Monday, May 26, 2014

Spinach Salad with Bread, Dates and Almonds

When I make a green salad, it almost always looks the same: you've got your lettuce of some sort, toasted sesame or pumpkin seeds, thinly sliced radishes, and a citrusy vinaigrette. Sure, there are some variations beyond that — a handful of blanched asparagus in the spring, a few cubes of buttery avocado or crumbles of blue cheese (depending on what's left over in the fridge), maybe a carrot shaved into curls with a vegetable peeler. But really, it's pretty much the same old leafy template. Which is why it's so nice to find something so entirely different from my usual rut. And so delicious.

This recipe, as most things in the surprisingly-simple-yet-delicious-and-dusted-with-sumac category, comes from Yotam Ottolenghi. Baby spinach leaves, vinegar-pickled onions and sticky-sweet dates, and crisp buttery croutons and toasted almonds. So, so good. The original calls for torn-up pitas (as befits a cookbook called Jerusalem), but I used a freezer-burned ciabatta roll to equally delicious effect. It's a combination I never would have thought of, and it's wonderful.

Of late, I seem to be on a run of kitchen fails (hence my radio silence). There were the morning buns made from a "quick" croissant dough, which was not remotely quick, and after all that work was not even close to being as good as the real thing. There were the asparagus deviled eggs that were far, far more work than their non-asparagus brethren — and didn't really taste that much like asparagus. It's hard to recommend something with a low work-to-return ratio. But this salad? It's a simple salad. And it's different, and delicious, and I can't wait to make it again.

And speaking of surprising Middle Eastern flavors, I recently had the good fortune to spend the day with a visiting delegation of chefs, bakers, and food service folks visiting from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Oman, as part of the State Department's Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. You can hear more about the delicious exchange, and the larger ideals of gastrodiplomacy, over at NPR.

Spinach Salad with Bread, Dates and Almonds

adapted from Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
serves 4 (as a salad, though two people could make a meal of the whole thing)

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
half a dozen Medjool dates, pitted and cut lengthwise into quarters or sixths (depending upon size)
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 small stale pitas (or a stale roll), torn into bitze-sized pieces
1/2 cup almonds, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons sumac
1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
several handfuls baby spinach leaves
juice of 1/2 lemon

Place the sliced onion and dates in a small bowl, and pour the vinegar over the top. Add a pinch of salt and stir. Let marinate for at least 20 minutes, then drain the vinegar.

While the onions are pickling, heat the butter and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the bread and almonds and cook, stirring regularly, until the bread has toasted to a crunchy golden brown. Remove from the heat, and stir in the sumac, chile flakes, and a hefty pinch salt. Set aside to cool.

To serve, dress the spinach leaves with the remaining olive oil and lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. Top with the dates and red onion, and the seasoned bread and almonds. Serve.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Almond Granita with Minted Rhubarb

Rhubarb and I don't always get along. I usually thrill to see it in the markets, right around the time that the wintered-over apples are mealy, past-its-prime citrus isn't juicy, and ohmygosh why isn't there any fruit? feelings are running high. But then I take it home, and don't quite know what to do with it. A few weeks ago I slumped rhubarb into a compote to pair with a flourless almond cake, but ended up just eating the cake plain (well, plain except for whipped cream).

I think the problem is that I don't want stovetop sauces or oven-baked pies. I want fruit. I want something fresh and juicy and full of spring. Given rhubarb's tartness, it can be hard to find raw preparations where it delivers on this springtime promise. I've seen a few Mediterranean recipes that shave it into salads, but it's usually just a lone stalk or two. And I didn't want salad. I wanted dessert.

The original version of this recipe pairs the rhubarb with its old friend, the strawberry. I'm sure that's lovely, but our strawberries are still a few weeks away. And luckily my failure to wait for them yielded a truly delicious result. This almond granita is just a simple frozen almond milk, frozen into fluffy crystals (I made it fresh, but you could also freeze up a commercial version if you prefer). The milky sweetness is a perfect match for the spunky punch of pure fresh rhubarb, saucy with a bit of sugar. A little bit of mint (thanks to a friend's backyard) heightens the springtime brightness even further. I'm sure I'll eventually bake up some rhubarb into a pie (especially when the strawberries come in). But right now, this fresh-fresh-fresh bit of crunch and melt and sour and sweet is just what I needed to fall back in love with rhubarb.

Almond Granita with Minted Rhubarb 

adapted from Apt. 2B Baking Co. 
yields ~4 good-sized or 6 small serving 

1 cup raw almonds
2 1/2 cups water (plus more for soaking)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
sugar to taste (~2-3 tablespoons)
pinch salt

~6 slim stalks rhubarb
~1/4 cup sugar
handful of mint leaves

To make the granita: Place almonds in a bowl, and cover with water. Let soak at least four hours, or overnight. Drain, place in a blender with the three cups water, and puree to bits. Strain the mixture through a few layers of cheesecloth, squeezing to get out all of the liquid you can. Add vanilla, sugar, and salt, and adjust seasonings to taste to yield a sweet, flavorful mixture.

Pour the mixture into an 8x8 or 9x9 baking dish. Slide the dish into the freezer, and chill for one hour. Remove the dish from the freezer, and scrape the milk with a fork to break up the crystals. Return to the freezer, and scrape the milk every 20 minutes or so, until it is frozen and, thanks to your work, fluffy crystals have formed (maybe another hour or so).

To make the rhubarb: Wash the rhubarb, and cut in a fine dice. Toss it in a bowl with the sugar, and let sit for about half an hour to let the juices come out, and the sugar dissolve into a syrup. Add the mint.

To serve, layer the granita and minted rhubarb in a glass, and slurp up before it melts.