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)


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.

Three-Bite Tableau

I like small sized food. I like its charming appearance, its potential for fanciness, and, not least, its ability to fool otherwise intelligent people ((i.e. yours truly) into thinking they can eat extra, because it’s so petite it must be calorically harmless as well.

To qualify, I think this sort of food must be consumable in three bites or less. Ideally this should be possible without a fork, but of course (especially with desserts) there are exceptions to this ideal. At any rate, three-bite foods should be attractive to the eye, enticing to the nose, and should carry far more flavor than seems possible for their small size.

Here are two I’ve constructed recently: one that turned out to be a snack superstar, and one that carries as yet underrealized potential for true greatness

Artichoke Spinach dip cups

Two of our colleagues and dear friends got married in Long Island recently. As N. and I were both teaching a summer class (and subsisting on graduate student salaries), we were unable to jet-set across the country to attend. But to our delight, G. (the bride) informed us that her father would make a toast to friends and family not physically present. We gathered with some friends, some wine, and some snacks, and at 4:10 pm PST we raised our glasses to G. and T. I brought these little dip cups, bubbling and creamy in brown crisp phyllo shells. This is an adaptation of a recipe for hot artichoke dip that I usually make in a pie plate, but the elegance we were attempting to emulate and the stark truth of half a box of phyllo sheets in my refrigerator made me change my plan. Note that these ingredient amounts are almost all approximations.

In a medium bowl, I mixed:

4-6 oz. cream cheese

½ cup mayonnaise

5 oz. spinach, steamed or boiled, drained, and roughly chopped

1 14 oz. can artichoke hearts in water, drained and roughly chopped

2 TB parmesan cheese, divided

black pepper to taste

After a serious taste test and careful alterations, I set the dip aside and considered my phyllo. I had about 10 sheets, which I swept with butter and layered in the usual way, before cutting into twelve even stacks (3×4). I pressed each stack carefully into a mini muffin tin, letting the edges point out every which way in hopes of creating crisp, crunchy tips, and then loaded the buttery vessels with spoonfuls of dip. I probably used about 2 TB per cup, topped each with a generous extra grating of parmesan cheese, then stowed them in a 400F oven for 20 minutes. Depending on your oven, they are ready when the edges of the phyllo cups are dark golden and fragile, the parmesan cheese atop the dip is beginning to color, and the dip itself is slightly bubbling. Or just when the phyllo is brown, if you are impatient.

We were impatient. How could we not be, when the smell of cooking cheese was filling the kitchen, and the promise of that perfect balance of crispy and creamy whispered how wonderfully it would compliment our champagne?

Crab cakes

Now visiting family in California for a few weeks before the term begins again, my mom and I have been bonding the way I like best: in the kitchen. Three days ago, we decided to make crab cakes and salmon cakes to go with a half dozen luscious ears of sweet corn.

I like crab cakes, but like pesto, I am still searching for the right ratios in my collection of ingredients. This version, while tasty, is no exception, particularly because while we did look up a recipe, we ended up barely consulting it and, ultimately, not following it at all.

Working delicately in a medium bowl, so as not to break up the crab too much, we mixed:

3 6 oz. cans of crab meat (1 lump, 2 regular if you’re skimpy like us, all lump if you’re really looking to impress)

1-2 TB each, or to taste, finely chopped green onions, dill, and flat-leaf parsley

2 TB lemon juice

2 tsp lemon zest

scant 1 cup or less fresh bread crumbs

1 egg, lightly beaten

salt and black pepper, to taste

I recommend adding the egg last, so you can taste and test flavor balances and add extra herbs or lemon before dousing the mixture in raw egg. I also recommend adding the bread crumbs a little at a time, because depending on how you like your crab cakes, a full cup might be too much. Crab has such a sweet delicate flavor that too much bread or too many herbs will hide it completely.

Again, with extreme care, we patted the mixture into five palm-sized cakes, trying to help it hold together without overworking it. We plopped our fragile quintet onto a plate and refrigerated them for about 45 minutes to let the flavors meld and the cakes mesh together more firmly.

While they were chilling, I mixed up a little dipping sauce in the food processor, dropping in:

½ cup mayonnaise

2-3 generous TB strong horseradish

5-6 basil leaves

3 TB flat-leaf parsely

3 garlic cloves

generous squeeze of lemon juice, to taste

When the cakes had thoroughly chilled and our stomachs were rumbling with anticipation, we heated just enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom of a large skillet and carefully patted the cakes with dry bread crumbs, sliding each into the heated oil as soon as it had received its crisp coat. We fried them for 4-5 minutes a side, or until the bread crumb coating had become crunchy and golden. They threatened to collapse into pieces, and two cracked severely down the middle, but with careful coaxing and dextrous spatula work, we managed to keep them together fairly well.

They tasted good. They were light and herbaceous and not eggy at all, but they didn’t scream “crab.” Oh they suggested seafood, but I think we overdid the quantity of bread crumbs, and playing it cheap by adding leg and claw meat might have been a miscalculation. Topped with the horseradish mayonnaise, however, they were delightful. It was creamy and smooth, but the spice hit the back of your tongue just as you swallowed, and lingered for a moment or three.

Three moments of spice, three piles of herbs, three cans of crab. What does it really matter, then, that it took me five bites to finish my cake? At its core, this was a three-bite item. Matching delicate flavor with delicate table manners was my downfall. I should have, as my tongue urged, anxiously cut bigger pieces, urgently indulged, finished the whole little patty in only three tasty bites. Everyone else did.

Hasty Bites

A friend S. told me today that I hadn’t updated in a while and really should see to my absence.  Unacceptable.  I sputtered, considering all the usual excuses.  I’ve been sick all week.  I’m so busy.  I have needy students, a dog desperate for exercise, books piling up that need reading, but she was right.  I just needed the text, and lord knows I’m not short on text.  I talk text in my sleep.  Which I’ve been getting a lot of lately, what with being sick.

The point is, she guilted me like a Greek Grandmother.  Appropriately enough, my response is Spanikopita!

It was one of those brilliant flashes of leftover magic.  Phyllo dough languishing from some fanciful application.  Feta just weeping in its own milk to be used.  Dill wilting down with every passing day.  I usually think of spanikopita either as a kind of delicious Greek lasagna, or as individually wrapped servings.  This evening, in what I can see is playing into a theme,  I didn’t have the time for either.

Hastily, I buttered and stacked my sheets of phyllo and draped them over a pie dish.  Then I mixed a beaten egg, a few slivered green onions, a defrosted, wrung dry box of chopped spinach, at least a tablespoon of chopped dill, crumbled feta, and black pepper, then poured it down onto the dry surface of the top layer of dough and wrapped the whole thing up like a money bag.  I pinched the top together, fanned out the edges, and lovingly brushed the outside with butter before baking for half an hour or so.

I’ve never cooked feta long enough to melt it, and something very interesting happens to the flavor.  Pavlov wasn’t Greek, but I think you’ll know what I mean when I cite him in relation to my usual reaction to feta cheese.  Something about the sharp tang.  But this application made the cheese more mellow, almost creamy, and certainly no less delicious.

Happy, S.?  There’s another bite/byte where this came from in your almost immediate future…