Diverting tales to tell at the table

As I was telling my family at dinner the other day, the Middle East is a mess - still; many friends' jobs are kaput; the plumber just sent an $800 bill for unclogging the sewer; and news of a massive Ponzi scheme means that there's pretty much nobody anybody can trust - but look on the bright side:

The lovely chickpea and pomegranate seed salad you see before you is adapted from a recipe I lifted from Sunset magazine years ago, and, to its left, the golden-brown square of spanakopita - well, yes, it looks familiar. It's an enhanced version of our friend Jayme's rendition, in which two key steps are wringing the spinach dry and scoring the phyllo before baking.

A story about the steamed chicken will take diners' minds off dismal current events.

My daughter mumbled something as she dipped her bread into - as I informed her - a dish of Spanish extra-virgin olive oil that I purchased on sale from aisle 5 at Whole Foods.

Why, she wondered, was I prattling on and on?

Glad she asked.

A consumer research company has announced that a restaurant trend for 2009 will be "food storytelling" to "make diners happy and divert their attention away from negative news about the economy and obesity." These stories, the company says, should focus on a food's preparation, health benefits or origin.

Because I come from a long line of folk who believe in denying reality, I'm all for this.

I have yet to experience this putting-on-a-happy-face trend at a restaurant and, given that chipper and loquacious waitstaff generally prove to be despicable, don't expect it to prove true. But the new year is young.

Meanwhile, I am trying it out at home, especially when my family members announce that they hate where they go every weekday or when, for example, the nation learns details of a state governor's being accused of trying to sell a Senate seat. As if you can even imagine something so devious.

Here is a diary of sorts of the dishes my family shared recently and my attempts to provide the mood-altering behind-the-scenes stories with each.

A Clever Commentary

for Steamed Chicken

With Hot and Sour Dressing

The chicken for this dish was purchased from the local grocery chain. It was marked down, but, fear not, was not past the "sell-by" date. I am sure the chickens were raised in a manner of which we prefer not to speak and against which some organizations are fighting because they consider it inhumane. But, as I said, it was on sale, which, sorry to admit, tends to override those considerations these days. The cilantro and other Asian ingredients came either from the Korean market or from our pantry, which, by the way could use some organizing if anyone would think to set aside time to do that.

This is a nearly pure-protein dish, which is in keeping with a certain family member's vow to go low-carb. I hope not to see this certain person eating corn chips or yogurt laced with sugar later on, as has happened in the past, after I went to all this trouble.

A Cheery Tale for Wagon

Wheels With Artichoke Pesto

Few pasta shapes bring back memories of my childhood more than wagon wheels. These particular ones came from the pantry, of course, because I bought 10 of them when they were offered at 10 for $10. Yes, I could have purchased fewer for the same $1-a-box price, but - didn't. Oh, and I forgot to salt the cooking water, so I hope it tastes OK. The artichokes came frozen - from California, of course. I imagine they come from a field north of Monterey, right near the beach where we often vacation, doing not much but swimming in wet suits, watching dolphins, and eating strawberries. Such peaceful and merry days.

An Amusing Vignette for

One-Piece Spanakopita

In addition to the information about Jayme cited above, please know that this dish is happy-making because, unlike the spinach pies you get at parties, this is one big one. There is no forming and shoveling around of small individual servings. I still smile and shake my head when I think of the day I bought the frozen spinach for this dish and forgot the recyclable bags in the car. Again. Isn't it funny? Do you think this could be made into some sort of New Yorker cartoon? No?

The Comic Episode Behind

Sweet Potatoes With Bacon

and Spinach

Oh, it's hysterical, isn't it? Put bacon on something and it tastes great. This bacon is part of the batch I mail-ordered from your uncle, who smokes meat in Pennsylvania. I got the sweet potatoes from the new two-story supermarket across the highway where I go to mix things up a bit. Their wild salmon was something like $30 a pound! I ran into Lauren's mom and we had vanilla-hazelnut coffee on the gourmet level. Then we saw Eliza looking at scallops, so I mentioned the bacon thing. And the three of us laughed our heads off as though we, and the world, didn't have a single care.

Wagon Wheels With Artichoke Pesto

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 pound rotelle (wagon

   wheel pasta)

1 (8-ounce) package of

   frozen artichoke hearts,


1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley

   leaves, lightly packed

1/2 cup chopped toasted


Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 garlic clove

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground

   black pepper

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2/3 cup freshly grated

   Parmesan cheese

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.

2. Meanwhile, in a food processor combine the artichokes, parsley, walnuts, lemon zest and juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Chop the ingredients finely, stopping the machine a few times to scrape down the sides. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil. Transfer the artichoke pesto to a large serving bowl and stir in the cheese. Add the warm pasta and toss to combine. If needed, add the reserved pasta water ¼ cup at a time to moisten the pasta and create a saucelike consistency.

- From Everyday Pasta by Giada De Laurentis appearing in Best of the Best (Food and Wine Books, 2008)

Per serving (based on 6): 690 calories, 15 grams protein, 62 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 44 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 437 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

One-Piece Spanakopita

Makes 6 to 12 servings

3 10-ounce packages frozen,

   chopped spinach, thawed

1/2 medium yellow onion,


1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/4 cup fresh dill or 1 to 2 tablespoons dried dill, optional

8 ounces light cream cheese,

   at room temperature

8 ounces feta cheese, crum-      bled

8 ounces whole or reduced-       fat cottage cheese

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

3 eggs, beaten

Salt and pepper, to taste

12 tablespoons salted or

   unsalted butter

20 sheets of frozen phyllo

   (filo) dough (half a

   1-pound package; a popu-      lar brand is Athens,

   which is sold two                20-sheet rolls to a             package)

1 egg white, lightly beaten,


1. About two hours before preparing this dish, remove the phyllo dough from the freezer and allow it to come to room temperature.

2. About 1½ to 2 hours before serving, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

3. Place the defrosted spinach in a fine-mesh colander and push or squeeze it with your hands and paper towels to remove water. (It must be as dry as possible; this is key.) Set aside.

4. Over medium-high heat, warm the oil; saute the onion for about 3 minutes, or until it has softened and begins to brown. Remove from the heat and add the dried spinach and dill. Set aside to cool.

5. In a medium mixing bowl, with a wooden spoon or spatula, blend the cream cheese with the feta, cottage cheese and nutmeg. Stir in the eggs, salt and pepper; mix well. Stir in the spinach mixture.

6. Lightly butter an 11-by-13-inch baking dish. Melt the remaining butter.

7. Unroll the phyllo dough; immediately cover it with a wet paper towel or wet kitchen towel. (It will dry out very quickly if not covered at all times.) Place one thin layer of phyllo in the bottom of the baking dish; brush with melted butter. Top with another sheet and brush that with butter. Working quickly, continue this stacking and buttering procedure with 8 more sheets of phyllo until you have used 10 sheets. Spoon the spinach-cheese mixture on top of the 10th sheet of phyllo; smooth into an even layer. Lay the 11th sheet of phyllo over the spinach mixture; brush it with butter. Continue layering (phyllo-butter-phyllo-butter) until three remaining sheets are used. Using a serrated knife, cut the spanakopita in half, through the top layer of filo. Then cut through the top layer again, creating 12 servings, or more if you would like them smaller. (This is an important step; precutting prevents the top crust from shattering when serving.) Brush the top again with butter, especially in the cracks of the serving pieces. Brush with the beaten egg white, if desired.

8. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until the top is golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Per serving (based on 12, with unsalted butter): 378 calories, 14 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 25 grams fat, 115 milligrams cholesterol, 675 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Chickpea and Pomegranate Seed Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 15-ounce cans cooked


Seeds from 1 pomegranate

2 green onions, white and

   green parts, finely sliced

Juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and place them in a mixing or serving bowl.

2. Stir in the pomegranate seeds, onions, lime juice, olive oil and cumin. Mix gently. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Per serving (based on 6): 195 calories, 6 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 307 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.