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Bite-size turnovers are the life of the party

| Sunday, July 13, 2008

A let's-get-a-few-friends-together soiree begs for party snacks with a few surprise ingredients -- bite-size turnovers that have personality and that go down perfectly with a glass of crisp, cool white wine or a light summer ale.

These are life-of-the-party appetizers. Green and leafy watercress puts a peppery twist on traditional spanakopita, and fresh herbs and wild mushrooms class up mini calzones with truffle cheese. Ripe plantains used as the "dough" for festive vegetarian empanadas are a sweet-savory indulgence, light enough for a spring evening.

The fun one

Ditch the flour and make the empanada dough from a combination of plantains and bananas. Roast the plantains until they literally ooze from their skins, then blend them with super-ripe bananas and salt. A tortilla press -- inexpensive and readily available at most Latino markets -- and two sheets of plastic wrap serve best to flatten balls of the sticky dough into round discs ready for stuffing, but a heavy-bottom skillet can substitute for the press.

Toss together green onions, roasted chipotle, cheese and refried beans, and spoon a little onto each empanada, then carefully fold the dough into half-moon shapes. Pan-fry them quickly in hot oil until golden brown on the outside; the result is light and crisp on the outside, warm and tender on the inside. Serve them immediately with chilled chipotle-inflected creme fraiche.

Herb 'n' mushroom bliss

Mounds of fresh herbs are overflowing at markets, so it's almost a given to throw a handful into a calzone dough. Sprinkle in some thyme, and make way for the guests who will follow the crisp aroma into the kitchen.

For the filling, a mix of wild mushrooms -- like oyster, shiitake and creminis -- pairs beautifully with the thyme. Add a bit of pancetta and truffle cheese (truffle cheese is easier to find than truffles). Grind some black pepper onto the thyme-flecked calzones, and watch them puff up into golden morsels, warm and deliciously gooey in the middle.

Presto pesto

Watercress is the base for a pesto that gets tucked into spanakopita-style turnovers. We keep the feta cheese, the tang of which goes well with the watercress pesto (made with the addition of garlic and almonds), and add lemon-garlic chicken. The marinated chicken can be grilled ahead of time and stored in the fridge.

The sheets of paper-thin filo dough traditionally used for spanakopitas can be found at most grocery stores and Greek markets. (Keep them covered with damp paper towels and handle delicately.)

Lay one sheet on a clean surface and brush lightly with melted butter. Add two more sheets brushed with butter. Cut the dough cross-wise into eight strips, then spoon a little chicken, pesto and a pinch of feta on one end before folding into triangles.

In less than 20 minutes, the lightly golden turnovers emerge sharp and rich -- a brilliantly buttery party treat.

You also can put them in airtight plastic bags and freeze them to reheat at your leisure -- for even those unexpected guests.


Chicken and WatercressPesto Turnovers

This recipe uses 13- by 18-inch filo sheets. The turnovers can be baked ahead and frozen. Reheat at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

Total time: About 2 hours

• 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

• 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

• 2 crushed garlic cloves, plus 2 minced garlic cloves, divided

• 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

• 3 cups loosely packed watercress, leaves only (stems removed)

• 1/4 cup toasted, slivered almonds

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• 18 sheets filo dough

• 1/2 cup (1 stick) melted butter, or more as needed

• 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

In a nonreactive, shallow baking dish, stir together 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the lemon zest and the crushed garlic. Add the chicken breasts and rub them all over with the marinade. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

While the chicken is marinating, make the pesto. Puree the watercress, minced garlic, almonds and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a food processor until smooth. With the motor running, drizzle in the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil until emulsified. Set aside.

Heat a grill pan or grill over medium-high heat. Shake off the excess marinade and season each chicken breast with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a couple grinds of black pepper. Place the chicken on a medium-hot grill and cook until the meat is opaque and firm and a thermometer inserted in the center reads 160 degrees, for 10 to 12 minutes. Cool, then cut into 1/4-inch dice.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly brush one sheet of filo dough with melted butter. Top with a second sheet and brush with butter. Top with a third sheet. Use a sharp knife to cut the filo dough crosswise into eight strips. Spoon about 1 teaspoon diced chicken at one end of the filo strip. Top with 1/2 teaspoon of the pesto, then about 1/4 teaspoon cheese.

Fold one corner over the filling, forming a small triangle. Continue to fold, as if folding a flag, retaining the triangular shape. The last fold might need trimming. Repeat with the remaining filling and filo strips. Place the turnovers in a single layer on parchment-lined baking sheets, lightly brush with melted butter. Bake till golden brown, for 15 to 20 minutes.

Makes 4 dozen.

Nutrition information per serving: 68 calories, 5 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 9 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 0 dietary fiber, 47 milligrams sodium.


Plantain Empanadaswith Chipotle Crema

The plantains should be mostly brown with only a little yellow; plantains with any green on them will not be sweet.

Total time: 2 hours, plus cooling time

• 6 very ripe plantains, unpeeled

• 2 small poblano chiles, roasted, peeled and seeded

• 2 cups premium canned refried black beans

• 4 green onions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced

• 1/2 cup grated anejo, Romano or feta cheese

• 1/2 cup grated Manchego or Monterey Jack cheese

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• 2 ripe bananas, peeled

• 2 medium onions, roughly chopped

• 7 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed, or 3 canned chipotle chiles, stemmed and rinsed

• 16 Roma tomatoes, cored

• 20 garlic cloves, peeled

• Water

• 2 teaspoons granulated sugar

• 1/2 cup peanut oil

• 1 cup crema, creme fraiche or sour cream

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut a lengthwise slit into each plantain and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake until the flesh is thoroughly soft and oozing through the slit, for 40 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.

While the plantains are roasting, make the stuffing: Finely dice the poblano chiles. In a medium bowl, combine the diced chiles, beans, green onions, cheeses and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. The stuffing can be made up to a day in advance and reserved in the refrigerator.

Make the dough: Peel, trim and discard any tough ends from the plantains. In a food processor or in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, combine the plantains and bananas with 2 teaspoons salt and puree. Be careful not to overwork the dough or it will become too starchy. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill until firm, for about 2 hours.

Make the chipotle salsa: Combine the onions, chipotle chiles, tomatoes, garlic and 6 cups water in a medium saucepan. Stir in 4 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and the sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by about one-third and the tomato skins are falling off. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Pour the mixture into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth, then cover and refrigerate. This makes more salsa than is needed for this recipe. The remainder can be reserved for another use.

To assemble the empanadas, roll 2 tablespoons of the dough lightly between your palms to form a ball. Line the bottom of a tortilla press with a small plastic bag or plastic wrap and place the ball of dough in the center. Place another small plastic bag, or piece of plastic wrap, over the dough and press to form a 3 1/2-inch circle. Place 1 teaspoon of bean stuffing on half of the circle and fold over to enclose, pressing the edges to seal. Repeat until you have used up the dough and stuffing; you should have about 30 empanadas. Place the stuffed empanadas on a tray and chill for at least 30 minutes, and as long as a day.

Heat the peanut oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, until a thermometer inserted reads 350 degrees. Fry four to six empanadas at a time, shaking the pan constantly, for about 1 minute until dark brown. Flip and cook the reverse side of each. Remove the empanadas and drain on paper towels.

Combine 1 cup of the chipotle salsa with the crema in a small bowl. Serve with the warm empanadas.

Makes 30 empanadas.

Nutrition information per empanada: 133 calories, 7 grams fat, (2 grams saturated), 7 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 431 milligrams sodium

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