Thursday, October 25, 2007

Spinach, Nutmeg, and Ricotta Pie and Manny Being Manny - It Doesn't Get Any Better

For dinner most nights Jeff and I put on some music, light some candles (more out of necessity than romance -- we don’t have a dining room fixture), and talk about our days. We look forward to this time together and would never think of spoiling it by turning on the TV. Well, almost never. There are a couple of exceptions:

1) Monday Night Football (although we sometimes hit mute to give ourselves a reprieve from Tony Kornheiser's bantering).

2) Sunday Night Football, hosted by John and Al, because we love John and Al.

We live on the West Coast, so games start three hours earlier, around 5 or 6 pm. This means by the time we eat dinner around 7:00, the game is already half over. Now, we can’t be expected to miss it entirely, can we?

On these nights the food is usually fun -- comforting, low-maintenance dishes that make you feel like you're at the game while seated comfortably on your own sofa. To avoid gaining five pounds by halftime, I forgo take-out for homemade.

This past Sunday, we had spinach and ricotta calzones or pies, as we call them. These half moon-shaped baked pies are ideal football viewing food: their crispy exterior reveals a creamy ricotta-spinach filling that is salty, savory, and satisfying. And the best part is no silverware is required, so you can keep your eyes focused on the screen and not miss a touchdown (something for which I am notorious).

Oh. Jeff just reminded me that there is a third time TV is allowed during dinner:

3) A Red Sox post-season game. They're in the World Series again this year, and they trounced the Colorado Rockies in game one last night. I mean, what could be more fun than watching Manny being Manny and listening to Joe Buck's bantering? (Joe kinda grows on you).

Now unless you want your calzones to be as soggy as Fenway Park was last night, here are a few pointers:

*Use fresh spinach instead of frozen, if available, since it releases less water.

*Squeeze the water out of the spinach after cooking it.

*Season the spinach after extracting the water, so the seasonings aren't released. And don't be afraid to season generously with salt and other spices, since spinach is bland until dressed up properly.

*Nutmeg is an ideal flavor enhancer for spinach, but it can be intense. I suggest using it sparingly and tasting as you go.

Spinach, Nutmeg, and Ricotta Calzones
Print the recipe only here.
Makes 2 large pies

1 pound pizza dough

2 tsp olive oil
12 oz fresh baby spinach, rinsed (about 12-13 cups)
12 roughly chopped Kalamata olives
1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1/2 cup shredded part-skim milk mozzarella cheese
A couple of pinches of freshly grated nutmeg (or a couple of dashes of ground)
A few shakes of crushed red pepper
A generous amount of salt
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil for brushing the pies

Preheat oven to 500 if using a pizza stone or 425-450 if using a baking sheet.

Heat 2 tsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add spinach and cook 1-2 minutes until wilted. Remove spinach from pan and place in a colander. Squeeze the spinach with the back of a spoon until the water is extracted, and it looks dry. Place spinach in a bowl; add olives, ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, nutmeg, crushed red pepper, and salt. Mix well. Taste to make sure it is adequately seasoned.

To form the calzones:
Working on a lightly floured surface, divide the dough in half, and roll into two 8-10-inch ovals. For each piece of dough, put half of the spinach-ricotta mixture a bit above the center of the oval. Fold the dough to form a half-moon; seal the edges together by pressing down lightly. Then using your fingertips, fold the edge of the dough up, and pinch around the edge to create a seal. Brush them with the 2 tsp of extra-virgin olive oil.

For a pizza stone, bake at 500 degree for about 10-15 minutes, or until both the top and bottom of the crust is golden brown.

For a baking sheet, bake at 450 for about 25 minutes, or until both the top and bottom of the crust is golden brown.

You might also like these football friendly foods:
Broccolini and Sun-Dried Tomato Pie
Grilled Lamb Sandwiches
Broccoli Rabe and Sausage Sandwich with Sharp Provolone
Barbecue Pizza
Dad's Patriot Potato Pizza

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

San Diego Fires

Thank you for all of your emails and expressions of concern.

My husband and I have not been personally affected by the San Diego fires since we live downtown. I have been amazed by the generosity of people here and across the country -- you would all be so proud of the tremendous amount of food that has been donated to evacuees.

It appears that the situation has begun to improve over the past few hours.

If you are interested in donating, then please visit the American Red Cross.



Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Missing New England, Finding Solace in Tuscan Torta di Mele

I miss apple-picking in New England. Overall the produce found in Southern California is superior to anywhere we have lived, but just like football, when it comes to apples, you simply can't beat New England. (Sorry Bolt fans.)

New England has scores of picturesque orchards with rolling hills and countless trees. There are few pleasures in life as satisfying as biting into a just picked Macoun apple while standing in the warm sun on a chilly fall New England day.

The first autumn that Jeff and I lived in North Carolina, we planned our annual apple-picking day. When we arrived ready to pick, we were aghast that our treasured McIntosh, Macouns, and Cortlands were nowhere to be found. Instead we had to make due with Red Romes, Galas, and Arkansas Blacks (a hard, tart apple which became my new favorite).

Just as we got used to our apples in the Southeast, we then moved to California and had to learn an entirely new set of apples. Though crunchy, sweet Fujis are probably the most popular apple here, my local favorite is the Pink Lady. Unlike her name, she's quite sassy, just right for an eating apple. Then there's the Winesap, which according to Riley's Farm of Oak Glen, CA, is the "Celebrity Rock Star of Apples." No wonder. It's deep crimson red, super firm and crispy, and assertively tart. Definitely not an apple for the timid.

When my mom's lovely friend Anne gave me an authentic Tuscan recipe for Torta di Mele (apple cake), she said it called for Golden Delicious apples. I was stunned. Of all of the apples I have eaten in my life (and I have eaten a few pecks), I have never eaten a Golden Delicious apple. This is probably because I always associated them with Red Delicious apples -- the tasteless, waxy school cafeteria apple -- the thought of which elicits painful middle school memories.

Since downtown San Diego isn't home to any apple orchards, I went to the supermarket and purchased eight Golden Delicious apples. Expecting them to be bland and mushy, I was pleasantly surprised when my first bite (which snapped with crispness) revealed a mild, juicy sweetness.
Golden Delicious apples don't seem pale to me anymore; they seem delicate. Their soft golden skin is dotted with tiny brown specks and a shy pink blush. They are ideal for eating and maintain their shape well when baked. It's official. I'm a Golden Delicious convert; after trying this Tuscan apple cake, you will be too.

Since the egg whites are whipped and folded into the batter, it makes a lighter cake, yet it's so chock full of juicy, sweet apples that when you slice it, it looks almost custardy on the inside. It's a lovely cake to have with an afternoon tea or even a glass of wine. It's slightly sweet, exceptionally moist, and whole-heartedly satisfying.

I am submitting this post to Andrew of Spittoon Extra, this month's host for the always scrumptious Sugar High Friday, created by The Domestic Goddess. This month's topic is drunken apples, or apples and alcohol. With Golden Delicious apples and Calvados, an apple brandy from Normandy, France, this dessert fits the bill, deliciously.

Torta di Mele (Apple Cake)

Print recipe only here.

4 eggs, separated
2 lbs Golden Delicious apples, peeled and sliced (about 6 apples)
juice of 1 small lemon
1/4 cup Calvados**
1 cup sugar
12 Tbsp butter, melted
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
2 Tbsp baking powder (that's correct, I swear!)
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

To coat the pan:
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp sugar

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Place sliced apples in a medium bowl; add lemon juice and Calvados and toss well.

In a medium glass or metal bowl, beat egg whites on high until stiff peaks form, about 5-6 minutes.

In another medium bowl, combine butter, sugar, and egg yolks. Mix with a hand mixer until well combined. Add sifted flour, baking powder, and spices, and mix until well combined.

Fold the beaten egg whites into the batter, then fold in the apple slices.

Coat a 9-10 -inch spring form pan with cooking spray. Add 1 Tbsp of butter in small pieces to the bottom of the pan and sprinkle with 1 Tbsp sugar. Pour the batter on top, and smooth it out with a spatula.

Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees F. Then bake for 50-60 minutes at 325 degrees F or until a knife inserted comes out clean and the top is golden brown and puffed up.

**Calvados is an apple brandy available at liquor stores and some supermarkets.

You might also like:
Warm Citrus and Banana Cups
Italian Pignoli Cookies (Pine Nut) Cookies
Italian Ricotta Pie with Pineapple
Olive Oil Cake with Rosemary and Lemon

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Date and Pistachio Scones Without Apple Sauce

I once made a half dozen low-fat cranberry muffins. It was during the no-fat craze of the early '90's. Snackwell cookies dominated grocery store shelves. Back then any time a recipe called for butter you were supposed to substitute apple sauce. I dutifully used apple sauce in my low-fat cranberry muffins. "Rubbery" was probably the best thing I could say about them.

"Rubbery" is never a good thing to say about muffins.

This was not to be my last baking difficulty. Baking requires precision; forgetting one ingredient such as baking soda can completely ruin a dish. Trust me.

My mom, unlike me, has managed to become an extraordinary baker. She even modified her recipes to accommodate the no-fat days of the '90s and the no-carb days of this century without ever sacrificing flavor.

When Joanna of Joanna's Foods announced low-fat baked goods as this month's topic for Heart of the Matter, a wonderful heart healthy food event which she co-hosts with Ilva of Lucullian Delights, I thought I'd give low-fat baking another try. But first, I called my mom. I asked her if she had a recipe for a baked good that had no butter or cream and very little margarine, oil, and egg yolks; she suggested scones.

I noted it did not include apple sauce. Instead, non-fat cottage cheese and buttermilk (which is lower in fat than regular milk) keep the scones moist. I told her I had some fresh, sweet medjool dates I wanted to use. We started brainstorming and came up with a dynamic combination of flavors: dates, fennel seeds, pistachios, and orange zest.

Mom assured me that scones are about “the easiest things you can bake.” They really were easy; the hardest part was having to refer to the recipe 27 times to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I heeded her warnings, most especially the one about not over mixing the batter or it’ll become "like lead."

When I served one of the freshly baked scones to Jeff on Sunday morning, I didn't tell him it was a low-fat recipe. (He remains scarred from an unfortunate incident with an Entemann's fat-free pineapple cheese dessert in 1991.) Not only did he love them, but he also never guessed that they were low fat, well, that is until he read this post.

The savoriness of the pistachios and toasted fennel seeds pair beautifully with chunks of sweet, sticky dates; they are also delicious served with blood orange marmalade (from Mom). Feel free though to choose your own heart-healthy add ins. It's an easy, versatile recipe that I will certainly make again. They were moist and light and helped revive my faith in low-fat baking.

Heart Healthy Date, Fennel, and Pistachio Scones
Print this recipe here.

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
6 Tbsp Smart Balance, chilled (butter substitute)
1/4 cup non-fat cottage cheese
1/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
1 tsp orange zest
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup fresh Medjool dates, coarsely chopped (about 10-12)
1 Tbsp fennel seeds, toasted
1/4 cup pistachios

Optional egg wash for top of scones:
1 egg, lightly beaten OR 1 egg mixed with 1 tsp low-fat milk, lightly beaten

Simply brush on top of scones before baking for a shinier, softer finish.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place oven rack in the middle of the oven. To toast the fennel seeds, add to a dry skillet over medium heat for 1-2 minutes, until aromatic. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a bowl, whisk cottage cheese, buttermilk, and vanilla; set aside.

In another bowl, mix dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add chilled butter (in small pieces), and mix with a pastry blender or fork, until a coarse meal forms with tiny pea-sized butter pieces. Mix in orange zest, dates, fennel seeds, and pistachios. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and, using a fork, mix until just combined. Do not over mix or the dough will become leaden.

Using a floured surface, shape the dough into a disk, about 1/2-inch thick. With a wet knife (to make slicing easier) cut the dough into 8 triangular shaped scones. Place scones on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet leaving about 2 inches between them.

If using, then brush egg wash over the tops of the scones before baking. Otherwise, place in oven.

Bake scones 15 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Once baked, transfer to a rack to cool.

For another easy and tasty low-fat dessert, check out these Warm Citrus and Banana Cups. In fact, I made these the other night and substituted fresh pineapple and mango for the oranges.

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