Sunday, June 27, 2010

Risky kitchen business

Cooking is a wonderful process, activity, hobby, necessity, flirtatious pastime, love affair, obsession. It entails creativity, imagination, the use of most of the senses, it's inspiring, satisfying, fun. But you know what else? Cooking can also be painful.

A couple of days ago, as I was contemplating the oh so common topic of what-will-I-cook-today I thought, "What's a better meal for a sunny, summer day than a bowl of fresh peas cooked with spring onions, olive oil and dill?". Yes, the idea was perfect, a meal that would certainly satisfy my number one demanding 'customer', my boyfriend. We love these vegetarian dishes, especially during the summer. They're fulfilling yet light and surely not one of those that make you want to lie on the couch for the rest of the day.

It's been one of my favorite meals ever since I was a kid. My mom made it for me and my brother all the time when we were growing up and, as with so many other dishes that my mom prepared for us, I've incorporated this one also into my repertoire of easy, quick and gratifying recipes. But I'm getting carried away here. This is not about the peas or the recipe for the peas- which will come at some point, I promise- or my mother's great talent at succeeding in feeding me healthy food. No, this is about pain. The pain associated with food preparation.

So, my peas were bubbling away on the stove top, I was listening to 'All of me' by Billie Holiday on the radio and I reached for my big Japanese vegetable knife that my uncle gave me as a Christmas present last year. I wanted to add the dill at the very end of the cooking process so I began chopping away the spiky, green dill strands while thinking to myself, "Gosh, this knife cuts like a dream, I have to be careful not to cut my fingeeeeers"... and it happened. Yes, I cut my finger. I actually cut my nail as well as my finger. It was painful and I totally freaked out but, fortunately, it turned out it wasn't that deep a cut. What angered me the most was that I had ruined my dill!

S. says that sometimes I'm a hazard to myself in the kitchen and since this was not my first unfortunate incident with knives, I tend to agree with him. I go around thinking, "I got it, I can chop like a pro" and then things like this happen and I realize that I'm not. What's the obvious moral here? Be careful when handling knives! I think it'll get through to me someday.

When I manage to surpass my knife handling issues, I do produce some pretty decent food. Take this combination for example. Fried calamari rings and tentacles with a homemade saffron mayonnaise. A totally Mediterranean dish, a complete and utter delight.

I love calamari (squid) or 'kalamaraki' as it is called in Greek, especially when it's fresh. Whenever I can find large calamari, I prefer to stuff them with a mix of green bell peppers and feta and cook them on the grill. But when I buy the smaller ones, there's really no other option than to coat them in flour and fry them, which is the classic Greek way of preparing calamari, the original mezes, served with lemon wedges and accompanied by a shot of ouzo.

This time though, I wanted something different to pair with my fried calamari. A while ago, as I was going through the myriad of recipes I want to cook someday, I stumbled upon one for homemade mayonnaise using saffron so I immediately thought of that.

Saffron (named 'krokos' in Greek), the Mediterranean miracle flower, with its valuable antithrombotic, anticancerous and antioxidant qualities, is being produced in Greece since the 17th century. It is biologically produced specifically in the small village of Krokos in Kozani county of northern Greece and it is considered to be one of the most intense and supreme varieties of saffron in the world. That is the variety I used for my mayonnaise.

Homemade mayonnaise is by far superior in taste and texture to the store bought type, not to mention that it is healthier since it doesn't contain any preservatives or additives. Egg, mustard powder, olive and sunflower oil, lemon juice, saffron. A few simple ingredients and an extraordinary one, whipped up together, producing a magnificently delicious and luscious condiment. This mayo is sharp, slightly sweet and light, so much lighter than the ordinary mayo, with a smooth and creamy texture. The saffron is a strong spice but the addition of only one pinch ensures its discrete presence. It is noticeable as an aftertaste, allowing the olive oil, lemon and the hint of mustard to shine as the prominent flavors.

Use this mayo in a grilled chicken sandwich, slathered on top of a burger patty, or mixed in a green salad. There are innumerable ways to use it, but the combination with the fried calamari is superb. The crunchiness of the scrumptious seafood pairs beautifully with the velvety mayonnaise and the unique flavor of the calamari is a perfect match for the piquant mayo. Ideally served as a mezes, with ouzo or a cold beer, this combination can also be served as a main meal alongside some French fries and a Greek salad.

Kalamarakia Tiganita me Spitiki Magioneza me Safran (Greek Fried Calamari with Homemade Saffron Mayonnaise)
Saffron mayonnaise recipe adapted from Martha Stewart

Homemade mayonnaise is a really special treat but I would like to stress the fact that it contains a raw egg. This means that it should not be consumed by pregnant women, infants, people who have problems with their immune system or the elderly.

It is essential that the egg you use for the mayonnaise is super fresh. Don't use old eggs!

I used saffron threads for the mayonnaise but you can also use saffron powder. I prefer the saffron threads since they have a significantly stronger and richer flavor than the powder.

I used a hand held mixer to prepare the mayo but you can also use a blender or a food processor.

Yield: 4 first-course servings / 1 heaped cup of mayonnaise


for the saffron mayonnaise
1 large fresh egg
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 heaped tsp dried mustard
120 ml (1/2 cup) light olive oil
120 ml (1/2 cup) sunflower oil
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
A pinch of saffron threads ( about 20 saffron threads or 1/16 tsp saffron powder)

for the calamari
500 g fresh or frozen* calamari with tentacles (about 12-14 cm in length and 4 cm in width)
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
900 ml sunflower oil

Special equipment: hand held mixer, sieve.


for the saffron mayonnaise
Combine the olive and sunflower oil in a jug.

Important note: Once you start mixing the ingredients for the mayonnaise with the hand held mixer, you must not stop the machine at any time. This is crucial for the success of your mayo, since it might split or curdle, so have the ingredients prepared and lined up on your work surface before you start preparing the mayonnaise.

In a small bowl, add 1 tsp of lemon juice and the saffron threads. Let the saffron steep for 15 minutes, until the liquid turns a yellow-orange color. Then strain the mixture into another small bowl, discard the saffron threads and reserve the liquid.
If you're using saffron powder, do not strain the mixture. Just stir to dissolve the powder in the lemon juice.

In a medium-sized bowl, place egg, mustard powder and salt and, using a hand held mixer, beat everything on high speed until you have a pale golden and foamy mixture, about 2 minutes.
With the mixer still running, add the combined oils (about 60 ml of the oil), one drop at a time until the mixture begins to thicken. You must not stop the machine at any time during this whole process.

Pour the remaining oil in the mixture, in a slow, steady stream and keep mixing until all of the oil is incorporated in the mixture.

With the mixer still running, add 1 Tbsp lemon juice gradually, a couple of drops at a time until incorporated and you have a smooth, creamy mayonnaise.

Drizzle in the saffron-infused liquid and combine with a rubber spatula. Check for seasoning, place mayonnaise in an airtight container and refrigerate to firm up.

You can keep mayonnaise in the refrigerator for 3 days.

for calamari
In a medium-sized baking tray, place the flour, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mix everything together. Set aside.

Rinse the calamari well under running water and cut them into 1.5 cm-thick rings. Keep the tentacles intact.
Place calamari on paper towels to dry a little (don't dry them completely otherwise the flour won't stick to them), place them in the baking tray and coat them with the flour mixture. Then put them in a sieve, slightly shake them around so that any excess flour passes through the sieve and set aside.

Heat sunflower oil in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. You can check if the oil is ready for frying by dropping in it a 2.5 cm cube of white bread and if it browns in 60 seconds, it is ready. If it browns in less time then your oil is too hot!

Deep fry the calamari in batches. Do not overcrowd the pan because they will not be uniformly fried. Fry them for 2-3 minutes. In case your calamari is bigger in size you will need to adjust the frying time. Keep in mind though that, if you fry them for too long they will become tough and chewy.

Remove fried calamari from the pan with the help of a slotted spoon, place them on paper towels to drain excess oil and check for seasoning.

Serve them while still hot along with the saffron mayonnaise.

*If you're using frozen calamari you need to defrost them first. It's best to take them out of the freezer the previous night and put them in your fridge. This way, the defrosting will be gradual and not abrupt. Take them out of the fridge 1-2 hours before you need to prepare them for frying.


  1. Sorry to hear about your accident. Although I have a full set of knives, I almost never use them, including the chef's knife but I can't live without a small knife gifted to me by a shop owner when I bought some other household items. Love kalamarakia, although now I avoid eating fried food and saffron is a great addition to your homemade mayonnaise. I make it with only olive oil.

  2. Thanks Ivy. It's getting better by the day.
    I don't use solely olive oil in mayonnaise because it has such an overpowering flavor that it masks everything else.

  3. Sorry for you accident....
    Great pictures, great post. I lot of work, really ! Each time, I enjoy - you are doing a great job and I like to come back to your blog.
    Take care, I wait for new recipes and ideas.

  4. Unfortunately I can't chop like a pro! I have a very nice cooks knife but it just feels too big for me- so it is just for 'show' in my kitchen- I too favour a small inexpensive vegetable knife- the tip is even missing.
    I am lucky enough to have some Greek saffron- infact I have just received a lovely little bag of goodies from Greece- olives- including Kalamata, olive paste, Feta and Halloumi cheese, olive oil, honey and Ouzo. I am one happy lady.
    Is soaking the saffron enough? I always thought it neccesary to crush it.

  5. Magdalena - Thank you! :)

    Dutch Brit - You can do so many things with all your Greek goodies! I never crush the saffron, I think soaking is enough. When I pass it through a sieve after soaking, I just give it a good squeeze with the back of a spoon to get all its juices out.

  6. Thanks Magda, I'll try that next time- I am all too often disappoited with the colour produced by my saffron. I've heard soaking it in vodka helps- but haven't tried that yet.
    And yes it is the real mcCoy- unfornunately I was cheated in Egypt once with Safflower insted of Saffron- absolute rubbish! People beware for the crooks!
    BTW Magda, have you heard about Foodie Exchange?
    I joined just before the site moved but haven't had time yet to look into exactly how it works. The concept sounds interesting though.

  7. That dredge in flour looks so delicate and perfect. It is inevitable, whenever family goes out to eat, we order a plate or two of fried calamari.

  8. You are a trooper. Yikes - that sounds like it hurt but boy, you rocked it anyways. This is such an elegant dish. Hope your finger is better!

  9. Dutch Brit - you're welcome! I'm familiar with foodie exchange and it is indeed interesting.

    Tracy - for us it's like three or four :)

    Belinda - thanks, it is getting better!

  10. Hope you'll be well soon! My worst scars are not from knives so far (partly because my knives are shamefully not sharp), but from caramel. It is very hot and can burn quite badly, so whenever I am playing with it, I am extra careful and do all the prep work before starting.

    I love the saffron mayo idea!

  11. I'm very much enjoying your site. I'm an expat myself! I've also cut myself using my Global knives. It's an awful feeling. Thanks for the beautiful postings.

  12. Lovely post! Calamari is such a treat, especially with homemade mayo.

    On the knife front, I used to teach a class every Thanksgiving in which the partipipants brought their own turkeys, and I walked them through boning the birds. In all the years I taught the class, only 2 people ever cut themselves, and they were both SURGEONS. So you see, even the pros have trouble with knives. :-) ...Susan

  13. The saffron mayo sounds lovely and so much more sophisticated than the giant bottle of Kraft mayo sitting in my fridge :)

  14. wow this is explosive, I just love the detailing, and it is defintely a lovely dish, saffron mayonnaise truly something to die for! excited already! :)

  15. Adding the saffron would have put me in a better mood instantly! Sorry for your little mishap; it hapenend to the best of us!
    Love the way you breaded that calamari; it is a wonderful dish.

  16. With every new set of knives, I accidentally cut myself--it seems unavoidable---it's like an initiation with the knife.

    Your photographs for the saffron mayonnaise are exceptional--love the trio w/ saffron threads infusing the oil---little works of art.

  17. First the pain - so very sorry! But, really, what great chef hasn't lost a fingertip or two to their chef's knives or mandoline??

    This is a beautiful recipe and I adore saffron mayonnaise - but had never thought it an accompaniment for calamari! Brilliant! Now that I have an outdoor burner to fry the calamari, I will be trying this soon! Thanks!

  18. Thank you all for your wishes and your comments!

  19. Hope you are well, up and running (cooking) again! The saffron mayo sounds interesting - I never tried anything like that before.

  20. i dont chop like a pro - ever! which is why i take longer, so that i make sure i dont have accidents!!!

    despite mayonnaise not being a greek food, it is incredible to think that greek food does not include mayonanise - we have so many fresh eggs, and the best olive oil; you have inspired me once again to make some of this, which i think i will enjoy in the same way you did - with freshly cooked seafood...

  21. Goregous pictures! And innovative recipes! Love your blog...