Complete List of Recipes & Reflections

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.


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™
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.


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