Extra-flaky spanakopita

It’s a new year, and a lot of people are eating their greens. Even if you’ve already had your traditional New Year’s Day greens for luck, we’re now in the health-conscious days of January, and winter vegetables are the order of the day. Of course, my favorite way to eat greens is to mix them with cheese and sandwich them between layers of buttery pastry, but hey. You do what you can.

Spanakopita, or Greek spinach pie, is one of my absolute favorite foods. If it’s on a restaurant menu, I order it. If it’s in the freezer case at the grocery store, I buy it. And whenever I end up with a glut of greens in the fridge, I make it myself. The filling is simple–a boatload of cooked greens, some sauteed onions or scallions, cubes of feta cheese, fresh herbs, nutmeg, and an egg to hold it all together. And the crust involves frozen phyllo dough, which thaws quickly on the counter and bakes up golden and flaky-crisp like you wouldn’t believe.

I’d be lying if I said making spanakopita was quick. I’ve done this on a weeknight, but you probably won’t want to. Phyllo is fussy stuff–you have to lay it out one gauze-thin sheet at a time and brush each sheet all over with melted butter or olive oil. But I’ve found ways to make it easier on myself, and the biggest one is simply to make smaller pies. Most recipes call for a 9×13 pan, which involves lots of jigsaw-puzzling of phyllo sheets to make sure everything is covered. I make my spanakopita in an 8-inch square pan, which is much closer to the size of a single sheet of phyllo, meaning more flaky layers with less work. I also don’t worry about the phyllo sheets cracking and tearing, which they inevitably do; that just means more crunchy flaky goodness later!

If you have the gumption to tackle phyllo–and I really think you should–then this is a great recipe to have in your back pocket. The filling is super-adaptable and uses up a lot of greens, which is great if you’re drowning in kale. You can serve it as an appetizer or as a showy vegetarian main course. The pie tastes great warm, but I also love it at room temperature. It even makes great (if slightly less-crunchy) leftovers.

spanakopita

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Five-spice carrot bread

I know it’s cool to hate on pumpkin spice these days. Honestly, whatever. It’s a classic for a reason. I’m not mad at pumpkin spice. But if you are, I can suggest a spunkier substitute. Enter: Chinese five-spice.

I’ve fallen hard this year for Chinese five-spice in baked goods and holiday sweets. The exact ingredients vary, but most blends I’ve seen include cinnamon, clove, fennel seed, star anise, and either black pepper or Sichuan pepper. (Some versions include ginger instead of pepper, so look for those if pepper in your baked goods feels like a stretch.) It’s just close enough to the familiar American sweet-and-spicy thing to be comforting. But it’s also a little funky and unexpected, with a quiet kick of heat and licorice. In my experience, people won’t put their finger on the difference right away–they’ll assume it’s pumpkin spice with a mystery twist.

Lately our crisper drawer has been overrun with carrots–I keep forgetting we have them and buying more. So I’ve been making batches of carrot bread with a healthy dose of five-spice. This is a riff on my go-to zucchini bread recipe, and it works really nicely in a variety of guises–one big loaf, several mini-loaves, even muffins. Because carrots aren’t as watery as zucchini, I usually find myself adding a bit of milk or water to thin out the batter. Other than that, this is a pretty basic quickbread, but the five-spice makes it pop.

This bread is terrific baked just as-is, but for a special flourish, get yourself some raw sugar (also known as turbinado sugar, or demerara over in Europe) and sprinkle it over the top. I don’t know why, but it impresses people like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve had folks assume that this carrot bread came from a bakery, just because of the scattering of sugar crystals on top. It also adds a lovely crunch and a bit of extra sweetness. Highly recommend.

five-spice-carrot-bread

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Candied citrus peels

Just under the wire before Christmas, here’s an edible gift idea: candied citrus peels. Start them tonight, and they’ll be ready by Saturday.

I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s probably my greatest kitchen love-hate relationship. On the one hand, candied citrus peels are incredibly delicious, a real show-offy gift, and a great way to use up food scraps. On the other hand, making them is labor-intensive. Not difficult or complicated–just a lot of f’n work.

That said, this is the kind of elaborate kitchen project that even a rank newbie can take on. All you need is a sharp knife, a pot or two, a lot of water and some sugar, and a place to set your peels to dry. Beyond that, what matters isn’t skill so much–it’s patience.

Below is a long, elaborate explanation of how I do this. The short version is: peel yourself some citrus and cut the peels into pieces. Blanch the peels in boiling water a few times. Simmer the peels in simple syrup for about an hour. Lay the peels out to dry for a day or two. Coat the dried peels in sugar or chocolate. Done.

I usually save citrus peels in the freezer and make a big batch of candy every few months. Every time, about 24 hours into the process, I wonder why I got myself into this. Then I take a nibble, and remember: oh, yeah. It’s because candied citrus peels are amazing.

candied grapefruit peel sugared

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Chili in a pumpkin

God, what a year. I wish I could share some neat, precisely turned summary of everything that’s happened since I last blogged here in April. My head is a stew pot these days, full to the brim with this and that, and I’ve been trying to simmer it all together into a coherent something for months now.

On a personal scale, things have taken a happy turn towards domesticity. Sam and I got engaged in March and courthouse-married in September. We’re planning a big family-and-friends wedding for next summer (don’t ask how that’s going). We bought a townhouse–I still can’t quite believe we bought a townhouse–and moved in at the beginning of November. And we adopted a cat, who as I type this is draped full-length across my lap, purring his glossy black head off.

Meanwhile, of course, the world around us swerved in a scary direction. Our personal happiness has been complicated by fear, anger, frustration, and sadness. I was mostly holding it together until the night of the US elections, but the result of the presidential race cracked me wide open. I’ve made my political opinions clear on this blog before, and what happened on November 8th was the worst of a worst-case scenario. It also exposed some fraying ends in my mental health that I’d been trying to ignore for a while. Like many people, I suspect, I’ve spent the past month and a half relying on a mix of therapy and home-grown self-care to keep afloat.

As usual for me, the home-grown self-care includes lots of cooking in our new kitchen. The weekend after the election, we invited friends over and fed them lasagna. I’ve been batch cooking and freezing lots of kitchen-sink stuff–soups, stews, and casseroles. And I got fancy one night and baked some chili in a pumpkin, a warming seasonal treat for Sam and me. This isn’t going to resolve the topsy-turviness of the world, but it’s nourishing, absorbing, and even kind of fun–just what I need these days.

chili-in-a-pumpkin

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Molasses bran muffins

Is it weird to say that bran muffins are my favorite muffins? Because it’s true. I have no problem with a lemon-poppyseed muffin, or a blueberry muffin, or a banana-nut muffin, or even a chocolate chip muffin. But to me, a muffin is meant for breakfast or snack, and those are basically dessert. They’re halfway down the road to cake. A bran muffin, on the other hand, has plausible deniability. It’s damn near health food. And there’s nothing else in the baked good kingdom quite like it.

Of course, most bran muffins aren’t actually health food. They’re stealth sugar bombs, and for a while I had to go cold turkey on them. But recently I found a recipe that’s let bran muffins back into my life. It’s built entirely on whole wheat flour, and sweetened with molasses and a touch of honey. I still wouldn’t call them health food, but they’re substantial and slow-burning enough that I can have one in the morning and stay satisfied for hours. The molasses makes these wonderfully dark and damp and bittersweet. The whole wheat makes them extra-earthy and amps up the spongy-grainy texture. They’re my perfect bran muffin.

I like to pack these muffins full of fruit, nuts, and seeds, so that they can stand on their own as a light breakfast or afternoon snack. The muffin pictured below has raisins, sunflower seeds, and blanched slivered almonds. Really, just about anything is fair game. I know lots of people hate raisins, but I love them, and for me a bran muffin isn’t a bran muffin without them. That said, any dried fruit will do just fine, or even no fruit at all. And although I’m normally not a big fan of nuts in baked goods, they’re really lovely here, adding crunch and a wonderfully unpredictable texture.

There’s another reason I love this recipe: it produces those wonderful overhanging dome-tops that are my favorite part of a bran muffin. The key is to fill the muffin cups all the way to the top; if you do, there should be exactly enough batter for 12 perfectly domed muffins. As the muffins bake, the tops rise up out of the cups, nudging right up against each other. My favorite way to eat these is to carefully separate the spongy bottom from the chewy top, then eat the bottom first and save the top for last.

molasses bran muffin

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Scrambled egg banh mi

This sandwich was SO HARD to photograph. It just did not want to behave. I’ve been making a version of this sandwich once or twice a week for the past month, and they’ve all been docile and well-constructed and probably totally photogenic. Then I finally got around to charging my camera battery and made myself a sandwich specifically to photograph. This one decided to fall apart every time I put it down.

Once again, I beg you to ignore the photo. Because this right here? Is one phenomenal sandwich. I first had it at a sandwich shop near where I used to work, and fell in love. After almost a year of craving it since leaving that job, I finally managed to recreate it at home. It’s got the sunny chewiness of scrambled egg, which I like so much better than the pork you usually find in a banh mi. On top of the egg, add lots of utterly compelling things: pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber sticks, jalapeno slices, cilantro leaves, and lots of spicy mayo. It’s hot and cold, sweet and sour, crunchy and chewy, spicy and rich–everything there is to love about banh mi.

I call this a “scrambled egg” sandwich, but what really fills its belly is a simple flat omelet. At the sandwich stand, they’d steam the eggs in a special container in the microwave, creating a eggy half-moon. To replicate that effect, I beat the eggs and add them to a lightly oiled skillet over medium-low heat. Then I let them cook, completely undisturbed, until they’ve set into a springy, slightly puffed disc. (This usually takes about 15 minutes on my stove, which leaves plenty of time to leisurely prep the other sandwich ingredients.) Slide the disc out of the skillet, cut it in half, et voila–two eggy half-moons, ready to slide between halves of bread.

So much for the egg. There’s one other bit of advance prep needed for this sandwich: pickling some carrots and daikon. I made up a quart of refrigerator pickles, following a recipe from the New York Times, and have it handy in the fridge for whenever the banh mi craving strikes. You could also make a batch of fifteen-minute quick pickles, which will be ready in about the time it takes the eggs to cook. Either way, you’ve got the makings of one satisfying lunch.

egg banh mi 1

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Catalan seafood stew

I killed a lobster for this stew. It’s actually not the first time I’ve cooked living seafood in my kitchen–if you count clams and mussels–but it was definitely the first time I’ve looked my dinner in the eye while it was still moving. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Will I be doing it again? Not for a while.

The challenge started when I got the lobster home. It was fairly docile when the fishmonger pulled it from its tank, but by the time I pulled it from the bag it was fully awake and kicking like crazy. I ended up sticking the lobster in the freezer while I boiled the water, since I don’t have enough counter space to temporarily house a live, disgruntled crustacean. Supposedly, freezing renders the lobster unconscious and is thus more humane; I suspect it’s more for the cook’s comfort than the lobster’s, but in any case it worked. I boiled my now-dormant lobster, harvested the meat (covering myself and the countertop in lobster juice in the process), then added the shell and body back to the pot with fresh water and simmered it into a rich lobster stock.

Then I got on with preparing the other ingredients for the New York Times’s Catalan lobster stew. It calls for toasting nuts, soaking chiles, and frying bread, then combining them all in a food processor with lots of other ingredients to make a powerful chile paste. That paste, along with some sauteed onions, became the base of a rich red liquid in which to poach the lobster meat and some bivalves. The result was phenomenally delicious: intensely lobstery, luxurious but not fatty, with a slight spicy heat and lots of nuttiness from the hazelnuts and bread.

But it turns out that lobster murder isn’t necessary for this stew to turn out great. I made the it again a few weeks later with frozen fish stock, shrimp, and clams, and it turned out half as complicated and just as delicious as before. The brawny lobster flavor was missing, but in its place was a broth that felt like a warm, briny hug, with some lovely mix-and-match textures from the seafood. I’d happily make this streamlined version again–not for an everyday meal, but certainly for a special occasion. And maybe, someday, in a bigger kitchen and with plenty of time to spare, I’ll tackle the lobster once again.

catalan lobster stew

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