Thursday, May 27, 2010

Potluck, please

I don't know about you all, but I love potlucks. I love hosting them; I love attending them; I even like just talking about them. As much I enjoy eating in restaurants every once in a while, dining out has never really been my thing. That's because my favorite kind of food is the simple, comforting, homey kind; the kind, say, that my friends might make for me. Plus, I've always been a sucker for dim sum/Indian buffet/smörgåsbord-type situations, where you get to try lots of different dishes all at once. So, as you can see, potlucks basically represent the sweet, sweet center of my personal Venn diagram of dining.

I've been fortunate in life, I suppose, because I happen to have found a set of friends who share my passion for potlucks. My pal Patricia, who sadly lives in France nowadays, used to host them in her Brooklyn apartment with some regularity, and a coworker of mine has themed potlucks at her house about once a month. Most recently, though, it was my friend Hallie who invited people over to her new place in Williamsburg for a housewarming potluck.

When deciding what to bring to a potluck, there are a few factors to take into consideration. The obvious one is size: you want to make something that will feed a large group. Another is broadness of appeal: a potluck is not the time to try out that recipe for wasabi-sriracha snails you've been eying. Finally, you'll want to think about portability: if you, like me, are riding your bike or even taking the train to your destination, you don't want to prepare something ultra-delicate that will suffer from transportation.

When choosing my potluck dish this time around, I was inspired, as I so often am, by leftovers. I had a box of phyllo dough that had, funnily enough, been hanging around in my freezer since the last potluck I attended, when I made an Austrian potato strudel. In my fridge, I found some slightly sad-looking shiitake mushrooms that needed to be cooked immediately. Lastly, I had purchased a huge bunch of beautiful fat leeks at the farmer's market, and I wanted to spare them the shiitakes' fate and make sure to use them while they were still in their prime. It was obvious to me, once I considered my options, how all these items would go together: in a rich, savory tart.

I sauteed the leeks and shiitakes together, adding some button mushrooms to fill the mixture out, let that cool, and then folded it into some ricotta cheese, adding grated Parmesan and fresh thyme to tie it all together. Once the filling was done, I set to work on my phyllo, laying out the sheets on a large, clean workstation and covering them with a damp towel. After brushing each sheet with a mixture of melted butter and olive oil, I layered them in a shallow glass baking dish, then spread the filling on top. I added several more sheets of phyllo dough, slid the tart into the oven, and in about 40 minutes had a crispy, golden, delectable-smelling pastry cooling on my countertop. I got to tuck into it a few hours later at the potluck, and it was delicious: the earthy, slightly chewy mushrooms breaking up the soft bland richness of the ricotta, the caramelized leeks adding sweetness and just a little bit of bite. If you try it out for your next potluck, don't expect to bring home any leftovers.

Savory Leek, Mushroom and Ricotta Tart
Serves 10


1 box prepared phyllo dough, thawed
1/2 cup + 3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
3 tbsp. + 1 tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, cleaned, stems discarded, and cut into bite-size pieces
1 cup button mushrooms, cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces
4 - 5 leeks, sliced into half-moons and rinsed of all grit
1 small (15 oz.) container ricotta cheese
1 egg
Grated Parmesan
Chopped fresh thyme


1. Preheat the oven to 375
2. In a small pot, melt 3 tbsp. butter, then mix in 1/2 c. olive oil. Set aside to cool.
3. In a large, wide, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat remaining olive oil and butter over a medium flame. Add leeks and mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are wilted and mushrooms have released their liquid and browned, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.
4. Combine mushrooms and leeks with ricotta, egg, Parmesan and thyme to taste. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
5. Lay phyllo sheets out on a large, clean workstation and cover with a damp towel. Working with one sheet at a time, brush phyllo generously with oil/butter mixture, then quickly lay it in a 7"x11" glass baking dish. Repeat with 7 more sheets of phyllo.
6. Spread ricotta filling on top of phyllo, distributing evenly.
7. Add a final layer of 8 phyllo sheets on top of the filling, making sure to seal the tart well.
8. Place tart in oven and bake until phyllo is golden brown and crisp, about 40 minutes. Let cool completely, then cut into 10 pieces. Serve at room temperature.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Talking turkey

If there's a "less is more" school of turkey burgers, then you could not count me among its adherents. I happen to really like turkey burgers, and make them often. Every time I do, my formula is a little different, but each is marked by one particular characteristic: a reckless hand with seasoning, herbs and spices, and add-ins. One might deem this the Kitchen Sink school of turkey burgers.

Ground turkey, I think, needs a little extra help. The packaged kind you buy in supermarkets, and particularly the all breast meat type (which I always steer widely clear of), can be a little dry. It can be a little flavorless. This is because the meat comes from factory raised birds fed a diet of mostly uninteresting things like corn and soy by-products, and if the turkey doesn't eat interesting things, then why would it itself taste good? In order to combat this Tasteless Turkey syndrome, I'm accustomed to throwing lots of flavor at the problem: finely chopped onion or scallions, as well as garlic, are a must; lots of salt and freshly ground pepper are advisable; generous amounts of dried spices like paprika, cumin, and red pepper flakes are common; and chopped fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro often show up, too. One last thing to consider is a little lubrication: I'll often toss in a bit of whole-milk plain yogurt, or a dash of olive oil, to ensure that the burger comes out juicy.

And tonight, my friends, I did all those things--and more--to my turkey meat. But as it turns out, I might not have had to. You see, after a recent viewing of the excellent, eye-opening, generally disturbing but also fascinating (much like a car wreck) documentary, Food, Inc., I've decided to avoid supermarket meat for a while. I don't want to make any hard and fast declarations, especially since my wallet might not be equipped to handle such claims, but for the time being, at least, I've decided to buy the vast majority of my meat at the farmer's market (and avoid the label "Perdue" like the bloody plague). I started my new resolution this past weekend, when a trip to the Grand Army Plaza farmer's market proved quite fruitful (or meat-ful?). I stocked my freezer full of ground pork, ground turkey, and different cuts of free-range beef, so now all I have to do is reach into the icebox for a guilt-free meat meal.

I used up the first of my provisions, the ground turkey (from DiPaola Turkey Farm in Hamilton, New Jersey) in the aforementioned burgers that I made for dinner earlier this evening. I added all the usual suspects--plus a blanket of sharp, rich Cato Corner Farm cheese--and, to be blunt, ended up with a juicy fistful of The Best Turkey Burger I Have Ever Eaten in My Life. Yup--it was that good. Supremely moist and packing a wallop of flavor, I suspect that there was more at work in this burger than the seasonings that I added to it: namely, the freshness and quality of the turkey. Maybe, with meat this good, you don't really need to add much to it. So you should treat yourself to some good meat, too. But for those times when you can't or don't, try the Kitchen Sink technique.

Kitchen Sink Turkey Burgers
Serves 3 - 4


1 lb. ground turkey, dark meat preferable
Finely chopped onion or scallion
Minced garlic
Dried spices such as but not limited to: paprika; cumin; coriander; chili powder; red pepper flakes
Chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, cilantro or thyme
Worcestershire sauce (optional)
Whole milk plain yogurt, for moisture (optional)
Olive oil, for moisture (optional)
Cheese, for topping (optional)


1. In a large bowl, combine turkey with ingredients and amounts of your choice. The flavorings listed above are a good guideline but can be varied or omitted according to preference. Just remember to add a lot of seasoning. Mix lightly and form turkey into 3 or 4 burgers. If time allows, let burgers rest in the fridge for about 20 minutes. The flavors will meld, and the burgers will hold together better during cooking.
2. Heat a cast iron skillet, grill pan, or grill. Alternatively, preheat your broiler. When pan is hot, add burgers and cook over high until cooked through but still moist, about 8 minutes per side. When burgers are nearly done, shut the heat off, top burgers with cheese if using, and loosely tent the pan with tin foil. This will help burgers to finish cooking evenly, and will melt the cheese. Serve as desired.