Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Artichoke and Spinach Lasagna

It’s springtime, although you wouldn’t know it from the weather here in New York city. It is supposed to be 41F tonight, which is only 9 degrees above freezing! Yesterday I was caught in a rainstorm, and was so wet that I had to slosh into Duane Reade to buy new socks and a roll of paper towel to dry my pants and shoes. As you can imagine, New Yorkers are complaining loudly about this state of affairs.

I find cooking to be a perfect way to transcend gloomy weather. This week I created a vernal lasagna that embodies the coming of spring with hints of green (artichoke, spinach and peas) peeking out from a snowy mass of noodles, ricotta and mozzarella. This lasagna is inspired by a recipe from Bon Appétit, and is a contrast to the autumnal heartiness of most red meat/red sauce versions. You can read about the “dirty” history of the word lasagna on my recent post for Turkey Lasagna al Forno.

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
8 ounces canned (drained) or frozen artichoke hearts (thawed), coarsely chopped
1/4 cup (1 package) fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 cup whipping cream
1 15-ounce container low-fat ricotta cheese
1/2 pound frozen petite peas, thawed
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pine nuts (optional)
1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes, chopped plus 4 extra (optional)
6 no-boil lasagna noodles, dipped in water
1/2 pound coarsely grated mozzarella or mozzarella cheese


1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. In large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Sauté garlic until fragrant, and then sauté onions and 2 minutes. Add in artichokes and sauté for 2 more minutes [first picture above]. Turn off heat and stir in 1/2 cup cream and basil.
3. In a blender puree 1/2 cup cream, ricotta, 1/2 peas, spinach, Parmesan, egg and salt. Mix in remaining peas, pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes [second picture above].
4. Grease an 8 x 11 glass baking dish with olive oil. Spread 1/2 cup ricotta mixture, and layer with 2 noodles.
5. Cover with 1/2 of artichoke mixture, 1 cup ricotta mixture and 1 cup mozzarella.
6. Repeat with 2 noodles, rest of artichoke mixture and 1 cup mozzarella.
7. Top with last noodles, remaining ricotta mixture and 2 cups mozzarella cheese.
8. Slice up 4 sun dried tomatoes and use to garnish the top of the lasagna [third picture above].
9. Cover tightly with foil and bake lasagna for 40-45 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until noodles are tender and lasagna is hot and bubbly. This will take between 8-12 minutes.
10. Allow lasagna to stand for 15 minutes before serving.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Spanakopita Triangles

My friend Mira (who just had a baby girl) makes a mean spanakopita. She layers a spinach/feta mixture between phyllo dough, bakes it, and serves it in lasagna-like pieces. When I tried my hand at this Greek dish, I decided to wrap the filling in double phyllo sheets, producing packets more akin to samosas. These flaky and flavorful triangles can be served as appetizers, or paired with a salad as part of a light dinner.

Spanakopita is Greek for spinach pie, and its secret ingredient is nutmeg, which is added to the spinach/feta mixture. Nutmeg is the nut of an evergreen tree native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia. Mace, a more delicate spice, is made from the lacy covering of the nutmeg seed.

Nutmeg was traded in the Middle Ages by Arabs who were active in Indian Ocean trade. It was later traded by the Portuguese and then the Dutch, who in exchange for British control of New Amsterdam (now New York), took control of the Banda Islands. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British took control of the islands and transplanted nutmeg trees to their colonies in Zanzibar and Grenada. A stylized nutmeg remains a symbol on the flag of Grenada. Indonesia and Grenada continue to dominate worldwide nutmeg production.

Makes 36 triangles (serves 6-8 as an appetizer)

Ingredients2 x 10 ounce frozen chopped spinach, thawed overnight in the fridge
4 green onions, green and white parts sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups crumbled feta
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
1/2 teaspoon chili powder, or to taste
1 to 2 sticks (1/2 cup to 1 cup) unsalted butter, melted
8 ounces phyllo pastry dough (9 x 14 inch sheets), thawed overnight in the fridge

Directions1. In a colander, squeeze thawed spinach to remove as much moisture as possible. The spinach will be clumped, so pull it apart once the water is removed.
2. In a large bowl mix spinach, green onions, olive oil, feta cheese and Parmesan. Mix well and continue to pull apart the dense spinach.
3. Season with nutmeg, basil, oregano, pepper and chili powder. Mix well and set aside.
4. Melt one stick of butter in the microwave or on the stovetop. Once melted, unpack and unroll the phyllo sheets. Cover the sheets with a damp (not wet) towel to keep them from drying out. You will have to work quickly once the phyllo is unwrapped.
5. Place one sheet of phyllo on a clean work surface (a cutting board works well) and brush liberally with butter. Place another sheet on top and brush with butter. Cut the sheets into strips that are approximately 3 inches wide and 9 inches long.
6. Make sure the strips are laid out vertically. At the end of one strip place 1 to 2 tablespoons of spinach mixture. Fold one corner in to fully cover the spinach (thus forming a triangle tip). Now fold over the section containing spinach twice, making sure to keep the mixture from falling out. Brush all visible surfaces with butter before folding once more. Fold the remaining phyllo over and use additional butter to seal the triangle. Melt more butter if necessary. The above photos show this process step-by-step.
7. Place triangles (seal on the bottom) on two parchment or foil-lined baking sheets. Cover with a damp towel until ready to bake.
8. Repeat with other strips of phyllo and then with all phyllo sheets.
9. Bake at 375F for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm. Leftovers can be refrigerated and reheated in a toaster oven or oven (do not use a microwave as triangles will become soggy). Alternately, unbaked triangles can be frozen immediately and baked when needed (bake from frozen, do not thaw first).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Chocolate Glazed Doughnuts

I have always loved doughnuts. How can you beat sugar or icing topped deep-fried dough? I love all kinds of doughnuts – honey glazed, crullers, Long Johns, double chocolate, apple fritters, jelly-filled, doughnut holes – I could go on. Once or twice a year in elementary school we had “Texas Donut Day” where we could buy huge (hence Texas) doughnuts during recess. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure why the school was pedalling super-sized snacks. Was it an honorable fundraising scheme or did one of the teachers have shares in a doughnut company?

In the days before Tim Hortons, we went to the Country Style Donut shop on Saturday afternoons. I dreamed of being the proprietor – eating and selling doughnuts in equal quantities. As practice for my business venture, I tried making doughnuts one day after school. Luckily my mom came home before I started frying!

Since that time I’ve come to look at doughnuts as oil-soaked artery cloggers. I rarely purchase them, and when I do, I feel rather guilty. However, my deep affection for fried dough has never waned. It was recently rekindled by my friend Jason, who told me about an easy way to make doughnuts. The act of home frying was real work, which made me feel entitled to consume some of my products without guilt.

The origin of the doughnut is disputed. Most evidence points to its introduction by Dutch settlers, whose deep-fried dough carried the moniker olykoeks (oily cakes), though some contend that Native American frybread is the true precursor. Regardless, appreciation of fried dough is common to many societies in China, India, Europe and the Middle East.

Makes 8 doughnuts


3-4 cups vegetable oil, for frying
Pillsbury Grands or other pre-made canned biscuits (do not use buttermilk biscuits)
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
boiling water
shredded coconut, chopped nuts or sprinkles (optional)

1. Heat oil over medium heat in a home fryer or deep pot (do not use a not-stick pan as the coating may degrade). The oil should be about 3 inches deep.
2. Open the biscuits and lay flat on waxed paper.
3. With a small bottle cap, punch out a hole in each biscuit. Use your fingers to increase the hole if necessary.
4. When oil is at 375F, fry doughnuts until golden brown (about two minutes on each side). If you don’t know how hot the oil is, test it with one of the doughnut holes. The dough should fry to golden brown. If the oil is too hot, it will become dark brown. The canned biscuit dough is different from regular doughnut dough so it will fry to a deeper color. You may have to sacrifice a full doughnut to make sure you have your oil at the right temperature.
5. Drain doughnuts on paper towels. Pat to remove excess oil.
6. In a wide and shallow bowl or plate, melt chocolate and butter in the microwave. Add confectioner’s sugar to make a glaze. Carefully add boiling water until the correct consistency is reached.
7. Using tongs or your fingers, dip the doughnuts in the glaze. Sprinkle with coconut, nuts or sprinkles if desired. Allow glaze to harden and serve warm or at room temperature. Doughnuts taste best on the day they are made. Note that the unfried biscuit dough cannot be saved once the can is open, so bake into biscuits if you can’t consume 8 doughnuts.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Peanut Biscotti (Jugu Cake)

This is a recipe from my father’s childhood. It comes from the Nanwalla Mithai shop, a store that sold Indian sweets in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The shop was owned by members of the Bohra community, an Indian Muslim immigrant community that had settled in East Africa. Jugu cake is similar to Italian biscotti, except that it is not double-baked.

Jugu is the Swahili word for peanut. Contrary to popular belief, peanuts are legumes and are not technically nuts. They are native to South and Central America and were domesticated in Peru almost 8,000 years old. The cultivation of peanuts spread through European colonialism. The Portuguese were responsible for introducing them to China and Africa, and they were brought to the United States through African slaves. Dothan, Alabama is responsible for fifty percent of all peanuts grown in the United States.

In addition to consumption of whole peanuts, they are commonly processed into peanut butter and peanut oil. Peanut meats or shells are also used in the production of paint, insecticide, furniture polish, plastic, cellulose, glue, animal feed and fertilizer.

Makes 5 dozen

2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil (canola or corn)
1 1/2 cups milk
3 3/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 cups shelled, unsalted peanuts, finely chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
2. In a medium bowl beat one egg, vanilla extract, oil and milk. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, sugar and peanuts. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and form a dough.
3. Divide the dough into 6 equal parts and roll each into a 10 to 12-inch log. Place the logs on greased cookie sheets and flatten them so they are approximately 2 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. [see the above photo]
4. Beat the other egg and brush it along each flattened log. Bake for 40 minutes or until golden brown.
5. Cool for 5 minutes, and with a sharp knife cut the baked logs at a 60-degree angle into 1 1/2 inch wide cookies. Cool to room temperature and serve with tea or coffee. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Masala Deviled Eggs

Deviled eggs (also known as eggs mimosa) have been with us since ancient Roman times when boiled eggs were served with spices. Stuffed, hard-boiled eggs are referenced in medieval European texts including a 15th century recipe book which recommends incorporating raisins, cheese and sweet spices. Early references are also found in Andalusia in the 13th century and in Tudor England. By the 17th century, what we know of as deviled eggs were fairly common.

The term ‘deviled’ first arises in 18th century England to describe the seasoning of meats with spices associated with the devil due to their pungency. The term was later used to refer to boiled eggs containing spices. Its meaning has expanded further still – it is now also used in reference to chocolate (specifically devil food cake), which is so named due to its decadence.

This was my first attempt at deviled eggs. To pipe out the yolk mixture I used a sandwich bag instead of a pastry bag, which was much easier but far less elegant. This dish is versatile and there are many variations including deviled eggs stuffed with watermelon rind, mustard, pickle, avocado, caviar, wasabi, chutney, salsa, smoked salmon and many others. I also found a reference for battered deep-fried deviled eggs.

The photos in this post show the eggs without sprinkled paprika and garnishings.

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer

8 eggs, hard boiled and shelled
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon curry powder
30 drops of Tabasco, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon chilli powder, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
1 or 2 green onions, minced
cilantro leaves, small olives, capers or parsley leaves for garnish (optional)

1. Slice eggs lengthwise and scoop out yolks. Pay attention to where you cut the eggs so that the yolks are in the center of the egg slice. It is best to pick out the yolks with your hands so that you do not tear the egg whites.
2. In a small bowl mix egg yolks and mayonnaise. It will be very thick so mix well.
3. Add curry powder, Tabasco, chilli powder, salt and pepper. Adjust seasonings to taste.
4. Add green onions and mix well. The filling can be prepared several days in advance.
5. To serve, bring the egg yolk mixture to room temperature and either spoon or pipe (with a pastry bag) into egg whites. You can also put the mixture into a small plastic baggie or sandwich bag. Snip off the corner and pipe the egg yolk mixture.
6. Sprinkle stuffed eggs with paprika and garnish. Serve at room temperature.