Saturday, January 30, 2010

The power of a vegetable

Give us Greeks a vegetable, any vegetable, and we're going to transform it, chop it, fry it, stuff it, grill it, bake it, broil it, you name it! We have a real talent for that. Or perhaps we just have access to so many vegetables that we have to do something with them.
When I was little, I hated almost any vegetable I laid my eyes on, let alone put them in my mouth. I didn't even give them a chance. They were too green, too soft, too hard, too bitter (never too sweet mind you), too slimy, too awful smelling, too... anything! I was driving everyone crazy. Little did I know that a couple of decades later, I would be the stronger supporter of vegetables in my family. What? Having a meal without a vegetable being included? Unfathomable! Oh, how times change.

As it happened with eggs, my mother had to find ways to make me eat some vegetables. Camouflage was the name of the game. Vegetables not in plain sight, but artfully covered or mixed with let's say pasta, rice or meat.
The addition of a heavenly minced meat-tomato sauce filling (or better yet topping) and some scrumptious cheese on top, was all little Magda needed to be persuaded to eat a stuffed eggplant, or as we call it in Greek "Melitzanes Papoutsakia", the actual translation of which is "Eggplant little shoes".

This is a recipe well rooted in the hearts and stomachs of every Greek. It is a staple dinner dish enjoyed by the whole family, though still a special one that can be served at a celebratory dinner or a special occasion. Including hearty vegetables, meat, dairy in the form of cheese and of course olive oil, it covers every single food group a person needs to incorporate into his daily diet. And flavor, oh the flavor. It's magnificent. The slight bitterness of the eggplant marries perfectly with the sweetness of the tomato and the earthiness of the onion. The meat lends its precious proteins to the dish, making it both satisfying and substantial, and the melting cheese on top, cascading down the shiny eggplant, gives an extra depth of flavor to the overall dish.

Stuffed eggplant is a versatile dish, since you can either serve it as a main or as a first course dish. Either way, be sure to pair it with a nice bottle of robust red wine, like the excellent Greek wine Amethystos, which is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and an ancient Greek variety called Limnio.

Melitzanes Papoutsakia (Greek Stuffed Eggplants with Minced Beef-Tomato Sauce Filling and Kefalotyri Cheese)

Literally every home cook in Greece makes their minced meat-tomato sauce filling in a different way. I suppose it's a matter of taste as well as family tradition. I've played around with enough ingredients myself for this recipe over the years, making this filling different almost every time, but the following recipe is my favorite.
Feel free to experiment yourselves, using your own taste and instinct. Keep in mind though that the more ingredients you add to your sauce, the less room you're leaving for the eggplant to shine as the main ingredient of the dish. Less is more in this case for me.

In Greece, the majority of people eat veal instead of beef, so that would customarily be the minced meat of choice for this dish. But beef works marvellously as well in this recipe, as long as it's a clean, lean cut of beef.

Traditionally, the cheese used in this dish is Kefalotyri, a hard, yellow Greek cheese made from raw goat or sheep's milk that has a slightly salty, mildly acidulous flavor and a sharp aroma. This cheese will bring authenticity to the dish.
Alternatively you can use Pecorino Romano or Parmiggiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese) and if you're a Dutchie or simply want to try a cheese from the Netherlands, you can use Oude Geitenkaas, an aged goat's cheese which is fantastic.

Yield: 4-5 main course servings or 9-10 first course servings*

5 large eggplants (around 19 cm in length each)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
1 medium-sized garlic clove, sliced
400 g minced veal or beef (from a lean piece of beef)
400 g fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded and cubed or canned diced tomatoes
2 tsp tomato paste
2 fresh thyme sprigs or 1/8 tsp dried thyme, crumbled
A small pinch of sugar
1/2 cup water
Freshly ground black pepper
130-140 g Kefalotyri cheese, grated

Be sure to choose eggplants that are firm, with a vibrant purple color, smooth skin and no disfigurement whatsoever. You also need to buy eggplants of similar size so that they take an equal amount of time to cook.
Wash them well under cold water, cut off their green stems and leaves and cut them in half lengthwise. Prick lightly with a fork the inside of the eggplants.
If you want to take the bitterness out of the eggplants, sprinkle the inside with some salt and leave them inside a colander for an hour. Then rinse them well and squeeze them lightly to get a little bit of their juice out.
You can skip this part, and actually I do, because I rarely find eggplants bitter nowadays.

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Place the eggplant halves, skin side down, on a baking pan, sprinkle with a little salt and black pepper (if you have left them salted for an hour then you do not need to salt them again) and put pan on the middle rack of the oven. Bake them for about 45 minutes, until they soften but are not cooked all the way. You don't need them to be overly soft because they're going to bake for another 30-35 minutes.

Meanwhile, start preparing the filling. Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions for about 5 minutes, until they become soft and transparent and then add the garlic. Sauté for 1 minute and add the minced beef. Sauté the meat for 4-5 minutes, stirring continuously with a spoon or spatula, until browned. Season with salt and black pepper, add the tomatoes and tomato paste and stir well.
Then add the thyme and sugar and pour the water all over the ingredients. Stir well and let the mixture come to the boil, uncovered. Once it does, cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, or until the meat is almost cooked.
While the filling is cooking, you need to keep an eye on it, stirring occasionally, because it might need more water.
Once cooked, the filling should not be dry. It must have an average amount of liquid in it in order to permeate the eggplants and give them extra flavor.

Press the inside of the partially cooked eggplants a little bit with a spoon to create a shallow shell and add the filling on top of the whole eggplant**. Place the baking pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 25 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. Take the pan out of the oven and add a generous amount of grated cheese on top of the filling. Bake for another 10 minutes until the cheese has melted and has taken on a golden color.

Place stuffed eggplants on individual dishes and serve immediately.

*In case you want to make this dish for 2 people, you can buy and cook only two eggplants and use the rest of the beef-tomato sauce the next day, on top of a nice big bowl of spaghetti. Don't forget to grate your favorite cheese on top.

**Variation: At this point you can also add a béchamel sauce on top of the filling, but I usually avoid doing that because the dish becomes too heavy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

What's in a name?

My name is Magda but it could have easily been Rebecca. That's the name my mother wanted to give me when she first found out she was having a baby girl. She preferred though to honor her own mother by naming me after her. Magdalene.
Would my life be different had I been named Rebecca? No, not really, just my initials. Sure, our name is the first thing that defines us, that gives us an identity. "What's your name?" is one of the most common questions a person's being asked his whole life; from an old lady asking a cute little 5-year-old to ones future husband asking on the first encounter.

Having something named after you though is a completely different thing. In my mind, having food being named after you is an amazing thing. And so begins the story of a young, French 18th century peasant girl named Madeleine, or a French 19th century Cordon Bleu pastry chef named Madeleine, or... well, there are many theories regarding the origin of the name of these small cakes named madeleines.
Even though they're not named after me, I've always felt like I can share a bit of their glory because of my name (Magdalene is Madeleine in Greek).

I probably don't have to introduce these remarkable little sponge cakes to most of you. I bet you've eaten them at least once in your lives. But for those of you out there who haven't, let me be the one to familiarize you with them.
These wonderfully tasty sweets are incredibly light and fluffy, like a proper sponge cake should be, and when you effortlessly bite into them you can taste the rich butter and the delicate notes of lemon.

The recipe I adapted called for honey, so I had the chance to use one of the best in the world. Honey from the Greek island of Kefalonia, where I spent ten days of summer bliss last August. This honey is also known as Golden honey, which is wild thyme flavored honey. It really transformed the character of the madeleines, giving them a deeper and more luscious flavor but not making them overly sweet.

Madeleines are traditionally dipped into tea and then savored, but I'm not a tea person so I prefer having them on their own, plain or with a dusting of icing sugar, with homemade marmalade, or even with homemade strawberry syrup and a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Madeleines with Honey and Lemon
Adapted from Rick Stein's French Odyssey

The recipe for madeleines is very easy but you do need the right equipment for baking them. Their distinctive scallop shape can only be accomplished through the use of a mold/pan with shell- shaped depressions. You can find these molds at any decent cook shop or online stores, and they come in three types: silicone, non stick, or metal. I don't have a preference, but keep in mind that if you use the traditional metal pan, you have to generously butter and flour the molds so that the madeleines don't stick onto them. They tend to be very, very sticky.
There are two different sized molds for madeleines, small and large. I used a large one (cavity size 6.5 cm x 4.5 cm).

Yield: about 30 large madeleines

100 g sugar
3 medium-sized eggs
Zest of 1 large lemon, finely grated
100 g all-purpose flour, sifted, plus extra for dusting the molds
1 tsp baking powder
100 g butter, melted, plus 2 Tbsp butter, softened, for greasing the molds
1/8 tsp salt
1 Tbsp and 1 tsp good quality clear honey
Icing sugar (optional)

If you're using a metal pan/mold, brush the cavities with the 2 Tbsp of softened butter and then dust with flour, making sure to tap out the excess. You don't need to do this if you're using non stick or silicone molds.

Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a small bowl and set aside.
Place the 100 g of butter in a small saucepan and melt over medium heat. Once melted, remove from heat and let cool slightly.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius and start making the batter. Put the sugar and eggs into a large bowl and whisk with a hand-held electric mixer for about 3-5 minutes, until thick and mousse-like. Whisk in the lemon zest and then add the sifted flour, baking powder and salt, a little at a time, folding them in gently with a rubber spatula, until incorporated. Be careful not to deflate the mixture.

Whisk a little of the egg-flour mixture into the cooled, melted butter along with the honey and then pour everything back into the egg-flour mixture. Fold in carefully until everything is incorporated. Place the batter in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to thicken slightly.

Fill each cavity 3/4 full with the batter and bake for 10 minutes, on the middle rack of the oven, until golden and puffed up. If you're using the small madeleine mold then bake for 5-6 minutes. Take pan out of the oven and allow to cool, then remove madeleines carefully from the cavities.

Wash the mold and repeat process to bake the rest of the madeleines.

If you want to dust them with icing sugar, wait until they have cooled completely.

You can store madeleines in an airtight container, at room temperature, for 2-3 days.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Citrus fruits revisited

Right in the middle of the gray winter, some rays of color appear in the form of the gorgeous grapefruits, lemons, oranges, clementines, and limes. Isn't that strange? How the cruel, rough winter gives life to such bright and vivid colored fruit? Like nature trying to battle its blues through the creation of small miracles.

These jewels of winter are the juiciest and most flavorful fruits of the season. They're so incredibly versatile making even a novice cook seem seasoned, a simple dish seem complex.
So many different cultures have incorporated citrus fruits in their everyday meals and their celebratory feasts. Who isn't familiar with the classic French recipe of duck á l'orange, or the Italian limoncello? What would the Mexican ceviche be without lemons or Thai tiger prawn dishes without limes?

Right here, in my little expat kitchen, the night before last, a salad composed almost entirely out of citrus fruits was about to make its debut on the dinner table. Don't let me confuse you though. I'm not talking about a bland after-dinner fruit salad. This is a proper dinner salad that hits you in the face with its hotness and sourness, and titillates your taste buds with its sweet nuances.

The protagonists? Ruby red grapefruit, orange, lemon, kumquat. The extras? Olive oil, red chili, peppercorns, mint leaves.

The acidity of the grapefruit and kumquat and the sweetness of the orange complement each other and welcome the addition of heat from the chili and the presence of body from the flavored olive oil. The black and pink peppercorns enter and steal the scene for a moment with their pungent flavor and crunchy texture.

When you bite into the fruits, you can taste little explosions of sharp nectar in your mouth and immediately you feel your lips burning from those devilish chilies and then suddenly the mint comes into play to soothe and refresh your senses.

It's a perfect roller coaster of flavors but beware. This salad is better not eaten on its own. It's too powerful, at least for my palate. It definitely needs a side of a nicely grilled beef rib-eye steak or entrecote, to balance out the sour and hot notes, or if you prefer fish, a tuna steak or salmon, also grilled, would be perfect.
I paired it with a grilled veal steak and it was a match made in heaven.

Hot and Sour Salad with Grapefruit, Oranges, and Kumquats
Adapted from Greek Gourmet

Try to use the sweetest oranges you can find in this salad, since the grapefruit and kumquats tend to be very sour.

Yield: 6-8 servings


for flavored olive oil
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Peel of 1 orange, cut into strips
Peel of 1/2 lemon, cut into strips
1 or 2 fresh red chilies, cut in half lengthwise
2 1/2 tsp pink peppercorns, crushed
1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
1/2 tsp ground coriander

for salad
2 large ruby red or pink grapefruit, cut in wedges with pips, peel and white pith removed
2 large oranges, cut in wedges with pips, peel and white pith removed
5 kumquats, seeded and sliced
1 Tbsp pomegranate seeds
1/3 tsp salt, preferably Fleur de Sel
A pinch of good quality sweet paprika
4-5 small mint sprigs

The process of flavoring the olive oil must be done very carefully as to not burn the oil.
Pour the oil in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the orange and lemon peel, crushed pink and black peppercorns, coriander, and chilies. Heat mixture over very low heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Once you're able to smell the aromas of the fruit and chillies, about 5-8 minutes in, remove from the heat and let stand, covered, until the mixture has completely cooled.

You can prepare the flavored oil the day before you serve the salad, keeping it in a glass bowl, covered with plastic wrap, at room temperature.

The way to cut the grapefruit and oranges is by using a sharp knife. First cut the peel off, then the white pith, and finally cut free the flesh of the fruit from the membranes.

To serve the salad, arrange the orange, grapefruit, and kumquat pieces in a salad bowl or platter. Remove the chilies, orange and lemon peel from the flavored oil, and pour the oil all over the citrus fruits. Sprinkle with salt and paprika and adorn the platter with the mint sprigs and pomegranate seeds.
Serve immediately.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lentil heaven

So many recipes so little time. That's a constant thought on my mind. But there's only so much a person can cook or eat, especially after the greediness of the Christmas holidays.

I feel like I can really use a break from meat, poultry, cream, desserts, and butter. But don't go thinking that I'm going to abstain from every type of fat. No, no that would be preposterous. Fat in the form of pure, rich, luxurious olive oil is the fat of choice. The dish of choice is a classic Greek recipe of lentils.

It is well known that the ancient Greeks enjoyed lentils, mainly in the form of soup, and lentils have been praised by Aristophanes, the ancient Greek comic playwright, in a number of his plays. So who am I to doubt their power? I'm a mere modern Greek girl declaring that I love, love, love lentils. I don't know what it is; maybe it's the appetite of my ancestors running through my blood, making me crave those small, round, tasty legumes. Maybe it's the fact that they're so nutritious that, without me even realizing it, they make me feel a little healthier and more balanced after I've eaten them. It's true; lentils are full of iron, dietary fibers, proteins, minerals, vitamin B1, thus an absolute delight for any of you vegetarians out there. They come in so many colors and sizes, which is curiously impressive, and above all they are so easy to cook.

Greek lentil soup (called "fakes soupa" in Greek) is supposed to have a small list of ingredients. Not fancy or flamboyant fare but simple and straightforward. It's soothing yet potent and full of flavor. When you take a spoonful of this dense soup and savor it, you can immediately taste the rich essence of lentils along with the acidity of tomatoes, the sweetness of the onions, the "kick" of the garlic, the silky smoothness of the olive oil and the aroma of the bay leaf. Adding a small amount of red-wine vinegar at serving time takes the soup to another, higher level.

Being a perfect remedy against the cold weather, this hearty dish is traditionally enjoyed with a side of anchovy or mackerel fillets in olive oil, a chunk of Greek feta cheese and a loaf of rustic bread.

Fakes Soupa (Greek Lentil Soup)

Before you cook the lentils it is important that you pick them over. Sometimes you can find spoiled, blackened lentils or small stones or debris. Just put them in small batches onto a plate and pick them over carefully.

Yield: 6 servings

500 g large* brown lentils
2 medium-sized onions, finely chopped
3 large garlic cloves, sliced
400 g fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded and cubed or canned diced tomatoes
4 tsp tomato paste
3 dried bay leaves
1/2 cup and 1 Tbsp olive oil
5 plus 5 cups water (and a little more if needed)
A pinch of sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
Red-wine vinegar (optional)

Pour 5 cups of water in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and add the lentils. Bring them to the boil over high heat and drain them immediately through a colander. Through this process the lentils get cleaned and ready for proper cooking.
Heat the olive oil in the same pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté them for 3 minutes, then add the garlic and lentils and sauté for 3 more minutes, making sure the lentils are well coated with the oil. Place the tomatoes and tomato paste in the pot and stir everything around. Pour the rest 5 cups of water all over and add the bay leaves and a pinch of sugar. The sugar is added in order to take away some of the tartness of the tomatoes. Add salt and black pepper, bring the mixture to the boil and then simmer over very low heat with the lid on, stirring regularly, for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the lentils are cooked. They should be soft but not mushy.

It is very important that you keep an eye on the lentils while they cook because they tend to absorb a lot of water. You may need to add more water, so check and stir lentils at regular intervals.

Once lentils are cooked, discard bay leaves, check the seasoning and serve soup in bowls. If desired, add a teaspoon of red-wine vinegar per serving. You can add more or less depending on your personal taste.

*You can also use small lentils, but you'll have to cook them for a shorter amount of time. They need about 30 minutes.