Friday, February 15, 2013

Ah, the wintry mix

I spent most of last weekend in my apartment; specifically, in the kitchen (more specifically, in my sweatpants). The cold weather and threat of impending doom a snow forecast for Sunday gave me the excuse to tinker around indoors, and to not properly dress myself either. I ran errands on Saturday for a bit, and learned my lesson quickly - never go to Trader Joe's when there's a storm brewing. Every Tom, Dick and Harry was there stocking up on cheap wine and snacks before the snow rolled in; I barely made it out of there alive. Then again, Trader Joe's is always kind of like that.

We had plans to have two good friends over on Saturday evening for dinner, so I spent the latter part of the afternoon futzing my way through a few new recipes (they say you're supposed to try all new recipes when having people over, right?). And then on Sunday, I woke up to pebbles of sleet clinking against the cold windows of my apartment. They call this a wintry mix, I guess, which I have always found to be a misleadingly playful term - like a bowl of party snacks, or compilation of enchanting songs, or, "Ooh, just what is in this wintry mix?" Of course it just means rain and sleet and snow, and that you're not going anywhere if you don't have to. So on Sunday, I kept the doors shut, dug out a few recipes from my to-try list and shuffled my way back into the kitchen.

In the course of those two days, I worked my way through a strange combination of recipes - a blueberry version of these muffins, coq au vin, pan-fried mahi mahi, potato-mushroom hash, tomato sauce with onion and butter, a failed vanilla bean pudding and then a redeeming chocolate version (which really was just a vehicle anyway for the roasted banana whipped cream). Maybe you're thinking, Does this girl have a life? And my answer is, Yes, I have a life, and apparently it is food.

Anyway, all of this is to tell you that, after two days of cooking, the best thing to cross my plate was this salad.

This is a spinach and date salad with toasted pitas and almonds, from the very celebrated new book Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi. I will disclaim that I found this recipe about two weeks ago, and have made it at least three times since; I already knew it was a winner.

There's a lot to love here. First, at a time of year when my list of acceptable vegetables are mostly of the root kind, a bowl of bright green baby spinach tangled with fuchsia red onions (they turn quite bright after you dress them in white wine vinegar) is a lovely start. Then you toast a torn up pita and handful of almonds in a skillet, and wake up the whole thing with a spice called sumac. It's a dark red spice of ground berries that adds a tangy, zesty warmth to the mixture. This was my first time using - or even hearing of - sumac. As my mom said, the only sumac I knew of before this salad came along was of the poison variety. (Rest assured, they are not related.) But it's really worth seeking out for this recipe - I can't think of anything quite like it. I got mine at Penzeys.

This salad is fantastic as-is to start a meal, but I have also added cooked chicken tossed in lemon juice and spices (recipe below) - which rounds it out to one of the best lunches I have packed for myself in recent memory. Enjoy!

Baby Spinach Salad with Dates, Almonds and Toasted Pita
Tweaked only slightly from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, by way of Lottie & Doof

Note: The pita should be crispy in the salad. The version of this recipe I read says to cook the pita and almonds in the skillet until the pita is toasted and crispy - but when I make this, the pita never seems to get very crispy in the skillet (and then I fret over the prospect of having floppy pita in the salad). However, it does crisp up when it cools. I recommend taking the pita-almond mixture as far as you can in the skillet without burning the almonds (the pitas will at least look a little toasty), and trust that it will all work out.

5 oz. baby spinach
3-4 oz Medjool dates; pits removed, roughly chopped
1/2 of a medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 small pitas, torn into 1 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup unsalted almonds (I used roasted), coarsely chopped
2 tsp sumac
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
2 Tbsp lemon juice (about 1/2 of a lemon)
Spiced chicken, optional (recipe below)

In a small bowl, combine sliced onions, chopped dates, white wine vinegar and a pinch of salt; toss to combine. Set aside and let marinade for 20 minutes; the flavors of the onions and dates will soften. Pour off any extra vinegar.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and 1 Tbsp of the olive oil. Add the pita and almonds; cook, stirring constantly, for 5-6 minutes until the pita is brown and toasty (keep an eye on the almonds to make sure they don't burn). Remove from heat; stir in the sumac, red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Set aside to cool.

To assemble the salad, toss together the spinach, onion-date mixture and pita-almond mixture. Drizzle over the remaining 1 Tbsp of olive oil, and squeeze the 1/2 lemon over. Toss in the chicken if you are using that. Toss all to combine; add another pinch of salt if desired.

Spiced Chicken
1-2 cups of cooked chicken, shredded (breasts from a rotisserie chicken work marvelously)
OR, bake two bone-in, skin-on thighs at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes, until done. Let cool; remove skin and discard. Remove meat from bones and shred with your hands.

Squeeze over the shredded chicken: juice of 1/2 lemon

Season with spice blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper (my recommendation for quantities is below)

Spice Blend for Chicken
1/8th tsp cinnamon
1/8th tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp kosher salt (or other coarse salt)
1/8th tsp black pepper

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