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!

 

 

 

 

Good Riddance 2016 with mAd Spicy Feta Dip

It’s finally evening and I have stolen a few moments to relax and gather my thoughts after a very busy Christmas weekend.  It was very fun this year at the mad cafe.  My uncle Nick and aunt Jill drove across the state from Tampa, my brother and Jim came from Denver and my mother in law is visiting from Northern Greece.  Our friends, Lia and Amanda also joined our festivities and it was just relaxing and happy.  Aside from all the finger food and cookies and sweets, we enjoyed delicious wine, bubbly and each others’ company.

Wishing you and your family peace, love, health and happiness

I’d say the highlight of the cooking was roasted veggies with garlic and turmeric along with the spicy feta dip and the au jus roasted pork loin.  The main topic of culinary discussion this year was over the desserts and specifically, Amanda’s first (and successful) attempt to a chocolate ombre cake!  It was such a thoughtful surprise dessert to bring, and it was so sweet of her to mention that I inspired her to make it.  This is why I love my friends so much 🙂

Reflecting on 2016, so much has happened and not all of it was great.  In fact, many in our circle suffered a great deal; some lost family or friends to illness or accidents, others lost their jobs and had to move.  Two who are my age bravely worked through serious health problems, including surgery and forms of chemo.  And others in our circle lost their spouse to death or divorce.  Some sounded so stressed out because of the economy in Greece.  Most recently, a dear friend on the east coast was so upset because she realized the person she loved so much didn’t feel the same – and wouldn’t be upfront with her.  2016 is one of those years that has left me wondering about all the challenges the people I care about were facing and thinking of ways I can help bring a smile to their face.

Personally, 2016 has been overall an ok year.  From a business perspective, it’s been hugely successful and rewarding on many levels.  Watching Anna grow into a fun, quirky 10 year old, who is taller than her mom, has been such a privilege.  I’m blessed to have peace and love in my tiny family as we continue to mindfully work together towards common goals.  And it hasn’t been without personal challenges and struggles.  I am happy to reconnect with people who I realized mattered to me, and at the same time I’ve chosen to let go of those who don’t want to be happy.  It’s one thing when you don’t know how to be happy… it’s another when you don’t want to be.

If I have a wish for 2017 it is to be more human; to learn, to appreciate, to not be afraid to try new things, and to refuse to sit idly in contentment.  I have such dislike for the word contentment.  Feeling content is responsible for so much inaction, and lack of enthusiasm.  It feeds off of fear, insecurity and a sense of dependence.  Being content is feeling not quite happy, but not unhappy either.  It’s that limbo state of “happy enough.”  Who sets the “happy enough” standard, if it’s not you?

Make it count in 2017:  cherish your loved ones, appreciate your blessings, hold onto a solid support system with people who cheer you forward and reach higher!

The mad cafe Christmas Eve spread! Anna circled the spicy feta dip to help out 🙂

On the food front, I have several recipes lined up to share with you.  Since it was a success at the mad cafe, the spicy feta cheese dip makes for a special treat anytime.  A note about feta: we can have a lot debates about feta, but as with most ingredients, the quality of cheese makes all the difference.  Opt for the real deal… Dodoni is my favorite feta and Kolios is a close second.

MAD SPICY FETA DIP (TYROKAFTERI)

Prep time:  15 minutes   Idle time:  at least 1 hour refrigeration before serving

Ingredients

1/2 lb Greek feta

Tyrokafteri (spicy feta dip) can be really spicy so make sure you warn your guests (photo credit: brittneyg.typepad.com)

3/4 cup of Greek yogurt

1 small hot pepper, finely chopped (size depends on how spicy you want the dip!)

1 tbsp paprika

1/2 tsp crushed pepper flakes

1 tsp of red wine vinegar

2 tbsp olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, minced

Salt/pepper to taste

Serving suggestions: warm pita bread, raw veggies, olives

Directions

Mash the feta in a bowl with a fork and mix in the yogurt.  Add the rest of the ingredients until well combined.  Adjust the seasoning as needed.  If the mixture is too solid, add more yogurt and olive oil.  Like the tzatziki, don’t be fooled with the garlic… a little goes a long way and will taste stronger as the flavors work together.  Cover the mixture and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

 

 

 

holiday baking continued… melomakarona

Now that your kourabiedes are baked, it’s time to make the other Greek holiday favorite, honey-dipped melomakarona.  There are plenty of recipes out there for this Greek cookie, and I remember growing up being forced to eat them in every house we visited.  I’ll be honest – this is not my favorite holiday treat… mainly because getting the melomakarona dipped in just the right amount of honey syrup is a hit or miss process.

My mom liked her melomakarona very syrupy.  My brother likes them with just enough syrup, and Michael prefers them with the least amount of syrup.  Anna will pass on the melomakarona all together, and go for kourabiedes instead.  I am still stuck baking them anyway and end up making variations of the same batch.

My melomakarona this year. Quite frankly, I think we all get tired of eating these by the time the holidays are over!

I hope your preparations are going well for the holidays, whether you are hosting at home, traveling to family or visiting friends.  I’m finished with all my grocery shopping and outlined a timeline of what to make leading up to Christmas day.  The mad cafe is beautifully decorated and the tree is holding up nicely in the humid 80 degree weather we’ve been having this week.  I’m hoping it will cool off a little in the next few days, so that we can enjoy a holiday stroll on Worth Ave.

Thrilled to find this index of recipes in another old journal that my grandmother kept!

My favorite part of this week is baking and enjoying the lovely smells in the house.  There’s something so comforting and rewarding about making something from scratch.  Anyway, I like this rmelomakarona ecipe because it’s flavorful, and you can easily adjust how much syrup you want to add on yours.  Just like kourabiedes, you can bake melomakarona up to a week before Christmas and they’ll keep just fine covered in room temperature.

MAD MELOS

Prep time: 25 minutes – Cook time: 30 minutes – Yields: about 2 dozen cookies

Ingredients

4 1/4 cups of all purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp fresh baking soda

1/2 cup of sugar

3/4 extra virgin olive oil

1/2 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup of orange juice (try to use freshly squeezed, exclude the pulp)

2 tbsp orange zest

2 tbsp vanilla extract

3 tbsp cognac or brandy (I use Metaxa)

Nut mixture:  1 cup pecans, finely chopped, 1/2 tsp ground cloves, 2 tbsp of ground cinnamon

Syrup:  1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup good honey, 1 cinnamon stick

Directions

Preheat the oven at 350F

In a bowl, sift your the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, baking soda and set aside.

In a mixing bowl with attachment, cream the butter, sugar on medium high for 3-4 minutes.  Lower to medium and drizzle the oil.  Add the orange juice, orange zest, vanilla and brandy and beat together well.

Pour the wet mixture in the bowl with the dry ingredients.  Using your hands, gently form the dough.  It will be a bit sticky.  Don’t knead the dough, just enough until the dry and wet ingredients are incorporated.

On a parchment paper lined baking sheet, start forming the melomakarona with about 1 tbsp of dough into ovals.  Ovals are the traditional shape, but I’ve seen round shapes, too.  The dough won’t expand much in the oven, so you can leave about an inch between cookies on the baking sheet.

Using the tines of a fork, cross-stitch the top of the melomakarona.  Pierce the dough enough but not all the way.  The purpose of this is for the honey syrup to permeate and to hold the nut mixture.

Bake the melomakarona for about 25 minutes, until golden brown.

Meanwhile, you’ll want to prepare the nut mixture.  Place all the ingredients above in a bowl, mix well with a wooden spoon and set aside.  You can use walnuts if you don’t have pecans.

Make the syrup:  Bring 1 cup of water, 1 cup of honey, 1 cup of sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved.  Add a cinnamon stick and simmer for a few minutes.  Try to take off the foam that will form with a spoon and discard.  Turn off the heat and set aside.

When the melomakarona are ready, while they are hot, use a large spoon and start pouring the syrup on top of the cookies.  This is where your taste guides you in terms of how much syrup to add.  I like mine with not too much syrup, so I add a tablespoon or so on top of the cookies.  Flip the cookies and pour some more syrup.  Let them cool and then flip them back and add the nut mixture over each one.  Place on a festive platter!

Happy baking!!!

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

tzatziki is not a simple greek yogurt sauce

A staple on the Greek table, tzatziki is a must serve whether as an appetizer, or part of the meal.  The problem is that many people just make it to make it, and do not consider it as a highlight of the meal.  If poorly prepared, it is the tzatziki, along with your guests, that are suffering this mishap.  Why miss the opportunity to make it superb?

Tzatziki can be a highlight of any Greek meal
Tzatziki can be a highlight of any Greek meal (I am crediting my husband for this awesome photo!)

Let’s discuss the ingredients for a moment.  If you’re going to make any old yogurt sauce, may the culinary force be with you; use whatever yogurt you want, add the spices you like, and above all, thanks for not calling it tzatziki.  Same applies if you decide to cut corners and use sour cream.  To me, using sour cream is a sin – especially when I see it on menus as tzatziki at Greek restaurants. Once you’ve tried the real deal, you instantly know the difference in taste.

Tzatziki is first and foremost not a sauce.  It’s a fresh, simple, humble and rich dip that accompanies nearly any Greek inspired food, so let’s not dumb it down.

Yogurt from sheep’s milk makes the mildest tzatziki, and since I’ve grown up eating Fage yogurt, I always use that for my recipe.  I remember several years ago when Fage made a huge entry in the US market, and suddenly the “in” thing was eating Greek yogurt.  There were ads everywhere about the benefits of Greek yogurt and it became popular quickly.  When I was little, I recall getting frustrated at the supermarket when we visited the US in the summer, because I could not find strained yogurt, muss less Greek… and I would have to strain it at home and it still didn’t taste right.  So, years later seeing Fage readily available nearly in every dairy aisle is amazing.

Tzatziki works with virtually any Greek dish. Here we are preparing for dinner at my brother's patio in Denver.
Tzatziki works with virtually any Greek dish. Here we are preparing for dinner at my brother’s patio in Denver.

I have a specific memory of special person I know, who was trying to rationalize how best to pour over the Fage’s side compartment containing the honey in the individually sold split cups.  He had quite an explanation about that which was pretty interesting.  I would just buy the plain yogurt and pour on top my own honey.  It was funny correcting him and others to pronounce it Fah-ye, which means “eat” in Greek… and not Fage.

Either way, whatever your preference is for strained yogurt, it’s become much easier to find it now and you can make awesome tzatziki whenever you like!

2016-11-20-17-07-08
Hand picked flaky salt… from the beach rocks of Karpathos

Let’s take a moment to talk about the rest of the ingredients briefly.  Using extra virgin olive oil is a no-brainer, and be prepared to keep adding into the mixture.  It’s hard to keep it to tablespoons!  And let’s talk about the salt.  There’s a reason why there are different types of salt to be used for different things.  Sure, you can use table salt.  If you can, splurge on better quality salt.  Every summer in Karpathos, I make sure to get my hands on the famous flaky salt, which is handpicked from the rocks on the beach.  Seriously, we treat this stuff like gold in the mad cafe and I pack some up with me if I’m traveling.

Not sure if I would call it a secret, but I use absolutely no lemons for this recipe… use red wine vinegar.  Lemon tends to make the tzatziki too bitter for my taste.  I know chefs that I respect who use mint to freshen it up more.  There are plenty of variations, with dill, without garlic (now that’s crazy to me!)… I’m sharing the one that my guests keep going for third and fourth helpings.

MAD CAFE GREEK TZATZIKI

1 medium container of Fage total plain 2% yogurt (17oz size)

3 garlic cloves, pressed or extremely finely minced and smashed.

1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1 medium hot house cucumber

1 tbsp good salt

1/2 tsp pepper

1 tsp paprika

2 tbsp fresh dill, finely chopped (optional)

Directions

Prep time: 15 minutes  –   Time to rest: at least 1 hour, or you can make it overnight for best results

Start with shredding the cucumber on paper towels and avoid the seedy core.  Squeeze out all of the liquid and add the cucumber into a medium stainless steel bowl.  Add the salt and mix by hand.  Mix in the yogurt, garlic and vinegar and mix with

yemista1
Rule of thumb: tzatziki loves company!

a large spoon just until ingredients are incorporated.  It should look pasty.  Drizzle in the olive oil and mix by hand until well blended.  Add the pepper and paprika and stir in.  If using dill, stir it in.  Taste and adjust the seasoning.  Note: don’t be fooled if you can’t taste the garlic… it takes time for the flavor to meld.

Cover with plastic wrap tightly and refrigerate for at least an hour.  I usually make it in the morning for an evening meal.  “Wake up” the tzatziki before serving by drizzling a little olive oil and add a splash of vinegar.  Serve with olives and pita bread, or with spanakopita or with any vegetable or meat dish.  Tzatziki loves people, so everyone should eat it!

Kali orexi!

 

 

holiday baking from the heart

Most of us have memories of home baking growing up.  We fondly remember the delicious smells of cookies, pies and cakes in the oven as we impatiently wait for them to cool enough to taste.  Cookies always taste better when cooling on a rack for some reason.  Especially when December rolls in those memories come alive year after year.

In our home growing up, my mom would bake chocolate chip cookies, which were generally unheard of in Greece during my childhood.  When she really felt motivated, she would make fudge.  I can still taste the decadence on the wooden spoon when she finished spreading it in the pan.  My friends had no clue what fudge was, or what marshmallows, or Fluff was… so it was amazing for me to watch them taste and discover new flavors.  They  loved coming over to our house during the holidays and were curious about how we celebrated an American Christmas.   That’s a whole other blog post that I’ll share with you soon.

There’s just something really special about the holidays that makes you crave comfort and great baking!  While we experienced a lot of American treats growing up in Athens, we also enjoyed the traditional baking, which I really miss, and recreate, this time of year.  From baklava and diples, to melomakarona and kourabiedes, there are so many variations and rituals observed and no doubt it’s different in each family.

When my brother moved to Princeton for school in the mid-nineties, we started spending the holiday break in Palm Beach, at my grandmother’s house, which is now ours.  My yiayia, Aphrodite, and I would spend hours and hours just talking.  We not only shared the same name, but we were kindred spirits.  I loved listening to stories of her childhood in Karpathos, her dreams, her ambitions and how she achieved so much in her 94 years, until she passed away in 2004.

I still remember this conversation with my yiayia on the balcony of our house in Karpathos as one of our best (summer, 1984)
I still remember this conversation with my yiayia on the balcony of our house in Karpathos as one of our best (summer, 1984)

Yiayia and I became even closer when I moved here to finish my undergrad studies, and I remember on my 21st birthday she mailed a card to my dorm in New York that read, “Happy birthday. You will reach to higher heights that I could not even dream were possible.”  It’s written in Greek, so it probably doesn’t translate as well… the idea was that where she left off is where she hoped I will continue.  So, I’ve kept her words close to my heart since then, and it motivates me constantly to improve, work smart and hard.  She would say that we are in this life to always learn, share and grow and not to show off and impress.

Circling back to the holidays, yiayia and I would often bake together.  She was so methodical in the process of baking anything, especially holid

Yiayia Aphrodite and I baking Karpathian spinach pies in her kitchen, Christmas 1997
Yiayia Aphrodite and I baking Karpathian spinach pies in her kitchen, Christmas 1997

ay cookies, like melomakarona (a honey dipped cookie) and kourabiedes (almond butter cookie with powder sugar – looks like a wedding cookie).  But, those holiday recipes are way overdone and I’m sure you can find plenty of them out there that you’ll enjoy.

Instead, I wanted to share with you a recipe for Karpathian spinach pie “xortopita” which would typically be baked this time of year in the old days since it is the peak of olive picking season.  The pies are individual, vegan (Lenten for the Christmas fast), and these little bites of hearty heaven date back since the days of my great-great grandparents, who would travel on foot or by donkey to

The rock house (stavlos) still stands on our olive groves in Karpathos. It isn't used anymore during picking season and mainly used to store honeycombs (melissia)
The rock house (stavlos) still stands on our olive groves in Karpathos. It isn’t used anymore during picking season and mainly used to store honeycombs (melissia)

the neighboring village of Stes and stay there for weeks during olive picking season.  They would stay in their stavlo, a tiny home with one room made with rocks.  And since they worked all day, they needed something that traveled well that would last for a few days, so dairy wouldn’t cut it back then with no electricity.

 

 

 

 

KARPATHIAN SPINACH PIE

Warning: this process is time consuming!  Prep time: plan for two hours between preparing and baking, especially for a first time baking these.

Cook time: About 20 minutes per batch.  Yields:  16-18 individual pies

Ingredients

For the dough:

4 cups of all purpose flour (you can try whole wheat flour)

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

3/4 cup water

pinch of salt

For the filling:

While I prefer using fresh greens, you can easily use organic frozen spinach, collard greens and kale for this.  Just make sure you have thawed the packages before cooking.

6 regular bags of fresh spinach, or 2 packages frozen

2 regular bags of collard greens or 1 frozen package

2 regular bags of kale, or 1 frozen package

2 large onions, finely chopped

1 bunch of scallions, chopped

1 punch of fresh dill, chopped

1/3 cup of original rice (rinsed and strained)

2 tbsp ground cumin

1 cube of vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the over to 350F.  Prepare two baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

Set the mixer with the dough blade or mix by hand in a large bowl the flour (sifted), salt, olive oil, and water.  Work the dough until it forms a soft ball.  Cover with a towel and let the dough rest for about an hour.  Note: the dough will not rise.  Divide the dough in equal parts, about 16-18 balls.

Meanwhile, while dough is resting, make the filling: in a large saucepan heat 2 tbsp olive oil and sweat the chopped onions and scallions over medium high heat, about 2-3 minutes.

Yiayia Aphrodite immigrated as an Italian citizen from Karpathos (Scarpanto) in 1938, one of the last boats to leave Greece before WWII. She learned English by attending night classes at age 28.

 

Add rice and saute for about 2-3 minutes until well coated with the oil.  Add the greens, a handful at time if using fresh, they will quickly wilt in the pan (if using frozen, add all together).  Mix together and add the veggie cube and about 1 cup of water and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat to medium and add the dill, cumin, salt and pepper.  Cook covered for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently.  Adjust the seasoning as needed and strain mixture and drain and best as you can.  The less liquid in the filling, the better!

On a lightly floured surface, use a rolling pin to roll out each dough ball to the size you prefer.  Have a small bowl of water handy as you will need it to fold over the dough and crimp it.  I typically use a bowl to cut over the dough and form a circle.  Spoon enough filling on one half of the rolled out dough circle.  Don’t overstuff!  Use your finger to line water on the edge of the circle, and fold over the other half of the dough to close the pie.  Use a fork to crimp.  Each pie has to be completely shut of it will open up during baking.

Continue the process until you’ve filled the baking sheet.  Allow at least an inch between pies allowing them space to bake.  Generously drizzle olive oil on top of the pies in the baking sheet before putting them in the over.  I like to sprinkle a little bit of flaky salt on top.  Bake for about 25-30 minutes.  They will not really brown, and will seem as if they aren’t ready, but they are!!

Tasty and healthy, the pies are great for breakfast or afternoon snack, and easy to pack
Tasty and healthy, the pies are great for breakfast or afternoon snack, and easy to pack

Take out and carefully place on a rack to cool for about an hour.  Repeat the process until the dough is finished.  If you have leftover filling you can freeze it, or enjoy it on its own!

The pies can be stores at a cool place for a day or two or just go ahead and refrigerate them.  Best served warm!!!  Enjoy 🙂