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possibly the best spinach salad

As good as your pita may be, occasionally your pita will grow stale. Once you’ve tasted this salad, you’ll make sure that occurs regularly! Pita, past its prime (which happens quite quickly) makes delicious croutons!

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Today’s will be a very quick post, on an extraordinary salad. (Another recipe from chef Ottolenghi. Forgive me, I can’t help myself.) This ranks amongst the best salads I’ve eaten, anywhere, ever. In flavor and texture, perfectly balanced. Sweet, tart, spicy heat, soft and crunch. The onions, macerated in vinegar with the dates, now softened and sweetened. The pita & almonds, browned together until crispy, then scattered with spice. The spinach, crisp, green, fresh. Dressed simply in olive oil & lemon.

A salad greater even than the sum of its parts.

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NOTE on Sumac: If you don’t have Sumac (get some!) you can find it on line. It’s red like paprika or chili powder, tart like a lemon or cranberries. It sits on many Middle Eastern tables like salt and pepper do on ours. After you’ve made that depression in the middle of your hummus, and filled it with olive oil, sprinkle sumac! You’ll find other uses for it too…it brightens up so many dishes,  but if nothing other than to use in this salad, you’ll be happy you and sumac met!

baby spinach salad with dates & almonds & pita croutons

from Yotam Ottolengthi

serves 4 (or so) as a first course 

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1 Tablespoon white wine vinegar

½ medium red onion, thinly sliced

3.5 ounces (100 g) pitted Medjool dates, quartered lengthwise

2 Tablespoons (30 g) unsalted butter

2 Tablespoons olive oil (separated)

1/2 cup (75 g) whole, unsalted almonds, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons sumac (see NOTE)

½ teaspoon chili flakes

5 ounces (150 g) baby spinach leaves

2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

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Into a small bowl measure the vinegar and drop in the onion and dates. Allow to marinate for 20 minutes, then discard the vinegar and set aside the rest.

In the meantime, heat the butter and 1 Tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, drop in the broken pieces of pita and the chopped almonds. Cook, stirring all the while, until the pita is golden brown and crunchy. Remove from the heat and scatter with the sumac and chili flakes. Stir and set aside to cool.

BabySpinachSaladOttolenghi-1When you’re ready to serve, toss the pita/almond mix and the spinach into a large bowl.

BabySpinachSaladOttolenghi-2Add the marinated dates and red onion, the last tablespoon of olive oil, the lemon juice and another pinch of salt.

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Hummus – stuffing our pockets

Hummus was one of the first things I learned to make as a 20-something year old bent on eating well, while not making life difficult on relatives of cows I’d grown to love as a girl. The hummus of those days has morphed a number of times over, as we ourselves tend to do.

Back then I used canned chickpeas. I prefer to cook my own these days, but I’d much rather use canned chickpeas than face the dreadful plight of hummus-lessness when the mood for hummus-in-a-hurry strikes. I’m not at all a fanatic about cooking my own and  always have canned chickpeas on hand. BUT, I do think home-cooked beans are noticably better-textured and flavored and if you want to consider giving it a gohere are some reasons why you might consider it too –

You’ll cook them with no preservatives, no gross amounts of salt in the canning liquid – (though not all canned beans come loaded this way.) You can use some of your own cooking liquid to puree in with the beans. (Much better than plain water.) I won’t use the liquid if they’re canned. A batch of your own fresh-cooked chickpeas is a fraction of the cost of canned. There’s less to throw away (or recycle.) And then, there’s the taste.

One of the changes to my hummus has come about quite recently – only since developing a mad crush on Ottolenghi (I mean, his recipes!) It would seem that the skins of the chickpeas, even when the beans are cooked to softness, retain a bit of their toughness unless measures are taken to further soften them. Ottolenghi adds baking soda to both the soaking water, and then again to the cooking pot. This addition and sufficient cooking time are  probably THE keys to THE creamiest, most velvety hummus your mouth will ever taste. I’d like to compare it to ambrosia’s savory cousin, but having never tasted ambrosia…Anyway…

Another measure which I’ve read about recently – in several places – seems awfully tedious at first. – but perhaps especially in the case when canned beans are used, worth the extra effort. You squeeze each and every little chickpea between thumb and forefinger, easily slipping them out of their filmy skins. This happens all the more easily with the addition of baking soda to the cooking water. (It’s as if they were itching to shed them, and you came along, right place, right time.) What’s left, once these naked beans are pureed with garlic and fresh lemon juice and tahini (the “butter” of sesame seeds”) is exquisitely smooth.

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The pita-pocket sandwich is just about whatever you’d like it to be. What I’d like it to be goes something like this:

Home-baked pita, sliced in half. A good slathering of lemony hummus, topped with thinly-sliced tomatoes and English cucumbers (the kind with the very small seeds); perhaps some sprouts or pea-shoots or micro-greens; maybe some delicate leaves of Spring lettuce, or any other lettuce shredded; perhaps some shredded carrot; a little feta; thin slices of red onion; perhaps some marinated & grilled kabobs of fish or chicken (or you decide); definitely some Greek-style yogurt or tzatziki. And maybe an extra drizzle of olive oil. And because each half is fairly small and because life comes with SO many choices, and choosing is sometimes very hard, make them every which way.

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But DO start with the hummus:

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The Hummus

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1¼ cups dried chickpeas, soaked in cold water overnight (See NOTE)

1½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)

Juice of 2 to 2½ lemons, or to taste

2 or 3 cloves garlic, crushed

salt to taste

4 – 5 Tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)

a pinch (or several) of ground cumin

extra virgin olive oil

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OPTIONAL: see below for optional garnishes & serving suggestions

Hummus becomes a personal thing over the years. You find what you like – more garlicky or lemony, or less? – more tahini, less tahini? – more herbs or none at all? It pays to taste a little as you go. Taste your tahini before you start. Is it bitter? Then go with far less than what’s shown above. (I ruined a batch once with tahini far different than what I was used to.) Add most of the lemon and 2 cloves of garlic to start. It won’t be the right consistency yet, but Taste. If it’s tasting about right, don’t add the rest until closer to the end if at all. You’ll develop your own perfect proportions. With that out of the way, here’s the method –

NOTE: 1¼ cups dried chickpeas will equal about 3¾ cups cooked – if you use canned chickpeas you can give them a little extra cooking time in fresh water to soften them further, and then if you like, remove the skins from them as well.

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on pita & filling our pockets

Making your own pocket bread may not be the thing for you. Do you have some leisure hours on one of your weekend days that you might like to spend playing with soft little pillows of dough? Do you find it a thing of pleasure to create something from scratch, something you can easily grab off the shelf, machine-made and already shrink-wrapped for you in plastic? Would it thrill you (just a tiny bit?) to watch flat pancakes fill like hot-air balloons in your oven while the aromas of a bakery fill your house?   hmmm! – well –

then…

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Pita  – from your own oven

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makes 16 pita pockets

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1 Tablespoon active dry yeast (or 1 package)

2½ cups lukewarm water

¼ teaspoon sugar

Approximately 6 cups unbleached white bread flour  (or unbleached all-purpose flour)

1½ – 2 teaspoons salt

3 Tablespoons vegetable or extra-virgin olive oil

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 Into a large bowl, pour ½ cup of warm water and stir in the yeast to dissolve. Add the sugar. When the mixture begins to froth (proving that the yeast is still lively) stir in the remaining 2 cups of water. Gradually add 3 cups of flour, 1 cup at a time, stirring vigorously. (You may either do this by hand, or with a stand-mixer.) You’ve now made a “sponge”. Allow it to rest for 10 minutes, or until it too froths.

Stir in the salt and 2 Tablespoons of the oil and mix together well. Gradually add the remaining flouryou may need less than the total amount specified – once you have a dough that holds together into a ball and isn’t sticking wetly to your hands, you’ve added enough flour.

(Because the flour hydrates gradually – and depends on ambient humidity amongst other things – if you add large amounts of flour all at once, you can overshoot the mark. All would not be lost…just add a bit more water – gradually – to find that happy balance.)  

Knead well by hand in the bowl, or on a floured board, ten minutes or so; or in a stand mixer using the dough hook for maybe 7 minutes. You’re looking for a smooth, shiny and elastic dough that no longer sticks to your fingers when held for several seconds. Dust with a bit more flour occasionally if it proves too sticky. Form it into a ball.

Put the remaining tablespoon of oil into the bowl and roll the ball of dough around so as to grease it all over. (This prevents a crust from forming on it.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a comfy warm place free of drafts for about 2 hours, until doubled in bulk.

Preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C), placing a large baking sheet in the hottest part. (Generally about ¼ of the way up from the bottom.) Allow it to preheat for 20 minutes.

Punch the dough down and then knead again for several minutes. Divide the dough in half. Divide the first half into 8 “equal” lumps and roll these into balls.

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On a lightly floured surface, using either your hands or a rolling pin dusted with flour, flatten each lump into a “pancake” about 7 or 8 inches across and 1/8 to ¼-inch thick.  Spread a kitchen towel on your counter and sprinkle it with flour. Dust each of the rounds with flour and arrange on the cloth, leaving an inch between them.  Cover these with another flour-dusted cloth and allow them to rest for 20 minutes at room temperature. (If your counter is particularly cold, you could leave them to rest them slightly longer.)

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spreenkle #8 – (on pesticides)

beautiful fresh vegetables and fruits, their kaleidoscopic colors, their squat,  bulbous, and stringy shapes, and their deep-earthed or floral scents, make me woozy. extolling their many virtues, urging you to eat them, treading that fine line between encouragement and pushiness, i try not to sound too much like your mother ….

but I’ve sworn to tell the truth, and the complete story is not all health & happiness.

fruits and vegetables have their dark side.

unless you grow your own (and even if you do I suppose) those colorful containers of nature’s goodness may be hiding some pretty nasty insect-defenses… yes, poison, people…and as a general principle, and one I recommend, it’s desirable to avoid consuming poisons wherever possible. 😉

Below are two lists. They’re in alphabetical order, so it’s important to note that the top three on the Avoid List don’t reflect the 3 worst offenders. The worst are: SpinachStrawberries – and Celery (in that order.)

The lists aren’t inclusive of all fruits and veggies of course. They’re only meant to identify the ones most apt and least apt to have high pesticide levels. (Results were obtained from a sampling of produce from the across the US.)

12 Foods –  MOST Pestidicdes

  1. Apples
  2. Bell Peppers
  3. Celery
  4. Cherries
  5. Imported Grapes
  6. Nectarines
  7. Peaches
  8. Pears
  9. Potatoes
  10. Red Raspberries
  11. Spinach
  12. Strawberries

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the guinea pig goes to college

The past two weeks have been quite out of the ordinary around here. It all started when the Guinea Pig went back to school…Stanford is training him how to be a business leader…I know…he’s really kind of somethin‘! I decided to use this time as a bit of a retreat of my own and do the sorts of things I don’t generally do when he’s around.

I set up a long table in front of the big window where I normally shoot my food photos. Outside that window are maybe half a dozen different sorts of bird feeders and a place for birds to drink. Nearby are the tall trees where they nest. For days and days, I sewed together squares of colorful flowers and polka dots for the little one who calls herself Lala. As my machine whirred, I watched the birds, literally by the hundreds, swoop in, grab their nuts or thistle, catch their wind and retreat to a nearby branch. I watched the fog rise and descend like a quilt’s airy batting, forming tiny glittering crystals on everything it touched. I watched a determined squirrel (already obese) hang upside-down, each sticky little paw clutching tight a different branch, as he filled his cheeks, trying hard to empty the bird feeder before again losing his balance.

These have been unusually cold days, with both a glorious sun and a freezing fog alternating through the day.   It’s been quiet and serene at this window and I’ve had a chance to contemplate the sorts of things I’d hoped to, love lots on my dogs, and sew a quilt for Lala. This all came at a good time, coinciding as it did with a new year.

I made a discovery early on…without the ever-grateful G.P. here to share the table, some of the joy of cooking has been absent. I’ve eaten very simply…which isn’t all bad. And I’ve eaten a lot of leftovers. This earthy warm tagine got me through several wintry nights…

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Served over couscous, this syrupy, caramel-y tagine makes a delicious vegetarian meal served with salad. But it would also go well paired with grilled or roasted meats. Substitute butternut squash or sweet potatoes for the yams, or small shallots for the pearl onions if you like.  You don’t need a tagine to prepare this dish – use a heavy-bottomed casserole dish if that’s what you have. (And if you don’t have preserved lemons…I suppose you could make it without…or…here’s a thought: you could make some!)

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a Tagine of Yam, Pearl Onions, Carrots, Prunes & Preserved Lemons

2 to 3 Tablespoons Olive Oil along with a pat of Butter

Fresh Ginger Root – 1½-inch piece about the thickness of your thumb, minced or grated

2 sticks Cinnamon (or 1½ to 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon)

10 ounces Pearl Onions* peeled (See NOTE below on how to peel)

2 pounds Yams or Sweet Potatoes, in bite-size chunks

2 medium Carrots, in bite-size chunks

¾ cup Pitted Prunes

2 teaspoons Maple Syrup

1¾ cups Vegetable or Chicken Stock

Preserved Lemon (rind only) from ½ lemon, small dice

small bunch Cilantro Leaves, roughly chopped

several Mint Leaves, chopped

salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

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*  (or 10 – 12 very small shallots)

In a heavy-bottomed casserole dish or a tagine, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the ginger and cinnamon sticks and stir for one minute. Toss in the peeled pearl onions and when they begin to color, toss in the yams or sweet potatoes, the carrots and the preserved lemon. Sauté for several minutes, then drop in the prunes and maple syrup. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, top with a lid and cook for about 20 to 25 minutes…until vegetables pierce easily with a fork. 

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creamy carrot soup & preserved lemons

On a winter’s afternoon, weeks still before Christmas, a good friend Carolyn and I came together in my kitchen. We’d amassed on the counter several bags of organic lemons, sea salt, a few herbs and spices, and a collection of pretty jars.  We washed, sliced and stuffed the lemons with salt. We packed them tight into their jars. Then tighter still. We dropped bay leaves and pink peppercorns and allspice berries in behind them, and then squeezed juice enough from other lemons to cover them. We talked about what we’d do with them and who we’d give them to as gifts for Christmas. In six weeks they’d be ready. Carolyn hadn’t tasted them before, so she could hardly wait.CarrotSoup-1Some time – too long ago – I posted on how to preserve lemons. I (kind of) promised that I’d share recipes that used these indescribably delectable “preserves”. (In all truth, though, you don’t really need a recipe in order to use them. You can strew them on a salad or in the salad’s vinaigrette; or in with roasted or steamed vegetables; make a simple sauce sort of extraordinary; add them to stews or soups; flavor grilled or poached fish with them. I reach for them several times a week, at least!) Over the next couple months I’ll share a good handful of really good recipes. One of them will be from my friend Carolyn who invented it on the spot (she does that sort of thing, and created herself a beautiful shrimp dinner in about 15 minutes.) She told me about it and I made it and we loved it. (Expect to see more from Ottolenghi too.)

This one today is from Mike – Mike, married to my daughter, is a good good cook. They received a jar of Preserved Lemons for Christmas. One day my girl and I were on an outing and she raved about the dinner Mike had made the other night. By that afternoon, I was texting Mike…

He generously shares his soup:

Creamy Carrot Soup with Preserved Lemons

1 medium yellow onion, diced

2 -3 Tablespoons butter or olive oil

 2 cloves of garlic, minced

1½ teaspoons finely minced ginger root

 2 cups chicken stock (or good vegetable stock)

2 Tablespoons dry sherry or white wine

8 to 10 medium carrots, sliced thinly

1 to 2 sections of preserved lemon, diced finely (See NOTE)

1 to 1¼ cups milk (from whole milk to 1% to your preferred milk alternative)

Salt & Pepper (white if you have it) to taste

NOTE on preserved lemons. By “sections” we mean quarters of lemon. After soaking in a briny liquid for 6 weeks, the flesh of the lemon has given over much of its juice to the jar. The rinds of the lemon have softened, and in a way quite impossible to describe, have mellowed, given up their acidic bite and become more roundly-flavored, very lemony still, but not mouth-puckeringly so. To use them, you remove the flesh (either discard it or toss it back in the jar) and use only the rind, which you rinse well first and then (generally) finely dice. If you cook with it, it will impart its lemony-ness to the dish but in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. If you use it fresh, without cooking first, you get little lemony bursts.

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If you don’t want to make them yourself, you can find them in many markets. That said, they’re easy and (we think) fun to make…especially with a friend.

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on sweet eats

Only once as a child was I made to strongly urged to eat my dessert. Our family of five,  plus my uncle and his new wife were gathered around our maple dining table. Each of our wintry faces was warmed and brightened by the candle’s winking light. Mom, in her fancy apron, her hair pulled back in a thick high ponytail, was beaming. She’d worked hard on this dessert.

Christmas pudding.

Sounds innocuous enough. To some it might even sound a tad romantic.  A dessert of a time past when people cooked in black pots placed on grates in large fireplaces, when people wiped their mouths with their sleeves or aprons, and hunting dogs curled around the legs of the table and caught the scraps that fell.  Everyone basked in the glow of candlelight back then. Christmas pudding….

Ahhh! Lovely, dear!

At first whiff I knew this was going to be nasty. I declined as politely as I could by pushing it away and making a face. “You haven’t even tried it.”   “But I don’t need to, I know I won’t like it!”   “Well, you’re going to try it.”   “See, I told you I wouldn’t like it!”   “Maybe you just need another bite to be sure.”

The story doesn’t end well. I had several bites that night, and then lost a good portion of the dinner I had liked. I had a very weak stomach back then, a nose that could sniff green pepper or alcohol a room away, and a very – discerning – palate for a seven-year-old.

(Don’t think a single dark thought about our Mom. She’s a sweetheart and a mighty fine cook, and I’ve got plenty of stories and recipes to prove it!)

Why are we here then, you ask. Certainly not to share in Mom’s recipe for Christmas Pudding!? (No, our smarter-than-average Mom never made that ghastly thing again.)

 I’m here (once more) to strongly urge you to eat your vegetables – AS your dessert this time! Fortune smiles!

AND you ‘re going to love it – at first bite! (So will seven-year-olds.)

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WHY will you love it? (Good of you to ask.) It’s aromatic, tender, light, flavorful, not-dry (I know some people despise the word moist), it’s soft in the mouth, sweet on the tongue – and what? good for you! Warmed for breakfast, packed in a kid’s lunch, a little pick-me-up in the afternoon, a light bit of sweet after dinner. This makes 2 loaves, and you only add ½ cup of sugar – yet it’s delicately sweet. (It does have some fruit butter which has a bit of its own sugar, but we’re not going to hold that against it.) We do like this – ever so much – around our house!

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Carrot-Parsnip-Zucchini Bread

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1½ cups all-purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat flour (the white variety of whole wheat works best for tender baked goods like this but any will do)

2 Tablespoons hulled Hemp Seeds (Optional – but so packed nutritionally and with a delicious nutty flavor)

½ cup sugar

1½ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground  cloves

1 medium carrot shredded

1 medium parsnip, shredded

1 small zucchini, shredded

3 large eggs

¾ cup apple butter or pumpkin butter (I’ve only made this with pumpkin butter, but either would be equally good)

3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 Tablespoon vanilla extract (yes, that much)

2 Tablespoons pumpkins seeds for the top

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Preheat the oven to 375°F (180°C) Either oil two 8½ x 4½ inch loaf pans with olive oil or line with parchment paper. (Loaves will lift right out of the pan, cleanly, with parchment paper.)

Wash, peel and grate your vegetables.

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about 2-1/2 cups total shredded vegetables will be perfect

In a large bowl, combine the flours, hemp seed, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Stir to combine well. Add the shredded carrots, zucchini and parsnip. Stir to coat the shreds evenly.

In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, fruit butter of your choice, the olive oil and vanilla extract.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix until well combined, but be careful not to over-mix which would toughen the loaves.

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so liberating to make a mess – as any seven-year-old knows – and it comes easier with practice

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