Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Gemista

When I was growing up, my mom would always ask my brother and me what we wanted to eat the next day for our main meal. She was hoping for an answer, any answer, to just put her out of the misery of trying to come up with yet another dish for us.

I couldn't understand at the time how difficult it was to figure out what to cook for your kids every single day. Something that they wouldn't complain about, that they would eat each and every morsel of, that they would happily eat the following day as well.

I didn't understand that then, but now, even if I only have to cook for myself and my boyfriend on a daily basis, I understand how tricky it is.

For me, back then, the option was obvious. When my mom would ask me what I'd like to have for dinner the next day, my answer, nine out of ten times, would be gemista, my favorite dish in the whole wide world.

Gemista (or yemista) is a traditional Greek dish of stuffed tomatoes and bell peppers that are baked in the oven. The stuffing can either be vegetarian/Lenten, with rice and various herbs, or it can contain minced meat, veal or beef in particular. There are countless versions of gemista around Greece and every household has its own recipe for it.

My mom was and is the master of gemista. She whips them up in no time even though it's a rather time-consuming dish and her version is the one I have always preferred to cook and eat. The non-vegetarian one, which is the best in my opinion. With potatoes and a rich tomato sauce to boot, they are dangerously delicious. You can't eat just one, even though I try every time.

This dish belongs to the category of Greek dishes called "Ladera" (of which I have written before in this and this post), meaning dishes prepared with olive oil and without the addition of any other type of fat. Gemista are meant to be cooked during the summer when tomatoes and peppers are at their peak, nevertheless, I cook them all year long. They're just too good to be enjoyed only during the summer.

It is a perfectly balanced meal, bursting with fresh and vibrant colors and flavors. The tomatoes and peppers, surrounded by the sumptuous tomato sauce, melt in your mouth, and once you cut one open, the plumped up rice and minced beef, having soaked up all the juices from the vegetables, slowly and gently fall onto the sauce, creating the most amazing mouthful. The only thing you need to complete the picture is lots of feta, good bread and a glass of red wine.

Gemista - Greek Stuffed Tomatoes and Peppers with Rice and Minced Beef

The gemista can be served either warm or cold, even straight out of the fridge and they're equally delicious.

The stuffing of the peppers always comes out a little dry because the peppers are not a juicy vegetable. That's were the sauce comes in; spoon a little on top and it will be beautifully succulent.

Make sure you don't cut the potatoes too thick otherwise they'll take forever to cook.
Pair the gemista with a bottle of dry red wine, like a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yield: 12 gemista / 4-6 main-course servings

6 large, ripe, juicy and firm beefsteak tomatoes
6 large green bell peppers
260 ml good quality olive oil
1 large onion, grated
1 long sweet red pepper, minced
½ small carrot, minced
500 g minced veal or beef (from a lean piece of veal/beef)
200 g long grain rice
A bunch of flat-leaf parsley (leaves and stalks), finely chopped
3-4 medium-sized potatoes, cut into medium-sized pieces or wedges
400 g passata (which is tomato purée, not paste)
1 Tbsp caster sugar
Freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: small food processor, large enough baking pan to fit all the tomatoes and peppers

Rinse and drain the tomatoes and bell peppers. Cut off their tops (where the stem is), with a serrated knife (cut a thin slice, don't cut too low) and make sure to keep the corresponding lid close by, so they don't get mixed up.
Remove the seeds and membranes from the bell peppers, rinse the insides and drain them. Using a spoon, scoop out the insides (most of the flesh, juices and all the seeds) of the tomatoes, being careful not to scoop too close to the skin, you need to leave a layer of flesh otherwise they'll break open, and place them in your food processor. Process the insides of the tomatoes to a pulp.

Place the tomatoes and bell peppers (with lids on) inside the baking pan you're using.

Prepare the filling
In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add 60 ml of the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer, add the grated onion and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add the minced sweet red pepper and carrot and sauté for 2-3 minutes until they soften a bit and then add the minced veal/beef. Sauté the meat for 3-4 minutes, stirring continuously, until it changes color (from red becomes light brown-ish). Add the reserved tomato pulp along with the rice, the chopped parsley, a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper. You need to have enough liquid in there to cook the rice so if the tomato pulp is not enough, add up to ½ cup of water. See the photos for reference. Stir well and allow to come to the boil. Immediately turn heat down to low, put on the lid and let simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the rice is almost cooked but still al dente, the meat is half cooked and the mixture is slightly juicy, not overflowing with juices. Essentially, what you want at this point is for the filling to cook but not all the way through because it will continue cooking in the oven.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius / 390 Fahrenheit.

When your filling is ready, take each tomato and pepper that you have arranged in the baking pan and, using a spoon, fill them up to three-quarters, in order to allow the mixture to expand while cooking and to not overflow or break up the vegetable. Something that admittedly happens to me all the time. If you don't mind a more messy/rustic presentation, don't worry too much about it if that happens. Also, make sure to put the corresponding lid properly on each vegetable and try to stand the vegetables (particularly the peppers which tend to fall on their side) upright. Best way to do that, is have them lean over the sides of the tray or against each other.
Add the potatoes in-between the tomatoes and peppers, this will also help them stand up straight, and pour over the passata (tomato purée). Then pour over the rest of the olive oil (200 ml) and 300 ml of tap water. Add salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper and add a little sugar on top of each tomato and bell pepper (about 1 Tbsp in total).

Oh, by the way, sometimes, depending on the size of tomatoes and peppers, I end up with leftover filling, which is great! Because I cook it for a little while longer and then I eat it straight from the saucepan whilst waiting for my gemista to cook.

Place the baking pan on the middle rack of the oven (if your oven is small, like mine, place it on the lower rack) and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the tomatoes and peppers soften and take on a brown color on top, the sauce thickens and the potatoes are cooked. While baking, it's a good idea to pour some of the cooking liquid from the pan over the vegetables from time to time, in order to keep the tops from drying up.

Take them out of the oven and allow them to slightly cool. Eat them warm or at room temperature, especially during the summer. Add a lot of sauce over the top and a couple of potatoes on each plate, and don't forget the feta, the bread and the wine.

You can keep the gemista in the fridge for a couple of days.

More recipes for stuffed vegetables:
Greek Stuffed Eggplants with Beef and Tomato Sauce Filling and Kefalotyri Cheese - Melitzanes Papoutsakia

Friday, August 24, 2012

Holland in the summer: North and South

I have been living in Holland for five years and three months now—man, that seems like a long time—and yet I'm still discovering its treasures. Holland is such a small country and sometimes you feel like you've seen it all but, no, there's always more. There are hidden gems everywhere you travel. You just need to dig a little deeper, search for them.

This summer, we have been busier than ever before, traveling around the country and seeing (almost) all that is has to offer. We still have places to visit, people to meet, there are plenty of good times to be had. Of that I'm certain.

We traveled north, to Volendam, an old Dutch fishing village. Small traditional houses, drawbridges, traditional costumes and wooden clogs, a harbor filled with old fishing boats and well, fish; that's what Volendam is famous for.

We ate a lot of raw Dutch herring there. And yes, we liked it.
Haring met broodje en ui (herring with bread and onion or pickles) and on the far left, smoked eel. Not the most romantic food, no?

And of course, we had our sweet treat, poffertjes, little Dutch pancakes, dusted with lots of icing sugar. They're delicious. Who needs regular pancakes when you can have these?

We traveled southwest to the province of Zeeland, Zealand in English, and if that name makes you think of New Zealand, you're correct. The island country of New Zealand is named after the Dutch province of Zeeland after it was discovered by a Dutch seafarer.
Zeeland is famous for its tiny brown shrimp and its pastry. Oh, the pastry, I loved it all.

We first visited the capital of Zeeland, Middelburg, which during the Middle Ages was an important trading center and one of the most powerful cities of the Low Countries.

The Middelburg Stadhuis (City Hall), built in late-gothic style during the Middle Ages. It is now a University.

Then we went to the picturesque village of Burgh-Haamstede.

We went to the most amazing bakery, run by a Jewish baker, with recipes for bread and pastries almost as old as the village itself. The owner, Harry Sonnemans, collects Volkswagen cars and motorcycles and his bakery, as well as the surrounding area, is filled with crazy VW knick-knacks.

Okay, this is the stuff dreams are made of. Soft and amazingly fluffy like the best doughnut you'll ever have, with a cinnamon-y, nutmeg-y, dark brown sugary, sweet glaze. And did I tell you it's baked? Yep, no greasy oils here. This is the Zeeuwse bolus, a traditional pastry of Zeeland, of Jewish origin.

This is the Zeeuwse kruidkoek, meaning spice cookie, and it's a spicy cake-biscuit. It's sticky and gooey and soft and has chocolate and marzipan and nuts inside. Crazy good.

Take a speculaas biscuit and remove that pungent spicy flavor, leaving only the cinnamon and brown sugar. Coat it with caster sugar and you're set. Perfection. That's the Zeeuwse speculaas, milder than the traditional speculaas and much more to my taste.

In the upcoming months, I plan on sharing with you recipes for all the aforementioned sweet treats. Hold on tight!!