There is a lot of chatter these days around the food blogosphere about from-scratch cooking. The discussion centers mostly around whether or not we, as food bloggers, should be encouraging our readers to try it, should offer recipes simple enough for the inexperienced cook, should expect more than just our fellow food bloggers to want to cook with more than just the canned, boxed or ready-made. Some say that cooking from scratch is expensive, others say it is out of reach of the average home cook, while others say that the concept itself simply scares many inexperienced cooks away. I say it can be as easy as pie.
I grew up on an odd mix of the pre-packaged, boxed, canned and frozen convenience food of the Sixties and Seventies and home cooking reminiscent of the Old Country. Neither of which prepared me in any way, shape or form for cooking for my own family. By the time we were teens, we often prepared our own meals. And onto college and young adulthood where, as someone who loved food and loved to eat, I experimented with this and that, often very simple, basic fare. But at least I was cooking and eating lots of fresh vegetables. But soon that would all change. No more convenience foods and no more simple cooking for one. I would marry a man who not only was an excellent cook but a man who loved to cook. Weekends, holidays and vacations, whenever he could, he would be the one shopping, in the kitchen, in front of the stove. And he cooked real meals: couscous and brandade, moules marinière and beef stew, poached fish and lasagne. And he taught me to cook. And for twenty some years, I cooked.
From-scratch meals were the only thing that ever found its way onto our table and for several very good reasons. JP would never even consider serving food that wasn’t homemade; it was just what he grew up with and what mealtime was. I took pleasure in chopping and stirring, simmering and baking, and adored bringing the family together around the table for a good, warming meal and talk. And for many years, both in France and in Italy, ready-made or packaged food was scarce. So from scratch it was. But lately, these past couple of years since we moved into this apartment and since the boys have grown up everything has changed. I’ve been complacent – lazy is such a harsh word, isn’t it? – about cooking proper meals what with my husband working from home and doing more and more of the meal preparation and the sons coming and going and never letting us know ahead of time if lunching or dining with us is on the schedule.
Dinner has been pared down, too often becoming last-minute affairs. These days, we’ll toss together a salad, sometimes simply lettuce and tomato, sometimes a bit jazzier with avocado, rocket, endive, corn and beans added, maybe feta or a can of tuna thrown in, whatever is on hand, and serve it as is with cold cuts (French charcuterie or Italian salumi, if you please), a cheese platter, fresh baguette and a bottle of wine and call it a meal. Or homemade pizza, which we seem to be eating rather often, I have to admit (with a tremble in my voice). “Homemade pizza?” you ask? “Isn’t that rather time-consuming what with the yeast dough and all? How it this simple?” Well, it is my “I can’t think of anything to cook and you all are clamouring for a hot meal” meal. Easy peasy and I can throw together fresh pizza dough with my eyes closed. The rest, I will avow, is jarred sauce, pre-grated mozzarella and whatever anyone wants thrown on top.
And there are times, too many to admit to in public, when I simply snip off the top of a box of ready-made soup (yes, box here in France) and heat it stovetop for two or microwave for one. My husband is happy standing up in the kitchen or plopped down on the sofa in front of the news with bread, cheese and a banana. Oh, and a glass of wine, s’il te plaît. When he does, I’ll grab whatever leftovers there are or toss myself a salad or mix a bowl of yogurt, fruit and muesli. We are simple folk and as we get older we are only getting simpler. Sons are old enough and particular enough to grab whatever they want, hot or cold, tossing themselves a salad or boiling a pot of spaghetti. Leaving me only with the dishes.
And you notice that I am avoiding all questions concerning kabob-frites… rumor, I tell you! Just a bad, sick rumor…
But then it all implodes. Or explodes, if you listen to my sons raise their collective voice and begin to harangue me, a long (long-winded?) diatribe on my motherly neglect, my laxity in the face of all responsibility, my thoughtless unconcern for the feelings, expectations and, yes, hunger of others. Wow! Well, I admit to myself that I did indeed used to cook a meal almost every night. So, yes, I have been neglectful of my motherly duties, so to speak. And so once in a while I tie on the apron, clear the countertops and sink of dishes and make that grand decision to cook! Oh, you know I am often in the kitchen, yes I am! I bake, bake and bake some more and happy they are with the cakes, cookies, puddings and pies but gladly would they trade half of my production for a savory dish, a one-meat-two-veg meal, a homey casserole, a hearty stew, a steak-salad-potato.
And so, once in a while I do. I find a recipe that turns me on, I make a list and head to the market. I fill my basket, head home and spend half the day chopping, stirring, simmering and baking. And I love it and I wonder why I don’t do it more often. For, yes, it may be more time consuming than a quick salad, but with the right recipe it is as easy as pie. And everyone is happy.
I’ve written about my love affair with The Vegetarian Epicure before, two tattered, battered, well-used and well-loved copies, pages stained and torn, brittle and fallen from their binding. I explained about how my husband, knowing just how much I love and use my Vegetarian Epicure book one and book two, had decided to have them rebound yet in the end decided to purchase Anna Thomas’ newest tome instead and offer it to me as a gift of love. All three volumes are filled with luscious, heart-warming, delicious dishes and each and every one I have prepared – many over and over again – arrive at the table perfect. Anna Thomas’ cookbooks are inspiring, trustworthy, reliable and much loved in my kitchen. This recipe is from her latest, The New Vegetarian Epicure. Reminiscent of a spinach and feta Spanikopita, this Chard, Fennel & Feta pie is heartier thanks to a wonderful yeast-bread crust, delicate on the inside, crispy on the top, feather light. Spinach is replaced with chard or kale and lots of onions, garlic and fennel, cooked down and caramelized to a wonderful, smokey, oniony flavour, balancing out beautifully with the tangy, salty feta cheese. I made a few slight changes, which I will give below. Although I made the pie in a rectangular baking dish, I will definitely recommend it being made in a round gratin dish. This way each slice or wedge has the same amount of crust to filling, just the perfect amount; a rectangular dish means some pieces have too much crust and others not enough.
I am sending this scrumptious casserole to Susan at Wild Yeast for Yeastspotting!! If you love yeast baking or want to learn and improve, then you must visit Susan's blog: she is amazing!
This is my second pie for Pie Party 2012. Visit the Pie Party 2012 Facebook page to see all the incredible pies made for the party! With my insouciant Dessert First philosophy, I already made a luscious Lemon Chiffon Pie for Pie Day.
Here are a few other savory pies and tarts I have made that you will love:
Roasted Cherry Tomato, Feta & Rocket Quiche
Zucchini Ricotta Feta Tart
Mushroom & Caramelized Onion Quiche
Potato, Mushroom & Caramelized Onion Pierogi
CHARD FENNEL AND FETA PIE
From The New Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas
You will need a 13- or 14-inch round gratin dish (deeper than a pie plate); I used a 12 ½ x 8 x 2 ½ - inch gratin dish (pyrex baking dish).
For the dough:
1 ½ tsp dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup warm water
3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 large egg
2/3 cup low-fat milk
1 Tbs olive oil
For the filling:
3 lbs Swiss chard/kale
2 medium yellow onions, approximately but not more than 2 cups chopped
1 to 1 ¼ cup sliced green onions
2 – 3 cloves garlic, depending upon the size
1 medium fennel bulb
2 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs cider vinegar
2 Tbs chopped fresh fennel greens
½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley or coriander (I used coriander)
Pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs
½ cup milk
10 oz feta cheese
3 Tbs uncooked white rice (I used basmati rice)
Prepare the dough:
Dissolve the yeast and the sugar in the warm water in a small bowl; allow 15 to 20 minutes until it foams and has a thick frothy head. Meanwhile, put 2 ¾ cups of the flour into a large mixing bowl and stir in the salt. Whisk together the egg, milk and olive oil. Once the yeast is activated, stir it into the egg mixture and then mix the liquid into the flour/salt until all of the dry is moistened and begins to pull together into a dough.
Spread the remaining flour onto the work surface and scrape the dough onto it. Knead it gently, turning often at first to keep it coated in flour, until it is smooth and elastic, 4 to 6 minutes. Form the dough into a ball and place in a clean, lightly oiled bowl, turning the dough until it is lightly coated in the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and then a towel and set it aside in a warm place to double in size, about 45 minutes to an hour. (I left mine for much longer and it really puffed up but it made no difference; the finished crust was perfect, light with just the right crispy top.)
Prepare the filling:
Rinse the chard until thoroughly clean; shake off excess water and pat the leaves dry with a clean towel. Cut off and discard the thick parts of the stems and then coarsely chop the leaves and tender white. Peel and chop the onions. Trim and chop the garlic and the fennel and place them together in a bowl; these will be added to the onion together after the onion has already cooked a bit. Pull off the feathery fennel greens and chop. Chop the coriander or parsley.
Heat the olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven; she recommends a very large skillet but I suspect that would be too shallow – you need the deepness of a pot. Add the chopped onion and green onions, stir to coat everything with the oil and sauté over medium heat, stirring almost constantly to keep from burning. When the onions are tender and translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes, add the garlic and fennel. Continue cooking and stirring until all the vegetables are tender and golden, beginning to caramelize. The kitchen should stop smelling like onion and start smelling most definitely of caramel!
Add the chard to the pot, handful by handful, stirring in each addition until the chard is coated in the onions and starting to wilt. Once it is all in the pan and starting too wilt, add the cider vinegar, the fennel greens and the coriander or parsley, a grinding of pepper and a dash of salt (don’t forget that the feta is salty; you can adjust the seasoning later). Continue cooking until the chard is much reduced and the excess liquid is gone.
Remove the pan from the heat and allow the mixture to cool somewhat. Once the chard is cooled, separate one of the eggs, reserving the yolk in a small bowl for the glaze, then add the 3 remaining eggs to the white and whisk with the milk. Put the feta in a large mixing bowl and break and crumble it up with a fork. Add the cooled vegetables, the uncooked rice and the egg mixture, blending everything together well. Adjust the salt and pepper if needed.
Assemble and bake:
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Oil the gratin dish.
Scrape the risen dough onto a lightly floured work surface and punch it down. Divide the dough into two parts, one slightly larger than the other (the larger piece will fit the bottom and sides of the gratin dish, the smaller piece only the top.) Roll the larger piece of dough out to the size of the gratin dish + the sides with a slight overhang and carefully fit into the oiled dish being careful not to rip the dough.
Spread the filling inside the dough.
Roll out the smaller piece of dough just the size of the dish. Place on top of the filling, fold the overhanging dough over the top dough, pinch them together to seal and crimp or decorate the edge if you like. Using a sharp knife, make a few slashes in the dough carefully; or you can simply poke some holes in the dough with a fork. Stir the remaining yolk with 1 tablespoon water and brush the glaze over the pie. Bake the pie for about 45 minutes or until the crust is a deep golden brown. Cool the pie slightly before cutting into wedges or squares and serving.