Trends aside, butternut squash a seasonal darling

Exclusion from this year’s lists of trendiest vegetables doesn’t take anything away from butternut squash.

A food darling for several years, the squash’s appeal isn’t exactly news. It’s a good source of fiber, potassium and magnesium, as well as an excellent source of vitamins A and D. It’s a naturally sweet substitute it for any recipe calling for pumpkin.

With its balance of sugar and starch, it’s supremely satisfying on wintertime menus. This month and next, at least, it holds sway as a staple of dishes from restaurants and the home kitchen.

I fully expected to find locally grown squash, stored to extend their season, in my community-supported agriculture share, explained in a previous post. As with the majority of its crops, Rogue River’s Runnymede Farm did not disappoint.

Sizeable squash, like the cauliflower from my CSA box, often get halved for a recipe and then hang out in my fridge for a while. I like leaving the squash raw, so I have more preparation options beyond an initial method.

But roasting off some small squash for risotto recently left me with roasted cubes that suggested stirring into pasta carbonara. I’ve incorporated roasted winter squash into cheesy pastas for years —macaroni and cheese being an obvious favorite — so I was surprised that searching this blog’s nearly 800 posts didn’t yet turn up a recipe similar to the following, courtesy of Tribune News Service.

Pasta With Herbs and Butternut Squash

Kansas City Star photo

1 medium butternut squash, about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Salt and pepper, to taste

8 ounces whole-grain medium shells or penne

1/2 onion, peeled and chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 1/2 cups unsalted vegetable stock, divided

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons minced, fresh basil

2 tablespoons minced, fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray with cooking spray.

Using a large, heavy knife, cut off ends of the squash. Peel using a vegetable peeler. Cut squash in half, remove seeds and cut squash into 3/4-inch cubes. Place squash cubes in a zip-close bag. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil and season with salt and pepper. Seal and toss to coat evenly. Spread in a single layer on prepared baking sheet. Bake uncovered in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until tender and edges are lightly browned, stirring midway through cooking.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling water, according to package directions; drain.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a medium skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 to 4 minutes or until onion is just tender. Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently for 30 seconds. Add 1 1/4 cups of the stock and the Italian seasoning. Heat until boiling. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes.

Stir together remaining 1/4 cup stock and the cornstarch. Stir cornstarch mixture into simmering stock. Cook, stirring continuously, until bubbly and thickened.

In a large serving bowl, stir together cooked squash, pasta and sauce. Sprinkle with the fresh, minced herbs and toss to combine.

Makes 4 servings.

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Cauliflower cuts calories in faux pasta Alfredo

Every year, food-trend forecasts renew interest in preparing and eating some overlooked, even obscure, vegetables. Move over kale; watercress is the new super-green for 2015.

I don’t need a top-10 list to justify eating more veggies, not when a local farm makes biweekly deliveries of fresh produce to my house. It also comes as no surprise that some of the year’s “hot” veggies (yes, even watercress) have composed my Runnymede Farm CSA share, explained in a previous post. Celery root, parsnips, beets and other “ugly” root vegetables included in the box have been recast as “cheffy” ingredients for lack of appeal to the average consumer, according to a recent story by Tribune News Service.

Also getting a lot of play on restaurant menus is cauliflower, specifically the less familiar purple and white varieties. I’ve blogged for years about my love for “cheddar” cauliflower and incorporating the roasted florets into salads and pasta dishes.

But the variety I received from Runnymede was a more mainstream, white cauliflower, not as visually inspiring, although plenty tasty. I blanched half the head and dressed it with a cheese sauce, but the other half has been cooling its heels for a couple of weeks in the fridge while I busied myself with more perishable veggies.

Of course, now the previously pristine canvas has a few brown spots, and the florets will lose some of their shapeliness to trimming. Simmering and then blending into a cream soup would be a fine compromise, as would mashing into boiled potatoes or celery root.

Less predictable is this faux Alfredo pasta sauce. Turns out cauliflower is still being touted in new cookbooks as a dairy substitute that cuts fat and calories. This one is from “Women’s Day Easy Everyday Lighter Dinners” (Hearst Books, $16.95).

I’m usually not a fan of such food-swapping strategies, finding them disingenuous and, ultimately, unsatisfying. Yet I am starting to welcome recipes that put a more kid-friendly face on some vegetables.  I can see my 21-month-old digging into this pasta whereas cauliflower would get the cold shoulder — with or without cheese sauce.

Fettuccine “Alfredo”

1/2 head cauliflower (about 1 pound), chopped

12 ounces fettuccine

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon pepper, plus more to taste

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup 1-percent milk

1/2 cup grated Romano cheese

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Place the cauliflower with 2 1/2 cups water in a pot and simmer until cauliflower falls apart when squeezed, for 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer cauliflower and any remaining water in pot to a blender and puree until smooth, adding extra water if necessary.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions, omitting salt. Reserve 1 cup pasta-cooking liquid, drain pasta and return it to pot.

In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onion, salt and pepper; cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until very tender, for 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Sprinkle with the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Stir in the milk and simmer until slightly thickened, for about 3 minutes. Stir in the cheese.

Add milk mixture and the cayenne to blender; puree until smooth. Toss cauliflower mixture with pasta, adding some reserved cooking liquid if mixture seems dry. Top with pepper and parsley before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

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This pureed vegetable soup has a bit of a bite

Harmonizing a soup of various vegetables often takes the form of pureeing.

This obvious technique is one I regularly employ, for certain vegetables more often than others. But unless strained until silky, some soups can verge too much on baby food, texturally speaking.

So it’s nice to see recipes that add back some bite-sized components to a pureed soup. This one from the Los Angeles Times highlights whole chickpeas and chunks of summer squash against a spicy canvas of winter squash, onions, garlic, leeks, potatoes and tomatoes.

For the most part, it’s a good candidate for the contents of my farm-share box, explained in a previous post. I’d also relish using a newly tapped tube of harissa, North African chili paste, in this. The herb oil would be the ideal repository of my holiday cache of pistachios. And the whole lot would be heavenly scooped up with some warm flatbread, served with a side of my favorite Israeli, sheep-milk feta sold at Ashland Shop’n Kart.

High-quality, canned tomatoes would be just as good here as fresh, to my mind. To keep the dish strictly seasonal, I would omit the zucchini and substitute some roasted cauliflower florets, cut approximately the same size as the chickpeas. Some spinach leaves wilted into the soup for the last few minutes also would be a nice touch.

Los Angeles Times photo

Spiced Vegetable Soup

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

2 large onions, peeled and diced, plus 1 large onion, peeled, cut in half and thinly sliced into half-moons, divided

3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

3 leeks, trimmed, cleaned and finely chopped

3 boiling potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

5 tomatoes, roughly chopped

4 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

3 teaspoons hot-pepper paste, such as harissa

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 (14- to 15- 1/2-ounce) cans chickpeas (reserve liquid plus a couple of handfuls of chickpeas to garnish)

1 large zucchini, finely diced

3 1/2 ounces feta cheese

Herb oil (recipe follows), for garnish

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat and add enough of the olive oil to generously coat base of pan. Add the butternut squash, diced onions, garlic, leeks and potatoes; cook, without browning, until vegetables soften slightly, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the tomatoes, cumin, cinnamon, paprika and hot-pepper paste; give it all a good stir to ensure spices evenly coat vegetables. Cover vegetables completely with water, add a generous amount of salt (I would suggest at least 4 teaspoons) and black pepper. Stir once more and continue to cook at a gentle boil until squash is tender when poked with a knife, for about 30 minutes.

Puree mixture in a food processor or blender until you get a lovely, even, smooth soup. Once smooth, add the chickpeas and their liquid; stir well.

Adjust consistency of soup with additional water if desired, then taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Cook for an additional 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the zucchini and cook for a final 20 minutes before serving. This makes about 3 1/2 quarts soup.

While soup is cooking, drizzle some olive oil into a large frying pan set over high heat, and fry the sliced onion until browned and crispy. Add reserved chickpeas and brown them along with onions. Using a slotted spoon, remove onions and chickpeas from pan and set aside.

Pour soup into large bowls (preferably wide, shallow ones), then generously crumble some of the feta on top of each portion. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of the herb oil into each bowl over feta. Finally, add reserved crispy, fried onions and chickpeas.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

HERB OIL: In a bowl, combine 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil and a good handful each: fresh parsley, dill, cilantro and shelled pistachios. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and some salt and pepper to taste.  Blitz with a hand blender until mixture is finely chopped and has consistency of pesto. If you need to slacken mixture, add a bit more oil.

Recipe adapted by the Los Angeles Times from “Persiana,” by Sabrina Ghayour.

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Braised greens and potatoes epitomize season

To first-time participants, community-supported agriculture shares can seem almost like random assortments of vegetables. That mentality needs reminding that CSAs epitomize local and seasonal eating. In other words, don’t look for tomatoes in your winter CSA box (unless the farmer sun-dried some back in September).

This time of year, CSA customers like me can count on overwintered root vegetables, onions and squash; lots of greens (often better in cold weather than warm); and other choice items, such as fennel and leeks that are suited to wintertime growth.

In addition to explaining the CSA concept, the year’s first post to this blog focused on salads, ideal meals with all the greens my family has been receiving every other week from Runnymede Farm in Rogue River. But the box also contains greens more suited to braising, including Asian varieties.

That’s why I love this recipe from the Los Angeles Times. Throw in all manner of greens on top of a few potatoes, onions and fennel, season with lemon and I’ve incorporated a half-dozen types of Runnymede’s produce (excepting the lemons, of course).

Almost any combination of vegetables, opines Times food writer Russ Parsons, can be simmered in a pot and still produce something pretty tasty. But he offered a few guidelines to accompany the following recipe. They are all tenets I bear in mind when producing a pot of soup or stew.

Season assertively: If there is one common fault with vegetable soups, it’s timidity in seasoning, particularly salt. As always, you don’t want the food to taste salty, but the right amount awakens all the other flavors. This is especially true if you’ve added starches — they suck salt out of a soup like nobody’s business.

Acidity is a seasoning too. This is overlooked by too many cooks, but if a soup or stew tastes a little flat, and you’ve seasoned it correctly with salt, try adding some vinegar or lemon juice to finish. As little as a teaspoon can make a big difference, giving the flavors a strong backbone to hang from.

Don’t fear fat: You’ve salted correctly and added just the right dash of lemon juice, but the dish still lacks something? A drizzle of olive oil, a dollop of herb paste or a shaving of hard cheese such as Parmigiano or ricotta salata can provide a final lift. Because the rest of the soup is basically nothing but vegetables and water, you can liven it up a little.

Los Angeles Times photo

Braised Greens and Potatoes With Lemon and Fennel

1/2 cup olive oil, plus good, fruity olive oil for drizzling, divided

2 onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced

2 carrots, quartered and cut in 1-inch lengths

4 scallions, white and most of green parts, thinly sliced

1 fennel bulb, trimmed and coarsely chopped, fronds and tender stalks reserved

4 to 6 fingerling potatoes, cut in bite-sized pieces

1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle or finely ground

2 pounds mixed greens, spinach, sorrel, Swiss chard, outer leaves of romaine lettuce, pea shoots, nettle tops or any combination of sweet leafy greens, large leaves coarsely chopped

1/2 cup white wine

1/4 preserved lemon, flesh discarded, rinsed and chopped

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste

1/2 cup chopped fresh dill or wild fennel, divided

1 to 2 teaspoons marash pepper or a good pinch of crushed red-pepper flakes, or to taste

In a wide, deep soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, for about 5 minutes. Add the carrots, scallions, fennel bulb, potatoes and fennel seeds, stir to coat with oil and cook an additional 3 minutes.

Add the greens in batches, starting with larger leaves and gradually adding smaller, more tender ones. Stir a few times to help the leaves wilt and reduce in size, then add the wine and cook for 1 minute; add 1 cup water, the preserved lemon and salt to taste.

Reduce heat to low and simmer until greens and potatoes are tender and most juices have been absorbed, for 15 to 20 minutes. If there is still too much liquid, raise heat to high and continue to cook until liquid is reduced, up to an additional 10 to 15 minutes.

Add the lemon juice, half the dill, the fennel fronds and stalks and sprinkle with the red pepper; toss, taste and adjust seasonings as desired. Cook an additional 2 minutes to marry flavors, then sprinkle with remaining dill.

Serve warm or at room temperature, drizzled with the good, fruity olive oil. Accompany with feta cheese and good, crusty bread.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe adapted by the Los Angeles Times from Aglaia Kremezi’s “Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts.”

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Scanty spuds stretch winter greens into salad

It can be a blessing to split a CSA share with another household, as I observed in the last post to this blog. In our case, it makes the task of cooking and consuming so much farm-fresh produce a bit less daunting.

But some items, such as potatoes, don’t go far enough when divvied up. After my mother-in-law took her portion of both red potatoes and French fingerlings from Runnymede Farm’s recent deliveries, the remaining spuds wouldn’t make much of a side dish on their own. While I could roast them with other veggies, that treatment didn’t seem appropriate.

Then I spied this salad that could marry the massaged kale concept and just-boiled potatoes. Throw in a few brined olives, and the dish starts to resemble Salade Nicoise, one of my favorite summertime specialties with the garden’s new potatoes and green beans.

I say kale because that’s what came in the farm box, although I prefer collards, which this Washington Post recipe specifies. But CSAs, as I’ve often opined (and now am learning first-hand) often test a cook’s flexibility.

The chickpeas make this salad appropriate for a main dish, albeit a light one in deference to healthier eating habits in the new year.

Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey

Collard Green, Potato and Chickpea Salad With Spiced Lemon Dressing

Kosher salt, as needed

1 pound fingerling potatoes, scrubbed well

1 bunch collard greens (about 1 pound)

5 pitted oil-cured black olives, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1/2 teaspoon caraway seed

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup cooked or canned, no-salt-added chickpeas

1/3 cup packed cilantro leaves, for garnish

Freshly cracked black pepper

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous pinch of the kosher salt, then add the potatoes. Reduce heat to medium; cook uncovered just until potatoes can be easily pierced with sharp tip of a knife, for about 15 minutes. Drain and cool.

Cut ribs from the collards by slicing along both sides of stalk from top of leaf to stem end; discard or reserve ribs for another use. Stack halved leaves and cut them into thin ribbons. Rinse in a bowl of cool water, spin dry and transfer to a medium bowl. Add the chopped olives.

If your collards are not particularly tender, blanch or steam them first, just until tender, then drain them thoroughly before tossing with dressing.

Heat a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the cumin and caraway seeds; cook for about 3 minutes, until lightly toasted and fragrant. Let cool for 5 minutes, then grind to a coarse powder using a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a small bowl and add the crushed red pepper flakes (to taste). Spices can be toasted and ground 3 days in advance and held in an airtight container at room temperature.

Use same mortar and pestle to reduce the garlic to a paste. Add the lemon juice and the 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt; mix until salt has dissolved. Transfer to a bowl; slowly whisk in the oil to form an emulsified dressing.

Once potatoes are cool, cut them into bite-size chunks. Add to bowl, along with the drained chickpeas. Cooked potatoes and chickpeas can be dressed and refrigerated 2 days in advance; bring to room temperature before serving.

Add 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons of dressing to bowl of collards and olives; use your hands to toss gently until well incorporated. Pour remaining dressing over potatoes and chickpeas, along with remaining 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt. Use a spatula to fold it in until well-coated.

To serve, scatter potatoes and chickpeas over bottom of each plate. Mound collard-olive mixture on top, and garnish with cilantro leaves. Season lightly with the black pepper. Serve right away.

Makes 2 to 4 servings (4 appetizer or side-dish servings or 2 main-course servings).

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Farm share boosts resolve to eat more veggies

I rarely make New Year’s resolutions, particularly when it comes to food.

But this year I’m joining millions of Americans in their resolve to eat more vegetables.

Fruit hasn’t been a problem over the past month, thanks to holiday boxes of pears, apples and their dried counterparts. A good month before those gifts started arriving, however, my house was the repository of a different sort of box: our community-supported agriculture share.

CSAs have been the topic of not a few A la Carte stories over the years. The most recent, published in August, included a list of all the local farms that offer CSA programs. Fewer are the ones that specialize in winter CSAs, which are shorter in duration with less frequent deliveries and typically heavy on stored and overwintered crops.

The benefit to shareholders is local, farm-fresh produce during a time of year when farmers markets are closed and many home gardeners let their beds go fallow. Paid in advance, farmers get funds when they need to order supplies for the next growing season and improve their properties. Check out this 2009 post for an explanation of how CSA participation is one way to live more sustainably.

Although the garden I share with my mother-in-law has a few carrots, beets and hardy greens toughing out the cold, it’s not enough to feed our two households. Add our CSA from Rogue River’s Runnymede Farm into the mix, and we’re hard-pressed to use up all of Teri White’s lovingly harvested vegetables within two weeks before her next delivery.

This week’s box contained carrots, beets, parsnips, kale, spinach, parsley, broccoli, red onions, garlic, fingerling potatoes, microgreens and not one, but two heads of butter lettuce, my favorite variety. Pound for pound, it doesn’t seem like so much, but I already had Teri’s beets, carrots, turnips, leeks, cauliflower, scallions, radishes and live watercress reposing in my refrigerator, along with her potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic and winter squash stashed in the pantry. (Note to Teri: This family will eat all the eggs from your chickens that we can get.)

I blame the holiday bustle and the fact that we’ve been out of town for this neglect. But there’s no room for excuses in the new year. And because I’ve already paid for this bounty, unlike a gym membership, if I don’t use it, I lose it. So it’s time to get busy.

Carrot soup and borscht are in the near future. But the first order of business is salad. The greens are the most perishable and most palate-pleasing after so many rich meals.

After the butter lettuce is gone, I’ll be devising more ways to put more vegetables into our salads, which are so much more satisfying this time of year with a warm dressing, like this one from the Washington Post. With its whole mustard seeds, it would be a welcome change of pace from our usual Dijon-laced, warm vinaigrette. I’d also be inclined to add thinly shaved or julienned turnip to this salad.

Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey

Cabbage Salad With Winter Roots and Popped Mustard Seeds

1 medium head savoy cabbage or Napa cabbage

2 medium carrots, scrubbed well

3 medium watermelon radishes or other winter radishes, such as the Hilds Blauer or China Rose varieties

1 small red onion, peeled

3 tablespoons peanut oil

1 tablespoon brown mustard seed

2 small dried arbol chili peppers, torn into 2 or 3 pieces (reduce to 1 or omit for less heat)

3/4 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Cracked black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves (from about 10 sprigs)

Cut the cabbage in half through stem end, then cut each half through stem end to yield 4 quarters. Slice off core and discard, then cut each quarter crosswise into thin ribbons. You should have about 9 loosely packed cups. Transfer cabbage to a bowl.

Cut the carrots into matchstick-size strips (julienne), and halve and thinly slice the radishes; transfer those ingredients to bowl of cabbage.

Cut the onion in half crosswise, then slice it thinly lengthwise. Add onion to bowl.

Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Once oil shimmers, add the mustard seed and arbol chili pieces. Cover and cook for about 4 minutes, shaking pan occasionally, until seeds begin to pop. Remove from heat; let cool for 5 minutes (covered).

In a small bowl, dissolve the salt in the lemon juice, then pour over cabbage, along with oil and mustard seed. Use your hands to toss cabbage and vegetables with dressing until they are well-coated and slightly wilted. Taste for salt, and season lightly with the black pepper.

Fold in the parsley, and serve. Makes 4 servings.

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Ring in new flavors with year’s last appetizers

Food tends to play second fiddle to the drinks on New Year’s Eve, at least in many circles. After hosting a still-notorious gathering mentioned in a previous post, I vowed not to spend a day concocting appetizers to wow guests who have designated their last few hundred calories of the year for booze.

Yet I can’t throw in the towel completely by just filling bowls with chips and popping the tops on some premade dips. Even if no one else is too interested in eating, a few tasty nibbles always enhance my social experience.

Dips still have their place, of course. They can be made ahead and surpass the ordinary with a little forethought. While mass-produced hummus has almost become a staple of simple party menus, baba ghanoush is still relatively unfamiliar, making it the obvious choice for my Christmas party earlier this month.

Rather than contribute more of the same to my next gathering, I’ll be trying the following dip that also would be a good repository for a holiday gift of pistachios. Make it up to 2 days ahead, keep refrigerated before serving and serve it with slices of pita, hunks of focaccia or some rye crisps.

The filling for the second recipe also could be prepared in advance, just as I did several Thanksgivings ago to produce a sweet-potato spring roll for my guests. I conceived the idea as a lighter alternative to more cheesy, rich dishes. This one serves the same purpose for a festive spread and should be particularly welcome at the tail end of a month of indulging in dairy fat.

Some filling will be left over from the recipe; it can be stirred into a curry or spooned on top of a baked potato or warm naan. The baked samosas can be refrigerated up to 4 days in advance; reheat in a 300-degree oven until warmed through.

Pistachio and Feta Dip

Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey

3 1/2 ounces (scant 1 cup) roasted unsalted pistachios

Generous 1/4 cup olive oil

10 1/2 ounces good-quality feta cheese, broken into small chunks

1 handful fresh dill, coarsely chopped

2 handfuls cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

1 large garlic clove , peeled and crushed

1 fresh red Thai chili pepper (seeded if desired), coarsely chopped

Heaping 3 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt (regular or low-fat)

Finely grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

Sea salt, to taste

In bowl of a food processor, combine the pistachios and oil; puree for 30 seconds, then add the feta, dill, cilantro, garlic, chili pepper, yogurt and lemon zest and juice. Puree for about 1 minute or until mixture has a nice, rustic texture. Any chunks of feta that are left should be no larger than a pea.

Taste and season with a small pinch of salt. Serve at a cool room temperature. Makes 11 or 12 servings (makes 2 3/4 cups).

Recipe adapted by the Washington Post from “Persiana: Recipes From the Middle East & Beyond,” by Sabrina Ghayour (Interlink, 2014).


Sweet Potato Samosas

2 tablespoons peanut oil

2 teaspoons mustard seed

3 teaspoons cumin seed, divided

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 tablespoon peeled, grated fresh ginger root

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 2 1/2 cups)

2 small green chili peppers, seeded or unseeded (may substitute 1 medium jalapeño pepper)

2 cups frozen/defrosted green peas

2 teaspoons garam masala

3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Kosher salt

16 sheets phyllo dough, preferably Athens brand (9-by-14-inch sheets)

About 8 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter), melted

Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Once oil shimmers, add the mustard seed and 1 teaspoon of the cumin seed, stirring to coat. As soon as they start to pop and sizzle, stir in the onion, ginger and garlic; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring to avoid scorching.

Add the sweet potato, chili peppers and 3 tablespoons water, stirring to incorporate. Cook for about 4 minutes or until sweet potato starts to soften a bit. Remove from heat; stir in the peas, garam masala, cilantro and lemon juice. Season lightly with salt.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners, then grease paper/liners with cooking oil spray.

Lay 2 phyllo sheets atop each other on a cutting board, with 1 of short sides facing you. Use a very sharp knife (not serrated) to cut stack into 3 equal strips. Place a heaping tablespoon of sweet-potato mixture about 1 1/2 inches from end nearest you. Fold that end over filling (it won’t cover fully), then begin to fold a samosa by lifting/creating a right-angle triangle. Fold triangle up and away from you; alternating further folds to left, then up, then to right, and up, until you’re left with a bit of phyllo at top. Brush it with a little melted ghee and seal/press it to samosa.

Repeat with other two-layer phyllo strips; continue in this fashion — cutting strips, adding filling and folding — to create a total of 24 triangular samosas. Brush tops with melted ghee, then sprinkle with remaining cumin seed. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Serve warm or at room temperature; or cool completely before storing. Makes 8 to 12 servings (makes 24 pieces).

Recipe adapted by the Washington Post from “Alice’s Cookbook,” by Alice Hart (Lyons Press, 2011).

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Baking contest finalists combine cookies, candies

Those of us still burning the midnight oil purchasing and wrapping Christmas gifts have little time to spare to in the kitchen.

A lackluster baker, I consider this an optional task, one that gets appended to the holiday to-do lists. That’s why past years have seen me sullying my kitchen in the late-night hours of Christmas Eve.

If I can muster a final surge of energy this year, sugar cookies won’t merit the time. I love the cute shapes and colorful sprinkles but always find their flavor never measure up to my expectations. More like a craft project, cutting out cookies will be more fun when my son is old enough to help.

Given my limited enthusiasm for sweets, a worthwhile cookie should have superior taste and texture. That’s why the following two recipes from the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s 12th annual Holiday Cookie Contest caught my eye. As an added bonus, both competition finalists combine cookies and candy in a single bite.

The first would be an ideal use for the bag of Meyer lemons I have stashed in the fridge. The combination of citrus and cranberries is an ideal nod to the season and may even please my son’s penchant for sour foods. It does require a couple of hours lead time to rest the dough, in case you’re planning on a fresh batch in time for Santa’s arrival.

The second is more traditional in its marriage of chocolate and peppermint but promises plenty of the latter from additions of extract and crushed candies.

And if you can’t bag the sugar cookies, see this 2013 post for a classic recipe and expert tips for ensuring baking success, despite the season’s rush.

The 2014 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest includes clockwise from top, Tart and Sassy Cranberry-Lemon Drops, Chocolate-Peppermint Cookies, Espresso-Hazelnut Truffle Cookies and Macadamia Nut Tarts. (TNS photo)

Tart and Sassy Cranberry-Lemon Drops

For dough:

3/4 cup granulated sugar

Zest from 2 large lemons

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup pecans, toasted in a 325-oven for 5 to 7 minutes and cooled

1 3/4 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

12 tablespoon (1 1/2 sticks) very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 egg yolk

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For icing:

1 tablespoon cream cheese, at room temperature

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 1/2 cup powdered sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Zest from 1 lemon

1 to 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Dried cranberries, for topping

15 lemon drop candies, crushed, for topping

To prepare dough: In food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the granulated sugar, lemon zest and dried cranberries; process until thoroughly incorporated, for about 30 to 45 seconds. Add the pecans and process an additional 15 seconds.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder. Add flour mixture to sugar mixture and combine with 10 (1-second) pulses. Scatter the cold butter pieces on top of sugar-flour mixture and pulse for 15 (1-second) pulses.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk, lemon juice and vanilla extract. With food processor running, add egg mixture in a slow, steady stream, until dough begins to form into a ball, for about 10 to 15 seconds.

Remove dough from food processor and divide in half. Place both balls of dough between sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap and roll dough into 1 1/2-inch-thick logs. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 F and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice dough into rounds about 3/8-inch thick. Place cookies 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheets and bake in preheated oven until centers of cookies begin to color and edges are a light golden-brown, for about 13 to 16 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for 2 minutes before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

To prepare icing: In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, combine the cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, lemon zest and juice (adding more, if necessary, 1 teaspoon at a time) and mix until smooth. Transfer icing to a piping bag fitted with a small tip. Squeeze about 1/2 teaspoon of icing onto center of each cookie, top with 2 to 3 dried cranberries and sprinkle tops of cookies with crushed lemon drops.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.


Chocolate-Peppermint Cookies

For dough:

1 1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For icing:

3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

2 cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon peppermint extract

1 to 3 tablespoons milk (or heavy cream)

1/3 cup crushed hard peppermint candies (such as candy canes), for topping

To prepare dough: Preheat oven to 350 F and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder and baking soda; set aside.

In bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the butter until creamy, for about 1 minute. Add the granulated sugar and beat until light and fluffy, for about 2 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla extract; beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture and mix until just incorporated.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls. Place dough 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets, flattening dough slightly. Bake in preheated oven until cookies are set and dry-looking, for about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for 2 minutes before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

To prepare icing: In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, combine the butter and powdered sugar; beat until creamy. Add the peppermint extract and enough milk (or cream), 1 tablespoon at a time, and mix until smooth.

Spread icing across top of each cookie, then press iced cookies into the crushed peppermint candies.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

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‘Cookbook Book’ digests genre’s past 300 years

Among the year’s must-have holiday gifts, books always get their due.

And for enthusiastic cooks, great cookbooks are bound to top their wish lists, right? I guess it all depends.

Christmases past have brought me such utilitarian classics as “Betty Crocker’s Big Red Cookbook,” trendy celebrity-chef take-offs like Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie at Home” and even the esoteric tome “L’Amateur de Cuisine,” in the original French. The givers’ intentions are commendable, of course. The problem is that I never use these books to the extent they expect.

Sure, I cook. And sometimes I need to consult an authoritative source to ensure success. But more often than not, new cookbooks provide some inspiration for new dishes or new ways of doing things. After the initial read or recipe test-run, I’m unlikely to revisit a cookbook to plan the week’s menus, or even a special-occasion meal.

Yet I am someone who wants a context for the cookbooks, authors and recipes that drive the culinary industry and shape current dialogues around food. For those of my ilk (and anyone with just too many cookbooks), there just so happens to be a source that boils down 125 of the most influential cookbooks of the past 300 years into 320 pages.

Deliciously titled “Cookbook Book,” the new title by Phaidon ($59.95) explores the genre as examples of art, cultural touchstones, life handbooks, flights of fancy, sociological tracts and self-promotion, according to a recent review by the Chicago Tribune. The book is largely made up of pages reproduced from these cookbooks, but it also features pocket histories of highlighted works, revealing a bit about authors, their intent and the context in which works were published.

There are the usual suspects, such as “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (from 1966) by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck; “Joy of Cooking,” (from 1980) by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker; “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman.

There are the “ah ha!” books: “The Art of Mexican Cooking” by Diana Kennedy; “The New York Times Cookbook” by Craig Claiborne; “Moosewood Cookbook,” by Mollie Katzen. And then there are quirky relics of the 1960s and early ’70s, including “Les Diners de Gala,” a tribute to his wife by Salvador Dali; 1964’s “First Slice Your Cookbook,” by Lady Arabella Boxer (daughter of the 18th Earl of Moray); and “Singers & Swingers in the Kitchen: The Scene-Makers Cookbook,” a 1967 book by Roberta Ashley.

And those are just the cookbooks published in English. There are cookbooks in Italian, German, Spanish, French and more. Some recipes are in English at the rear of the book in a chapter of recipe translations, although most use metric measurements. But that’s of little consequence for those of us unlikely to actually cook from the book.

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Liver paté an easy nosh for Hanukkah and beyond

The latke is emblematic of Hanukkah in a spread that includes plenty of other traditional foods. Even non-Jews take the holiday as their cue to enjoy yet another comfort food in a season filled with them.

This quintessential potato pancake can take lots of directions with the inclusion of other root vegetables, including sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, even beets. And dipping sauces beyond sour cream and applesauce, the subject of a previous post, can likewise evoke myriad culinary traditions.

But since MacLevin’s restaurant, the Rogue Valley’s year-round source for latkes, sputtered out late last year, it isn’t that oft-touted specialty I’ve been craving. The whole-foods eatery and unconventional Jewish deli in Jacksonville satisfied my craving for chicken livers about once per month.

Sauteed with red onions and served on rye toast, MacLevin’s livers were among the only organic ones available at any local restaurant. The owners trekked to Ashland Food Co-op to purchase them, which is exactly what I had to do earlier this week after confirming that no Medford grocer kept them.

Because the special trip warranted buying a lot of livers, I decided to turn them into paté, which would keep a bit longer in the refrigerator than the fresh organs. A simple concept that comes together really quickly, a rustic chicken-liver paté really requires only a skillet and food processor. My spread closely resembled a recipe published several years ago in the Oregon Healthy Living magazine.

My effort yielded enough paté last night that I have several small jars in the refrigerator, enough to enjoy later in the week, maybe with a few latkes. Paté of this type also lends itself to make-ahead appetizer, one that could be kept on hand, along with matzo crackers, to entertain drop-in guests.

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  • Blog Author

    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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