points!

Homemade Chicken or Turkey Stock

Admittedly, this isn’t the sexiest of posts. There’s no chocolate-glazing or honey-drizzling or hickory-smoking of anything. But this is something that we make at least once if not twice a month. I think of it in two ways: a bridge between one meal and another, and an invaluable building block in many of our recipes.

I often feel somewhat sanctimonious when I make homemade stock because 1) it’s easy, 2) it tastes so much better than anything out of a can or box, and 3) it’s a frugal way to use up and extend ingredients that are on hand. It takes a little bit of time, sure, but almost all of that time is completely hands-off, and the reward is great.

This is also a wonderful blueprint recipe to have going into the holiday season…or just the winter season, really. It’s a rich base for other soups (like this chicken and rice one), gumbosrisottos, stuffing, scalloped potatoes, pot pies…you name it.

There is something almost magical about taking the bare bones — the things most often thrown away — of a chicken or turkey, adding a couple of vegetables and several cups of water, and ending up with what some cooks call liquid gold. Like spinning gold from hay, really.

Some of the essentials: Onion, carrot, celery, parsley, thyme

Some of the essentials: Onion, carrot, celery, parsley, thyme

Our most recent batch of homemade stock used the bones from our Thanksgiving turkey, but more frequently we make it with a chicken carcass after baking a chicken or two — even after enjoying a grilled chicken. You’ll also need carrots, celery, and either onions or leeks — those are the other must-haves. I always throw in a handful of black peppercorns and a couple of bay leaves as well. If you have parsley or thyme on hand (as we did after Thanksgiving), put those in too.

We make this so often that I keep a plastic zip-lock bag in the freezer, to which I add random vegetable trimmings or extras that are still usable as I cook throughout the month. Things like scallion or leek greens, celery tops, onion quarters, mushroom bottoms, broccoli stems, chard stems, etc. I pull the bag out and dump it into the stock pot when we make a batch, and it helps round out the flavor.

I keep this in my freezer and add to it when I have useable veggie peelings

I keep this in my freezer and add to it when I have useable veggie peelings

Speaking of freezing, that trick works just as well for the chicken carcasses too. After we finish carving a baked or grilled chicken, I immediately plunk the carcass into a zip lock, label it with the date, and put it in the freezer. That way, if I’m not ready to immediately make stock, I can pull a couple of carcasses out of the freezer at a later date and make stock then.

I said earlier that this is both a bridge and a building block. For us, it’s getting us from Thanksgiving dinner to a nice cream of turkey soup, where it will be a great base along with other ingredients. The recipe for this stock, however, is a pretty flexible one — the ingredients, and even the amount of time it takes to cook, can vary batch by batch. I’m going to tell you how we made our stock, but you should tinker and figure out whether you like more or less of certain flavors. I’m a big celery fan, so I add at least three ribs — often more. I also like a lot of vegetable flavor in our stocks so my ratio of veggies to chicken is a little higher than other recipes. If you prefer a stronger chicken flavor, use multiple chicken carcasses or even a whole, uncooked bird and include things like the wings as well.

Fresh veggies and chicken combine to make a rich stock

Fresh veggies and chicken combine to make a rich stock

There are a couple more tricks to making a good stock:

  • Unless you’re a big salt fan, hold back on the salt until you’ve strained the stock, and even then it might not be necessary. You can always add salt to taste in the final dish you’re making with the stock. You can’t take salt away once it’s there.
  • Likewise, you probably don’t want to use a brined bird to make stock (although, full confession, I sometimes do). Brined turkeys and chickens have soaked in a salt/sugar mixture and can be quite salty. If you do use a brined bird as the base for a stock, be aware and adjust accordingly.
  • When simmering your stock, do so over a low flame. It should never come to a full rolling boil for any length of time or it will become cloudy. Again, full confession, half the time my stocks turn out cloudy and they taste just fine. This is more of an aesthetic thing.
  • Taste, taste, taste. I’ve made batches of stock that come together with a rich flavor in two hours. Likewise, I’ve made other batches that were somewhat watery until they had cooked down for three or four hours. Your stock will be ready when it has a full-flavored taste…not when a timer says it’s ready. A good portion of the water needs to evaporate in order to have a condensed, rich flavor.
  • If using stronger herbs like sage or marjoram, keep your final dishes in mind. Some herbs can make a lovely stock, but have flavor profiles that just don’t work with certain things.
  • Stock is NOT the place to use produce that is just about to spoil or which has been previously cooked (unless you’re talking about veggies you’ve roasted specifically for the stock, which can be terrific). Tempting though it may be, the best stock uses fresh veggies along with the chicken or turkey carcass.
  • Always be wary of kitchen hygiene and food safety. Chicken — even baked — can spoil quickly if not handled correctly. Don’t use a carcass that has been sitting for a prolonged period of time. And once your stock has finished simmering, the best practice is to stain it, cool it quickly in an ice bath, and store it in the refrigerator. It should be used within a couple of days, or frozen for up to three months.

If you’ve never made your own homemade stock I hope this post inspires you to try it. And yes, I do have boxes of packaged chicken stock on hand in the pantry, but always prefer to use a homemade stock when I can. It really tastes that much better…plus I know everything that went into it, which is important. After all, when you’re fighting your way through a winter cold and nothing but a big bowl of chicken noodle soup will do, wouldn’t you feel better knowing that fresh ingredients, and not chemicals or stabilizers, are nursing you back to health? I thought so.

To your health!

Homemade Chicken or Turkey Stock

1 turkey carcass or 2 – 3 chicken carcasses (it’s OK, and even preferable, to have a little bit of meat left on the bones)
4 – 6 ribs of celery, roughly broken into 3 – 4 inch pieces
3 – 5 unpeeled carrots
1 onion, unpeeled but cut in half through the core or 1 – 2 washed leeks, split down the center (I prefer the flavor of leeks, but onions are often easier and on-hand)
A handful or two of any available vegetable trimmings, like broccoli stems, mushroom stems, chard stems, etc.
2 tablespoons back peppercorns
3 bay leaves
Very generous handful (or two!) of fresh parsley sprigs
1 – 2 large sprigs of fresh thyme
12 cups cold water (or enough water to cover carcass and other ingredients once in the pot)

In a large stockpot, combine all ingredients and water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and immediately reduce heat to a low simmer. Simmer stock for several hours, tasting every 30 minutes or so after the first hour. Stock will likely simmer for 3 – 4 hours before it is done.

Just waiting for water

Just waiting for water

When the stock tastes rich and full of flavor, take it off the heat and allow it to cool slightly.

Position a fine mesh strainer over a second large pot or large measuring cup. Line the strainer with cheesecloth or several layers of clean paper towel, or even a coffee filter. Begin to carefully ladle stock through strainer, allowing it to strain into the container beneath. Change the cheesecloth or paper towels if they become clogged with veggie debris and fat.

Straining the stock

Straining the stock

Once all stock has been strained, fill your largest mixing bowl (or the kitchen sink) with ice and place the container with the strained stock on the ice to quickly cool it (it’s probably obvious, but don’t put ice in the stock…that will water it down). At this point, you can put your finished stock into a lidded container and refrigerate. If you will not be using the stock within a couple of days, freeze the stock for up to 3 months.

You should note that you may get a layer of fat on top of your stock, which will solidify once refrigerated. You should be able to lift it off the top if you wish, though this is sometimes tricky. Also, it is pretty common for long-simmered poultry stocks to gel up once refrigerated — you’ll think you have a giant block of jello. This is because of the collagen in the connective tissue and skin of the poultry. Once heated, the stock will liquefy. Don’t freak out. It’s actually a pretty cool trick and means that the stock is densely packed with good flavor.

Makes: 8 – 10 cups of broth

Parent AND Kid Rating: Five stars. It’s hard NOT to give this five stars, though really, the stars are reserved for the final dish. This is the pre-star starter, and the reason Daughter 1 and Daughter 2 enjoy their risotto and chicken soup as much as they do!

Individual Turkey Pot Pies

“I ate a lot of pot pies growing up, and these are the best I’ve ever had.”

High praise for this humble dish, especially coming from a pot pie expert like my husband. I was just looking for a quick way to use up some of our Thanksgiving leftovers but ended up making something we’ll undoubtedly have again…either with turkey, as these were, or chicken, or even beef or seafood.

These were also a great way to get our daughters involved with dinner. Making the pastry took me back to standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. My grandmother, the renown pie maker, who instructed me to quickly cut the butter or shortening into the flour with my fingers until it felt “silky” and just barely formed into a crumbly ball when I took a fist-full and tightly squeezed it together. After making as many pies as she had her method relied completely on feel. I’m not half the pie-maker she was, but I can make a mean pie crust thanks to her. It’s something I hope I can pass on to our daughters. And there is no better time to start than the present.

All hands on deck

All hands on deck

Rolling out the dough

Rolling out the dough

Speaking of the present, it’s high time to finish off the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers. Maybe we’ll be making another batch of pot pies tonight!

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t again call attention to Cook’s Illustrated and encourage everyone to subscribe to their website. It was their Simple Chicken Pot Pie recipe I turned to in order get me started, though the below is a pretty loose interpretation based on what we wanted in our pies, and my desire to make these into individual pot pies.

Golden crust, hot out of the oven

Golden crust, hot out of the oven

If you make these, let me know what works for you, and whether this gets your kids eating their veggies too! Ours most definitely did!

Individual Turkey Pot Pies

Ingredients for pastry:
1 cup all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 tablespoon pieces
1 – 2 tablespoons ice water

Ingredients for filling:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon grapeseed or vegetable oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 medium carrots, chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
5 – 6 small new potatoes, cut into 1 inch dice
1 1/2 cups shredded cooked turkey (or use chicken or another leftover meat such as cubed steak or even shrimp)
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 additional tablespoons of unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
A splash (1 – 2 tablespoons) sherry
3/4 cup low-fat (2%) milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 – 1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 additional teaspoon butter for greasing ramekins

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a deep mixing bowl cut the 6 tablespoons butter into the flour until just combined into small, pea-sized clumps. At this point the dough should be very crumbly but hold together loosely if squeezed. Don’t overwork it. When you’ve reached this point, add the ice water one teaspoon at a time until the dough comes together. Knead briefly, pull together into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 – 30 minutes to allow dough to come together uniformly.

While dough is chilling melt butter and oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. When shimmering, add the onion, carrots and celery and sauté until the vegetables are softened – approximately 5 – 8 minutes. Add the potatoes and continue to sauté for another 5 minutes or so, until the potatoes begin to soften.

The filling, in progress

The filling, in progress

Mix in the shredded turkey (or whatever cooked meat you are using) and the peas, and then remove the mixture from the skillet into a clean medium mixing bowl. Set aside.

Wipe the skillet clean and place back on medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan. When melted, add the flour and stir well, allowing the roux to toast to a light golden brown. Add the sherry, stir well, and then whisk in the milk, half-and-half, and 1/2 cup chicken stock. Bring sauce to a simmer while whisking constantly. As the sauce comes to temperature it will thicken. If the sauce is too thick, add the additional 1/2 cup chicken stock.

When the sauce is thick and hot, add the reserved veggie/chicken mixture, the thyme, and parsley. Stir well. Remove from heat.

Prepare four individual ramekins by greasing with the remaining 1 teaspoon butter.

Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out to between 1/8″ and 1/4″ thickness on a well-floured surface. Cut four circles using the ramekins as a guide. Discard unused dough or save for another use (you may be able to squeeze one more pot pie out of this recipe if you have an extra ramekin!).

Assembling our pies

Assembling our pies

Fill ramekins with veggie/chicken mixture and top with a dough round, tucking the corners of the dough around the filling. Cut a small slit in the center of each dough round once they are in place to allow steam to vent.

Cutting vents

Cutting vents

Bake pies on baking sheet for 20 – 25 minutes, until crust is golden and filling is bubbling. When almost finished, turn broiler to high and broil for last 30 seconds to 1 minute of baking to lightly brown.

Remove from oven, allow to cool slightly so they can be handled safely by the kids, and serve.

Serves: 4

Parent rating: five stars. That just about says it all. These are SOOOO good. You NEED to make them. NOW.
Kid rating: four-and-a-half stars. Maybe it was the “individual” servings and the opportunity to plunge a spoon into the pastry top of each little pot pie, but these went over big with Daughter 1 in particular. Daughter 2 poked around under her crust a bit more, but both girls really enjoyed these. Use the veggies you know your kids will eat. Mushrooms or pearl onions or even string beans would be great, too.