Our very clever, very clothed Never Cook Naked columnists, Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein, are at your disposal, able to troubleshoot everything from questionable table etiquette to tricky cooking techniques (as well as, natch, proper cooking attire). Curious to read more solutions to culinary conundrums? You may wish to peruse previously asked questions, starting with the last column’s answers to everything brownie-related.
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: My Thanksgiving turkey is always suspiciously pink around the big joints—where the thighs meet the body of the bird—but perfectly roasted otherwise. Why is this? Is the turkey still too cold inside, even though I leave it at room temperature for an hour or so before roasting?—Cold Turkey
Dear Cold Turkey: Stop doubting yourself on our national pseudo-religious holiday! As long as you use an instant-read meat thermometer to ensure that the turkey does, indeed, measure 160°F (71°C) both in the thickest portion of the thigh and the breast, you stand blameless before the Lord—not to mention your guests.
Instead, blame biology. Specifically, blame a pigment found in the blood and bones of youngish animals, seeing as turkeys are axed quite early. This pigment can seep into muscles—that is to say, meat—and stain it. (You wanted to be a carnivore, right?)
So get used to it—and to casually explaining to guests that no, the turkey is not undercooked. Same goes for your roast chicken, which can suffer the same indignities at the joints.
If your guests doubt you, fear not. Instead, gently remind them that undercooked turkey is squishy and soft with a pallid hue while properly cooked turkey is firm, albeit with the chance of a slightly pinkish tinge at the joints.
Peeling Sweet Potatoes
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: When peeling sweet potatoes or yams, my skin has an odd reaction, almost as if it’s about to peel. Yet this doesn’t happen with regular potatoes. Any thoughts?—Unsightly Hands
Dear Unsightly: You don’t have to give up that orange tuber—which is swell news, because if you did, who’d want to come to your house for Thanksgiving dinner?
Still, your rather unsightly hands might be a hindrance to general contentment among your guests—not to mention yourself. As long as you’re not having an allergic reaction when you eat the sweet potatoes, you’re probably having a topical reaction to the proteins, molds, or even pesticides found on the surface of the lumpy tubers. This is easily solved in any of several ways. Choose whichever approach best suits your lifestyle:
1. Have children. They do well at kitchen tasks. We don’t have any ourselves, but we’ve watched Leave It to Beaver and feel we can speak to the general willingness of children everywhere to do chores.
2. Wear latex or rubber gloves when dealing with specimens of this particular rhizome—including while you give them a thorough scrub under cool running water prior to cooking. You’ll soon have smooth hands—and not a worry in the world.
By the way, it’s best to also keep one degree of separation from those pesky vegetables at the table by using silverware, even on finger food–like roasted sweet potato wedges. After all, do you really want those children you’ve carefully raised to see you eating with your fingers?
Good & Thick Gravy
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I’m always flummoxed by sauces. I can never get mine to thicken properly. My grandmother used to add flour by the tablespoon to gravy, but when I try this, I always end up with a sauce that has a raw, pasty taste. Not sure if it’s the heat level, the stirring action, the amount of flour, or…?—Runny Without Reason
Dear Runny: First, the truth, since it will set you free. Raw flour tastes like raw flour. Chances are your grandmother’s gravy tasted like raw flour, but you were too young to notice and your family too nice to say anything.
Even so, here are a few three solutions to your gravy dilemma. Pick one.
1. Add less flour and whisk longer. This is actually a three-part answer. First, use all-purpose flour, not bread flour or—heaven forfend—whole-wheat pastry flour. Second, add it in dribs and drabs—a mere 1 to 2 teaspoons at a time—while whisking with abandon. And last, when you see the right texture in the gravy, don’t remove the pan from the heat. Keep going for 30 to 60 seconds more over the heat, whisking all the while, to ditch that raw-flour taste.
2. Choose an alternate thickener. Our preference is potato starch. It’s less tricky than flour and less gummy than cornstarch. It also tends to lends a clear, creamy finish to sauces. Just remember that potato starch must be dissolved in water before it’s added to a gravy or sauce. One tablespoon of potato starch whisked into 1 tablespoon of cold water is plenty for a small cruet of gravy. Add it to a pan of runny gravy while it’s still on the heat and bring the sauce to a full bubble while you whisk without stopping. Gravy’s done.
3. Go with a beurre manié. That is to say, equal parts unsalted butter and flour, kneaded into a dough or paste of sorts. The fat coats the flour, separating the individual molecules so lumps don’t form and preventing the flour-ish taste from being overwhelming. Add beurre manié by the teaspoon to your sauce, whisking constantly over the flame, until you achieve the desired consistency—and then continue whisking a little longer to get rid of that raw flour taste. Wrap the rest of the paste tightly in plastic wrap and save it in the fridge until you feel the urge to enjoy that beverage we call gravy again.
Pert Pastry Tarts
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: How can I get my fluted piecrusts and pastry for tarts to maintain their pert shape during baking?—Shrinking Violet
Dear Shrinking: We hear your pain. We, too, have seen that water can shrivel the best of intentions. A dip in the pool after dinner and the night’s ruined. Once we were at this jazzy little hotel when….
Oh, wait, we’re talking about piecrusts. Well, same thing, really. The problem is still water—too much of it makes things shrink. Here’s how to fix this little problem. Add as small an amount of water (or other liquid) to the dough as possible. Most piecrust recipes involve a rather inexact measurement of liquid—for example, between 3 and 5 tablespoons cold water. Start with the minimum of 3. Not even 3 1/2. See if the dough will adhere. If not, add more water in teaspoon increments until your dough holds together. You don’t want glue. You want just enough moisture to hold the gluten together. A corollary to this solution is to recognize that adding butter to a piecrust is essentially adding water, given that butter is about 20 percent H2O, whereas vegetable shortening and lard contain no additional water. So be even more judicious in adding water to all-butter crusts, since there’s already moisture in the mix, or use a combo of butter and shortening or lard to minimize moisture.
While you’re at it, use cold water when building a crust, as you’re also trying to slow the melting of the fat as the crust sets in the oven. Too much melting can also create slouchy crusts.
As to that other problem with water, just book a room in a hotel without a pool. And don’t eat too much pie. That can kill the mood, too.
Got more questions? Good. We do, too. That is, more questions AND answers. In case you missed the mention above, for more cooking etiquette and enigmas explained, you can take a peek at previous columns from our Never Cook Naked Guys. Anything pertaining to food or drink goes. Well, anything within reason. But first, those previously tended-to questions we promised….
Illustration © 2012 Eric Hanson. All rights reserved.