Thursday, November 22, 2007

My Pappy Was A Pistol, I'm A Son of a Gun

My father has had a lot of advice for me over the years: "If you're around trouble you're in trouble", "Everybody works until nobody works", "Do it so the next guy doesn't have to", etc. Yet, despite the best of intentions, my pops has found himself relentlessly thwarted in every last attempt to deliver me the greater wisdom of his prudent world. This isn't because I, hypothetically, am an ornery and stubborn donkey of a daugther. No. Let me explain: My dad is an extraordinary cook, fashioned into one of the finest purveyors of Mediterranean cuisine by an abundance of Greek blood running rampant in his veins. In my recollections, for better or for worse, what he has cooked has always managed to supercede what he has spoken. His advice to me has been woefully lost to the passage of time, buried in memory by innumerable layers of feta cheese, olive oils, and kalamata. Such is the great trouble of raising a daughter on only the most exquisitively prepared food, she will be able to think of little else for the rest of her life.

Spanikopita is by far the most legendary of my father's dishes. He uses a recipe that has seen generation after generation of our family, evolving most recently to suit the palate of a four person family tucked safely away in the suburbs outside of San Francisco. Prior to now, this recipe has been a carefully maintained oral tradition. My dad has not a single written copy of it. It seems reasonable, then, that he has kindly requested for me to conceal here a few of its finer points; those tricks of the trade that took him over 25 years of cooking to discover and master. It is the one suggestion, the one guiding fatherly nudge, that I will gladly accomodate. Thus what follows is a slightly modest retelling of a great family tradition of mine: Spanikopita.

You Will Need:

1 pck. filo paper
20 oz. fresh spinach
1/2 a bunch of dill
1 pck. cream cheese
1-1 1/2 lbs of feta cheese
3 eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
3 bunches of green onions
1 stick unsalted butter
6 large sized mint leaves

To Make The Filling:
It is a good idea, my father advises, to soften the cream cheese over night beforehand.
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
Dice onions and cook them down in olive oil, over low heat, until they are clarified.
In a large bowl, break down the feta with a fork before adding the oil and 2 eggs. Mix.
Add the dill and the mint to the mixture. Mix.
Add spinach. Mix.
Lastly, add the green onions so their freshly sauteed heat will slightly melt the cream cheese (which you will add to the top of the mix shortly after the onions themselves.)
Mix everything together.

To Prepare the Filo Dough:
Melt down the stick of unsalted butter, over low heat until it bubbles.
Mix a little olive oil in with the melted butter, and stir.
Spread three pastry sheets across a counter top, and use a pastry brush to lightly spread the butter and olive oil mixture across one side of the dough. My dad says that three quick brush strokes are enough.

To Make the Pastries:
Use a tablespoon to pull out large, heaping globs of the mixture.
Place a glob at the base of one sheet of filo dough.
My dad says there is a very specific way that is best for folding up the dough-roll it up and around the glob for two and a half revolutions, then fold from from right to left, before rolling up the rest of the dough into a bar-like shape.

To Prep For Baking:
Place the complete pastries on a pan with (this part is important) crumpled tin foil underneath them. According to my dad, the crinkles in the foil allow heat to get under the spanikopita as they bake, preventing all sorts of issues like under-cooking and general sogginess.
Beat the remaining egg in a dish until it is foamy, and use a pastry brush to spread it on top of each, individual spanikopita. Then, as a nice finishing touch, you can sprinkle the pastries with raw sesame seeds.

Bake the spanikopita for approximately an hour. Then remove, let cool for roughly twenty five seconds, and begin consuming ravenously!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Apples Are The Things I Give To You

Fall is my favorite season. I have a romantic obsession with it that, I am sure, has very little to do with the literal progression of its hours and days. Much more to do with a sudden change in the quality of evening light, the crispness of the air, the necessity for sweaters (depending on where you live), and—above all—a thing that neatly summarizes all of these characteristics inside a conveniently sized, attractively colored shape: Apples! Fall is the season for apples...Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Honey Crisp, Fuji, Granny Smith, Macintosh. The list goes on and spectacularly on. As I recently learned, there is no better way to bask in the sweet glow of apple variety than a trip to your local apple orchard, where pick-your-own is a standard option during peak season.

There are a lot of things people can do with freshly picked, in-season apples, apple pie being the go-to, so I decided to break from tradition and go a route that reeked of possible boredom and blandness. I cooked down my batch of apples and made applesauce. I know. However, a batch of freshly cooked, still-warm applesauce is surprisingly satisfying on a fall day. Here's how I made mine:

4-6 apples, peeled and cored
3/4 cup of water
1 tsp. ground cinnamon

It is best to cut up the peeled and cored apples into smaller chunks before cooking them down. It speeds up the process and they are easier to mash later. Once your apples are prepped, combine them with the water in a large saucepan over medium heat. (You can subsitute apple juice for water just to get the ball rolling if you want.) Cover and let simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the apples are mushy and soft enough to be easily pierced by a fork. After allowing the mixture to cool for a bit, mash it to an approriate level between smooth and extra-chunky based on your preference. This is a good time to add more cinnamon, if you're into that kind of thing (I certainly am).

As a finishing touch, I like to add a handful of graham cracker crumbles to the top. It's sort of in the same spirit as granola on yogurt.

Mmmm, good.

Know Your Gnocchi

Coming Attraction: Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Fresh Garlic and Olive Oil

(A young cook's obsession with sweet potato continues, landing her in a marvelously twisted land of uncommon quirks taken on standard fall dishes.)

pictured above: a gorgonzola/sweet potato gnocchi combination featured on