Complete List of Recipes & Reflections

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Kourabiedes (Κουραμπιέδες)

Christmas provides another opportunity for Greeks to celebrate a holiday season with family and friends. Here in North America, we celebrate Christmas much like many others; we decorate trees, exchange gifts, and enjoy festive meals with relatives and close acquaintances. We also remember those who are less fortunate, and we show our gratitude for all we have by providing a helping hand to those who need it most. In the Spirit of the Season, I would like to ask each of my readers to click here for an easy and free way to help people in need via The Hunger Site. It will only take a moment of your time, it will not cost you anything, and you will be helping to ensure somebody somewhere gets a meal they desperately need. Thank you for your kind consideration.

Now, on to the fun stuff- a sweet Greek recipe!

One of the quintessential Greek holiday cookies is immediately recognizable by its confectionery sugar- dusted coat. Though they may be made in a variety of shapes, Kourabiedes (pronounced “koo-rah-bee-YEH-thess”) are most often fashioned into an S shape or lady finger style biscuit. My own preference is for a round bite-sized type of cookie, and that is how I make them.

Kourabiedes are butter cookies traditionally baked for Christmas and Easter festivities, but they keep well when stored, so you can enjoy them with a morning Greek coffee long after both holidays have passed. In some regions of Greece, the Christmas Kourabiedes are adorned with a single whole spice clove embedded in each biscuit. This is done to commemorate the spices which were among the gifts presented by the Biblical Magi to the baby Jesus. As I am a soft touch for quaint sentimental customs, I add the spice cloves to my Kourabiedes at Christmas too.

During the Holidays, most Greek homes will have a plate of Kourabiedes on hand to share with guests. Each matron in any Greek household on the planet has a family recipe for these cookies. Nonetheless, there are some universal points of confluence among the variations. One prerequisite for fine Kourabiedes is that they are light and fluffy- airy to the point of being slightly brittle to the touch; and, they must NOT taste of flour. I have tried many Kourabiedes in my time, most were good, some were bad, but they all had a little raw almond in the mix to keep the mastication interesting, as the rest of the cookie should practically melt on your tongue.

This recipe is from my mother in law, though I have added a twist or two of my own. (Note: the flour measurement is an approximation based on the resulting “feel” of the dough after its “rubbing”, more on that below.)

Ingredients:

7 ½ - 8 cups flour, sifted (“Five Roses” All Purpose, if you can find it)
1 lb good quality unsalted butter (Gay Lea is excellent)
1 lb Crisco® vegetable shortening
4 eggs
½ cup of well-chopped raw almonds
¼ cup mastic liqueur (or brandy)
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
Rosewater
Whole spice cloves
1 ½ cups powdered/confectionery sugar
Extra powdered/confectionery sugar for the dusting

  1. In a deep pan, melt the butter together with the Crisco® vegetable shortening, then pour into a mixer bowl and start whisking at a moderately high speed for 10 minutes or so.
  2. Add 1 ½ cup of powdered/confectionery sugar to the mixer bowl and continue whisking for another 10 minutes.
  3. Add the baking soda and baking powder to the mastic liqueur (or brandy) and mix together thoroughly, then add liqueur to the mixer bowl and continue whisking for another 10 minutes.
  4. Separate the egg yolks and whites of 2 of the eggs, then add the yolks to another bowl and add the remaining 2 eggs to that bowl. Combine and add the 4 yolks and 2 egg whites to the mixer bowl; continue mixing at medium-high speed for 30 – 40 minutes. (Save the 2 extra egg whites for a low-fat omelette on Boxing Day!) By this point the mixture should have the consistency of a velvety smooth well-whipped butter.
  5. Add the chopped almonds to the mixer bowl and mix for a further few minutes.
  6. Transfer the now velvety smooth mix to an extra large mixing bowl and roll up your sleeves.
  7. In stages, without rushing, start adding the flour by sprinkling a cup at a time into the mixture. When incorporating the flour, once past mixing the initial paste, do not knead the dough; rather, you should hold the edge of the bowl with one hand and rub the flour into the dough with a downward spiral motion towards you. As you add flour, the dough will become harder to work and you must continue to “rub” it until soft again. Once you have incorporated the flour, test the consistency of the dough by rolling some between your palms. It should stay together and be very soft and malleable. The key is to make sure the dough will have enough rigidity to keep the cookies from going flat on your baking sheet while in the oven. You may need to add a little flour to achieve the desired consistency. However, be careful you don’t add too much flour and end up with hard cookies. This part may take you a few tries to perfect.
  8. Once the dough is ready, break away small pieces (about the size of a walnut) and roll between your palms to form a sphere. Place your cookies on a greased or parchment paper lined baking sheet in neat rows.
  9. Preheat oven to 350°F/180°C. Be sure to adjust the oven racks so that one is at the bottom of your oven and one at the top.
  10. When your baking sheets are ready to go into the oven, start by putting one (or more) onto the bottom rack of your oven and bake the cookies for 20 minutes. Then, move that sheet (or sheets) to the top rack of the oven and put another one (or more) on the bottom rack. Bake the cookies on the top rack for a further 10 minutes before removing them from the oven. In this way, each cookie sheet will bake for approximately 30 minutes. Rotate the trays as needed if uneven browning occurs. The cookies are ready when small cracks start to appear in their surface and an even light golden-brown colour is achieved.
  11. Remove cookies from oven and immediately sprinkle with rosewater such that a couple drops falls on each cookie.
  12. Take several trays/flat pans and sprinkle their bottoms to completely cover them with powdered/confectionery sugar. Place still warm cookies onto these trays/pans in neat rows and proceed to sprinkle a first covering layer of powdered/confectionery sugar over top.
  13. Once all the cookies have been covered with the first sprinkling of powdered/confectionery sugar, let the cookies stand to cool for a few hours (overnight if possible).
  14. Dust the biscuits with another thicker coating of powdered/confectionery sugar and then serve or store. (Note: If you add the spice cloves to the cookies you will need to slightly wet your fingertip with a little rosewater and dab overtop of the sugar covered cloves to make them appear again. Cookies can be stored in plastic Tupperware® style containers with lids that seal closed.)
Makes anywhere from 75 - 100 cookies, depending on their size.

*A word to the wise on eating and serving Kourabiedes: I remember viewing a TV show where Chef Gordon Ramsay choked because he inhaled while taking a bite of one of these cookies. Not to worry, Chef, we’ve all been there! LOL! So, whatever you do, do not breathe in (or out) through your mouth when biting into one of these biscuits; the powdered sugar will either end up in your larynx or on your clothes, or both! A glass of water will help once the coughing subsides. Always make sure to serve Kourabiedes with a glass of cold water. ;)



Wishing Celebrants a Very Merry Christmas, and Compliments of the Season to All!

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cretan Dakos, or Koukouvayia (Owl) - Ντάκος

I have returned from my Blog Interruptus with a tale of autumn adventures on the island of Crete, along with a recipe for all those tomatoes in the pantry. Enjoy!

Cretan Dakos - Click to Enlarge Image

In my travels about Greece, I have been to Crete twice. The first time I touched foot on the legendary isle of King Minos, I spent a day there as one leg of an Aegean culture cruise; we visited Knossos and the Herakleion Museum. I was so inspired by my visit to the former that I was left with a burning desire to return someday and see more of that famous isle. As I sailed away that first time from the Cretan shoreline, I half-expected Talos to appear along the coast to see me off...

Years later, I landed on Cretan soil again. This time, I spent a couple months exploring the island by foot, motorbike, and boat. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my sojourn there had the character of a sacred pilgrimage, or perhaps it was something akin to an initiatory walkabout or rite of passage. In every way that mattered, I was committed to seeing Crete's wild places and exploring her backcountry, and to learning about her people and their folkways. In short, I was intent on immersing myself into the geist of the place. Yes, my purpose was to commune with the very spirit of Crete herself. With that in mind, I threw myself upon the tender mercies of the Fates.

I arrived in Herakleion in mid-September and stayed on Crete till mid-November. The weather was generally good, the tourist season was over, and the seas were at their warmest having been heated by the sun all summer long. During my visit, I camped on shorelines, slept in hostels and hotels, was a guest in private homes, and once, I even spent a frigid night in a desolate shepherd's redoubt on the upper slopes of Mount Ida (Psiloritis). Suffice it to say, I gained an intimate knowledge of Cretan topography; from the island's northern shoreline to its southern beaches and meandering coastlines, I immersed myself in the landscape. I traversed Crete's mountainous backbone on foot, starting from the mythical Idaeon Andron and the Nidha Plateau, and ending up in the great Messara Plain on her southern flank.

This course brought me into contact with Crete's people and history in a manner that few tourists get to experience anymore. Best of all, I kept a careful journal of my Cretan travels which allows me to relive most aspects of that trip. I am grateful for the experiences themselves, as well as the opportunity to share them with others.

Interestingly enough, I was aided in my efforts to discover the Cretan way of life by an Englishman and his half-Greek wife. If Steve, or Tina Pryor, ever read these words, I want them to know that our meeting remains an inspirational highlight of my life. I thank them for introducing me to Crete, and to their little village of Axos, which lies in the afternoon shadow of Mount Ida (Psilotiris). The two of them welcomed and shepherded me into the bosom of that most ancient land. I shall never forget their generosity.

Crete is a universe unto itself. From her bustling port cities on the northern shore, to the timeless isolation of hamlets in out of the way inlets along her southern coast, there is something for everyone on Crete. In a popular Greek song, Nikos Xilouris refers to Crete as "the key to Paradise", and I am convinced that he was correct. Which brings me to another salient point.

The Cretans are natural poets. To this day, they maintain a wonderful facility with a syntactical arrangement that forms the basis of Greek folk poetry and verse: decapentesyllabic (fifteen syllable) rhyming couplets. Try saying that ten times fast! In any given situation, a Cretan is able and quite willing to produce a ditty-on-the-spot, if you will. At such moments, they will be able to cleverly rhyme off something playfully erotic or satirical. These couplets are called mantinades and they are usually accompanied by the plaintive strains of the Cretan lyra. It really is marvellous to observe, most especially after a few glasses of tsikoudia, a grape marc spirit (Cretan 'moonshine').

Along with all her physical beauty, her mythology, history, poetry and music, Crete offers one more bounty for restless spirits: the Cretan diet. Much has been said or written about the cuisine of Crete and I will not exhaust the topic in this post. Suffice it to say, the Cretan diet in all its simplicity and salubrity is the original inspiration for what is today known as the "Mediterranean" diet.

As we are blessed with a surfeit of tomatoes from this year's kitchen garden, I have been using them up as quickly as possible. One of my favourite ways to enjoy an unconventional tomato salad is the Cretan Dakos, or as it is also called, Koukouvayia (Owl), pronounced as "koo-koo-VAH-yee-ah". My understanding is that it takes this name from its resemblance to the eye of an owl when viewed from above. This owl-eye effect is even more pronounced when two Dakos are placed side by side on a plate.


Owl's eye view - Click to Enlarge Image

Ingredients:

Cretan barley rusks
Fresh tomatoes, diced
Real Greek Feta cheese, crumbled
Greek extra virgin olive oil (try Kolympari, an excellent Cretan olive oil)
Fresh mint. finely chopped
Dried Greek oregano
Red wine (optional)
Olives

  1. Soak the Cretan barley rusk slightly w/water or a splash or two of red wine and set aside for a couple minutes.
  2. Drizzle the rusk with olive oil and let it sit for another couple minutes until the oil is absorbed, then drizzle another tablespoon or so over top of it.
  3. Combine the diced tomato with the chopped mint and top the rusk with the mixture, then add the crumbled feta cheese, a pinch of oregano, and another touch of olive oil.
  4. Finish by placing an olive on top of it all.
Serve and enjoy!

Pánta Kalá! (Always Be Well)


Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Taste of the Danforth

Every year for the past 16 years, the city of Toronto goes Greek for a weekend. The annual "Taste of the Danforth" street festival is one of our city's premier summer events; and it's all about the food, especially the Greek food. Since its inception, this yearly fete has grown to become North America's largest event of its kind. When all is said and done, over 1 million visitors are expected to attend "The Taste" this year.

The most striking aspect of "The Taste" is the sheer size of the crowds. It really is quite a spectacle; day or night, it's a people watcher's delight. In the first photo below, the view is looking east from Chester Avenue along Danforth Avenue, into the heart of Toronto's Greektown. All along the street, people line up to purchase all manner of tasty eats, or they stroll leisurely along one of Toronto's major city roadways. For the three days of "The Taste", Danforth Avenue is closed to vehicles and only pedestrian traffic is allowed. The second photo is a shot of the beer garden in the "Alexander the Great Square", located at the intersection of Logan and Danforth Avenues.

Click to Enlarge Image

What would a Greek themed street festival be without pork souvlaki? Yiannis, one of my past co-workers, is pictured grilling it up outside the Astoria Restaurant. Or, if you prefer seafood, you can always try a shrimp souvlaki, or some grilled squid tentacles from Avli restaurant, as pictured below.

Click to Enlarge Image

I'd wager that my brother's chums, Jimmy and Nick, from Kalyvia restaurant did not sleep a wink as I found them in exactly the same spot, two days running, cooking up chicken and pork souvlaki sticks. And for those of you who like a good gyros, there was plenty to go round and around. ;-)

Click to Enlarge Image

One interesting sight this year was a group of individuals dressed in 5th century BC Greek hoplite outfits. These folks are part of an organization called Hoplologia whose purpose is the re-creation of the past through what they call "experimental archeology". In addition to the food and history, it would not be a Greek festival without some Greek music, courtesy of Yiannis Kapoulas & his band Ena K’ Ena.

Click to Enlarge Image

Last but not least, the sweets: loukoumades, baklava, and kataifi... I think this picture says it all.


That's it for this year's "Taste". There is no doubt in my mind that this annual event is one of the greatest foodie extravaganzas on the planet. So, if you're in our neck of the woods next year, and you enjoy Greek food, be sure to visit Toronto's original and best street party.

Opa!

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Revani (Ρεβανί)

According to the Greek Orthodox Christian calendar, today is the Metamorphosis (Transfiguration) of the Saviour. The Greek word for "saviour" or "deliverer" is Soter (Σωτήρ), and my Greek name is Sotiris; which makes this my Name Day. In point of fact, my name is an epithet which pre-dates Christianity among the Greeks. The term, Soter, has been used as an epithet for Olympian gods, ancient heroes and liberators, and most recently, as a title for Jesus of Nazareth.

A thing of beauty! - Click to Enlarge Image

For Greeks, Name Days are more important than birthdays. Indeed, it is on one's Name Day that a party in honour of the individual is held, usually at the celebrator's home. Name Days are a time for family and friends, and the day is filled with visits and phone calls from well-wishers. The traditional greeting for someone who is celebrating a Name Day is "Chronia Polla" (Χρόνια Πολλά), which translates as "Many Years"; similar to, though less specific, than the Italian "cent'anni" or "Hundred Years".

Among the most popular features of a Name Day celebration are the desserts which are prepared (or bought) for the occasion. Along with copious amounts of Greek food, visitors are always treated to a sweet "for the health" of the honoured individual. The treats are often family specialties which are served up with a glass of water, a coffee, or a shot of liqueur, usually Ouzo or brandy.

This year, I prepared one of my own specialties for the occasion, it is called Revani. Revani is essentially a syrup-soaked semolina cake. Traditionally, Revani is a specialty of the city of Veria in the northern Greek province of Macedonia. There are a number of regional variations of this cake throughout Greece. In some Revani, nuts like almonds or walnuts are added, in Veria they add yoghurt to the mix, and I have even run across a Revani with a chocolate centre. My Revani recipe is lighter than many of the other versions, and rather than adding them to the mix, I prefer to garnish it with some chopped blanched almonds and/or candied orange or lemon rind.


Allow me to treat you to some Revani in honour of my Name Day. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

6 eggs
2 cups fine semolina
1.5 cups of flour
1 cup of sugar
0.5 cup of unsalted butter
0.5 cup of milk
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla extract

For the syrup:

2 cups of sugar
2 cups of water
1/2 cup Greek blossom honey
juice and rind of 1/2 a lemon (or orange)

  1. Sift together the semolina, flour, and baking powder.
  2. Cream the butter in a mixer until the butter is light and fluffy; usually this takes about half an hour or so, with the mixer set to a medium-high speed.
  3. Add sugar to creamed butter and mix well for a few minutes.
  4. Add egg yolks to the butter and continue to mix well for several minutes.
  5. Whip the egg whites into stiff peaks.
  6. Add the flour to the mixing bowl in stages, alternating with either some milk or some of the whipped egg whites; continue until all three are added and mix everything well.
  7. Pour the mixture into a 9 x 9 inch square baking pan and bake in a preheated oven at 350 for approximately 45 minutes, until the surface is golden brown.
  8. Prepare the syrup by adding the 2 cups of sugar, 2 cups of water, the honey, lemon juice and rind in a saucepan and bring to a boil; allow it to simmer for 10 minutes or so.
  9. When the cake is done, remove it from the oven, place it on a trivet, and proceed to pour the syrup overtop of the entire cake using a spoon or ladle. Pour the syrup slowly in order to allow for a complete and uniform suffusion of the cake. Note: save the candied lemon rind and chop it up into small pieces for use as a garnish for slices of the cake.
  10. Set the cake aside to cool, preferrably overnight, cut into diamond shaped pieces and serve as is with a sprinkle of cinnamon, or with a garnish of chopped blanched almonds and some of the candied rind (which we saved from the syrup).

Pánta Kalá! (Always Be Well)


Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Grilled Banana Pepper Salad (Πιπεριές Ψητές με Φέτα)

The summer grilling season ensures a steady supply of grilled vegetables on our table. One of my father's favourite salads during this period is also one of the most notorious in our family.

Grilled hot banana peppers - Click to Enlarge

I'll never forget the day I first sampled this recipe. You have probably walked by them a thousand times in the vegetable section wherever you shop, and yet, you may never even have given them so much as a second glance. Here is what I often think about whenever I see hot banana peppers in a market:

My father proffered a plate and slid a cousin of one the beauties from the photo above on to my dish. He instructed me to roll it up, slip it into a wedge of folded pita, and take a large bite. My mother, meanwhile, warned me not to listen to my father, that the pepper was too hot. But, I was a child, and a wilful one at that, so my mother's warning served as nothing more than the equivalent of a challenge. I did as my father instructed, though, instead of just taking a bite, I shoveled the whole thing into my mouth and started chewing. After all, how hot could it be?

Well, friends, the scene that ensued is etched into the very corners of my mind for it quickly developed into a wholly disproportionate series of events. We're talking about a Greek family here... In a nutshell, the script consisted of a mad scramble for water, which, when put to my burning lips, ended up going down the "wrong pipe". This resulted in a spasm of ugly choking, fiery coughing, my father's backslapping, my sister's wailing, the rooster crowing, the cattle lowing, the cymbals crashing, the lightning flashing, the seas heaving, the earth shaking, my mother's scolding, and me, ultimately crying. Ha! Who would have thought such dramatic moments could follow the simple act of consuming a humble pepper with a bit o' cheese and stuff?

But, do you think such an episode served to dissuade me from ever eating hot banana peppers again? Sister, it didn't even leave a scar. Also, it provided some valuable insights regarding the tragic hilarity of family politics. I am definitely a better and stronger person for it. Life in a Greek family has its spicy moments.


I have a few things to say regarding prep for this dish. First, don't bite your fingernails, you'll need them to quickly and effectively peel the peppers. Second, peel the peppers when they are hot and keep your finger tips moist. Third, handle the peppers gently so as not to tear them, and try to peel away large sections of the charred skin. Lastly, a little bit of real Greek feta cheese goes a long way. I used no more than the equivalent of three tablespoons of it, crumbled over top of the peppers in the photo above.

If you wish to tone down the heat a bit, carefully slit the grilled peppers open and remove some or all of the seeds. Banana peppers come in a variety of heat intensities, so proceed at your own risk. As far as Greek food recipes go, this one's about as easy as they come. Add a little heat to your summer sizzle.

Ingredients:


hot banana peppers (a.k.a. Hungarian or wax peppers)
real Greek Feta cheese
Greek extra-virgin olive oil
dried Greek oregano
Greek wine vinegar
NOTE: Yes, I use Greek products as much as possible as I deem them to be superior quality, especially the cheese, here's why.

  1. Grill peppers until charred and peel.
  2. Spread peppers flat on a serving dish and add crumbled Feta cheese over top of the peppers.
  3. Drizzle a little olive oil and a some wine vinegar over everything.
  4. Finish with a sprinkle of oregano and serve.
I usually serve this alongside grilled chicken or pork.

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit!)


Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Food Philosophy: Geeks & Greek Gastronomy

From time to time I get to chat with some pretty extraordinary foodies who are just as enthusiastic about food related matters as I am. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet Jennifer Iannolo & Chef Mark Tafoya of the Culinary Media Network when they visited Toronto on a foodie media junket. Now, I had been following their work for some time prior to actually meeting them, and let me just say that we became immediate and fast friends in person as well. I cannot wait till I see the two of them again. I want to wish them every success with their newly published cookbook. Both Jennifer and Mark are very special people; they truly live their passion about food and we are fortunate to be able to share it with them. Thanks to them both for being who -and doing what- they are.

Jennifer, myself, and Mark by the water in Toronto, April 5, 2009

A couple weeks back, Jennifer and I had a chat over Skype which turned into an informal interview of sorts. We discussed practically everything under the sun, but more specifically, we touched on matters that relate to the topic of Greek food and Greek gastronomy more generally. Both of us being GEEKS about food matters, we meandered back and forth through times, places, people, animals and products; and what resulted is, if nothing else, an interesting window on a conversation between two people (both students of Philosophy) who are literally crazy about food. Jennifer has posted the first part of our conversation on her web site, with another part to follow shortly. I hope you enjoy the talk as much as we enjoyed having it.

Here is the link to the post and audio file on Jennifer's web site: Food Philosophy You can listen to the show online or you can download it to your iPod through iTunes.

Amiably,

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Greek Food Feature: Feta Cheese (Φέτα)

This is the first posting in a new series of spotlight articles on Greek food products and ingredients which I will be presenting on this blog.

A slab of Feta served up in classic Greek fashion - Click to Enlarge

My grandmother used to make her own cheeses. When I was a child, I used to love watching the woman set herself on a small wooden stool for the milking of the sheep and goats. She would call for me to bring the collection pails and I would run to fetch them. As she milked the swollen teats of the ewes and does, I would offer to help, but she always refused saying that the animals required practised, familiar hands. So, I had to content myself with helping her by swapping the buckets when she instructed. She always made sure to leave some milk for the sucklings; and there was always a cup of warm milk set aside for me, before she thickened the rest and drained off the whey from the curds for cheese-making.

Although she used rudimentary equipment i.e., wicker baskets, muslin cloths, wooden moulds, and an ancient wooden barrel, the cheeses my grandmother obtained were always surpassingly excellent. She often made Myzithra, which is a whey cheese made from sheep and goat milks. Yiayia (Greek for grandma) also made a phenomenal sheep's milk Feta cheese that was so creamy and rich it coated the palate and throat as you swallowed. To this day, I salivate when I think of her cheeses. Pasteurization was not part of her cheese-making process which meant her cheeses were of such character and flavour that they remain an unparalleled gastronomic experience for me to this day.

When she reached her nineties and could no longer tend the animals, my grandmother reluctantly slaughtered or sold the remainder of her flock and put aside her milking implements for the last time. It was not an easy thing for her to do; she resisted, but the family was insistent as she was starting to have age-related health issues. She reluctantly acquiesced. It was decided that she would spend the winters in Athens, living with my aunt. I happened to be working in Glyfada (a posh seaside Athens suburb) that winter and I was staying with my aunt as well, so I did my best to help Yiayia with the transition.

I remember taking her shopping with me one morning. A new supermarket had opened just down the street and we went to pick up a few things. One of the items I had on my list for purchase was Feta cheese. When we got to the cheese counter and placed the order, my grandmother asked the clerk to give her a sampling of the Feta I had selected. He provided us both with a small piece of the cheese. I popped the sample into my mouth and turned to look at my grandmother. I found her sniffing at her piece, as if it were some kind of foreign substance she was trying to identify by its scent. She made a face and then gingerly placed the cheese on her tongue and closed her mouth. She grimaced, turned to the clerk and began shaking a wizened finger at him, demanding to know what it was that he was trying to sell us. The man assured her that it was Feta cheese, and I nodded in agreement, feeling somewhat embarrassed by Yiayia's outburst. She snorted at both of us, and said in a matter-of-fact tone: "Any shepherd knows how to make Feta! I don't know what this is, but it's not Feta!" Both the clerk and I tried to explain to her that the milk for store-bought Feta was pasteurised according to government "health" regulations, but she refused to accept our explanations. After all, she was 90 years old and had been making and eating unpasteurised cheeses all her life! She kept on about it long after we had left the supermarket.

Many years later, and many, many miles away, I often remember my grandmother's outburst that day in the supermarket and I smile wistfully. How right she was! How different the world I live in from the world she knew; even the cheeses had changed, and not for the better. Traditionally, Feta cheese is a sheep's milk cheese. But, due to the high demand for sheep's milk for cheeses and other products such as Greek yoghurt, admixtures with goat cheese are quite common. However, by Greek law, no more than 30% of the milk used for Feta can be from goats. The best traditional Greek Fetas are still made exclusively from ewe's milk, and the very best Fetas are unpasteurised. But, these latter are only produced in very limited quantities by small artisan producers. Unfortunately, you will have to travel to the Greek countryside and know where to go to sample unpasteurised Feta.

Today, you will find all kinds of things being sold as "Feta" cheese throughout the world. Here in North America, you'll find flavourless cow's milk brine cheeses being sold as "Feta" in supermarkets and cheese shops. Such cheeses often include things like milk and whey protein powders, as well as caseinates and/or casein among their ingredients. You will even find imported "Feta" cheese from France! The French and several other European countries (notably Denmark & Germany among them) started producing, selling, and exporting ersatz "Feta" cheeses in the early 1980s, as Greek Feta had begun to make a name for itself in the global marketplace. Of course, such cheeses are not Feta cheese as the original is a traditional artisan product of the Greek countryside, and not the French Riviera, the Jutland, or the Rhineland. Indeed, Feta cheese is the oldest variety of cheese in the world and has been produced in Greece since antiquity. The cheese produced by the Cyclops in Homer's Odyssey is quite likely the direct ancestor of modern Feta. An explicit description of Feta cheese under its medieval Byzantine-Greek name of "prosfatos" dates back to the 10th Century A.D., at which time it was an already well-known and well-traded cheese throughout much of the Eastern Mediterranean.

As a result of Danish, French, and other attempts to capitalize on the widespread fame of the Greek Feta cheese brand, in an effort to end consumer confusion and to protect the good name of its traditional cheese products, Greece was forced to seek remedy in the European Court of Justice. After a lengthy and protracted legal struggle (20 years!), in 2005, Greece was finally granted exclusivity with respect to the use of the label "Feta cheese" within the European Union. Feta was declared a P.D.O. product of specific regions in Greece. In other words, within Europe, only the traditional Greek product can be referred to as "Feta cheese". Of course, this decision of the European Court of Justice did not (and still does not) apply to overseas markets. French and Danish exporters continue to market their counterfeit "Feta" cheeses in North America and elsewhere outside the EU. Quite ironically, the French zealously demand that their own traditional product names be respected the world over (i.e. Champagne can only come from France; ibid Roquefort cheese etc.), and yet, they blatantly disregard Greece's rightful claim to one of the most recognizable of all traditional Greek food products. Tu devrais avoir honte! Shame.

Greek Feta cheeses are far tastier and have superior organoleptic properties when compared to the copycat products opportunistically labeled as "Feta" by the Australian, British, Canadian, Danish, French and U.S. producers who continue to exploit the "Feta" brand. From the way it crumbles, to its creamy texture and unique fresh flavour, Greek Feta cheese is the genuine article. Do not be fooled by imitations. In Greece, Feta cheese accounts for well over half of the 27.3 kilos of cheese the average Greek consumes in a year. No other nation eats as much cheese, not even the French.

So, what makes Greek Feta cheese so special?

It should be emphasized that Greek sheep and goats are raised by individual/family producers and not large agri-business concerns. The animals are indigenous breeds, and they graze freely on the wild vegetation of the Greek countryside. The milk used in Greek cheese production is collected from these animals. As a result, Greek cheeses are ipso facto organic products even though they may not be labelled as such. In addition, many of the herbs and plants the animals feed on are also unique to Greece's specific geography and climate, which accounts for the distinct flavour of Greek cheeses. Along with consuming a wide variety of wild herbs and flora, Greek sheep and goats are watered from natural springs and sources. The combination of all these factors lend Greek cheeses their wholesome flavours and account for their overall high quality.

A selection of Greek cheeses: Feta, Kefalograviera & Kasseri - Click to Enlarge

I cannot think of another variety of cheese which is as popular, versatile, nor as tasty as good old salty, crumbly, briny, Feta cheese. It can be eaten on its own, baked with vegetables or into pies, crumbled over salads, served with fruits and honey, or fried. With so many ways to enjoy it, Feta cheese has earned its place as a mainstream food product in many parts of the world. Yet, it is too bad that much of what is marketed as "Feta" outside of the European Union is not actually Feta cheese. Simply put, if it's not Greek, it's not Feta!

Recommendation: If you can find it, try "Feta Tripoleos" (i.e. Feta from the area of Tripolis). Many of the better cheese shops in most large cities should stock this cheese, ask for it by name or by requesting Greek "barrel Feta".

Recipe:

1 slab of authentic Feta cheese
dried Greek oregano
Greek extra-virgin olive oil

Plate the feta, sprinkle a generous amount of oregano over top and then pour some olive oil over it. Serve with warm pita bread and some Kalamata olives.


Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit!)


Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Grilled Biftekia Stuffed with Cheese (Μπιφτέκια Γεμιστά)

As the season for outdoor grilling is upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere, I decided to post one of my favourite Greek grill recipes. I know you are going to enjoy this one.

A grilled Bifteki stuffed with Kefalograviera cheese, served with some mushroom rice – Click to Enlarge

Greeks have a reputation for grilling. From the hecatombs of the Greek host encamped on the shore before Troy in Homer’s Iliad, to the family-run diners of New York City, the association between Greeks and grilling is the stuff of culinary legend and lore. Indeed, if we were to believe some people, we might expect upon visiting Greece to find a charcoal grill set up every 50 square metres or so; with a smiling, apron-wearing and mustachioed Greek man sending smoke signals up into the Mediterranean sky. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, Greeks enjoy grilled foods, but rarely do they prepare them at home; it is simply not part of the everyday food culture, most of our home-cooked meals come from the stovetop. This is not due to the high cost of barbecues, but rather, when they are meeting or entertaining friends, Greeks prefer to go out on the town for some grilled viands.

Although there are plenty of establishments serving up grilled and spit-roasted foods throughout Greece, we do not generally consume as much meat as the rest of our European cousins. Meat, for Greeks, usually means lamb, goat, pork, chicken and sometimes veal. In point of fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a steakhouse after the North American model in Greece. There are some, but steaks and ribs are not what Greeks think of when it comes to grilling. There is precious little space for domestic cattle grazing in Greece. What beef they do import is cut differently than is customary in North America. So, looking for a T-bone steak in a Greek butcher shop is likely to end in disappointment.

If you do happen to find steak on a menu in Greece, and you actually order it, don’t be surprised if it arrives well cooked when you ordered it medium rare. Greeks, like Jews, have an aversion to blood in cooked meats, so they cook meat in one of two ways: well done or well-done. Any Greek who tells you they have a penchant for blood in their meat, likely picked up the preference outside of Greece.

Now, Greeks grill everything from fish, to meats and vegetables. Souvlaki, especially pork souvlaki, is the most popular grilled item in Greece. It usually consists of small chunks of pork butt/shoulder on bamboo skewers (kalamakia), and is served up drizzled or brushed with ladolemono (lemon, olive oil, oregano) sauce, and only rarely with tzatziki unless it is in a pita sandwich.

Along with souvlaki and assorted sausages, another popular item that you will find on the menu of every proper Greek taverna (a restaurant that serves only Greek food) is “bifteki”, which is the singular form of the plural biftekia. Biftekia are essentially minced meat patties, something akin to burgers but thicker, and without the bun and condiments of the familiar American sandwich. Biftekia may be made with minced lamb or veal, or a combination of the two. The primary difference between biftekia and burgers lies in the herbs which impart their flavours to the former. The use of oregano and thyme, along with fresh parsley and grated onion, sets biftekia apart from the rather bland meat patties which are their popular counterparts in North America.

Now, for a taverna story...

In July and August 2007 my wife and I travelled through northern Greece and spent a few days in Thessaloniki. We wandered afoot throughout the town and both of us found it a charming and refreshing antipode to Athens with her teeming, bustling streets. Thessaloniki is a port city and the sea forms a continual foreground along its shoreline. It is a pleasant town for walking, especially at night along the quayside after a meal at an open air taverna.

The famous White Tower on the waterfront of Thessaloniki - Click to Enlarge

One of the most memorable meals we had in that city was at a little taverna in the historic "Ladadika" ('Oil Shops') district of the city; the shop was called "Ladokola sta Ladadika" (Λαδόκολα στα Λαδάδικα) which translates as “Parchment Paper among the Oil Shops”. Along with the other dishes we sampled there that night; we were served a selection of grilled meats that was brought to us on some parchment paper spread over a wooden cutting board. This rustic manner of service is a common practice in the Greek countryside, especially during festivals. Nothing pretentious about being served in this fashion, and boy, was it ever tasty!

The view down one of the streets of Thessaloniki’s Ladadika district – Click to Enlarge

The selection of grilled meats we enjoyed that evening – Click to Enlarge

We had a superb leek & pork sausage, a couple of tasty pork souvlakia, and two very excellent biftekia served to us in the outdoor evening air of the trendy district. At some point during our dinner, a trio of young boys showed up with their musical instruments. Sitting on the edge of the square’s fountain, they played a couple of small sets to entertain the dining audience at the numerous restaurants around the edges of the square. Appreciative listeners responded with tips for the young ensemble, which the percussionist dexterously deposited into the open bottom end of his Toumberleki drum. Our table happened to be near the fountain and the whole affair had such a charming quality that I had to record it for posterity's sake. You can find the video of this impromptu performance appended to the Greek Food group on Facebook.

This recipe for cheese-stuffed, grilled biftekia is a favourite in our household and it makes for a tasty start to a summer grilling season. When it comes to the cheese used for the stuffing, I recommend either Kefalograviera (which is the cheese that is usually served as a “flaming saganaki”) or some real Greek feta cheese. I usually serve biftekia with a side of either rice cooked in a mushroom stock, or fries done in olive oil; and I round the meal out with a refreshing and simple cucumber salad.


Ingredients:

2 lbs ground lamb or veal (or a combination of the two)
1 lb. Kefalograviera or Feta Cheese
2 medium-sized onions, grated
2 eggs
1 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon dried Greek oregano
2 tablespoons dried Greek thyme
1 tablespoon Greek extra virgin olive oil
Small bunch of fresh parsley, finely chopped (approx. 3 tablespoonfuls)
Fresh ground pepper
Pinch of salt

  1. In a large bowl, use your hand to combine the minced meat, grated onion, eggs, bread crumbs, parsley, seasonings and olive oil. Take care to mix everything together until thoroughly mingled into a single cohesive mass.
  2. Take up a tennis ball sized piece of the meat mixture, roll it between your palms to form a smooth, compact ball.
  3. Spread a piece of parchment paper over a cutting board; flatten the meat ball into a thin patty, about 1/4 of an inch thick or so. Try to ensure a uniform thickness to the patty.
  4. Place a piece of Kefalograviera or Feta cheese on one side of the flattened meat patty (as depicted below). Be sure to leave space around the edges of the cheese to ensure that you can pinch the meat closed around the cheese.
  5. Take up the further edge of the parchment paper, bring it up and towards you to fold the meat patty over the cheese. Pinch the overlapping edges of the meat together well; use the parchment paper to form the patty around the cheese. This will result in a uniform shape to all of your biftekia.
  6. Brush or spray the outside of each patty with a little olive oil before placing them over a medium-high heat. Grill the biftekia for about 6 - 7 minutes on each side or until done.
Makes approximately 6 - 8 biftekia

NOTE: A sprinkling of fresh lemon juice always completes preparation for service as the biftekia are removed from the hot grill.

Placing the cheese and folding the bifteki patty with the parchment paper - Click to Enlarge

Uniformly shaped patties cooking on the grill - Click to Enlarge

What to drink with this meal? Well, you can drink whatever you like, but here is my suggestion for a holistic Greek food immersion: some ice cold "Retsina Malamatina". Retsina wines are resinated, which means they are flavoured with pine tree resin that gives them their distinctive taste and unique character.

A bottle of ice cold Retsina Malamatina served in its own glass - Click to Enlarge

This type of wine has been produced in Greece since Classical antiquity. The taste for the resin in the wine is definitely an acquired one; it is a direct gastronomic holdover from the ancient Greeks who sealed their wine amphorae with pine resin to ensure airtight and waterproof stoppers. Over time the resin seeped into and flavoured the wine which was stored in this fashion. With the passing of millennia, the methods of storing wine changed, yet the Greeks had developed a taste for resinated wines and the flavouring was subsequently added by intent; the practice continues into our own day. As the Malamatina brand of Retsina is produced in Thessaloniki, I thought it would be a fitting accompaniment to a grilled Greek food recipe that included a description of a typical meal in one of that city's tavernas.

Bifteki stuffed with feta cheese and served with fries cooked in olive oil - Click to Enlarge

Ladies and Gentlemen, light your grills and let the BBQ season begin!


Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit!)


Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Grandma's Pligouri (Πλιγούρι της Γιαγιάς)

Whenever I make this dish, I am reminded of my Yiayia (Grandmother, in Greek). As today is Mother’s Day, I wish to dedicate this posting to all our Greek food foremothers. Where would we be without them?

A vegetarian Greek food recipe courtesy of my Grandma - Click to Enlarge

My paternal grandmother was a remarkable woman. She was mother to seven children and maintained a country household complete with chickens, goats, sheep, pigs, donkeys and a mule. She died just over a decade ago; yet, her memory continues to manifest her ongoing presence in my family’s daily experiences in some form or another. In many ways, this posting is my Grandmother’s eulogy, the one I was not present to deliver when she left us.

While my grandfather (already mentioned) worked and irrigated our family’s fields and olive plots, Grandma multitasked about the hearth and home. She swept the house and yard, made the cheese, baked the bread, and prepared the daily meals. She did so without complaint and without ever considering her role as demeaning or beneath her in any way. Indeed, quite the opposite, she viewed her life as dignified and fulfilling, and she woke each morning with an unwavering sense of purpose and a true zest for clean country living.

My Grandmother in her kitchen garden at 91 years of age – Click to Enlarge

Yiayia’s kitchen garden included everything from tomatoes, zucchini plants and beanstalks, to wild greens like amaranth; and herbs such as mint, rosemary and laurel. The exterior of the house itself, along with the courtyard and verandas, were shaded by a network of trellised grape vines which produced enormous clusters of reddish-skin grapes in their season. A trio of olive trees, a small grazing field, a circular stone threshing floor, stables, pens, and a large chicken coop completed the property which was my Yiayia’s domain. She ruled it all with an effortless economy of activity which remains fixed in my memories of the woman. In point of fact, my grandmother was the cement which held my father’s family together. My grandfather adored her and deferred to her judgment in most things.

With sheep, goats, and donkey grazing in the background, my grandparents pose with my sister and myself in the shade of an oak tree – Click to Enlarge

In addition to tending the house, raising the children, grazing the animals, and handling the household finances, Yiayia would rise well before dawn on Friday mornings and trek 23 kilometres to Megalopolis, where she would sell excess produce and trade for other goods in the weekly agora (market). Upon conclusion of the day’s business in the city, she would return again by foot to the village (until a regular bus service was instituted); arriving just before nightfall to resume her role of materfamilias. Not surprisingly, both my grandparents were the very definition of the phrase ‘hale and hearty’, and both lived well into their nineties, active and sharp-witted right to the end. Their lifestyle and diet had everything to do with their lengthy and vigorous lives.

One of the ingredients which figured prominently in my Grandmother’s pantry was pligouri (known as “bulgur” in English). Pligouri [pronounced “plee-WOO-ree”] has been a staple of Greek food for millennia. On the island of Crete, it is still called by its ancient name hóndros, and on some islands in the eastern Aegean Sea it is known as koptó. Pligouri consists of whole wheat kernels that have been parboiled, dried, and crushed. It comes in three textures: fine, medium, or coarse. Served on its own or as an accompaniment to other dishes, this foodstuff is a more nutritious alternative to rice, potatoes, or pasta. It is cheap, easy to prepare, has a very low glycemic index, and makes for a satisfying dish every time.

A close up of my pligouri recipe – Click to Enlarge

When making pligouri, my Grandmother would add any number of available seasonal ingredients to the pan to enrich the flavour of the dish. My favourite additions included mushrooms, golden raisins, pine nuts, and chestnuts, all of which I have included in this version of her original recipe. On its own, pligouri has a slightly nutty flavour, but it is basically tasteless. So, you can add any number of different nuts, dried fruits, herbs and vegetables (or even snails) to a pligouri recipe, this version is one of my favourite vegetarian combinations.

Ingredients:

1 cup (250ml) medium bulgur
2 cups of vegetable or chicken stock (or water with a bouillon cube)
1 medium sized onion, diced well
½ cup of roasted chestnuts, peeled & cut in half (approx. 12 chestnuts)
¼ cup of pine nuts
1 small handful of golden raisins (sultanas)
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon Greek extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon petimezi (Greek grape must syrup)
½ cup of chopped mushrooms
1 tsp. (5 ml.) of ground cumin
Salt & pepper to taste

  1. In a medium sized sauce pan, sauté the diced onion in the butter and olive oil over a medium heat until soft. (3 minutes, or so)
  2. Add the mushrooms, raisins and pine nuts to the pan and continue to sauté for another 2 minutes, stirring regularly.
  3. Add the stock, cumin, salt & pepper to taste to the pan; turn the heat up to medium high and bring to a boil, then add the pligouri (bulgur) to the pan along with the petimezi and cook it while stirring well for about 3 minutes or so. [Note: if you cannot find any petimezi, some Greek thyme honey makes a good substitute.]
  4. Add the halved chestnuts to the pan, stir it well, then cover the pan with its lid and lower the heat to medium low; allow it to simmer for 20 minutes or so, until all the liquid is absorbed.
  5. Uncover the pan, give the pligouri a good mixing from the bottom and sides, and cover the pan with a tea or paper towel before replacing the lid (I do this to eliminate any steam water buildup in the lid from running back into the pan when we uncover it for serving). Remove from heat and set aside for 10 minutes.
Makes 3 – 4 servings: as a meal in itself or as an accompaniment to grilled viands. Garnish with sesame seeds, both black and raw.

There you have it, as nutritional and toothsome a dish as any Greek yiayia would recognize and enjoy. The sort of meal she might even want to pass on to her grandchildren, so that they too might develop a taste for simple and wholesome fare. Perhaps they would also see the value in it and pass it on to their own children in turn. In just this manner, traditional Greek food stretches back into the ages of ages.

Happy Mother’s Day, Yiayia! Happy Mother's Day to All Mothers Everywhere!


Pánta Kalá (Always be Well),

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Greek Easter Lamb Roast 2009

From the most ancient times, the preparation and roasting of entire lambs has remained a trademark Greek food specialty. On Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday, Greece is blanketed from the mainland to the islands in a cloud of aromatic roasting smoke rising from the myriad of slowly turning spitted lambs. Out here in the Diaspora too, the tradition continues to be passed on to successive generations from father to son, just as it always has been.

The cooked rear haunch and lamb saddle (loin) of our family’s 2009 Easter lamb - Click to Enlarge

As far back as I can remember, there has never been an Easter Sunday celebration in my family that did not include a whole spitted lamb roasting slowly over charcoal. When it comes to Greek food, the spitted lamb roast is the main event. As the Eastertide is a time for family, I thought I might reflect on my own as I make my report on this year’s Paschal celebration. I always get sentimental round this time of year. There must be something in the spring air which stirs memories that run deep in the marrow. As this year was also my son’s first Easter, the occasion had an added element of significance for myself and our family.

My brother-in law, Kosta, my aunt Dina, my son, Ilias, and my wife Sophia, look on as my father (off-camera) carves lamb meat off the spit - Click to Enlarge

My paternal grandfather was a larger than life figure for me as a child. He was something of a cross between Zorba the Greek and a Hellenic Paul Bunyan; an intense mustachioed man who was a legend in the village for his stature and strength. (As an aside, the word mustache derives from the Doric Greek mystax "upper lip, mustache," which is related to mastax "jaws, mouth," or literally "that with which one chews," and is related in turn to mastic - mastiha in Greek, from which we get the English word masticate.) My grandfather was a devoted family man who sired four sons and three daughters. He lived well into his nineties, ninety-four I believe; and even just prior to his death, his hand-grip remained as tight as an iron vise. As though it were yesterday, I remember the first time I watched him slaughter a spring lamb.

My grandfather (left) and my father (right) dressing the spring lamb in 1978 - Click to Enlarge

It was a solemn affair, and mercifully quick. My father assisted him, and I stood above them on the veranda overlooking the courtyard of our home in the village and watched the entire proceeding. I was 10 years old.

The flagstone paved courtyard had a drainage channel about a hand span in width that ran through the centre of its length and emptied into the kitchen garden. At the point where this gutter passed near to the well, my father laid the lamb down on its side and pinned its hind and forequarters in place. My grandfather lifted the animal’s head and drew the sharp blade across its neck in one quick and deliberate motion. The lamb was bleating loudly when the blade cleaved its windpipe and the sound ended in an abrupt gurgling as the blood sprang from its neck and gushed right into the channel; in diminishing pulses it drained quickly along the slight incline down into the garden. My father lifted the animal’s hindquarters and when the bright crimson stream had ebbed away, he trussed its hind legs and hung it from a hook for dressing. My grandfather washed away the remaining stream of blood in the runnel with a bucketful of water, and then he set himself to the task of skinning, emboweling, and butchering the lamb.

It is a scene that is as vivid in my memory today as it was in the moments the impression was first made three decades ago; an indelible reminiscence, the sights and sounds of which I shall take with me to the grave. Nevertheless, rather than turn me off of eating lamb (or meat altogether), the gravity and ritualistic air of the entire event had whetted my appetite. I was positively eager to taste the flesh of the animal my grandfather had sacrificed for our table.

To this day, I remain a devotee to the succulent flavour of spit-roasted lamb. As much as I enjoy other meats, there is really nothing like it. From the cooking aroma, to the crisped skin basted with ladolemono sauce (olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, salt & pepper), to the mouthwatering meat of the saddle and tenderloin; it is a truly special meal.

Due to (wrong) forecasts of inclement weather, we roasted our lamb & kontosouvli just inside the shelter of the garage - Click to Enlarge

This year, we ate at my parents’ home and my father prepared the lamb along with the kontosouvli (essentially a giant pork souvlaki, the recipe for which can be found here). We had mayeiritsa (lamb offal soup in an egg-lemon sauce) which is the traditional meal eaten to break the fast after Lent; typically this is served upon return home from the Easter weekend’s midnight mass, very early Sunday morning. It is really quite an excellent soup if you don’t have any issues with organ meats, as among Greeks no part of the lamb is wasted. The lemon juice is the key ingredient.

In addition to the lamb and kontosouvli, Easter Sunday’s afternoon table included two whole spit-roasted chickens, my mother’s lemon-garlic roast potatoes, my Aunt Dina’s vegetable rice, a small mountain of spiral spanakopites (spinach pies), copious amounts of extra garlicky tzatziki sauce, slabs of feta cheese, and a mixed greens salad tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette with dried cranberries and sunflower seeds. After this, our desserts consisted of an assortment of Greek holiday biscuits, my Aunt Dina’s cheesecake, my mother’s ravani (a syrupy semolina cake), and the star of the show, my chocolate tsoureki! Once dessert and coffee had been served, the egg battles began.

My brother-in-law Kosta’s damaged egg after clashing with my father - Click to Enlarge

The egg battle (tsougrisma in Greek, pronounced TSOO-greez-mah) is a typically Greek thing as it is a competition, and Greeks love contests of any kind. Heck, we invented the Olympics! Anyway, the challenge involves each of the guests selecting one of the many (typically) red-dyed hardboiled eggs that are brought to the table to act as their ‘weapon’. Then, turns are taken by pairs in smacking each other’s eggs together in order to crack your opponent’s egg without damage to one’s own, thereby ‘winning’. The winners continue to challenge one another until there is only one egg left unscathed, and its handler is declared the victor. It is considered good fortune to hold the final un-cracked egg in your hand and the honour is sought in good-natured earnest by all. Smiles abound during these egg battles, and fun is had by everyone, even the vanquished.

All in all, we had a wonderful Easter and there was plenty of good wholesome food to go around. Our company of ten family members welcomed its newest member, our son, Ilias, to its traditional Easter celebration, and a good time was had by all. For my Greek and Eastern Orthodox friends: Χριστός Ανέστη! (Christ has Risen!)

Pánta Kalá (Always Be Well)!

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Chocolate Tsoureki (Τσουρέκι Σοκολατένιο)

In August 2007, my wife and I visited the northern Greek province of Macedonia. We stayed for several days in Thessaloniki where we admired and sampled the sights and tastes of the beautiful port city. This recipe was inspired by that visit.

My Chocolate Tsoureki - Click to Enlarge Image
Tsoureki is essentially a Greek brioche style of sweet bread. The flavours of this bread consist of a hint of orange combined with mahlepi and a subtle essence of mastic (mastiha). It is usually made at Easter and is a universal element in the celebration of this most important holiday of the Greek calendar. Such braided breads are an ancient tradition among Greeks.

The inspiration for this variation on the traditional tsoureki came from the storefront window of one of Thessaloniki’s best known bakeries, Τερκενλης (Terkenlis), which has been serving up its famous pastries since 1948. Today, Patisserie Terkenlis has several locations, mostly in Thessaloniki, with two shops in Athens, one of which is located at the Eleutherios Venizelos Airport (Greece’s main international airport).

The Terkenlis window display in Thessaloniki, my inspiration - Click to Enlarge

I used my Tsoureki: the Bread that Swallows its Tail recipe which I posted last year to make the traditional loaves. I usually bake three tsourekia (plural), one of which we keep and the other two go to our godchildren. Now, whereas the Terkenlis version of chocolate covered tsoureki includes a chocolatey filling, I avoided it altogether. This morning, after the other two loaves had been delivered to our godchildren, I applied the Terkenlis touch to our remaining loaf, blanketing it with chocolate and a sprinkling of slivered blanched almonds.

The two tsoureki loaves which went to our godchildren - Click to Enlarge

The recipe for the chocolate covering could not be easier. I used 2 cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips and two tablespoons of vegetable shortening (Crisco, in this case). I melted the chocolate combined with the shortening in a double boiler pan, mixed it well until smooth, and proceeded to pour the covering over the entire tsoureki loaf, starting with a thick layer along its centre; and then doubling back over its length until it was fully covered. I used an icing spatula to spread it over any bare spots. Next, I blanched a small handful of almonds, slivered them and sprinkled them overtop. The result was quite impressive, and a good likeness to the tsourekia we had seen in the window of Terkenlis.

Once more in all its glory - Click to Enlarge

With that, I would like to wish all those who are celebrating Greek Easter this Sunday a Kalo Paskha / Καλό Πάσχα (Happy Easter)! May the sun shine for Sunday’s spitted lamb roasts, wherever you may live, in Greece or in the Greek Diaspora. For those of you who have Greeks living in your neighbourhood, the likelihood that the scent of roasted lamb will waft your way on Sunday will make for an excellent opportunity to get to know your neighbours better, and to sample some excellent Greek food. Trust me; they will not turn you away should you decide to pay them a visit.

I will leave you with a description of the Easter celebration among the Greek Evzones in the 1930s by an American writer present at the time:
I shall never forget my visit one morning to the Evzone barracks at the edge of the royal gardens. In truly Homeric manner great numbers of lamb carcasses were being roasted over pits where the embers of pine branches glowed and sputtered as the scorched fat dripped down. The glistening “Arnakia a la Palikare” were tended by stiff-skirted Evzones of the royal guard, happy with virile gaiety, basting, jabbing, the slowly turning lambs. On that memorable Sunday morning the smells from the crackling fat and the smoking pine boughs joined together and rose on the clear spring air like most fragrant incense to the gods. Back, back, year by year, I thought as I watched them, that same ceremonious culinary rite had been carried out in that ancient land; the same odour of roasting lamb flesh and charred boughs had risen on the spring air since the dawn of time.

Kali Anastasi / Καλή Ανάσταση (Happy Resurrection)!

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
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