Friday, November 26, 2010

Chateau Papillon has an "English basement," opening out onto the backyard with one of those ubiquitous sliding glass doors.  Or perhaps I should more correctly say had one of those sliding patio doors; one thing that had nagged us since moving in back in 2008 was the door's poor operation, and the fact that even fully open, it was just an inch too narrow to easily get the bird cages out or to bring things like appliances in.

The solution, obviously, was a nice French door, which we could swing out on both sides.  So, when Lowe's ran a 15% off special order doors sale earlier this fall, we went in and picked out a fairly basic Energy Star-rated model sized to replace that leaky, finicky old sliding door.

Installing the new door was actually very easy; the hardest part was getting the old one out.  I'd done such a job caulking the old door last year that the metal flashing around it was quite loathe to come loose, and I managed to destroy my caulk remover in the process (as well as the metal flashing--but we'd no real thought of salvaging it).  With advice from uncle E.C. and his contractor's expertise coupled with physical labor from my dad and sister Brooke, we got the new door in place with the only snag being some 1/4" cedar planks I had to remove around the opening.  Fortunately, the sill was pretty level, and the sides fairly plumb, requiring very little shimming and adjustment--for proper alignment is absolutely critical when installing any door, much less a French door where anything out of square will result in poor operation and often a gap between the two doors instead of a weather-tight seal.

I got the new door insulated (with low-expansion spray-foam) and caulked, as well as locksets installed and keyed to our existing house keys--a nifty feature, that.  There's still work to do; the inside needs some case molding, and the outside a fascia board along the top as well as possibly some casing along the outside edges.  Too, the strike plate for the main lock needs to be aligned better, and the handedness of the lock swapped (as the levers appear "upside-down" as installed).  But so far, so good!

The old door will be going to Habitat for Humanity, assuming they want it, as we got it out without any significant damage.  Now, if we'd only managed to get the door ordered before the submission deadline for the second round of Virginia energy efficiency rebates, we'd have saved about $100 more on the cost of the door.  Nevertheless, we made good use of our energy rebates, between replacing our furnace and a/c unit, buying a high-efficiency washing machine, and getting a home energy audit (the fruits of which, in all the caulking and other insulation work I've done, are seen in each month's energy bills).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Meal for Thanks

Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday cooking season for me, and much like Christmas, means an entire day spent in the kitchen--but with rewards well worth it when all the loads of dishes have been done and the leftovers stowed away in the fridge.  And Thanksgiving truly makes for a meal of thanks when shared with family.

This year's menu included several new dishes along with traditional favorites; without further ado, here's what we served at Chateau Papillon for Thanksgiving 2010:

Home-baked garlic, herb, and cheese bread--the first dish I prepared, as I fired up the oven at 8:30am to warm and proof the dough, with the loaves going in around noon.  Other than needing to measure the ingredients by weight, this is an easy bread for any kitchen, and one which can be tinkered with to no end (for example, I change the herbs, add cheese, and replace some of the flour with whole wheat flour)

Fresh green beans, blanched and served in olive oil and salt.  This was the quickest dish to prepare; just snap the ends off the beans, dump in boiling water for 5 minutes, strain, and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt (kosher salt's big flakes work best).

Sweet potato casserole.  This was one of my "experimental" dishes for the year, despite the traditional theme: in addition to the mashed sweet potatoes, I added a banana, a half pound of cream cheese, a beaten egg, brown sugar, a bit of flour, and seasoned with vanilla, curry powder, garam masala, cinnamon, freshly-ground nutmeg, and allspice... all topped with some marshmallows.  I have to say that it came out fantastically well--the banana and the curry really worked.

Stuffing: the only mostly-store-bought course, as I used a blend of dried cornmeal croutons and cranberry stuffing mix, with the added flavor of a splash of chicken broth and Irish whiskey.  (Everything is better with a little Irish whiskey.)

Baked apples: layers of butter alternated with Granny Smith apple slices, each topped with cinnamon, allspice, Chinese five spice powder, and a dash of cayenne pepper--and with ample brown sugar to keep it sweet, and just a splash of Meyer lemon juice to keep the apples from browning.

Skin-on mashed garlic and goat cheese red potatoes.  Nothing else to be said, really--just good eats.

Brined roasted turkey.  I only get real, homemade oven-roasted turkey twice a year, and look forward to Thanksgiving for the eleven long months after Christmas.  This year, I brined in a mixture of apple cider, kosher salt, brown sugar, candied ginger, black mustard seed, cloves, allspice berries, and peppercorns, then stuffed the turkey with apples, onion, cinnamon, along with some rosemary and sage straight from the garden and a bit of thyme from the supermarket--and a few springs of our curry plant.

The turkey drippings went straight into the saucier my mother-in-law P.A.T. gave me earlier this year, stirred into a butter-and-flour roux with a bit of salt, pepper, thyme, and a splash of Irish whiskey (remember what I said about Irish whiskey a minute ago?).  This was hands-down the best gravy I've ever made.  Let me share a secret to gravy making: start with a roux--melt 2-3 tablespoons of butter and whisk in 2 tablespoons of flour, then cook the resulting paste briefly.  The darker the roux, the more the flavor... but the less the thickening power, so for something with a lot of flavor to begin with like turkey gravy, cook only until the butter develops a nutty aroma.  Then, gradually whisk in the turkey drippings, season, and keep whisking until thickened--you'll let it come to a boil and cook on for a few minutes, then cool.  No canned gravy at Chateau Papillon, and no broth needed with such fantastic turkey drippings.

Chubb Mom made a course of her grandmother's rolls--yes, we already had bread, but rolls are a tradition, and I insisted.

For our resident fish-eating-vegetarian, I baked some Chilean Sea Bass--a course we've had three times in the past week (!!) but nonetheless an absolutely fantastic dish, and one of the simpler ones to make.  Put the fish, skin-side down, into a baking dish, top with mango sea salt and a few pats of butter, and roast at 390 degrees for 35 minutes or so until nice and golden on top.  Voila!

Finally, for dessert, I took advantage of Costco having both Meyer lemons and Cara-cara blood oranges.  In one of the more involved dishes of the day, I  baked a homemade graham cracker crust: I used a package of stale, broken grahams, tossed in the blender with some vanilla sugar and an unhealthy bit of butter--then pressed into the pie pan and baked for 10 minutes or so.  Ten or twelve lemons juiced and zested went into the custard base, along with a half dozen eggs, a lot of vanilla sugar, cornstarch, and some butter for richness... all then put over the bain marie until thickened sufficiently to go into the crust and bake until set.  After it cooled, I topped with homemade whipped cream (heavy cream, vanilla sugar, and Grand Mariner liquor) and blood orange segments.  The orange wedges made a big difference and added a light, juicy texture to each otherwise-heavy bite.  In the end, the pie tasted a bit like a good key lime pie, taking advantage of the Meyer lemon's cross between lemons and tangerines.

My mom put together no-bake pumpkin turtle pie as well at my dad's request, using a store-bought (blasphemous!) graham cracker crust, canned pumpkin, Cool Whip (I offered to fold in my real whipped cream--to no avail), vanilla pudding, caramel sauce, and pecans.  I did, however, manage to slip in some extra seasoning, including Irish whiskey (!), allspice, and Chinese five spice powder.  I couldn't find the mace, or that would have gone in, too.

Overall, I used the better part of six sticks of butter and did five (soon to be six) loads of dishes as I cleaned up as I prepped and cooked throughout the day.  But it was worth it--Thanksgiving does come only once a year, after all.