Friday, December 27, 2013

Smashed Potatoes

Last Year's Post:  Shrimp, Grapefruit and Avocado Salad
Two Years Ago:   Tiny Pizzas (Finger Food)

Looking for a new and different appetizer for your next party?  Or maybe you're tired of the same old baked potatoes, mashed potatoes and french fries as a side dish.  The recipe will fit the bill either way.  Tiny potatoes are cooked twice - first boiled to make them tender, then smashed and roasted with olive oil.  The result is an irresistible treat that's crispy on the outside and moist and tender on the inside.  Serve it with your favorite dip and watch people dive in.

The technique is really easy and fun.  First you boil the potatoes, then take them out and put them on some towels.  You use another towel as cover to gently flatten them.  The first time I made this recipe I was pretty doubtful about the "gently flatten" part - I figured they'd turn into mush.  But they don't - they just kind of split and flatten.  The lawyer was so interested after watching me do a few, that he had to try it himself.

At this point you let the potatoes cool completely - you can even cover and refrigerate them so all you have to do later is roast them with olive oil until they're brown and crispy.  You could easily add some garlic or herbs while they roast to vary the taste.

They're excellent served up with flavored sour cream, cheese sauce,  chipotle sauce, chile sauce - whatever you like.  If you're having a party, I'd make a big batch and serve them with several sauces so people can try them all.

printable recipe
Smashed Potatoes
Serves 4-6 as a side dish or appetizer

12 to 15 baby red or yellow potatoes (1 ½ - 2 “ in diameter)
2 ¾ teaspoons kosher salt, divided
½ cup olive oil

Put the potatoes in a large saucepan (preferably in one layer) and cover with at least an inch of water.  Add 2 teaspoons of kosher salt to the water.  Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the potatoes are completely tender and can easily be pierced with a skewer, 30-35 minutes.

While the potatoes are cooking, set up a double layer of clean dishtowels on the countertop.  When the potatoes are done, remove them individually from the water (don’t dump) and let them sit on the towels for a minute or two.

Fold another dishtowel into quarters, and using it as a cover, gently press down on one potato to flatten it to about ½” thick.  Repeat with the remaining potatoes.  Don’t worry some break apart a little; you can still use them.

Cover a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil; put a sheet of parchment on top of the foil.  Transfer the flattened potatoes carefully to the baking sheet and let them cool completely at room temperature.

Note:  the potatoes may be covered loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerated at this point to be roasted later.

Heat the oven to 450d.  Sprinkle the potatoes with the remaining ¾ teaspoon salt and pour the olive oil over them.  Lift the potatoes gently with a spatula to make sure some of the oil goes underneath and that they’re well coated.  Roast until crisp and deep browned on the edges, turning once halfway through, about 30-40 minutes. 

Serve hot.

Friday, December 20, 2013


Last Year's Post: Chorizo and Mushroom Fideua
Two Years Ago:   Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup

I think most cooks have a specific dish they've tried to make several times with limited success.  Spanakopita fits in that category for me.  A famous Greek dish including spinach, feta, onions and phyllo dough, I've often had it in Greek restaurants but was disappointed in the first few recipes I tried at home - too much spinach, not enough phyllo, too bland.  I was recently inspired to try again but this time I did some research and found two promising recipes.

I've seen spanakopita prepared in big pans and cut into squares, and I've seen it prepared as smaller appetizers wrapped individually like little flags, but the first recipe I found had a larger individual version that is suited for an entree.  I liked the idea of fully wrapping the filling - even though it's more work - because I like the ratio of phyllo to spinach.

The second recipe was just a basic appetizer spanakopita, but one of the reviewers left some great comments.  She's Greek and has made and eaten a lot of spanakopita.  Her tips were:
1.  Use frozen spinach and make sure you wring out all the moisture you possibly can (described below)
2.  Use the best-quality feta you can find (not the little pre-crumbled tubs)
3.  Use freshly grated nutmeg
4.  Add lemon juice to the filling to brighten it
5.  Don't fear the phyllo - with a little melted butter, all is forgiven

Armed with her suggestions, I made a few adaptations to the first recipe and went to work. I'm happy to report that this is the best spanakopita I've ever had, hands down.  The tips made all the difference.

First the spinach - I've found the best way to squeeze moisture out of spinach is to place it in a clean kitchen towel (don't worry, it'll wash clean later) and squeeze it over the sink.  Soggy spanakopita is not good.

Next the feta - this suggestion was a revelation to me, since I've been buying the little pre-crumbled tubs of feta found in every grocery store.  I bought a very nice French feta I found instead.

I think using a great feta was one of keys to success for this recipe - compared to what I had been buying, it had a delicate flavor and less salt.  Look for a firm block of feta because you'll be cutting it into little cubes for distinct little pops of flavor as opposed to having it crumble down to nothing in the finished dish.

About nutmeg - fresh nutmeg truly is much better than store-bought ground nutmeg.  You can either buy a cool little nutmeg grater like this one which stores the whole nutmeg right inside when not in use, or you can use any fine-hole microplane grater you have.

The other tip I would add is that it's important to serve the spanakopita fairly soon after you bake it so the phyllo is nice and crisp.  You could refrigerate baked leftovers for lunch the next day but they won't be the same.  Instead, I freeze the unbaked spanakopitas, then thaw them for 6-8 hours or overnight, and bake as usual.  I've seen recipes that say you can bake the frozen spanakopitas straight from the freezer, and yes you can, but the issue then becomes uneven browning of the phyllo.  The edges become very brown before the center is browned because it's sitting over frozen filling for half of the baking time.  I've tried it both ways and am much happier with the results if the filling is at least partially thawed.

Finally, the folding technique, which is part of the fun.  Basically you're going to layer phyllo sheets with melted  butter and a little sprinkle of dried bread crumbs, then cut the stacks into two long strips.  The filling goes on the lower left corner.  You start by folding the phyllo up and over the filling diagonally, then keep folding it like a flag until it's fully enclosed.  Don't worry if some of your phyllo sheets rip, there are millions in the package and as the lady said, a little butter fixes things.

You could easily double this recipe and freeze the remainder for future meals, as mentioned.  We served the spanakopita with tabbouleh, which I previously posted here, and it was a heavenly match.

printable recipe
Makes 6 entrée-sized strudels

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup chopped yellow onion
2 green onions, white and green parts chopped
1 (10 oz) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
Juice of ½ lemon
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 ½ tablespoons freshly grated parmesan
Plain dry bread crumbs
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup small-diced firm feta cheese (6 ounces)
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
12 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed
½ stick of unsalted butter, melted
Coarse sea salt and coarse pepper for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375d.

Place the thawed spinach in a clean kitchen towel and wring out as much liquid as possible over the sink.  If the spinach seems somewhat stringy, chop more finely on a cutting board.  Place in a medium bowl.

Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-low heat.  Add the yellow onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the green onions and cook for an additional minute, then add the contents of the pan to the bowl with the spinach.  Mix in the lemon juice, eggs, parmesan, 1 tablespoon of dry bread crumbs, the nutmeg, and pepper.  Gently fold in the feta and pine nuts.

To assemble, begin by gently unrolling the phyllo and placing a clean damp kitchen towel on the top to prevent drying out.  Prepare the melted butter and have a brush at hand.  Lift the towel and gently remove one sheet of phyllo, then replace the towel on the stack.  Place the phyllo on the work surface and lightly brush with melted butter, then sprinkle very lightly with bread crumbs so the layers don’t stick together.  Repeat the process with three more sheets of phyllo dough, melted butter and bread crumbs, leaving the bread crumbs off the top layer, for a total of four layers.  Cut the sheets of phyllo in half the long way and make sure the short sides are facing you (the stacks are side by side).

Place 1/3 cup of filling on the lower left corner of one stack.  Fold the left corner of the phyllo up and diagonally to the right, meeting the edge of the stack.  Continue folding the package up and diagonally over as if folding a flag until you reach the end of the sheet and the filling is completely enclosed.  Place on a baking sheet and brush with melted butter.  Repeat the process for 5 additional strudels – you’ll need to make and cut two more phyllo stacks – until all the filling is used.  Lightly sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper, if desired. 

(At this point the spanakopitas may be frozen in a zip-top bag.  Thaw before baking.)

Bake at 375 for 30-35 minutes, until brown and crisp.  Serve hot.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Brie & Pomegranate Toasts

Last Year's Post: Cheese Fondue
Two Years Ago:  Cuban Paella

As you know if you follow this blog, I recently discovered an easy way to remove pomegranate seeds (also called arils) from the fruit by cutting the pomegranate open and whacking it (cut side down) with a wooden spoon while holding it over a bowl.  I was so happy about it that I immediately wanted to use pomegranate seeds in everything.  I decided to create an appetizer that's a little special and festive enough for the holiday season but also very simple - just baguette, brie cheese, pomegranate seeds, and a balsamic vinegar reduction.

It's so easy I can't really even call it a recipe - you just simmer down a good quality balsamic vinegar, toast some baguette slices, and melt some Brie on top of the toasts.  Drizzle with a little balsamic reduction and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and you're done!  It would make a beautiful appetizer for a holiday get-together or cocktail party.  Add a little green color to your serving platter by using parsley or even a few tiny spruce tips to make it look really special.

As you can see. my small baguette made 12 toasts.  It's easy to make more but I would suggest using two small baguettes rather than one large one for ease of holding and eating the toasts.  If you can only find a large baguette, you might want to cut each toast in half.

If you missed the link to a YouTube video showing how to remove the pomegranate seeds the first time I posted it, you can find it here.  The guy does like to hear himself talk, but it's worth it to watch the technique.

If you have leftover balsamic reduction, don't throw it away, it's like liquid gold - use it drizzled over tomatoes, roast chicken, shards of parmesan cheese, or salads.  Just keep it covered in the refrigerator - if it thickens too much, gently re-warm on the stove or in the microwave.  It's delicious!

printable recipe
Brie & Pomegranate Toasts
Makes 12 toasts

Note:  the amount of Brie needed will vary with the size of your baguette.

1 cup good-quality balsamic vinegar
1 small baguette
¾ lb Brie cheese
Seeds of ½ pomegranate
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Additional parsley for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400d.

Bring the balsamic vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for approximately 10 minutes until reduced by one third, watching closely and stirring frequently so the vinegar doesn't burn.  Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, place the Brie cheese in the freezer for 10 minutes to make slicing easier.  Slice the baguette into thin slices on the diagonal and place on a baking sheet.  Bake for 3-4 minutes until lightly toasted, remove from the oven.

Remove the Brie from the freezer; remove the rind and cut cheese into thin slices.  Place the cheese slices on the toasts and put back in the oven for a minute or two until the Brie starts to melt.  Remove the toasts from the oven, drizzle with balsamic reduction, sprinkle with chopped parsley and pomegranate seeds, and place on a platter with additional parsley for garnish.

Serve warm.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Sausage and Cheddar Breakfast Strata

Last Year's Post: Greek Phyllo Wraps with Tzatziki
Two Years Ago:  Roasted Tomato Tart with Goat Cheese and Black Olives

Will you have a group of people at your house for breakfast or brunch over the holidays?  Or maybe you're planning to host a New Year's Day brunch.  Either way, a strata is the perfect answer.  A strata consists of milk and eggs beaten together and poured over bread cubes, meat, vegetables and cheese, then baked into a savory casserole.  It's perfect for company because it makes a lot of servings and you can assemble it the night before so all you have to do the next morning is pop it in the oven while you set the table and assemble some fruit, coffee and juices.

This recipe as written will serve 6-8 people depending on how many other foods are on the table, and it can be easily doubled if you're having a big crowd.  It's equally good for a light dinner with a green salad, and leftovers reheat beautifully.

I found this recipe ages ago and make it regularly, varying the ingredients according to what's on hand or in season.  You can make it very healthy by using low-fat milk, wheat bread, and turkey sausage.  The spicy sausage is particularly good because everything else in the recipe is mild, but if you're serving a large group and some people really don't like spicy food, use mild sausage in the strata (or 50/50 spicy and mild) and then serve hot sauce on the side so people can spice it up to their taste.  Of course, you could always use pork sausage, you could vary the type of cheese and veggies to suit your taste, and you could use sourdough or Italian bread in place of wheat.  

If you can't find bulk sausage, buy Italian sausage in links (not breakfast sausages in those tiny links) and take the sausage out of the casings.  The sausage, onions and peppers are cooked and then layered over bread cubes.  The milk/egg custard is poured on top and the cheese goes on last.  Put the dish in the refrigerator overnight and then simply bake it the next morning.

What could be easier?  Serve the strata with with a pretty basket of scones or croissants, a big bowl of mixed fruit, a selection of juices and good coffee and you're set.

printable recipe
Sausage and Cheddar Breakfast Strata
Serves 6-8

1 package (1 lb) bulk spicy turkey breakfast or Italian sausage
1 cup chopped onion
½ green bell pepper, chopped
½ red bell pepper, chopped
6 slices wheat bread (4 cups cubed)
6 eggs
1 1/4 cups milk
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper

Crumble the sausage into a non-stick 12” skillet and begin to cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.  Add the onion and red and green peppers and continue to cook, stirring, until the sausage is fully cooked.  If the pan contains grease, pour the mixture into a colander and drain well.  Set aside.

Slice the bread into 1” cubes.  Coat a 2-inch deep 8” by 11” (or 9" by 9") casserole dish with non-stick spray on the bottom and sides.  Put the bread cubes in the dish.  Sprinkle the reserved sausage mixture evenly over the bread.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper until well combined. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the sausage and use a fork to press the sausage and bread into the milk mixture until all the bread is moist.  Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top.  Cover with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate 4 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 375d.  Bake, uncovered, for 55 to 60 minutes until light brown and puffy and the eggs have cooked through.  If the top begins to brown too quickly, cover with foil for the remainder of cooking time.  Let the dish stand for 10 minutes prior to cutting and serving.