December 31, 2010: I had just finished reading Century Downing’s (can that POSSIBLY be his real name?) excellent The Conspirators’ Cookbook, which, among other things, reminded me that I had been wanting to try making stuffed grape leaves from scratch for a while now. Also, I had half a container of fresh spinach in the fridge, and half a package of phyllo dough in the freezer, and some leftover feta, so I figured I may as well make spanakopita while I was at it. And neither of those is really a main course, so why not also a fish? And maybe tabouli, since there is obviously a Middle Eastern theme going on here.
But first – there was still a lot of snow on the ground from the blizzard that I missed while I was in California, and I hadn’t been sledding since last winter, so…sledding? Yes, definitely, sledding. It was decided: the first step in cooking dinner was to go sledding in the park. (See, this is why I write a blog, and not a cookbook: have you ever seen “Step one: Take one sled and go to the nearest steep treeless hill”? No. Step one is always something like “Preheat the oven to 350 F…”)
Anyway, once Step One had been accomplished (to great success), I ventured into Whole Foods, which is not where I usually do my grocery shopping ($$$), but I was already parked there because it’s quite close to the sledding hill. Plus, I figured, walking around the produce section, it’s a special occasion and it will still add up to less than a nice dinner for two in a restaurant. And oh sweet lord those are the most gorgeous tomatoes I have seen all year. Seriously – these tomatoes were practically GLOWING.
So. Having procured all the necessary ingredients (and the irresistible tomatoes), I went home and began to cook. After looking at three different recipes for stuffed grape leaves (or dolmas, or dolmadas, depending on the source), I decided to use the recipe from Gourmet. For the spanakopita, which I’ve made multiple times before, I used Moosewood as a guide, though I didn’t follow it closely; and for the fish, I relied on Mr. Downing’s advice to simply let the fish come to room temperature, then dip it lightly in beaten egg, dredge lightly in flour, and pan-fry in butter for a few minutes on either side, sprinkling just a pinch of salt and pepper over top, and a few drops of lemon juice.
The grape leaves were indeed a time-consuming process, though most of the work was just rinsing the leaves, dousing them in boiling water, rinsing again, and drying them, and rolling them around little spoonfuls of the filling. They did turn out to be rather superb – and they should keep in the fridge for up to a week – but the filling by itself would be a fantastic side dish: rice, with currants and toasted pine nuts, and fresh mint, dill, and parsley, and lemon juice. (The Gourmet recipe didn’t call for mint or parsley, but the Conspirators’ Cookbook did, and I’m glad I added them.)
Here are about half of them – we’d already eaten some, and begun transferring the rest to a container to go in the fridge. (Thanks to Brother for the new red enameled dish!) I even used homemade broth where the recipe called for broth; I’d never made my own before, but having just read how to do so, I had made some a few days before, and it came in handy right away! Mine was vegetable, and the recipe called for chicken, but I don’t think it made much difference. (To make vegetable broth, heat a few cups of water and a pinch of salt in a saucepan with the trimmings from vegetables that you’re using for something else – I used leek tops, onion ends and peel, carrot tops and ends, and some celery greens, if I remember right – bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for a while. Store in the fridge – it’ll keep for a few days.)
The spanakopita was a snap to make, after the grape leaves, especially as I’d remembered – for once – to take the phyllo dough out of the freezer ahead of time to allow it to thaw. I didn’t have quite enough spinach, so it ended up being more of a spinach-influenced onion-and-feta pastry, but it was good all the same. (I also made baklava with the remaining phyllo, chopped cashews and pecans, and honey, but I forgot about it in the oven, so it got a little too toasted and wasn’t much good; however, we were pretty full by that point, and didn’t need much in the way of dessert.)
Finally, the tomato; fortunately, I had a bunch of extra parsley left over from the grape leaves, so I gave it a rough chop and tossed it together with the tomato, a sprinkle of salt, and a drizzle of olive oil. It was so fresh and delicious, and good the next day with Israeli couscous and some feta.
Et voila – New Year’s Eve dinner!