Archive for November, 2010

Braised Turkey Legs

November 21, 2010

Grasshoppers plagued the orchard. Alfalfa kept the weeds down, but insects blemished the fruit. Mom knew turkeys ate grasshoppers, stayed close to home and could be fattened to sell for Thanksgiving. The spaniel would scare away marauding coyotes, and a few pans of cracked corn would keep the flock happy.

Summer rolled along as the Broad Breasted Bronzes strutted and gobbled in the cottonwood shade by the back door. They combed the orchard for tasty hoppers. Mom was counting her chickens, when suddenly in early November 1949, Birds Eye lobbed inexpensive butterballs at the public. No one in our dusty town wanted to pay top dollar for a free-range turkey when supermarkets offered cheap frozen birds.

Mom was unwilling to sell the turkeys for less than the cost of their corn, so we ate all 25 of them ourselves. That was the winter of turkey steaks, ground turkey, smoked turkey, and endless turkey soups. All went down well except for the gizzard spaghetti sauce that kept us tight-lipped staring at our plates.

The pendulum now has swung back to a renewed demand for free-range turkey, giving farmers their due for fattened fowl. At the end of a major carve-up, I’m often left with the reed-sinew-filled legs. A few years ago, I kept the roasted legs whole, put them in a braising pot with the usual aromatics, a good splash of red wine, a handful of herbs and a dose of stock. Covered tightly and locked in a slow oven for a couple of hours, the legs emerged spoon-tender, surrounded by a dark sauce ready to challenge any French Bourguignon. It’s almost worth roasting a turkey just to have the braised legs. Happy Thanksgiving leftovers!

Braised Turkey Legs

2 roasted whole turkey legs

2 tablespoons turkey dripping or oil

l medium onion chopped

1 carrot chopped

1 branch celery chopped

2 cloves garlic minced

scant tablespoon tomato paste

pinch crushed red pepper

sprinkling of dry thyme or good branch fresh

¾ cup red or white wine

1 cup or more turkey or chicken stock

salt to taste

mushrooms (optional)

Heat the dripping in a frying pan and gently sauté onion, carrot, celery until limp. Add garlic, tomato paste and seasonings; sauté briefly. Stir in wine and bubble up. Add stock, heat and pour mixture over turkey legs in casserole baker with tight fitting lid. Place in a 325-degree oven and braise for about 2 hours.

When the turkey is done, the meat will fall from the bones and the juices will smell divine. Lift out the legs; pull away the bones, sinews and skin. Strain the juices, adding more stock or a little water if necessary. Thicken the braising liquid with a lump of butter and flour roux or use a bit of cornstarch dissolved in cold water. Add some sautéed mushrooms, pour the gravy over the turkey and serve with polenta or potatoes.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at


Pumpkin Caramel Custards

November 13, 2010

He walked in Jesus-like. Short, slender, brown-haired, he spoke softly and filled the space with calm. We didn’t know much about him but found ourselves listening as if he voiced ancient wisdom. He joined us one Thanksgiving and dined on a roasted sweet potato. When it was time for pie, he chose only the pumpkin and taught us to make a wish every time we took the first bite.

He listened to “The Big Guy,” shaved his head and traveled to India where he taught reading and computer skills. He lived near Delhi for a few years in a one-room, cement-floored flat with a single cold tap. He slept on a reed mat and stewed dal in a pressure cooker on a hot plate. He drifted back, and now he hovers between East and West.

Each Thanksgiving whether I choose to put my pumpkin in a pie or a caramel custard—whenever I cut that first wedge and take the first bite—I remember him. I make my wish and breathe a meditation for peace.

Pumpkin Caramel Custards

(Mini-pies without the crust)

3 ½ oz. (1/2 cup) granulated sugar + a pinch of salt

8 oz. (1 cup) canned pumpkin

2 eggs

3 ½ oz. (1/2 cup packed) light brown sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1/16 teaspoon clove, allspice

freshly grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon vanilla

1 cup cream

½ tablespoon dark rum (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped candied ginger (optional)

Warm 5 or 6 small ramekins or custard cups. To make the caramel heat a small, heavy skillet and sprinkle in ½ cup granulated sugar and pinch of salt. Do not stir the sugar. Within three minutes, it should begin to melt. Within the next two to three minutes the sugar will turn into a molten, amber syrup. Tilt the pan from side to side to encourage even coloring, but refrain from stirring. Once the sugar is dark enough (test a drop on a white saucer), spoon it into the warm ramekins or custard cups, tilting them to cover the bottom surface.

Add a little water to the remaining caramel in the skillet and simmer to a syrup for a final garnish.

Beat the eggs into the pumpkin followed by the sugar, spices, salt, vanilla and rum. Stir in the cream and optional candied ginger. Divide the custard among the caramel-lined custard cups.

Preheat the oven to 350º and bring a kettle of water to a boil. Place the custard cups in a shallow roasting pan and pour in boiling water to the depth of ½ inch to form a bain marie. Place the filled roasting pan in the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes or until the custard puffs, sets and turns shiny. (Longer baking makes the custard easier to remove from the cups for serving.) Remove from the oven and lift the cups from the water bath.

Chill the custards at least 8-24 hours before unmolding. Loosen the edges with a sharp knife. invert each cup onto a small dessert plate and shake until the custard drops onto the plate. If it is stubborn, dip the bottom of the cup in a bowl of hot water. Pour over a spoonful of reserved caramel syrup if desired. Unmolded custards may be refrigerated in a covered plastic box for 5-6 days.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at