Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Eats Sheet, Extreme Leftover Edition: Grilled Turkey Sandwiches with Sweet Potato Steak Fries

Well, if I were to be all Italian, I guess I would call them panini. But I prefer the American Grilled Sandwich. Yesterday this became a new day-after-Thanksgiving tradition for our family. It's wonderfully simple, but so much better than simply nuking a plate of turkey and mashed potatoes. I picked up the idea for the sandwiches from Williams-Sonoma the other day, but added a few of my own embellishments.

The Fries:

The thing about sweet potatoes, sometimes called yams, is that they are a pretty darn good vegetable; it makes little sense to turn them into a mediocre-at-best dessert. That awful marshmallow concoction you sometimes see at the table tries to parade a vegetable around as if it were a fruit. Marshmallows should never come near sweet potatoes, in my opinion. If you want to make sweet potatoes into a dessert, just go all the way and make a freakin' sweet potato pie.

Otherwise, allow sweet potatoes the dignity of being what they are: a good root vegetable. This is what I did: Take one or two sweet potatoes and slice them in half, the long way, and then slice them up into 1/4 inch thick steak fries. Put them in a bowl with about 1/3 cup of olive oil. Season them well with salt and pepper, and then sprinkle in some rosemary and thyme. Spread them out on a large cookie sheet (it helps to spray the cookie sheet) and stick them in a 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Then take them out, stir them, and stick them back in for another 10 minutes or so until they are nice and crispy. The great thing about these fries is that the sugar in the sweet potatoes caramelizes really nicely, but without being overhwlemingly sweet. They'll be crispy and caramelized on the outside, but soft and mellow on the inside. When you take them out, taste one and salt them again if they need it.

The Gravy:

While the fries are cooking away, get some gravy heated up, because you're going to serve it with the sandwiches---french dip style. I don't know about you, but my gravy is always a little more like meat-flavored jell-o the day after Thanksgiving. Not very appetizing. But what I've found out is that if I heat the meat jell-o in a saucepan with a little turkey stock and maybe a splash of milk, the old gravy is really more like a gravy base and it produces a nice new gravy. Get the gravy good and hot, but reduce the heat when it boils and everything is well combined. Taste it, because you might need to add some more salt. Keep it hot, but not boiling, until the sandwiches are ready.

The turkey stock is something that we usually have a lot of the day after Thanksgiving. It's pretty simple, and a great way to not waste all those bones and bits of meat. You can either divide the turkey bones into two even piles or do it all together if you have a big enough soup pot. Either way, you throw some bones into a stock pot with a quartered onion (don't even bother peeling it, but wash it), two or three crushed garlic cloves, one or two split carrots, and few broken stalks of celery. Season it well with salt, oregano, a little thyme or rosemary, and parsley. Throw in a small handfull of peppercorns and cover it all with water. Get it boiling, redice the heat, and let it simmer for about 2 hours. Then pour it through a fine strainer and skim the fat. You can use it right away for soup or freeze it and save it for making soups, braising meat and veggies, or to spice up a sauce. It handy to have around and its a lot better and less salty than chicken boullion.

The Sandwiches:

Like any Thanksgiving leftover dish, the turkey is the foundation. This is where it becomes important to carve your bird the right way, removing the meat in big chunks and carving the chunks across the grain in thin slices. That way you get tender, juicy meat that works great in sandwiches. For my sandwich I used a combination of breast and thigh meat. But what sets this apart from any old Turkey sandwich is the condiments. First, you spread a piece of thick crusty bread with mayonnaise, and another one with cranberry sauce. Then you stack some turkey on both pieces, and place a slice of cheese on the turkey. I used Colby Jack. Then you put a scoop of stuffing on and put the two slices together. Brush each side with olive oil and grill in a panini press until the bread is golden and it's all heated through. Cut it in half and then serve it up with a nice helping of fries and a cup of gravy to dip it in.

The idea of stuffing in a sandwich seemed odd and a little redundant, but since I used corn bread stuffing, it was a nice variety. And the celery and apple we put in the stuffing was a good compliment for the sandwich. For a spicier variation you could use chipotle mayo, replace the cranberry sauce with a hot creole mustard, and maybe throw a few banana peppers or jalapenos on. If you have folk who don't like sweet potatoes (probably because they've been led by the marhsmallow heresy to believe that they are a gross fruit instead of a decent veggie), you can throw a few regular potatoes into the mix. They take a little longer to cook, but they work as well. Another interesting variation for the fries would be to reduce the salt and throw a splash of soy sauce into the olive oil.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Easts Sheet: Maple-Glazed Turkey

This is my third year roasting a turkey, and this was the best so far.

First, I made up a rub of salt and black pepper with some ground sage and marjoram. I rubbed this all over the inside of the cavity, then quartered an onion and and apple and stuffed these into the cavity with a few broken stalks of celery. This gets a good infusion into the meat, and since you don't eat it, you don't have to worry about it getting cooked, like you do with stuffing.

But the real difference was the sweetness. There were two things I did to get some sweetness going: first, I poured about a half cup of apple cider into the bottom of the roasting pan to keep things moist in there; second, I made up a maple butter glaze to baste the bird while it roasted. There glaze is deceptively simple; there are exactly two ingredients: one cup butter, and 1/2 cup maple syrup. I used a dark amber syrup, which is the most common commercially available maple syrup. A lighter syrup would be sweeter, but since turkey is a savory dish to begin with, I liked the earthier flavor of the dark amber.

I melted the butter and the syrup together and poured about half of it over the bird before sticking it in the oven at 325. I then basted with the remaining glaze every 45 minutes or so. I roasted the bird covered, worried that the sugars and the milk solids in the butter might burn. My plan was to take the cover off for the last hour, but I underestimated how quickly it would cook with the cover on. When I took the cover off, the thighs were already registering at 160. So I kept it in for another just 45 minutes. It didn't quite get the browning I wanted, but it still looked very nice. The meat was more done than I prefer, but with a baby in the house, that's probably a good thing.

But even with the meat being a little overdone, even the breast stayed nice and juicy, not like some dried-out Thanksgiving birds. The reason: resting. When the bird comes out of the oven, it can be really tempting to cut into it right then because everybody's hungry. It's better to let it rest. When the meat is hot, all the tasty fat and juices are hot, so when you cut into it, the juices pour out and instantly turn into steam when they hit the air. The result is that they all evaporate the meat is left dry. When you let the bird rest, those juices have time to cool and to absorb back into the meat. Most recipes suggest a 20-25 minute resting time. I think this is way too short. I like to let it sit for at least 30-35 minutes, and I prefer up to an hour if people can wait that long. If the meat is too hot to touch with my fingers, I don't think it's ready to carve.

But everyone prefers a hot meal, not a room temperature one. You might be wondering if it can be appetizing to eat meat that has cooled that much. There are a few ways to tackle this dilemma: First, you can just cover the meat and stick it in a warm oven to gently reheat it. Second, you can cover the meat and just let the residual heat work. But the best option, and one that you can combine with either of the first two, is to get your heat from the gravy, not the meat. Serve up the turkey on a platter, and then just keep your gravy piping hot on the stove until the moment that everyone has sat down and is ready to eat. With some near-boiling gravy, that meat could be room temperature and nobody would care.

Speaking of gravy, that was really the highlight of this recipe. While the meat was good prepared this way, the real kicker was the gravy that came from the drippings this bird produced. I threw some of the apples and onions into the bottom of the roasting pan to infuse the drippings. There were a good 4-6 cups of drippings. I skimmed off the most obvious fat and then reduced the rest of it down to about 2 1/3 to 3 cups. I salted it, peppered it, threw in some tyme. With it still boiling, I added a cup of milk with 3 tablespoons of cornstarch mixed in, and then let it boil until it thickened. The sage, the onion, and the natural saltiness of the turkey fat mingled with the cider and the maple butter for a mellow gravy with just a hint of sweetness. Very good.

Carving technique is another issue. A lot of people like to carve the breast from the bones. That's the traditional way. But the problem is that you end up slicing along the grain of the meat rather than across the grain, leading to more chewy/stringy, and less tender slices. I like to carve the bird like a butcher would: removing the meat in large pieces, keeping muscles as intact as possible, and then slicing those large chunks on a carving board across the grain into small slices. This, I've found, also preserves the juices better. Here's a handy guide to carving.

First, I take off the drumsticks and thighs together, then the wings, and then I go back and get the breast by slicing down as close as possible to the breast bone, and pulling more than slicing to remove the breast. I then slice the drumsticks off the thigh and serve them up without further carving. The thighs I like to debone before carving. You slice along the bone, and then rotate the bone, continuing to slice along it until you can lift it out. Then you have a whole boneless thigh, which slices up much more nicely than a mangles mess of muscle tissue. The wings are usually pretty fatty and with not all that much meat, so I usually just shred the wing meat and mix it up later with some barbeque sauce for sandwiches, nachos, tostados, or whatever.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Judge of the Day: Richard J. Leon

Beside having some oddly upswept eyebrows, Judge Richard J. Leon, of the federal district court for the District of Columbia, is also the second federal judge so far to order the release of Guantanamo detainees. Those two combined distinctions earn him the title of WMBW Judge of the day.

The Judge
Unlike Judge Urbina's opinion in the Uyghers' case, which included some lofty language about the historic role of the habeas right and the fundamental freedom of personal liberty, Judge Leon's opinion in this case is much more workmanlike. For Judge Leon, it isn't so much a question of fundamental rights, it's simply a question of evidence: did the Government meet it's burden? No.

Consistent with his brick-and-mortar approach to judicial opinion writing, Judge Leon is not what you would call a liberal: He was appointed by President Bush, and it was Judge Leon that decided back in 2005 that Gitmo detainees didn't have habeas rights. The Supreme Court later reversed that decision.

While he lacks some of the inspiring personal drama of Judge Urbina's life story, Judge Leon's legal credentials are impressive. Judge Leon earned his J.D. from Suffolk University Law in 1974 and then clerked for justices of two state supreme courts. He then earned an L.L.M. from Harvard in 1981 and then taught as a professor at St. John's Law School and worked for the Justice Department where he was chief minority council for the investigation of the Iran-Contra affair. He then went into private practice in D.C. until President Bush appointed him to the bench in 2002.

Judge Leon already has some history with Gitmo and habeas proceedings. In fact, it was Judge Leon's 2005 decision in Kalid v. Bush, 355 F.Supp.2d 311 (D.D.C. 2005) that prompted the landmark Supreme Court decision Boumediene v. Bush, 128 S. Ct. 2229 (2008), earlier this year.

You see, back in 2004 the Supreme Court made it clear that federal courts had jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay. Rasul v. Bush, 542 U.S. 466 (2004). Shortly thereafter, six detainees filed habeas petitions challenging their detention. Judge Leon heard the case and decided that even though the court had jurisdiction to hear habeas petitions from Guantanamo, that did not mean that the Gitmo detainees actually had any habeas rights that the court was bound to recognize. Kalid, 355 F.Supp.2d at 314. Judge Leon concluded that they did not, and dismissed the petitions. Id. The Supreme Court reversed the dismissal earlier this year, holding that Gitmo detainees "are entitled to the privilege of habeas corpus to challenge the legality of their detention." Boumediene, 128 S. Ct. at 2262. The Court sent the case back to the district court to let the habeas hearings proceed. In the meantime, Judge Urbina, another Judge on the D.C. District Court relied on Boumediene to grant a habeas petition and order the release of a group of Uyghers who had been held in Gitmo.

The Decision.
Then yesterday, Judge Leon issued his decision in Boumediene v. Bush, Slip Op., No. 04-1116 (RJL) (D.D.C. Nov. 20, 2008). It turns out that the six detainees, who were native Algerians living legally in Bosnia, were arrested in Bosnia on suspicion of having plans to bomb the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. Id. at 3. But when that suspicion proved to be false, the Government continued to hold them at Guantanamo.

Judge Leon decided that in order to justify the detention, the Government had to prove, not beyond a reasonable doubt, but only by a preponderance of the evidence (a legalese term meaning "more likely than not") that the detainees were enemy combatants---that is, that they were part of or supported Taliban or Al Qaeda forces or associated forces, that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. Id. at 8.

The Government argued that five of the six detainees were enemy combatants because they had planned to go to Afghanistan and take up arms against U.S. forces there. The detainees disagreed, but argued that even if they did have a plan, a mere plan to be an enemy combatant is not the same thing as actually being one. Id. at 9. Judge Leon never resolved the issue of whether a plan was sufficient because he found that the evidence did not support the Government's allegation that the detainees even had the plan to begin with. He observed that the Government had provided only one classified source as evidence, and that it had failed to provide the Judge with enough evidence to evaluate the reliability and credibility of that one source. Id. at 10. Because most of the hearing was classified and not made public, Judge Leon did not go into any specifics about the deficiencies in the evidence. He concluded, however, that "to allow enemy combatancy to rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this Court's obligation . . . to protect petitioners from the risk of erroneous detention." Id. at 11.

As for the sixth detainee, Judge Leon found that the government had provided sufficient evidence to prove that he was an "al-Qaida facilitator" and allowed his continued detention. Id. at 11-13. Again, because of the classified nature of the evidence, there was no specific discussion of what the Government had proved.

That's two judges now, one liberal and one conservative, who have officially reached the same conclusion. Is it because they are dutifully applying the law? Or are the D.C. district court judges gunning for President-elect Barack "shut-down-Gitmo" Obama to give them a spot on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals---the most likely feeder court for the Supreme Court?