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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Purim: Poppyseed filling with a Persian-style twist

poppyseed filling with orange blossom water

Tonight is Purim, when we dress up in costume, make fun of dire villains and dull kings, cheer modest heroes and most of all praise a heroic woman, Esther, who risked everything to change the king’s addled mind and spare the Jews of the Persian empire.

In previous years, I’ve done the Hamantaschen thing–low carb, medium carb, all homemade, no pasty white horrors, praise of Joan Nathan’s basic recipe from her first cookbook…lots of non-Dayglo, non-candy fillings from figs, prunes, apricots, and so on…

Today I’m probably not going to get a chance to bake anything or even cook very much, because I decided to take a leaf out of Esther’s Megillah this year and read part of the fifth chapter, splitting it with my (much-wiser-than-Ahashverosh) husband. So about three days ago I decided I was going to go for it and learn the Purim cantillation (trope marks for chanting) system. Which takes more nerve than usual, because it’s tricky and somewhat deceptive, like the entire story. And it’s been almost two years, since my daughter’s bat mitzvah, since I’ve even chanted Torah. And, like I said, three days ago. Not brilliant.

Luckily there’s Youtube. And a number of synagogues post recordings by their hazzanim (cantors, male and female) for the cantillation marks and for the readings as a whole. Only there are so many versions for Purim! It’s a late holiday in our history, after a lot of us were living in the Persian empire, and the different melodies reflect our already dispersed community. One interesting version was by a Moroccan hazzan–his system actually had a couple of trope mark tunes that are nearly the same as ours for the regular weekly Torah and Haftarah readings. Maybe those are the oldest ones that everyone has more or less in common? Cool!

So–our daughter is chanting a few verses with her youth group for Chapter 7 tonight, and the director is bringing kosher Persian food from a restaurant on the West Side of LA, where the largest Iranian (and Iranian Jewish) community outside of Iran resides. I wish I were a kid tonight, for sure.

Still, in honor of the occasion and the roots, I did get around to making poppyseed filling for the hamantaschen I’ll make tomorrow.

I went to my local Armenian greengrocer yesterday morning for vegetables and picked up a new bag of poppyseeds, hoping they were fresh, really fresh enough to use. My previous latest bag in the freezer has puffed up suspiciously with air–suggests it’s no good and starting to release gases even though I didn’t open it before freezing, dammit.

I tasted the new poppyseeds raw–okay. But rancid sometimes only shows up when you toast them, so I poured a spoonful in a metal pan and swirled them around on the stove until the aroma came up. Then I test tasted those once they were cool enough. Still good, still lucky.

Poppyseed filling is quite an elaborate affair in my trusty 1984 spiralbound edition of Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Figs, apricot jam, brandy, egg whites? Oy. Ten or more ingredients. A production, and kind of expensive considering how many younger people don’t like poppyseed filling. Including my daughter, I’m sad to report (see below)…

But I do, which is the important thing, and my supermarket no longer carries those cans of Solo in the Jewish Foods section. So I decided it was fine to simplify. And while I was at it, to add a hidden Persian-style element or so for the occasion of Purim.

So this filling looks black…but holds the essence of early spring and orange blossom within it. And if anyone doubts that it’s completely effective in its ability to transform, at least temporarily, I should add that my daughter, who insisted she tells me every year she hates poppyseed filling with a hot hate, and that I never listen, took a tiny bite and looked surprised and pleased…at least for about five seconds, until the bitter toastiness of the poppyseeds came through like a bagel at rush hour, poor kid, and she pulled a Tom Hanks (from Big, the caviar scene). She even did the wiping-the-tongue-desperately-with-a-napkin bit. And no, I’m not sure I should be telling you this. Five seconds delay, though. From her, I’m gonna have to count that as a win. And it was pretty funny, another point to Purim.

Poppyseed Filling With a Persian Twist

  • 6 oz (172 g; it was the size of bag they sold) very fresh poppyseeds
  • 6 oz. sugar (again, 172 g, but anyway, the same amount as the poppyseeds)
  • 1/4 c (60 ml) water
  • juice of a lemon
  • orange part of the rind of an (organic, washed) orange or tangerine (in this case), grated or if that’s too much of a pain, shredded with a knife and ground in a coffee grinder or food processor with an additional spoonful or so of sugar
  • pinch each of ground cloves and cardamom (if you have it)
  • very tiny shake or grinding or pinch of nutmeg
  • 1/2 t. vanilla
  • 1 t. orange blossom water (yes, this was my idea of the Persian twist, and it’s good, though probably it should have been rosewater for authenticity–I just wasn’t ready for that)

Taste-test the poppyseeds raw, then toast a spoonful in a dry steel saucepan on the stovetop until you start to smell their aroma. Cool and taste-test again before using to make sure there’s no funky, off, or rancid flavor to them.

ground poppyseeds

Then grind them a few pulses in a coffee grinder (in two batches) or in a food processor or blender.

In the steel saucepan, combine the sugar and water with a squeeze of lemon and let the sugar wet down all the way before turning on the burner to medium. Bring just to a slow simmer without stirring–the slurry should start to go clear as the sugar dissolves.

poppyseeds cooking in syrup

Add the ground poppyseeds and stir gently. It should be a thick dark-gray grainy mass. Keep the pot on a low heat so it bubbles gently but doesn’t spit for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally but not hard or you might cause the syrup to seize. As it cooks add the lemon juice, spices, grated orange or tangerine rind and stir in, then the vanilla and just before taking it off the heat, stir in the orange blosssom water. Take a tiny bit and let it cool enough to taste and adjust any flavorings, then take off the heat and pour into a container to cool to room temperature. It will thicken further, especially after you put it in the fridge.

B’te’avon, bon appétit, and Chag HaPurim Same’ach!

 

Microwave Tricks: Rapid Red Cabbage

microwave sweet and sour braised red cabbage

When I was almost twelve, the year of All the President’s Men (go rent or borrow it from the library if you’ve never seen it), a classmate of mine came back from the weekend raving about a new restaurant his parents had taken him to.

Now, almost no one in my 7th grade math class, particularly not boys, either knew about or talked much about food above the pizza and burger level.

My friend’s family had spent the previous year in Italy–you could tell whenever he grumbled about real soccer with strategy vs. the weak substitute they were teaching us in PE that he was sorry they’d come back. Clearly it wasn’t the only thing he missed–this was the first “real” restaurant he’d been to in the US, and it was way out in the countryside.

The Bavarian Chef (which after 40 years is still open in Madison, VA, and now in Fredericksburg as well, I’m happy to see), had a menu like no other in the area: fondue, a magic word I’d never heard before and which my friend had trouble describing. One fondue with Emmenthal-type cheese for cubes of toasted bread, the other with a red sauce (tomato? redcurrant?) for spicy meatballs. Veal or maybe chicken Cordon Bleu (their current menu still has veal). The side dishes were distinctive as well, particularly the sweet and sour red cabbage…it was gourmet. European gourmet, the real kind, and possibly the first upscale restaurant in our part of Virginia.

In any case, my friend was enthusiastic enough about this place that (and I don’t remember this bit at all) I came home and said something to my parents, who were friends with his parents. The next thing you know, my folks schlepped me and my younger brother and sister out of town–half an hour’s drive and  into the next county–to try it out for my birthday. And my friend was right about all of it.

The cheese fondue was a completely new experience and a lot of fun. So was a glowing magenta side dish of sweet-and-sour red cabbage–it would have been fun for the color alone. Although that has not held true for me and beets, so maybe I shouldn’t say so. But luckily it, unlike beets, was  delicious. And so different from anything else I’d ever eaten that it impressed me even more than the chicken (or veal) with the ham and cheese in the middle, and I can’t remember anything at all about dessert.

Sweet and sour red cabbage, when you think about it, is completely contrary to American standard tastes, even those of 40 years ago when people still ate vegetables and cooked most dinners at home. If you had to describe it to someone at school–what would you even say? The ingredients–and the flavors–are pretty simple individually but surprising together: red cabbage, vinegar, sugar, cloves, salt, maybe black pepper. Maybe a bit of apple or onion in some versions. How could that go together? But it does, and I’ve loved it ever since.

And yet I never ever make it at home, because it takes up to 2 hours of simmering on the stovetop, depending on the recipe you have. The one time I made it, back in my 20s, when I was trying to recreate the experience, the whole apartment smelled really, really sulfurous. It reeked. Even though the cabbage did come out ok.

Too bad I didn’t even own a microwave until my mid-30s. But I’ve been rethinking it since last week, when I saw a picture of it in a Mario Batali cookbook from about 10 years ago. The combination of a German-style dish in an Italian cookbook reminded me of the whole prealgebra food debate and his unprecedented idea that good food was worth traveling for.

But you don’t have to travel far for this dish, and you certainly don’t have to spend 2-3 hours on it. There’s got to be a way, I decided (as usual). How hard could it be to microwave it?

Well,  it worked almost perfectly, at least as a test case: Continue reading

Media misread on the new USDA dietary guidelines

The new USDA public nutrition guidelines have been updated again, as scheduled, and now say some fat and egg yolks are okay and to limit carbs and sugar instead. A variety of media commentators have jumped all over that. Now, if anything, I would have hoped that most of the commentaries in the newspapers of record would be critical of the industry influence on the USDA’s nutrition guidelines for the general public each time, but no.

The most prominent commentators, notably Nina Teicholz, whose op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times really bothered me, are well-educated and should know how to “read a french fry” as it were. But instead of looking at the likely effect of loosened USDA dietary limitations on a public that has gone so seriously overboard on calorie-dense food, they’ve taken the opposite tack. Mostly to declare self-righteously that the new relaxation of standards really means all the previous recommendations to limit saturated fat and cholesterol were bunk and a waste of time based on “uncertain” and “weak” or even “junk” science.

Which is untrue. Epidemiologic research–large observation studies and surveys, like the NHANES diet and cardiovascular health survey series from the 1970s onward, and the big Framingham Heart Study of the 1950s onward, are not junk science. They do what clinical feeding trials can’t: they look for the contribution of individual dietary risk factors to chronic and complex-origin health conditions like heart disease and stroke across very large population groups. Both the processed food industry and people like Teicholz claim that clinical feeding trials are the only legitimate way to provide “proof” of cause and effect, but the cost of conducting them carefully long enough and with a big enough participant pool for meaningful results would bankrupt the nation halfway through.

Epidemiologic findings matter on the large public scale. Not every specific applies absolutely and equally to every single person, but that’s not what population-wide studies are for. The big studies, loose as they might seem compared with DNA fingerprinting and perfectly demonstrated cause-and-effect kinds of lab workups for individual cases, give best-bet recommendations for most people to reduce their risk.

Your genetics determine how well that works for you specifically, but most of us don’t have access to DNA testing on that level, and the “big six” lifestyle risk factors (high sat fat, high blood cholesterol and blood pressure, overweight, lack of exercise and smoking) are a lot easier to change and get some control over. After all, you can’t change your genetics much (and yes, my daughter is quite disgruntled that she can’t pick cooler parents. But tough. We couldn’t pick ours either).

So anyway, I know I’m unusually irritated with any news about USDA dietary guidelines–I used to work at NIH, and some of my colleagues had attempted to serve on the dietary guidelines committee and ended up completely frustrated at how “bought” the process became. The USDA has always had a conflict of interest when it comes to public health recommendations because its main mission is support of US agriculture, and public health always comes a distant second to big business. The committees have repeatedly subverted and weakened the scientific nutrition panelists’ best-finding recommendations by including food industry participants and weighting toward industry priorities in the consensus mix. There’s no great reason to expect the food industry isn’t still playing and winning the same game on the same committee this time around.

But the main problem I see at this point is how poorly mainstream journalists and editors have handled the announced overhaul. None really seem to have dug into the comparison between current and previous issues of the guidelines, much less compared the USDA take with dietary guidelines from more purely biomed/scientific federal agencies and coalitions of patient and health advocacy organizations such as the American Heart Association.

And declaring that it’s now fine for anyone to eat all fats without limitation is nonsense and a misread. The guidelines don’t say that–and if they did, given the participation of Big Food and Big Agriculture hoping to sell the public more meat, eggs, and cheese, along with more profitable processed goods, would you necessarily believe them?

Is it really the fault of the scientists on the panels over the years, as Teicholz claims (“How did they get it so wrong?”), that the epidemiology findings they relied on for previous rounds of recommendations weren’t borne out by much smaller and less conclusive clinical studies?

Maybe the role of saturated fat is less apparent in a clinical study. I don’t doubt that. But as noted above, the statistical power of the comparatively short-term clinical trials for cardiovascular disease effects is bound to be a lot lower than in a long-term population-wide study, even if the controls are tighter. There are so many interfering factors–other dietary and lifestyle factors, and so many varieties of genetic risk factors within and among different population groups, genders, and age groups, that you need the big numbers and the large timescale to see effects above the noise. Meta-analysis of a lot of limited clinical studies with iffy results doesn’t make up for that. If anything, it compounds their individual uncertainties.

Teicholz’s op-ed had carefully modulated but still overt indignation at the imperfect scientific basis behind previous recommendations to cut saturated fat and limit egg yolks and other high-cholesterol foods. What should be there and isn’t is the acknowledgement that when those recommendations were first announced to the public–by the AHA, the CDC and the USDA in the late 1960s, population trend studies over the next 10 years showed a stark drop in the rate of heart attacks–about a 30 percent drop. In other words, it worked. Big time.

And the broad peak of the population curve for a first heart attack shifted to the right by 10 years–that is, the average age for men went from about 50 to about 60, and for women from about 60 to 70. These were huge improvements in public health overall, and they were achieved partly because the public believed and paid attention, and partly because the nutrition and health experts hadn’t given up and abdicated responsibility in the face of industry pushback.

Clearly these results didn’t last; but is that the fault of the studies that identified saturated fat and cholesterol as things to reduce (note: not eliminate completely, just reduce)? The 1980s ushered in a long Republican-led era of unfettered, uncritical support of corporate priorities over public health, Reagan’s “ketchup is a vegetable” quip and the conversion of school lunches to chain restaurant concession contracts, a popular nose-thumbing at so-called “food police” health recommendations, the rise of high-fat-and-sugar-and-oversized-portion “comfort” and “indulgent” foods in restaurants and food magazines, and an entrenched anti-science bias in Congress that still haunts us today.

Not that much has changed from Reagan’s time in office–including the sad observable fact that most Americans for the past decade or so clearly aren’t paying serious attention to or even attempting to follow those modest earlier USDA recommendations, particularly the recommendations to eat more vegetables rather than more boxed, labeled namebrand processed foods, whether Big Macs or Ding Dongs or Froot Loops…

So few Americans today eat any vegetables at all compared with people of the same ages in the 1970s. As I’ve mentioned before, a shocking number of my friends, in their 40s and 50s already, do not cook at all. They have advanced degrees, if mostly in the humanities. They nervously repeat but don’t understand how to  read between the lines of whatever diet and health claims are in the news, and they’ve come to think cooking is too hard. They have a lot of takeout menus on their iPhones.

There is just one more factor to mention here: the profit motive. Teicholz, a former contributor to NPR, Gourmet and Men’s Health, wrote that op-ed in part to promote her new book, The Big Fat Surprise, which claims that diets high in meat, butter, Continue reading

Artichoke-olive spanakopita for a party crowd

Artichoke and olive spanakopita tastes authentic even though it's completely nondairy. The party round is pretty quick to put together, too.

Artichoke and olive spanakopita tastes authentic,  even though it’s completely nondairy by request–which makes it a good vegan choice too. And it’s easy to put together.

Last night we went to a big New Year’s Eve party–a rarity for us; we’re usually with family one coast or the other. Of course, getting to go to a party means rushing around the house a few hours ahead to find an outfit that fits, is clean, looks about right, doesn’t require very high heels or an engineering degree to figure out how to put it on. Luckily most of our friends are low-key that way.

The party was potluck–the hosts provided a couple of solid main dishes and we and the other guests brought the side dishes and accoutrements. A pretty good division of labor, I think. So I offered to bring spanakopita, which is pretty easy. Or at least, I figured out an easier way last week to get the spinach squeezed out than by doing three pounds of spinach handful by painful handful, and it was pretty good for the Chanukah party, so why not do it again?

But our hosts’ family, all five of them, have a cluster of serious food allergies–primarily eggs and dairy, but a couple of other odd ones like cinnamon as well, and not all of the allergies match up from person to person. It’s a testament to their bravery and sociability (which I admire and wish I had greater stores of) that they throw big parties and let other people bring food.

I decided to do spanakopita anyway and just leave out the dairy–butter isn’t a big deal if you have olive oil for the fillo leaves, and I don’t make it with eggs in the filling. So far, so good. But what should I substitute for the feta? Feta’s usually a big part of the show.

Tofu might have been easy, and it’s a protein source, but one of the kids can’t do soy, and it doesn’t really taste right. Nuts–don’t know. Nondairy cheese substitutes–I haven’t tasted these myself and they have so many ingredients plus loads of salt that it wasn’t worth chancing without consulting the family.

My best options to add to the spinach came down to:

1. Greek olives, pitted and chopped–right on the saltiness, but maybe odd-looking. No one else I know has ever paired up spinach filling with olives.

2. Cooked and drained mushrooms–I would do this, but my daughter confesses she doesn’t like them when I make spinach quiche. And she does like my spanakopita. So…

3. Marinated artichoke hearts–they have a little saltiness, but mostly lemon and garlic, which is just about right. And artichoke hearts pair pretty nicely with spinach and are a familiar enough combination that most people will probably be okay with them. You just have to remember to drain them well so they don’t make everything soggy.

I thought I’d go with the artichoke hearts alone, but after tasting the spinach and artichoke heart filling, adding more lemon and garlic (because you can never have enough) and herbs and scallions, I decided what the heck and threw in a handful of Alfonso olives I had in the fridge–12 big purple, winy olives, pitted and slivered, did not look weird after all and they gave just enough distinctive tang and salt for the big salad bowl worth of filling to satisfy without overpowering it.

I figure, when you try something new or off-beat with a substitution, you have to test-taste to know if it’s worth doing again or recommending to anyone else. Maybe no one will agree with you, or maybe they will, but if you don’t like the result to start with, you’ll feel bad serving it up. Or maybe you’re made of tougher stuff than I am and it depends on who you’re serving it to and what have they done for you lately?

So anyway, if you can’t have feta or other dairy, this is definitely a good way to go. The olives and marinated artichoke hearts are authentically Greek enough not to taste or feel like fakey or second-rate substitutions. The spanakopita ended up tasting pretty good, and got eaten up amid some serious competition.

Also, I’ve decided this is also a good time for a slideshow. For a while now I’ve been meaning to do a step-by-step post on setting up a round tray of spanakopita or baklava, because I think it’s simpler and quicker than a plain rectangular casserole, and it looks more impressive and party-ready too. So I took some pictures as I went along (note to self: wipe olive oil thumbprints off camera grip), Continue reading

A salad in winter: counterintuitive comfort food

box of winter salad

If you skip the lettuce and choose more robust vegetables, you can make a big box of salad in minutes and keep it crisp several days in the fridge.

It’s gotten cold here. Ok, so no one else is pitying us; we had 80-plus degree weather only last week, but now there’s a very dry, sunny cold spell setting in, it’s in the 50s daytime, 40s at night, and Southern California doesn’t do insulation that well. Or ski jackets. Or wool.

On the upside, it’s been cold enough so that I can run the oven and bake–a rarity in Pasadena this year. [OK again: prepare for a couple of digressions from the main topic]

I made a big round spanakopita for a Chanukah party, quick pizzas for my daughter and her friends and calzones for me and my husband, rosemary and sesame bread, and rye bread–which is still in the attempt stage; I didn’t have a properly developed sour and wasn’t scrupulous about weighing out and getting the hydration and gluten ratios right and all that the first time around, and it collapsed in the oven…

I’m determined to get the sour and the rise textures right, so now I’m following the Inside the Jewish Bakery instructions more closely, having met and been impressed by one of the authors. It’s a matter of some urgency: my grandmothers are no longer alive to schlep good deli or bread out here on a visit, Trader Joe’s has broken ties with the really good bakery that made serious “pain miche” half-rounds that tasted like kornbroyt, none of the commercial rye breads in SoCal (or most of the country) are anything more than tanned white bread, and I’m desperate for the real thing–tough, chewy, tangy, caraway-laden, with a serious crust. Before my genes start going beige and I start deciding Bing Crosby was a really good singer.

[True unexpected fact here: a church choir director I know says that because of all the practice sessions, she and all her colleagues get serious carol fatigue by about two weeks before Christmas every year. I thought it was just me avoiding the mall, but no.]

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about comfort food, because winter cold brings on the desire for heavier dishes–stews, starches, cheeses, meat and potatoes, and more starches, and the winter holidays bring their own calorie-laden version of cheer to the table with abundant puff pastry, eggnog, latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiot (jelly doughnuts), cookies, fruitcake, and all the rest of it.

Not too many people think about salad as a comfort food this time of year. Potato salad, maybe.

And yet…it’s really not very comfortable to find you’ve gained five or ten pounds in a month when you didn’t mean to, and New Year’s is coming with an actual dress-up-like-a-grownup-with-a-life party invitation. If I’ve managed not to succumb to the excess so far this year, it’s only because I’ve been cautious-to-paranoid about eating latkes and sufganiot last week and even my typical penchant for cheese and dark chocolate (not together!) has me thinking twice. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to regain the weight I lost last year–even though it was “only” ten pounds, it was hard enough, and like many people, I could use another ten down before spring without having to work too hard.

So salad is what I have in mind at the moment. Yes, there will also be stew–this week, spicy vegetarian eggplant and chickpea stew, because I made a vat of it and stuck it in the fridge. Very hearty, filling, warming, and all that winter-holiday-recipe-talk, yet not very devastating diet-wise, and doesn’t make you feel like you need another nap pronto. Plus once it’s made, it’s really fast to reheat in the microwave. As I discovered yesterday, a mug (nuked less than 2 minutes and eaten on the run) can power me through a rushed non-cook evening–something I don’t do often or well–of ferrying my kid to the movies at the mall with her friends. During the very unpleasant after-Christmas sales season. What can I say–when put to the test, it was faster than fast food and twice as effective.

If only salad were like that [finally back on topic]. I’m not generally a cook-for-the-month kind of person, but it seems to me that if a restaurant salad bar can get away with making blah bulk salads that sit out for hours, surely I can do a bulk salad that looks and tastes lively and stores nicely for a couple of days in the fridge without going bad. Chop once, eat twice, right? Continue reading

2000-calorie meals in pictures

The New York Times has just posted a very clear picture-it chart of how people get to 2000 calories in a single meal, sometimes even a single dish, without realizing it when they eat out. Not just at Burger King, Denny’s or IHOP, either–some of the upscale chains’ ordinary dishes are just as devastating. If you’re having trouble figuring out your own diet, you might take a look and see What 2,000 Calories Looks Like.

One thing I like about the restaurant-by-restaurant feature is the breakdown of calories for each item in the meal, so you can see how you might do better while eating out.

One obvious takeaway–so to speak–is that fries, shakes, full dinner plates of pasta with cream sauce (or any sauce, really), and slices of cake as big as your head–topped with caramel goo!–are a bad deal for excess calories, lack of nutritional value, and are basically not really necessary.

The other obvious takeaway is that for things like sandwiches, burritos, burgers and similar protein-containing main dishes, you probably don’t want to be eating more than about 500 calories at lunch or maybe 600ish at dinner. Preferably 350-450, to give yourself some room for a salad or fruit. So the hoagies and double cheeseburgers at 900-1100 calories should really be split in two–maybe three. Share one with a friend unless you’re actually a linebacker in training. Or else get rid of the cheese, the excess meat, the bacon, the mayo-based sauces. Go back to a single burger with ketchup and mustard and a couple of pickle slices. And maybe you shouldn’t eat anything else with one of those but a plain apple or orange or some tomatoes or carrot sticks.

The other thing I like is the set of pictures at the bottom–whole days’ worth of decent food from home that are worth 2000 calories per day, and they look a whole lot better than what you get at the restaurants. For the same money or less, and with a microwave, maybe even in less time. A lot more vegetables and fruits, a decent amount of meat and fish and dairy, a lot less in the way of french fries, milkshakes, salad dressing, breadings, special sauces, burger buns and unlimited pasta.

OK, Fried PLUS Dairy for Chanukah

fried-panela-and-artichokes

Another good version from a previous fry-up: slices of panela browned with marinated artichoke hearts (bonus: a hit of garlic and lemon flavor from the artichoke marinade, plus the lemon juice increases the browning)

Well…I figured out something quick to fry for the first night of Chanukah: slices of panela cheese, a white rubbery fresh cheese that’s almost exactly like halloumi. Only it’s Mexican rather than Greek, so it’s a locally abundant variety (along with queso fresco) and about half the price per pound here in Pasadena.

I decided to do something a little different with it though. While the spoonful of olive oil was heating in the nonstick (very important) pan, I pressed the slices of panela into about a tablespoon mixture (not shown in above photograph; we ate these too quickly to take a picture of any worth) of pre-toasted sesame seeds, crumbled oregano, sumac, a pinch of ground caraway, and Aleppo pepper–essentially za’atar mix, only without added salt. It didn’t stick incredibly well to the cheese but I was able to press it in on both sides long enough to get it into the pan.

When I started frying the cheese, some of the whey immediately bubbled out into the oil, but although the slices softened up and started melting a little, they mostly kept their shape and I was able to flip them with a wide spatula to fry the other side. Halloumi firms up again as it cools–a little flatter, but pretty tasty, especially with the za’atar mix I improvised. I served it on top of our salad, but in restaurants it goes by itself, with its own bed of greens, maybe a bit of chopped tomato and onion, or with bread and olive oil. It’s only a few minutes of work for something unusual and delicious.

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