Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Honey-Cress Salad with Prosciutto

What is pink, green and covered in honey? No, not a Lilly Pulitzer dress after an unfortunate incident at high tea! It’s my Honey-Cress Salad with Prosciutto.

I invented this salad as an answer to Ivonne and Lis's call for contributions to their La Festa al Fresco event. Any dish using at least one seasonal, fresh ingredient would fit. This was more challenging for me than it might appear. First off, my market, now more than any other time during the year, is an absolute embarrassment of riches. The peaches, nectarines and plums (I bought 5 different varieties of plums alone, this week!) seem to be coming in faster than they can be sold. In the past week, I have gone through pounds of stone fruit in an attempt at the summer classic, homemade fruit pie (Don’t ask…really.), and I eat at least two out of hand every day. The figs (Black Mission, Calimyrna, Brown Turkey) which have been in fairly steady supply all summer are now at center stage in the produce section—two pounds for the price of one! And then there are the melons, daring me to gut and peel them with my largest, razor sharp chef’s knife.

The other challenge was that, even with all these luscious items at my fingertips, I didn’t really want to do much cooking. Part of my resistance was that Mike is away on business, but it also seemed quite silly to mess with nature’s perfection. All of this, plus an impending tropical storm or possibly hurricane here in South Florida, set me on a search for a dish where loveliness would be the result of sheer simplicity.

For inspiration, I flipped through the pages of Once Upon A Tart, the beautifully produced cookbook by New York City bakery owners, Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audureau. Far more than just tarts, this book is full of salads, soups and snazzy sandwich ideas. Their baguette bursting with watercress and thinly sliced brie, pears and figs caught my eye, but a sandwich was not quite what I had in mind. So, I went to bed with visions of baguettes and summer fruit dancing in my head. At some point before I fell asleep, the Honey-Cress Salad came together in my mind. Of course prosciutto and melon is a gorgeous salty-sweet combination, and the enormous, pale green honeydew melons have been calling out to me from their bin every time I go shopping. I would artfully arrange them on a bed of watercress and anoint all of it with a light honey-lemon dressing and a touch of olive oil to mellow the bite of the greens. Thin shavings of manchego would add another textural element and anchor the sweetness of the melon and honey while acting as a perfect pair with the prosciutto.

As I shopped for the ingredients the following day, I wondered if my nighttime salad fantasy would actually turn into a delicious reality. I will spare you the details of my careful prep work (I sometimes lack the patience to arrange things in a way that anyone would call “artful.”), and tell you that this salad is a dream come true. The bitter watercress became subtly peppery and the manchego fused with the prosciutto and melon like shavings of butter. Accompanied by crusty multigrain bread, this was all I needed for a simple summer meal. The portion above was intended to serve two, but I greedily finished most of it. For a larger crowd, or perhaps a festa al fresco, you can simply double the recipe as many times as you need to fill your largest serving platter. This is the kind of salad that can sit on the table along with your other dishes so diners can scoop up portions of it throughout a long, langorous meal, served under the setting summer sun.

Honey-Cress Salad with Prosciutto
I recommend the following amounts to serve four as part of a meal. Double the ingredients as many times as you need to serve a larger crowd.

3 tblsp. honey
1 tblsp. hot water
juice of half a lemon
1/2 honeydew melon, cut into wedges and peeled, then thinly sliced into uniform 3-inch pieces
4 cups watercress, thick stems removed
extra virgin olive oil
fresh ground pepper
6 to 8 very thin slices of prosciutto, torn into smaller pieces
3 to 4 oz. manchego cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler

Make the honey dressing: combine the honey, water and lemon juice in a small bowl and whisk to combine.

Arrange the watercress on a serving platter. Sprinkle with a touch of olive oil and season lightly with pepper. Toss too combine. Over the watercress, arrange the melon slices and prosciutto alternating in a circular pattern. Any extra prosciutto can be used to make little "rosettes" in the center of the platter. Strew the platter with shavings of manchego cheese, sprinkle with ground pepper and drizzle the honey dressing over the salad. You will not need to use all the dressing, but it will keep in the refrigerator for a couple days.

technorati tags:
To see the roundup of all the Festa al Fresco dishes, take a look here on September 5th.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Frittata: Variations on a Brunch

A frittata is one of those dishes that looks quite challenging and impressive, but is actually simple to make. Other foods that fall into this category are risottos and fruit tarts. With dishes like these, all you have to do is learn one basic technique. From there, you can create endless variations to complement your mood or the ingredients you happen to have on hand. Occasionally, I’ll make a frittata for dinner to eat with a green salad and white wine. However, brunch is where the frittata shines most.

This Saturday, Mike and I went scuba diving near our home in Fort Lauderdale. We got certified in early 2005 so we could take advantage of the diver's paradise right here in our own backyard. Once you get comfortable with the mechanics of diving, all that’s left is relaxing on the boat, looking at tropical fish and enjoying the view. It is a very nice way to spend a Saturday morning. This weekend the water was calmer than we have ever seen it, but even under the best conditions, diving is a physically demanding activity. This might have to do with the fact that we had to get up at 6:30am on a Saturday, but that is beside the point. When you get home after a morning of diving, all you want to do is wash the salt water out of your hair, pop open a cold beer and have a delicious, fortifying lunch.

That is where the frittata comes in. Unlike an omelet, it can serve several people and can even be considered a one-pot meal. I have made frittatas with thinly sliced potatoes (as in a Spanish tortilla) or cooked spaghetti when I wanted something a little more substantial. For a simple and healthy version, all you need to add to the eggs are a variety of vegetables and a generous sprinkling of cheese. You could also add a protein like proscuitto, smoked salmon or thinly sliced chicken sausage. You sauté the vegetables in a nonstick skillet and pour the eggs right over them. Let the eggs set part of the way in the skillet, then put the skillet 10 inches under a preheated broiler to finish cooking and brown on top.

Below, I've illustrated how to make a frittata with red peppers, green onions, yellow corn and feta. Mike likes to call this one the "Lucky Charms Frittata." At the bottom of the post, I included a few more ideas for variations to get your creativity flowing. You will need:

6 eggs, beaten and seasoned with salt and pepper
olive oil and/or cooking spray
salt and pepper to taste
1 red bell pepper--thinly slice, then cut the slices in half crosswise
1 bunch of green onions, thinly sliced
fresh corn from two cobs
3 oz. feta cheese, crumbled

Saute the red onion in a little oil until very soft. Add the green onions and the fresh corn. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour the beaten eggs over the vegetables. Use your spoon to push the egg away from the sides to let the liquid flow to the bottom. Constantly keep things moving.

After you have worked most of the liquid to the bottom of the pan and the sides have started to set, sprinkle the cheese on top and put your skillet under the broiler. The center of the frittata will still be mostly liquid at this point.

It will take about 5 to 10 minutes to finish the frittata under the broiler, but watch it carefully! A minute too long under the scorching heat and the eggs will lose their tender texture. Mine is done when the cheese starts to brown.

Here are some tips for making a successful frittata:

1) Choose two to three vegetables with varying flavors and textures, some sweet, like sautéed bell peppers or red onions; some crisp, like fresh corn or green onions.

2) Use flavorful, full-fat cheeses and add them after you pour the eggs evenly over the vegetables. Good choices are feta, goat cheese, or fontina. Once, I used ricotta, placing small spoonfuls of the soft cheese all over the egg; it browned beautifully.

3) As the egg sets, constantly use your spatula or wooden spoon to push the eggs away from the sides of the skillet as you tilt the pan so that the liquid resting on top can flow to the bottom of the pan. This prevents the bottom from browning too quickly and ensures even cooking.

4) If you are using potatoes, slice them very thinly and blanch them. Then lightly brown them in the skillet. Finally, arrange them in an even layer on the bottom of the skillet and add any additional vegetables, followed by the eggs.

More Frittata Ideas:

1) spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, carmelized red onions, feta

2) sliced potatoes, sauteed onions and red peppers, grated manchego

3) mushrooms, green onions, fresh thyme, grated fontina

4) smoked salmon and dill

5) sliced artichoke hearts, sliced tomatoes, crumbled goat cheese

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Faux Pho or the Real Thing?

"Is that her real nose?"
"Is she a real blonde?"
And, "Are those things REAL?!"

Whether we prefer it or not, we always want to know whether what we are getting is the real thing. The types of questions above are most often directed at women (that is a whole other topic), but the same attitude, the same obsession with authenticity, also applies to food. Is that real, wild salmon on the menu? Is this lamb actually grass fed? Are these raspberries truly organic? We ask these questions out of genuine concern that we are getting the purest, the healthiest, the most ethical; in short, the real thing.

When Mike and I returned home from spending the weekend in South Beach, we wanted to eat something light and restorative. We needed to recover from a couple indulgent restaurant meals and a whole lot of cocktails with complex names I can’t remember. In my mind, this called for a deeply aromatic soup full of soft rice noodles, vegetables and fresh herbs. Rice noodle soup is the most stomach-friendly food I can think of, and some of the best noodle soups I’ve had are Vietnamese pho.

Sunday afternoon was overcast and stormy (still 90 degrees, but stormy), the perfect day to fill the condo with the smell of spicy stock simmering on the stove. I looked over several recipes for pho, and mainly followed one from the January 2006 issue of Gourmet, found here. It calls for 4 pounds of meaty beef shanks which I found at the local supermarket. Another recipe in a Williams-Sonoma book of authentic Southeast Asian recipes called for some beef bones as well as several oxtails; otherwise, it was very close to the Gourmet recipe. I followed the directions carefully, parboiling and rinsing the beef to remove extra scum. I simmered them with oven-blistered onions and ginger, and a sachet of cloves, cinnamon and anise for two hours as their perfume filled the kitchen. When I finally took that first taste I was ready for rich, beefy warmth to fill my mouth, but the flavor was watered down and only slightly beefy. I continued to simmer, hoping the flavors would intensify, but I knew it had already been long enough. The beef itself was falling off the bones with tenderness, and the large pearls of marrow were soft and gelatinous. My stock was not terrible, but it did lack the depth and complexity I had hoped for.

I proceeded according to the recipe, and we enjoyed the soft rice noodles, the crunch of the bean sprouts and all the herby accents. Still, the fundamental piece of the recipe, the unifier of all the other ingredients, did not measure up. I have since looked at several more recipes, and some call for oxtails, but others are similar to the Gourmet recipe. Some called for simmering the bones several hours longer, but 3 hours was the most common directive. Maybe I will try again with oxtails sometime. Meanwhile, I had a bowl of leftover noodles, bean sprouts and herb sprigs that could not go to waste until then. On Monday night, I bought a box of good beef stock at the market and flavored it with lime and fish sauce. I poured the boiling stock over my noodles and added the various accoutrements. My faux pho did not have the authentic flavor I’ve tasted in Vietnamese restaurants, but I preferred it to the insipid flavor of my attempt at the real thing.

Of course I prefer authenticity, but sometimes a recipe just doesn't work. Maybe my beef shanks were inferior, or the moon was misaligned with whatever planet rules the boiling of beef bones. I’ll keep striving for true pho, but it was comforting to find that faking it, just once in a while, isn’t a bad substitute for the real thing.

This is my favorite part of eating pho--a big, beautiful plate of fresh herbs and other flavorful add-ins. Even if your pho is faux, a handful of basil, cilantro and mint lends a fresh, homemade touch.

First, you soak the rice noodles in cold water for 20 minutes, then boil for about one minute. They should be just barely al dente.

A close up of the real thing. I did veer a bit from traditional pho by adding carrots and snow peas. I love my veggies.

The cornerstone of a faux pho--good store bought stock.

This time, my taste buds preferred the fake version.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread

Ciabatta is a tremendous sandwich-holder. Baguette is divine with butter or as a toasty crostini base. Focaccia is king all on its own. I am powerless to resist the best versions of all of these, but when I want bread for my morning toast or something thick and hearty to eat with a bowl of soup, I reach for whole wheat. I love the dense texture, as opposed to the airy center of a proper baguette. I adore the crunch of seeds and whole grains, even if they occasionally get stuck between my teeth. One of the most satisfying snacks I can eat is a slice of fresh, untoasted whole wheat bread, baked with honey for a touch of sweetness, slathered with best-quality, unsalted butter.

This way, and no other, is how I eat my Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread. I found the recipe for this bread in the homey little cookbook produced by my elementary school in the late 80s, but the first time I made it, I was in my late teens. Although I really didn’t know what soda bread was, it caught my eye because of the whole wheat flour and the fact that no yeast was called for in this free-form, round loaf. I had never made bread, yeasted or otherwise, and this looked unbelievably simple. Actually, I was afraid some vital ingredient had been left out of the recipe by accident.

I have altered the original to make it sweeter with more honey in the batter and a generous sprinkling of sugar over the top. Despite this, the nutty, wheat flavor dominates just enough to call for a generous pat of butter to coax out the sweetness. Eat it this way with a meal or an afternoon coffee. It could become a dessert or breakfast bread, spread with fruit preserves. Mike and I recently had it with a veggie and goat cheese frittata and some pink sparkling wine for brunch. Strange as it sounds, we were both certain that the buttered soda bread made the delicious bubbly even better. I have heard people say that certain wines contain flavors of toasted brioche. Certainly it could be possible to detect notes of sweet whole wheat bread in your favorite sparkler, couldn’t it?

After combining the wet and dry ingredients, the consistency of the dough should be wet and sticky, but thick enough to hold its shape.

Use a spatula to scoop the dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and form it into an 8 inch circle.

Good unsalted butter is a must.

Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread
I play around with different flour combinations every time I make this. I order an Irish-style whole meal flour from King Arthur that I really like. My current favorite is 1 cup Irish flour and 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour. All whole wheat flour is absolutely delicious too. Any coarse sugar is great here because it won't dissolve completely in baking, but granulated will work in a pinch. 

2 c. whole wheat flour (or any combo of whole wheat, whole wheat pastry and Irish style)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg
3/4 c. buttermilk plus additional as needed
2-3 tblspn. honey
turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 375. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, buttermilk and honey. Add more or less honey, depending on how much sweetness you prefer. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the flour mixture. Stir until just combined. Set aside and allow flour to hydrate for 5 minutes. Stir gently until all flour is moistened, drizzling in additional buttermilk very sparingly if needed.

Sprinkle some sugar in the center of the parchment paper and spoon the dough out on top. Use a spatula to shape it into a circle, roughly 8-9 inches in diameter and 1 1/2 inches high. Sprinkle sugar all over the top of the loaf. Bake for 23 to 28 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean, and bottom of loaf is browned and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool completely on a rack (at least 2 hours), then cut into slices. Keeps in the refrigerator for 5 days and in the freezer for 3 months.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Miami Spice in South Beach

Lately, I feel like I am in perpetual motion. The week days are a blur of working, cooking, blogging, thinking about cooking and blogging, going to the gym and trying to spend a half hour relaxing with a brilliant novel and a cup of fennel tea before bed. I feel like a whirling dervish, except that this all this frenzied activity is not getting me even vaguely closer to spiritual enlightenment. I do have fun though, and all the great food we cook and eat is totally worth the effort.

I live for the weekends. The trick is to get out and do something on Friday night so that by 10 or 11pm, you kind of forget that you were ever at work that day. Even though a lot of our weekend time is reserved for fun and relaxation, there are still plenty of errands to run, laundry to do, a condo to clean and the inevitable sink full of dishes waiting for us on Sunday morning. The most effective way we’ve found to abandon our list of chores and achieve supreme relaxation is to get out of town. So this past Friday, we threw our bags and beach chairs in the car, and 45 minutes later we were in South Beach having a beer at our hotel’s bar looking out on Ocean Drive.

It is awfully convenient to live so close to one of the most scenic, not to mention hedonistic, vacation destinations in America. And I didn't have to surrender any gels, lotions or duty-free alcohol in order to get there! Better yet, August and September are when Miami Spice is held. During those two months, loads of participating restaurants offer an abbreviated 3 course dinner menu for $30.06. If you live in a city where they do this type of thing, be sure to take advantage. You might discover some new favorites.

Mike and I ate at two of the swanky, glamour-pie South Beach restaurants and got a good deal on some beautiful meals. I would not have made an effort to visit these places without the Miami Spice promotion, although they have great reputations. Sometimes South Beach is more about the "scene" than the quality of the food, and I hate to pay a lot and be disappointed. Happily, we did not encounter this problem at Wish and Afterglo. If you are doing your own South Beach weekend, I highly recommend Wish for creative, perfectly prepared food, flawless service and an incredibly romantic, twinkling garden setting that is quintessential South Beach. There are a few candlelit food shots below, but first, check out Ocean Drive:

You get a little of the art deco feel in this shot.

This is Gianni Versace's old house. He was killed while standing by the front door. There are always tourists taking pictures of it, like this kid (and me!).

This is Mike and I at Wish at the beginning of the evening.

We became less photogenic after a few more like this.

The potato latke with fried oyster mushrooms and cilantro.

The rice paper wraps for the barbecue shrimp summer rolls were fresh and supple.

My duck confit shredded with the slightest touch of a fork into melt-in-the-mouth, subtly salted, ribbons of meat. It was served on a pool of strawberry gazpacho. The goat cheese fritters were so airy and creamy; they rivaled the duck for best taste and texture. I thought the cool gazpacho and the ethereal goat cheese were odd pairings for the duck, but each component was so wonderful that I did not care.

Mike's entree was octopus-stuffed squid with a slightly sweet tomato sauce and a squid ring salad. The desserts were impressive, though I couldn't detect every ingredient listed on the menu in my ricotta and goat cheese fritters. The fried ricotta took on a texture that reminded me of cornmeal, but the blue cheese ice cream was not as boldly-flavored as I would have liked. Mike's chocolate almond cake with rum-soaked bing cherries was well done.

The next night we tried Afterglo, whose website claims that the restaurant is "pioneering a new culinary style trademarked as 'beauty cuisine'." The meat is grass fed, the vegetables are organic and everything has been designed to "regenerate cells, increase brainpower, help digestion and promote radiant beauty. "

I don't know if this tuna tartare is what gave Mike's skin that dewy glow, but it was very fresh and tasty. Even the soy sauce at afterglo surpassed what we've had at nice Japanese restaurants in its delicate flavor and smooth texture.

Mike had freshly caught grouper topped with a salsa of crisp cucumber slivers and juicy tomatoes, all on a bed of sauteed baby spinach. My pistachio and pinenut crusted lamb chops were absolutely the best lamb dish I have ever had. The crisp, nutty edges provided a bit of char to contrast with the tender, deep pink center of each large chop. The meat was redolent with grassy perfume that was just slightly gamey. If the lamb had not been so divine, the fluffy layer of buttery quinoa beneath it would have been my favorite thing at afterglo.

I had to include this picture of my "flowering" jasmine green tea. It starts out as a dried pod, then "blooms" as it brews. Afterglo has a selection of about 8 of these exotic artisan teas. I would happily eat at afterglo again to sample more of their creative, healthy menu. Any high end restaurant that serves quinoa gets plenty of brownie points with me. And did I mention the lamb... since I don't have a picture, I'm telling you once more how succulent it was.

It certainly sounds we did little else but eat in South Beach, but we also swam in the ocean, people watched at News Cafe and hung out on Lincoln Road. I had my favorite seaweed salad at Sushi Samba Dromo (Brazilian-Japanese fusion really is a good idea!), and sipped a Grape-Champagne Martini at Cafeteria, our favorite late-night bar. There are so many great little bars and cafes, casual ethnic eateries and pizzerias, that I really do think there's something for everyone. And as far as getaways go, South Beach is about as far as you can get from the usual weekend routine. As I write this, the work week is getting into full swing and I can feel my little dervish starting to spin again, but this time she's got the delicious memories of duck confit and a warm, blue ocean dancing in her head.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Spanakopita, Take Two

Do you ever get in your own way in the kitchen? It happens to me occasionally. The last time I made spanakopita it came out perfectly. The layers of phyllo dough were buttery and flaky; the spinach and onion mixture was fresh and peppery; and the feta-studded cheese mixture was creamy and just salty enough. I was ridiculously pleased with myself because this was actually my first time trying the slightly intimidating dish. It even reheated well to make stellar leftovers. On top of all that, making it was really pretty simple. So, with the salty tang of feta still on my lips, I sat down at the computer to record my perfect recipe for the ages.

Weeks passed. Then months. I remembered my spanakopita fondly, anxiously awaiting another opportunity to cook this glorious Grecian casserole. The time came when I decided to start experimenting with Greek dips. A square of spanakopita would be the perfect accompaniment to my hummus, baba ghanouj and minty yogurt spread. I pulled out my recipe and got to work.

We ate the delicious dips with pita bread first, heroically saving room for the spanakopita as it got hot and crispy in the oven. When it was done, I let it rest for a few minutes, then cut a slice. Immediately I knew something wasn’t right. The top layers of phyllo were flaky, but the bottom was soft and soggy. What could have possibly gone wrong? It was perfect last time! And then I realized that I had used half as many sheets of phyllo dough as before. I wasn’t being entirely careless, I had just written my recipe wrong in the first place. I also realized that I should have drained the spinach to get as much liquid out of it as possible to help avoid soggy phyllo syndrome. Having said all that, I have to admit it didn’t actually taste too bad. Still, I loathed to eat inferior spanakopita when the perfect version had once been mine.

So, in order to strike the botched dish completely from the record, yesterday I bought more spinach, more feta and more phyllo and made one more spanakopita, documented here for you. This is not an obsessive quest for perfection. I forgot to take photos while making it over the weekend, so that is definitely a sign that I needed to do a repeat performance. Except this time (enormous sigh of relief), it was a spanakopita I could be proud of.

It's nice to have a (patient) helper to carefully layer the phyllo and keep the remaining sheets of dough covered while you brush each new layer with melted butter.

Once you have layered 10 sheets of phyllo in the casserole dish, buttering each one as you go, spread a mixture of crumbled feta and ricotta cheese over the dough.

Cover the cheese with a pound of spinach sauteed with onions, garlic and oregano until all the water generated by the spinach evaporates. This takes a good 10 minutes, and was one of the crucial steps that I missed on my first attempt.

Layer and butter 10 more sheets of phyllo over the cheese and spinach filling. Then gently score the spanakopita with a sharp knife, taking care not to cut all the way through the bottom. This makes is easy to cut into pieces without cracking the crispy phyllo crust.

My hard-won spanakopita was worth the effort. Sometimes I wonder how chefs in restaurants do not get terribly bored with cooking the same dishes night after night. My experience here made me realize that even if you think you have perfected a dish, you cannot go on autopilot in the kitchen. Fresh ingredients can vary throughout the year, one brand of feta may be saltier than another, and all the care and focus that it took to cook a dish well the first time is just as important when you're cooking it for the thousandth time. No wonder so many cooks are such clever people; food keeps you on your toes!

This classic Greek casserole can be served as an appetizer, side dish, or vegetarian main course. Individual pieces can be reheated, covered in foil, in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes.

Serves 8 or more

1 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 c. onion, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 green onions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic minced
1 lb spinach leaves
1/4 tsp nutmeg or a few pinches
1 tsp dried oregano, divided
½ cup ricotta cheese (lowfat or regular)
6 oz feta cheese, crumbled
1 egg, beaten
Cooking spray
20 (approx. 8 x 12-inch) sheets phyllo dough, defrosted
4 Tbs unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in a non-stick skillet on medium heat. Add onion, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Turn heat to medium low. Add green onions and garlic and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add spinach one big handful at a time and fold into the onion mixture until it starts to wilt. Season with the nutmeg, ½ tsp of the oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Continue cooking the spinach mixture for about 10 minutes, or until the water has evaporated. Remove skillet from heat and seat aside.

In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, feta, egg, remaining oregano; season with black pepper and set aside.

Coat the bottom and sides of a 9x13 baking dish with cooking spray. Unroll the defrosted phyllo and cover with a damp kitchen towel to prevent drying, keeping it covered as you work (it helps to have one person handling the phyllo and one person brushing with butter). Place one sheet of phyllo in the dish. With a pastry brush, lightly coat phyllo with melted butter. Top with another sheet of phyllo and brush with butter. Continue until you have layered 10 sheets of phyllo, brushing each with butter. Spread the cheese mixture over the phyllo, then spread the spinach mixture evenly over the cheese. Top spinach with one sheet of phyllo and brush with butter. Continue layering the remaining phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter as you go.

With a thin, sharp knife, cut the spanakopita into 8 pieces (or as many as you want), stopping about three-quarters of the way through (scoring the phyllo in this manner allows you to cut it neatly after baking). Bake spanakopita for 30-35 minutes, until the top turns golden brown. Remove from oven, let rest for 10 minutes, cut squares all the way through and serve.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Simple Greek Dips

Say "Opa!" to These Cool Summer Starters

Have you ever made hummus, or does it seem like an unnecessary use of precious kitchen time? Hummus is not exactly exotic anymore, and there are a myriad of delicious versions available everywhere. It’s a cinch to pop open a plastic container and spread it on pita bread, pretzels, veggies or sandwiches. It is probably safe to say that prepared hummus has even become a staple food in many of our kitchens. In my mind, this means it is time to pull out the food processor and whip up a homemade batch of the healthy chickpea dip. After all, those little 7 oz. plastic containers cost $2.69 at my grocery store and they are always running out of the Scallion and Spicy Three Pepper flavors that are my current favorites. And since I eat so much of the stuff, it would be nice to know it is made from the best quality ingredients. Recently, I tried my hand at homemade whole wheat pita bread from Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food. They were light and airy, puffing up just right when I baked them in a 500 degree oven on a parchment paper-covered pizza stone. I figured, if I could handle fresh bread, I could certainly come up with a serviceable hummus to go with it.

Since having a particularly good appetizer platter with about 6 different dips at a little Greek restaurant in Toronto, I have been wanting to try some of them myself, especially hummus. Anything with eggplant is a favorite, so I decided to make baba ghanouj, as well as a dip I have never had before with carrot, mint and thick, creamy yogurt. The yogurt dip is from Diane Kochilas’ beautifully photographed, highly inspirational book, Meze. I often flip through the pages of Meze looking for appetizer ideas, but I do not cook from it nearly often enough. Kochilas lives in Greece and does an excellent job of conveying the spirit and importance of meze in Greek culture. You can almost detect the flavor of anise on your lips as you read it. I decided to make a meal of these dips (with pita bread of course), along with a spanakopita casserole.

You can prepare all three dips in an hour or so. Fit your food processor with the shredding disc and do your carrots first. Then the machine will be freed up for the hummus and baba ghanouj. Both spreads contain tahini and lemon, but they are entirely different in both texture and flavor. I cooked a large eggplant under the broiler until the skin was hard and the flesh was meltingly soft. You can also do it on a grill, but either way will give you just enough smoky flavor to make this velvety spread totally addicting. I think the baba ghanouj was my favorite, as it tasted better than most other versions I’ve tried. I wouldn’t do a single thing differently next time. The basic recipe came from my copy of The Complete Cooking Light Cookbook which is a reliable source of healthy, minimally corrupted versions of modern American and ethnic dishes. While the eggplant cooks, you can prepare the hummus and sauté the carrots. Once the carrots are soft and sweet, all you have to do is fold them into a bowl of thick, tangy Greek yogurt with fresh mint, lemon juice and olive oil. Leave this dip chilling in the refrigerator while you make the baba ghanouj. Serve them all with pita bread toasted in the oven for a few minutes, freshly cut tomato wedges and Greek olives. Just one warning: if you leave your guests too long with this plate of dips and an unlimited supply of pita bread, it is highly unlikely that they will have any need for a second course.

Makes about 3 cups

3 medium garlic cloves
2 – 15 oz. cans no salt added chickpeas, drained and liquid reserved
¼ c. plus 1 tblsp. tahini (I used Arrowhead Mills organic)
¼ c. lemon juice, plus more to taste
salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
extra virgin olive oil, chopped parsley, paprika for garnish (optional)

Turn on the food processor and put the garlic in through the chute. Turn machine off, remove the lid and add the cans of chickpeas, 1/2 cup of their liquid, the tahini, and lemon juice. Process until smooth. If mixture is too thick, add more of the chickpea liquid to get your desired consistency. If you run out of chickpea liquid, use water. Keep in mind that hummus will thicken slightly as it sets. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Add more lemon juice if you think the hummus needs it. To serve, garnish with extra virgin olive oil, chopped parsley and paprika, if desired.

Baba Ghanouj
Adapted from The Complete Cooking Light Cookbook
Makes about 2 cups

2 lbs eggplant (either 1 large or 2 small), stem end trimmed and cut in half lengthwise
1 clove garlic
¼ c. tahini
3 tblsp. lemon juice
½ tsp. salt, plus more to taste
fresh ground pepper (optional)
chopped parsley for garnish (optional)

Preheat broiler or grill. If broiling, place eggplants cut side down on a foil-lined baking sheet. Cook at least 6 inches from heat for about 20 minutes or until the skin is hard. On a grill, place the eggplants directly on the rack, cut side up. Set aside to cool.

Turn the food processor on and add the garlic through the chute. Turn machine off and remove the lid. Drain any water that had collected inside each eggplant half, then scrape the flesh out with a spoon into the processor. It should separate easily from the crisp skin. Add the tahini, lemon juice and salt. Process until smooth. Taste for seasoning. Serve chilled or at room temperature, sprinkled with parsley, if desired.

The smoky flavor that results from broiling or grilling the eggplant is subtle yet pervasive. The thick skin keeps the flesh from taking on any burnt taste whatsoever.

Greek Yogurt with Sauteed Carrots and Mint
Adapted from Meze by Diane Kochilas
Makes about 2 cups
The lowfat Greek yogurt I used did not detract at all from this rich, creamy dip. Use whatever variety you like.

2 to 3 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 medium carrots, shredded
2 to 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/3 c. mint leaves, thinnly julienned, plus more for garnish
2 c. Greek yogurt (I used Fage's Total 2% version)
salt to taste
2 to 3 tblsp. lemon juice, to taste

Heat one tblsp. of the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the carrots and sauté until soft, about 10 minutes. Turn the heat to low, add a bit more oil and add the garlic, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Fold in the mint and remove from heat immediately.

Put the yogurt in a bowl and add the carrot mixture, a pinch of salt, the lemon juice and about 1 tblsp. of oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Chill for at least 30 minutes, sprinkle with additional mint and serve.

One more gratuitous hummus close up. It may have been the least exciting of the three dips, but we kept going back for just one more bite. Next time, I will make up a couple different hummus varieties with some of the following: roasted red peppers, olives, caramelized onions, chile peppers,curry powder, or ginger. You can add just about anything.

These dips were easy and fun to make. The saga of the spanakopita will have to wait until the next post.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Tomato Ménage à Trois, Part Deux

This third recipe in the trio is more than just tomatoes. It is a satisfyingly accurate adaptation of the best dish I had at one of my personal dream restaurants, José Andrés’ Zaytinya in Washington, D.C. Zaytinya is a Middle Eastern small plates restaurant, serving hot and cold mezze from various regions of Greece, Turkey and Lebanon. Every wine on the list comes from one of those three countries with the exception of champagnes and other sparklers. There are only two traditional entrée options on the dinner menu. Hot, puffed pita bread is brought directly from the oven to your table. The sleek, airy space lets in the sun and encourages the convivial vibe that goes so well with mezze. The only bad part of my experience there was that I was on a business trip and didn’t have Mike there to share it with me. Who else was I going to ramble gushingly on to about how amazing the food was?

Of all the exotically spiced dishes I ate that night, one still fills my soul with intimations of culinary immortality: the “Pipe Dream” goat cheese, seasoned with zaatar and wrapped in grape leaves with Santorini tomato jam. I don’t have the slightest idea why they are called “pipe dream” on the menu. They looked like traditional stuffed grape leaves, but inside was cool, crumbly piece of pungent goat cheese, filled with a layer of zaatar spice. Zaatar a spice mix used in the cuisine of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, much like garam masala is used in Indian cooking. Like garam masala, it has infinite variations, but the consensus seems to be that it consists of dried thyme, ground sumac, lightly toasted white sesame seeds, and salt. Sumac is blood red in color and has a sour, slightly astringent taste. The slightly crisp, popcorny texture of the sesame seeds, as well as the familiar yet hard to place flavor of the zaatar is a critical element of the dish. I got the proportions for the spice mix from Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, an amazing resource on the cooking of that region. I had to go to a gourmet shop for the sumac, or it is available online at Penzey’s.

But this is supposed to be about tomatoes. I was unsure if I would ever be able to make a reasonable equilavent of the goat cheese-stuffed grape leaves, but ever since that dinner at Zaytinya, I have been mulling that tomato jam over in my mind. It was pure tomato in a sweet, slightly runny, jelly-like guise. Next to the zaatar-marbled goat cheese, it was perfect. It made the dish, and it was just jam after all.

I may have been in thrall of the tomato jam, but I had no idea how to make it. When the July issue of Food & Wine arrived with a simple version of tomato jam right on the cover, I took it as a sign that it was time to attempt a pipe dream of my own. F&W’s jam is a bit more rustic than Zaytinya’s, but the flavor did justice to my idealized memories. After boiling for 45 minutes, as the directions indicated, I thought is was still a bit runny, so I added a generous teaspoon of cornstarch mixed with water, and it thickened right up. Of course, you can just continue simmering until it reaches the consistency that pleases you. I didn’t want too many chunks of tomato, so when it was done, I used my immersion blender to smooth it out. Putting this little mezze together does take multiple steps, but nothing is difficult. I usually avoid anything so fussy as leaf-stuffing, but my desire to taste those grape leaves again cancelled out my culinary laziness. And it was worth it.

After soaking the grape leaves to remove their brine, we laid them out on paper towels.

We cut thin slices of goat cheese in half and make a "sandwich" filled with zaatar.

Place the zaatar-filled log of goat cheese at the stem end of a grape leaf.

Fold in the sides of the leaf, then roll up like a cigar.

Arrange the stuffed grape leaves in a dish and sprinkle with lemon and olive oil.

We followed the grape leaves and tomato jam with fillets of orange roughy, simply sauteed with salt, pepper and olive oil in a cast iron skillet. The fish is has very flaky, firm flesh and a slightly sweet taste.

The stuffed grape leaves make a pretty presentation, but don't forget the tomato jam!

Zaytinya’s Goat Cheese-Stuffed Grape Leaves with Fresh Tomato Jam
Makes 16-20 stuffed grape leaves and 1 ¼ cups jam
Jam recipe adapted from Food & Wine, July 2006

4 to 6 (depending on size) vine-ripened tomatoes
¼ c. apple cider vinegar
3 tblsp. honey
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. salt
½ tblsp. cornstarch dissolved in 1 tblsp. water (optional)
Finely chopped basil or mint

30 to 40 grape leaves (you won’t use them all, but some will tear or be too small)
8 oz. log goat cheese
Extra virgin olive oil
½ lemon

Zaatar spice blend:
2 tblsp. lightly toasted sesame seeds
2 tblsp. dried thyme
½ tblsp. ground sumac
¼ tsp. salt or to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Core the tomatoes and score the opposite end by cutting a shallow “X.” Boil the tomatoes for 1 to 1 ½ minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and plunge into the ice water to stop cooking. Remove the tomatoes from the ice water and slip their skins off with your fingers. Cut each tomato in half, remove the seeds and coarsely chop. In a medium saucepan, combine the chopped tomatoes, vinegar, honey, cumin, ginger and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook uncovered for 45 minutes. If you want a thicker consistency than this, add 1 tsp. of the cornstarch mixture to the jam. Add more cornstarch mixture until it is no longer watery, but a little bit goes a long way. If you want a smooth jam, puree in a blender, or use an immersion blender to create the desired texture. Chill in the fridge for 1 hour, or for 10 minutes in a shallow dish in the freezer. Stir in fresh basil or mint just before serving. May be made up to 48 hours in advance.

While the jam is cooking, prep the grape leaves. Most likely, you bought them in a jar in a briny, citric acid solution. To do away with the salty off-taste, gently unroll the grape leaves and put them in a large bowl. Pour boiling water over them to cover. Soak for 10-15 minutes, swishing them around a bit. Drain, then fill the bowl with cold water, and soak for a few minutes. Repeat with more cold water, then drain in a colander. Carefully separate the grape leaves and lay them out on paper towels. This takes patience, and it is okay if they tear a little. You can also overlap two leaves, if they are small or torn.

Make the zaatar: toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over low heat until lightly browned. Remove to a bowl. Add the thyme, sumac and salt. Stir to combine.

Assemble the stuffed grape leaves: Cut a ¼ inch slice from your log of goat cheese, then cut the slice in half. Pack ¼ to ½ tsp. zaatar onto one half, and top with the other half like a sandwich. Use your fingers to mold the goat cheese into a little log. Place the cheese at the stem end of a grape leaf. Fold in the sides of the leaf and roll up like a cigar. Continue with the remaining goat cheese. Sprinkle stuffed grape leaves with extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve cold or at room temperature with the tomato jam. May be made up to 24 hours in advance.