Tag Archives: Spinach

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.

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Spinach scallion pesto

This post is really more about a technique than a recipe. Oh, the recipe is nice, too: a mellow deep-green pesto of spinach and scallions, a little onionier and greenier than the norm. I thought it up as a way to use up leftover scallions or scallion parts, hanging around after recipes that call for only part of a bunch. Sam and I ate our pesto over pasta, with poached eggs–a simple, surprisingly filling summer lunch. It’d also be dandy as a sauce for simply cooked fish, or spread on flatbread or pizza. Just a good, solid, early-summer condiment.

Normally, I make pesto by hand, using the largest knife I have and chopping in handfuls of ingredients at a time. I love making pesto this way, watching the piles of ingredients transform under the blade. But in this case, I had some strong scallions–just cutting them into rough chunks made me tear up. I didn’t relish the idea of chopping and blinking and sniffling for twenty minutes straight. And, in all honesty, I was hungry NOW. I wanted lunch faster than the knife and cutting board would allow.

So I decided to cheat a little, by using the food processor for part of the process. This still isn’t your typical blended pesto–I just used the processor to chop down the solids into a rough mass, about the same as I would with a knife. I tested it for readiness the same way, by pressing a bit of it with my fingers to see if it held together. Then I scooped the finished mess into a bowl and poured over extra virgin olive oil, just like I do with the handmade pesto. The results were damn close to the handmade stuff–I missed a little of the nubbly texture, but it was still leaps and bounds lighter and more interesting than the oily, emulsified pestos that usually come out of processors.

This is a neat trick to know, because it puts really good homemade pesto–the kind you can’t replicate with storebought–within the realm of the 10-minute meal. Plus, keeping the olive oil out of the processor entirely means that it won’t turn bitter from contact with the metal blades (which the extra virgin stuff tends to do). So not only is this a fancier pesto, it’s a better-tasting one too. Not bad for a cheater trick.

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Giant spinach ravioli

These started their lives as egg yolk ravioli. I had leftover egg yolks from a baking experiment, and wanted a non-custard way to use them up. A few pokes of The Google turned up a Martha Stewart recipe for egg yolk ravioli, paired with two fillings: a ricotta-based one and a spinach one. I quite liked the idea of a ricotta-free spinach filling, and decided to try combining the filling and the egg yolk into one tidy package.

But then I ran into trouble. I wasn’t about to make my own pasta–I have neither the time, nor the counter space, nor the equipment to make homemade pasta dough without a lot of hassle. So I bought wonton wrappers. Perfectly cut, perfectly thin, and just a wee bit too small to hold both egg yolk and filling. I broke one yolk. And then another. And then another. Until I had no more yolks. Just a bowl of delicious-smelling spinach filling, flecked with translucent bits of shallot and garlic, and some lonely wonton wrappers. So I said screw it, and made spinach ravioli instead.

As it turns out, the round wonton wrappers from the supermarket produce aisle are too small for an egg yolk, but they’re the perfect size to make enormous ravioli with less-delicate fillings. Wonton ravioli are not quite the same as ravioli made from fresh dough; they’re floppier and more delicate, with a tendency to puff as they cook and then wrinkle and ruffle as they come out of the water. With a filling like this, subtle and loose and unweighted by ricotta, the lightness of the wonton wrappers was actually perfect. You can call it cheating, I suppose, but I prefer to think of these as a lightweight first cousin of fresh-dough ravioli. They’re terrific as a warm-weather first course or light lunch.

Because these are such delicate wrinkly things, they don’t need much to finish them for serving. I have a pretty little jar of black truffle salt–a gift from a generous friend–so I sprinkled a tiny bit over each portion and finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. You could use truffle oil instead, or skip the truffle altogether and just use olive oil. Or lemon oil. Or brown butter with sage. Or just about any sort of light and fragrant sauce-type substance. Really, the only requirement is plenty of fresh-grated Parmesan on top.

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Enfrijoladas with chorizo and greens

For me, a warm corn tortilla is one of the most comforting foods there is. My childhood babysitter was from Guatemala, and she got me hooked early on. I still remember her spreading corn tortillas with butter, sprinkling them with sugar, rolling them into loose cigars on a plate, and microwaving them for just a few seconds, until the outside was steamy-warm and the inside was gooey. For a small child, there was no better afternoon treat.

I still take a lot of solace in corn tortillas, whether they’re simply steamed naked or doused in sauce. For the most part, I prefer to get my fix outside my house, at a local Mexican/Salvadoran dive that makes the best enchiladas in town. But recently I stumbled across a recipe for a tortilla dish I’d never seen before, where the sharp-and-spicy chile sauce was replaced with a thick robe of rough-pureed beans. Enfrijoladas. The bones of the dish are the same–tortillas soaked in sauce, sometimes filled with protein, rolled or folded–but the impact is totally different. Each bite is hefty, creamy, almost peanut-butter-thick. This is stick-to-your ribs Mexican food, but without the accompanying lardiness we Americans are so used to.

There’s something almost meditative about making a dish like this. It’s the kind of thing that forces you to get your hands and dishes and stovetop messy, dipping tortillas in warm sauce and folding them over themselves, laying them on a plate and scattering over a coarse-crumbled handful of queso fresco. In this case, there’s no baking to worry about, just assembly, so that you can hand off the bean-soaked tortillas to be eaten as soon as they’re folded. I used a pair of tongs to manipulate the tortillas in and out of the sauce, but folded them by hand, licking the starchy-chunky sauce from my fingers as I went.

Honestly, a tortilla this heartily dressed doesn’t really need a filling. Just drenching the tortillas in bean sauce and folding them over themselves would be enough. But I was feeding Sam, too, and he had a craving for sausage. So I cooked up a mass of Mexican chorizo–the squishy pork kind–to spoon into the bellies of the tortillas. I had the leftover greens from a bunch of radishes hanging around, so I whacked at them a little with a knife and wilted them into the chorizo. It would have been far too aggressive a filling for an enchilada, but for the creamy-mild bean sauce, it turned out nicely: gooey and pungent and just a touch spicy, with the milky saltiness of the queso fresco to round everything out. With a vinegary chopped salad and a cold fizzy beverage, these tortillas made for one soul-soothing dinner.

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Spanish chickpea gratin

One of the things I love most about creative pursuits is how a kernel of an idea, picked up from elsewhere, can take root in my body and morph, almost of its own volition, into something new. It happens to me in my writing, and even more so in my cooking. Sometimes the idea twists and warps in the process, emerging partly-formed and disappointing; but other times it’s charmed right from the get-go, and that’s what really keeps me going.

This was one of the charmed ones. It began as I was casting about for a Spanish-inflected vegetarian main course to serve for my mother’s birthday, a headliner for the opening act of those glorious clams and artichokes. From somewhere in the dusty crannies of my brain came a vague memory of a Minimalist recipe for chickpeas with spinach and sherry. I went looking for it, and in the process found another Minimalist recipe for rack of lamb with pimenton-flavored rye breadcrumbs. I seized on a sentence in the accompanying write-up: “[these breadcrumbs] could turn the simplest vegetable gratin into something truly special.” And suddenly the two recipes began to meld and harmonize into one: a chickpea and spinach gratin, flavored with sherry and topped with those incredible breadcrumbs. From there it was just a matter of finding a good chickpea gratin recipe to riff on, and then putting everything together as best I knew how.

From the minute I sent the gratin into the oven, I knew I had a winner. Just the carnival-clutter appearance of it made me smile, with purple-red onions and sandy-colored chickpeas and grassy spinach and that gorgeous brick-red breadcrumb blanket. From the oven I could smell smokiness and garlic and the sweet mustiness of Amontillado sherry. It came out bubbling, deep crackling brown on top, and almost luscious underneath. The onions–a whole mountain of them–melted into filmy ribbons in the oven, and the spinach turned dark and silky. The breadcrumbs themselves were richly smoky, crisp, almost meaty, like a strange vegan hybrid of bacon bits and chorizo. We devoured our portions and swabbed our plates with bread to mop up every last bit of the sherry-infused gravy.

My one possibly-unnecessary step was to mash half the chickpeas before adding them to the gratin, hoping that the mix of pureed, chunky, and whole chickpeas would lend contrast and interest to the gratin. But the mashed chickpeas just dissolved into the sauce, while the whole ones stayed whole, becoming lush and soft in the oven. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably keep all the chickpeas whole, for more creamy texture interruptions throughout the gratin. Call the mash an optional step. Do it if you want a slightly thicker filling, or don’t if you want a greater texture contrast.

This could serve nicely as a vegetarian or vegan entree, or as a side dish for chicken or light-fleshed fish. And the leftovers are just made to be reheated for breakfast with a fried egg on top. It’s a good one, this gratin; I’m proud of it. It’s the kind of success that keeps me cooking.

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Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to…

It’s spring. The air is so downy and soft I could float away on it. The water in the San Francisco Bay is gemstone-blue and sequined with bits of sunlight. The trees are green again; the sky is cloudless and infinite. On days like these, I daydream about nothing but strawberries.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that robin redbreasts have strawberry bellies. The arrival of both bird and berry has always been my personal signal to get excited for warmer times. Even in Northern California, where we only have three seasons, the start of strawberry season is always occasion for at least a little joy.

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