Friday, December 31, 2010

...and a Lucky New Year

In Greece, during the Christmas holidays and all the way up to New Year's, the gambler in everyone comes out. 'Tis the time of poker and black jack playin' and roulette dice rollin'. Well, I suppose during the holidays, Greeks become totally addicted to games of luck.

The members of my family are the definition of the holiday gambler and no, we don't actually go out to any casinos but we kind of bring the casino to our house. Every year, around New Year's, my family's traditions switch from holiday baking and ham glazing to setting the table for a little card game fun.

The green felt tablecloth makes its appearance from the buffet drawer. It is perfectly ironed, no crease to be seen anywhere, no crease that will accidentally make a poker card flip and reveal what a perfect little bluffer my cousin is. The poker chips are all aligned in their boxes, ready to be distributed by my brother among us high rollers (!) and the good quality plastic playing cards are cleaned and ready to be dealt by my uncle, who always gets a kick out of being the card dealer.

Our lucky game of choice is poker. Draw and stud poker, lowball, follow the Queen, roll your own, to name but a few variants of the game. We all gather around the table, we put our game or better yet, our poker faces on and... let the games begin!

I have to say that, we take the game pretty seriously. No funny business is allowed and even if the youngest, more inexperienced members of our extended family play or friends who are newly initiated to our holiday customs join us, they are all expected to follow the same rules. They don't get any special treatment—we call that "tough poker love". How else are they gonna learn?

We bluff, we pass, we bet, we win, we lose, we laugh, we yell, we eat, we drink. Well, food and drinks are always part of whatever activity my family's engaged in and since the games might go on for hours, we surely need something to nibble on and sip. Nibbling is confined to finger food, spiced nuts and chocolate truffles that are passed around if we're in the mood for something sweet, and let me tell you, we always are.

When poker is played, or any card game for that matter, messy food may not be allowed but the drinks, ah the drinks; there are no rules where drinks are concerned. The bar is open and everyone can have whatever they want. Each member of the family has their favorite drink but I always like to be flexible or change things up. Sometimes I go classic, with a brandy or a Scotch, other times I'm in the mood for something sweet, like Port or Sherry, and then there are the times when a cocktail is in order. And it goes something like this; coffee liqueur, vodka, espresso, sugar, milk, ice / mix, pour, drink.

Listen, I'm not crazy about coffee and I'm perhaps one of the few people out there who could live without it but what I'm absolutely nuts about, are coffee-flavored desserts and drinks; coffee flavored alcoholic drinks that is. Espresso cocktails and Cappuccino shots are my favorites of the kind and I urge you to try them on New Year's Eve, right before you give a kiss to your loved one to usher in the New Year.
And then I urge you to try them on New Year's Day, right when you finish your big festive meal and you're waiting for that chocolate dessert to come.

And then I urge you to try them on every other weekend after that, until summer comes and you begin to crave fruity type of drinks. Until then, these are the mixed drinks of my winter and the reasons why you must try them are fairly straightforward. Both of these drinks are delicious, easy to prepare, they don't require fancy or outrageous ingredients and most importantly, they are guaranteed to make you light headed and alert at the same time. Is there anything more you could possibly want from a drink?

P.S. Yours truly rarely wins at poker but we have a saying in Greece "He/She who loses at card games, wins in love".

Espresso Cocktail
Adapted from Robert Schinkel

Have your New Year's kick with this amazing espresso-flavored cocktail. Don't worry if you don't have an espresso maker though. You can use the common instant espresso. Dissolve it in water and you're ready to go.

Yield: 200 ml espresso cocktail / 2 large drinks

80 ml freshly brewed espresso coffee
2 tsp sugar
20 ml coffee liqueur (such as Kahlua)
80 ml vodka
Pinch of ground cinnamon
10 large ice cubes
4 espresso beans, for garnishing (optional)

Special equipment: espresso maker, cocktail shaker, cocktail glasses

Make the espresso coffee either by using an espresso maker or by dissolving instant espresso powder in hot water. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Leave the coffee to cool.

In a cocktail shaker (or any other shaker if you don't have a cocktail shaker) add the ice cubes, vodka, coffee liqueur, cinnamon and the cooled espresso. Shake vigorously for 20 seconds and empty the drink in the two cocktail glasses, passing it first through a sieve to get rid of the ice cubes (if you use a cocktail shaker you will not need a sieve because it's already attached to the tip of the shaker).

Garnish the cocktails with the espresso beans and serve immediately.

If you like your cocktail really cold, then add ice cubes to the cocktail glasses before you start preparing the drink. This will make the glasses super cold. Empty the glasses from the ice cubes before pouring in the drink.

Cappuccino Shots

I have been making these shots for many years. I have always enjoyed their "mock" cappuccino flavor but with alcohol, that gives a sweet buzz. Beware though; drink it slowly, otherwise you're going to get really dizzy, really quick.

Yield: 60 ml / 2 shots

20 ml vodka
30 ml coffee liqueur (such as Kahlua)
20 ml evaporated milk, beaten until frothy
Ground cinnamon, for sprinkling

Special equipment: milk frother, shot glasses

In a large glass (or in a cocktail shaker), add the vodka and the coffee liqueur. Mix with a spoon and divide among two shot glasses.

Froth the milk with the milk frother and add three to four teaspoons of frothed milk on top of each drink.
Sprinkle with a little ground cinnamon and serve immediately.


Thursday, December 23, 2010


Suppose you haven't seen your family for almost a year and just as you decide to book your airplane tickets to visit them for the Christmas holidays, something important comes up that requires you to stay put and now you have to wait till Easter to see them.

Suppose you have made plans to take a short trip to a romantic European city where Christmas is celebrated in a unique, beautiful manner and a couple of days before that trip you realize you're snowed in and you can't travel anywhere.

There are four possible reactions to these turn of events:

a) You moan and groan and bitch about it, being angry at the weather, at the circumstances and at life itself, until you run out of steam and you realize that you just have to deal with it and make the best you can with what you got, which is not bad at all if you really think about it.

b) You get depressed and moody, believing that there's always going to be a cloud over your head, feeling like a modern day Joe Btfsplk and that your life is doomed because your plans didn't turn out the way you wished, proceeding to ruin your holidays with your brooding and to make those around you feel deflated as well, only to realize a couple of days later, that you just have to deal with it and make the best you can with what you got, which is not bad at all if you really think about it.

c) You get angry and depressed, thinking that life's a bitch and that you probably deserve for some reason to be stuck here but, all this lasts for just fifteen minutes because you quickly realize that you just have to deal with it and make the best you can with what you got, which is not bad at all if you really think about it.

d) You say "eh" and you move on, in which case there's either something seriously wrong with you since these circumstances don't bother you at all or something seriously right with you and you need to teach me how to do that.

I'm gonna leave you guessing which one of these reactions I had when both of the aforementioned circumstances happened to me. What I'm going to tell you though is that in order to get over the fact that I'm stranded in Holland for the holidays, I had to make what I call "my Christmas blues remedy", otherwise known as my grandmother's small rolled baklavas; the ones she always makes during the holiday season.

I'm sure you have eaten a baklava before, right? Those of you who haven't, what are you waiting for? Baklava is a traditional Greek dessert categorized under the "Siropiasta" desserts—like Ravani—which are desserts that are drenched in syrup, and its ancient Greek predecessor, the "Gastrin" or "Koptoplakous", is mentioned in the literary work "Deipnosofists" by Athenaeus, in the 3rd century AD.

Traditionally, to make baklava, layers of phyllo dough are buttered and placed in a large baking tray. Chopped nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts or pistachios are spread over the phyllo sheets and then covered by more buttered layers of phyllo. My grandmother's baklava though is different. Hers are individual, small, rolled baklavas that have their own name in traditional Greek pastry making. They are called "Saragli". A single phyllo dough sheet is generously slathered with melted butter and a mix of coarsely chopped walnuts, ground cinnamon and sugar is placed along its short end. The sheet is rolled carefully and then gently pushed from both edges so the pastry gets all wrinkled and creased.

The saragli are placed in a baking tray which goes in the oven for about forty minutes, until the phyllo is crisp, puffed up and golden. The smell emanating from the oven is that of rich butter mixed with spicy cinnamon and you can hardly wait for them to come out. If you're S, you steal a piece the moment they come out of the oven, completely disregarding their need to get doused with syrup.

The lemon and cinnamon syrup is prepared and poured over the saragli and then all you have to do is wait, again. Wait until all the syrup is absorbed by the thirsty baked phyllo, until it is filled with the sweet essence of sugar and cinnamon, until the bottom of this magnificent dessert is moist and honeyed and the top is still crunchy and crisp. Thank you grandma—this is for you.

Saragli (Greek Individual Rolled Baklavas)

The Greek baklava, as opposed for example to the Turkish or Middle Eastern baklavas, is filled with chopped walnuts. More rarely is it filled with pistachios. You can certainly improvise with these saragli. Use a mixture of hazelnuts and walnuts, or of pistachios and almonds. Have some fun with it.

My grandmother's way of rolling the saragli is by using a rod (a metal long and thin pipe—but you can also use a very thin rolling pin) that is placed on the edge of the phyllo and is used to roll the sheet. She then wrinkles the pastry and takes the rod out. Since I don't have a similar rod or rolling pin, I do it all by hand, which is easy after you get the hang of it. You just need to make sure you roll it tight but not so tight as to tear the phyllo. It might not be as even as when you use a rod but hey, that's what homemade means sometimes; uneven, but delicious.

There are versions of saragli where multiple phyllo sheets are filled with nuts successively and then rolled. There are also versions of saragli where nuts are spread along the whole sheet. There are also different versions of syrup with different flavors and different consistencies. My grandmother's version is a light one, where each saragli is made with a single phyllo sheet and the filling is spread along the edge of one end of the sheet. This is the version that I love and prefer to always make.

Working with phyllo dough is easy. Don't believe those who tell you otherwise. I may be speaking from a point of advantage since I've been working with phyllo my whole life, like any other self-respecting Greek girl who cooks, but still, it is easy. You just need to follow some rules.
Rule #1 : Use good quality phyllo dough. It does not dry out easily as the poor-quality ones, it is smoother, lighter and it is crispier when baked.
Rule #2 : Use phyllo dough within a small period of time after you've bought it. It keeps in the freezer well but don't just leave it there for months before you use it.
Remember, once it is thawed, don't freeze it again.
Rule #3 : Always work quickly with phyllo dough. Don't mess about. Don't stop right in the middle of preparing let's say a spanakopita, to cut more onions. Have everything ready before you start assembling a pie or dessert using phyllo dough.
Rule #4 : If you're using phyllo to make for example individual baklavas, like in this recipe here where you need to work with one phyllo sheet at a time, cover the rest of the sheets with a damp tea towel and preferably keep the sheets rolled (like how you bought them). Keep them within reach, so you can work fast, but not near a working oven or any other working heat source.
Rule #5 : Don't panic. Even if one sheet of phyllo is dried, there's always more. If the phyllo has a small tear, it really doesn't matter. It doesn't affect the end result.
Rule #6 : If you like working with phyllo dough, learn how to make it yourself. My own recipe will come at some point. I think.

You can chop the walnuts coarsely or a bit more fine but not too fine. I always prefer to chop mine coarsely so they have more texture and don't become soggy when drenching the saragli with the syrup.

Yield: 36 saragli


for the saragli
450 g phyllo dough with 12 sheets (around 50 x 40 cm each) (1 package), thawed
250 g unsalted butter
200 g walnuts plus 50 g for sprinkling on top
30 g (2 Tbsp) sugar
3 g (1 tsp) ground cinnamon

for the syrup
500 g sugar
450 ml water
½ medium-sized lemon, cut into wedges
1 large cinnamon stick

Special equipment: large baking pan about 35 x 25 cm, small food processor, pastry brush


for the saragli
Chop 200 g walnuts coarsely either in a food processor or using a large knife. Place them in a medium-sized bowl along with the sugar and ground cinnamon and mix them with a spoon.

Place the butter in a small saucepan and melt it over medium heat.

You will need a large, clean work surface to prepare the saragli. Take one phyllo sheet (keep the others rolled and covered with a damp tea towel and away from any heat source) and butter its entire surface lightly, using a pastry brush.
Working from the short end of the sheet, place 1 - 1 ½ Tbsp of the walnut filling along the edge of that short end and roll the sheet to a 1 - 1 ½ cm in diameter roll. With your fingers, wrinkle the roll and place it seam side down in the baking pan.

In the meantime, preheat your oven to 175 degrees Celsius.

Continue with the rest of the sheets in the same manner.

When you finish filling, rolling and wrinkling all the sheets, pour the remaining butter (you will be left with about 3/4 cup of melted butter—if it has solidified, melt it again) over the rolled sheets in the pan.
Place the pan on the lower rack of the oven and bake saragli for 40-43 minutes until the phyllo becomes crispy and takes on a golden color. Don't let it become dark brown.

When saragli are ready, take the pan out of the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool. This will take about 1 hour. When it cools, take a large, sharp knife and cut the rolls into 3 equal pieces thus creating 36 small saragli. Cut them carefully so the phyllo doesn't break.

for the syrup
The syrup must be hot when you pour it over the saragli and saragli must be cool. So you need to start preparing the syrup while the saragli are cooling down.

In a medium-sized saucepan, add the water, sugar, lemon wedges and cinnamon stick. Heat over high heat, stirring continuously until the sugar is dissolved, and bring to the boil. Lower heat to medium-low and leave saucepan uncovered. The syrup must simmer for about half an hour until it thickens slightly. Once ready, remove the lemon wedges (which you can eat by the way) and the cinnamon stick.

Once the saragli are cooled and cut into pieces, pour the hot syrup slowly and carefully over the tops of the cooked saragli. The syrup is not supposed to cover the saragli pieces completely but only come up their sides by about two-thirds.
Allow the saragli to soak up all the syrup. This will take around 3 hours but it is best if you leave them overnight in the pan. Don't refrigerate or cover the pan.

The saragli will not soak all the syrup. Some will be left on the bottom of the pan.

Take saragli out of the pan and arrange them on a serving platter.
Chop 50 g of walnuts in a food processor and sprinkle them on top of the saragli pieces.

The saragli can be kept for up to 10 days at room temperature, covered lightly with cling film.
Do not store saragli in the refrigerator. It would be best if you didn't cover them at all the first couple of days or if you just laid a piece of cling film over them. If you cover them completely, they will become soggy and the phyllo will lose its crispy, crunchy texture.

The saragli have a better taste the following day and each day that passes they are even more delicious.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

There are others like me out there, right?

I'm one of those people who during the Christmas holidays wear the crazy Santa hats and red antler hair pieces and call it fashionable.

I'm one of those people who sing carols till they drop while trimming the tree and sometimes even accidentally drop on the tree while caroling.

I'm one of those people who pretend to be excited when someone offers them a hot cup of Christmas cocoa when deep down inside all they really want is a glass of Scotch.

I'm one of those people who rush out on the afternoon of December 24 to buy all the gifts they said they had already bought weeks in advance.

I'm one of those people who occasionally tell a white lie during the holidays in order to make the ones they love happy.

"No (fill in name of friend/relative here), these cookies were delicious. Nah, that tooth was already chipped anyway"

"Yes (fill in name of niece/nephew/small cousin here), of course there is a Santa Claus"
(I'm not gonna be the one shattering that illusion. Someone else will do it eventually)

"Sure (grandma, grandpa, aunt etc) I love this jacket. Who knew 70's brown-green couch fabrics were back in style"

I'm one of those people who stay up late watching Christmas movies, eating a bowlful of caramel spiced popcorn and getting all teary-eyed and hopeful and believing that human nature is kind and everything is sweets and sugar.
And then, well, you know, I switch the channel to the news and I get a slap in the face.

I'm one of those people who prepare way too much cookie dough because they secretly want to stash it for late-night secret munching.

I'm one of those people who during the holidays (and other occasions) promise their guy a full-fat meal with lots of red meat (just like S likes it) and then make them fish.

There are others like me out there, right?

We're not talking about any kind of fish here though. We're talking about the almighty salmon. It is perhaps my favorite kind of fish and paired with my other favorite kind of food, rice, that was my idea of a perfect meal. Even though I caught S off guard with the fish, he came around once he tasted it. Besides, this was a pretty, pretty, pretty good meal. Salmon with a pomegranate glaze and Armenian rice pilaf.

The salmon is first marinated in olive oil, soy sauce, lime and lemon juice and then slathered with a combination of homemade pomegranate molasses, honey, fresh ginger, garlic and lime zest. The salmon is baked in the oven on high heat and a few minutes later, you are presented with a flavorful and aromatic dish that is full of sweetness from the salmon, with zesty and tangy undertones from the marinade and a sweet sourness from the pomegranate molasses. My mouth is watering as I'm writing the words and recall the taste.

The Armenian rice pilaf was a complete and utter savory delight. Made with basmati rice and vermicelli, lots of butter and pine nuts, it had an incredibly rich, buttery, earthy flavor and a wonderfully crisp texture. The final sprinkling of fresh mint and a few pomegranate seeds elevated the dish, freshened it up and rounded up all the flavors.

This glazed salmon and Armenian rice pilaf are ideal dishes to prepare for a holiday dinner with friends or family or for a dinner for two. Accompanied by a Pinot Grigio and a green salad you'll have a festive, delicious dinner without having to slave in the kitchen for hours. Plus, with all the turkeys and hams and beef going around during the holidays, this is a rather welcomed change, don't you think?

Salmon with Pomegranate Molasses Glaze
Adapted from Lulu Powers

This salmon dish is very easy to prepare and cook. You need to marinate the fish for 1 ½ hours and then bake it in the oven for 7-8 minutes and you're done.

I generally use good quality, low-sodium soy sauce since the taste is the same as that of regular soy sauce but it has less salt (which is only a plus) but you can surely use normal soy sauce. Just use less salt in the marinade.

You can serve the salmon either with the Armenian rice (see recipe below) or with a simple basmati or brown rice.

Yield: 4 servings


for the marinade
30 ml (2 Tbsp) soy sauce (preferably low-sodium)
15 ml (1 Tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
15 ml (1 Tbsp) lemon juice, freshly squeezed
15 ml (1 Tbsp) lime juice, freshly squeezed
15 ml (1 Tbsp) honey
2 medium-sized garlic cloves, unpeeled and lightly crushed
1 ½ tsp fresh ginger, finely grated
½ tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground white pepper

for the glaze
30 ml (2 Tbsp) pomegranate molasses
15 ml (1 Tbsp) honey
15 ml (1 Tbsp) soy sauce (preferably low-sodium)
1 medium-sized garlic clove, finely minced
1 ½ tsp fresh ginger, finely grated
1 ½ tsp lime zest

4 salmon fillets, skinless and boneless, 180-200 g each
Freshly ground white pepper

10 g fresh mint, chopped
Pomegranate seeds from one pomegranate

Special equipment: grater, large shallow dish, large rimmed baking pan, cling film, pastry brush

Rinse the salmon fillets under cold running water.

for the marinade
In a large shallow dish, combine the soy sauce, extra virgin olive oil, lemon and lime juice, honey, crushed garlic, ginger, salt and pepper.
Add the salmon fillets to the dish, coating both sides with the marinade.
Cover the dish with cling film and refrigerate for 1 -1 ½ hours. Turn the salmon fillets every 20 minutes or so.

Preheat your oven to 220 degrees Celsius.

for the glaze
In a medium-sized bowl, add the pomegranate molasses, honey, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and lime zest. Whisk everything together.

Take salmon out of the refrigerator and place fillets onto a large, rimmed baking pan. Season each fillet with a little salt and a little freshly ground white pepper. Using a pastry brush (or even your hands if you don't have one), brush the fillets with half of the glaze.
Place pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake salmon fillets for 5 minutes, until they are slightly browned.
Take pan out of the oven and brush the fillets with the remaining glaze. Return to the oven and bake for further 3 minutes, until the fish is richly glazed and almost cooked through.

Serve the salmon
Transfer fillets to the plate and garnish with the chopped fresh mint and the pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately along with the Armenian rice (see recipe below) or with any other side dish you have prepared.

Homemade Pomegranate Molasses

This is an extremely easy way to make homemade pomegranate molasses. The taste is sweet but a little tart as well.
You can use it not only as an ingredient for glazing salmon but also beef and pork. You can also use it on top of waffles, pancakes and of course, ice cream.

Yield: 250-300 ml

950 ml fresh pomegranate juice (or bottled 100% pomegranate juice)
190 g sugar
60 ml lemon juice, freshly squeezed and strained

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the sugar, lemon juice and pomegranate juice. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring continuously with a rubber spatula until the sugar dissolves. Taste the juice and if you want to add more sugar, do it at this stage. Add the sugar and stir continuously until it dissolves.
Once the juice begins to simmer, reduce the heat to medium or just enough to maintain a simmer. Every now and then remove with a spoon the foam that is gathered on top of the simmering juice.
Simmer for 1 - 1 ½ hours or until the juice has the consistency of syrup. You will end up with about 1 ¼ cups pomegranate molasses.

As the pomegranate molasses cools down, it will become thicker.

Pour the molasses in a glass jar (preferably sterilized) and put it in the refrigerator once it cools completely.

You can keep it in the fridge for up to 4 months.

Armenian Rice Pilaf
Adapted from Lulu Powers

This rice dish is extremely versatile and will serve you well during this holiday season. It is very easy to prepare and you can serve it not only with the glazed salmon but with lamb, pork and beef main dishes.

If you' re looking for a perfectly delicious and not aggressive in taste side dish, this is it.

Yield: 6 servings

400 g basmati rice
90 g unsalted butter
45 g vermicelli or angel-hair pasta, broken into 1 ½-2 cm lengths
900 ml good quality chicken or vegetable stock, warmed
40 g pine nuts
½ tsp salt
Freshly ground white pepper
15 g fresh mint, chopped
Pomegranate seeds from one pomegranate

Special equipment: large sieve

Place basmati rice in a large sieve and rinse it well under cold running water, until the water running through is no longer cloudy. Put sieve over a bowl and let rice dry.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat.
Add the vermicelli or angel-hair pasta and the pine nuts and sauté them in the butter until they're golden brown, for 3-5 minutes. The butter may foam while you do this.
Add the rice and stir it around in order to get coated with the butter.
Add the warmed chicken stock, the salt and a generous amount of freshly ground white pepper. Stir everything around and once the stock comes to the boil, turn heat down to low, cover the pan with the lid and let rice cook for about 25 minutes, until the rice is tender yet crispy and all the liquid is absorbed.
Check the rice after 20 minutes to make sure it doesn't overcook.

When rice is cooked, take it off the heat and fluff it well with a fork. Cover the pan and let the rice stand for 20 minutes.

Stir in half of the chopped fresh mint and serve the pilaf either in individual dishes or in a large serving bowl. Garnish with the rest of the mint and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds on top.

If you have any rice left, you can certainly eat it the next day. It is equally flavorful.