Monthly Archives: December 2014

Cottage Cooking Club: December

Spanikopita

Back in August, I took on the challenge of another cooking group. The Cottage Cooking Club is cooking through British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s cookbook, River Cottage Veg. This group is more relaxed than French Fridays. Each month, the group’s leader, Andrea, The Kitchen Lioness, selects a group of seasonal recipes to choose from. The plan is not for each person to cook every recipe in the book. We each pick from the month’s choices and across the group, the recipes all get made.  At the end of the month, everyone posts about what they made.

Some of our group members are ambitious and make most of the selected recipes. I’ve been more cautious and have committed to making just one or two each month. So far, all the recipes have been worth trying and this month’s were no exception.

First, I made Leek and Chestnut Risotto. This is a pretty basic recipe with only leeks added to the rice. The sautéed chestnuts aren’t sprinkled on top until the end. This recipe follows the traditional method for making risotto, requiring lots of time stirring the pot. I used squash stock I had made from the seeds and pulp from a butternut squash I cooked earlier in the week. We found the risotto to be on the bland side, but I think my stock was light on salt, and I didn’t season the final dish heavily enough. Truffle salt sprinkled on leftovers made a big improvement.

 

leek risotto

My other choice was a winner: Corner Shop Spanakopita. I love spinach pie when I’m in a Greek or any other Middle Eastern restaurant that offers it, however, it’s not something I’d typically make at home. Fussing with the phyllo dough tries my patience. This recipe takes a different approach, topping the spinach filling with puff pastry. Brilliant!

This spanakopita starts with frozen spinach. The recipe specifies whole leaf spinach. I’m not sure why it doesn’t call for the chopped variety because after defrosting, you coarsely chop the spinach anyway. Having made this once, I would buy chopped spinach next time. The spinach is combined with onions, cumin seed, and thyme that have been sautéed together, plus some egg for binding. Two layers of spinach separated by a layer of crumbled goat cheese and toasted pine nuts are topped with puff pastry and popped into the oven. I always have problems rolling out store-bought puff pastry after it gets unfolded, so, as crazy as it seems, I make my own “rough puff” and use that instead. It’s actually easier for me.

 

First Layer

I served the piping hot spanakopita with a simple salad: baby arugula dressed with mustard vinaigrette. It was the perfect dinner on a winter’s night. This recipe earns a spot in my repertoire and will be repeated.

 

Spinach Pie and Salad

As we approach the end of 2014, I want to wish all the cooks in the Cottage Cooking Club happiness and good health in the year ahead! I’ve enjoyed cooking with you over the past few months and look forward to finishing this project with you in 2015. Happy New Year!!!

If you want to try this, here’s a version of the recipe here, though the original uses 2 pounds of frozen spinach. You can check out reviews of the other recipes selected for December here.

Inspiration in Ink: The Kitchn Cookbook

thekitchncover-largeIf you are a home cook, you can easily find a treasure trove of quality recipes and other cooking information on the internet. For some, it raises the question of whether cookbooks have outlived their usefulness. The question is doubly perplexing when authors of popular websites and blogs publish cookbooks that repurpose some of the material already available (for free) on-line.

As a bona fide cookbook addict who enjoys sitting unplugged to peruse the pages of a book, I haven’t bought into this general argument. Enjoying cookbooks doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of browsing websites, and The Kitchn website is top-notch with bountiful new content published daily. I am a faithful follower and can easily get absorbed in reading the posts for hours. So, I was curious to see how the authors (and editors of the website), Sara Kate GIllingham and Faith Durand, translated this long-running website to print in The Kitchn Cookbook, released in October 2014.

The Kitchn Cookbook would more aptly be named The Kitchn “guidebook” or “handbook”. While the book includes recipes, they cover less than half of its pages. Cooking is at the core of the book’s theme, motivating you to enjoy cooking at home. but it offers so much more.

The key message presented is encouragement to transform your kitchen into a place where you enjoy spending time and cooking. Creating a comfortable environment does not require an expensive renovation or remodeling job. It is presented as an achievable project for anyone, homeowner or renter, novice or experienced cook, by focusing on beauty and function in your kitchen.

The first part of the book provides practical ideas to help you set up your kitchen to enjoy spending time there and to put you in the mood to cook while you’re there.  There is no one definition for a perfect kitchen. Your perfect kitchen is unique to you. In fact, what makes your kitchen perfect for you today tends to evolve over time, so the authors encourage you to embrace the continuous process.

Highlights from the first part of the book include a daily cleaning plan for a constantly clean kitchen, recommendations for environmentally friendly cleaning products along with some DIY recipes, and photo shoots in ten different home kitchens for inspiration.

The second part of the book shifts its focus to cooking. The same thread about personalization now extends from where you cook to what you cook. The book encourages you to cook wholesome homemade food as you define it at home more often.

Before jumping into recipes, there’s a chapter on stocking the pantry and planning meals. The properly stocked pantry depends on what you enjoy cooking, but guidelines are suggested with ideas of staples to keep on hand so you can cook spontaneously even when you don’t have much fresh food in the house. With all the potential landmines about which foods are nutritionally or politically correct to eat, I appreciated the reminder that, when making buying decisions, only you can prioritize and choose the compromises and tradeoffs that are right for you.

There is also chapter that presents a mini cooking school with 50 essential skills for cooking at home. Even an experienced cook can get a quick refresher course and maybe learn something new. For example, did you know you can caramelize onions in the slow cooker overnight?

Finally, the recipes start, not quite halfway through the book. About a hundred recipes are included. Some are reader favorites from the website, but there are some new ones as well. All seem accessible for any level of cooking expertise. I found many appealing flavor and ingredient combinations plus new techniques that I’m inspired to try. Top contenders for my “make this soon” list include (by section):

Morning

  • Kale and Gruyere Breakfast Strata with Smoky Tomato Sauce
  • Sweet Potato and Caramelized Onion Hash with Baked Eggs

Small Bites

  • Roasted Chickpeas with Dukkah
  • Three Tuscan Crostini

Drinks

  • Pure Mexican Margaritas
  • Sparkling Peach Sangria

Main Dishes

  • Roasted Chicken Thighs and Squash over Polenta
  • Slow Cooker Carnitas
  • Baked Brown Rice, Lentils and Cauliflower with Cucumber Yogurt Sauce

Sides & Salads

  • Fennel and Radicchio Salad with Farro and Pecans
  • Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Cauliflower, and Radishes with Garlic Aioli

Desserts

  • Meyer Lemon Bars
  • Jam Hand Pies

The final chapter in the book, called “Gathering”, pulls everything together. Sharing meals is a form of sacred offering to people we care about. It’s something we should do often and not stress over. Becoming comfortable in your kitchen is the first step to enjoying yourself. The chapter shares advice for hosting worry-free gatherings and simple tips for decorating the table.

Taken as a whole, this book intends to boost the confidence of the home cook by always emphasizing that there is no right way to set up your kitchen, no right way to cook and no right foods to buy. It is all very personal. The book wants to help people feel comfortable cooking at home on a daily basis. This comes from setting up your kitchen, choosing kitchen tools, and stocking your pantry to work for you to cook what you like to cook. Even the most experienced cook can benefit from these reminders.

Now back to the question of book vs. website. This specific website has been on-line for nearly a decade. That’s a lot of content. I think the writing of this book provided an opportunity for the authors to compile, curate, and distill the best of the site’s material with the addition of new observations and reflections for a cohesive narrative that provides inspiration any time. Ideas and tips from readers and staff of the website are scattered throughout the book, bringing in voices from TheKitchn community to add to the authors’. As I mentioned before, I’m already a fan of TheKitchen website.  After reading the book where their positive, encouraging philosophy is clearly spelled out, I now understand what has subconsciously kept me coming back for more.

A Plateful of Happiness Rating: 4 plates (out of 5)

 

Disclosure: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. The opinions expressed are my own.