Cooks Corner

This Thanksgiving, make perfect mashed potatoes — and lighten up your leftovers

Ensalada de Pavo y Cranberry is a way to use leftover turkey from the holiday table.
Ensalada de Pavo y Cranberry is a way to use leftover turkey from the holiday table. Bulla Gastrobar

My favorite meal is not the actual Thanksgiving feast — I’m always too busy with cooking to enjoy it — but the march of the leftovers.

This wonderful salad is from Bulla Gastrobar in Coral Gables, and it is an excellent way to use up the turkey once you’ve gotten past the midnight raid. You can find cranberry vinegar at specialty markets or make your own — it is a beautiful and easy holiday gift — so I’ve included my recipe.

Speaking of holiday gifts, this cinnamon pecan topping would make a great host or hostess gift and is perfect on everything from ice cream to waffles, or as a topping for brie or cream cheese as an appetizer. It’s quick and easy and delicious — like giving pecan pie in a jar.

Sleuth’s corner

Q. Help. Can you tell me why sometimes my mashed potatoes are perfect and sometimes they come out like glue? It is the only part of making Thanksgiving dinner that I have trouble with, and last year I resorted to scalloped potatoes instead. Everyone was disappointed — they really want old-fashioned mashed potatoes.

Donna, Sacramento

A. I’ve read a lot of pretty scientific explanations over the years that make my eyes cross, delving into specifics about the starch and moisture content of various types of potatoes, and how the cell structure breaks down more easily in some.

Then there are the geek cooks who talk about viscosity from overmixing, when cell walls break down and starch is released. But I’m going to simply pass along a few things I’ve learned that make it easier to get great mashed.

1. Some experts insist you should buy Grade A potatoes. I think what is most important is to buy potatoes that are fresh picked, with no green shading or soft spots. I’ll use Russets or yellows or reds or a mixture — whatever looks best at the market.

2. Most of the time I leave the skins on when I make mashed potatoes, since they add fiber and nutrition. Go with your own preference. What is most important is to cut the potatoes so they are about the same size and will cook evenly.

3. Don’t overcook. Place scrubbed potatoes in cold water, bring to a boil, and cook just until they pierce easily with a fork. Depending upon how small you cut the pieces, this won’t take long. Just don’t cook so long that the edges start to disintegrate — the potatoes are overcooked at that point and more likely to get gluey in the mashing.

4. Draining completely is crucial. I like to drain first in a colander, then put them back in the hot pot they were boiled in, over low heat. Toss a few times, until there is no more visible moisture. My Irish gran always insisted you put the drained potatoes in the oven on a cookie sheet for 10 minutes while the roast was resting, and mash during the carving time. At any rate, the drier the potato, the better.

5. Go old school. If you use an electric mixer you are much more likely to over-process and get gummed-up potatoes. You should have a hand masher, and I like the ones with small square holes in a disk-shape bottom the best. I’ve purchased expensive ones and I’ve purchased ones at the dollar store and don’t notice a whole lot of difference.

I am not a fan of the wave-style mashers — they take too much smashing since there is so much space between. It also helps to mash with warmed milk and melted butter. I zap mine in the microwave and add gradually, until I get the consistency I like. Whatever you do, stop mashing before the consistency gets to the paste stage. And never use a food processor.

6. Season and taste and season again! Potatoes seem to just suck up the salt. I also like to use white pepper in my mashed potatoes — enough to kick up the earthiness of the potatoes but not overwhelm.

Tried and New

For last-minute Thanksgiving feasts — or if you forgot to thaw your turkey — I just checked out the new and foolproof oven-ready turkey from Jennie-O. What makes it foolproof? You don’t have to figure out how to thaw it first: It comes inside an oven baking bag designed so you just take off the outer wrapping and put it straight in the oven while still frozen. You don’t have to mess with raw poultry and worry about food safety. It roasts in 4 hours and comes out moist and nicely browned.

My millennial tasters all were enthusiastic not only with the moistness of the bird but with how easy it is for even novice cooks. Wish it had been around when I roasted my first turkey, complete with the bag of mystery innards.

Limited availability. In South Florida, look for it at Walmart. (But I was not able to find the Cajun version, or the oven-ready turkey breast.) There’s a store locator at jennieo.com.

Linda Cicero: LindaCiceroCooks@aol.com, @TasteMemories. Write to Cook’s Corner at Food, Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Doral, FL 33172.

Cinnamon Pecan Pie Topping

Recipe adapted from McCormick.

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 tablespoons butter, divided

1 cup pecans, chopped

1/2 cup light corn syrup

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon rum flavoring

Mix brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg in small bowl until blended. Set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in large skillet on medium heat. Add pecans; toast 5 to 7 minutes or until golden brown, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to low.

Stir remaining 1 tablespoon butter, corn syrup, water, vanilla extract, rum flavor and brown sugar mixture into skillet. Cook and stir until butter is melted and mixture is heated through. Remove from heat. (Mixture will thicken as it cools.) Serve at room temperature.

Per serving: 169 calories, 8 mg cholesterol, 86 mg sodium, 1 g protein, 9 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 1 g fiber, 21 g carbohydrate.

Yield: 12 (2-tablespoon) servings

Homemade Cranberry Vinegar

Recipe by Linda Cicero.

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

Peel from an orange or tangerine

1 (12 ounce) package fresh or frozen cranberries

In a saucepan, bring all ingredients to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until the cranberries burst. Push against the cranberries with a wooden spoon to release juices. Cool. Strain through a fine sieve or coffee filter into sterilized bottles or jars. Seal tightly. Discard cranberries and cinnamon stick. Chill until ready to use.

Yield: About 3 cups

Bulla’s Ensalada de Pavo y Cranberry

Recipe by Bulla Gastrobar executive chef Diego Solano.

2 cups blended oil

1/4 cup cranberry vinegar (see recipe)

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon local honey

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 heads of baby gem lettuce or romaine hearts

1/2 cup of heirloom cherry tomatoes, cut in half

2 ounces (about 1/4 cup) chopped walnuts

1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) dried cranberries

2 cups shredded cooked turkey

2 ounces crumbled goat cheese

Make the vinaigrette: Combine oil, vinegar, mustard, honey and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk until combined.

At serving time: Toss the greens, tomatoes, walnuts and cranberries with 4 ounces, or to taste, of the vinaigrette. Top with the shredded turkey and goat cheese.

Yield: 4 servings

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