The Food Guy, Steven Keith Eating his way through the state, plate by plate

A generous client of my wife’s just gave us a stash of fresh morels, those prized mountain mushrooms that are a rite of spring for food connoisseurs everywhere. Also known as “molly moochers,” these rare edible fungi pack an intense earthy taste that pairs so well with cream and wine sauces, beef and so much more.

If you’re not convinced how sought-after these babies are, just take a look at how much they cost. A quick online search today showed options ranging from $17 and ounce (yep, for one ounce) up to nearly $1,900 for a 15-pound bag. Holy sticker shock, Batman!

So to make the most of these high-falutin’ mushrooms, we did a little digging (BA-DA-BING!) and got a great idea from our pediatrician. She recommended drying them in an low-heat oven, which not only intensifies their flavor but also enables you to preserve them longer. We Googled (when did that become an acceptable verb, by the way?) her idea and found an easy process that yielded great results …

  1. You rinse and soak them in a brine of salted water for several hours, which helps draw out any impurities that might be present. (Mushrooms can be a little iffy, you know, so this step made me feel better about eating something culled from the wild.)
  2. Then you let them dry on paper towels before arranging them on a cooling rack placed on a cookie sheet to go in the oven.
  3. Place them in a 140-degree oven and let them slowly dry out all day — up to 6, 8 or 10 hours — until all the moisture is gone but before they completely shrivel away. They will shrink quite a bit, but that’s OK. The flavor not only remains, but is more pronounced.
  4. Now place them in an airtight contrainer and either store in the refigerator (if you plan to use them within a few days) or freezer (to keep them much longer). When ready to use, you can either reconstitute them by soaking in boiling water to fatten ’em back up — although you lose some of the flavor — or, better yet, just chop up to give soups, salads or sauces an out-of-this-world kick.

I dried ours yesterday and now have a little Ziploc full of goodness just waiting to tantalize our tastebuds!

Here’s a pretty cool new website to check out …

Do you take pictures of your food and post them on Facebook? Do you like to show off what’s cookin’ in your own kitchen? Do you like chatting with others about great recipes, cooking tips, unusual ingredients, funny cooking stories or even food catastrophes?

If so, Los Angeles-based Chef Jeffrey Nimer (owner of HauteChefsLA) has created just the site for you. Welcome to the Social Culinaire Network (www.socialculinaire.com), a new online community celebrating all things edible!

You can upload your own photos, create a profile, make your own food photo albums, find out about upcoming events – or simply just join the national “foodie” conversation. Enjoy!

T-Minus One Day and Counting … Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock

 OK, we’re at T-minus one day and counting.

The menu is planned, the shopping is done and the big bird is thawing. There’s really not much left to worry about at this point. Except trying not to kill your guests.

Food poisoning is serious business and reported cases often spike around the holidays. Here’s what you can do to avoid spending your holiday laid up in bed – either yours or one at the hospital …

  1. Wash your hands often, especially in between handling foods that are dry and wet. 
  2. Before preparing food, carefully clean counters, cutting boards and utensils with hot soapy water. Repeat cleaning in between recipes, especially if you have raw meat or leafy greens on the cutting board, both of which can carry salmonella.
  3. Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly under cool running water and use a produce brush to remove surface dirt.
  4. If you purchased a turkey fresh and not frozen, refrigerate it immediately. For a frozen turkey, allow lots of time for it to thaw – about 2 hours of thaw time per five pounds of turkey. Thaw a turkey a high walled pan placed in the refrigerator, and do not let the water touch any other food.
  5. It is safest not to stuff a turkey, but rather put herbs inside the cavity to season it. If you must stuff, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the stuffing which must reach 165° F. Stuffings with meat or shellfish (oyster) ingredients are risky. Always cook these on the stove top or in the oven, and not in the turkey.
  6. A significant risk of food poisoning comes from undercooking the turkey. You can’t tell it’s done by how it looks! While recipes give you hints about testing for “doneness,” such as a golden brown color or seeing juices run clear, these may not be accurate. The only way to make sure your bird is cooked sufficiently to be safe to eat is to measure the internal temperature with a meat thermometer. It must reach 165 degrees F.
  7. It may not be in mom’s recipe, but bring gravy to a full boil before serving.
  8. Keep cold food like salads, Jell-O molds and salad dressing refrigerated until just before serving. Once dinner is over, refrigerate leftovers. If food has been sitting out for two hours or more, it may not be safe to eat.
  9. Use pasteurized eggs in homemade recipes.
  10. After eating, take the remaining meat off the bird and store in a shallow container in the refrigerator. Don’t put an entire carcass into the refrigerator — it won’t cool down quickly enough.

So how do you know if those cramps you’re feeling are innocent indigestion or something more sinister?

Food poisoning can cause fever, stomach pain, vomiting and/or diarrhea, often leading to dehydration. These signs usually appear within six, but up to 48, hours after eating or drinking a contaminated food or beverage. For the elderly, children, infants, pregnant woman and people suffering from compromised immune systems, food poisoning can be severe. When in doubt, get it checked out.

Turkey Talk: How Long to Cook It? Should You Stuff It?

Two of the biggest questions on the minds of turkey cookers everywhere are:

  1. How long do I could the darn thing?
  2. And stuff, or not to stuff?

You have questions. I have answers …

How long should I cook my turkey?

This is where I have to give an obligatory speech about how important it is to cook the life out of your turkey so there’s no risk of killing your guests via nasty salmonella or other unsavory critters. Most sources recommend cooking to an internal temperature of 170, but I have a few caveats to add.

First, any bacteria that may have set up shop in your turkey kicks the bucket at lower temperatures, in the 140 degree range. What’s more: Even if you remove your turkey at 170, it’s going to keep cooking inside for a bit, to a higher temperature that will dry the poor thing out even more.

So definitely take it out the oven before it hits 170, and ideally even 10-15 degrees sooner.

How do you know when that is? Inserting a good ol’ meat thermometer into the thickest part of the bird gives you the best reading. Many turkeys also come with automatic pop-up timers these days. They’re convenient, sure, but also don’t pop until you’re past the 170 mark. Meaning they’ll keep cooking after that. And be dry as chalk.

But the “recommended” rule of thumb is this: Roast for 12-15 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature hits, ahem, 165-175 degrees – or, if you want tasty turkey, a little less.

To stuff or not to stuff?

Here again, food safety experts caution against stuffing your bird. A mass of stuffing inside draws heat away from the turkey itself, increasing the risk that your meat won’t cook to a safe temperature.

That could definitely happen. So I also recommend against stuffing the turkey, not just for safety reasons but also quality, too.

All of that bread inside can not only suck up your heat, but also soak up all of the turkey’s natural juices. That may make for mighty moist stuffing, but not tasty turkey.

How to Cook Thanksgiving’s Guest of Honor – RIP.

Yesterday we talked about buying your big Thanksgiving bird. Today, let’s discuss cooking that bad boy!

Here’s some advice from the venerable Old Farmer’s Almanac Everyday Recipes (and me) on how to roast it to earn raves:

  • Position your oven rack so the turkey sits in the lower third of the oven. If you’re cooking it in a bag – which I HIGHLY RECOMMEND – be sure you allow enough space above so the bag won’t touch the heating elements and burst as it inflates during cooking.
  • Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. This low-roasting temperature results in a juicier bird.
  • Remove the neck and giblets from the body cavity, drain any juices and rinse the bird thoroughly under cold water. Drain, blot it dry and set it aside to let it reach room temperature.
  • Stuff the turkey (if you wish) and then truss it: Take a 4- to 6-foot piece of cooking twine and tie the legs together at the ankles. Run the twine around the thighs and under the wings. Pull tightly and make a knot around the excess flesh where the turkey’s neck used to be. Trussing the turkey into a compact shape helps to ensure that it cooks evenly and makes it easier to carve.
  • Place the turkey on the oven rack in a pan deep enough to collect any juices that may run off during cooking. (You’ll want to save these to make awesome gravy later!)
  • Lightly brush the bird with melted butter or oil, then generously season with salt, pepper and your favorite herbs – either on the skin’s surface or, better yet, underneath it between skin and meat. (Just gently ply the skin away from the meet with your fingers, and slather your herbed butter mixture inside to better infuse the meat.) And don’t be stingy with the seasoning, either. Turkeys are big and their meat is dense, so they can withstand (and need) lots of flavorings.
  • Roast the turkey, basting with the pan drippings every 40 to 60 minutes. If you’re using a cooking bag, you don’t have to do this. Yet another reason to use the bag – less work, moister meat!
  • When the skin is golden brown, after approximately 1 to 2 hours, shield the breast with a tent of aluminum foil, shiny side out. To prevent over-browning.
  • Thirty minutes before the end of the roasting time, begin taking the turkey’s temperature with an instant-read meat thermometer in both the thigh and breast areas. Continue doing this in 15-minute increments until the thermometer reads at least 180 degrees in both areas.
  • Remove the bird, cover with aluminum foil and let sit for 30 minutes. This allows the juices to retreat back into the meat, making it easier to carve. (And tastier, to boot!)

When to Buy that Delicious Big Bird

When you’re ready to head to the store to buy your big bird, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Plan on about 1-2 pounds of turkey per person. (Just depends on how many leftovers you want to enjoy and/or deal with!)
  • If you’re cooking a fresh turkey, allow only 1 or 2 days between buying and roasting it. Be sure to store it in the refrigerator on a tray or pan to catch any juices that may leak out. And don’t worry if your “fresh” turkey seems a little on the frozen side. By law, even fresh ones have to be kept no warmer than 30 degrees.
  • Avoid prestuffed turkeys, as harmful bacteria may be in the stuffing.

And if you go down the frozen route, here are two ways to safely thaw that beast:

  • In the refrigerator in the original wrapper – Allow approximately 24 hours of defrosting time for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.
  • In cold water – Submerge it in cold water, allowing about 30 minutes per pound to thaw. But be sure to change the water every 30 minutes, and cook the bird immediately after thawing. (Do not refreeze!)

Wash Those GROSS-ery Bags!

So, do you want to be CLEAN or GREEN?

Next time to head out to the grocery store — all proud of yourself with eco-friendly resuable bags in hand — consider this bit of frightening news from a recent study. (SPOILER ALERT: Gross details below!)

During a recent test, scientists from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found that nearly half of the reusable grocery bags they sampled contained traces of fecal bacteria, including E coli. Eewww.

Here’s how it happens: You put fresh fruits and veggies in your bag, and germs from the surface are left behind when you remove them. Or you buy a package of raw meat and some of the juices leak out, possibly contaminating other items — and your bag.

The solution? Wash your bags after every trip. Yes, that uses more soap and water (kinda negating the eco-benefits or skipping plastic bags) but at least you’ll stay safe and healthy.

Welcome to the new “Food Guy” food blog!

Greetings, dear readers, and welcome to the new “Food Guy” food blog!

If you’ve followed my weekly food column in the Charleston Daily Mail for the past 10 or so years, you already know I’m pretty obsessed with cooking, recipes, restaurants, wine — pretty much anything food-related. Or maybe I just like to eat. Either way, I figure I’m not alone, so I hope you’ll check back here often so we can share our love of all things yummy together. I’ll still be writing my weekly column for the newspaper, but this here blog is where I’ll start sharing cooking tips, restaurant updates, new food finds, random rants and more on a more frequent basis. And I look forward to hearing what you have to say, too.

So welcome, food friends! And let the discussion begin!!