Monday, March 4, 2013

UnRecipe: Cold Weather Feasts and the Brown Food Conundrum

I'm guilty of making a lot of Brown Food during the winter. You know what dishes I speak of -- stews and soups, the cold weather dishes that always seem to hit the comfort zone, but inevitably look like a big slow-cooked, braised bowl of BROWN. And don't get me wrong -- I'm totally down with the brown (food), but sometimes the plate needs some color, especially in the gloom of a cloudy day. So I'm offering up some cozy comfort that isn't brown, and -- gasp -- winter-friendly salads.

Spanokopita-Casserole... Spanokopitarole? Spanokassarole? - Photo by Wasabi Prime
 I'm a fiend for texture in food. While I'm sensitive about some textures (I still can never fall totally in love with the soft-crunch of a big shrimp), I love the crisp, airy crunch of phyllo dough. I love it so much, I usually try and keep a package of the stuff in the freezer for when the craving hits. I adore the Greek dish spanokopita -- layered phyllo dough stuffed with spinach and feta, baked to a crispy, cheesy, buttery perfection. I've typically had it as single-serving pastries, but I wanted to make one giant casserole-sized spanokopita, thinking that would be some wizard-like great idea. Apparently the rest of the civilized world beat me to the punch, as thanks to my late night guilty TV pleasure, Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Greek-style diners do big sheet pan-sized spanokopita all the time, since they serve volumes of the stuff. So after getting schooled by the spiky-headed Guy Fieri (never thought I'd ever say that one), I remained undaunted and stuck with my spanokopita crazy casserole.

Ingredients for creamy, crispy perfection - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I say crazy casserole because it wasn't just spinach and feta. Of course it's never the ingredients it's supposed to be! It's an UnRecipe, for heaven's sake -- time to get buck-wild! I combined all sorts of things -- sliced zucchini, garlic, spinach, roasted red peppers -- all cooked down to get rid of as much moisture as possible, then crumbled feta was added, to help bind the filler ingredients. The phyllo dough spent a few hours in the refrigerator defrosting, and then set on the counter to warm up a little and get to a more pliable texture. I remember handling phyllo for the first time, even after watching my mom make baklava for the holidays for many years, and I still messed up the dough. Not giving it enough defrost time and splitting the whole roll in several spots as I was unrolling it. Doh. Putting a too-damp towel over the dough, trying to keep it workable, but just waterlogging the first few layers and having it stick to the towel. Double-DOH. Phyllo dough is like the philosophy for cooking and life as we know it -- you're going to suck at doing things in the beginning, but don't be discouraged because you'll get past the rookie mistakes and come out all-right in the end. No one is going to be some genius-ace-sorcerer at trying something the first time, or even the next couple of times. And if they are, we are all allowed to hate their overachieving stinking guts and scribble on skeevy bathroom walls that they offer good times and cheap thrills.

This spanokopita-everything-casserole was like the culmination of a lot of failed attempts at handling frustratingly paper-thin dough. I was personally very pleased it didn't come out looking or tasting like a big hot mess. The brushing of melted butter on every stinking sheet is a must. It's the only way you'll get that flaky, crisp layering that puffs up when you bake it. I've used vegetable oil, which works okay, but you can't beat butter, plus you can taste it! The finished casserole was a delicious whammy -- flavorful and vegetarian-friendly, to boot. Because it's made on a large scale, it's great for dinner guests, something to bring to a group brunch, any meal where you're feeding a group of people. And thank heavens, it wasn't another meal where you'd hear, "Not more Brown Food!"

Butter makes it better when it comes to using phyllo dough - Photo by Wasabi Prime
With the exception of overly-Westernized sushi, a salad is probably about as colorful as you can get with a meal. It's bright, vibrant and bless 'em, they photograph marvelously well. The tricky thing about salads in winter is the fact that a snowy day doesn't inspire an iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing. It's hard to get excited about salads on a cold day, so that's when picking interesting ingredients help. I love mixing fresh vegetables with pickled ones, so I often chop olives or pepperocini to add to a salad. I love Italian antipasti, that mix of cured meats, and pickled vegetables with some cheese. So I combined that with fresh lettuce and spinach to make an Italian chopped salad. Chopped pepperocini, kalamata olives, garbanzo beans, thin slices of salami, chopped mozzarella, brined artichoke hearts and fresh red pepper and cucumbers -- a hearty, savory combination of  ingredients that are easy to get year-round. I made a vinaigrette from a fresh orange, mixed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The citrus added sweetness and kept it fresh.

Hooray for colorful salads in winter! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I've made variations of this salad in summer plenty of times and it was no less satisfying on a day when there were snowflakes falling outside. It's hearty like a regular meal and it makes a salad a main course, not a wilted appetizer. Making the chopped mixture of meats, cheese and pickled vegetables ahead of time saves on time for prepping the salad later, plus the extra marination time in the dressing helps intensify and combine the flavors. It makes a multi-ingredient salad like this easy to have for a quick lunch or dinner, and it can easily be made vegetarian friendly, just omit the chopped salami. You can modify the chopped ingredients to your liking, just pick items that won't get mushy -- that's why I stuck with already pickled items or sturdy things like garbanzo beans, raw red pepper and low-moisture mozzarella versus fresh. And best of all -- not Brown Food!

Persimmons make a salad into magic - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I saved the best winter salad for last -- persimmons with red leaf, romaine and endive. Throw a sprinkling of chopped pistachios and crispy bacon, and this is the winter salad to rock your wooly socks off. I always get a little nervous when our CSA box has persimmons. They're so pretty, yet exotic, and prior to making this salad, I was at a loss over what to do with them. They've got a creamy pumpkin color, they resemble tomatoes, but they taste almost like a citrusy pear. It's produce with a severe identity crisis, maybe that's what's kept it from finding a strong foothold on people's grocery lists. But that shouldn't discourage anyone from enjoying them, and more specifically, in this salad.

It can't get more UnRecipe than this - chop ingredients listed above, toss with some balsamic and olive oil, and eat heartily. Repeat as necessary, when the tummy rumbles. The colors are beautiful together, so it will look gorgeous, no matter what. I peel the persimmons before slicing thinly, but you can eat the skin. I just find it a little on the tough side -- I'm such a picky hater. The mix of greens, especially the endive, add crunch and bitterness to offset the sweetness of the persimmons and pistachios. And the bacon... well, the bacon can just do whatever it wants, it's a welcome guest at any food party. But of all the cold weather salads/non-Brown Food dishes I've been trying to make, this is probably my favorite so far. Keep it up, Old Man Winter, you're not going to rain on my food parade!

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