Complete List of Recipes & Reflections

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Kumquat Sweet for Your Thoughts (Κούμκουατ Γλυκό)

A Kumquat Sweet for Your Thoughts – Click to Enlarge

I was first introduced to this exotic Greek confection in the late ‘90s. One of my friends had gone to Greece for the summer and had returned with several packages of individually wrapped kumquat sweets, an exclusive specialty of the Ionian island of Corfu (Kerkyra). Though I was already familiar with Corfiote (i.e. of Corfu) kumquat liqueur, I had never tried the glacé fruit until my friend, Kyriakos, generously shared some of his supply with me. Needless to say, I was immediately hooked. The subtle orange citrus bitterness of the fruit’s tender though slightly chewy translucent flesh was totally suffused with the sweetness of its sugar syrup and was simply irresistible.

Interestingly enough, not long after that first sampling, I remember learning that upon completion of the filming on location in Greece for the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only” (1981), Roger Moore left Greece with several suitcases stuffed full of Corfiote kumquat sweets. It seems 007 had a thing for this truly rare confection as well! From that moment, I was determined to obtain and build up my own cache of the much sought after delicacy on any subsequent trips to Greece. Alas, this was easier thought than done…

Although one can find the Corfiote kumquat liqueur easily enough in traditional specialty shops pretty well throughout mainland Greece, the kumquat sweet is an altogether different proposition. It would not be an understatement to say that on several trips to Greece, I have literally scoured traditional delicacy shops throughout the country, looking for the confection but without success. About the only place I have not been to look for it is on the island of Corfu itself! So, I have resolved that on my next trip to the fatherland I will make every effort to visit the island and stock up on this hard to get goodie.

Fresh Kumquats - Click to Enlarge Image

The kumquat was brought to Corfu from the Far East and there are two different versions concerning its introduction to the Greek island (though they are not necessarily mutually exclusive). The first attributes the transplantation of the tree to Corfu from Japan in the years 1846 - 1847 as part of British colonial commercial efforts on the island. For, as a result of the Treaty of Paris (1815), the Ionian Islands were subsumed as a protectorate of the United Kingdom. The second anecdote ascribes the arrival of the kumquat to a Greek born British colonial by the name of Sidney Merlin. Mr. Merlin was a gold medalist for Great Britain in Shooting at the Athens 1906 Olympic Games (Did you know Athens has hosted three Olympic Games?). He was also an avid amateur botanist and extensive traveler with ties to diplomatic circles, and according to this version of events, it was he who reportedly brought the tree back with him from Japan in 1924. Today, the kumquat orchards of the Merlin Estate on Corfu are a popular tourist sight. Whichever version is correct, Corfu has since remained as the only place the kumquat is extensively cultivated in Europe, and its products have been registered as P.D.O. by the European Union.

One interesting Corfiote tradition that has developed along with the cultivation of the kumquat relates to the kumquat liqueur I mentioned above. When a baby is born to a Corfiote couple, a bottle of kumquat liqueur is procured (usually as a gift) and then set aside until the child’s wedding day. On the day of the wedding, the kumquat liqueur is ceremoniously opened and shared about for a toast to the sweet-bitter future of the newly married couple.

I was lucky enough to find some kumquats at a local supermarket last week. Admittedly, these kumquats were from South Africa and not Corfu, but I resolved to try and re-create the Corfiote kumquat sweet with them anyway. As I could not find any ready recipes for it, I thought I would simply create my own. Keep in mind that the creation of this sweet is a process that takes several days, so patience is the primary ingredient in this recipe.

Drying the kumquats - Click to Enlarge Image


1 lb. (approx. 40-45 fruits) of fresh kumquats
4 cups of sugar
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. vanilla extract

  1. Wash kumquats well and remove the small stalk-ends.
  2. Using a poultry needle, pierce each fruit through completely, top to bottom (i.e. lengthwise) several times.
  3. In a saucepan, bring 1 quart (1 litre) of water to a rolling boil then add the kumquats and boil them for 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the kumquats, add fresh water to the saucepan and once more bring it to a boil then add the kumquats and boil them for another 10 minutes. Then, remove the kumquats and put them in a bowl with cold water. Leave the kumquats to soak in the water for 24 hours and make sure to change the water several times.
  4. After this soaking, remove the kumquats from the water; spread them out on a flat towel-covered surface (preferably in a sunny spot) and leave to dry for 24 hours. They should pucker slightly when their moisture has sufficiently evaporated.
  5. For the syrup, add 2 cups of water and the 4 cups of sugar, along with the lemon juice and vanilla extract to a saucepan and stirring it occasionally bring to a rolling boil for several minutes. Add the kumquats and boil them in the syrup for 5 minutes. They will noticeably expand which will serve to suck the syrup into the fruit via the piercings, which will ensure a thorough saturation by the syrup. After the 5 minutes remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside to cool. Leave the kumquats in the syrup to soak overnight.
  6. After the overnight syrup bath, place the saucepan on a high heat and bring the contents to a rolling boil for 5 minutes, then remove from heat and leave to cool. Using a spoon, skim off any surface bubbles that will form on top of the syrup. Repeat this boiling process (likely 2 more times) until the syrup has reduced to a point where the kumquats are barely covered by the concentrated syrup. Then, leave to half cool and bottle in a glass preserve jar for storage. They should keep for a very long time.

Bottled kumquat sweet - Click to Enlarge Image

You can use the kumquat sweet as a topping for ice cream, yogurt, or whatever else takes your fancy. Or, you can simply eat it on its own as a spoon sweet chased down with a glass of cold water as the Greeks are wont to do…

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit)

Sam Sotiropoulos

Greek Gourmand™

Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mad About Aubergine (Eggplant) Rolls... Μελιτζάνες Τυλιχτές

Melitzanes Tylichtes (Eggplant Rolls) - Click to Enlarge Image

Greeks are simply crazy over eggplant or melitzana (μελιτζάνα) in Greek, pronounced “meh-lee-TZAH-nah”. We puree, braise, boil, stew, stuff, bake, fry, grill, roast, and preserve them as sweets; a culinary obsession which may lend some credence to the original European prejudice against the fruit which was dubbed "mala insane" (Latin for “apple of madness”), as it was believed to cause insanity. Both the Italian (melanzano) and Greek (melitzana) words for “eggplant” are derived from this medieval nickname. The French term for eggplant "aubergine" is derived from Arabic.

As the eggplant, like the tomato and potato to which it is related in genus is not native to Europe (witness the lack of any Roman or ancient Greek word for it), its introduction from the East sometime in the Middle Ages was initially greeted with suspicion and only gradually was it embraced, cultivated, and consumed with any gusto. Originally brought from its native India and Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean basin (and from there to the rest of Europe) by the Arabs, today the eggplant features prominently in many European cuisines. But, for the Greeks, eggplants are more than just another ingredient; they are a gastronomic theme unto themselves.

My family has been consuming eggplants in a whole host of ways for as long as anyone can remember. Thus, I have benefited from a rich family tradition with respect to the preparation of eggplant dishes. I have already shared a couple of recipes which incorporate the eggplant (Moussaka and Imam Bayildi), so this is my third offering on the subject of the eggplant as part of traditional Greek food. This recipe was originally my grandmother’s and can be enjoyed as part of a main course or as an appetizer, the choice is entirely yours.


1 large, round eggplant
1 lb. ground veal
1 large white onion, finely diced
1 cup of Greek extra virgin olive oil
2 cups of strained tomato pulp/juice
½ cup of white wine (or Retsina if you have it)
2 cloves of garlic
1 cup shredded or grated Greek Graviera cheese (a mild Gruyere will do in a pinch)
1/3 cup pine nuts
2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh mint

1/3 cup of dried breadcrumbs
1 egg
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried Greek oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Wash the eggplant thoroughly and remove stalk, then slice it thinly along its length, try for 12 slices or so.
  2. Liberally salt both sides of the eggplant slices and spread them in a flower pattern in a colander then set aside to drain for 30 minutes. Be sure to place a bowl under the colander to catch the liquid and remember to flip the slices at least once to allow for better overall drainage.
  3. Prepare the meat by sautéing the onions in a large frying pan in a ¼ cup of olive oil until soft, and then add the meat and mix well for 8 – 10 minutes over a medium-high heat to brown it thoroughly.
  4. Add the wine (or retsina), 1 cup of the tomato juice, ground cumin, salt and pepper to the meat and stir well to mix completely; bring to a boil and then simmer over a medium-low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the sauce has completely reduced and the meat has drunk the remainder up, remove the frying pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.
  5. Heat up three tablespoonfuls of olive oil in a large fry pan (ensure the olive oil covers the entire bottom of the pan), then lightly flour both sides of the eggplant slices and proceed to fry them in batches until softened. The trick with this part of the process is to be sparing with the olive oil as the eggplant is absorbent and will drink it up quickly in the pan. Add olive oil to the pan as needed but do it in a thin stream around the entire circumference of the pan so it seeps towards the centre. Shake the frying pan back and forth with each batch to keep the eggplant slices from sticking to the bottom. Once the eggplant slices have been lightly fried, spread them overlapping on some paper towel in a pan so they can absorb their oil and drain the excess then set them aside while you prepare the tomato sauce.
  6. Heat ¼ cup of olive oil in a small frying pan, press and add the garlic clove pulp and sauté lightly, then add 1 cup of tomato juice along with the oregano, salt and pepper. Bring sauce to a boil and then lowering the heat, simmer until the sauce has reduced and thickened, then remove from heat and set aside.
  7. Retrieve the cooled meat mixture and in a large mixing bowl add the shredded Graviera cheese, breadcrumbs, chopped mint, pine nuts, and a beaten egg and mix well to combine with the meat. (Leave aside a few tablespoonfuls of shredded cheese for use as a garnish later).
  8. Taking up each eggplant slice, place a good spoonful of the meat mixture in the middle of one end and roll up that end of the eggplant to complete a full end-to-end overlapping roll, then use a toothpick to pin it in place. Be sure not to press the centre of the roll too hard as you do not want the meat to protrude from the open sides.
  9. Place the eggplant rolls side by side in close rows in a deep walled pan greased with olive oil, I used 2 Pyrex glass loaf pans so my rolls were snugly fitted in single rows.
  10. Retrieve the prepared tomato sauce and spoon/pour overtop of eggplant rolls in a single stripe right along the middle of the rolled eggplant slices. We do not want to smother the rolls in the sauce, so try to keep it in a single line. Sprinkle some of the shredded Graviera cheese overtop of the tomato sauce stripe, and then place the pan(s) in an oven pre-heated to 350° F. (180° C.) and bake for 30 minutes.
  11. Let stand to cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Garnish with a little more shredded cheese while still warm. For myself, I prefer to let the dish cool completely, refrigerate it, and then serve it the next day after warming it up in the oven. Like Moussaka, Imam Bayildi, and a whole host of other Greek recipes, this dish is best served on the following day when all the flavours have had a chance to mingle and fully coalesce, and all the juices have been absorbed.

Serves: 4

Aubergine Rolls just before going into the oven... Click to Enlarge.

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit)

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections

Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Of Macedonian Hospitality and Sausages

Macedonian Sausage on the BBQ

Ask mainland Greeks where they are from and you will likely get responses like: “Arcadia” or “Thessalia” or “Laconia” or “Messenia" or “Macedonia” and so on. Greece has thirteen geographic regions of which nine are on the mainland and four are insular. Each region has its own set of customs, traditions, folk songs and dances, costumes, food specialties, wines and spirits. Their inhabitants also have reputations for specific peculiarities of character (or custom) which differentiates them from other Greeks. The Cretans and the Maniotes, for example, are famous for their feuding and vendettas. To this day, the Cretan country roads and highways are interspersed with bullet-ridden traffic signs.

When it comes to the Macedonians, they are renowned for their generous and open-handed hospitality to strangers, a reputation which in my estimation is well deserved. This reputation for hospitality is not a new development; it has survived the test of time. Of course, this is not to say that Greeks from other regions of Greece are not hospitable, they most certainly are; however, in a country where hospitality to strangers is an ancient and ubiquitous social precept, the Macedonians enjoy the reputation of being the most hospitable.

The ancient Greeks had a word which embodied a code of conduct that pertained to the guest-host relationship between strangers, the word was “xenia” (ξενία) [pronounced ‘kse-NEE-ah’]. The concept of xenia was based on the principles of generosity and consideration shown to travelers who were far from their homes; the word itself was derived from the word xénos which means ‘foreigner’. The principle of xenia was of such significance to the ancients that the king of the Olympian gods, Zeus himself, was the patron and protector of foreigners; a role which found expression in the epithet Zeus Xenios. Anyone, host or guest, who violated the sacred prescription of xenia, was open to the retribution of Heaven.

Baroque painting (circa 1625) of the myth of Baucis and Philemon by an unknown artist

In Greek Mythology, we have the story of Baucis and Philemon as testament to the interest Zeus took in assuring the sanctity of the act of welcoming a stranger and showing them every courtesy. The myth tells us that one day, Zeus, accompanied by his son Hermes (the god of travelers) resolved to do a quality control spot check of the practice of xenia amongst mortals in a region known as Tyana in Phrygia. Together, the two Olympians disguised themselves as a couple of ordinary traveling peasants. They called at the gates of the great and small homes of the area seeking food and shelter for the night and were rudely rebuffed at every door save one, that of Baucis and Philemon: a dirt poor, elderly couple who lived in an old cottage with their only companion a precocious goose.

Baucis and her husband readily made their meager table and modest home available to the two strangers. They served the pair of dusty wayfarers what little food and wine they had. As they looked to the needs of their visitors, the old man and woman noticed something strange: no matter how much wine they poured or food they fetched, the wine pitcher and the larder never emptied. So they grew fearful as they realized that their guests were not mere mortals.

Worried that they had somehow offended their visitors with the scantiness of the spread they had set for them, the old couple apologized to their guests and resolved to butcher their goose to feed them a proper meal. The perceptive gander caught wind of their intent and bolted for the lap of Zeus in an effort to save itself (animals, you see, have no problem recognizing the gods for what they are). The old goose was successful too! For, at this point, the king of gods and men thanked the generous-hearted agéd couple for sharing with him and his companion what the wealthiest households in the land had refused. He bade them to leave their home immediately and ascend with himself and his companion to the higher ground of a nearby mountain, as he intended to destroy by flood the homes and lives of those who had refused food and lodging to a pair of traveling strangers. Baucis and Philemon, along with their goose, followed the two immortals and then watched from a safe elevation as a flood swept away the homes of their neighbours. Their own cottage was spared and transformed into a beautiful marble temple right before their eyes.

As the floodwaters receded, Zeus wishing to reward Baucis and Philemon for their generosity asked what boon he could bestow upon the twain. The elderly pair replied that when the time came, they wished to pass away together in order to spare themselves the pain of bereavement should one die before the other. As well, they asked to remain as the warders of the temple which used to be their home for the rest of their lives. Zeus granted both wishes and so the old couple passed their remaining days together in the beautiful temple. When their allotted time came, instead of dying they were transformed into two trees, an oak and a linden, and rooted side by side with limbs intertwining by the entrance to the temple that was once their home.

The notion of xenia is alive and well among Greeks even today, though the word has been modified somewhat into philoxénia, which literally translates as ‘stranger-friendship’. The day before yesterday, I had the chance to sample some classic Macedonian hospitality (philoxenia) right here in Toronto, courtesy of Peter Minakis and his family. I have mentioned Peter and his food blogging activities in a past posting as our acquaintance stems from a mutual penchant for sharing our passion for Greek food with others on the World Wide Web. On Saturday, I actually had the pleasure of meeting Peter and his mother in person at their home. Not only was I (a complete stranger) welcomed into their house, but I was fed a delicious fresh cinnamon roll, served an ice coffee (frappé), offered some fresh baked and still warm Greek almond cookies, and even left their company with a package of homemade frozen Macedonian sausages in hand! May Zeus Xenios and Hermes bless and watch over Peter and his family and their household!

Peter (right) and I (left) enjoying a beautiful Spring afternoon together

Peter's mother Chrissanthi with a tray of warm almond cookies

Today, my wife and I enjoyed those sausages for our lunch. I grilled them on the barbecue and they were fantastic! The meat was laced with leeks and had a hint of spice from the Macedonian Boukovo (red chili) used in the recipe; they were very flavourful with a characteristic aftertaste that left the scent of the leek on the breath long after they were consumed. In the south of Greece, particularly in Arcadia and Laconia, sausages are often flavoured with orange or lemon rind, whereas the use of leek as part of the sausage stuffing is a Macedonian regional specialty. The recipe for these sausages can be obtained from Peter’s blog: Kalofagas.


Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Image courtesy of: Miguel Ugalde

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” is Latin for “Who watches the watchmen?” and is an apt question for many current issues relating to the “War On Terror” (WOT, which also stands for “Waste Of Time”) and its consequences for human rights. This blog entry is part of the Bloggers Unite Campaign sponsored by the good folks at Blog Catalog.

While we sit back comfortably and blog about food or whatever else tickles our fancy, some of the things that are being done in our name(s) by our governments in the WOT would prevent any of us from holding down a proper meal. One of the most egregious elements of the entire WOT is the flagrant disregard for Justice and the Right to Fair Trial. Individuals have been detained and held without formal charges for extended periods, some even for several years, without recourse to due process or a fair trial in a Court of Law. I don’t know about you, but this really disturbs me...

Ever since the events of 9/11 world “leaders” (who, let us be honest, are by and large anything but worthy examples) have granted the Instruments of the State the most extraordinary powers which in reality are abuses not only of international law and human rights, but plain old common sense. Speaking for myself, I would like to ensure that due process was applied if - Heaven forbid! - I were ever to be seized by police, border guards, or an intelligence service for any reason at all. After all, MISTAKES are made and people do suffer for no good reason whatsoever, simply because they happened to be the wrong person, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What can we do about the WOT and its inimical effects on justice and human rights in our world? We can start by contacting our Members of Parliament, or Congressmen (and women), or Senators, or Governors, or Premiers, or whomsoever we can and try to influence them to work to rescind, scale back, or reconsider the virtually unlimited seizure and detainment powers that have been granted to agencies charged with the task of carrying on the WOT. I have written my Member of Parliament, how about you?

In Earnest,

Sam Sotiropoulos
Human Being
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cod With Raisins...Bakaliaros Me Stafida (Video Redux)

Having posted this recipe as my first blog posting, I thought it would be fitting to revisit the dish for my first video blog posting. Though this dish is more of a cooler (or rainy) weather comfort food, I can eat this year round without complaint.

Greeks have had a long relationship with the sea and its bounty. As Greece has over 14,000 kilometres of coastline the majority of her population is never very far from the sea, hence, Greece abounds in recipes for the cooking of seafood and each region of the country has its own specialties. This recipe originates in the southern Peloponnese, specifically from the area of the coastal city of Kalamata. However, it is not likely that you will find this dish in any of the restaurants that line the city’s harbour; this is traditional home cooking pure and simple.

This unique recipe combining the fruits of the vine and sea was taught to me by my Aunt Voula some fifteen years ago, and has remained as one of my all-time favourite fish dishes. As the video illustrates, the preparation is quite simple and requires a minimum of ingredients. Furthermore, although one might be tempted to think that this meal would tend to be rather sweet because of the raisins, it is actually quite savoury with the sweetness of the raisins providing more of a mellowed nuance that mingles amazingly well with the tomato sauce and onions. Combine it with a red-skin potato mash (mixed with some finely chopped fresh green onions and wild Greek oregano), and the virtues of this simple dish will become quite apparent in a most satisfying fashion.


Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit)

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Marvellous Moussaka

Click to Enlarge Photo

As promised in a previous posting, I will now share my recipe for Moussaka that is fit for a Queen

I have made Moussaka [pronounced “moo-sah-KAH”] often enough to have broken the process down to a science. As I am particular about how I like my Moussaka, I have developed a certain technique which - if followed to the letter - will produce consistently tasty and presentable results, time and again. As Moussaka is oftentimes considered one of the national dishes of Greece (though I have a different opinion on that subject), I think it behooves us to approach the matter in as methodical and respectful a manner as possible.

More than its constituent ingredients, the process of creating Moussaka is about the structuring of a specific type of alternately layered, rich casserole dish that may or may not include meat or cheese, and can contain a variety of vegetables from eggplant and potato, to squash and zucchini. Rather than go into a lengthy discussion about the regional or preferential variations that exist, let me state that although my process describes the “classic” Moussaka combination of ground veal, eggplant, potato and white sauce (béchamel), it can easily be adapted to the creation of other combinations of ingredients; the fundamentals are the same.

Note: this Moussaka recipe is intended to fill two 1400 ml (1.5 quarts) loaf pans, or one medium sized rectangular deep-walled baking pan. I used 2 Pyrex glass loaf pans which explain the double-edged downward narrowing appearance of my Moussaka slice in the photo above.


1 ½ lbs. regular ground veal
2 lbs. potatoes (preferably yellow-fleshed)
2 medium-large eggplants
2 medium sized white onions, diced
1 ½ cups of Greek extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon of garlic powder
½ cup white wine
Salt and pepper to taste

For the White Sauce (béchamel):

4 cups of cold milk
1 cup of flour
¾ cup of butter
2 eggs
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Salt, pepper


  1. Peel potatoes and wash eggplants.
  2. Slice off stalk and bottom ends of eggplant, slice useable portions of ends into thin discs.
  3. Thinly slice the eggplants lengthwise. Make sure to cut the slices relatively thin as they will thus absorb less olive oil when fried and result in an overall less oily finished product. [My Moussaka is never oily and this is part of the reason.]
  4. Place eggplant slices in a large mixing bowl filled with salty water and leave to soak for 15 minutes, then remove eggplant from water and leave to dry well on outspread towel(s). The eggplant must be dried well before being fried to avoid hot oil pops and splatters.
  5. Slice potatoes into relatively thin lengthwise slices.
  6. Over a medium heat add a ¼ cup of the olive oil to a large frying pan and proceed to fry the sliced potato discs in batches, laying them out flat in the bottom of the pan, ensuring to turn each over to cook both sides. The potato slices should be fried until slightly soft. When the potato slices are cooked, remove from the hot oil and place them on spread paper towel(s) for them to drain.
  7. Once the potatoes are done, using the same frying pan (though you may need to clean it), add a ¼ cup of olive oil and over a medium heat start frying the eggplant slices in batches. You will need to keep adding more olive oil to the pan as you go with each batch of eggplant slices as they do absorb it rapidly. This is where the virtue of thin slices makes itself known… The thinner slices need less time in the pan to soften and they absorb less oil before seeping it back into the pan, thus less oil is required to fry them overall.
  8. As with the potato slices, when the eggplant slices are soft and almost translucent from the oil absorption, remove each batch from the hot oil and place them on spread paper towel(s) for them to drain well.
  9. Once the eggplant slices are cooked, add the remaining olive oil (or about a ¼ cup) to the same frying pan - which likely will not require cleaning this time - and proceed to sauté the diced onion until soft.
  10. Add ground veal to the onions in the frying pan and mix well to break up the meat. Stir meat continuously over a medium-high heat for 10 minutes, making sure to brown all the meat well.
  11. Add wine, garlic powder, salt and pepper to the pan and stir well to mix.
  12. Dilute tomato paste in 1 cup of water and add to pan, and when the mixture boils reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The meat mix needs to simmer long enough to reduce the liquid in the pan and for the meat to drink up the sauce completely, without drying out.
  13. Grease the sides and bottoms of your pan(s) with olive oil and cover the bottom(s) completely with a layer of potato discs; overlap where necessary to ensure as complete a covering as possible though make sure not to use up all the potatoes for the bottom(s) alone; you will probably require a little more than half the potato slices to ensure a complete bottom cover.
  14. Using a spatula, spoon out a little more than half of the meat mixture and spread to cover the bottom potato layer(s) evenly.
  15. Cover meat layer(s) with remaining potato discs as best as possible, then cover this potato layer completely with a layer of eggplant slices, overlapping as necessary to ensure complete coverage, right to the sides of the pan.
  16. Spread remaining meat mixture out evenly to cover the eggplant layer and using the spatula press down on the layers (though not too hard) to compact them in order to ensure sufficient room for the thick layer of white sauce (béchamel) to come.

How to prepare the white sauce (béchamel):

  1. Melt butter in a medium sized saucepan over a medium-low heat.
  2. When butter is melted, thoroughly incorporate the flour in stages using a whisk and continuously stirring for about 5 minutes. (Note: As this can be an arduous task due to the need for sustained rapid stirring and the thickening of the sauce, I recommend using a wand blender with a whisk attachment for making the white sauce).
  3. Once the flour is fully incorporated, slowly, in a thin but steady stream, add the 4 cups of milk while stirring continuously and turn up the heat slightly to bring the thick sauce to a boil and then remove the saucepan from the heat.
  4. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix sauce well.
  5. Beat the eggs and slowly add them to the sauce making sure to combine well.
  6. Pour a thick layer of white sauce into baking pan(s) completely covering the top meat sauce layer. If necessary, spread white sauce evenly with the bottom of a large spoon to ensure a uniform surface.
  7. Place filled baking pan(s) into an oven pre-heated to 350° F. (180° C.) and bake for 40 minutes or until the top is nicely browned.
  8. Let stand to cool for at least 1 hour before cutting into slices and serving. [Personally, I let it cool for several hours before consumption. In point of fact, Moussaka is always better on the following day, as all the flavours have had a chance to coalesce. So, once it has cooled completely, if you refrigerate your Moussaka and then warm it just before serving on the following day, you will get the full benefit of its flavours and textures.]

Not surprisingly, making Moussaka is a time intensive procedure so make sure you have a couple hours to spare before you tackle this recipe. The results – if you stick to my process and suggestions – will more than repay your effort.

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit)

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections

Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Why I Use Only Greek Olive Oil

The first cold-pressed, extra virgin juice of the olive

When it comes to olive oil, I have never used anything but Greek extra virgin olive oil in my cooking. From a very young age, my father had impressed upon me the notion that all other olive oils were inferior. Indeed, he would often go as far as stating outright that most other commercially available so-called “olive oils” were counterfeits. Our food shopping excursions were always illuminating in this regard. Wheeling me along in the shopping cart, he would nod at the neat stacks of canned Italian olive oils in the supermarket and mutter “vegetable oil” under his breath, just loud enough for me to hear and understand. It is almost four decades later and my father's words are reverberating in my mind as I write this posting.

Now, I am not a stranger to olive oil. Indeed, I have tickled olive tree roots, trimmed olive branches, and harvested our family’s olives to press our oil. As a result, I do have a producer’s firsthand knowledge of the subject, as well as the inquisitiveness of a dilettante with a penchant for research on the topic. Add to this the fact that my family has never purchased a single drop of olive oil from a supermarket, and I guess I can claim to be something of a private expert on the matter.

Armed with this knowledge and related experience, I feel obliged to pass along any important news pertaining to olive oil that may come to my attention. Thus, I am compelled to share that just over a week ago, on April 22nd 2008, as reported by the BBC and other news sources, a large ring of Italian "olive oil" producers -some forty individuals or so- were rounded up and arrested for creating and selling (largely for export to North America and Europe) a significant quantity of fake “olive oil”. According to the story, these enterprising folk were in the business of taking vegetable oils imported from the United States to Italy, and transforming them into “olive oil” then packing and selling it back to North Americans and Europeans as “Italian olive oil”. How nice.

I guess I was not entirely surprised when this news item broke. After all, I am my father’s son and this latest news was not the first time Italian olive oil production practices had been called into question in the mainstream media. In its August 2007 issue, New Yorker magazine published an illuminating piece on the scale of such olive oil adulteration operations in Italy. The article is quite an eye-opener and well worth reading.

Being curious by nature, I launched a small investigative mission of my own with respect to what sorts of “olive oils” are being sold in the macro-marketplace here in Toronto, and what I found was not encouraging. On a recent shopping visit to a Costco wholesale outlet I found a good example of the type of olive oil product imported from Italy that is widely available here in Toronto. The details are pretty clearly indicated in the photo of Costco’s signature “Kirkland” brand of “Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil” as seen below. [Click on the picture to view the larger version as the white arrow in the photo points to the relevant backside label information on the bottle.]

A picture worth a thousand words...?

Though I must commend them on the honesty of their label, unfortunately Costco’s clear indication of the source(s) of their signature “Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil” does not inspire confidence in my estimation of the ultimate origin and quality of said product. But then again, that is my own personal take on the matter and after all, who am I to call into question the stated certification of the ‘Consorzio per il Controllo Prodotti Biologicianyway?

Now, to be clear, I am not knocking the many legitimate producers and sources of Italian olive oil. Nonetheless, the fact that Italian olive oil marketing efforts have captured the lion’s share of the world’s olive oil consumer market, and yet, Italy remains as the single largest importer of Greek olive oil, sends an interesting message to anybody paying attention to the details. As already stated, my purpose is not to impugn the numerous legitimate producers and distributors of Italian olive oil, but based on the facts at hand, I cannot help but entertain numerous questions as to the source and authenticity of purportedly Italian “olive oils”. In point of fact, I am saddened by the entire affair as this is just another indication of how far out of whack our 21st Century global food distribution, marketing and consumption industries have become.

So, to wrap this up, this morning I happened to be going through the sheaf of advertising flyers that are delivered to our door along with one of our locally distributed weekly community newspapers, and I noticed something interesting indeed. It seems that suddenly there is a glut of cheap Italian “olive oils” appearing in the advertisements of the large and small supermarkets here in Toronto… Hmmm.

And so, my fellow eaters, all I can counsel when it comes to buying olive oil is “caveat emptor” (“Buyer Beware”) as the Romans would say.

If you have any doubts, consider reaching for the Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil instead.

Simply Scandalized,

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Spiral as in Baklava

My Cretan spiral baklava ready for action - Click to Enlarge

The origin of baklava, a pastry composed of layers of phyllo containing nuts and soaked in honey syrup, is something of a bone of contention among certain types who have nothing better to do with their time. I have heard Turks, Lebanese, and others claim it as their own. Whoever may have invented the dish, whether Greek, Levantine, Turk or whatever, it is not made in the same way by all; the variations include the types of nuts used, the ratios of nuts to phyllo, the shapes of the dessert, and the spices and flavourings that go into the pastry itself or into its syrup. Frankly, I am not overly concerned as to whether the Byzantine Greeks, the Arabs, or the Ottomans, or even the Chinese (!) created this dessert; I know it simply as a part of traditional Greek cookery, and as far as I am concerned, baklava is Greek.

This particular recipe is from Crete, from a family that I had met while backpacking on the island back in 1994. I had ascended to the peak of the highest mountain on the island in the central region of the Rethymnon Prefecture. Continuing on foot, I traversed the Psiloritis Range and descended into the Messara Coastal Plain in the south. The hike took a full three days all told, with a night spent on the upper slopes of Mount Ida (or Psiloritis) itself, almost 2500 metres above sea level.

The stone chapel at the peak of Mount Ida (or Psiloritis)

When I came down out of the mountains, I paid for a cot in the back of a small local taverna in a village called Kamares, where I spent the night. In similar small villages throughout Greece, there is always at least one such roadhouse. Before retiring, I ate a small meal in the front of the taverna – the food was simple, fresh, and very good. I had a baked lamb dish (done in a serving sized clay vessel) with a yogurt sauce that was surpassingly excellent. Of course, I had just spent three days and two nights in an unfamiliar and forbidding wilderness so just about anything cooked in a proper kitchen would have tasted amazing, but to this day, I still remember that repast.

There were other local patrons in the taverna that evening. All of them perked up their ears when the owner and operator of the establishment conversationally asked after my business in their isolated hamlet. He asked if I was there to see the sacred Minoan cave which had been discovered nearby. In truth, as I told him, I did not even know there was such a cave in the locality, though I did express an interest in visiting the grotto. The owner pointed to another patron and told me that for a small consideration, the other fellow might be persuaded to show me the cave. So, bright and early the next morning I was off to see the cave. My guide, Kosta, turned out to be a very affable fellow and we became instant friends. After the cave tour, he invited me back to his home for lunch with his family.

One thing led to another, and I ended up staying with Kosta and his wife Eleni and their two children as their guest for two more days! (I later learned that I was somewhat of a celebrity among the villagers as I was a Diaspora Greek with no family connections in Crete, who had braved the elements and the mountains in late October. Cretans, more than most other Greeks, appreciate such exploits as they are a rather adventurous lot as a whole.) Anyway, it was from Eleni that I picked up this ridiculously easy to make recipe for baklava, and I have been making it with lip-smacking success ever since.


(Serves 4)

4 sheets of phyllo (store-bought is fine)
1 cup (250 ml.) of blanched raw almonds
⅓ cup (80 ml.) melted unsalted butter (or vegetable shortening)
½ cup (125 ml.) Greek thyme honey
½ cup (125 ml.) of sugar
1 tablespoon (15 ml.) finely shredded orange rind.
1 teaspoon (8 ml.) ground cinnamon

*Note: A 6” inch (15 cm.) springform baking pan (i.e. with removable side and bottom) or a clay baking vessel of similar dimensions will be required to make this pastry.

For the pastry:

  1. Grind blanched almonds until coarsely chopped. Add orange rind and cinnamon to the almond mixture and mix well.
  2. Spread one sheet of phyllo out on a dry work surface in landscape orientation and brush to cover its surface completely with the melted butter. Add another sheet of phyllo directly overtop and brush its surface with butter as well.
  3. Spread half the ground almond mixture over the doubled phyllo surface, make sure to spread it evenly and do not go all the way to the edges. Leave a gutter of free space of about 1 inch all around the perimeter of the phyllo rectangle.
  4. Fold the two short sides of the phyllo in towards the centre about a ½ inch on either side. Brush both side edge folds with the melted butter.
  5. Fold over the entire length of the bottom edge of the phyllo about 1 inch (or to the start of the spread out almond mix, then carefully roll the folded bottom edge tightly up towards the top edge. Make sure to brush the entire length of the roll several times with the melted butter as you go, and especially the space just before the top edge where the roll will be completed.
  6. When the first roll is done, brush its exterior with the melted butter then liberally brush the inside of the baking pan with melted butter and bend the roll into a circle and line the inner periphery of the pan with it; the ends will almost but not quite meet. Apply another coat of melted butter to the roll, and repeat steps 2 – 5 with the remaining two sheets of phyllo and the rest of the almond mixture.
  7. Carefully (so as not to break it), curl the second roll into a tighter circle than the first and fit it within the outer circle of rolled phyllo already lining the walls of the pan. Make sure to leave as little empty space in the pan as possible by fitting the second roll in a manner that continues the outer roll in a tight spiral towards the centre.
  8. Once the pan is filled, brush the remaining melted butter overtop of everything and place pan in an oven pre-heated to 350° F. (180° C.) and bake for 30-40 minutes until the pastry takes on a uniform golden brown colour.
  9. Remove pan from oven when done and place it in a plate, then immediately pour the hot syrup (see below) slowly overtop in a widening spiral starting from the centre. Make sure you pour the syrup over the entire pastry. Let stand to cool and for the syrup to be absorbed before serving. [Tip: If you use a springform pan, some of the syrup will likely spill out when the bakalava has cooled and you remove the side of the pan. This is why we place it in a plate so as to collect the extra syrup and pour it over the pastry again when it is placed on its final serving dish.]

For the syrup:

  1. Combine sugar with a ½ cup (125 ml.) of water and the honey in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
  2. Turn down heat to medium low, stir well and let the syrup simmer for another few minutes until ready. The desired consistency is somewhat thicker than olive oil but not quite as thick as the honey on its own. (Pure Greek thyme honey is a particularly thick substance and needs to be slightly diluted for use in this dessert.)

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit!)

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.