Summers in Palm Beach… then and now

And I’m back!  It has been a busy several weeks at the mad cafe.  Tax season is wrapping up and Anna is off for her summer vacation, after successfully finishing up 4th grade.  She’s earned more junior Olympic times at swimming, and is now a safety patrol!  Anna loves rules and order.  She also made it on the news crew for next year.  Most of all, she’s happy and learning to think for herself.

My Anna!

My mom is leaving for her three month trip to Greece this week… with two 70lb suitcases!  She’s packed not only gifts for everyone, but also the weird comforts of American products, including Krispy Kreme cake mix.  I didn’t know those existed!  I’m glad she’ll be going and spending some time out there with our family and friends.

That leaves us here working on tax returns, invoicing, and a big renovation project in one of the units.  It’s fun to watch the unit come together slowly.  I love how creative we can be with a tiny space of barely 400 sq feet.  But, I’ll admit it’s also exhausting and a challenge to stay focused on it 24/7, when there are other things to do.  And I know myself by now.  After every long day, I need some precious time on my own to just think.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the summers when we would travel from Athens to visit my grandmother here for two months.  She was so cute, she used to welcome us with her famous potato leek soup.  It tasted so different from the soups in Greece.

Summer in Palm Beach… outside our door

I grew to really enjoy it.  Once I would finish my bowl, she’d tell me to go to the bedroom where I’d find some thoughtful gifts from her.  They were few and very thoughtful, which I loved.  Our summer routine in Palm Beach included summer camp, following my mom around from mall to mall to shop (yuck!), indulging in TV shows that we didn’t have in Greece, writing letters home and waiting for the mail every afternoon, and volunteering at the local Red Cross in West Palm Beach.

Volunteering was a lot of fun for me.  My brother and I were assigned in Disaster Services at the Red Cross, but worked in different offices.  Somehow, I ended up helping the Director of Disaster Services, Lucy, and still remember all her good business advice.  She commanded respect – I listened actively and watched her as she handled so much work and remember her office was full of papers everywhere.  I would try and organize it for her.  She really took a liking to me and when she was out of town for a training seminar on a Monday, she assigned me to be Director for a Day.  I was 13!  It was so much fun.  No such opportunities in Greece.

The best advice Lucy gave me was that I should refuse to do brainless work, because I’m capable of always doing more.  Some of the volunteers were stuck stuffing envelopes and stapling papers for hours.  I didn’t mind doing whatever needed to get done, but Lucy always took me away from that and had me either calling people to schedule meetings, which really helped me practice my English, or she would take me on the road with her to disaster sites.  I’ll never forget how kind she was to me!

Other than that, our times in Palm Beach during the summer were kind of boring.  My dad would stay in Athens to work and join us in August, when the courts are closed for summer vacation.  And I missed him so much!  In Palm Beach, it was hot and humid outside, with not much to do outdoors, except going to the beach.  But, that had to wait until my dad came to visit, because my mom did not enjoy the beach at all.  At least when he came, we went to the beach every morning and it was a lot of fun!

Two trees watching the sun rise in Palm Beach

So, we had no choice but to follow my mom around for the months of June and July… and I hate, hate, hate shopping.  And my mom’s favorite hobby is to bargain shop!  We would follow her for hours going from store to store where she could shop for clothes and whatever else for Greece.  I would so much want to stay home alone and write letters to my friends, but she wouldn’t let me.  The only productive thing I learned from all that is to quickly figure out the 75% off of this, or 90% off of that, which I suppose is generally helpful.

I did enjoy the evenings at our house though.  My mom would retreat to her room to go through all her shopping bargains, my brother was either reading airline timetables or financial news, and I had no interest in any of that so I’d walk into the living room where my grandmother quietly sat.  She would either read the newspaper or just sit and think intently.  I can still picture her sitting in the flamingo pink armchair with her hand on her face.  While she would appear lost in deep thought, her gorgeous green eyes were alert and usually fixated on a particular point in the room as she quietly examined things.

Without wanting to disturb her, and filled with endless curiosity, I would slowly walk into the room to see if she’d let me join her.  She’d break away from her thoughts and smile and invite me to sit with her.  Then she’d quickly let me in her thoughts and we would talk for hours… about anything, including life, love, marriage, ambitions, family.

Since we live in the same house now, I can’t help but think of these thoughts now that summer is here.  I am typing this post in the same room, where my grandmother and I would have these deep conversations and laugh for hours.  It is surreal at times.

On one of my walks on the beach

I loved it when she kept saying I remind her of herself.  And that when I say something I should mean it.  Or, that if I set my mind to do something I need to figure it out and get it done without complaining.  And that I should be proud to be a woman and not let anyone put me down.

And much more.

The room looks very different now, but her light still shines through at times, especially in the evenings…

MAD POTATO LEEK SOUP

I’ve made changes to my grandmother’s original recipe to make it a bit lighter.  It’s still a great recipe to welcome visitors in town and bring them together around the table.

Prep time: 30 minutes (soaking leeks included) Cooking time: 45 minutes  Yields: about 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 stick of butter
  • 2 leeks, thinly sliced up to where the green part starts (discard the upper leaves, or rinse and keep for stock)
  • 6 cups of vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 5-6 preferably Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced into small cubes
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup of whole milk
  • 1/2 cup of feta cheese, crumbled
  • s/p to taste

Directions

First, you have to make sure the leeks are clean from dirt and sand.  Once you’ve sliced them, add into a bowl with warm water and let soak for 10 minutes.  Repeat 2-3 times until no more dirt is in the bottom of the bowl.

In a large stock pot over medium heat, melt the butter.  Stir in the leeks and cook until they sweat and feel tender, about 12-15 minutes.  It’s important to stir frequently to ensure the leeks are evenly cooked. Add the potatoes and coat with the butter.  Lower the heat to medium low.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the cornstarch into the veggie broth in a separate bowl and stir well.  Slowly pour broth into pot with the leeks and potatoes.  Set to medium heat and gradually bring to a boil. Adjust the seasoning.  Once the mixture boils, add the cream and the milk and stir well.  Turn heat to simmer for about 30-40 minutes until the potatoes are tender to the touch.

Mad potato leek soup! I think I added a streak of balsamico for effect in this version, undoubtedly getting carried away in the creative process. Yum!

If you have an immersion blender, here’s your opportunity to use it.  BE CAREFUL and learn how to use it first to avoid splatter and getting burned.  If you know how to use it: turn off the heat and blend the mixture right in the stock pot until velvety and smooth.  Add the crumbled feta at the end and stir well until it’s melted.  You can garnish with sprigs of thyme or chives.

Serve warm!

 

 

 

Moussaka at the mad cafe

Thanks to all of you supporting me during this stressful, final stretch of tax season.  I’m glad to be writing again tonight, and feeling good about stealing a little bit of time for myself without client emails or invoicing or incoming requests for quotes.

A few people have wondered why I haven’t posted a recipe on moussaka yet.  If you have any clue about Greek food, then you’ve certainly heard about moussaka and all its variations.  While I enjoy it, it’s never been my favorite dish, but it was my brother’s, and my father used to make it about 2-3 times a year so.

There was a method to the madness of making moussaka in our household.  First, my parents would discuss when my dad would make it.  Then, my brother would get all excited.  I’d just listen and stare at them as they planned the ingredients, who would buy what, etc.  Back then, my dad would buy most of the vegetables from the open market in Pireaus, and my mom was in charge of buying proteins, dairy, etc.  So, in our house moussaka was made with the freshest ground beef (not lamb), zucchini instead of eggplants, and gold potatoes.

For those of you who aren’t aware of moussaka, it’s a dish of layers… the bottom is potato, then ground meat with spices and sauce, then eggplant (that’s the traditional recipe), then a thick layer of creamy bechamel sauce — all broiled to perfection!  It delicious, but rich and heavy.

This is a version of moussaka from Asia Minor with sliced tomatoes on top

So, typically on a Saturday morning around 6am, while the rest of us were still asleep, my dad would shut the hallway door that separated our apartment’s bedrooms with the rest of the space and begin the moussaka ritual.  That involved playing records of folk songs from the 40’s and 50’s on our living room stereo as he sliced the potatoes and zucchini in flat layers.  By 8am, my mom would join him, since her role was to make the bechamel sauce and pour it on top before the pan went into the oven.  By 1-2pm it was ready to enjoy!

That happened every year of my years in Kifissia from what I can remember now.

When I transferred to NY to finish up undergrad I remember meeting a lot of Greek Americans.  I found them so different from me and interesting and in some ways really aloof at same time.  They had clearly been brought up to adore Greece no matter what.  In many ways, I found them to be closed minded, which is probably why I don’t have many Greek American friends.  The only affectionate exception are my five cousins from Long Island, who have always been nothing but kind and supportive of me, especially once I moved to NY on my own.

So, that first semester when I moved from Greece to NY was tough.  I remember crying for a few days in the beginning, learning to adjust, understanding the slang, wondering why strangers would say hello to you when you passed them by… I learned so much those first months.  I had met a few Greek Americans, too, and they were planning an International night and asked me if I wanted to bring something to participate… so I offered to make my dad’s moussaka.  There was a common kitchen in our dorm’s lobby, so I was planning to use that and a couple of friends were going to help me out.

In the back of my mind, I kind of knew how to make it, but had never actually made moussaka.  It was a Tuesday morning, I remember, and I was in my dorm room in-between classes thinking now would be a good time to call Greece to speak to my dad and ask how about the recipe.  I knew he’d be excited to share his method with me!  So, I call and the phone rings, and rings… until the answering machine asks me to leave a message.  I try again a few minutes later, and no answer.  “That’s so odd,” I thought to myself, because my parents were always there at that specific time in the evening, mainly so they could watch their shows, news, etc.

I leave it alone and figure I should get ready for my next class… modern Greek.  As I’m about to leave the room, the phone rings.  It’s a double ring, so I automatically know it’s off campus and I pick up.  My brother is on the other end of the line — another odd phone call in the middle of the afternoon.  He asks if I’m sitting down.  I say yes, but I’m really still standing in front of my desk with my books in my arms.  He falls deadly silent, takes a breath with difficulty, and tells me that dad had suffered a heart attack earlier that morning… and that “unfortunately he did not survive.”  I still can’t remember at what point I actually sat down in shock and disbelief.  I do remember the calmness in my brother’s voice as he told me we were meeting in JFK the next day and flying back to Athens together.

Just moved into my dorm room, #300… January of 1998… I’ve searched and I believe this was our last photo together.

It wasn’t a long phone call.  Meanwhile, my roommate, Iva, had come back from class and must have noticed how pale I looked, and when I told her, she started hugging me and crying.  I was so happy that someone could cry for me, because I didn’t know how, or have the courage to do that at the time.

And that was exactly 19 years ago today.

Since then, I have enjoyed a full life that I am often sad he’s missed out on.  I’ve made moussaka a good number of times, while creating my own ritual and adding to his recipe. Sometimes, if I’m up for it, I’ll play 40’s songs while peeling the potatoes.  And that’s about as close I will ever feel him near me these days – probably trying to tell me, in a commanding voice, not to slice the potatoes too thin…

MAD MOUSSAKA

Prep time: 1 hour  Cook time: About 1:15minutes  Yields:  one 9×12 pan

Ingredients:

1 lb. of ground beef

2 medium size onions, finely chopped

3-4 garlic cloves, minced

1 12oz can crushed tomatoes

About 5-6 large potatoes (Yukon gold work great) peeled and sliced in 1/4 inch layers

About 6-7 zucchini, sliced in 1/4 inch flat layers (not round)

Olive oil – you’ll need a lot of it

1 tbsp butter

Dried oregano

1/4 tsp all spice

Salt and pepper to taste

For the bechamel:

4 cups of 2% milk

1/2 cup of butter

6-7 tablespoons of whole wheat flour

1/2 cup shredded Parmegiano Reggian or Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions:

Preheat the oven 350F

In a large skillet, heat about 5 tbsp of olive oil on high heat.  I recommend using a non-stick skillet or a well seasoned cast iron pan.  Quickly fry each one of the potato layers so that they are crispy on each side.  Repeat until done and layer directly onto the pan, as evenly as possible so that it fills the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile, you’ll want to sautee the onions in a separate skillet with olive oil until they are lightly brown.  Toss in the garlic and stir for a 1-2 minutes before adding the ground beef to brown over medium high heat.  Once the meat has browned, add the crushed tomatoes, salt/pepper, the butter and all the spices.  If the sauce tastes a bit tangy, you can sprinkle a little sugar.  If it tastes too sweet, splash a bit of red vinegar.  You’ll find the balance in taste, I promise!  (Note: This is actually fine to make from the night before, which will give the flavors an opportunity to really come together.)

Layer the sauce evenly on top of the potatoes.  Add the sliced zucchini.  I don’t personally think you have to fry the zucchini because it’s thin enough to cook and steam in the heat of the oven.  You can certainly opt to fry the slices if you like.  Layer the raw zucchini on top of the meat sauce and then sprinkle with good salt (Karpathian flaky salt, if you have it!).

Make the bechamel sauce:  In a medium saucepan, start by scalding the milk.  Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat, and then whisk in the flour until combined.  Cook on low heat, careful not to burn the lumps for a few minutes.  Gradually pour the hot milk into the skillet, leaving the heat on low, and whisking constantly until it thickens.  Add the cheese. Season with salt, and white pepper.  You don’t want it too thick or too thin!  Pour over the moussaka.

Bake uncovered for about 1 hour and then broil until the bechamel is golden brown.

Share with love.  Don’t live out someone else’s story.

Make your own memories.

 

 

 

Pull the rug, sweep the dust, then enjoy shrimp Mykonos style

I hope most of you are off in observation of the holiday, whether catching up on reading, chores, or just enjoying the day.  It’s another absolutely dreamy day here in Palm Beach, with a light breeze coming from the east and low humidity.  A fun day to talk a long walk, but we actually have tax work to do first before heading out to enjoy the outdoors.  On days like this, I like to read, clean and ease into the day – avoiding phone calls as much as possible.

I spoke to Anna this morning, who is with her father this weekend and she’s been productive too!  Per her request, we always set a specific time for our morning and evening call, and today it was 8:21am.  So, we chatted about her homework, Chinese work, the new cookbook she bought yesterday, the new math game they’re all into in school now, and how she’s going to handle swim practice now she has lightly sprained her ankle.  I don’t remember doing so much at her age.

My favorite part was when we talked about the South Florida Fair, which takes place here every January.  We’ve made it a tradition in our family!  I just love going to fairs and tasting the food, watching the shows and people’s reactions — it’s fascinating!  Aside from the pig race, they’ve added a dog trick show this year and it will be so much fun to see.  The dogs are rescued and trained, and rescuing animals is one of fair’s highlights every year.  I hope they will have the vintage candy store again this year!

Othos, Karpathos “tou Xristou” 1980 – on our verandah

And after I spoke to Anna and did some reading, I wondered what story I could share on the blog today.  Too many stories in my head, so I thought I would sweep the floor for some inspiration.  I always prefer a regular broom to vacuuming the floor, and it’s a cathartic experience for me.  Yes, it’s actually not only constructive, but very soothing to sweep away thoughts while revealing a clean surface.  I also rather lift the rugs and sweep underneath whenever possible, than just vacuum the top.

So, here’s a question: how often do you lift the rug and sweep the dust?

I’ve been doing that a lot lately.  It takes a lot of emotional strength and resilience and it isn’t easy, because as you reflect, you really do confront yourself.  My grandmother and I had that in common.  We shared a love for thinking, with a purpose, deeply and with meaning.  We both needed time on our own to center and reflect quietly.

I can still picture her sitting here in the living room (where I’m now writing away) with a very pensive look, her right hand placed on her face and her eyes fixed looking out the window.  You might think she was over analyzing things or overthinking the past, but her thoughts were specific and crystal clear.  She had the ability to zero in and focus with razor sharp precision, which helped her never feel stuck.

In deep thought (Botanical Garden, DC)

So, my yiayia and I would have endless conversations about life when I moved to the States for school.  She’d ask my opinion and then she would share hers, and we’d talk for hours.  I remember it was such a satisfying conversation every time, despite our age difference of nearly seven decades.

Yiayia Aphrodite had opinions about everything, and they had all been well thought out.  If she wasn’t ready to share, she’d be upfront and tell you that she needs to think about it first.  Boy, she was a blunt lady who knew how to set boundaries and was tough.  She knew how to say no, and mean it.  She taught me the importance of having a strong work ethic, respect, and setting limits and boundaries.  She would say that I should dream “with my head in the clouds and my feet planted on the ground.”  I always loved that reference.

And this is Anna’s take on deep thought.  Each generation improves!

So, I’ve taken that to mean imagination and reality are both necessary to live a fulfilling life.  One is meaningless without the other, and achieving balance is an ongoing process.  I’m no where near it, personally, since I still have so many questions and things I want to explore.  I can only hope that I’m constantly trying to improve, while setting a good example for Anna.

One of our favorite meals that my yiayia and I really enjoyed is Shrimp Mykonos style.  My mom actually makes a killer dish, as it falls under her extensive repertoire of her “half hour meals.”  This was always my favorite and I would request it every time I visited from school for a long weekend or spring break.  If you’re a seafood lover, you’ll enjoy this!

MAD SHRIMP MYKONOS STYLE

Prep time: 10-15 minutes  Cook time: 20-25 minutes  Yields: 5 individual servings

Ingredients

If you love shrimp and feta, you’ll instantly fall in love with this dishAbout 20 jumbo raw shrimp, peeled and devained

1 jar of Puttanesca sauce (you can make your own, my mom buys it!)

12 oz. of good feta cheese

2 tbsp butter, melted

1 cup of Panko bread crumbs

1 tbsp dried oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat the oven at 375F.

You’ll oven safe dishes for this recipe, to fit about 4-5 shrimp in each one.

Using a spoon, put a layer of sauce in each of the baking dishes.  Dry the shrimp using paper towels and carefully layer 4-5 in each one – it’s fine if they touch each other.  Sprinkle with salt and cracked pepper.  Add another layer of sauce to cover the shrimp.

Using good feta will make all the difference in shrimp mykonos

 

Crumble the feta on top with the oregano.  Be generous with the feta!  In a bowl, mix the melted butter with the panko crumbs, add salt and pepper.  Layer the mixture at the top of each of the baking dishes, making sure each is well covered.

Place all the dishes on a large baking sheet and bake for about 25 minutes, until the panko topping is golden brown.

Let cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.  This dish works well with fresh warm baguette to dip into the sauce.

Voila! Shrimp Mykonos with a seasonal salad and fresh bread

Share only with your favorite people, especially with the ones you can have awesome conversations 🙂

Here’s to half hour meals!

 

 

 

 

Soutzoukakia make an ideal Sunday Greek meal

Many of you have been waiting for my father’s soutzoukakia recipe!  I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone for being so incredibly supportive of foodandheart.com.  A few days ago, I received a really sweet note from a very dear family friend who was particularly encouraging… she said that this is probably the best gift I could give to Anna.  Not that Anna is interested in cooking much at this stage, but you never know.

Most of us become interested in our family’s history as we grow older.  It’s remarkable how many parallels exist from generation to generation, and the lessons learned (or not learned) in the discovery process.

The best part of writing this blog is that I don’t know who reads it until I see a comment, or an email from people who’ve read my posts.  Having written blogs in the past for business, it’s refreshing to not have to worry about ROI, meeting target

Going through photos of my family I had never seen before was amazing. Thank you, Mary!
Going through photos of my family I had never seen before was amazing. Thank you, Mary!

goals of impressions, etc.  If someone doesn’t care or like the blog…well, you know what to do!

So, my mom brought with her some old photos that I haven’t even seen from my cousin Mary in Athens.  She’s my only first cousin from my father’s side.  Mary is my aunt Sophia’s only child.

As I’ve mentioned, we’re a tiny family on that side due to the massacre of the 1920’s in Asia Minor.

Aunt Sophia and my father were very close, and our family spent many Sundays together
Aunt Sophia and my father were very close, and our family spent many Sundays together

 

Cousin Mary is about 21 years older than me, and got married pretty young to George, a military pilot of the Greek air force, who I’ve always adored!  I remember both of them babysitting us when we were little and I considered them as my second set of parents.  They have a son, Aki, who is 14 and helped facilitate the family photo sharing with my mom during this past

My cousin Mary was so beautiful!
My cousin Mary was so beautiful!

trip.

Cousin George on duty, circa 1972
Cousin George on duty, circa 1972

I have fond memories of our family spending Sundays together in Agia Marina, at the “ktima” (farm), where Mary’s parents had retired.  Sophia, my father’s sister, and her husband, Andreas, had acres and acres of land, with olive trees, artichokes, tomatoes, zucchini, fig trees, orange trees, and pomegranate trees (my aunt’s favorite… she would say that every house should have one).  They also had a chicken coop with fresh eggs available every day!

A typical Sunday at the farm growing up. My aunt Sophia and uncle Andreas in the background and cousin George on the right
A typical Sunday at the farm growing up. My aunt Sophia and uncle Andreas in the background and cousin George on the right

One of our family’s favorite dishes, inspired by our Asia Minor roots, is a meat dish called “soutzoukakia.”  The dish is basically meat balls slowly cooked in a delicious tomato sauce that is laced with rich spices of pepper and cumin.  My father usually made this dish and we all enjoyed it over fun family conversations, cracking jokes on each other and lots of teasing!  I don’t have the handwritten recipe, but I’ve watched my father make this countless times… it’s one of those recipes where you let your senses guide you… and one of those dishes that really doesn’t need much tweaking.

MAD SOUTZOUKAKIA

Prep time: 30 minutes – Cooking time: about 1.5 hours – Yields: 6-8 servings

Note: These taste best when made ahead of time… it’s best to let the flavors of the soutzoukakia meld for at least 1 hour before serving.

Ingredients

1 lb of ground beef (or ground lamb if you prefer)

3-4 cloves of garlic, minced

Cumin is the highlight of this dish, don't be afraid to add more into the sauce if you can't taste it.
Cumin is the highlight of soutzoukakia, don’t be afraid to add more into the sauce if you can’t taste it. Some chefs add cinnamon, but I never ever recommend adding it.

2 medium onion, finely chopped – divided

1 bunch of fresh parsley, finely chopped

1 egg

2 tbsp red wine vinegar – divided

2 tbsp of ground cumin – divided

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tbsp butter

32oz can of petite diced tomatoes

Salt/pepper to taste

Directions

In a large bowl, mix by hand the ground beef, egg, 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp vinegar, parsley, onion, garlic, half the cumin.  Sprinkle salt and pepper and mix until well incorporated.

On a platter with the flour spread out, start forming and laying out the soutzoukakia.  Form about 2-3 tbsp of the meat mixture into oval shaped balls and lightly flour each one.  Set aside.

In a non-stick large saucepan, heat the olive oil on medium high.  With care not get burned, start placing the soutzoukakia in one even layer and sear all sides by turning them once.  Lower the heat if you need to adjust, the soutzoukakia only need to obtain color at this point, they don’t need to cook through.  Once seared, take them out and place in a bowl and set aside.  Repeat the process until all the soutzoukakia are seared and out of the saucepan.

The “goodness” left in the pan from the meat drippings and the flour remnants is exactly what you want.  Add the other chopped onion and saute for about 3-4 minutes on medium heat.  Stir in the tomato and add the butter, and more salt and pepper.  Now, add the cumin and stir until well incorporated.

Slowly add the soutzoukakia into the pan with the sauce and try to even them in a layer where they are all covered with sauce.  They don’t have to be completely immersed, but need to have some contact with the sauce.  Once the sauce reached a low boil, set heat to medium-low and semi-cover the pot.  Cook for about 45 minutes – carefully stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.  Taste and adjust the seasoning.  Add the rest of the vinegar and turn off the heat and cover for 15 minutes.

Soutzoukakia make a perfect Greek Sunday meal.
Soutzoukakia make a perfect Greek Sunday meal.

Ideally, you will let the pot rest covered for an hour before serving.  This is best accompanied with tzatziki, mashed potatoes and a seasonal salad.  Serve this plate only to those you love 🙂

Kali orexi!