Last salad

I think Fall has finally found Los Angeles, and only a week and a half to go before Thanksgiving.  Within a week, we went from temperatures in the mid-80s to a high of barely 70F.  My living room went from a comfortable lounging 75F to barely hitting 70 despite blinds wide open to catch the sun all day.  Thankfully, the items I have left on my Bittman list accommodate this weather change.  Today I have to report the last salad of the list, and a foray back into desserts.  Both have decidedly autumnal collections of flavors (I wrote “flavor profile” first, and then I thought, “who do you think you are?”).  Many of the food blogs I read have been reporting for the past week or two on Thanksgiving recipes, and I thought about doing that too.  But then I remember that Bittman’s entire list is conceived as Thanksgiving sides, so if you’ve been following this little blog for any length of time, you’ve been seeing Thanksgiving options – with only a few disruptions – for the past two years!

“67. Sprinkle shelled pumpkin or squash seeds with a little chili powder; roast, shaking occasionally, until lightly browned. Combine with grated sweet potatoes (raw or lightly sautéed in butter or oil), raisins and a vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, a touch of honey and maybe a little more chili powder.

I gathered:

1 small sweet potato

1 TB pumpkin seeds

chili powder to taste (mine is really mild – I probably used about a teaspoon)

2 TB butter

2-3 TB raisins

These measurements look small, but I was planning this for just the two of us and didn’t want any leftovers.

We were having this “salad” with spanakopita, so I decided to capitalize on the heat of its baking.  I popped the pumpkin seeds onto a baking tray, drenched them with chili powder, and tucked them into the oven for a few minutes.  When you hear the first couple of pops, they are done.  Don’t leave them too long – not only will they burn, they will propel themselves all over your oven.

I set aside the lightly toasted seeds and turned to the sweet potato.  N. and I proved in earlier experiments that we don’t like it raw – the starchy feel when you chew is just too much – so I was glad Bittman allowed for a cooked option.  I melted the butter while I grated the sweet potato, and tossed the shreds of bright orange onto the fizzing fat.  If you have more patience than I do, you might wait for the butter to brown a bit to add nuttier, deeper flavor to the sweet potatoes.

I let the little ribbons of sweet potato cook for a few minutes over medium heat.  The goal was not to brown them, just to lightly cook them through.  When I estimated them to be two minutes from done, I tossed in the raisins and folded the mix together.  This gave the raisins time to match the sweet potatoes in temperature, and it allowed them to plump up and take in some buttery flavor.

Heat off, I turned to the dressing.  Whisk together:

1 TB red wine vinegar

1 tsp honey

1 tsp dijon mustard

sprinkle of chili powder

2 TB olive oil

I tossed this lightly with the sweet potatoes and raisins, then topped them with the pumpkin seeds (which I almost forgot AGAIN!  What is it with me and missing the crunch?) and it was ready for tasting.

We liked this.  I’m not sure it read as a salad – in fact I’m not sure what it read as at all.  At once, it was not quite a salad, but also not quite a vegetable side, and not quite a chutney.  But it was tasty.  The red wine vinegar was acidic enough to counter the sweetness of the potato and raisins nicely.  It was a refreshing bite against the richness of our spanakopita.  The crumbling cubes of feta hidden in the spinach blend imparted the final necessary taste: a briny saltiness so welcome to the rest of this sweet and butter-drenched meal.

I took my next choice (partly made because it sounded delicious, but partly to use up the phyllo) to an election party.

“93. Pumpkin-Raisin-Ginger Turnovers: Mix pureed cooked pumpkin, raisins, chopped crystallized ginger and sugar.  Brush a sheet of phyllo with melted butter and cut lengthwise into thirds. Put a spoonful of the filling at the top of each strip. Fold down to make a triangle and repeat, like folding a flag. Repeat with remaining filling. Brush the tops with butter and bake 20 to 30 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar.

Whether you are elated, distraught, or ambivalent about the results of the vote, these little turnovers were worth celebrating over.

1 15 oz. can pumpkin puree

½ cup sugar

½ cup raisins

¼ cup finely minced crystallized ginger (or you could try grating this on your microplane.  I’m not sure how that would work, but since candied ginger is gummy and hard to chop, it might be helpful)

butter

phyllo dough

I couldn’t resist adding about a teaspoon of cinnamon.

First, I preheated my oven to 375F and put the butter into a small pan, which I set over low heat so it would melt but not brown.

I shlooped the pumpkin from the can to a bowl and whisked in the sugar and fruit.  I suggest you use a fork for this, not a traditional whisk.  The mixture clumps and sticks in the slender spokes and results, if you are at all like me, in cranky frustration.

When everything is well mixed, turn to the phyllo.  If you’ve never worked with it before, don’t be afraid.  The amazing way it changes from dry papery sheets to flaky, buttery pastry is worth the challenge.  Here’s what I do:

Set up an assembly line on your counter.  At one end, unroll the phyllo and set a just-damp kitchen towel (or couple of paper towels) over the top.  This will help, if you are a slow worker, to prevent it from drying out and breaking.  Next to that, you need a board big enough to accommodate one sheet of phyllo.  Next to that, place your butter, followed by your filling, followed by the final resting place for your wrapped confections.

Carefully peel off one sheet of phyllo and place it on your board with the shorter end facing you.  Recover the remaining stack with the damp towel.  Using a pastry brush, brush the whole sheet with butter.  Cut it in long thirds (you’ll begin your cuts on the short edge of the rectangle, so that you create three long, thin strips, as opposed to three short, squat strips).  Then, place about two tablespoons of filling at the top of each strip, and begin to fold in triangles.

To make the first fold, bring one corner down to the opposite edge of the strip.  Don’t press too hard, or the filling will ooze out everywhere.  The second fold will be straight down: the remaining corner (now doubled because you’ve folded over your first triangle) folded down onto the same edge.  Continue to fold, keeping your filling in the center of a triangle, until you reach the end of the strip of phyllo.

Place that on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet and brush the top with a little more melted butter.  Repeat until you run out of filling.  Since these won’t rise or spread, you can place them quite close to one another on the baking sheet.  Don’t overlap them, though, because only the dough exposed to the air will brown.

This sounds complicated, but once you get into a rhythm it’s relatively easy and quite satisfying.  You end up with two trays of sweet little parcels that you can stow in the oven for 20-30 minutes until they become magically golden and flaky.

When they were done, I dusted them liberally with powdered sugar and tented them with aluminum foil to take to the party.  I brought home an empty, sugar dusted tray with a lone raisin abandoned in one corner.

They were so tasty.  The pumpkin-raisin-ginger combo was insane: earthy and sweet and, with the addition of the cinnamon, warmly spiced.  Inside the phyllo, it was a contest of texture too: unremittingly soft pumpkin with the occasional chewy juicy punch of raisin, against sharp flaky crunch of sugar-dusted pastry.  We couldn’t resist tasting a few before dinner, and then we had to revisit them again for dessert.  These will, I suspect, make repeat appearances in my kitchen.  They could probably be made a few hours ahead as well, or transported and baked on location: wrap them up, dredge them with butter, and store them under a damp towel or some plastic wrap until ready to bake.  If you don’t like pumpkin pie, or you’re tired of it (I know, heresy!), these might be a fun alternative Thanksgiving dessert option.

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