Gretchen McKay

A few ideas for those Thanksgiving leftovers

Thanksgiving dinner takes so much time, energy and planning to prepare, and then everyone’s done eating in what feels like five minutes. It’s enough to drive a conscientious cook crazy.

Thank goodness, then, for the meal’s many leftovers, which give those of us who prepare the holiday feast a second (and maybe even a third) chance to show off our culinary mettle — hopefully at a much more relaxed pace, without the insanity of a typical Thanksgiving meal prep, where so many things have to come out of the oven at exactly the right time.

We’re not talking about the boring turkey sandwiches. Ditto on simply reheating the spuds, corn or rolls, which is equally uninspired.

To really keep the celebration going, why not get your creative juices flowing with recipes that reinvent what you just had for dinner instead of simply duplicating it? That way, your leftovers won’t feel like, you know, leftovers but rather like something special.

Blended with oil and vinegar and a little Dijon mustard, surplus cranberry sauce is easily transformed into a tangy-sweet salad dressing. Mashed potatoes mixed with cheddar and chives are reborn as savory, pop-in-your-mouth mini muffins. With a little garlic and chili, rolls destined to chopped into bread crumbs become tender sponges for a spicy egg drop soup. Chilies also can breath new life into leftover bowls of corn, folded into an eggy batter to be fried up into griddle cakes.

As for the main event turkey? This year, why not forgo the traditional leftover turkey casseroles, pot pies, turkey a la kings and turkey-frame soup in favor of a slow cooker chowder made with wild rice, wine and mushrooms?

Enjoy, it’s less than a month until you have to do it all again for Christmas.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

 

Leftover Cranberry Sauce Dressing

PG tested

Cranberry sauce doesn’t only have to be paired with turkey — It also can brighten up a salad, as this tangy vinaigrette demonstrates. 

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup canola oil

1/4 cup whole-berry cranberry sauce

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Process ingredients in blender until smooth. Serve over tossed or chopped greens.

Makes about 1 cup dressing.

— Southern Living

Leftover Bread Egg Drop Soup with Garlic and Chili 

Leftover Bread Egg Drop Soup/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

A warming soup for cool fall nights. 

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons garlic paste

2 Thai chilies, sliced

12 bite-sized pieces stale, crusty bread

6 cups chicken broth

4 large eggs, whisked

1 teaspoon oregano

2 tablespoons shredded Gruyere cheese

In large stockpot over medium-low heat, warm oil. Add garlic paste and chilies. Stir occasionally for about 8 to 10 minutes until garlic is fragrant but not browned.

Add bread and stir evenly to coat. Pour in chicken stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat and stir in eggs. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Serve garnished with oregano and cheese.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

— Chile Pepper magazine

Cheesy Leftover Mashed Potato Muffins

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Spin your leftover spuds into something spectacular with this easy recipe. If you like, add diced turkey or ham. Be sure to grease the muffin tin really well so that the potatoes don’t stick to the pan. The end result is like potato chips — impossible to eat just one.

3 cups leftover mashed potatoes

1 large egg

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, divided

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a non-stick mini-muffin pan with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, stir together the mashed potatoes, egg, ¾ cup cheddar cheese and 2 tablespoons chopped chives. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Using an ice cream scoop, divide the potato mixture evenly into the prepared muffin pan, packing the potatoes down into each cup.

Bake muffins for 30 to 35 minutes until golden brown and crisp around the edges. Remove the pan from the oven, top the muffins with the remaining ¼ cup cheddar cheese and return them to the oven for 3 more minutes. Remove muffins from the oven and allow them to cool in the pan for 5 minutes.

Transfer muffins to a serving dish, top them with the remaining 1 tablespoon of chopped chives and serve immediately.

Makes 24 mini muffins.

— Justataste.com

Leftover Corn and Jalapeno Griddle Cakes

Corn and Jalapeno Griddle Cakes/Gretchen McKay

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These griddle cakes can be stored in a zip top bag in the fridge for up to 2 days, or the freezer for up to 1 month. Simply heat them in a toaster when ready to eat.

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1¼ cups whole or 2% milk

1 tablespoon butter, melted, plus more for greasing the pan

1 egg

1½ cups cooked corn kernels

1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped fine

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar and salt. In a small bowl or measuring cup, use a fork to lightly beat the milk, melted butter and egg. Pour the milk mixture over the flour mixture. Add the corn and jalapeno. Use a fork to stir until just mixed and there are no visible traces of flour.

Heat a 10-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Sprinkle a few drops of water into the skillet — if they “dance” across it, the skillet is ready. Add a pat of butter and swirl to coat. Drop scant ¼ cupfuls of batter into the skillet, leaving 1 to 2 inches between each cake. Cook until set around the edges and air bubbles form on top, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook 1 to 2 more minutes. Serve hot.

— Food Network 

Leftover Turkey and Wild Rice Chowder 

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Hearty and flavorful, not to mention easy to throw together, this chowder is perfect for those lazy nights when all you want to do after work is curl up on the couch with a hot bowl of soup. Don’t forget the crusty bread for sopping. 

Several tablespoons of turkey pan drippings or olive oil

3 medium celery stalks, diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

8 ounces mushrooms, stems included, chopped

1 large Spanish onion, diced

1 cup dry white wine

1 ounce (1/4 cup) dried porcini mushrooms

2 cups wild rice

1 cup white basmati rice

5 cups turkey or chicken stock

Bouquet garni of 3 fresh sage leaves, 6 parsley sprigs, 1 bay leaf and 1 small rosemary sprig, tied together

2 cups diced cooked turkey

Preheat slow cooker to low.

Place a large saute pan over medium heat. Lightly coat the bottom of the pan with turkey drippings/olive oil. Saute celery, carrots, mushrooms and onion in batches until lightly browned. Transfer vegetables to a slow cooker.

Add wine to pan and simmer for several minutes. Transfer wine to slow cooker. Add porcini mushrooms, wild rice, basmati rice, stock and bouquet garni to slow cooker. Stir to combine. Cover and cook on low for 5 hours until wild rice has split open and softened.

Remove 2 cups soup with rice in it. Puree until creamy. Add pureed mixture back to slow cooker and stir to combine. Add turkey, cover and cook for 30 minutes more.

Remove bouquet garni. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with parsley and sage.

Serves 8.

— “Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes” by Laura Frankel (Surrey Books)

 

Stunning, reliable cranberries are steeped in Thanksgiving’s heritage

Fresh cranberries at Pine Barrens Native Fruits in New Jersey/Gretchen McKay

BROWNS MILLS, N.J. — Love ’em or hate ’em, cranberries have long been part of America’s culinary history.

Even before Gen. Ulysses S. Grant gave orders in 1864 for the tart ruby berries to be given to Union soldiers as part of their holiday meal, cranberries were common on the table. Native Americans ate them and the wild perennials also were part of New Englanders’ diet in the mid-1700s, cooked with maple syrup or honey into sauces, preserves and tarts.

Yet it wasn’t until the 1930s, when the Massachusetts Ocean Spray cooperative started selling whole and jellied cranberry sauce, that the berry was really woven into America’s Thanksgiving fabric. It’s a rare holiday celebration that doesn’t include a log of canned sauce or some spiffed up homemade variety; its tart-sweet zing adds a welcome punch of flavor, color and texture to tender slices of turkey.

One of just a handful of native American fruits to be commercially grown, cranberries are most associated with New England, thanks to those kooky “straight from the bog” TV commercials starring faux fruit growers Justin and Henry. Yet Wisconsin actually is the country’s leading grower of the little red berries (it produced some 5.3 million barrels of fruit in 2014, or 530 million pounds).  New Jersey also has a thriving cranberry industry, with more than 3,000 acres of cranberry bogs producing 626,000 barrels.

Cranberries thrive in sandy, acidic soil and Jersey’s Pine Barrens  region — where the ground fruit has been cultivated since the mid-1800s — is rich in both.

Many of the state’s 20-plus farms are descendants of the original growers. Joseph J. White, a fifth-generation cranberry farm at Whitesbog, Pemberton Township, has been growing cranberries for more than 150 years. Second-largest in New Jersey, it has 76 bogs of different sizes and varieties covering 350 acres in production. During the fall harvest, growers Brenda Conner and Joe Darlington, who market the fruit under the Pine Barrens Native Fruits label,  give bus tours ($35; pbnf.co) to the sandy roads and narrow dams surrounding the bogs. It’s fascinating.

Workers start “corralling” the fruit in early October — 500 pounds every 2½ minutes — and are generally finished well before Thanksgiving. Just a tiny portion of the seasonal haul makes it to the market fresh; most berries are shipped north to Ocean Spray (whose cooperative now includes 700 grower families) to be canned, bottled or dried.

After flooding the cranberry bog with water, workers at Pine Barrens Native Fruits in Browns Mills, N.J., wade through the thigh-high water and round up the fruit with large wooden brooms. Once the bobbing berries are gathered, they’re transferred via a pump into trucks/Gretchen McKay
Because they’re fragile, fresh berries have to be dry harvested — that is, picked while the vines are completely dry with a lawnmower-like mechanical harvester. What you get to see at the White’s farm from the bus is the more interesting wet harvest, which involves flooding the bogs with water so the cranberries float to the surface.

For generations, cranberries were picked by hand or scooped into baskets in a tedious process. Harvesting machines made things faster but left plenty of wasted fruit on the ground. When growers discovered that cranberries, because of their inner air pockets, float quite easily, things got interesting. In the 1960s growers started flooding the fields after harvest to pick up the leftover “floaters.”

Soon, though, they realized the entire process could be made much easier by flooding the field at harvest time, beating the submerged vines, and letting the berries float to the surface, where they could be skimmed away. The man-made cranberry bog was born, and cranberries were gathered by workers with wooden brooms and then sucked onto trucks by a conveyor belt.

Seeing all the fruit crushed by the rolling harvesters, Ms. Conner told her husband, Joe, that she could increase yield by 20 percent if he would just build her a floating harvester:  a one-man barge equipped with spinning beater arms that could be towed back and forth across the water, whacking away at what lies beneath without causing so much damage. He did, and today the farm’s bogs average 280 to 300 100-pound barrels per acre each season. Whether they make it north to Ocean Spray depends on how well they bounce — the sprightlier the specimen, the tastier the berry. Substandard ones go into the compost pile.

Piloting the floating harvester, which is guided by GPS, Ms. Conner says, “is like playing Nintendo.”  But it’s far from a game.  To be a cranberry farmer is to always be on call with Mother Nature. The vines must be properly irrigated to protect them from frost 24/7; when the temperature dips below about 23 degrees, growers have to “run frost,” or run their irrigation pumps to warm up the bogs, or freeze the water they put out to create a protective ice layer around the plant tissue.

Ms. Conner notes they also have to keep a close eye on bugs that, in some cases, are nocturnal. “So  we not only go out and sweep the bogs during the day, but also between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.”

The tour concludes with a cooking demonstration and cranberry tasting. Guests get a packet of family recipes. A versatile fruit, cranberries are good for everything from appetizers, bread and salads to sauces and desserts.

Even if you think you don’t like cranberries you probably should: Because of their disease-fighting antioxidants, they’re considered a super fruit along the lines of blueberries (which the White farm also grows); sailors in the 19th century ate them to ward off scurvy. They’re also high in vitamin C, fiber-rich and a low-cal treat at only 45 calories per cup — although any caloric benefit is easily negated by all the sugar many recipes require to make them more palatable. You also can eat them out of hand, like Ms. Conner, if you have a toothpick and a bowl of caramel.

Fresh cranberries will last for two months in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed plastic bag, and they freeze well for up to a year. So now’s the time to stock up so that you can experiment throughout the winter.

If you go …
Where: J.J. White, which sells under the label Pine Barrens Native Fruits, is located at 1 Pasadena Road, Browns Mills, N.J. It’s about an hour from downtown Philadelphia on New Jersey Route 70E. (Look for mile marker 32.5 on Route 70, then turn right onto a dirt road. Parking lot is a short distance on the left.).
When: Bus tours of the cranberry bogs are expected to start the first weekend in October 2016 and run for about five weeks.
Tickets: Individual tickets cost $35 and are available Fridays and Saturdays. (Weekdays are reserved for group tours.) Tours begin at 9 a.m., rain or shine, and are three hours long.
More info: 1-888-272-6264 or tours@pbnf.com.

Orange-Cranberry Sauce

Orange-Cranberry Sauce/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

This easy whole-berry sauce is sweetened with orange juice. Save the leftovers to mix with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard for a salad dressing.

4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

1 cup sugar

4 strips orange zest, plus ½ cup fresh orange juice

Coarse salt

Rinse cranberries under cool water, then sort and discard any damaged or bruised cranberries.

Place sugar, orange zest and juice and ½ cup water in medium saucepan; season with a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high and stir to dissolve sugar. Add berries.

Reduce to a simmer and cook until thickened, 20 to 25 minutes; berries will pop. Remove from heat and let sauce cool completely at room temperature; it will thicken as it cools. Transfer to a bowl to chill in the refrigerator.

Makes 2 cups sauce.

— Gretchen McKay

Cranberry-Brie Bites/Gretchen McKay

 

Cranberry Brie Tarts

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An easy make-ahead appetizer or snack that is pretty enough for entertaining.

¾ cup cranberry sauce or jam, canned or homemade

1 teaspoon lemon juice

½ teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel

24 wonton wrappers

8-ounce brie round, cut into cubes

 

Place cranberry sauce in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat until hot, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in lemon juice and lemon peel.

Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 24-cup mini-muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray. Center a wonton wrapper over each muffin form, push down with fingers to make a little bowl, with the corners sticking up, and bake for 10 minutes. Place 1 cube of brie in each wonton bowl.

Bake for 5 minutes, or just until cheese melts and wonton tips are beginning to turn brown. Remove from oven; top each cup with 1 teaspoon of cranberry mixture. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 24 appetizers.

— Adapted from Pine Barrens Native Fruits

Candied Cranberries

Candied Cranberries/Gretchen McKay

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These are great for garnishing cakes, pies and other holiday treats or simply popping in your mouth when you need a sugary, lip-puckering snack.

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups water

2 cups fresh cranberries

¾ cup superfine sugar

Combine granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring mixture until sugar dissolves. Bring to a simmer; remove from heat. Stir in cranberries; pour mixture into a bowl. Cover and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to overnight.

Drain cranberries in a colander then place on rack and allow to dry at least 45 minutes (this allows them to get sticky). Place sugar in a shallow dish. Add the cranberries, rolling to coat with sugar. Spread sugared cranberries in a single layer on a baking sheet; let stand at room temperature until dry.

Store in an airtight container in a cool place for up to a week.

— Gretchen McKay

New England Cranberry Duff

New England Cranberry Duff/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

This New England spin on the traditional upside-down cake is about as easy as it gets when it comes to dessert or, in my case, breakfast.

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

1½ cups fresh or frozen cranberries

⅓ cup pecans, toasted, coarsely chopped

⅓ cup plus ½ cup sugar, divided

1 large egg

½ cup all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter bottom and halfway up sides of an 8-inch square glass baking dish using 2 tablespoons butter. Spread cranberries evenly over bottom of dish. Sprinkle pecans on top, then sprinkle with ⅓ cup sugar; set aside.

Melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat; set aside. Put egg and the remaining ½ cup sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until pale and thick, about 1 minute. Reduce speed to medium-low; gradually beat in flour and then salt. Pour in melted butter in a slow, steady stream, beating until smooth.

Slowly pour batter into pan to cover cranberries. Bake until golden brown and a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack 10 minutes. Run a knife around edge to loosen, and invert to unmold onto a serving platter. Serve warm or at room temperature.

— Marthastewart.com

Saying good-bye to Pittsburgh’s beloved thumbprint cookie

Pittsburghers are passionate about their cookies. So when Macy’s announced last month that the Arcade Bakery would be closing along with its Tic Toc Room on July 31, a kind of panic ensued. 

What’s a holiday, or for that matter, any day of the month or week, without the bakery’s signature thumbprint cookies?

Piled with a 2-inch-high swirl of icing, the super-sweet butter cookies have been a guilty pleasure for Downtown office workers and others for decades. The thought of life without them was, for some, unimaginable.

“We really need u to save arcade bakery,” a fan tweeted to Mayor Peduto and Macy’s.

“Just realized that Macy’s downtown closing means Arcade Bakery is closing too and I AM DEVASTATED BY THIS,” wailed another.

Even professional cooks were anxious.

“Okay, who can get me a copy of the Macy’s thumbprint cookie? I’ll make you some if you get me the real recipe,” Big Burrito executive chef Bill Fuller tweeted on July 21. He added, ”@gtmckay this means you!“

Game on!

Here in the PG food section, we routinely play sleuth for readers who want, but can’t find, favorite recipes; for a cookie as famous and with as much pedigree as the Arcade Thumbprint, tracking down the list of ingredients ought to be a snap. I was wrong.

It was not in the PG archives. While plenty of readers had written to Kitchen Mailbox guru Arlene Burnett over the years in search of THE RECIPE, she’d never secured it. But that’s why there’s Google, right?

Sure enough, a quick search turned up a recipe and yummy-looking picture from some unnamed cookbook. ”Adapted from Macy’s Arcade Bakery and Cafe, Pittsburg“ read the head notes. The misspelling of my city should have been the first clue that Mr. Fuller would not be satisfied.

”Nope,“ he replied. ”I found that, too. It is ‘adapted from,’ has no mention of fillings, and completely ignores the icing factor.“

But surely a recipe had been preserved for posterity at the Macy’s headquarters in New York? The PR team was happy to look for it, and sent the request first to its bakery people and, when that search came up empty, to their archivists. Eight days later, they, too, delivered bad news. No dice on the thumbprint recipe.

Undeterred, I turned next to the folks at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, which maintains more than 250 years of the region’s history in its exhibits and archives. Perhaps they could find it in an old Kaufmann’s — the department store before it was Macy’s — or regional cookbook.

Struck out there, too.

“Our archivists searched around our Kaufmann’s files and found a few cookbooks and other records, but none contained the recipe for the thumbprint cookies,” Ned Shano, the history center’s director of communications, wrote in an email. “Evidently, they kept the recipe pretty quiet!”

After learning of my dilemma, a colleague mentioned that she lived around the corner from a former Arcade bakery worker in Morningside — and he would be more than happy to talk to me.

Now 83 and retired for 20 years, Charles Rini spent some two decades working the overnight shift at the bakery, first as a mixer then as a breadmaker in charge of sweet rolls, Danish and treats made with puff pastry.

“I never saw daylight,” he recalled. “We had to have everything ready to go by 6 a.m.”

Of course, he knew all about the thumbprints, and even though he’d never actually been responsible for  baking them — the “ladies” were in charge of cookies — he was pretty sure he’d written down the recipe in one of his notebooks. He just needed some time to look. I crossed my fingers.

Less than 10 minutes later, Mr. Rini called to say he’d found the recipe, and I scribbled it down in my notebook.

But just to be sure, I decided to try to nab one of the cookies on the Arcade’s last day of existence to taste-test his recipe.

At 8:30 last Friday morning, I joined the line already snaking out the door at the bakery, only to discover the last of the thumbprints — 15 trays of 80 — had sold out shortly after the bakery opened at 7 a.m. The recipe, along with the cookies, seemed lost to history.

Or maybe not. According to one of the bakery ladies, Kevin Ulrich, chief thumbprint baker for the past 34 years, was in the kitchen. I headed back to find him pulling yet one more tray of thumbprints from the oven.

Back when he started work in the mid-1980s, thumbprints only came in chocolate and vanilla instead of the more than 40 varieties with cheesecake and s’mores bottoms that Pittsburghers learned to love over the years. He says, “It just went crazy,” with the bakery selling at least 700 of the cookies each day, and sometimes as many as 1,400.  “They were a phenomenon.”

(For the record, the Arcade’s thumbprints didn’t actually have the hallmark dent in the middle of the cookie. The icing was piled high on a flat surface.)

When I asked if he’d be willing to share the recipe, Mr. Ulrich kindly declined. “There is no recipe,” he said. “It’s all in my head.”

But I have one from Mr. Rini, I insisted, so surely you must have one, too. (When he heard it contained brown sugar, he laughed and shook his head, No.)

Even if he wrote the ingredients down and I carefully followed the recipe, he said, they wouldn’t taste the same.

“What your grandmother made, your mom can’t. And what your mom makes, you can’t,“ Mr. Ulrich told me.

”It’s true,“ said Cheryl Livolsi, the worker who’d led me back to the kitchen. ”Someone else made them when he was on vacation, and I spit it out after one bite!“

“It’s basically impossible,” Mr. Ulrich agreed. “A true baker doesn’t have a recipe.“

He was willing, however, to share with me one last cookie. It was delicious.

”It really makes me feel good when I hear that people love my cookies,“ he told me as I headed for the door.

So sorry, Mr. Fuller. Looks like we’re not going to be able to offer an exact recipe for the Arcade Bakery’s famous thumbprint cookies. But maybe you and our readers can start your own tradition with thumbprint cookie recipes.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-2263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Thumbprint Cookies

This recipe from an unnamed cookbook I found on the Web is “adapted” from Macy’s Arcade Bakery and Cafe. 

1⅓ cups granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups solid vegetable shortening, at room temperature

1½ cups butter, at room temperature

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon pure rum extract

8¼ cups cake flour

Decorating sugar in various colors, rainbow sprinkles, and/or finely chopped nuts

Position rack in center and in upper third of oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Have ready 2 ungreased baking sheets.

In stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, combine granulated sugar, salt, shortening and butter and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add egg and vanilla and rum extracts, and beat until incorporated. On low speed, add flour and mix just until dough comes together. (If it doesn’t look like all of the flour will fit into the bowl of the mixer, scoop the butter-shortening mixture out into a large bowl and, using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the flour just until combined.

Put decorating sugars, sprinkles and/or nuts in separate bowls. To shape each cookie, scoop up a heaping tablespoon of dough, or use a 1-ounce scoop, and roll between your palms into a ball. As balls are shaped, roll them in the decorating sugar, sprinkles or nuts, coating them evenly on all sides, and place them on baking sheet spacing them 2 inches apart. Using your thumb, make a shallow indentation in the center of each cookie.

Bake cookies, switching the pans between the racks and rotating them 180 degrees about halfway through the baking time, until a light golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer cookies to rack, and let cool completely. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Makes 5 dozen cookies.

Thumbprint Cookies

Charles Rini, 83,  who was a baker at Arcade Bakery for more than 20 years before retiring in 1994, wrote this cookie recipe down in a notebook years ago, even though bread and danish were his specialty. “The ladies made the cookies,” he says.

PG tested

1/2 cup shortening (not margarine)

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg, divided

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix all of the ingredients together except the egg white and the walnuts. Cream mixture for 5 minutes.

Beat egg white in bowl and set aside with nuts.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls. Roll dough balls in nuts then press in the middle with your thumb.

Place flattened balls on cookie sheet and bake until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer cookies to rack and let cool.

When cool, top with icing.

Makes 2 dozen.

— Charles Rini, Morningside

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt explores the science of home cooking

The perfect pancakes, via J. Kenji Lopez-Alt/Gretchen McKay

A self-described science nerd, and proud of it, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt planned a career in biology when he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1990s. He was the type of kid who chose Nickelodeon’s “Mr. Wizard’s World” over ABC’s “Full House.”

The only problem was, much as he loved science, he absolutely hated working in biology labs.

“The physical experimentation was mind-numbing,” he recalls. “It just wasn’t for me.”

What he did like endlessly tinkering around with was food.

In the summer of his sophomore year at MIT, the New York native took a job as a cook at a Mongolian grill-style restaurant in Boston’s Harvard Square. As he writes in his newly released cookbook, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” (W.W. Norton, $49.95), the experience didn’t just flip a switch in his head; it jolted his entire being. 

“Like a head-injury patient who suddenly develops a brand-new personality, something snapped the moment my hand touched a knife in a professional kitchen,” he writes. “I was no longer in control of my own destiny.”

Which was weird, he concedes in a recent phone interview from his home office in San Mateo, Calif., where he tests the science behind recipes for his popular blog, “The Food Lab.” He’d never cooked a meal in his life before college.

“I didn’t even know how to hold a knife,” he says.

Flash forward a dozen years and Kenji — as he’s known by his many Twitter and Instagram followers — not only wields the tool with authority, but through his food writing has made anyone who’s willing to swallow his or her fear of sharp edges into an expert, too. In all, he devotes 15 pages to knives in his 958-page tome.

A one-time test cook and editor at Cook’s Illustrated, Kenji today is managing culinary director at Serious Eats, the James Beard-winning food website founded in 2006. His Food Lab column, which aims to explain the underlying processes of cooking, is one of the site’s most popular features. His cookbook of the same name continues the fun, with hundreds of original recipes and more than 1,000 photographs.

With his conversational way of writing, the 35-year-old makes the mundane, occasionally complicated and always scientific roots of cooking seem fascinating. His first column six years ago, written on spec for $50, explored the best way to boil an egg; his second tackled how to blend burger meat. He’d end up doing hundreds more, eventually turning a freelance gig into a full-time job and becoming a respected industry voice and cultural icon in the process.

Food science in 2009 was priming for prime time, thanks to cooks such as Alton Brown of the TV show “Good Eats.” So a regular column was an easy sell, Kenji says.

“I was writing it because it was fun for me,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “I was trying to work as little as possible by doing something I’d want to do in my spare time anyway.”

What’s inspiring about Kenji is that he never went to culinary school but instead honed his craft by reading, watching and cooking. All throughout college he worked in restaurants while poring over every cookbook he could get his hands on. Upon graduation with a degree in architecture, he started cooking full time, working for some of the best chefs in Boston.

“I saw it as my education,” he says. “If I ever got to the point where I wasn’t learning, I moved on.”

Initially, his mother wasn’t too happy with his chosen profession. Born in Japan, she viewed cooking as the type of job you get when you can’t get a real job, no matter how great the restaurant, Kenji says. But eventually she came to see that he was using his science-based education after all: to demystify cooking techniques by breaking down recipes and ingredients.

If you’re perfectly happy with the way you’re cooking, there’s no reason to change, he says. “But recipes only teach you to cook one thing.”

Science, on the other hand, forces you to think about your food and how techniques apply from one to another to suit your taste or make cooking more efficient.

“Learning about the ‘whys’ of ingredients frees you in the kitchen,” he says. “You’re not chained to a certain way of doing things, but can make your own judgement as to the end results.”

For instance, you might like a velvety mac ’n cheese while your spouse likes it dry. The science in his cookbook will show you how to do both (add eggs for the creamier version).

The original contract called for just 350 pages. But the book quickly snowballed into almost 1,000 over the five years it took to write. About 70 percent is new material; the rest are greatest hits from the column.

He often looks to the Internet for inspiration when developing a dish — he recently built a mash-up McWhopper burger — but they also grow out of his experiences. Research-heavy, recipes typically take about two weeks to write and test, he says, although not always. He has been working on a Chicago pizza and ramen recipes for years.

With chapters on essential kitchen gear and pantry items, the book serves as a modern reference book for those learning to cook. But it also will appeal to seasoned home chefs who wonder if there’s a better way of doing something. For the first time, I made biscuits that were flaky instead of heavy as hockey pucks, and I also discovered the secret to the lightest, fluffiest pancakes (egg whites).

A hulking 6½ pounds, “The Food Lab” also makes a handsome coffee table book, especially since Kenji suspects some of its readers don’t cook at all, but are simply interested in pop science.

The book is such a hit that he’s already planning another in February called “Fork Free” that will train his scientific eye on casual foods you can eat without utensils. Until then, he’s on a book tour that will take him to both coasts. (On Oct. 23, he’ll be part of a roundtable talk on food innovation during the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend in Washington, D.C.; register at americanhistory.si.edu/events.) And he’s trying his hand with an experimental, science-based video series funded by Indiegogo.

But it’s the writing paired with cooking research, typically between midnight and 4 a.m., that fuel his culinary engine.

“Coming up with good metaphors and ways to distill complex ideas into easy words, that’s fun,” he says. “One of my core philosophies is to write for everybody.”

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Super Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits

Buttermilk biscuits/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

The key to ultra-tender biscuits, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt writes in “The Food Lab,” is to keep the dough cold, and not overmix it; knead the ingredients until they just come together.

His terrific recipe calls for a “laminated” pastry, or one that has been folded over itself (in this case, three times) to form many layers. It works — my biscuits, usually as light as hockey pucks, were incredibly flaky!

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup sour cream

10 ounces (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch pats

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 425 degrees. Whisk together buttermilk and sour cream in small bowl.

In bowl of food processor, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Process until blended, about 2 seconds. Scatter butter evenly over flour and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal and largest butter pieces are about ¼-inch at their widest. Transfer to large bowl.

Add buttermilk mixture to flour mixture and fold with a rubber spatula until just combined. Transfer dough to floured work surface and knead until it just comes together, adding extra flour if necessary.

With rolling pin, roll dough into 12-inch square. Using a bench scraper, fold the right third of dough over the center, then fold the left third over so you end up with a 12-by-4-inch rectangle. Fold top third down over the center, then fold the bottom third up so the whole thing is reduced to a 4-inch square. Press dough down and roll into 12-inch squares. Repeat the folding process one more time.

Roll dough again into a 12-inch square. Cut 6 4-inch rounds out of the dough with a floured biscuit cutter. Transfer rounds to a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Form dough scrapes into a ball and knead gently 2 to 3 times until smooth. Roll dough out until it’s large enough to cut out 2 more 4-inch rounds, and transfer to baking sheet.

Brush top of biscuits with melted butter and bake until golden brown and well risen, about 15 minutes, rotating pan halfway through. Allow to cool for 5 minutes and serve.

Makes 8 biscuits.

— “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science” by J. Kenji López-Alt (W. W. Norton, Sept. 2015, $49.95).

Light and Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes

PG tested

Whipped egg whites makes these buttermilk pancakes lighter and taller. Don’t overmix — the more you stir, the more gluten develops and the tougher the pancake. Also, be sure to cook the pancakes immediately because once you mix the batter, the baking powder and soda start activating. If you let it sit even a half-hour, the bubbles that make the pancakes light disappear.

1 recipe Basic Dry Pancake Mix (recipe follows)

2 large eggs, separated

1½ cups buttermilk

1 cup sour cream (can substitute with more buttermilk)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Butter or oil for cooking

Warm maple syrup and butter, for serving

Place dry mix in large bowl.

In medium bowl, whisk egg whites until stiff peaks form. In large bowl, whisk egg yolks, buttermilk and sour cream until homogenous. Slowly drizzle in melted butter while whisking. Carefully fold in egg whites with a rubber spatula until just combined (there should still be plenty of lumps).

Heat a large heavy-bottomed nonstick skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add small amount of butter or oil on griddle and spread with a paper towel until no visible butter or oil remains. Use a 1/4-cup dry measure to place 4 pancakes in the skillet and cook until bubbles start to appear on top, and bottoms are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Carefully flip pancakes and cook on the second side until golden brown and completely set, about 2 minutes longer.

Serve pancakes immediately, or keep warm on wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet in a warm (200 degrees) oven while you cook the remaining 3 batches. Serve with warm maple syrup and butter.

Serves 4 to 6.

Basic Dry Pancake Mix

This recipe can be scaled up to any size.

10 ounces (2 cups) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

Combine ingredients in medium bowl and whisk together. Transfer to an airtight container. Mix will stay good for 3 months.

— “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science” by J. Kenji López-Alt (W. W. Norton, September 2015, $49.95).

The world’s best meatloaf/Gretchen McKay

 

All-American Meatloaf

PG tested

“Americans are proud of their meatloaf, and rightfully so,” writes J. Kenji Alt-Lopez in “The Food Lab.” His recipe is seasoned with what he calls his “umami bombs” — anchovies, Marmite (a funky yeast extract spread) and soy sauce. He also leaves out veal, a traditional mix-in, and cooks the loaf free-form.

 

For meatloaf

1/2 cup homemade or canned chicken stock

1/4 cup buttermilk

1/2 ounce (2 packets; about 1½ tablespoons) unflavored gelatin

2 sliced high-quality white sandwich bread, crusts removed and torn into rough pieces

4 ounces button or cremini mushrooms, clenaed

3 anchovy fillets

1/2 teaspoon Marmite (I used peanut butter)

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon paprika

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped (about 2 teaspoons)

1 small onion, roughly chopped (about 3/4 cup)

1 small carrot, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 stalk celery, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)

2 tablespoon unsalted butter

12 ounces freshly ground pork

1¼ pounds freshly ground beef

2 large eggs

4 ounces cheddar, provolone, Monterey Jack or Muenster cheese, finely grated (about 1 cup)

1/4 cup finely minced fresh parsley

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For glaze

3/4 cup ketchup

1/4 packed brown sugar

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine chicken stock and buttermilk in liquid measuring cup and sprinkle gelatin evenly over the top. Set aside.

Place bread and mushrooms in food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Transfer to bowl and set aside.

Add anchovies, Marmite, soy sauce, paprika and garlic to processor bowl and pulse until reduced to a fine paste, scraping down bowl as necessary. Add onion, carrot and celery and pulse until finely chopped but not pureed.

Heat butter in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until foaming. Add chopped vegetables and cook, stirring often, until it is softened and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Stir in buttermilk mixture, bring to a simmer and cook until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Transfer to bowl with mushrooms and bread, stir thoroughly to combine and let stand until cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes.

Add meat mixture to bowl, along with eggs, cheese, parsley, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. With clean hands, mix gently until everything is thoroughly combined and homogenous; it will be fairly loose.

Transfer mixture to a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, being sure that no air bubbles get trapped underneath. Tear off sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil large enough to line a rimmed baking sheet and use it to tightly cover the meat loaf, crimping it around the edges. Refrigerate meat loaf while oven preheats to 350 degrees. (Meatloaf can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.)

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position. When oven is hot, remove meatloaf from refrigerator and, without removing foil cover, carefully invert it onto the rimmed baking sheet. Loosen foil and spread it out, leaving pan on top of meat loaf. Fold up edges of foil to trap the liquid that escapes from the load while baking. Bake until just beginning to set, about 30 minutes.

Use a thin metal spatula to lift an edge of the inverted loaf pan, jiggling until it slides off the meat loaf easily, leaving meat loaf on the center of foil. Return to oven and bake until meat loaf registers 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 40 minutes longer. (There will be a lot of juices.) Remove from oven and allow to rest 15 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 500 degrees.

For glaze, combine ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar and pepper in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking, until sugar is melted and mixture is homogeneous, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Use a brush to apply some glaze to meat loaf in a thin, even layer, then return to oven and bake for 3 minutes. Glaze again and bake 3 more minutes. Glaze one more time and bake until glaze is bubbly and a deep burnished brown, about 4 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest 15 minutes. Cut and serve with any extra glaze and mustard or ketchup. Leftovers are just right for slicing into sandwiches.

Serves 6 to 8.

— “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science” by J. Kenji López-Alt (W. W. Norton, September 2015, $49.95).


Chasing fall’s colors in Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley

Fall apples at the Virginia Farm Market/Gretchen McKay

LURAY, Va. — Some years ago, fresh out of college and poor as church mice, my husband and I set out on our great honeymoon adventure. Our three-day drive from Pittsburgh to jobs in Miami would take us through Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley. To humor my father, we agreed to stop at Luray Caverns.

Good call, Dad!

Discovered in 1878 and named a National Natural Landmark in the early 1970s, the 64-acre series of subterranean rooms and passageways proved pretty amazing, despite a hokey tour that takes visitors more than a mile and 160 feet below the surface.

“If you use your imagination,” our elderly guide kept parroting, we’d see the likes of fried eggs, ice cream cones, giant redwoods and a big shaggy dog on the fantastical, slow-growing calcite formations. (Created millions of years ago by mineral-rich water dripping upon limestone, the icicle-like stalactites and pillar-like stalagmites grow about an inch every 100 years.)

There’s something magical about being deep underground, where the temperature is always 54 degrees, and still feeling dwarfed by nature; some of the cavern’s dimly lit rooms soar 10 stories. And how cool is the cavern’s sparkling Dream Lake, which reflects myriad stalactites hanging above on the ceiling? We knew someday, we’d be back.

Our redux came earlier this month, after dropping our daughter off for her sophomore year at James Madison University. It proved just as fun as the first time.

Fall is the perfect time to visit Luray and Shenandoah National Park’s nearby Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Come October, it’s a leaf-peepers paradise. The entire valley turns brilliant shades of crimson, yellow and orange, and local farms sell apples along with pumpkins and other fall foods from roadside stands. (For a weekly fall foliage report, visit dof.virginia.gov/fall.)

We started our trip in scenic Harrisonburg, home to the university. Known as part of  the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” it’s a must-do for history buffs interested in Civil War battlefields and historic sites such as the Hardesty-Higgins House, used briefly as headquarters for Union Gen. Nathaniel Banks. It’s equally popular with bicyclists, thanks to multiple road and mountain-biking trails, and also a boon for foodies, who have dozens of restaurants to choose from in the state’s first designated culinary district. Add three craft breweries, a cider house and a pair of wineries to the victual delights.

After moving Liv into her dorm, we saluted the fall semester with a terrific lunch of pulled pork and cheese grits at Clementine Cafe on South Main Street, also an art gallery and live music venue. Then it was on to Kline’s Dairy Bar — a local institution since 1943 — for orange creams. Bidding Olivia a teary goodbye, we drove a half-hour south to Staunton.

Bruce Elder’s antique/classic car museum is located in a 1911 Ford dealership building/Gretchen McKay

It’s tough to imagine a small town more charming than Staunton (don’t make the mistake we did — it’s pronounced “Stan-ton” y’all!), home to Mary Baldwin College and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. Extremely walkable, it’s postcard pretty. And talk about things to do: Its six-block main street bustles with antique shops, art galleries, restaurants, coffee shops and quaint boutiques ripe for the picking.

It’s also a boon for theater lovers: The American Shakespeare Center houses the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s original indoor theater, the 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse. It’s next door to the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel where, after checking in, we made a beeline to Chef Ian Boden’s much-lauded 26-seat restaurant, The Shack. We didn’t have time (or reservations) for the $45 prix fixe menu, but the pimento cheese and pork cracklins we noshed al fresco while watching a guy across the street cut grass were a memorable pre-theater treat.  Nourished, we then clapped and hooted our way through a very lively production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And neither one of us thought we liked Shakespeare! (The cast is that good.)

While the playhouse is lively, the town after hours is anything but: Save for  Zynadoa (serving upscale Southern food) and Byers Street Bistro, where we ate burgers at the bar and listened to a band from Richmond, Staunton pretty much rolls up the sidewalks after dark. Then again, you want to be up early Saturday morning for the farmers market at the corner of Byers and Johnson streets in the Wharf District, lush with locally grown produce, organic honey and baked goods.

We’d hoped to take a peek inside Trinity Episcopal Church, which contains 12 Tiffany windows spanning Louis Comfort Tiffany’s 40-year career, but the doors were locked. So instead, my husband talked me into visiting Bruce Elder’s antique/classic car museum, located in a 1911 Ford dealership building. For $5, we got to see two floors of more than 50 cars, both for sale and display, including Richard Petty’s 1987 Pontiac Grand Prix Winston Cup Race car, a 1911 Chalmers Model 30 with wooden spoke wheels and the ’35 Packard convertible Arthur Miller drove Marilyn Monroe in.

A tasting at Redbeard Brewing in Staunton, Va./Gretchen McKay

As payback, I insisted we do a craft beer tasting ($10 for four) at Redbeard Brewing, a small batch brewery on Lewis Street. I recommend the Black Rye IPA, along with the burgers, on your way out of town at the nondescript Marino’s Lunch on North Augusta Street. A fave with locals, it’s been a beer joint and legendary bluegrass hot spot for more than 100 years.

Staunton is just a few miles from the Rockfish Gap entrance to Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive, where the $20 per car entry buys you seven days on the 105-mile drive. If you plan on hiking, ask the park ranger at the gate for trail maps; they’re marked with elevation, distance and effort (easy to challenging). We did two hikes during our stay: the 2.2-mile loop to the Turk Mountain Overlook (harder than it looked) and the 1.6-mile Stony Man Trail partway along the Appalachian Trail to Stony Man Summit, Shenandoah’s second highest peak at 4,010 feet (easier than we imagined).

If you just plan on going point to point by car, know that the 35 mph speed limit makes for slow driving. Sometimes infuriatingly so, as drivers pull on and off for the drive’s 75(!) overlooks. We thought the views of the rolling piedmont to the east were more spectacular than those of the Luray Valley to the west, but they’re all Instagram-worthy (even if you can’t immediately post them due to poor cell service).

If you’re overnighting on the drive, there’s only three choices, and they’re all pretty rustic, if also charming: Lewis Mountain Cabins, Big Meadow Lodge (where you’ll find the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center) and Skyland Lodge, where we enjoyed views from the highest point on Skyline Drive from the comfort of our room. A word of caution for you impatient types: while the resort regional fare was very good, the restaurant can be extremely crowded on weekend evenings. Expect a wait.  (It took almost an hour just to get a beer in the taproom.)

Another long queue is in store if you don’t get to Luray Caverns early; by 11 a.m., the line already was snaking out the door, even for those smart advance-ticket buyers. The hourlong tour, though, is lots of fun if you don’t mind the dawdlers at the rear or getting poked by picture takers on the narrow passageway. Be sure to rub the  “eggs” on the way out — the only parts of the cavern that you are allowed to touch — for good luck.

Admission to the caverns includes The Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, but we opted instead for the adjoining Luray Valley Museum (also free) to learn about local history and see artifacts from the 1750s to the 1920s; the museum also includes a seven-acre re-creation of a small 19th-century farming community. Still got some energy? Kids will love the Garden Maze ($9 adult, $7 ages 6-12), and who can say no to a tasting of local wines in the 1860 Burner Barn (weekends only through fall)?

After a quick exploration of Luray’s historic main street, we made one last stop before heading back north: the Virginia Farm Market in Winchester (look for the big red barn). In addition to jug-your-own cider and a dozen or more varieties of locally grown apples to choose from (Winchester is known as the Apple Capital of Virginia), its pumpkin patch during the season boasts 15,000 pumpkins.  Splurge on the apple cider doughnuts. You’ll eat at least two on your way to the parking lot.

If you go: Shenandoah Valley/Skyline Drive
• Getting there: Bordered by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Alleghenies to the west, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley stretches some 200 miles from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Roanoke, Va. Skyline Drive is the only public road within Shenandoah National Park. The park is open year-round pending weather, although most visitor facilities and services close down completely from late November to March. To check status, call the park’s recorded information line at 1-540-999-3500 or visit nps.gov/shen.

The are four entrances to Skyline Drive: At Front Royal near Route 66 and 340; Thornton Gap at Route 211; Swift Run Gap at Route 33; and Rockfish Gap at Route 64 and Route 250 near Staunton (where we started). Cost is $20 per vehicle for seven consecutive days; it takes about three hours to travel the drive’s 105 miles on a clear day (the speed limit is 35 mph). From Pittsburgh, the 300-mile drive takes about five hours via Harrisonburg and Staunton, Va.

• Lodging: Living large, or on a budget? The area features a variety of chain hotels/motels and small inns in all price ranges. For B&B types, the historic Joshua Wilton House Inn ($145 and up) and Stonewall Jackson Inn ($139 and up) in Harrisonburg are good bets; the Queen Anne-style Berkeley House Inn B&B in Staunton ($149 and up) dates to 1893. We overnighted at the very lovely Stonewall Jackson Hotel in historic downtown Staunton. Built in 1924 and lovingly restored in 2005, it’s recognized by the National Trust Historic Hotels of America for its historic and architectural significance.

You’ll also find comfy rooms within the park at historic Big Meadows Lodge, Skyland Resort (the highest point on the drive) or Lewis Mountain Cabins. $109 and up; reserve at goshenandoah.com/lodging or 1-877-847-1919.

If you’d rather rough it and don’t fear wildlife (this is black bear country), the park is happy to oblige with four campsites along Skyline Drive. Prices start at $15 for a tent site with common restrooms; reservations may be made up to six months in advance online at recreation.gov/shen, or by calling 1-877-444-6777.

• Eat, drink and be merry:You won’t want for a good meal, or beer, in the Shenandoah Valley. In 2014, Harrisonburg became the first city in Virginia to adopt the designation of “Downtown Culinary District.” Some of the best choices include Clementine Cafe (which doubles as an art gallery), Bella Luna Wood-fired Pizza, Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint and A Bowl of Good Cafe (closed Sundays). For local craft beers, the tap room at Three Brothers Brewing features 10 rotating drafts (open Thursday-Monday). You’ll find equally good eats in Staunton, including the tiny 26-seat The Shack, voted one of Southern Living magazine’s Best New Restaurants in 2014. Chef Ian Boden serves a prix-fix menu on weekends and burgers made from local meat on weekdays. If they’re on the menu, the pork cracklins with sorghum hot sauce are nothing short of amazing. Zynodoa (Southern cuisine) and Mill Street Grill (ribs, seafood and pasta in a century-old flour mill) also are highly recommended, and we had a terrific breakfast at Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery. And we loved the beer tasting at the funky, small-batch Redbeard Brewing ($10 for 5 tastes; Thursday-Sunday).

• Activities: Staunton is an antiquer’s paradise, and it also boasts art galleries, boutiques, an antique car museum and a lively farmers market on Saturday. If you like theater, Blackfriars Playhouse at The American Shakespeare Center hosts an internationally acclaimed theater company that performs Shakespeare’s works under their original staging conditions.

The area also is renowned for its outdoor activities. Shenandoah National Park has more than 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. There’s also biking, fishing, horseback riding and 105-mile Skyline Drive.

• More info:visitshenandoah.org or visitskylinedrive.org.

All-star Thanksgiving: Roast turkey parts instead of the whole bird

Pan-roasted Turkey Legs/Gretchen McKay

Every year on Thanksgiving Day, the same scene plays out on countless American dinner tables.

You score with the holiday bird’s thigh meat (so moist and juicy) but its breast, most unfortunately, is a dry and stringy epic fail. Thank goodness for gravy.

Or maybe it’s the reverse. The breast meat carves into tender, magical slices, but the thighs and drumsticks, which your dark meat-loving family members always fight over, are overly pink and rubbery to the touch. Everyone has to wait while you pop the pieces back into the oven for additional roasting.

For a dish that seems like it should be so easy, a properly cooked Thanksgiving turkey actually requires some fussing over, what with the white meat always cooking faster than the dark meat, no matter how carefully you tent it when the breast hits 150 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. No wonder so many of us count hassle-free sides like stuffing and candied sweet potatoes among our favorite holiday dishes.

It doesn’t have to be so.

Break the bird down into parts to be cooked individually, or buy your turkey legs and a breast separately from the get-go, and you solve the problem. White and dark cook on their own terms, and as a result, no one gets stuck with over- or under-cooked poultry.

There are other reasons it makes sense to cook a turkey in parts instead of an entire bird during the holidays.

Maybe you’re cooking for just a couple of guests instead of a crowd, or your family likes the delicate breast meat so much more than dark, or you’re tired of having to decide who gets the prized legs. (Sometimes there’s just one to divvy up: in my house, my father always gets first dibs.)

Perhaps you hate the way a 15-pound turkey takes up so much room in the oven, making it difficult to cook more than one or two side dishes at the same time.

Or maybe you simply want to spend more time socializing and less time hunched over a hot oven taking the bird’s temperature. A whole turkey can take upwards of three or more hours to roast (longer if it’s stuffed). Braised drumsticks only take about 90 minutes, while a whole breast only needs about two hours. Plus, turkey parts generally don’t require a whole lot of knife skills to slice the meat off the bone.

While finding turkey legs could be a challenge (I found mine at Wholey’s; frozen turkey legs are sold at Strip District Meats in the Strip District), most larger grocery stores sell frozen turkey breasts year-round. As we get closer to Thanksgiving, you’ll also be able to find fresh turkey at such specialty shops as DJ’s Butcher Block in Bloomfield, and Marty’s Market in the Strip District, as well as from poultry farmers such as Pounds’ Turkey Farm in Leechburg and Serenity Hill Farms in Cheswick.

How to proceed? You can roast the turkey parts in the same pan at 350 degrees, after rubbing them with butter, salt, pepper and herbs (add the turkey legs after the breast has been in the oven for 30 minutes). Or give them more personal attention and a bit more style with recipes such as the Maple Syrup-Mustard Glazed Turkey Breast or Cider-Braised Turkey Legs. Either one would be a tasty and stress-free addition to your Thanksgiving table.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Maple Syrup-Mustard Glazed Turkey Breast

PG tested

It takes some planning, but brining your turkey makes the meat super-moist and tender. This easy recipe is flavored with apple cider and maple syrup. I used a half breast (about 3 pounds) and it turned out great.

For brine and turkey

2 cups apple cider

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 bunch fresh thyme leaves

2 bay leaves

1/2 cup kosher salt

1 orange, cut into quarters

1 whole bone-in, skin-on turkey breast (about 5 pounds)

For spice rub and glaze

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon dried sage

1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/4 teaspoon  freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup maple syrup

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

For brine: In pot large enough to hold the turkey breast comfortably, combine 2 quarts water with cider, maple syrup, thyme, bay leaves, salt and orange quarters. Bring just to a simmer. Add 2 quarts ice water (about half ice/half water). Let come to room temperature. Submerge turkey in brine, cover and refrigerate overnight or all day (about 12 hours).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange a rack in large roasting pan (a V-neck roasting rack is ideal, but any rack will work).

Remove turkey from brine, rinse well and pat dry. Loosen skin off turkey breast with fingers and rub butter under the breast skin. In small bowl, stir together paprika, dry mustard, sage, granulated garlic and pepper and rub all over the turkey breast. Set turkey on rack breast side up and roast for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in small bowl, stir together maple syrup and mustard. After 30 minutes, reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees and brush turkey with some of the glaze. Continue to roast, basting twice more, until meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of breast reads 165 degrees, about 1½ hours, depending on the size of breast. Let turkey rest on cutting board for 15 minutes before carving.

Serves 6, with leftovers.

— “Farmhouse Rules: Simple, Seasonal Meals for the Whole Family” by Nancy Fuller (Grand Central Life & Style, October 2015, $30)

Cider-Braised Turkey Legs

PG tested

Any leg person will love this braised turkey recipe. Note that turkey legs are big. In fact they are so big that I couldn’t fit them in my Dutch oven and had to use a 16-inch cast-iron skillet. The sauce is so tasty; save it to spoon over rice or potatoes.

2 turkey legs (from one 15- to 16-pound turkey)

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 carrots, chopped

2 ribs celery, chopped

2 leeks, white and light-green parts only, sliced crosswise into ½-inch rounds

2 tablespoons packed light-brown sugar

3 sprigs fresh thyme

2 sprigs fresh sage

2 fresh bay leaves

2 cups apple cider

1 cup homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken broth

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Rinse and dry turkey legs; season on all sides with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Place bacon in a large Dutch oven and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until bacon begins to crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.

Increase heat to high and add olive oil. Add turkey legs, skin side down, working in batches if necessary. Cook, turning, until turkey is browned on all sides, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer legs to a plate and discard all but 1 tablespoon of rendered fat from Dutch oven.

Add carrots, celery, and leeks to Dutch oven and cook, stirring, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add brown sugar and cook until it begins to bubble. Add thyme, sage, bay leaves, and cider; bring to a boil and stir, breaking up any browned bits at the bottom of pan. Continue boiling until cider is reduced by half, about 5 minutes.

Add chicken stock and bring to a boil; reduce heat to a slow simmer and add reserved bacon. Return turkey legs to the Dutch oven, skin side down; cover and transfer to oven. Cook for 40 minutes, turn turkey legs, uncover, and continue cooking until legs are tender and starting to fall off the bone, 45 to 50 minutes more.

Transfer turkey legs to a serving platter. Skim fat from top of braising liquid and discard; season braising liquid with salt and pepper and spoon over turkey legs. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

— Marthastewart.com


A gluten-free Thanksgiving

Gluten-free Cheesecake with Candied Cranberries/Gretchen McKay

Cooking for someone with a wheat allergy or sensitivity is never easy, but it’s particularly trying during the holidays. So much of what we love to serve at our Thanksgiving table is chock-full of gluten — from the buttery crust on the pumpkin pie, to the giblet gravy, to the fresh-from-the-oven bread and rolls that are essential for scooping bits and pieces off the plate.

And stuffing. Thanksgiving dinner for many of us just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving dinner without the glorious bread-and-herb mixture we stuff inside the turkey’s cavity to absorb those delicious juices the bird releases during cooking.

You can go the vegetarian route, of course, substituting a medley of salads and vegetables for the traditional sides. But somehow, filling up on green beans and sweet potatoes isn’t as satisfying. Daresay you might even feel cheated.

The good news is that with a little imagination and help from the many gluten-free products so readily available these days, even at small supermarkets, you don’t have to deny those with celiac disease or wheat sensitivities the centerpiece dishes they once loved.

For instance, instead of biscuits or moon-shaped crescent rolls, why not consider popovers made with gluten-free flour? They’re so easy to stir together when you use a blender, and they’re a lot less caloric than traditional breads — especially since you don’t have to slather on the butter. Plus, the fluffy puffs are sure to impress your guests.

It’s a similar story with stuffing. Swap the wheat-based bread cubes for ones made from gluten-free cornbread, and you won’t miss a beat. Gluten-free cornbread is surprisingly delicious, especially if you pair it with spicy chili peppers and another Thanksgiving favorite, corn.

Tired of green beans? Wild rice paired with chorizo, toasted walnuts and crunchy pomegranate seeds is not just extremely flavorful, but also a feast for the eyes.

But the best part of this gluten-free story is dessert. Who doesn’t love cheesecake? Crazy people, that’s who, or maybe just those with wheat sensitivities who don’t know you can make just as delicious a crust with gluten-free flour instead of the usual graham cracker crumbs. You just need a little xantham gum to bind it together.

A few words of caution if you’re cooking for someone’s who living a gluten-free lifestyle: Be sure to keep the kitchen counters, pans and utensils clean so you don’t cross contaminate dishes, and always label leftovers. After such a lovely celebration, it’d be a real bummer to give your guests a tummy ache.

— Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.      

Gluten-free Popovers

PG tested

The crown-topped popovers are crisp on the outside and the moist inside.

1 cup King gluten-free multipurpose flour

1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum

1/2 teaspoon salt

1¼ cups milk, slightly warm

4 large eggs

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 12-cup popover pan or standard muffin pan.

In blender or large bowl, whisk together eggs, butter, and milk until the mixture is uniform. Whisk the flour or flour blend in a bowl with the xanthan gum and salt. Spoon or pour the dry ingredients into the blender/bowl, and whisk until you have a smooth batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, filling each cup about ⅔ full.

Bake for 25 minutes, then reduce the oven heat to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 15 minutes, until the popovers are deep brown.

Remove from the oven, prick the side of each popover with a sharp knife to let the steam out, and let popovers rest for 5 minutes to finish setting. Remove from the pan, and serve immediately. Or, to keep them crisp longer, allow them to sit in the turned-off oven for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Makes 12 standard (muffin-sized) popovers.

— King Arthur Flour.

Jalapeno and Cherry Pepper Cornbread Stuffing

PG tested

This stuffing is spicy, so if you’re not a big fan of heat, you might want to cut back on the amount of chili peppers. Or not: my son, Jack, ate the entire casserole in less than 24 hours. 

1 (12-ounce) box gluten-free cornbread mix, baked according to package instructions

4 tablespoons butter

1 stalk celery, diced

1 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 (4-ounce) can pickled jalapeno peppers, sliced

4 pickled cherry peppers, diced

1 tablespoon chopped sage

1 cup frozen or fresh corn kernels

1½ cups chicken stock

2 eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cut cooled cornbread into 1/2-inch cubes. Melt butter in skillet over medium-high heat. Toast cornbread and transfer to greased casserole dish.

In same skillet, saute celery, onion and garlic until translucent. Season with salt and pepper. Add vegetables, peppers, sage and corn. In bowl, combine stock and eggs and pour over the cornbread mixture. Gently fold to combine. Cover, place in oven and bake for 35 minutes.

Uncover dish and broil for about 5 minutes, until golden brown. Serve hot.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Chilepepper.com.

Wild Rice with Chorizo, Walnuts and Pomegranate

Wild Rice Salad with Pomegranate/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

Be sure to soak the rice or it will take forever to cook on the stove. To remove the ruby-red pomegranate seeds, roll the fruit before cutting in half to loosen the seeds, then tap the halves with a wooden spoon over a bowl. 

I substituted pecans for the walnuts; toasted almonds would be delicious, too.  

2 cups wild rice

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

3 shallots, minced

5 garlic cloves, minced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 fresh thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

3 cups water

1/2 cup walnuts

6 ounces chorizo

1/2 cup chicken stock

1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Place rice in large bowl and cover with water. Let sit at room temperature for 12 hours or overnight.

In large pot over medium heat, warm 3 tablespoons olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add shallots and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in molasses and tomato paste. Drain rice and add to pan along with thyme and bay leaf. Cook until rice smells toasty, about 2 minutes. Pour in 3 cups water and bring to boil. Season with more salt, lower heat and simmer, uncovered, until liquid is almost gone, about 40 minutes. (The grains will be splitting open and beginning to unfurl but not completely softened.) Remove from heat, cover and allow rice to steam for 15 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Fluff rice with wooden spoon.

In small, dry frying pan over medium heat, toast walnuts until fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Cool.

In large frying pan over medium-high heat, warm remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil until hot, but not smoking.  Add chorizo and cook, without stirring, until browned on one side, 2 to 3 minutes. Use wooden spoon to break up the browned sausage into thumbnail-sized pieces. When sausage is almost cooked through but still pink, add to rice. Add stock. Return pot to stove and cook over high heat until stock has almost evaporated.

Season with salt and pepper and garnish with parsley, pomegranate seeds and toasted walnuts.  Spike the dish with vinegar and serve warm.

Serves 4 to 6 as a side.

— “Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California” by Travis Lett (Chronicle, 2015, $35).

New York-Style Cheesecake

PG tested

This takes some time, but the results are fabulous — smoothy and creamy, with a crunchy crust. 

For crust

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, divided

4 ounces (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) gluten-free multipurpose flour

2⅓ ounces (1/3 cup) sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon xanthan gum

For filling

2½ pounds cream cheese, softened

1½ cups sugar, divided

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup sour cream

2 teaspoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

6 large eggs, plus 2 large yolks

Make crust: Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 325 degrees. Brush bottom of a 10-inch springform pan with ½ tablespoon butter.

In large bowl, whisk flour, sugar, salt and xanthan gum until combined. Whisk in 5 tablespoons butter until fully incorporated and mixture resembles wet sand. Using your hands, press crumb mixture evenly into pan bottom. Using bottom of dry measuring cup, firmly pack crust into pan. Bake on lower rack until edges begin to darken and crust is firm on top, 22 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely. Reduce oven to 200 degrees.

Make filling: In stand mixer, beat cream cheese, ¾ cup sugar and salt at medium-low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Beat in remaining 3/4 cup sugar until well combined, about 1 minute. Add sour cream, lemon juice and vanilla and beat at low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Add egg yolks and beat at medium-slow speed until thoroughly combined, about  1 minute. Scrape beater and bowl. Add whole eggs, 2 at a time, beating until thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds after each addition.

Strain filling through fine-mesh strainer into bowl. Brush sides of springform pan with remaining ½ tablespoon melted butter. Pour filling into crust and set aside for 10 minutes to allow air bubbles to rise to top. Gently draw tines of fork across surface of cake to pop air bubbles that have risen to surface.

When oven registers 200 degrees, bake cheesecake on lower rack for 45 minutes. Remove cake form oven and use toothpick to pierce any bubbles that have risen to surface. Return to oven and continue to bake until center registers 165 degrees, 2¼ to 2¾ hours longer.

Remove cake from oven and increase oven temperature to 500 degrees. When oven is hot, bake cheesecake on upper rack until top is evenly browned, 4 to 12 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes, then run thin knife between cheesecake and pan. Let cool until barely warm, 3 hours. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold and firmly set, at least 6 hours.

To unmold, remove sides of pan. Slide thin metal spatula between crust and pan bottom to loosen, then slide cheesecake onto serving plate.

Serves 12 to 16.

— “The How Can it Be Gluten Free Cookbook Volume 2” by American’s Test Kitchen (October 2015, $26.95).