Category Archives: What’s Cooking

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Spanakopita Made Easy

Last summer, while shooting TV segments on Turkish cuisine, I gained a newfound appreciation for the art of making baklava. Each of those gooey crispy squares are the product of a labor of love, requiring time, patience, skill, a large amount of counter space and a whole lot of rolling. And as much as I love eating baklava, I’m not sure I ever want to make it from scratch, unless it’s for a very special occasion, or there’s a blizzard and I have an entire Saturday to kill.

Homemade dough has distinct advantages — you can’t beat the finished product — but for most of us laypeople, packaged phyllo dough is an acceptable alternative. It crisps up beautifully, and provided you give it the proper amount of time to thaw, is fairly idiot-proof.

The other day I bought a package, inspired by this recipe on Hilah Cooking for spanakopita, the Greek pastry stuffed with spinach and feta. In my version I used nonfat feta and ricotta — not as good as the real thing, but the brushed olive oil on the phyllo dough gives it the richness it needs.

The dough is very simple to use — you stack up several layers, brushing with olive oil each time, spread the spinach mixture around, and then layer some more.

The Hilah recipes gives a very useful tip of cutting the spanakopita into squares before baking it in the oven.

45 minutes later and it’s flaky, golden brown and ready to eat.

And that’s it — a quite painless and quite delicious weeknight meal.  With packaged phyllo dough. I’m leaving the homemade to the professionals.

Shrimp in Lobster Sauce, Hold the Lobster.

There’s a great scene in “Midnight Run” – one of the most underrated movie comedies – where the character Jonathan Mardukas, played by a hilariously deadpan Charles Grodin, interrogates a local bar owner.  Here’s the exchange:

Jonathan Mardukas: What’s the name of this establishment?
Red: Red’s Corner Bar.
Jonathan Mardukas: Are you Red?
Red: Yes.
Jonathan Mardukas: Do you dye your hair?
Red: No.
[pause]
Jonathan Mardukas: Why do they call you Red?
Red: It’s short for Redwood. My last name’s Wood.
Jonathan Mardukas: What’s your first name?
Red: Bill.

I bring up that scene because I imagine if Mardukas saw shrimp with lobster sauce at a Chinese restaurant, the conversation would veer in a similar direction:

Jonathan Mardukas: What’s the name of this dish?
Server: Shrimp in lobster sauce.
Jonathan Mardukas: Where’s the lobster?
Server: There is none.
Jonathan Mardukas: Why is it called lobster sauce?
Server: It’s named after a Cantonese-style sauce that’s served with lobster.
Jonathan Mardukas: What’s in the sauce?
Server: Pork.

That’s essentially what you need to know about the sauce in shrimp in lobster sauce. No lobster, and flavored primarily by four key ingredients: ground pork, garlic, ginger and salted black beans.  (I suppose you could omit the pork, but personally, I can’t imagine the sauce without it.)

I sort of wing the ingredient amounts, so feel free to adjust according to your taste:

1 lb shrimp
2 tsp sherry
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp cornstarch
¼ cup – ½ cup ground pork
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ tbsp ginger, minced
2 tbsp salted black beans, minced (also called fermented black beans in Asian grocery stores)
1 egg
1 cup water
scallions (optional)

It’s really easy – marinate the shrimp in the sherry and 1 tbsp cornstarch and set aside for a few minutes.

Marinate the ground pork with the soy sauce and set that aside for a few minutes.

Mince up your garlic, ginger and black beans.

Heat up a tbsp of oil in a wok, and cook the shrimp until they’re just opaque. Remove them.

Add the pork into the work along with the garlic, ginger and black beans. Cook for about a minute, then pour in at least a cup of water – more if you want to end up with extra sauce.

(Note: I recommend using water and not stock.  The black beans and soy sauce provide enough salt.  Adding stock would kill the sauce and turn it super salty.)

Bring the sauce up to a boil.  Prepare a slurry of 1 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tbsp water, and add that in.  Give it a stir.

Add the shrimp back into the wok.  Beat the egg and drizzle it in. The egg is also going to help thicken the sauce. What you’ll end up with should be somewhat thick, but not a sludge.  You can always add more water to thin it out.

Give the whole thing several good stirs. I didn’t have any, but you can sprinkle in chopped scallions at this point if you want.

There aren’t many sauces that go better with rice than lobster sauce, so have mounds and mounds of rice on hand.

And that’s shrimp in lobster sauce — a delicious misnomer of a dish that would surely confuse Jonathan Mardukas.

Baked Falafel

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a recipe, and I hesitated to post the pics of this one because, well, you’ll see. Basically I screwed up a few things along the way. Didn’t turn out so pretty.

The plan was to make falafel, but baked, rather than fried. Found this Ellie Krieger recipe for baked falafel sandwiches:

1 15 oz can chickpeas, drained
1/4 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1/4 cup parsley leaves
2 tbsp olive oil

The recipe says to process all the ingredients, except for 1 tbsp olive oil, in a food processor until the mixture is course and grainy.  I threw everything in the Magic Bullet, plus 2 tbsp lemon juice, and gave it a whir.  The Magic Bullet doesn’t blend halfway — it’s either all or nothing, and I definitely over-processed.

My mixture was too wet and goopy to form the balls that the recipe called for; instead I spooned the mixture onto the tray, much like cookie batter.

Into a 425 degree oven.

When I tried to flip the falafel after 20 minutes, many of them were stuck to the foil, even though I’d coated it with cooking spray.  So that wasn’t good.

Back into the oven for another 20 minutes.

And… here’s the result.

Right out of Food & Wine Magazine, huh?  You can see the burned bits that had been stuck to the foil. Some of the falafel pieces browned nicely, but had a crumbly texture. I’d pick them up and they’d fall apart.

So I did what any home cook does when the food looks ugly — I hid it.

You can barely see the falafel, but they’re there, stuffed into a pita with hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes and tzatziki sauce.

The falafel, as bad as they look, actually tasted okay. And I hardly noticed how crumbly they were once they were inside the pita and eaten with all the other components. The tzatziki and vegetables really save it, especially if your falafel’s dry.

I’ve got to correct the consistency and get the mixture not to stick. Also, I’ll probably lessen the cooking time to 15 minutes per side. Then, maybe, if all goes well, I won’t have to hide the falafel.

Dolmas (Stuffed Grape Leaves… and a Few Unstuffed)

On a warm day in Tarrytown, the sidewalks on the corner of Main St. and N. Broadway are packed with people dining al fresco. They’re at Lefteris, which indisputably owns the prime location of downtown. It’s impossible to walk by without taking a few nosy glances at diners’ plates and thinking, “I wonder if anyone would make a fuss if I grabbed a dolma right off of there.”  Like any respectable Greek restaurant, Lefteris knows how to make a good dolma.

Now I know I can make them too, just not as well.

They’re quite fun, actually — maybe because at least until the point of taking them out of the pot, preparing them is fairly idiot-proof.

I found this recipe at the blog, Budget Bytes. You can fill your dolmas with ground meat, currants, pine nuts… there are several variations.  I forgot to buy pine nuts and ended up sticking to the basic recipe.

Here’s what you need:

1 jar grape leaves
1 medium onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 cups rice, uncooked
6 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp mint, minced (parsley would probably work too)

The grape leaves I picked up at Yaranush in White Plains.

The prep’s pretty straightforward: saute the onion and garlic in 2 tbsp of olive oil until soft. Mix them in a bowl with the rice, 4 tbsp lemon juice, salt and mint.

The fun part’s in the rolling. Take out the grape leaves and gently pull them apart, because they’re going to come out of the jar stuck together.

Depending on the size of the leaf, place 1 tsp-1 tbsp of the filling down at the base near the stem.

Fold the leaf up from the bottom, then fold in the sides, and roll like you would a burrito. (Only, this is ten times easier than rolling a burrito. The grape leaf is wonderful to work with: strong, yet pliable.  And none of my filling spilled out the sides).

Pack the dolmas tightly in a pot, seam side down, and create a second layer if necessary.

Drizzle the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp lemon juice over the top, and fill the pot with water until the dolmas are covered.

The author of Budget Bytes gives a good tip here.  You need to cover the dolmas and pack them down with weight while they’re boiling.  I used two plates and the top of a small pot to provide enough weight.

Boil for 40 minutes, or until the dolmas are soft.

The tricky part’s getting them out of the pot.

There was still a significant amount of liquid in there.  I tried using tongs to lift the dolmas out.  That wasn’t too smart; several of them tore.  Then I used a spoon, which worked better, but not totally; a few dolmas still broke. Others unraveled and spilled out all of the filling.

Any suggestions on the best way to do this?  They’re so fragile!

As you can see, they got a little misshapen once they reached the plate.  And that bottom dolma looks like a roll of toothpaste with the toothpaste squeezed out.

Ate them with a tzatziki sauce and pita bread. They looked bad, but tasted good. The rest went in the fridge to chill.

If you have a method for cooking and removing dolmas that keeps them from breaking, I’m all ears.  How come the ones at restaurants look so uniform and plump?  Think the folks at Lefteris will tell me the secret if I ask?

Tried, But Still Can’t Get Into Gazpacho

I’d like to start off by saying thank you to all of you who have emailed me this week with well wishes. Even though we’ve never met, we share a connection through our love of food, and that makes us something more than strangers. I’m so appreciative of your emails; it’s nice to know how many thoughtful readers are out there.

It hasn’t been too terrible finding soft foods to eat.  So far I’ve had yogurt, oatmeal, eggs, beans, tofu, fruit, and a giant pot of chili — which in retrospect, maybe wasn’t the best choice in this sub-Saharan heat wave we’re going through.

Tonight I decided to go for cooling and refreshing.  I made gazpacho.

Gazpacho’s never been my cup of tea. It’s the idea of it: “Cold soup.”  Kind of grosses me out.  Soup should be hot; if it’s cold, my first inclination is to throw it in the microwave.

But this seemed like the perfect time to revisit gazpacho, and I found a recipe on the Bitchin’ Camero blog that looked promising. I left off the recipe’s crunchy toppings, and stuck with the basic soup with croutons.

1 1/2 lbs ripe tomatoes, peeled and seeded
4 cups cubed stale bread
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1 jalapeno, seeded
1/2 bell pepper (not in the original recipe)
3 tbsp sherry vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
juice of 1/2 lime
1 tsp salt
3 cloves garlic

The whole thing’s a 10-minute process, start to finish.  Blend all the ingredients until smooth, let it sit for five minutes, and adjust for taste.  Chill until ready to serve.

I made the croutons with the extra stale bread, tossing them in olive oil until browned.

And sprinkling them on top of the gazpacho.

The problem isn’t the flavor.  The flavor’s great — bright, tart and garlicky, with the right amount of acid and the taste of the fresh vegetables shining through.

No, my problem is with the essence of gazpacho itself: the temperature.  I just can’t get past the fact that it’s cold. Doesn’t seem natural, like drinking a soup that’s been sitting on the stovetop for too long. The croutons helped a lot, but after two bowls, I was done.

Oh, well.  You can’t like everything, and now I know for certain gazpacho’s not for me.  I still have a ton left over.  Who wants some?