Spanikopita American Style

Scott Louie Cooks

For a nice vegetarian dish, I turn to Mediterranean food and nothing beats a good spanikopita. So what makes a spanikopita “good”? It’s easy: you must use phyllo dough, rather than a plain homemade flour dough. This isn’t a calzone. Phyllo dough makes this dish what it is (a tasty treat) along with generous portions of spinach and feta cheese.

If a scan of the ingredient list makes my choice of vegetables seem odd, this is why I call my version “American Style”. There is nothing unusual here, it’s just not a traditional type of Greek recipe.

Ready to cook

This dish is vegetarian, but clearly not vegan with butter and cheese (and some phyllo dough contains egg yolks). Do note that I leave out the eggs as a binding agent—without the eggs, there is nothing in this dish that can’t be eaten raw with the possible exception of the dough, though that’s debatable. My cooking time is enough to brown the top while well heating the filling without baking all the moisture out.

And, yes, I’ve seen it spelled Spanikopita and Spanakopita. For my American Style dish, I prefer the former. Pour yourself some wine, don’t worry about it, and enjoy.

Ingredients

  • 24 oz Spinach (I use two 12 oz bags of frozen chopped spinach), thawed in refrigerator
  • 10 oz Feta cheese, crumbled
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • ½ medium onion, chopped
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 1 small bunch parsley, chopped
  • ½ cup diced cucumber
  • ¼ cup diced celery
  • salt and ground pepper
  • rosemary and sage
  • 4 oz unsalted butter (1 stick)
  • 8 oz Phyllo dough, thawed (1/2 of a 1 lb package)

Prepare the Filling

Preheat the oven to 325° F.

Over a fine strainer, squeeze the thawed spinach until the water is pressed out. Frozen spinach has so much liquid content that the dish will be a soggy mess otherwise. With your hands, squeeze out all the water you can. Then add to the bowl and separate.

With the spinach prepared, add feta, the cream cheese (in small chunks, or use whipped), onion, shallot, parsley, cucumber, and celery. Add your spices.

Assemble the Dish

Handling the phyllo is the trickiest part, but it’s not rocket science. If frozen, thaw your 8 oz package of phyllo in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. When ready, unroll (or unfold) the sheets and lay the whole package flat.

Melt the 4 oz. of butter in a pan. Coat the bottom of your casserole dish with a thin smear of melted butter. See the notes at the end for a word on the casserole dish.

Using two sheets at a time, lay the phyllo into the pan. Then coat with a smear of butter. Note that I tried using a plastic kitchen “brush” but that can tear the dough. So I use the back of a tablespoon. It’s easier to have a light touch and it spreads the butter as thinly as you want. Since there are a lot of layers, you don’t need to overdo it with the butter.

Keep adding two sheets at a time with a smear of butter in between until you’ve used half (or a little more) of your phyllo (about 8-12 sheets). Then evenly spread the filling over the phyllo.

Halfway through, with melted butter in skillet

Now add two more sheets and apply the butter, layering two sheets of phyllo at a time with a smear of butter in between until you’ve used up your dough. Spread the last of your butter over the top, and now you can be generous.

Tuck any excess dough along the sides (or cut it off if it’s too bulky) and it’s ready to bake.

Ready for the oven

Bake

Bake at 325° F for about 40 minutes, or until the crust browns and its bubbling gently around the sides. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes.

Right out of the oven

Enjoy!

I served it with green beans for a delicious meal.

A tasty dinner is served

Make it Your Own

Optionally, spanikopita can include garlic, but I would use roasted garlic. Unless you want to sauté the garlic in a little butter first, I find raw garlic rather strong. Roasted garlic is mild and delicious.

Instead of the shallot, you could use a whole medium onion, or even a leek, which, on current reflection, I plan on trying the next time I make this.

Do dice the cucumber and celery—you don’t want hunks of the vegetables interfering with the taste of the spinach. Still, I include them since I can’t think Mediterranean food without thinking of cucumber, and it keeps the dish moist, especially since it’s important to squeeze the water out of the spinach or it will be too soggy.

Many traditional recipes use dill, which is excellent, but I like to shake up my spices and try different things. I have found savory spices like sage and rosemary work very well in this dish. Try oregano, marjoram, thyme, basil, etc. The possibilities are many.

NOTES

Not to offend my Greek friends, but I believe people overuse Phyllo dough in their Spanikopita recipes. For the same amount of filling as above, most recipes call for an entire 1 lb package (½ on bottom, the other half on top), which I find makes the dish too bready. The star here is the spinach and feta, so let them shine. A half pound of Phyllo will make all the flaky goodness you need.

Note that I do not use eggs as a binding agent in my recipe. They are an unrequired filler, but use a couple of eggs if you want. I love eggs, and where fillings need binding I use them liberally, but not here. A little cream cheese (not to mention the feta) is all the binding required. Yes, the filling will be loose, but that will not be a bad thing in a casserole. It will be fine.

And while we’re talking about Greek dishes and wine, I am one of the few people I know that actually likes Retsina. This Greek white wine basically tastes like dirt, but its earthy qualities don’t bother me and I enjoy a bottle here and there. Probably an acquired taste. In the picture above, I’m drinking a malbec, so there you are.

On the casserole dish: I use my trusty #32 Le Creuset Au Gratin dish (~ 2 qts), but I believe the #34 (larger size, maybe ~ 3 qts) would work great. I don’t mind filling my dish to the very top (and even heaping) since I line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil in case any of the goods spill over. I rarely have much of a problem or clean up. Keep in mind, my recipe makes about 6 servings (great for 2 people with leftovers), so if you need more, you might want to increase the recipe accordingly. BTW, I make my lasagna with the same dish and have enough for several meals for 2 people.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

Silky Beef Gravy

Scott Louie Cooks

Some friends of mine have admitted they’re intimidated to make gravy. It will have lumps. It will be thin. It will taste pasty. If this is you, it’s all in your head.

Gravy is straight-forward to make if you put in the effort, which is not to say it’s so easy. Like a lot of things, the ease of making it is in the experience. You have to pay attention to it. Gravy is not something where ingredients go in the pot and you walk away. It deserves your full attention. If you can give that, gravy is straight-forward to make.

That being said, this is not a quick and easy recipe.

BTW, for quick and easy: take your roast out of the oven and out of the pan, skim off any obvious clear fat, add three tablespoons of butter, stir in (one Tbsp at a time) three tablespoons of flour, stirring constantly until well blended. You should have a bit of a slurry (the roux), then turn up the heat, pour in two cups of stock, stir constantly until it comes to a boil under medium high heat and then reduce the heat and simmer to let it thicken, stirring often for about 3-5 minutes. Taste it often. If too thick add a little stock at a time until it’s the right consistency. Add salt and pepper and whatever herbs you prefer (like parsley, sage, rosemary, or thyme). You have gravy, Simon.

This recipe goes beyond the basics. It’s what you might call fortified, since I’ve read that most commercial stocks are rather carrot-heavy. I add my own vegetables (easy on the carrots) and blend to enrich my store-bought stock. In the past, I used to always make my own stocks, but nowadays I defer to very good NO-SALT (so important! don’t buy otherwise) chicken and beef stocks like Kitchen Basics, College Inn, and Swanson quart-sized, carton-based products.

You’ll need an immersion blender (or regular blender) for this.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup chopped celery (or 2-3 medium stalks of celery, trimmed of leaves)
  • 1 cup chopped onion (or 1 medium onion)
  • ½ cup chopped carrot (or 1 medium carrot)
  • 8 oz chopped mushrooms
  • 2-3 cloves roasted garlic (or 1 clove minced garlic)
  • 1 Tbsp unsalted butter (for sauteing the veg)
  • 1 qt. No Salt Beef Stock (you may want more on hand if needed, or use water)
  • 3 Tbsp unsalted butter (for the roux)
  • 3 Tbsp flour (for the roux)
  • salt and black pepper
  • basil and thyme (or seasonings of your choice)
The veg await

Fortify Your Stock

On medium heat, melt butter in a 5 qt dutch oven (like Le Creuset) and add the celery, carrot, and onion. Sauté for a few minutes until soft. Add the mushrooms and garlic and sauté for a couple minutes more. Add the beef stock and bring to a boil.

Cover and simmer on low heat for an hour. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes or so, then blend using your immersion blender (either in the pot, which I don’t prefer as I don’t want to scratch the enamel finish, or in a large bowl). Alternatively, blend it up in a blender. If not using immediately, set aside and let cool, or keep in your refrigerator until needed (it will keep 3-4 days).

Make Your Gravy

In your 5 qt dutch oven, melt 3 Tbsp butter and add the flour 1 Tbsp at a time, stirring constantly until well blended (the roux). You can cook the roux until it browns, stirring often and watching it like a hawk. It will adopt a bit of a nutty aroma. For a beef gravy, this is preferred.

Turn up the heat and immediately add your fortified stock, stirring well to break up the roux and let it dissolve into the liquid. Stir this often and watch closely. After a few minutes, it will thicken.

Add seasonings to taste. Cook for a few more minutes. You may need to thin it with more beef stock or water. Taste. You’ll know when it’s ready, but surely within 10 minutes of adding the stock.

Enjoy!

The finished gravy – so good. Enjoy!

Make it Your Own

An array of vegetables could be used for this. You can also add roasted mushrooms to the finished gravy. Stay Friendly and Healthy.

The Declining Value of Our Food: Another Step Towards Fascism

Remember day-old bread? I’m not saying it’s a fond memory, but if you’re old enough you can still see the carts of your childhood supermarket stacked with the day-old loaves of commercial bread priced at half off. My mother would buy a loaf or two of day-old if she was cooking with it, and buy fresh for her, my father, and the three boys (I was the youngest) for today’s meals and sandwiches.

I mean, seriously, half-priced loaves of bread that were only a day old. Was that better? I’m not saying so. Preservatives and advances in food preparation, processing, and delivery have been a godsend to the world, feeding those otherwise left to starve. In fact, I saw an article that said it wasn’t antibiotics, airplanes, automobiles, or the computer that qualified as the greatest advancement of the twentieth century: it was food processing, because it had the greatest impact on saving people’s lives.

Hard to argue. I can’t say my desktop pc has saved any lives lately. That’s flippant, since modern computing does its part in connecting us, securing resources, finding and delivery food, etc. Tangentially, the space program has done wonders for food processing, e.g., freeze-dried food is a direct result of research for the space program.

None of it is simple since food transport relies heavily on the speed and reliability of air transportation, communications, etc. But for saving lives, ok, the hated preservative has done its job.

Day-old bread got hard and crunchy. While good for turkey dressing, bread crumbs, bruschetta, and fillings, it was not ideal for a ham sandwich.

Preservatives changed that. Now bread lasts over a week, indeed two weeks or more and seems nearly indestructible. For a while, artisanal loaves were a throw-back to days of yore. A good Italian boule lasted about a day with a soft and fluffy interior and flaky, crusty exterior until the ravages of time (next day, that is) softened the crust and hardened the rest. In a couple of days, rigor mortis was evident and a day or two after that—the first signs of mold.

No longer. Artisanal bread (at least in the suburbs) has gone the way of all good, niche ideas that a majority discover, embrace, then immediately find impractical. The preservative strikes again.

I pulled a hamburger bun out of my bread drawer the other day that must have been three weeks old. It was stiffer, but not hard, edible but not savory, and had not one spec of mold apparent on its surface. How many preservatives does it take to do that?

And if I could say that was the only issue with the adulteration of our bread then that might be acceptable. But bread is as much water and sugar nowadays as it is wheat—if enriched, bleached flour can be called wheat anymore. I’m sure sugar adds taste (not that a good bread needed it) and the extra water adds bulk (to the detriment of flour). Add all the preservatives and binding agents (some of which are detrimental to human health by themselves) and it seems a slice of bread is a shadow of its former self.

I imagine I could place a slice of commercial white bread in a shallow dish of cold water and it would instantaneously dissolve like a breath strip on your tongue. It’s not quite that bad, but do you see how steamy bread gets out of the toaster? Take it out hot right away and lay it flat on a plate. It leaves a sweat behind of excess water about as appetizing as licking the arm of a weight-lifter.

Why? Well, we know why the commercial enterprises making our bread do it—to make more money. CEOs are under constant pressure to expand their companies and the quick and easy ways to do that are twofold: either reduce the cost per item made (make more with less) or if the market won’t bear that, sell at a higher price per unit of measure (by reducing the amount of inventory used per item) so that less sells for the same price.

In other words, make it smaller, but don’t reduce the price proportionately. That’s why all of our food products are shrinking. This affects even fruit where no apple, orange, or peach is allowed to grow to maturity and fully ripen on the vine when it can be picked pre-maturity and shipped to ripen in your refrigerator or on your countertop. It’s smaller, less tasty, but the yield to consumers is higher. That it’s inferior matters not. And consumers seem ok with this.

I see the clamor for organic and farm-fresh and produce bought fresher at farmer’s markets is on the rise. That’s good. But still, the great majority of Americans buy their produce at the supermarket and it’s unquestionably declined in quality from just a few decades ago.

Value for the consumer is not the riding concern of the commercial enterprises growing, processing, and shipping your food. But shouldn’t it be our government’s?

It seems that local, state, and federal agencies are complicit in this trend. I’ve talked before how there seems to be no truth in advertising when it comes to the commercialization of food. Why not? Did our government just give up? Is the chase for profit turning us into a nation of fascists?

We are barely a century removed from the rampart fascism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century big business. Carnegie, Frick, Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Ford—they all built empires and collected personal wealth on a scale still extraordinary by today’s standards. When Bill Gates crossed 60 billion dollars in wealth some years back, he was considered the wealthiest man on the planet. Rockefeller’s wealth (adjusted for today’s money) was 150 billion dollars. There are a few approaching this recently, where Jeff Bezos recently passed 200 billion while Bill Gates next trails at 116 billion.

Is this a good trend? I don’t begrudge the wealthy their riches. What we need to ask is not whether Mr. Bezos is worth his money but rather: is a company that makes its founder so wealthy under any control at all?

I’ve written before that I am rather anti-Socialist, but in the same way, I am vehemently anti-Fascist. And such wealthy individuals wield inordinate power over our elected officials. Case in point: the last four years under President Trump. He, his cronies in his cabinet and other high-ranking positions, et al (meaning those career governmental employees who didn’t resign out of disgust) bow to corporate America. The entire America First campaign was code for Corporations First, Consumers Second. The specter of Fascism rears its head.

I bring up Amazon since they are now (as of May, 2020 according to Progressive Grocer) ranked second only behind Walmart in food sales in the US. These two companies (Walmart and Amazon) offer differing delivery models, but both appeal to the convenience of choice, ease of purchase, and price satisfaction.

Two large retailers in my area (Giant Eagle and Shop N Save) offer remote shopping and food delivery. I love to cook and food shopping is one of my favorite ways to relax. Yet now, since about April 2020, I allow someone else to pick my apples, my oranges, my avocados—all of my fresh produce. Do they always pick the nicest and freshest out of the pile? No. They do well, but they aren’t perfect and I can’t expect them to be. I get what I’ve asked for.

This is another way our food delivery model is changing. Remote this and remote that is the name of the day. I remember once (years ago) a produce vendor in a farmer’s market chastised me for inspecting her apples before I purchased them. She expected me to pick two apples from the top of the pile and hope they were not bruised or unfit for purchase (some were). I took my business to the next stall.

Now I just take my chances.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

New World Cranberry Salad

Scott Louie Cooks

Cranberry salad was a staple in my house growing up. This is another of my mother’s recipes, but whether it came from my Polish grandmother or not, I can’t say, so I’m assuming it’s a new world recipe. You will need a food grinder. I use my mother’s old Osterizer Mixer grinder attachment, which has a plastic housing but steel workings and grate. This can be a bit tart, so add sugar to taste, but this is best made the day before so it sits in the refrigerator to blend and mellow.

Ingredients

  • 12 oz fresh whole cranberries
  • 1 apple, peeled, cored, and slivered
  • 1 orange, peeled (no pith at all should remain) and sectioned
  • ¼ – ½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (to taste)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar (or more to taste)

Grind the fruit

In your food grinder, grind the cranberries, apple slivers, and orange sections. The key to this: in my grinder, juice will back up all the way to the opening every “round” (1 round = a couple of apple slices + a couple of orange slices + a good handful of cranberries). Stop the grinder and pour off this excess juice (can save to drink or add to a smoothie or discard). Don’t add it to the salad or it will make it too soupy.

Complete grinding the cranberries, apple, and orange (pouring off the backed-up juice between rounds) until all the fruit is ground. I usually have to pour the juice off 4-5 times.

Finish

Add the ¼ cup chopped walnuts and 1 cup sugar into the bowl and stir the salad until well combined. Add more walnuts or sugar to taste. Cover and store in the refrigerator at least overnight (it helps to pull the flavors together and tighten up the salad).

mixing the ingredients

Enjoy!

cranberry salad

Make it Your Own

If it’s only my wife and I for Thanksgiving (like this year), this is plenty. Or if having a few guests, it can be doubled very easily.

I like walnuts in this dish, but certainly any chopped nut will do such as almonds, hazelnuts, or pecans, or a combo thereof.

NOTES: On Ingredients

This is a salad and not to be mistaken for a sauce or jelly. Use only fresh whole cranberries from your produce department (like Ocean Spray) or supplier.

I strain the leftover juice through a fine mesh strainer and add two teaspoons of sugar, mixing well. Very tasty. Add a little vodka for a nice drink.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

Rich & Meaty Tomato Sauce

Scott Louie Cooks

This is my go-to tomato meat sauce which I’ll use on pasta (spaghetti, fusilli, cavatappi, etc.) or as the sauce for lasagna. This started from my mother’s recipe, although hers was much simpler preferring a prepared sauce in a jar to canned crushed tomatoes or fresh tomatoes. Make this versatile sauce and freeze in pint or quart containers to use anytime.

This recipe is vegetarian if you omit the ground beef and butter (and perhaps the wine—check its label). Use olive oil for sautéing the vegetables. If omit beef, butter, and (perhaps) the wine, it’s vegan.

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs 80-20% ground beef (or chuck)
  • unsalted butter, but only as needed
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium green pepper, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 1 clove minced garlic or 2 cloves of roasted garlic
  • 16 oz of mushrooms (can be just white button, or use combo with cremini, shiitake, and oyster), separated into two piles: a) 10 oz (2/3) chopped, and b) 6 oz (1/3), sliced (add more or less to taste)
  • 3 oz unsalted tomato paste
  • 1½ cups of robust red wine (like zinfandel, malbec, or cabernet sauvignon)
  • 1 28 oz can unsalted crushed tomatoes
  • 2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • nice bunch of fresh parsley, chopped, with half reserved
  • oregano, sage, and thyme
  • 2-4 bay leaves (depending on size)
  • salt & black pepper
  • optionally add some cayenne or white pepper

Brown the ground beef

In a 7-qt dutch oven (I prefer Le Creuset), brown the ground beef over medium heat. 80% ground beef has enough liquid and fat that you won’t need oil or butter, just dump the beef into the pot. Using a wooden or plastic spatula (not metal) break up the chunkiness of the ground beef (it tends to stick together as it first cooks).

Continue to break up and turn over the beef until it is cooked and granular and most of the water has evaporated. Brown it in its own fat for some nice caramelization. Scoop out and set aside.

This is some alt text
browning the ground beef

Sauté the vegetables

There will be residual fat from the ground beef. If that’s not enough, add a Tbsp of butter. On medium heat, add the onions, green pepper, and carrots and cook until onions are translucent (about 4 minutes), stirring often. Add the garlic and the chopped mushrooms (the 2/3 portion) and stir into the other vegetables. Let the mushrooms express some liquid and evaporate off.

When the pan is sizzling again, add the tomato paste. Stir it into the vegetables and let it brown a bit. This can feel tricky as the paste may turn the bottom of your pan black, but it’s really a deep brownish-red and isn’t burning. You have to hang over the pot on this. If you suspect it is burning, stir it around and move onto deglazing the pan.

vegetables just added to pot

Deglaze the pan and add remaining ingredients

Turn the heat to medium high and add the wine. It should sizzle when it hits the pan and boil immediately. Mix it well into the veggies and paste and it will get rather thick. Be sure to deglaze, meaning scrape up all the baked-on goodness at the bottom of the pot. It should come off fairly easily.

wine thickens with the tomato past

Let the wine cook, stirring (a lazy but constant stir is fine), so that the alcohol evaporates off, perhaps a minute. Add the crushed tomatoes and chopped fresh tomatoes and stir well, bringing the whole to a simmer.

Stir in the reserved browned ground beef. Add your spices. I like to coat the top with oregano, add 2 large bay leaves (or 4 smaller ones), and sprinkle in some sage and thyme. Add salt and pepper and half of the chopped parsley. If you like, add a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and/or white pepper to add some spiciness.

bringing the ingredients together

Cook

Cover, reduce heat to low (you want this to lazily simmer). Cook for 2 hours, but check it often, at least every fifteen minutes. Make sure when it’s just covered (within the first 5 minutes) that it’s not boiling robustly which will make it burn on the bottom.

Taste, taste, taste, checking for salt and herbs. People tend to under salt, but it’s best to start with a little and add it to taste, especially towards the end of cooking.

After about an hour and a half into the cooking, start skimming the fat from the top. Due to the tomatoes, it will appear shiny red. Use a tablespoon to just break the surface to let the fat run into the spoon. Discard. Do this several times (every 10 minutes towards the end of cooking). After skimming the fat, stir up the sauce.

Finish

About 15 minutes before eating, cook the remaining mushrooms. In a sauté pan, add a Tbsp of butter, turn up the heat to medium high and add the remaining sliced mushrooms (the 1/3 portion). Stir well and let them evaporate off their water and caramelize in the butter. These will cook up quickly, so 2-3 minutes should do it. Add the mushrooms and remaining parsley to the pot.

Cook another 15 minutes, or about the time it takes for the pasta to cook. When ready to serve, remove the bay leaves.

Cook your pasta of choice, plate, top with a ladle or two of sauce and grated pecorino Romano (my favorite) or cow’s milk Romano or Parmesan. A fresh garden salad goes well with this along with crusty bread with a little salted butter or olive oil. A glass of red wine pairs well. Delicious!

Enjoy!

plated with cavatappi pasta and buttered bread on the side — add some romano, pair with garden salad and a glass of robust red wine, and you’re good to go!

Make it Your Own

Probably half of the time I make this sauce I add 2-3 cooked pork sausages cut up into bite-sized chucks. Fully cooked, I add these with the ground beef.

Instead of sauteing the sliced mushrooms near the end of cooking, roast them in the oven. Toss with some olive oil, separate out on a baking sheet lined with foil, and bake at 425° F for 15 minutes. Careful—depending on how thinly sliced they are, they will roast quickly. Check them often. When done, don’t salt them like you might if you just wanted them as-is (they make a great snack). Then substitute in at the end of cooking per above.

OR–after browning the beef and ladling it out of the pot, cook the 1/3 portion sliced mushrooms in the residual fat (add a little butter if necessary). Cook and reserve. This will save you a dirty pan later, but you should refrigerate them until needed.

Roasted red pepper flakes are a classic ingredient of tomato-based pasta sauces, but I don’t use them. I find I can control the heat better with cayenne and white and black pepper. Or add Siracha to the sauce on my plate alone and let my guests control their own heat.

NOTES: On Ingredients

I typically use a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes, but I’ve made it with 9 fresh tomatoes. This adds more liquid, so I’d add the full 6 oz can of tomato paste. My usual practice is to use canned crushed tomatoes with my meat sauce and fresh tomatoes for marinara.

Remove your whole bay leaves at the end of cooking. Whole bay leaves present a cutting or choking hazard. Bay leaves remain rigid with sharp edges even after cooking for several hours. Breaking them up is worse–now you have many pointy hazards you can’t readily pick out. I haven’t used it, but you can buy powdered.

Always cook with wine that you would happily offer to guests (or drink yourself, of course). The better the ingredients, the better the outcome of your food. About the time I’m adding the wine to the sauce, I’m pouring myself a glass. I’m the cook, I deserve it.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

Spartan Roasted Potatoes Au Fromage

Scott Louie Cooks

Spartan potatoes are a favorite side dish that goes with any roasted meats, steaks, sausages, or chicken. The “Spartan” simply means a classic combination of SPinach and ARTichokes, to which I add roasted garlic and leeks. Plus I love cheese so any au fromage is a winner.

Ingredients

  • 2 russet potatoes, washed, skin-on, cleaned of eyes and rough spots
  • salt and black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil (as needed to coat the potatoes)
  • rosemary, chopped finely if fresh, or powdered if dry
  • ½ Tbsp unsalted butter
  • ½ cup chopped leek (can use a little more if you like the taste)
  • 3-4 cloves roasted garlic (or use 1-2 cloves of fresh minced)
  • 1 bunch spinach, cleaned and mostly de-stemmed (about 8 oz)
  • 1 14 oz can whole artichoke hearts, cleaned of tough leaves and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2-3 Tbsp sour cream (to taste)
  • 2 Tbsp grated romano cheese (or pecorino romano or parmesan, etc.)
  • chopped parsley
  • paprika
  • 6 oz grated extra sharp cheddar cheese

Roast the potatoes

Preheat the oven to 425° F.

Slice the potatoes in ¼ to ½ inch thick rounds, trying to maintain a consistent thickness between the slices. In a large bowl, wash the potato slices to remove some of the starch, and drain. Lightly salt, tossing to distribute. Drizzle olive oil over the slices and mix up the slices with your hands, coating them as evenly as possible on all sides.

Distribute the slices on a foil-lined baking sheet. Lightly dust with rosemary. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the slices are somewhat browned on top and soft to a fork, i.e., ready to eat but not overdone.

Make the spartan filling

Over medium heat, sauté the leek in the butter. When just soft (1-2 min—leeks cook quickly), add the roasted garlic and mash and mix into the leeks. Add half the spinach leaves and let wilt, then do the same for the second half. Add the chopped artichoke hearts and mix until all is combined and well distributed (spinach tends to clump together) and remove from heat.

Make the cream sauce

Whisk the sour cream into the heavy cream. When mixed, add the grated romano cheese and whisk until combined.

Assemble the dish

Preheat oven to 325° F.

Into a glass 10×6 inch casserole dish (or your near same size equivalent), add a little of the cream sauce to barely coat the bottom. Swish the dish around to coat. Then layer half of the roasted potatoes along the bottom, piling them up as needed (may make 2 layers). Then sprinkle a little salt and pepper (not too much, or omit this step entirely, as the cheeses add a lot of salt already). Sprinkle some chopped parsley over the potatoes, then dust with paprika as if coating deviled eggs.

Scoop in the spartan filling to create the next layer. Cover with the remaining half of the roasted potatoes, layering as needed. Sprinkle more parsley and dust with more paprika. Carefully pour the cream sauce all over the spartan potatoes, ensuring it goes down all the sides and into the middle. Top generously with grated extra sharp cheddar cheese.

Bake

Bake at 325 for 30-40 minutes, or until the top is crusty and golden. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes.

Enjoy!

Make it Your Own

Try substituting a hearty vegetable instead of potatoes for this dish, such as french endive or cauliflower. Instead of roasting, I would sauté the sliced endive with a little sugar to caramelize it. For cauliflower, you could simply steam the cauliflower if using florets, or sauté or roast the cauliflower steaks if using half inch slices.

To turn Au Fromage into Au Gratin simply mix the cheddar cheese with seasoned bread crumbs and distribute over the top of the dish before baking.

NOTES: On Ingredients

I keep an herb garden in the summer and I dry the leftover herb in my perpetually cool unfinished basement during the winter. Rosemary sprigs dry very nicely hanging by twine from a rafter. I also dry-hang thyme, sage, and oregano. If they dry properly, they will last forever (well, years). I take a few sprigs at a time, remove the dried leaves, and grind in a spice grinder (aka coffee bean grinder). Fresh is even better or if you have dried sprigs, grind them up.

I use Kerrygold unsalted butter for cooking and Kerrygold salted butter for the table. It’s just the best although Land O’Lakes does in a pinch. Never use margarine, which is oil that’s been emulsified to act like butter, but it gets the Razzie. Since trans fats are banned by the FDA, margarine is better for you than in the past, but still, butter wins the Oscar for taste every time. If concerned, use a little less or for a recipe with 2 Tbsp of butter, use 1 Tbsp butter, 1 Tbsp of a healthful vegetable oil like olive oil. I use this technique often anyway.

Leeks are a great onion substitute. When you want a mild but still very oniony flavor, leeks are best. If you want mild and less oniony, use shallots. If you want a full onion flavor, use an onion.

Roasting garlic is easy and tastes great. I use Jacques Pepin’s technique of slicing the whole garlic bulb through its middle, without slicing through and separating the halves. Then propping it open, I pour olive oil into its center, then shut the halves. I place the garlic bulb in a square of foil and wrap up all the edges so they meet at the top and seal it with a twist. Then roast in the over at 425° F for 30-40 minutes (careful—ovens vary, so at 30 minutes you might want to pull it out, carefully open the foil while minding the heat, and make sure it’s soft but not burning up). When done, let cool, unwrap and the gooey goodness can be squeezed out of the cut bulbs and used for a milder garlic flavor on toast, in dishes like this one, or any way you want. Wonderful.

Careful with cans of whole artichoke hearts, meaning they are not always ready to eat from the can (or jar). I prefer packed in water and not marinated. Drain off the liquid, then gently squeeze each heart to remove more liquid and test an outer leaf by pulling it off and seeing if the top is too tough to bite into (much less chew). Often the bottom half is soft and delicious while the top is still tough and unpleasantly chewy. Usually only one layer may be like that (or not at all). Check each one before quartering it and you have ready to eat artichokes in your fridge for salads and other dishes (like this one).

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

The American (Food) Crisis

These are the times that try men’s souls.

Thomas Paine’s words ring true today. The year 2020 (and perhaps beyond) will live in the infamous waste heap of better forgotten ages. Pandemic fear spreads its own form of contagion across the globe. As of this writing, with over 230,000 dead in the US alone (over 1.1 million worldwide) and new cases peaking, we face a crisis of historic proportion. Our unpreparedness cost lives, our lack of response costs lives, and some of our citizens’ refusal to take simple prophylactic steps (just wear a mask already, idiots) costs lives.

Racism has been raised to an awareness perhaps not seen since the civil rights movements of the sixties. Our president has given the green light for racists to come into the light. Now he encourages plots against our elected officials and seems to condone their murder because they disagree with his beliefs.

The U.S. election is less than a week away. I don’t wish to wax political in this article since that is not my focus. Let us simply hope for a reasoned outcome, a necessary correction, with no mistake: we must face our future selves and children without shame in the here and now of this election. Let’s get it done with the Common Sense of Human Decency. They must reign once again.

No doubt, 2020 is the year of the American Crisis. Racism, Covid infection and potentially life-altering presidential elections aside, we have arrived at a crossroads of identity. Not in black versus white, or democrat versus republican, but in our food identity. Yes, food.

Since WWII we have sustained a continuous and favorable comparison to the rest of the world in one remarkable and life-sustaining area: the Quality of our Food.

Surely in the last thirty years the gap has narrowed. With innovations in food preservation and high speed transport moving even perishable items safely around the globe, developed nations have achieved a status quo of equality. Is our food demonstrably safer than Europe’s? I’d think not. And BRIC is catching up quickly.

But in the decades that made up the post war era, the United States could anecdotally declare its food quality superiority without argument. The USDA, FDA, and other agencies strove for ever higher standards in food sourcing, preparation, and distribution. It is an American success story. Who looks at a can of corn now and wonders at its degree of botulism? I pop open a can and eat them without boiling, “fresh” from their sealed container, enjoying them cold on salads. A daredevil, you wonder? The odds are seriously in my favor.

No one would have done that just thirty or forty years ago. In fact, the contents of factory-processed tin cans would be well boiled before eaten. Pressing on the lid was required practice to check if the center had “popped”, meaning it had lost its seal and spoiled. We may do that today, too, but it’s not nearly so essential. Back then, a forgotten palpation of your lid was a death-defying act of lunacy.

We can take our modern food quality for granted. We are faced, after all, with understaffed agencies overseeing the food corporations who ever strive for greater market share or lower costs, i.e., rising profits.

Case in point: though administered to farm animals (or put in feed) in the late forties, the non-medical antibiotic craze blossomed in the fifties and sixties as a means to increase per animal meat production. While critics warned of increasing bacterial resistance over the next decades, it wasn’t until the seventies that the FDA attempted (unsuccessfully) to ban certain antibiotic use even while it proliferated throughout the world. The eighties and nineties saw little change.

It wasn’t until the FDA issued voluntary guidelines on antibiotic use amid the growing consumer tendency towards unadulterated/organic foods that non-medical antibiotic usage declined. Still, well into the twenty-first century, use of antibiotics in farm animals is not illegal in the U.S. and on the increase in other developing nations as their standards of living increase and their demands for meat rise proportionately.

It’s not all about food safety. I protest any false advertising or other trickery aimed at separating dollars from consumers. The most disgusting practice is pumping chickens with salt water or chicken stock (or some combination of water, flavorings, salt, and binding agents). The chicken can retain up to 15% of this liquid (some research raises that number). Producers claim that modern lean chickens are less tasty and therefore salt and other flavorings are necessary to add taste lost by having less fat.

Chickens are also chilled in vats of water to inhibit bacterial growth and can absorb the liquid, anywhere from 3-8% of the chicken by weight.

Both practices mean that the chicken you are buying is not the chicken that was slaughtered—it’s been enhanced by producers justifying their lack of ethics with nefarious claims that adding flavor is necessary to attract consumers. You pay for that water. You’re buying water at the per pound price of chicken. A lot of it.

Fry a chicken nowadays and you know what I mean. The water comes out in the pan and the chicken braises in it before it browns. Then a decent percentage of your chicken by weight evaporates, shrinking the meat.

You’re paying for that and receiving an inferior product as well. Not to mention all the added sodium you’re ingesting. And the pumping needles used have been tagged by the FDA as potentially disease-spreading.

These chickens can still be labeled as “Natural” and “Organic” since salt, stock, and water are natural ingredients. WTF? Can our government be asleep to allow these moral crimes to go unpunished? Where are our consumer protections?

It is possible (in fact, it’s becoming more popular) to air-chill chickens, which is shown to reduce contamination (vs. soaking with other chickens in a vat of liquid) and we need a law prohibiting meat-pumping of stock or salt water or frickin’ kerosene into our food. You’d object to that last one, wouldn’t you? Where do you draw the line?

It’s not just chickens. Pork and beef are similarly treated. Bake a pot roast lately? Have you noticed how much water/stock comes out of the beef? Our government claims that leaner meat has more liquid naturally. Perhaps that’s true, but if so, it’s always been true. My mother cooked super-lean beef cuts because they’re cheaper. A well done steak was tough enough we called it “Boot”. It didn’t emit a pan full of liquid. Thanks, USDA. In this, your attitude is reprehensible and irresponsible.

So let’s move on to advertising. Bait and switch is illegal. Yet companies can advertise the very best showing of their product in spite of the fact that all of the good stuff has been pushed into view (as in enchiladas or pockets) or deli meat overflows the sandwich (sub places) or all the fillers like rice and pasta have been covered over artfully by the thin layer of meat and vegetables you’re willing to buy in the first place.

If I purchase frozen food based on a commercial then what comes out of the oven or microwave should have a passing resemblance to the image implanted in my mind.

Sub franchises may have their own rules, but when the mother company offers evidence of its overflowing sandwiches, then every franchise owner should be accountable to meet the standard of the advertising. This can be hit or miss, but who’s policing this? Of course, consumer beware, and you can take your hard-earned dollars to the shop next door if you please, but come on, how many young people take that to heart? Just look how popular Pizza Hut is.

Hey, Pizza Hut may not falsely advertise, but buying a pan of inch thick pizza dough with a smear of toppings and calling it “deep dish” is egregiously misleading. And I’m not targeting young people as not adept with their money (perhaps no one is better at enforced frugality), but the mendacious doublespeak seems to wash off them as long as their bellies are filled. Correct me if I’m wrong.

All I’m saying is that we deserve better. Companies large and small want your money. From the local butcher with his heavy thumb on the scale to the conglomerate corporations abusing chickens for profit, our government turns a blind eye to the lust for business profit. I’m all for companies making money. Profit itself is not a dirty word. In fact, the correct quote is not “Money is the root of all evil”—that’s insane. It’s “The love of money is the root of all evil”—quite a different thing.

When those in our government allow the runaway pursuit of this money lust at the cost of our food quality and the expense of consumers, they perform a disservice to their constituents.

Of course, there is an election coming up….

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

Foodie Snobs Look Down Their Nebby Nose

Pittsburgh is fast becoming a culinary mecca. Within the last ten years, we have seen an incredible rise of talent in the chefs, kitchen staff, and management of our restaurants and caterers. We are not alone. A positive change has swept America and exciting dining experiences are no longer the province of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. I applaud our resolve to eat more locally-sourced products.

With every great movement, alas, come those that must effect their enthusiasm in shows of public display—not for the benefit of education, but to exalt their palate, their refinement, and their superiority to the dull-tongued meatheads eating next to them.

Continue reading “Foodie Snobs Look Down Their Nebby Nose”