Wicked Feta

Among those who live in the D.C/Metro area, the lucky ones are aware of the wonder that is Cava Grill. Haven’t heard of it? Let me enlighten you. Think of the concept of chipotle, replace the Mexican theme with Greek food, pile all of these delicious Greek dips and spreads, meats, and vegetable toppings into a bowl of saffron basmati rice instead of a tortilla and that’s the short version of the story. But it’s the small, amazing details that have made Cava my go-to lunch spot every single Saturday (and probably much more often that that if I were a person of lesser self-control). To start, they are very transparent about the ingredients that they use, something that let me see that they barely use any soy protein/oil in their food, a pretty big deal for me since I have a soy allergy. The food is also incredibly fresh. A sign by the entrance lists the local farms where the meat came from, the vegetables are bight and vibrant, and nothing ever tastes artificial or overly-seasoned. It’s the only “fast-food” spot that I leave feeling really good about what I just ate.

One of the defining features of Cava are their dips and spreads that they dollop onto their “bowls” and also sell in nearby grocery stores. They include things like hummus, harissa, tzatziki, and baba ghannoush but they’re most famous dip is a little something they call Crazy Feta. It’s a concoction of feta, jalapeno, onion, and olive oil all mashed up into a spicy, salty, and chunky dip. I did buy it at the grocery store once, forking over a little more that I really wanted to for a teeny little tub of the dip. It was delicious, as always, but I was thinking there had to be a way to make this on my own, hopefully saving a couple bucks in the process. So with a little research and a couple tweaks, I have created Wicked Feta, my silkier and smoother version of the crazy variety.

The one thing that I am not crazy about with the real Crazy Feta are the chunks of raw onion in the mix. That’s why I like roasted garlic instead for that pungent savoriness without the harsh tanginess of the onion. I also decided to whip the feta rather than mashing it to maximize its ability for easy spreading and dipping and just for the simple pleasure of the creamy texture that comes with it. The garlic is sweet and subtle, the cream cheese rounds out some of the tang of the feta, lemon juice brightens the whole thing up, and there is just enough roasted jalapeno to leave a lingering backdrop of heat in the mouth.

I like to think of this more as a condiment rather than just a veggie dip too, though it would of course be great alongside some hummus with a selection of fresh vegetables and pita chips. But there are so many other things to do with it. Imagine spreading a thick layer overtop a juicy lamb burger, or dolloping spoonfuls over some roasted cauliflower. You could make a tartine with some thick crusty spread, a layer of the spread, and wedges of marinated tomatoes or mix it with some cooked Italian sausage and onions, stuff the mixture into some cremini mushrooms and broil until bubbling. Sorry Cava, but I think that your craziest of feta cheeses just got a whole lot more wicked.

Wicked Feta
Adapted from this recipe

8 oz. feta cheese
3 oz. cream cheese
1 bulb of garlic
2 jalapeno peppers
Juice and zest of half a lemon
2 Tbs. olive oil
black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the top off of the bulb of garlic and rub the top with olive oil. Wrap up in aluminum foil or parchment paper and place on a baking tray. Place in the oven to roast for 30 minutes. When you have 10 more minutes remaining, coat the jalapeno peppers in olive oil and place the on the baking sheet alongside the garlic. Turn them every few minutes so they char evenly. Remove and let cool for a few minutes.

While the garlic roasts, add the feta to a food processor and pulse a few times to break it up. Add the cream cheese and let the food processor run for a couple minutes until creamy and smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally so everything mixes evenly. Once smooth, add the olive oil and lemon juice/zest and let the machine run for another 15 seconds. Pop out four of the garlic cloves from the garlic bulb and add them to the feta mixture and mix until well incorporated. Save the rest of the garlic for another time. Cut the jalapenos in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and membrane. Depending on how hot you like things, add the jalapenos accordingly. I used about 1½ jalapenos for my dip and it has a mild-medium heat. Chop them coarsely and add to the food processor along with fresh cracked black pepper to taste. Pulse a few times until well mixed.

Transfer to a bowl and let chill for at least an hour before serving to firm up. If serving as a crudité dip, add a little drizzle of olive oil and pepper overtop.

Hummus, the Real Way

I had a slight epiphany the other day.

I was sitting at a table in the building where I have my major classes and was shoveling down my lunch before class when my teacher, who knows I like to cook and has read my blogs, walked by and commented, “Oh, so did you make that hummus?” I’m sure he wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a, “yes, just whipped it up last night,” and probably expected a detailed explanation of the recipe but instead I turned my head toward the tasteless and lumpy dip and replied with a resounding, “no.”

He left, probably thinking no more about the encounter but I felt embarrassed. I realized that I have been spending entirely too much money on tubs of hummus that I don’t even enjoy from the grocery store. I’m sure I’ve tried almost every brand out there and each one leaves me disappointed and struggling to finish it off. It’s always either too grainy or the flavor has the unpleasing bitterness of granulated garlic and onion. That, along with the list of stabilizers and preservatives among with the ingredients, just leaves me yearning for a better way to spend my precious dollars.

Solution: I’m making my own.

Why I never did this before is beyond my comprehension. I suppose it was the thought of having to wait overnight for chickpeas to soak and the hefty price tag on the jars of tahini. But when I did the math and discovered that a jar of tahini and a couple pounds of dried beans is enough for several month’s worth of hummus, I realized that the homemade way, though not exactly a time-saver, is a definite bargain for a product that I am waaaay happier with.

It’s difficult to explain homemade hummus to someone who has never tasted its wonders, to get the point across that a gloopy puree of beans can be so much more than just a way to make carrots taste more exciting. Homemade hummus is almost a dish in itself. It begs to be eaten plain with a spoon, though that’s not to say crudités and pita don’t benefit from its flavors. It showcases the earthy, sweet, and natural flavors of the chickpea itself without the cloyingness of excessive artificial garlic. And the chickpeas are brightened by a dash of lemon and cumin, intensified by the toasted nuttiness of the tahini, and transformed into pure velvety richness as they’re pureed with fruity olive oil and their natural cooking water. The texture really is astounding; it’s fluffy and creamy and when you drag a spoon through it makes a little crackling noise of millions of popping air bubbles.

So now I eat my lunches a little more proudly. Though everyone else may assume my hummus is another $4.00 waste from the grocery store, my taste buds know the truth. It’s the real deal.

Hummus and Pita
Adapted from The Healthy Foodie

Don’t be scared away by the prospects of using dried chickpeas. It just means a little planning ahead. But honestly, it makes a world of a difference since they are not impregnated with the salty brine that canned chickpeas reside with. Also, the trick of soaking and cooking the chickpeas with baking soda makes a huge difference. The soda really allows the beans to reach a point of maximum softness so they puree into such creaminess. If you really must use canned chickpeas, use two drained and rinsed cans as a replacement and just plain warm water. I like to eat my hummus with carrots, celery, snow peas, and of course pita bread. The pita in the pictures is a homemade, half whole-wheat variety and you can find the recipe here. The pita breads are best the first day they are made when still warm and soft but leftover pita can be made into chips, frozen for later use, or used as a great base for mini pizzas.

1 cup dried chickpeas
1 Tbs. plus ¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ cup tahini
juice of ½ lemon
1 garlic clove
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. cumin
¼-½ cup chickpea cooking liquid
¼-½ cup olive oil

Place the chickpeas in a saucepan and cover with at least an inch of water. Add 1 Tbs. of the baking soda and stir until dissolved. Let sit overnight or throughout the day (at least 8 hours).  After soaking, drain the liquid and add more. Soak for an additional hour or two.

To cook the chickpeas, refresh the liquid again, this time adding enough to cover the chickpeas by at least two inches. Add the remaining ¼ tsp. of baking soda and stir to dissolve. Bring everything to a boil and cook on a medium high heat for 1 hour and 15 minutes, adding more liquid as it evaporates and skimming off any foam or skins.

When the chickpeas are finished cooking, reserve 1 cup of the liquid and drain them in a colander. If you wish, remove and discard the skins (this is not necessary). Place them in a food processor and blend until you have a thick paste. Add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt, cumin, ¼ cup of the water and ¼ cup of the olive oil and puree until the hummus until it is creamy and smooth. Add more water and olive oil, as you need to, depending on the consistency you like. I like it smoother and runnier so I add more of the liquids. Adjust any other ingredients to taste as well. It tastes great freshly made and still warm but to store, transfer to an airtight container and keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

The Orange Season

Today was the first day of this year where I woke up and I could finally sense fall. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the weather went from being 85 degrees on Tuesday, to rainy and 70 degrees on Thursday, to dry, crisp, and 55 degrees today. I honestly had a little extra spring in my step. I had a fleeting urge to listen to Christmas music (it went away fast though) and while standing outside, I closed my eyes and felt like I was back in London.

While I was there last fall, I was disappointed that I would miss out on the entire fall season here in Virginia. No pumpkin patches, Halloween, scarecrows, and harvest festivals. No drives through the mountains for the sake of looking at leaves. But as it turned out, fall in England was quite wonderful. Fresh apples were still everywhere as well as a gorgeous fall fashions that only a true Londoner can pull off. By lucky chance, our tour of a traditional English village in the countryside fell on an absolutely quintessential fall day and it was honestly the one of the most perfect days I think I will ever have. Coloring leaves, Sunday church bells, thatch-roofed cottages, and a big bowl of hot, pumpkin soup. Which brings me back to my main point. England’s fall season still provided a plentiful bounty of orange root and squash vegetables. And if there is one thing you should know about me and my food obsessions, orange root vegetables and squashes are my ultimate weakness. I crave them incessantly during all seasons and all weathers. Carrots, pumpkins, butternut squashes, golden beets, sweet potatoes. England was all about them…and that made me happy.

Though, on second thought, this does not explain why UK Starbucks neglected to offer the Pumpkin Spice Latte. But that’s okay; I actually had my first one of the season today and it was most definitely worth the wait. But regardless of that, I was lucky to not have to give up my favorite food for a year for the sake of a study abroad trip. Because I don’t think I could have waited.

I also noticed that with the strong influence of Indian cuisine in London, many orange vegetables were prepared with a Middle Eastern style. Butternut squashes popped up in many vegetarian curries and carrot salads spiced with raisins and coriander were ever popular. But my favorite was the sweet potato falafel. I would get this amazing sweet potato falafel sandwich from Pret with spinach, yogurt dressing, red onion, parsley, and hummus on whole wheat bread.. And though I regretfully didn’t try it there, the food chain Leon also offered a sweet potato falafel wrap. Luckily, however, they have a cookbook with the recipe and with the help of a blog post from Heidi Swanson, I retrieved the recipe and tried it out on my own.

They were delicious too and I love that they are baked rather than fried so that the sweet potato flavor shines through rather than being clogged by oil. The sesame seeds add a nutty crunch that gives way to a warm and creamy interior. The spices give an aromatic warmth but I dipped the falafel in some plain greek yogurt which provided a cooling contrast. These little morsels were really easy to make too, which makes London and fall memories a quick meal away.

Sweet Potato Falafel
Adapted from Leon and 101 Cookbooks
Makes 18 falafel

Note: When I say easy I don’t necessarily mean quick. Though they dirty hardly any dishes and require little labor-intensive work, they do take some time. My suggestion is to bake and mash the sweet potatoes the night before and refrigerate them overnight. Then, the next morning, mix with the rest of the ingredients and let it hang out in the refrigerator all day. That way, when it’s time to make dinner, all you have to do is shape and bake the falafel. You’ll notice that they are actually vegan and gluten-free too so it’s a great way to treat people with any dietary restrictions.

2 medium sweet potatoes
2 cloves minced garlic
1½ tsp. ground cumin
1½ tsp. ground coriander
handful of chopped parsley
1 cup garbanzo bean flour
½ lemon
salt and pepper
sesame seeds (about 1-2 Tbs)

In a 425-degree oven place the whole sweet potatoes directly on the rack for 45 minutes to 1 hour until they are tender in the center. Remove from the oven and let them cool. Once cool, remove the flesh from the skins and either refrigerate until ready to use or move to the next step.

Mix the cooled sweet potato flesh with the garlic, cumin, coriander, parsley, garbanzo bean flour, and lemon juice in a bowl. Mash with the back of a fork until quite creamy and smooth. Season with the salt and pepper. Place the mixture in the refrigerator for at least an hour to firm up.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and oil a baking sheet. Using two large spoons, scoop up a mound of the mixture and pass it back and forth between the concave sides of the spoons to form a football-like shape, but with three curved sides. Sprinkle the outside with the sesame seeds and place on the tray. Bake for about 15-17 minutes until the sides are golden and slightly crispy. Serve immediately while warm with toasted pita and a good dipping sauce like tsatziki or, if you want to keep it vegan, and lemon tahini sauce.