And somehow, in the blink of an eye, it’s the week before Christmas and we’re racing around trying to fill cookie tins, pick up a few last minute gifts, make plans for our upcoming Bay Area visit (Oliver’s first time to San Francisco!), string popcorn garland, and see as many friends as possible. While I tried to avoid it this year, the hustle and bustle is upon us and it looks like we’re kind of succumbing to it — everywhere, that is, except the kitchen: we’re hosting Christmas dinner this weekend, and I’ve been really determined to keep things festive yet low key, special yet simple. So today I bring you one of my favorite appetizers of all time, lightened up a bit, made with a very doable ingredient list and tackled in under an hour. Oliver and Sam eat it by the spoonful and sneak bites of leftovers for breakfast. It’s that good.
Generally, spinach artichoke dip is made with frozen spinach and lots and lots of mayonnaise. Don’t get me wrong: it’s crazy delicious, but a few months ago I started to work on a recipe using fresh spinach instead and lightening it up with plain cottage cheese, a bit of lemon zest, and a generous handful of feta and Parmesan. For this recipe, I use Muuna cottage cheese which I love because it’s super thick and low in sugar and high in protein (the plain has 4g sugar and 19g protein!). While it comes in a few different sizes (single and multi-serve containers) and six different flavors, we really like the plain best — to eat on its own and I’ve also been experimenting with it in recipes (my go-to is usually Greek yogurt, but we’ve burned out on it at the moment, so it’s been really nice mixing it up).
I made this dip a few times, each time adding more cottage cheese and less mayonnaise until I felt like the consistency and flavor were right where I wanted them. Sometimes spinach dip can feel really heavy, but this one has some brightness thanks to the lemon zest, lots of color from the fresh spinach, and a dressiness thanks to the feta and Parmesan.
If you’re celebrating this weekend, I truly hope that you all have a wonderful holiday. Regardless of how grand or simple, hopefully you’re spending it with friends or family that make you happy. We’ll be over here trying to keep Oliver from knocking down the tree, eating gingerbread men and leftover spinach dip for breakfast, and hoping for a Christmas miracle of sleeping past 5:30 a.m.
A flavor-packed fresh spinach dip with a generous handful of feta and Parmesan, this appetizer is best served warm with pita chips or crackers. When you’re prepping your ingredients, I realize upon first glance it seems like a lot of spinach here, but trust that it all cooks down quickly. And like many good things in life, I find this dip is even better the second day, so it’s a great one to make in advance.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Rub a little olive oil on the inside of a 2-quart baking dish.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook for about 2 minutes or until golden and fragrant. Add the garlic and spinach and continue cooking until spinach has wilted, about 2 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, scoop the spinach mixture into a medium bowl (I press down a bit with my hands or the back of a spoon to remove any excess moisture). Add the artichoke hearts, cottage cheese, mayonnaise, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, lemon zest and juice, salt and pepper.
Scrape the mixture into the prepared baking dish, and spread the top so it’s nice and even. Sprinkle feta cheese and remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan on top. Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, or until the dip is bubbling around the edges and the top is golden brown. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving (it’ll set / firm up a bit during this time). Serve hot with pita chips or crackers. Leftover dip will keep, covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.