A mad scientist’s power comes from making something wonderful and brand new—like a singular dish that was just a grocery list of disparate ingredients, moments or hours before. The golden, shimmering alchemy of cooking is one of the ways I fill my life with warmth and light. I cook home food; no molecular gastronomics, no loopy swirls on the plate. It is a remarkable thing to be confident in providing for yourself—not just surviving, but creating, often out of very little, a feast, nourishing and magnificent in its rustic simplicity.
SAVORY CHEESE DANISH WITH ZA’ATAR, SUMAC + LEMON PEEL
For one big-ass danish
For the filling:
8 oz cream cheese; softened, ideally
1 tbsp za’atar, plus more for sprinkling
1 tbsp sumac, plus more for sprinkling
1 tsp lemon zest
Salt and fresh cracked pepper
For the dough:
2 c bread flour
½ tsp and one ¼ c granulated sugar
½ tsp salt
½ tbsp yeast
¼ c warm water
4 tbsp salted butter
½ cup nonfat greek yogurt
Eggwash (one egg beaten with a 2 or 3 tbsps water)
The best idea is to mix the dough altogether first, and then stick it in the fridge and forget about it for a few hours or even over night.
Mix the warm water with the yeast and ½ tsp sugar, and set aside. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium, and stir often to avoid browning the butter. Reduce heat to low, and incorporate the yogurt, then the ¼ cup sugar and salt, stirring all the while. When the sugar has melted, remove from the heat and set aside for a moment while it cools.
Grab a large bowl and pour in the butter/sugar/yogurt. Add the egg and stir well to blend, then add the yeast and stir. Add the flour and stir well to blend. Each step must be fully incorporated before the next addition.
Pat it into a soft ball, wrap in plastic, and stick it in the fridge. Let it chill a while until you’re about 30 away from needing to serve warm, cheesy, herby, tender-bellied danish to hungry friends and family. When you’re ready to mix the filling and your cream cheese is properly soft, take the dough out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature while you stir.
In a large bowl, combine the cream cheese, za’taar, sumac, lemon, and salt and pepper until it’s all evenly mixed.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle some flour on the work surface, and roll out the dough into a large rectangle or oval, a little thicker than 1/8 inch. Slice slits into each side, 2 to 3 inches long, and leave a thick unbroken band of pastry on the bottom—a cheese-filling foundation, if you will. Then put a big cloud of cheese into the middle and smooth it all the way down. Whip up the egg wash.
Fold down each flap, and alternate sides; paint with eggwash. Bake on a sheet or piece of parchment (mine are usually too long for a baking sheet) for 15 or 25 minutes. Check often after 15 for the perfect golden shine. When it’s done, take out and let cool for 10 or 15 before diving in.
It’s so lovely and tender, salty and sweet, zesty and herbaceous; it’s the only way to start a day, the sun itself, filtering in through the green leaves and bright blossoms of the trees.
POTATO AND CAULIFLOWER SOUP WITH ROASTED RADISH
Serves 2 people
1 large Russet potato, peeled and cubed
Half small head cauliflower, chopped into bite-size pieces
1 c onion, diced roughly
2 slices thick bacon, cut in half
1 or 2 dried bay leaves
1 tsp garlic powder
3-4 c beef stock
1-2 tbsp cream or half and half
1 bunch smallish radishes. I like the smaller, elongated French ones
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and fresh cracked pepper
In a large dutch oven, cook the rashers of bacon on medium high until golden and burnished. Add the onion, garlic powder, bay leaves, and a tiny pinch of salt. Lower to medium or medium-low heat, and saute the onion for about 5 to 7 minutes, until they are opaque and soft and starting to turn brown. Fold in the potato and cauliflower, turning the veggies to coat them in the porky goodness. Pour in beef stock. Bring to a boil, while stirring vigorously, then lower the heat to a slow simmer for about 20 minutes, until the veggies are very tender.
While the soup simmers, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Wash, dry and trim the tops of the radishes, and keep the long root natural at the bottom, if possible. If it looks grimy, just trim it off as well. It’s just for looks because the radishes will go on top of the soup as a lovely contrast in taste and texture. Timing-wise, the idea is for radishes to finish roasting when they’re ready to serve the soup, so take it into account that you don’t want to radishes done too early and sitting there to get cold! Toss them in olive oil and sprinkle with salt, bake them for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are black and gold and perfectly roasted.
Before they’re out of the oven, remove the soup from the heat. Pull out the bay leaves and bacon slices and put them aside. Season with another pinch of salt and plenty of black pepper. Add the cream/Half and Half. Blend the soup with a handheld immersion blender or process it in batches in a food processor. I like to make the soup as smooth as possible, it’s got a really creamy, stick-to-your-ribs mouthfeel. I think the smoother the blend, the silkier the soup here.
Garnish with a few roasted radishes, and serve. It’s so hearty yet smooth, rich yet elegant, sharp and salty and sweet, and deliriously warming but still not too heavy. A wonder. A gift. Something beautiful in the world, to be shared.
DANDELION PIE WITH CHEESE
Serves 4 people
1 roll (20 sheets) phyllo dough, thawed
10 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed (or 1 large bunch fresh, washed, dried and chopped)
1 large bunch dandelion greens, washed, dried and chopped
1 large bunch turnip greens, washed, dried and chopped
1 large handful fresh dill
2 tsps garlic powder
2 tsp turmeric
12 oz cottage cheese, large curd, 4-percent fat
8 oz feta cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 c onion, diced
3 oz butter and 4 oz olive oil, melted
Salt and fresh cracked pepper
Warm olive oil over medium-to-high heat and add the onions with a pinch of salt. Cook for 4-to-7 minutes until soft but not brown. Add spinach, dandelion, and turnip greens in batches, and wait until each batch is wilted down a bit before adding the next. They will reduce a lot, so embrace the mountain of leafy greens.
Add the dill next, some more salt, and stir until the greens are just cooked through, and most of their liquid has evaporated.
Remove from the heat and squeeze out excess juiciness on paper or kitchen towels. Put them in a large bowl, and set aside to cool. When it’s warm but not hot, add the dill, salt, pepper, garlic powder, eggs, and cheeses—fold to combine. Let the flavors all mingle and meld while you work that pastry!
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Working quickly and efficiently, layer the first 10 sheets of phyllo into a heavy casserole dish, and grease with melted butter/oil mixture. With a pastry brush, daub each sheet until almost saturated and sticking to the sheet beneath it. Don’t worry if it rips or flakes; it feels delicate but phyllo is actually pretty hardy. It will turn out great!
Just work quickly so the pastry doesn’t dry out too terribly and make life more difficult. A little dryness is OK; just slap some buttery oil on it and move along. When the first 10 sheets are down, add the pie filling in an even layer, and flatten with a spatula.
Next down are the rest of the phyllo sheets! Stab the top a few times to let steam escape during the cooking process; it adds to a crispier pie crust! Bake at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes, and check often after 35 for a lovely golden color. Pull it out when evenly browned and shining.
Let it cool and then it’s yours—bitterly green and lovingly healthful, rich and cheesy, delightfully crisp.