Pastitsio / Παστιτσιο (Makaronia tou Fournou / Μακαρονια του φουρνου)

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We have a tradition. When I go back home to visit my family, my mom makes the foods of my childhood that I miss. There’s koupepia, grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice and cooked in a tomato sauce, there’s rabbit stewed in onions and red wine, and there’s always makaronia tou fournou, known as pastitsio in Greece.

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Over the years, I’ve gotten recipes from my mom so that I could make these dishes myself whenever I wanted to. It’s not very easy. She has no written recipes and her measurements and directions don’t use American standards. When she says a cup of flour, she’s talking about a drinking glass she’s always used to measure. There are no exact times either. You may cook something until “it drinks its water,” meaning that the liquid evaporates, or until it katastithei, which means that its sauce thickens.

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So, I do my best and transcribe the recipes as well as I can and when I come back to New York I try them out a few times until I get the exact measurements that result in a dish as close to my mom’s as possible. An additional problem is that the ingredients may be different or tough to find. That’s the case, for example, with this recipe for pastitsio. While almost everything is readily accessible in the U.S., the macaroni my mom uses is tough to find. Though, as I explain in the recipe, any round macaroni would work fine. For a while, I couldn’t find halloumi either, the cheese from Cyprus that’s made with sheep and goat milks and has salt and bits of mint in it. It’s famous for not melting, so you can grill it or sauté it in a pan, but here it’s grated and added to the dish. Fortunately, halloumi is now sold in all grocery stores.

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So, here it is. My mom’s recipe for pastitsio or makaronia tou fournou. It’s not a difficult recipe, but it does have several steps. It’s a great project for a Sunday. If you are concerned about the quantity this recipe makes, after the pastitsio is cooked and cools down completely, you can cut it in portions and freeze them, wrapped in plastic. Whenever you want to eat it, defrost it in the fridge overnight and then reheat it in a 300° F oven for 15 minutes or until it’s warm through. Don’t microwave it because it will give it a strong egg taste.

I guarantee you that you will not regret making this dish. It’s a perfect combination of pasta, meat, and cream. I’ve been making it myself for years but my mom still makes it for me when I go home. After all, no matter how close my own pastitsio gets to my mom’s, hers is always better.

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Pastitsio (Makaronia to Fournou / Μακαρονια του φουρνου)

Notes: The pasta my mom uses is Mezzani A. If you can’t find it, use any thick, tube-shaped pasta. The chicken bouillon cubes are essential, so don’t skip them or change them. My mom has always used the Maggi brand. Same goes for the halloumi cheese. It’s irreplaceable in the recipe. Fortunately, most grocery stores carry it.

Ingredients:

Meat layer:
1-1.5 lbs ground pork or chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
7 oz (200 gr) diced tomatoes in juice (half of a 14.5 oz can)
½ cup chopped parsley
1/2 chicken bouillon cube, crumbled
1/4 cup red (for pork) or white (for chicken) wine

Pasta layer:
1 lb mezzani pasta (see note)
1 whole halloumi cheese, finely grated
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 chicken bouillon cube, crumbled
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Bechamel sauce:
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (or shortening, or combination of the two)
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 liter milk
2 large eggs
1 whole halloumi finely grated
3 tablespoons unseasoned, dry breadcrumbs

Directions:

First, make the meat layer. Cook the onion in olive oil over medium high heat, stirring often, for about 4 minutes. Add ground meat. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring often and breaking up any clumps. Add wine, salt and pepper, cinnamon, parsley, 1/2 maggi and tomatoes. Stir together and cook until almost all liquid has evaporated, about 12-15 minutes. Set aside and proceed with the rest of the recipe. DO AHEAD: Meat can be prepared up to 2 days ahead and stored in refrigerator, covered.

Then, make the pasta layer. If pasta is long, break into thirds, about 4 inches long. Cook pasta in plenty of unsalted water till al dente. Drain and return to pot. While still hot, add maggi, butter, and egg while stirring until the butter is melted. Add the halloumi. Stir well until everything is combined.

Put 3/4 of cooked pasta in bottom of 9 by 13 oval pan that is at least 2 ½ inches deep, then add meat and finally add remaining pasta on top.

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Make the bechamel. Melt butter in a medium pot over medium heat. When butter melts and begins to bubble, whisk in flour and cook, whisking frequently, until flour is cooked and just begins to turn darker in color about 5 to 6 minutes. Add all the milk at once, whisking continuously until thoroughly combined. Continue to simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Lightly beat eggs, temper them with a little of the hot thickened milk, and add carefully to béchamel, whisking constantly. Remove from heat. Add grated halloumi and stir well.

Spread bechamel on top of pasta and meat making sure to cover all the way to the edges. Smooth top with back of spoon. Sprinkle breadcrumbs on top and bake at 350° F for about an hour till top is golden brown.

 

Marzipan and Chocolate Ice Cream

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When I was a kid, my parents had some strange ideas about how one caught a cold. These ideas weren’t just unique to my parents. Everyone thought them true and from what I can see when I visit my family now, many people still believe them. For example, if you take a shower and wash your hair, you should never walk outside with your hair wet during the winter, because you will catch a cold. You also must always make sure to cover your neck with a scarf when it’s cold, because otherwise you’ll catch a cold. You must never, ever drink refrigerated water in the winter, because you’ll…well, you get the idea. Never mind that winter temperatures only got down to the upper 40s and lower 50s.

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Basically, the thought is that there are two things central to getting sick with a cold: cold temperatures (stay away from them) and your throat (keep it warm and covered). This combination created a particularly nasty villain in the fight against colds: ice cream in the winter. Which is why when I was a kid, there was no ice cream anywhere to be found outside the summer months. No ice cream shops, no ice cream trucks, no ice cream in grocery stores.

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Come summer, the two main providers of ice cream on the island would open their stores. For many years there were only four flavors: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and rose. Then at some point, someone imported a brand of Italian gelato called Pahit Ice and from that point on we had all kinds of flavors and flavor combinations available to us. My and my sister’s favorite was chocolate hazelnut. My mom’s was always stracciatella: vanilla ice cream with chocolate chunks. My dad gravitated towards fruit flavors, like prickly pear or passion fruit.

There was never a marzipan and chocolate flavor, though. Which is strange, given that marzipan features prominently in our cuisine. So, here’s a recipe for a great version of it. It features a chopped up bar of the insanely addictive Ritter Sport dark chocolate with marzipan. If you can’t find it, just substitute with your favorite milk or dark chocolate.

Just remember. Enjoy your ice cream while it’s summer, because once the winter comes, you risk getting sick with a nasty cold if you indulge in it.

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Marzipan and Chocolate Ice Cream – Adapted from Love and Olive Oil

Ingredients:

5 egg yolks
7 ounces almond paste, crumbled or cut into large chunks
2/3 cup sugar, divided
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 Ritter Sport Dark Chocolate with Marzipan, coarsely chopped

Directions:

Place a fine mesh sieve over the top of a medium sized bowl. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, with an electric mixer, beat egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar, and almond paste together until smooth, about 2 minutes.

In a saucepan, combine cream, milk, remaining 1/3 cup sugar, and salt. Cook gently over medium heat, stirring regularly, until sugar is dissolved and mixture just starts to steam (small bubbles will start to form around the edges, but do not let it boil). Remove from heat.

Slowly whisk some of the warm cream mixture into the egg yolk mixture, 1/3 cup at a time, until about half of the cream mixture has been incorporated and mixture is warm to the touch.

Pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan, while whisking, and return to medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon, about 5 to 7 minutes, or until it reaches approximately 165 to 170ºF. Do not let it boil. Pour mixture through sieve into medium sized bowl, discarding any solids. Let mixture cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until completely cool, at least 3 hours or overnight if possible.

Churn ice cream in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Add the chopped chocolate bar just before ice cream finishes being churned. Serve immediately (it will have the consistency of soft serve ice cream) or put ice cream in freezer container and freeze.

 

Black Sesame Carrot Cake

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It’s a rainy July 4th today in New York city. I’m not even sure that the fireworks will take place. But it doesn’t matter. In many other places in the U.S., from big cities to small towns, people are grilling hot dogs, drinking beer, and watching fireworks displays. There are some in this country that find this type of celebration for the country’s independence as crass and vulgar. They make fun of it in blog posts and op-eds. But I don’t think you can truly appreciate the beauty of the American tradition of July 4th celebrations unless you grew up somewhere else, in one of the many countries that celebrate their independence days with military parades and brutal war commemorations.

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I grew up in such a country. Independence day was never a day for celebrations, picnics, and fireworks, even though it was always in the spring, when the green fields are resplendent with red poppies and the weather is mild. Instead, there was always a military parade, the most important topic of conversation being what types of missiles were displayed and whether the new tanks that had been rumored to have been purchased would be shown. The point was always the celebration of vanquishing one’s enemy, as it is for pretty much all military parades.

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Contrast that with July 4th fireworks displays and gatherings with friends and family where people eat and drink and celebrate what they have, what their free country allows them to enjoy, not who they killed in bloody battles centuries ago. Call me naive but I think that this is how independence days should be celebrated everywhere. After all, isn’t that what independence wars are fought for? Not so that those wars are commemorated in perpetuity by reminding the world that they can be refought with better, newer weapons. But so that future generations can be free to gather together and enjoy a juicy burger, a cold beer, and a spectacle of colorful lights in the sky.

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Black Sesame Carrot Cake – Adapted from Bon Appétit

Ingredients:

1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¾ cup granulated sugar
⅓ cup (packed) light brown sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
¼ cup whole milk
2 teaspoons finely grated peeled ginger
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
3 medium carrots (about 8 oz.), peeled, coarsely grated
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly grease a 8×4” loaf pan with vegetable oil. Whisk flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium bowl.

Whisk granulated sugar, brown sugar, oil, egg, milk, ginger, and vanilla in a large bowl. Gradually whisk in dry ingredients, then fold in carrots (be careful not to overmix). Scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth top and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake cake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 65-70 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cake cool completely in pan before turning out.

Cake can be made 3 days ahead. Store wrapped tightly at room temperature.

Caramelized Tomato Tarte Tatin

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I’m back after a three-week hiatus from the blog. I was abroad, first back home visiting my family and then for ten days in France, mainly in Paris, with a two-day escape to the Bay of Somme. Here are a few odds and ends from the trip:

    • Parisians seem to follow New York politics more than New Yorkers. On multiple occasions, we were asked about our opinion of the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, and about how he was doing.
    • You know you have great friends when they surprise you with a birthday dinner at Septime, an incredibly tough-to-get-a-reservation restaurant in Paris that is all the rage among both the French and Americans. How tough is it to get a reservation? They accept them only three weeks in advance and our friend called 22 times in a row (!) as soon as reservations opened until she luckily got an answer. It was well worth it. The meal was fantastic, with fresh ingredients, minimally prepared, letting them shine on the plate.
    • French restaurants are making a great comeback. Yes, it’s still a crapshoot if you just duck into any corner bistro, where you are still likely to get food that was prepared in a processing facility, prepackaged, frozen, and then reheated in the microwave of the restaurant. But new places, like Septime, are rejuvenating the Paris food scene. Our new discovery: Le Cotte Rôti (1 Rue de Cotte) in the 12th arrondissement. An unassuming restaurant next to the Marché d’Aligre where we had a three course meal for 39 euros that left us gasping with excitement.
    • The Bay of Somme is a spectacular, huge bay in Normandie in the English Channel, that empties daily during low tide. It goes from a vast expanse of water, to a desert-like land that you can walk on for a few hours until the water returns. Just know that if you go towards the end where the old concrete german bunker is lying on its side, like a giant alien spaceship that crash-landed decades ago, you will find yourself shin-deep in black silt that is sticky and stinky. By the time we realized it, we were well in the middle of it and had no choice but to walk through it to get to the other end. I can still smell the putrid odor.

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So, in honor of our trip to Paris, where we had the most amazing weather we have ever witnessed in France, I give you today a more savory version of the famous tarte tatin. The dessert is traditionally made with apples that are cooked in caramel and sit on a bed of puff pastry. This version uses tomatoes. It makes a great appetizer or a light summer meal, paired with some good cheese, a green salad, and a glass of ice cold rosé.

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Caramelized Tomato Tarte Tatin - From The New York Times

Ingredients:

1 14-ounce package all-butter puff pastry
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 red onions, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup plus a pinch of sugar
1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1/4 cup chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1 1/2 pints (about 1 pound) cherry or grape tomatoes; a mix of colors is nice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste.

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 425° F. Unfold puff pastry sheet and cut into a 10-inch round; chill, covered, until ready to use.

2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and a pinch of sugar and cook, stirring, until onions are golden and caramelized, 15 to 20 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons water and let cook off, scraping brown bits from bottom of pan. Transfer onions to a bowl.

3. In a clean, ovenproof 9-inch skillet, combine 1/4 cup sugar and 3 tablespoons water. Cook over medium heat, swirling pan gently (do not stir) until sugar melts and turns amber, 5 to 10 minutes. Add vinegar and swirl gently.

4. Sprinkle olives over caramel. Scatter tomatoes over olives, then sprinkle onions on. Season with thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Top with puff pastry round, tucking edges into pan. Cut several long vents in top of pastry.

5. Bake tart until crust is puffed and golden, about 30 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes, then run a knife around pastry to loosen it from pan, and flip tart out onto a serving platter. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.

 

Braised Kale with Lime and Coconut

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I have a new addiction. It’s called Good Eggs and it’s a relatively new online company where you can order fresh food from local farmers and producers and have it delivered at home. It’s only available in Brooklyn, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco for now. I ordered for the first time last week and I was immediately hooked. This is basically the kind of stuff you’d find at Union Square Market, but ordered online and brought to your door.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love going to the farmer’s market. Both the one at Union Square and the smaller one near us in Brooklyn. At the peak of the season, I’ve been known to get teary-eyed over the bounty of fruits and vegetables surrounding me (I can get pretty emotional about food). But getting to the market isn’t always possible, especially since it’s not available every day. And some of the producers don’t sell at the market. So Good Eggs comes in handy.

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One of the things I ordered last week was sorrel, which I had read about but never tasted. Oh my goodness, it was a revelation! When Steve came home, I didn’t say a word and I just handed him a sorrel leaf and told him to eat it. His eyes opened wide. “What is that?” he exclaimed. Its sharp lemony flavor is such a surprise and lends itself to so many different uses.

But today is not about sorrel, whose season is pretty much over (next year, I’ll have a recipe with sorrel, when its season comes around again). Today is about kale. I know you’re probably sick of kale. It comes in salads, in smoothies, roasted until crispy or added to soups. Pretty soon it will be in desserts. But the other day, as I was trying to think of a different way of preparing it, I came up with this recipe that seemed different than any other way I had tasted kale before. It combines the sweetness of maple syrup with the zing of lime along with the nuttiness of toasted coconut flakes. Next year, maybe I’ll throw in some sorrel too.

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Braised Kale with Lime and Coconut

Serves 2

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon olive oil
12oz kale
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup chicken stock
½ teaspoon salt
black pepper
¾ tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted at 350º F until golden brown
juice of half a lime

Directions:

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil. Add the shallot and cook over moderately high heat until softened and just beginning to brown. Add garlic and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, just until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock, then add the kale in large handfuls, letting it wilt slightly before adding more. Season with salt and pepper, cover and cook over moderate heat until the kale is tender, about 5 minutes.

Remove the lid and cook until much of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes longer. Add the maple syrup and lime juice and cook another 3 minutes.

Serve with toasted coconut flakes sprinkled on top.

Ultimate Chocolate Ice Cream

DSC02471I really don’t like flying. The loss of control (you’re hurtling through the air at 34,000 feet at unimaginable speeds!), the long periods of sitting down, the dry air and pressure differential (hello explosive sinus headache!), the forced proximity to other people (does your elbow have to rest on my ribs? is that Chanel No. “stale smoke and onions” you’re wearing? what part of I-am-wearing-headphones-so-that-I-don’t-have-to-talk–to-you do you not understand?), are only some of the pleasures of flying that I wouldn’t mind never having to experience again.

We flew back yesterday from Hilton Head Island where we visited Steve’s dad, brother, and sister-in-law. Since Hilton Head Island airport is smaller than a Walmart, the only planes that land there are tiny propeller ones. We got into one that supposedly would fly all the way to Washington D.C. It did, but only after it shook and tumbled as it landed enough to make me think about reaching for the barf bag twice. And then, when safely on the ground, I turned airport mode off on my phone to find a voicemail that – surprise! – our flight to New York was cancelled – thank you for flying US Airways – you are now scheduled to fly tomorrow at 9am – good luck.

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Fortunately, a helpful agent booked us on a Delta flight which would arrive in New York at the same time as our cancelled flight. Then as soon as we sat down in that plane, two college girls sat behind us. And then one of them – tan, dirty blond hair, short shorts – took a really deep breath and started talking without.a.break for the entire flight. Have you read Kerouac’s “On the Road”? The stream of thought chain of words that never lets up? Like that, except less interesting and delivered in the sentence-as-a-question cadence of valley girl speak that continued on through the flight, through the deplaning, all the way into the terminal until the other girl (who barely managed a few “uh-huh”s and “yeah”s the entire time) ducked into a bathroom, presumably to escape.

Hopefully, your Memorial Day travels are a little less eventful. So, as we begin the summer season, I offer you this recipe for the ultimate chocolate ice cream. It’s got a couple of ingredients that are tougher to find and which you can replace. But if you find them, the result will be worthwhile. Almost worth flying for.

DSC02743Ultimate Chocolate Ice Cream

Note: Gianduja is an Italian chocolate spread that contains about 30% hazelnut paste. It comes in blocks and it’s solid, not liquid. If you can’t find it, use good quality milk chocolate instead. I like Sharfgen Berger Extra Rich Milk Chocolate. Also, if you can’t find malted milk powder you can omit it from the recipe, but try to find it. It makes a big difference.

Ingredients:

2 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons black cocoa
3 tablespoons Dutch process cocoa
125 gr sugar
Pinch of salt
2/3 cup malted milk powder
170g gianduja, chopped (or use good quality milk chocolate)
1 1/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

Place the chopped gianduja (or milk chocolate) in a medium bowl and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, add the cream, cocoa, sugar, salt and malted milk powder. Whisk gently while heating over medium heat until combined. When the mixture comes to a boil, pour over chopped gianduja in bowl. Whisk until gianduja is completely melted and incorporated. Add milk and vanilla and whisk to combine.

Let it cool and chill, covered, in the refrigerator. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Turkey and Spinach Burgers

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We were in the supermarket, the four of us buying food for the long weekend vacation that we were about to spend in Palm Springs, tossing ideas back and forth on what we could make, when our friend Brad exclaimed “I could make these amazing turkey and spinach burgers one day for lunch!”

I admit it. My initial reaction went something like this in my head: Turkey burgers? With spinach? Are we being punished for something? Maybe if I pretend I didn’t hear him, he’ll forget he said it. 

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Listen, I’m the furthest thing from a food snob. I’ll eat just about anything. But there’s one thing I generally don’t have any desire for:  so-called “healthy food.” To me, the real healthy food (no quotes) is food that’s fresh, made from things that didn’t grow in a lab, and that has not gone through twenty machines in a giant factory before wrapped into plastic and stuck in a freezer.

So, as soon as I heard the words “turkey,” “spinach,” and “burger,” I thought “healthy food.” Which was unfair, because in reality, these burgers are healthy food. However, I was still wary of the idea of burgers made with turkey, a meat usually just a step above styrofoam in flavor, and spinach, the only leafy green that, when cooked, makes me gag.

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But, since Brad is one of my dearest friends and because I know he loves good food as much as I do, I said “Sounds good!” and continued with out grocery shopping. And then when he made these burgers for us and I took a bite, I was happy I trusted his food judgement. This burger’s name belies its flavor. The healthy dose of cumin gives the usually bland turkey meat a jolt of umami. And the chopped spinach and scallions provide not only flavor but also ensure that these burgers are juicy, despite the leanness of the turkey meat.

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Turkey and Spinach Burgers – Slightly adapted from Bon Appétit

Makes 6 small burgers

Ingredients:

1/2 bunch flat-leaf spinach, thick stems removed, leaves chopped (about 3-4 cups)
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 pound ground turkey
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil

Directions:

Combine spinach, scallions, garlic, turkey, and cumin in a medium bowl; season with salt and pepper. Using a fork, mix gently just to combine. Form turkey mixture into six 1-inch-thick patties.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in 2 batches, cook patties until golden brown and cooked through (resist the temptation to press down on patties with your spatula while cooking), about 5-6 minutes per side (a meat thermometer inserted in the middle of a burger should read 160° F). Transfer to a plate.

Serve burgers on toasted buns with sliced tomato, pickles, ketchup, and mustard, or any of your favorite condiments.

DO AHEAD: Patties can be formed 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before cooking.