Complete List of Recipes & Reflections

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
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, April 13, 2009

REWARD: $100 Mastic Shrimp Saganaki Bounty

Have you not noticed how often they became silent when you approached them, and how their strength left them like smoke from a dying fire?
-excerpted from Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
My Mastic Shrimp Saganaki recipe - Click to Enlarge Image

Dear Friends & Foes,

My apologies in advance for what you are about to read. As my longtime readers can attest, this is an atypical posting for me, but one that I feel is necessary after many repeated provocations by a certain individual and his cronies, whom I have collectively and affectionately dubbed as the "CoD" (Confederacy of Dunces). This will be my one and only statement on the matter, so I thank you to please indulge and humour me just this once.

A blowhard and a freeloading mama's boy has publicly insinuated that I fraudulently claimed to have created the unique combination of my Mastic Shrimp Saganaki recipe. As I do not normally engage in mean-spirited and petty arguments, I will allow you, my readers to form your own conclusion as to the veracity of my/his claim.

To sweeten things up somewhat, I am offering a bounty of $100 to anyone who can find a recipe for Mastic shrimp in a tomato sauce, similar to or exactly like my own, that was verifiably published before mine (in Greek or in English). It saddens me to have to waste precious life moments on the fatuous charge made by a scoundrel, but the Internet is full of people who say whatever they like, and who think they can get away without ever being called to account. Now, IF (and that’s a big IF) I unwittingly represented the combination of shrimp, mastic, and tomato sauce as my own creation when it was not, then I will be happy to recant my claim and pay out the $100 to anyone who can prove such is the case.

Now, who said Greek food wasn’t interesting?

:-)

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appétit),

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

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mastic Shrimp Saganaki (Γαρίδες Σαγανάκι με Μαστίχα)

This is one of my Greek food signature dishes. I created this recipe for my wife and it is now her favourite shrimp dish. For those of you who are unfamiliar with mastic resin, have a look at my previous post about this extraordinary spice.

My Mastic Shrimps served over of a bed of rice - Click to Enlarge Image

Here in North America, the term saganaki often refers to a Greek fried cheese that is set alight to resounding shouts of “Opa!” In truth, the word saganaki refers to a single-serving frying pan with two handles. In Greece, a saganaki can be a fried cheese, or it can be a shrimp saganaki and/or a mussels saganaki, both of which are usually tomato sauce based dishes and typically include Feta cheese. If this is confusing, no worries, it’s all Greek food to me too!

Shrimps in the pan and ready for turning - Click to Enlarge Image

This particular version of my dish does not include the Feta cheese as it is meant to be a fast-friendly recipe. Easter is just around the corner and many Greeks observe the Lenten fast during this period which means dairy is a no-no. If you are not fasting, feel free to add the Feta cheese as mentioned below. You can also halve the quantities of ingredients as listed for a single serving portion. In addition, if you happen to have some good olive bread on hand, it makes for an excellent complement which allows you to mop up every last bit of this unbelievably tasty sauce.

Ingredients:

20 - 24 large raw shrimp, shelled with tails on
2 cups strained tomato puree/sauce
2 medium sized onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, pressed or grated
1 roasted red pepper, diced
2 tablespoons masticha liqueur
¼ - ½ teaspoon ground mastic resin
½ cup Greek extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper

  1. Sauté diced onions in olive oil over a medium heat until soft and translucent (3 - 5 minutes).
  2. Add garlic to the pan and stir it in well for about 30 seconds. Then, add the tomato puree/sauce to the pan, along with the diced roasted red pepper and a half cup of water, then the salt and pepper to taste and stir it well to mix. Bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce the heat only slightly and allow the sauce to simmer well for 8 minutes; do not cover the pan.
  4. Add the masticha liqueur along with the ground mastic resin to the sauce and stir well to incorporate. Continue to simmer the sauce for another 2 minutes, stirring the sauce a couple more times.
  5. Quickly add the shrimp to the pan and make sure to give the pan a couple shakes to settle the shrimp well into the sauce. Cook for two minutes. Then, using a pair of tongs or a fork, quickly turn all the shrimp over and cook for another minute or so, then remove the pan from the heat for serving.
I often serve this recipe over a bed of rice and garnished with some sesame seeds. as depicted in the photo above. It is equally good with pasta, especially spaghetti or linguini noodles. Or, you can simply eat it on its own with some olive bread as already mentioned. Also, if you are not able to find the mastic liqueur, simply add another teaspoon of the mastic resin to the sauce when cooking. Lastly, a cup of crumbled Feta cheese can optionally be added to the pan just before you remove it from the heat for serving.

If you are interested in obtaining high-quality pure mastic resin or any other mastic products, drop me an email: greekgourmand[at]gmail.com


Kali Orexi! (Bon Appétit),

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

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mastic - Mastiha (Μαστίχα)

From time to time, I like to mix a reflection or two in among my Greek food recipes. Today’s topic is one that really tickles my fancy. As far as spices go, there is surely none more unique or rarer than the mastic resin from the Greek island of Chios, reputed birthplace of the poet Homer.

Pure mastic resin "tears" - Click to Enlarge Image.

Mastic (or ‘masticha’ as we say in Greek, pronounced “mahs-TEE-ha”) is a resin produced by an evergreen shrub, Pistacia lentiscus, which is related to the pistachio tree. The word 'mastic' is derived from the ancient Greek verb ‘mastikhein’ which means “to chew”. The English word “masticate” (to chew) is derived from this root as well.

While the mastic shrub, also known as skhinos in Greek or lentisk in English, does grow elsewhere in the Mediterranean region, the mastic spice resin is only produced in the plots of the Mastic-Villages or Mastichochoria (Μαστιχοχώρια) in the southern end of Chios. It is believed that undersea volcanoes in this area of the Aegean Sea affect the local climate and account for the unique “crying” of the lentisk trees on Chios, from which the mastic “tears” are harvested. It should be noted that the Chian mastic trees also grow in a red soil that is peculiar to the island and is also thought to be the result of volcanic activity. Mastic production has been the primary concern and monopoly of the Mastichochoria for at least 2,400 years and likely much longer. One 17th Century chronicler had this to say about the Mastic harvest on Chios:
There are above 30 Villages upon the Island, which are inhabited, most by Greeks; those who belong to the Mastick villages, to the South-ward have their hair long. The time for gathering the Mastick is in August and September. The Customer goes out to the Village where they receive him with musick, and feasting. What Mastick is gathered is all delivered to the Customer, for the Grand Signiors use, and he soon dispatches it up to Constantinople to serve in the Seraglio for several uses. What remains of the Grand Signiors store, the Customer sells to merchants. It is very dangerous for the inhabitants to keep any Mastick by them...

When any company of women meet in Turkey, some Mastick is brought them on a server, and each taking a little, they are chewing and spitting most of the time. It is comical to see the old women roale it about their gumms; the effect which they find by it are that it carries away the flegme, cleanses and prevents the aking of the teeth; and causes a sweet breath.
Mastic resin is the original chewing gum. Recently, I watched an episode of The Hour, with host George Stroumboulopoulos, in which it was stated that chewing gum was invented in Mexico. Nothing could be further from the truth. The earliest mention of mastic resin used for chewing is found in a fragment of an ancient Greek Comedy dating back to the 5th Century B.C.

The ancient Greeks chewed mastic for fresh breath and to clean their teeth, a practice that was picked up by the Romans and Byzantine Greeks, along with later medieval Europeans including the Venetians, Genoese, and the Ottoman Turks in their turn. Mastic was also reputed to have a salutary effect on gum disease, stomach distempers and other gastrointestinal ailments, and was thus considered a medicine by ancient medical practitioners; evidence for this can be found in the writings of Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galen. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the island of Chios was a much sought after commercial prize by occupiers from both East and West. After the Romans came the Byzantines, after them the Venetians, then the Genoese, and after them came the Ottoman Turks; and finally, a return to full Greek control again in 1923. Yet, the importance of the mastic harvest was such that, even under Ottoman rule, the Mastic-Villages were allowed a form of self-government under their own parliament. Today, mastic cultivation, harvest and production continue on the island of Chios pretty much unchanged in practice and tools since antiquity. Some 2 million mastic trees are cultivated and harvested by members of the Mastic Producer’s Association of Chios, which is comprised of some 5,000 persons from the 24 Mastichochoria.

The manner in which mastic is harvested is as unique as the resin itself. The “kendos” (mastic harvest) begins in June and continues through to September. It is a very labour intensive process and is done completely by hand. The ground beneath each mastic tree is scrupulously cleared and a layer of fine white clay sand is spread about the base of the shrubs. A series of arch-shaped incisions are made in the trunk and larger branches of the trees with a special tool known as a “kentitiri”. The mastic resin seeps forth from these incisions and coagulates into crystallized resin “tears” which drop (or are scraped) onto the surface of the white sand below. It is then harvested via a sifting process, cleaned, and selected according to grades. The grades of mastic resin quality are based on levels of purity and are divided into 5 grades. The highest quality mastic is the purest form of the resin and is considered Quality 1, whereas Qualities 3 – 5 can contain small pieces of the tree’s bark, leaves, or other detritus.

The ancient Greeks also produced a mastic oil, and the mastic resin was further used to flavour wines, a practice which survives today in the form of Mastikha spirit. Here in Ontario, a mastic liqueur is available in select L.C.B.O. stores under the brand name Skinos and it is imported by the Kolonaki Group Inc. The traditional mastic based spirit is known on Chios as Mastikhato, though it is usually referred to simply as Mastikha.

A bottle of traditional Masticha liqueur from my stock - Click to Enlarge Image

Today, mastic resin is widely used in culinary, medicinal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical applications the world over. Modern researchers have found that mastic resin aids in the healing of peptic ulcers by killing Helicobacter pylori which can also cause gastritis and duodenitis. Furthermore, mastic oil contains perillyl alcohol, which has been found to be effective in both the prevention and treatment of some forms of cancer as it arrests tumor cell development. Mastic resin also effectively absorbs cholesterol thereby diminishing the chances of heart attacks and lowering high blood pressure.

Mastic flavoured spoon sweet that is served dunked in a glass of water - Click to Enlarge

In Greece, mastic resin can be found in numerous commercial and homemade products. It is used as flavouring for liquors, chewing gum, pastries and spoon sweets (along with other desserts), ice creams, in breads and in stews; it can also be found in toothpastes, cosmetics, lotions for skin and hair, soap, and perfumes. Mastic is also used in several Turkish recipes and preparations and remains quite a popular spice in neighbouring Turkey as well.

Finally, one of the most interesting historical associations relating to mastic and its production has to do with Christopher Columbus. The unique nature of mastic resin was one of Columbus’ reasons for undertaking his voyage of discovery. In his First Letter to Isabella I of Castile, Columbus enumerates the possibility of finding a new source of the mastic resin in the West as one of the reasons he believed his undertaking was something worthy of the Queen’s funding. Curiously, Columbus uses the Greek spelling of the name of the island i.e. Xios, where the unique resin was cultivated. This, along with a number of other interesting points has led some to conclude that Columbus was actually a Greek from Chios. Was Columbus of Greek origin? I don’t know. There are definitely some pretty curious facts among what little we actually do know regarding the man and his origins, but I have not come to any conclusions. If you want to read more on it, try Matt Barret’s brief discussion of the matter.

Try my Mastic Shrimp Saganaki recipe to enjoy the unique flavour of cooking with mastic gum.




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, April 4, 2009

My Big Fat Greek Food Blog Contest Winner!

Thanks to everyone who submitted an entry along with their kind words of encouragement. :-) I was pleasantly surprised, and a little overwhelmed, by the number of entries received. I was glad to read that all of the entrants enjoyed the scavenger hunt format of the contest; I will retain it for future giveaways. Now to the matter at hand.

Pastitsio recipe pages in "Culinaria Greece" book (and no cinnamon added!) - Click to Enlarge

The winner of a copy of the book "Culinaria Greece" by Marianthi Milona is fellow culinary enthusiast and food blogger Donald Orphanidys a.k.a. Mr. Orph. Donald correctly answered the 7 questions in the contest quiz, and his name was chosen by a process of random number generation from among all the correct entries. Congratulations to Donald! I will be shipping him the book on Monday.

Here are the contest questions along with their correct answers in bold text:
  1. Which species of tree is among the first to bloom with the arrival of spring in Greece? The alomnd tree
  2. What herb was fashionably worn behind the ear by men at ancient Athens? Mint
  3. What was the name and profession of the very first Olympic victor? Coroebus of Elis - a cook
  4. What is the second oldest existing wine in the world? Mavrodaphne wine (1873)
  5. How much did my father’s prize tomato weigh last summer? 1 kg. or 2.2 lbs
  6. Which famous British actor is especially fond of a rare Greek island specialty sweet? Roger Moore
  7. Which hospital was my son born in? Mt. Sinai Hospital
For those of you who did enter the contest but did not win this time round, there's a few more copies of the book to be given away yet. Stay tuned for more great Greek food related contests on the way, my friends. Who knows, you may be the next winner. But you can't win if you don't play!

Amiably,

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