keito potato

April 25, 2011, 7:22 am
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: , , ,

My family tends to cook Mediterranean dishes for Easter feasts.  The lemon fragrance and bright herbs evoke sunshine and celebrate Spring produce. This year we made a pan of Greek Spanakopita, the famous spinach pie wrapped in flaky phyllo dough. Of course you can easily find pre-made spinach triangles in most grocery freezer cases, but those frozen ones typically have a bland, one-dimensional spinach flavor. This recipe from Diane Kochilas’ cookbook The Greek Vegetarian is much  more interesting.  The filling is complex because the spinach is combined with fresh parsley and dill, sauteed fennel and onions, crumbled feta, and grated nutmeg.  It tastes as good as the fab Spanakopita I’ve had in serious Greek restaurants in Chicago.

Phyllo dough is definitely not scary or tricky to work with.  You can find it in most any grocery store (except trader joe’s).  Just make sure to let it thaw according to instructions before using.  I forgot to thaw it once, and it shattered into brittle shards.  Diane Kochilas rolls her phyllo from scratch, but I have always bought phyllo sheets from the store.

You can choose between adding cayenne or raisins to the filling.  Yesterday’s version had cayenne, but I think I prefer the raisins.  It’s up to you.

This recipe makes a whole pan of spanakopita, which is simpler to create than individual triangles.  To assemble such a thing, one layers several sheets of phylo dough in a pan, brushing each with olive oil.  At some point you pause to pour in the spinach filling.  Then arrange several more layers of phylo, also brushed with olive oil.  Bake, and voila.


olive oil
2 pounds fresh spinach
3 medium-size onions
1 fennel bulb
1/2 cup chopped dill
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 eggs
8 oz. feta
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon cayenne (or 2-3 tablespoons dark seedless raisins, depending on your mood)
several sheets of phyllo dough


Chop the onions. Chop the fennel bulb. Wash and chop the spinach.

In a large heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and saute the spinach lightly, just to wilt.  Remove the spinach with a slotted spoon and drain in a colander.  Heat 2 more tablespoons of olive oil and add the chopped onions and fennel.  Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until wilted, about 7 minutes.

Place the spinach, fennel, and onions in a large bowl.  Chop the dill and parsley, and add them to the bowl.  Lightly whisk the 2 eggs in a small bowl, then add them to the mixture, along with 2 more tablespoons of olive oil.  Mix well.  Crumble the feta, and add it to the bowl, along with the salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne (or raisins).

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Lightly oil a pan.  Diane Kochilas uses a 12-inch pie pan, but I generally use a rectangular pan.  Lay a sheet of phyllo in the pan.  The edges will hang over the edges.  Brush this phyllo layer with oil.  If you don’t have a pastry brush, just drizzle on the oil and rub it around with your (clean) fingertips.  Repeat with 3-4 more sheets of phyllo, brushing each with olive oil.  Spread the filling evenly over the phyllo. 


Pull up the outer edges of the phyllo layers, and wrap them around the filling, neatly.  Top with 3-5 more layers of phyllo, each brushed with olive oil. To tuck the top layers down, gently tuck them into the edges of the pan using a metal spatula.

Bake for 50 minutes or more, until the phyllo is golden.

June China Trip
July 12, 2010, 6:13 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , , ,

In June I spent 2 weeks in China. My grad school sends groups of professors and students to China 4x a year to build relationships with schools there. I was probably picked up for this particular trip because I previously lived in China for 2.5 years. I can’t express how grateful I was to re-visit the Middle Kingdom, and to explore current issues with professors and students there.

Of course it wasn’t a trip about food, but this is indeed a food website. Therefore this little travelogue is food-focused.

I couldn’t help but eat well in China. For those who have asked me over the years how I could have lived in China as a vegetarian, these photos are ample evidence of eating well. On this trip I missed Sichuan food (the spicy food of the region that used to be my home) but I thoroughly enjoyed the regional cooking of the places we visited: Beijing, Xi’an, Nanjing, and Shanghai.

In Shanghai we discovered this dumpling restaurant that was bustling all day, but particularly busy for breakfast. I ended up eating a bowl of wonton soup there 3 out of 4 of my mornings in Shanghai. The wontons were freshly folded behind the counter, stuffed with scrambled eggs and leeks, then served in a light and tasty broth. The pickled greens on top provided the pungent counterpoint. I asked for the vinegar, and was presented with a white teapot filled with vinegar. The vinegar-teapot was passed from table to table to enrich the soup broth or create a dipping sauce.

Looking at this photo now, my stomach clenches with wistfulness. I would love to eat wonton soup for breakfast at home, but I don’t have a team of wonton-folding pals to make that happen in an efficient way.

Our table of 4 shared this plate of deep-fried wontons as a breakfast side dish. They had the same egg-leek filling as the others, but were crisp and chewy.

Enjoyed a freshly-grilled street crepe in Shanghai. It was so hot I could barely hold it.

After the crepe batter is spread thinly, it was topped with beaten egg, chives, and chili sauce. The hot dogs were not mine.

This is a similar version that I found in Nanjing. The Nanjing version is called a “jianbing“. Not only is it filled with scrambled eggs and chili sauce, but the jianbing is also stuffed with preserved vegetables and “youtiao,” a fried bread that’s reminiscent of a salty doughnut. This superb breakfast “wrap” is over the top.

This variety of mushroom is almost like a chantrelle, rich, complex, and earthy. Can’t believe we were served a huge platter of them.

A showcase of 4 varieties of mushrooms, garnished with an orchid. I wasn’t familiar with the thick sliced mushrooms in the foreground. In the back you can glimpse a dish of asparagus spears with ginko nuts and lily petals.

These wild mushrooms were sliced, then stirfried with chilies. Spicy and rich.

I’m most happy in China with simple dishes like garlicky greens. When this particular cook in Nanjing heard I was a vegetarian, she pulled out the stops, bringing every seasonal green to the table, presenting them to me while blushing. Here are her tasty diagonal slices of Chinese broccoli.

She even whipped up a batch of the best vegetarian baozi I’ve ever tasted. Soft, and ever-so-fresh. Filled with garlicky greens. I greedily ate 3 of them.

I had these garlicky chrysanthemum leaves elsewhere in Nanjing. Rich with that strong-green-leaf-flavor, as if you can taste the density of vitamins in the leaves. If you know of a place in LA that serves chrysanthemum leaves, let me know.

While I’m on the subject of garlicky greens, morning glory (kongxin cai) is one of my favorites. The Mandarin name is literally “hollow heart vegetable” because the stems are hollow. Other than that particular feature, it’s pretty similar to spinach. Kongxin cai is always fabulous stirfried with garlic, and a cold beer on the side.

Typical ganbian sijijou, dry-fried green beans. The beans are slowly cooked in minimal oil, so that their skin has time to wrinkle. Then they are tossed with garlic and ginger. If this was Sichuan, it would also include chilies and hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns). From time to time I’ve also had this tossed with preserved vegetables.

These green beans were brought to the table on a wok and portable flame. The green beans were sitting on a bed of sliced onions, which gradually perfumed the beans during our meal. Toward the end, the sliced onions were fully grilled, rich and delicious.

A dish of yuxiang xiezi, spicy and garlicky eggplants. The name initially puzzles foreigners because “fish-fragrant eggplant” sounds like it should smell like fish. The name really means that the eggplant is cooked in a similar method to that of fish — spicy and garlicky, with a hint of sweetness.

Here is a similar eggplant dish at a different restaurant, but with delicate lavender eggplants. Almost too pretty to eat.

A glazed pumpkin half. Delicate.

Daikon strips marinated in sesame.

Stir-fried fava beans with chives.

Had to order this classic a few times. Stir-fried potato slivers, chao tudou si. Most Americans wouldn’t think of the potato as a Chinese vegetable, but this dish is actually one of the most common vegetable side dishes. The potatoes are quickly stirfried, and usually arrive at the table slightly crisp. This version is flavored with slivers of green pepper. In Sichuan, stirfried potatoes are invariably made spicy with dried red chilies in the mix.

Cuipi (tsway-pee) doufu, or crispy-skin tofu. Soft tofu is breaded and deep-fried, then topped with a sweet and spicy sauce.

The menu said this was also cuipi doufu, but what showed up was a spongy tofu braised in garlic and green onions. Not what we expected, but was definitely tasty and satisfying.

Tiger-skin peppers (hupi qingjiao). Found this Sichuanese dish in Shanghai. The big peppers are cooked dry, without any oil. Eventually the skin loosens and peels back, creating wrinkles or stripes. Then when black vinegar and soy sauce are added, the black sauces gather in the wrinkled skin, creating the illusion of tiger stripes. Cute. And spicy.

Rice sticks. Savory and crispy. Not bad.

In Xi’an we had a North-West version of hotpot. Usually hotpot entails a communal cauldron simmering in the middle of the table, with raw ingredients to pop in and cook. This was the first time I had experienced individual hot pots for each person. Evidence of change in China, perhaps? At least it was easier for me to eat vegetarian with my own pot. Here is my dipping sauce. Mine was mostly sesame paste, chili sauce and hua jiao oil.

A platter of 5 varieties of raw mushrooms to add to the hotpot.

I was surprised that this was my only glimpse of someone “pulling noodles” on this trip — and it was a touristy experience. This boy was brought to our table to whip around a piece of dough until it stretched into a single long noodle. Then he slipped it into someone’s hotpot to cook. His yoyo-acrobatics were more for our benefit than the noodle’s. Aside from this spectacle, the typical way I’ve witnessed noodle pulling involved stretching, pulling, slapping dough on a table, and doubling-up the dough over and over to create a pile of noodles. I seriously regret not learning this skill as an apprentice when I lived in Sichuan. At the time, I took lessons in vegetable carving, but noodle pulling would have been more fun.

These flaky pastries were filled with delicate and complex durian custard. Can you believe this was my first taste of durian? I was smitten. Our host then told us that his dogs are crazy about durian. That’s quite a peculiar pet treat, and probably an expensive one.

Soon after, I tried a slice of real durian in the market. I’m a new convert.

For those of you interested in markets, here’s a basement vege market I stumbled across in Nanjing.

Squash blossoms at the market.

Dried chilies, star anise, chili sauce, and bottles of chili oil.

Fresh and tender bamboo shoots.

Extra-long asparagus in the market.

Wandering through Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter at night, I couldn’t help but try these quail egg skewers. A tiny quail egg was broken into each mold. The eggs cooked around the skewer and were rotated carefully until they puffed up. They were finally liberally doused with chili-cumin sauce. Delicious, and completely worth the chili sauce dribbling on my hand as I walked down the street.

By now you’re probably either exhausted from this long post, or you’ve already hit the road to find the closest noodle joint. I’ll just close with an empty wok.

Watercress Gnocchi
April 7, 2010, 4:01 pm
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: , ,

In planning an Easter menu, deviled eggs are the traditional constant. For the rest of the meal I pursue new recipes featuring seasonal produce. This year I pulled out my Cafe Paradiso Seasons cookbook by Denis Cotter, which has become one of my top favorite cookbooks. It’s a seasonal cookbook put out by one of the top restaurants in Ireland. It’s darn exquisite. I flipped to the chapter on “early spring” and found this watercress gnocchi recipe. It’s a standard potato gnocchi, but with joyful green flecks of watercress mixed into the dough. I imagine you could substitute tender spinach leaves if watercress is hard to find in your neighborhood.

Denis pairs his gnocchi with a roasted tomato cream sauce. As I still don’t have a special place in my heart for tomatoes, I didn’t enjoy the sauce as much as I had imagined. So I am encouraging you to find your own sauce pairing for these watercress gnocchi. I loved their delicate texture and playful green flecks, and I bet you’ll find wonderful things to do with them.

A word about gentleness. Gnocchi dough needs to be treated quite carefully. Years ago I friend and I mistakenly thought we could whip up a batch in the processor, only to find the dough quickly becoming snotty. When we exasperatedly tried to remedy the situation with too much flour, the dough became tough and leathery, not what anyone wants in gnocchi. The goal is to make soft, tender pillows that melt in your mouth. I soon thereafter read that processing is the worst thing one can do to a gnocchi dough, which confirmed my experience. So I learned my lesson. Now I coax the correct texture from the dough instead of being impatient. That said, this dough isn’t necessarily difficult or time consuming.

One helpful suggestion offered by the cookbook is to bake the potatoes instead of steaming or boiling them. This ensures a drier dough that’s easier to work with.

21 oz. starchy potatoes
5 oz. watercress
3 oz. Parmesan, grated
salt and pepper to season
4 oz. white flour (to start)

Bake the potatoes. When cool enough to handle, peel them and gently mash the cooked potato flesh, or use a potato ricer. I mashed mine with a fork, and I’ll be honest that I enjoyed the tiny rustic lumps of potato in the pillows. Next chop the watercress very finely, and stir it into the potato mash. Add the Parmesan, and season well with salt and pepper.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.

Add the 4 oz of flour and work it into the potato. Gradually add more flour to get to the right consistency. You may end up adding as much as 8 oz, but 4 is a safe start. The goal is a soft dough, and not sticky to the touch. If you are unsure of your dough, you can test one piece in the boiling water to see if it falls apart. If so, add more flour.

Press the dough out on a floured cutting board, and roll it into logs. Slice a log into pillows at about 3/4-inch increments. Using a soft touch, roll the pillows around on the cutting board until the surface is smooth.

Drop them into the boiling water. Then will sink to the bottom of the pot. When they float to the top (which only takes minute or two), remove them with a slotted spoon. Depending on the size of your pot, you will probably want to boil them in 2-3 batches.