Scrumptious Walnut Sauce for Pasta and More

Our current selection for Cook the Books Club is A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi.
What a delicious co-mingling of romance, tempting food and place - Venice, of course!  My own stay in La Serenissima a few years ago was all too short.

I especially appreciated it as a later-in-life love story, being later-in-life myself, as well as a sucker for lovely fairy tales come true.  And, so descriptive, so well written.  The woman is a poet.

An American food writer and chef, Marlena is traveling in Italy with two friends when she meets "The Stranger", a Venetian Peter Sellers look-alike, whose shy pursuit ends up enchanting her.

Life is not completely perfect, a real fairy tale has an underside.  Melding cultures and personalities is never easy, especially for mature folks, set in their ways.  Which is actually a good thing.  A jolting out of ruts and character flaw stagnation, into something better, new and stronger, without either partner becoming diminished.  Marriage is meant to do that, and beautiful when it does.

There was much to inspire our cooking, from pastries to Wild Mushrooms Braised in Late-Harvest Wine.  Fabulous food she encounters in Venice, dishes created with local produce, and meals dreamt up and served with passion and imagination.  Hard to choose.  However, in the end it was the Pasta with Roasted Walnut Sauce that grabbed me.


Sauce Allemande for Daring Cooks

 This month, the Daring Cooks got a little saucy! Jenni from the Gingered Whisk taught us the basics of how to make the five mother-sauces and encouraged us to get creative with them, creating a wide variety of delicious, fresh sauces in our very own kitchens.

As Jenni quotes Julia Child, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking: “Sauces are the splendor and glory of cooking, yet there is nothing serious or mysterious about making them. These are indispensable to the home cook”.  Well, I've been making all sorts of sauces for a great many years, being the old lady that I am, so the real job was to find the untried, the tasteful new horizon. 

I had a nice piece of ahi tuna, left from the previous night's dinner, and wanted to do something other than mash it up and make sandwiches, or slice it onto a big Salade Nicoise, (admittedly tempting in this still hot summer weather).  But just enough for a dinner for two.  Nicely sauced.

A famous French chef of the early 19th century, Antonin Carême said there were 5 classic "mother"sauces: Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise and Tomato, and from these, which were given for our challenge, listed with their various derivatives, I thought the Sauce Allemande, an off-shoot of Velouté, sounded yummy and just right for that fish.

I first made a batch of stock from my hoarded freezer bag of goodies (mostly chicken bones with some carrot, onion and celery bits), strained it all, then put into the fridge to let the fat rise and harden, for lifting off.  Then you might reduce your stock to concentrate the flavor.

Sauce Allemande
   adapted from Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups of stock, chicken, veal or vegetable
salt and pepper
1 egg yolk mixed with 2 tablespoons cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon capers (optional, but nice with fish)

Melt the butter, add flour and then the stock and seasoning.  Simmer and stir until well combined and thickened.  Off the heat whisk well the egg yolk and cream and add gradually to the sauce whilst whisking.  Stir the sauce until slightly thickened.  Do not re-boil.  Just before serving, stir in the lemon juice, butter and capers.

Made a bit more than needed, but delightful tasting, subtle delicate flavors to aid and albeit a nice piece of fish, or veal would also be good.  Highly recommended.  I have plans to consider for the extra sauce.  And, that recipe made quite a bit of sauce.

Next night report: I ladled it onto steamed new potatoes as a side with tenderloin steaks.  Really, really yummy.


Green Mango Clafoutis

This is being posted just to encourage you all to try, if you haven't already, a Dutch Baby, often known as Clafoutis, or just big puffy pancake with fruit of some sort on the bottom.  In my case sliced green mangoes.  You may also use green apples, tart plums or what have you.

Part of this is a sad commentary on human nature.  We had lots of green mangoes at our market, and when I asked where all the ripe ones were, was told, ripped off from the orchards!  People steal fruit in the night.  Unbelievable.  Well not really, thievery being what it has always been.

So we got green ones, as I had used them before in pies (just like tart green apples) as well as for Dutch Babies.  Just fantastic, tartness with sweetness, the caramelized fruit in a bit of butter, topped with puffy cream puff like pancake. 

This breakfast treat is simplicity itself, whips up so easily, trust me, and is nicely impressive, served at once.  You don't want to let it wait and deflate.

Green Mango Clafoutis

2-3 cups sliced tart fruit (depending on the size of your skillet - you want to cover the bottom)
1-2 tablespoons butter, plus 1/4 cup butter
1- 2  tablespoons sugar

Set oven to 425 F.  Melt the 2 tablespoons butter in an oven-proof skillet, add fruit and sugar.  Cook and stir until slightly softened, then add remaining butter, let melt and stir.

For the Clafoutis batter:
3 eggs
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup flour

Meanwhile, put eggs into blender and run at hi speed for 1 minute, with blender still running, add milk gradually.  Then slowly add the flour and continue whirling for 30 seconds more.  Pour batter over fruit.  Now bake until puffy and browned, about 30 minutes. 

That's all, enjoy!  Especially nice if your sous chef has fried sausages or bacon to accompany it.


Potato Turnip Galette with Roast Chicken

Our current - June/July - read at Cook the Books Club is The Apprentice, My Life in the Kitchen, by Jacques Pépin, and what an entertaining writer he is!  I have to think when I've so much enjoyed a memoir.   From his time during the war years, frequently shuffled off to farms in the country for safety, working in his mother's series of restaurants, then a three year chef's apprenticeship at age 13, (you have to love that cover photo), on to cooking at Le Plaza Athénée, interrupted by the draft, which led to Pépin's serving as chef for France's new president, Charles de Gaulle, and eventually to life in America, including his adventures with famous chefs, research and development work for Howard Johnson, marriage, restaurant mangement, teaching, television appearances and writing numerous books on cooking.

The idea at Cook the Books Club is to read our bimonthly selection and post about whatever we are inspired by the book to cook.  What came most powerfully to mind for me was the lovely smell of roasting chicken, I don't know why.  Especially when liberally covered with chopped garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper, inside and out.  I roast my chicken for 1 1/2 hours at 400F in a cast iron pan. 

As Pépin states at the close of his memoir, "While I do enjoy the esoteric, refined food of the great restaurants, I eat that food only occasionally.  My everyday tastes tend to a fare of roast chicken, braised pork..."  Have to agree with that.

Note - Bob had carved off a leg before I got my shot.

Then Pépin's mention of serving "this roast with a gratin made of potatoes, a touch of garlic, cream, milk and cheese, which is called Gratin Dauphinois", caught my attention.  Even though the roast in question was lamb, that had to be my accompaniment.  In another place he writes of a galette (a flat cake) made of potatoes and mushrooms, so I decided to do a combination galette/gratin, one layer of grated potatoes and turnips, with a bit of onion, and milk, topped with Gruyere cheese, to go with the roast chicken.

I poured about 1 cup of whole milk over all, with some salt and pepper, and cooked my galette along with the chicken, thereby saving gas.  The cheese was added 15 minutes before finish (1 hour).

 Topped with chopped chives when it came out of the oven, this was a perfect side dish to the roast.  I would possibly coat the pan with more duck fat or butter next time to make serving easier.  Delicious!

All you need is a bit of salad for the final touch.  There are so many more recipes and ideas that I want to try from this wonderful memoir.  So sweet that he included several of his mother's favorites as well.  Do stop by and see what's cooking from the other contributors or read the book and cook something yourself before the 31st.



My Haggis Adventures for a Belated Burns Night

Our oh so very daring Daring Cooks' challenge this month was to make Haggis.  Yes, this had to be from a Scots person, and so it was, Ruth of Cakey-Makey.  And, being at least half Scotch myself, it was something I had always harbored way in the back of my mind.  Like what is this strange ancestral food?

Here you can see our clan tartan.

True haggis calls for using the "pluck", of a sheep or lamb, which should include the heart, the lights (aka the lungs), the liver and the stomach, which is the casing for it all.    Really dears, we're just making a large sausage. 

Not too hard to make if you happen to know of or can find anyone butchering a sheep or lamb.  Usually they do not want the innards  and will possibly off load it to you upon request.  Or, at least as in my case, the friendly meat specialty person at your regular grocery might help to secure one.  He had just purchased a whole lamb, and when I asked, called the grower to see if he could get the pluck as well, which had not been included.  

Well, when I got the bag of innards de-frosted, and a good look taken, there was some lamb's skin, some cleaned intestines, heart, and liver, but no stomach or lungs.  Great, it was back to sourcing.

Just for those of you interested in Scottish tradition, and food lore in general, I am giein' forth the real thing recipe here.  It seems to be one of the less complicated methods around as well.  Further. you might enjoy, as I did, the Guardian's pictorial by Tim Hayward, a step-by-step guide to making Haggis at home, with background info.  I incorporated a few of their additions to the following recipe, i.e. rosemary, sage, thyme (could use even more of that), and beef suet for extra flavor and texture.

Lady Login's Traditional Haggis (1856)
                 (With my notes, additions in brackets)

1 cleaned sheep or lamb's paunch (stomach)
1 lb (450g) dry oats (should be pinhead or steel-cut)
1 Lamb's liver
1 lamb's heart
1 lamb's lights (lungs)
1 large finely chopped onion
(1/2 cup beef suet)
½ teaspoon each: cayenne pepper, ground allspice,
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon pepper
(1 tablespoon each of, rosemary, sage, thyme, or parsley)
1/2 pint stock

Cook the liver, heart (trimmed) and lights in salted water to cover and cook for about 1½ hours. (Leave to cool overnight in the stock).  Strain, but reserve the broth, and chop the meats up finely, or mince.

See that the paunch is well cleaned, then soak it in salt and cold water overnight as well.  Take out and let it dry. (I used cheesecloth, lined with tripe on sides and bottom, as was not successful in procuring a sheep's stomach, but you might also use ox bung.)

 Put the oats on a baking tray in a low oven and let it dry out and crisp up a little.  (I did 10 min. at 350F)
Mix all ingredients (except the paunch) together and season well. Then add the stock. Put into the cleaned paunch (fill to about half) and sew up loosely, but securely. (or tie off with butcher's string)

Have ready a large pot of boiling water mixed with the rest of the liver stock, prick the haggis all over with a small knitting needle to prevent bursting, then cook in the water and stock, at a slow simmer uncovered, but keep up water level, for about three hours. Serves about sixteen.

Since my stomach search narrowly missed two, I went with cheesecloth, as recommended by a local chef, who also suggested tripe, so lined the bottom and sides of my cheesecloth with that, then filled with the haggis mixture, tied it up with string, and proceeded as above.

Uploaded onto a plate, and garnished with parsley, it doesn't present too badly. 

As Tim Hayward says after making it:

"I've never been to a Burns Night dinner so I've never had the full experience of the piped in pudding, the declaiming, the toasts, but having cooked a full-sized battle haggis I'm beginning to understand it. This is a genuinely monumental piece of food. There's something about the steaming, bulging shape of it, the astonishingly welcoming smell that could easily inspire ritual and poetry in a nation less emotionally constipated than the English. And the taste…. oh the taste. I can't remember ever eating anything quite so rich. The grains absorb the fats and flavors, the powerful aromas of the meat are dispersed throughout; the velvet liver is offset by a slight nutty texture - it's a comprehensive and completely astonishing sensory assault. With the combination of fat richness and slight livery aftertaste I found myself thinking of foie gras - but more fun.
Am I converted? Absolutely. I was led astray by cheap ersatz haggis, by fear of guts and generations of bad jokes but now I see the light. I'm completely sold on haggis ... so string me up."

Don't know that I would go so far, but did enjoy me giant haggis experience, and no one could now accuse me of being a Sassenach.

Served it up with the traditional mashed tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips) alongside steamed kale.  To make your Burns Night complete, have whisky for toasts whilst someone reads aloud:

Address to a Haggis
            by Robert Burns             

 Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
'Bethankit' hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect sconner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit:
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis.

There was a tremendous amount of it, so I made up some sausage patties for breakfast with eggs, and will be bringing some to a party for everyone there to have the experience.  Actually the whole amount could be made into patties and frozen in separate zip lock bags.

 Thanks for the truly challenging challenge Ruth!


Lamb in Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce

Our latest project at Cook the Books Club was Funny in Farsi, A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America, by Firoozeh Dumas.  It was indeed funny, lively and insightful as well. 

Moving to America at the age of 7, back in 1972, and popped right into public school, was an eye-opening experience for a small girl, especially for one who did not speak English.   What she remembers from that first day - "The bathrooms were clean and the people were very, very kind."  But you have to read the whole story to appreciate.

Dumas sprinkles mentions of delicious sounding Persian foods throughout her memoir, and I was tempted by many.  However the lamb roast in my freezer did the final selection.  That and my copy of an earlier Cook the Books Club selection: The Silk Road Gourmet by Laura Kelley.  The section on Iran to be exact, with a fabulous sounding recipe for Lamb in a Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce (Fesenjan).  Oh boy.  That sounded like something I'd like to try.


Lasagna Fazzoletti al Pesto

This is a reprise of sorts.  In my earlier post I made a Chicken Fazzoletti Lasagna.  This dish is vegetarian, with Pesto sauce and cheese.

 Fazzoletti, or face towels, are my pasta of choice if making from scratch.  Quick, easy and just yummy. The bomb in fact.  They make you look really competent.  And after all, what working woman has time to make innumerable fussy little pasta shapes.

As I advised myself in that earlier post, this time I first cut the dough in half before cutting again into four.  I am cooking for two people here, so ignore if you need more pasta.  Also as noted earlier, I rolled the dough much thinner this time around, the secret to a successful result.  And, doing it in a more relaxed way, by starting early.  If you want to watch Chef Laboa making the pesto and pasta, it will be more involved, but a fun watch.  He uses a mortar and pestle for the pesto, I go for the food processor.


Pathiri - A Layered Savory Indian Cake

The April Daring Cooks Challenge was brought to us by Joanna from What’s On The List. She taught us all about Pathiri and challenged us to create our own version of this inspirational Indian dish!

Really, Pathiri could be considered for Passover, or Easter even, as it looks like a largish egg.  And, crepes are a form of unleavened bread, right?   So, greetings, whatever your celebration!

This traditional savory cake is supposed to be composed of a filling layered between crepes spread with coconut cream, and the whole topped with more coconut cream before being baked.  I baked mine in a small spring form pan, but you can use a small oven-proof frying pan if you have one.

I decided to make the layers complementary, but vary them.  Two of a curried ground beef mixture, two layers of ricotta, and a layer of chopped steamed baby kale.  But it's got all the spices, and plenty of coconut milk, spread on all the crepes, so we aren't diverging completely here. 

You start with getting the crepes made.  I just did my regular recipe, as they are something we love, and I make them frequently. 

1 cup flour
1 1/2 cups milk  (or enough to make a not too thin consistency)
2 or 3 eggs (I usually use 3)
2 - 3 tablespoons melted butter or mild cooking oil

The easiest way is to put your eggs and about half the milk in a blender, then while it's whizzing, add the flour and enough extra milk to get a good crepe batter, (should coat a wooden spoon) adding also the oil or butter.  Swirl about 1/4 cup in a hot crepe pan, coated with a bit of butter if needed, and cook on both sides very briefly.  Just enough to color.

Next make your spicy Indian filling.  You can use chicken, (recipe given at the Daring Cooks site) ground beef or lamb, or make it vegetarian.  I had plenty to save for another meal, which will be beef cannelloni in the remaining crepes.

Put your layers together by first brushing  coconut cream onto both sides of a crepe.  Put it down into your pan, add filling over the top, and continue until you have about 5 or 6 layers. 

And, just as a side note, coconut milk has been found to contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, as well as "According to "Ceylon Medical Journal, coconut fats do not contain trans-fatty acids. The fats that are present in coconuts are less likely to clog arteries."  So, be healthy and slather it on!

If you use ricotta as part or all of the filling, you might sprinkle it with garam masala or cardamom powder.

Now brush more coconut cream onto the top and sides of your cake, and bake at 350F until the cake is dry.  Mine took about 25 minutes.

Let cool slightly and cut into wedges.  Serve with a chutney and perhaps a fresh cucumber raita, and you have a delicious meal. 


Manapua for Mark Twain's Visit to Hawaii

For our bimonthly Cook the Books Club, the current selection was Twain's Feast by Andrew Beahrs, a meandering digression on the travels and favorite American foods of Samuel Clemens, then, and what has become of them now.

Really, a meandering lament (say Jeremiah was a contemporary cook) for the lost, or nearly extinct native species, both plant and animal.  Those beloved by Twain, from the now protected prairie hens of Illinois to oysters and mussels once fabulously prolific
on the California coast.  The damming of the muddy Mississippi and etc. etc.  Possibly preaching to the saved here, but lots of fascinating information.  I especially enjoyed all the material on possum and raccoon preparation.

Though tempted to do something from the New Orleans section, as I do love Creole and Cajun dishes,  I thought it would be fun to take a digression, way westward instead, and celebrate Mark Twain's time in Hawaii, since Beahrs did not cover that influential, yet relatively brief period in the author's life.  I found the following story interesting enough to quote most of it, thinking you might enjoy the background information as I did. From a 2010 article for Huff Post Books, by Kate Kelly, entitled Mark Twain and Hawaii: Long Before it was the 50th State:

"Since last spring the literary world has been abuzz about the November 2010 release of the first volume of Mark Twain's autobiography. Twain had left the manuscript with specifications that it not be published until one hundred years after his death, by which time he would be "dead, unaware, and indifferent."

 In the 1860s, a young Samuel Clemens, who had only recently adopted the pen name of Mark Twain, was one of the first reporters to be sent from the mainland of the United States to the Hawaiian islands. He was on assignment for the Sacramento Union to provide their readers with information about what these fabled islands were really like. 

Twain spent almost four months in Hawaii, eventually producing for the Sacramento Union 25 letters about the Sandwich Islands, as he called them. His letters were a huge hit at the time, and the merit of his work lives on. One Hawaiian native, Lawrence Downes, writing recently about Hawaii for the New York Times (5-14-06) notes that Twain provides the "best travel writing about Hawaii...that I have ever read."

During his visit, Twain traveled to the summit of Kilauea, hiked Diamond Head, and made his way through the valleys of the islands. He also surfed, testing out the sport that locals loved even then. 
Samuel Clemens longed to return to the Sandwich Islands and spent many years wondering how and if he could go back. In a later work, Twain writes of Hawaii:

"For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surf is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud-rack; I can feel the spirit of its woody solitudes, I hear the plashing of the brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago."
But that first trip became a pivotal point for Samuel Clemens, and he was never able to return for a stay. His stories were so popular that his fame began to grow, and he found himself in great demand.
Writes Twain: "I returned to California to find myself about the best-known honest man on the Pacific coast. Thomas McGuire [Maguire], proprietor of several theaters, said that now was the time to make my fortune -- strike while the iron was hot -- break into the lecture field!"

Around 1860 a number of the Chinese who had left the plantations began to open small businesses in an area of Honolulu known as Chinatown. These businesses were mostly small shops specializing in specific trades such as grocers, jewelers, bakers and tailors, as well as the restaurant trade.

Which brings me to my point - that Sam Clemens would most likely have visited Chinatown during his stay in Honolulu, as he was there in 1866.  Chinese food had became wildly popular by that time, with both foreigners and the local Hawaiians, especially dim sum, the varied and delicious appetizers. One variety of which remains a local favorite - Manapua, the Hawaiian word for Char Sui Bao, tasty little buns with a filling of pork char sui. 

Several years ago I made them for the first time, stating then that I didn't know of anywhere on the Big Island to get any (wanting organic, sustainably raised pork made it a bit difficult of course).  For the recipe see my earlier post.   However, this time I wanted to use my sourdough starter, more likely what the early manapua makers of Chinatown would have used.

A delicious treat, and surprisingly easy to put together.  If you slow roast some pork, you might add  Chinese seasonings to your left-overs, and have the filling without any trouble.  The dough is a cinch to work with, and they can be baked or steamed in a bamboo steamer over a wok, as I did.

Visit the Cook the Books Club page to check out what everyone came up with later in the week, and to see what books are lined up for the coming months if you would like to participate.


Macadamia Nut and Basil Oil Salad Dressings

For March’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge, Ruth, Shelley and Sawsan asked us to totally veg out! We made salads and dressings, letting the sky be the limit as we created new flavors and combinations that reflect our own unique tastes.

Of course, for those of us who usually make our own dressings this was not really a challenge.  So, in order to make it one, I decided to do something that was.  Make my own oil for the vinaigrette! 

Or have someone else do it.  The project and the coconuts have been waiting, but then a friend interfered with that idea and gave us a big jar of his own macadamia nut oil.  He has an oil expeller, and also has a large grove of coconut palms, and makes coconut oil.  An amazing dude, who actually runs his car on that oil.  I thought the mac nut oil would be lovely in dressings and an aioli, which I made immediately.


Super Duper Spanakopita

The February Daring Cooks' Challenge was hosted by Audax of Audax Artifex. The challenge brought us to Greece with a delicious, flaky spanakopita - a spinach pie in a phyllo pastry shell.

I do believe I've made Spanakopita, sometime in the distant past.  But, this recipe is probably new for most of us, even though actually the more traditional version.  Audax got it from his neighbor, Mrs. Maria, and it combines dill and four kinds of onion with the spinach.  Also, instead of cooking the ingredients before filling, they are massaged.  I liked that a lot.  Nothing like a nice massage. Besides which it saves a pan and time.

My camera did not pick up the vivid green of the spinach/dill filling, so I am disappointed with the photos, but the dish was delish, super duper in other words.  The various onions meld with the spinach (chard in my case) and feta cheese.  Also, this recipe uses less cheese than most modern versions, and I much prefer it.

I have had a terrible time on the few occasions I've used phyllo pastry in the past, with it clumping, pulling apart, and generally making a mess.  This time I thawed it (the chilled type recommended was not available here) in the fridge for two days before using, and had no problems. 

I am transmitting the recipe as given, but just so you know, I took a shortcut, in not squeezing the liquid out and adding the breadcrumbs separately.  I just added them until the moisture was taken up sufficiently, and it worked fine.  One step less is good in my book.  Oh yes, I also skipped step 15, by mistake, but as things turn out, the extra sheets of phyllo on top were superfluous (in my humble opinion), unless your pastry does not meet and completely cover the top.  I used an 8 inch square pan, so it all got covered.


6- 8 Servings
 2-3 very large bunches (1 kg) (about 2 pounds) fresh (or thawed frozen) spinach
 1 packet (375 gm) (13 oz) chilled phyllo (phillo) pastry sheets, (or thawed frozen phyllo sheets), I used half the packet for this recipe, about 12 “thicker-style” sheets or about 20 “thin-style” sheets
 2 cups (300 gm) (about 10 oz) good quality feta cheese, crumbled
 1 bunch (30 gm) (1 oz) dill, soft stems and fronds finely chopped
 1 red (Spanish) onion, chopped
 2-3 shallot onions, chopped
 1 bunch spring (green) (eshallots) onions, white and pale green parts chopped
 1 large leek, well washed, white part chopped
 Optional crushed garlic clove (only use one)
 One half nutmeg, freshly grated (optional but highly recommended)
 1 to 2 large eggs
 4 tablespoons of good quality extra virgin olive oil
 large handful breadcrumbs (or cous cous, cracked wheat) to absorb excess liquid
 ½ cup (120 ml) softened butter or olive oil (or a combination) for the phyllo sheets
 Salt and pepper
Spring (green) (shallots) onions, red (Spanish) onion, shallots, garlic and leek

 1. Preheat oven to moderately hot 375°F/190°C/gas mark 5
 2. Wash the spinach and dry thoroughly, discard the tough stems, chop or tear the leaves into pieces, place into a large bowl. (If using thawed chopped frozen spinach just place into a large bowl).
3. Add the chopped onions, chopped leek, finely chopped dill, four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, the crumbled feta cheese and the optional garlic and nutmeg.

4. Using your hands vigorously massage the filling ingredients until the mixture loses about half to three-quarters its original volume.
5. Over a bowl or a large plate squeeze large handfuls of the mixture till they feel dry, continue until you have done all of the filling mixture, and you have collected all the excess liquid.
 6. Cover the excess liquid with enough breadcrumbs, cous cous or cracked wheat (or similar) to absorb the liquid. The breadcrumbs should be moist. I used ¾ cup of cous cous and it took about 5 min.s to absorb nearly all of the liquid.
7. Return the moisture-laden breadcrumbs back into the filling mixture.
 8. Add an egg (or two depending on how dry the mixture is) and mix well using your hands. Taste, season with some salt (careful feta contains lots of salt) and plenty of pepper. Set aside. The filling can be stored in the fridge for a day or two if well covered.
 9. Butter (or oil spray) the baking dish.
 10. Cover the phyllo sheets with a damp tea towel.
 11. Cut (with a knife or with scissors) the phyllo sheets to the correct shape for your baking dish. Cover the cut sheets with the damp tea towel until needed.

 12. Butter (or oil) every second sheet, cover the base and sides of your baking dish making sure that the sheets overhang the edges of the baking dish. Use about ten “thin-style” phyllo sheets or about six “thicker-stye” phyllo sheets for the base and sides.
13. Spoon the filling into the phyllo pastry case.
14. Fold the overhanging sheets over the filling.
15. Use four to six more “thicker-style” phyllo sheets or about eight “thin-style” phyllo sheets to cover the top, butter each layer. Use a spoon or similar to neaten the edges of the pastry case.
16. Cut into slices before baking. (At this stage you can freeze the unbaked spanakopita to be baked for later, add 30 mins extra to baking time.)
17. Bake in a preheated moderately hot oven for 30 mins up to one hour (depending on the depth of your baking dish). Cover with foil if over-browning. Mine took one hour and my dish was almost 6-inch (15 cm) high. Check for doneness by using a thin knife, insert it into the spanakopita for 30 secs, the filling should feel set and the knife should feel hot to the touch.
18. Cool for 30 minutes. Can be eaten hot or cold.

Oh dear, we were too impatient to wait 30 minutes for it to cool.  Didn't seem to suffer for it.  Sooooo good.  Love this method, and it was surprisingly quite easy to make.  Of course I had dreaded working with phyllo again.  Last time I swore never more.  But, thawing first in the fridge really seemed to help, unless this was just a better brand.

You might want to see the other versions at the Daring Cooks site.


Arancine al Ragu', the Italian Rice Ball with Savory Fillings

January’s Daring Cooks’ challenge was a ball! The lovely Manu from Manu’s Menu brought our taste buds to the streets of Sicily and taught us her family tradition of making arancine – filled and fried balls of risotto. Delizioso!

I made half the amount of risotto in the given recipe, and there was plenty for the two of us to have it with dinner the first night.  I made sautéed Ono, otherwise known as Wahoo, with pesto sauce, and served with the risotto, it was excellent.  Even after making the Arancine next day, there is still enough to make more tonight.

Having made extra when I slow cooked some pork tenderloin Sunday, the filling was a given for these little delicacies.  In that pork braise there were also fennel, tomatillos, some lime juice, tomatoes and wine.  So I minced all that up good, adding sautéed onion and toasted, ground fennel seed.  But, you can follow the directions and make it from ground beef as Manu directs.  But, to me this dish is a classic for left-overs.  Left-over risotto and stew of any sort for stuffing.  However, she also provided recipes for vegetarian versions.  So, left-over spinach maybe, but I am transmitting the recipe for meat Arancine as given.  You can get the alternate recipes at the above link.


Blackberry Mochi Cake and Sticky Lemon Cake

Our current Cook the Books Club selection, Baking Cakes in Kigali, by Gaile Parkin, was a wonderful glimpse of life in a distant land and culture, modern-day Rwanda, albeit in a place (University housing) heavily influenced by Western thinking, customs, food, etc., with a resultant struggle by some of the local people to hang on to African traditions. 

In spite of all the horrific experiences endured by many of the characters in Parkin's book, an upbeat and hopeful mood was maintained.  There was humor and flavorful individuals aplenty, encountered by the heroine, Angel Tungaraza, through her home business of catering special occasion cakes.

I thought all the negative references to "white cake" as opposed to the brightly colored frostings on Angel's cakes was particularly funny.  Cake itself is not "African", and the bits of recipe we were given certainly had no claim to outstanding taste.  Similar to The Cake Boss, TV series.  It's all in the design and decoration, rather than any wonderful or distinctive flavor.  But that is quite aside from the chef's artistic outlet and entrepreneurial creativity.

 In case you don't know what's going on here, we read a book selection bimonthly, and then cook something inspired by the work.  For my submission, I was tempted to bake three white cakes, with differing flavors.  About this time last year I made Black Cake, a West Indian specialty, so why not?  One of my very favorites is coconut cake, made with coconut cream and topped with shredded coconut on a fluffy white frosting.  Then the Sticky Lemon Cake, which I'd been wanting to make since reading a Nancy Atherton book which included that recipe, Aunt Dimity and the Deep Blue Sea.  Perhaps to be followed by a Butter Mochi Cake.   However, what I ended up with was the Sticky Lemon Cake and a Blackberry Mochi Cake.