Even those of us who don't cook regularly tend to dust off those old favorite recipes for the holidays. Others look for something new and different to wow family and friends.
Not to panic. Our exercise du jour is to simplify the wow factor. Our recipe suggestions allow you to use everyday ingredients that are easy to come by, reasonably priced and, of course, delicious. In this case, we add a little fillip, keeping in mind one of Madison Avenue's time-honored maxims: "It's all about the packaging."
In the kitchen, two of the most impressive packaging ingredients are phyllo dough and puff pastry. When creatively used, these two pastries add light, crisp flakiness to all manner of foodstuffs. And not just sweet ones like apple strudel and baklava.
If you've ever tried your hand at making either of these pastries, you know what a boon the ones in the grocer's freezer can be. In general, you can buy at the last minute, as long as you allow enough thawing time so you can work with them. It's so reassuring, however, to have some in the home freezer for when the "wowing" mood is upon you.
Generally, they're pretty easy to work with, if you follow the recipe directions. And since they lend themselves to rather free form shapes, you don't have to be an artist to make them look appetizing.
Just to get started, we'll try appetizer phyllo triangles. Great, albeit crumbly finger food. And something with which most of us are familiar. You can get basic spinach triangles — we use mustard greens here, though — from your grocer's freezer, but do try these. You'll be impressed at how simple they are, and your guests will be impressed with you (even the kids).
You can make these ahead, freeze them, then gently bake, until puffed and golden, at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes before serving. To freeze ahead, freeze uncovered in a single layer. When frozen, remove to sealed plastic bags.
1 1/2 pounds mustard greens, washed, drained, leaves torn from stems
About 1/4 cup water
2 small onions, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 pound firm feta cheese, crumbled fine
2 ounces grated romano cheese
3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons, minced fresh mint leaves
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
About 2 sticks unsalted butter
About 30 (18- x 14-inch sheets phyllo dough, thawed
Stack phyllo leaves between two sheets of plastic wrap and cover with a slightly damp kitchen towel while you prepare filling.
Place torn mustard green leaves in a large pot with 1/4 cup water. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender. Drain greens in a colander and let cool enough to handle. Squeeze very dry in batches. Chop coarsely, place in a large bowl and keep handy.
In a small skillet, over medium-low heat, cook onions in olive oil, stirring occasionally, until softened. Stir onions into greens. Add cheeses, oregano, mint, nutmeg and pepper. Stir well, taste for seasonings. Add salt if you must.
For the triangles, in a large glass measuring cup, melt butter. Skim foam from top to clarify.
Put one phyllo sheet on a work surface and brush lightly with butter. Remember to work quickly so dough won't dry out. Cut buttered sheet in half lengthwise. Fold each half in half (again) lengthwise. Brush each strip with butter.
Working with one strip at a time, place 2 level teaspoons of filling in a mound in one corner of a strip. Fold phyllo over filling, enclosing it and forming a triangle. Continue to fold up strip (as you would with a flag), maintaining a triangular shape. Lightly brush top of triangle with butter. Arrange on buttered baking sheets. Continue with remaining phyllo and filling and melted butter. Keep a piece of wax paper on top of triangles in baking sheet as you continue making triangles.
To bake, place in oven at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, until puffed and golden. Makes about 45 triangles.
Chicken strudel Florentine
The presence of spinach, and some Italian-seasoned bread crumbs, lets us give the recipe a "Florentine" descriptive. The dish can serve very nicely as a main dish. The presence of cooked chicken (or turkey) makes this dish great for using up leftovers.
Side with seasonal veggies: green beans almandine, roasted butternut squash with a drizzle of warm maple syrup, maybe some rice pilaf if you think you need the carbs.
We use butter-flavored cooking spray for the phyllo sheets to keep things a bit lighter. But you can use butter (see above recipe) if you like.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped yellow or white onion
2 large cloves garlic, minced
12 ounces baby spinach, chopped
5 cups chopped cooked chicken or turkey (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 cup shredded Swiss-style cheese (e.g. gruyere, emmenthaler)
2 eggs, well beaten
3 tablespoons dry white wine
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
About 10 sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed
About 2/3 cup Italian seasoned dry breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons melted, clarified butter
Paprika, for sprinkling, optional
In a large non-stick skillet, over medium heat, sauté onion for about 5 minutes, until tender. Add spinach and cook about 3 minutes, until wilted. Remove from heat. Stir in chicken, cheese, eggs, wine, salt, pepper, wine, salt, and pepper. Set aside.
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
On a large sheet of wax paper, on a work surface, place one phyllo sheet. Lightly spray-coat phyllo sheet (or brush with butter). Sprinkle with about 1 tablespoon breadcrumbs. Repeat with 4 more sheets, layering them one on top of another. Gently press layers together. Place half of the chicken mixture along one long edge of the top layer of phyllo sheets, leaving a half-inch border. Starting at a long edge, using the wax paper to help you, roll up phyllo and filling as for jelly roll. Remove wax paper. Place roll, seam side down, on a spray-coated baking sheet. Tuck ends under to form an envelope. Brush with melted butter. Sprinkle with paprika, if desired. Keep covered with wax paper while you prepare second strudel.
Repeat with remaining phyllo dough sheets and filling. Brush with butter and sprinkle with paprika. Bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes, until browned. Let stand 5 minutes before slicing with a serrated knife. Makes 8 servings, with 4 servings each from the two strudels.
We use spinach again (adds color and iron), so this too could be called "Florentine." Fennel and a bit of anisette help flavor up the fish mixture.
1 1/4 pounds salmon steaks or fillets, poached, cooled in liquid, then patted dry, any bones and skin removed, flaked
3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons bread crumbs
2 (10-ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, microwaved according to package directions, drained and squeezed very, very dry
1 cup chopped vidalia onion
3/4 cup chopped fennel bulb
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
About 1 stick unsalted butter, divided
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup milk (preferably whole or 2 percent)
2/3 cup shredded parmesan cheese
6 large (18- x 14-inch) phyllo sheets, thawed if frozen
Keep poached, flaked salmon handy.
Keep cooked, dry spinach handy, too.
In a small bowl, combine the 3 tablespoons grated parmesan and breadcrumbs. Keep handy.
In a large, non-stick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium. Add onion, fennel bulb and seeds and sauté, stirring, until vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour, milk and anisette and stir for about 3 minutes, until mixture is quite thick. Stir in spinach and heat through, then add the shredded parmesan cheese. Taste for salt and pepper. Set aside.
For the strudel, melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter, Skim off foam to clarify. Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Arrange 2 (20-inch) long pieces of wax paper on a work surface (with long sides toward you). Slightly overlap the pieces of wax paper.
Put 1 phyllo sheet on wax paper (long side near you). Keep remaining sheets under wax paper. Brush with some of the melted butter, saving about 2 tablespoons butter for the top of the strudel. Sprinkle with about 2 teaspoon of the grated parmesan/breadcrumb mixture. Layer, brush and sprinkle four more phyllo sheets, laying one on top of the other.
Spread/mound spinach filling in a 3-inch wide strip along the length of the phyllo, giving it a border four inches away from the side nearest you. Top spinach filling with salmon, arranging along the length of the phyllo.