Friday, September 14, 2012

Week 36: A Journey to Greece

For weeks, I’ve looked forward to Greek Week at Taverna Y’all Taste This.  As tempting as it was to just spend the entire week cooking my favorite Greek dishes, I allowed myself one day of what I call “Greek Comfort Foods” and then I challenged myself to try new dishes on other days.  Defining Greek cuisine poses an interesting challenge, because many of the dishes that Americans consider Greek originated from the Ottoman Empire and could be considered Turkish, Persian, or Arabic.  Greek cuisine almost always includes olive oil, and its distinct flavor comes from the use of oregano, mint, garlic, bay leaves, cinnamon and cloves. In addition to olive oil, popular ingredients include olives, eggplant, zucchini, green peppers, onions, feta cheese, and yogurt.  Lamb and goat are the most popular meats eaten in Greece, but in the coastal areas, fish dishes are more common and range from inexpensive sardines, anchovies, mackerel, squid, and octopus, to pricier swordfish, red porgy, sea bass, and lobster.  As with all societies, bread plays an integral role in Greek cuisine, and despite the fact that most Greek restaurants in America focus on pita bread, Greek meals are often eaten with a loaf of fresh-baked country bread.  Greek desserts are almost exclusively based around nuts, including walnuts, almonds, and pistachios.  In addition, honey is often used to sweeten their desserts.  Cinnamon is another common flavor found in Greek desserts, and sometimes rose or orange blossom waters are incorporated into syrups for a floral flavor.  For this week’s menus, I explored these themes in Greek cuisine, and although many of the dishes were familiar, I approached each one as if I had never tasted it to ensure an authentic presentation.

My Day of Greek Comfort Foods

I began my quest for comfort by making a full pan of Spanakopita, or spinach and cheese pie.  The dish’s key elements are spinach, feta cheese, and flaky layers of phyllo, although I was surprised to learn that the crust is also sometimes made from a flour and water dough, similar to pizza dough, in the Greek Islands.  It may be made in a large pan and cut into slices similar to lasagna, or the spinach and cheese filling may be enclosed in pieces of phyllo that are rolled into triangle shapes.  The dish is often thought of as a snack or quick lunch at a local fast food joint.  For the most part, traditional recipes incorporate scallions with the spinach to add flavor, and the layer of cheese can be crumbled fresh feta or ricotta cheese mixed with eggs.  I also found that the addition of pine nuts or golden raisins is common.  For my presentation, I followed Mark Bittman’s recipe in The Best Recipes in the World because it incorporated the basic tenets of the numerous recipes I read.  I sautéed fresh spinach, scallions, salt, and pepper for the spinach filling and added pine nuts to the mixture after it was cooked.  For the cheese layer, I used fresh feta, eggs, and freshly grated nutmeg.  I baked the dish for over an hour, and the phyllo dough still hadn’t turned as golden brown as I would’ve liked.  I decided that I was too hungry to wait any longer so I pulled it out of the oven and decided that “almost golden” would be good enough.  I must say that this version was the best I have ever tasted.  I was curious to see if using fresh spinach, instead of frozen, would make a difference in the flavor, but I don’t think it did; however, I did find that the spinach mixture had a much fresher flavor than usual, which I attribute to the scallions.  Most notably, I loved the slight crunch of the buttery pine nuts.  All in all, a great way to start my day of Greek comfort food.

Next on my list to conquer:  Baklava.  This is one of my all-time favorite desserts, and the first Greek dish I ever tasted.  I still remember the first time I tasted it.  I was in Mrs. Parker’s Freshman Honors English Class, and during our Greek literature studies, she assigned us various Greek-related projects.  I have no idea what my assignment was, but I can tell you that Brianna Carter’s assignment was to make baklava.  She brought a huge pan of baklava to class and explained that Mrs. Parker’s neighbors who owned The Mad Greek restaurant gave her the recipe.  I was hooked!  I had never tasted anything like it, and in my Southern world of cakes and pies, the idea of layering thin pieces of dough with butter, cinnamon, sugar, and nuts was absolutely foreign to me.  To this day, I never eat a piece of baklava without thinking of Antigone or Oedipus Rex

full pan of baklava

Baklava is popular throughout the Middle East, and many ethnic groups claim to be its originator.  Examples of layering thin dough with nuts and honey are found as far back as the eighth century, B.C., which explains why there are so many variations throughout the Middle East.  Variations can be as basic as a preference between walnuts and pistachios, or they may include more specific flavor changes, such as the addition of rose water to the sugar syrup. 

I used Mark Bittman’s recipe from The Best Recipes in the World for this dish, because it included the same basic instructions as most recipes but with a full explanation of the task.  I found that my roasting pan was the perfect size for making baklava, because it was large enough to hold the full phyllo sheets and didn’t require me to cut them.  The most interesting part of this task was learning the proper techniques for making baklava.  Chopping the nuts by hand (I used walnuts) ensures that they maintain their oil and results in a richer dessert with the full flavor of the nuts.  (When using a food processor, even on pulse, some of the oil cakes onto the blade.)  Also, I didn’t realize that the “formula” for a crisp, flaky top layer is related to the differences in temperature between the syrup and pastry.  I made the syrup early in the morning and chilled it in the refrigerator so that it would be cold when I poured it over the hot baklava fresh from the oven.  I had read that the clue to knowing you achieved the proper cold/hot ratio is that the hot pastry makes a crackling sound as you pour the cold syrup over it, and sure enough, it sounded like pouring milk over a bowl of Rice Krispies…snap, crackle, pop.  Finally, the last lesson I learned in my baklava-making afternoon is the importance of the honey in flavoring the dish.  The syrup poured over the pastry is a combination of honey, sugar, fresh lemon juice, and water.  The flavor of the honey significantly affects the flavor of the dessert.  Fortunately for me, my sister and brother-in-law started beekeeping a few months ago, and I had a quart of fresh honey in my cabinet.  I am 100% convinced that this honey is the reason my baklava was so rich and delicious.  It was honestly the best baklava I’ve ever tasted.

avgolemono soup
My friends and co-workers, Alison and Teresa, introduced me to Avgolemono Soup (Egg and Lemon Soup) at Nabeel’s Café in Homewood, Alabama, and I have adored it ever since.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that I probably had avgolemono soup at least once a week for two years.  Oddly enough, as much as I always loved it, I never tried making it at home.  This week, I discovered that it is really easy to make at home, and its texture is even more luxurious when homemade. 

Like most simple dishes, the key is quality ingredients.  The basic recipe for making the soup is to simmer chicken stock with chopped carrots, celery, and rice or orzo for about twenty minutes.  Then, a mixture of lemon juice and eggs is added to the broth as a thickener and flavor enhancer.  The consistency of the soup varies depending on the ratio of broth to eggs.  (I halved Mark Bittman’s recipe, and the ratio was about 2 ½ cups of broth to one egg.)  I was in awe of the soup’s texture and depth of flavor compared to any I’ve ever ordered in a restaurant.  My guess is that when made in large batches for restaurants, less eggs are incorporated to ensure that there is a smaller chance of “scrambling” them and also because it would likely give the soup a shorter shelf life.  I will definitely make this soup again, and next time, I will make the whole recipe (forget about half batches) and add shredded chicken to it for a meal. 

Moussaka is without a doubt my favorite Greek comfort food.  Yes, I’ve made it before, but how could I not make it again?  Like so many of my favorite “Greek” dishes, the true origin of this dish is more likely Egypt as the word moussaka is derived from Arabic and similar dishes are found throughout the Middle East.  The basic version I know from Greek restaurants is a casserole layered with grilled or fried eggplant and a mixture of lamb, onion, garlic, and tomato sauce.  Then, the layers are topped with béchamel custard and baked.  Throughout the Middle East, and even Greece, variations including zucchini, potatoes, and even grape leaves exist.

moussaka layers
I selected a recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, the tattered-splattered-faded yellow hardcover Gourmet Cookbook, because it included a few nuances that differentiated it from recipes I have previously used, and those nuances appeared to be interesting twists to the classic that stayed true to traditional Greek ingredients.  In this recipe, the lamb and tomato mixture included dried mint for seasoning.  Also, instead of a thick, béchamel custard, which is a distinctly Greek element, the casserole was topped with a feta cheese mornay sauce (white sauce with cheese).  While I’ve made mornay sauces with milder cheeses, such as gruyere or cheddar, I had never considered adding a fresh, salty cheese like feta to a béchamel.  It seemed a perfectly acceptable variation, so I tried it out.  The sharp flavor of the feta cheese sauce provided a nice balance to the rich lamb mixture, and the dried mint used to season the lamb mixture certainly brightened its flavor without overpowering it.  All in all, it was a great dish, but then again, I knew that before I made it!

Grilled Octopus, Mashed White Beans, Cold Lemony Greens, and Grilled Bread
grilled octopus, mashed white
beans, cold lemony greens,
grilled bread
After a day of comfort foods, I jumped into a world of unknowns.  Despite my love of perfectly cooked, tender, sweet octopus, I had never felt comfortable enough to try it at home.  Grilled Octopus is one of the most popular dishes found in Greece’s coastal communities, and with the help of Steven Raichlen’s Planet BBQ, I accepted the challenge of grilling octopus at home.  I began by marinating octopus tentacles in olive oil, red wine, onion, garlic, lemon juice, oregano, and red pepper flakes overnight.  When we were ready to grill the octopus, we simply threw some dried oregano on the coals, and then layered the tentacles over direct heat.  As quickly as we put them on the grill, they were ready to be turned over and then taken off.  The final result was delicious, sweet octopus with a great hint of the lemon, red pepper flake, garlic, and oregano from the marinade.  In all honesty, we probably cooked the octopus for about thirty seconds longer than we should have, but for a first try, I felt good about it.

I tried to imagine living on the Mediterranean Sea when I selected the side dishes to serve alongside the grilled octopus.  I opted with nice light dishes, such as cold, lemony greens and mashed white beans infused with olive oil and garlic.  We also added a few thick, hunks of bread slathered in olive oil to the grill for good measure.  I was really proud of this meal.  I felt like I captured the essence of a Greek dinner by the sea.

When the hubs lived in Cincinnati, I never missed an opportunity for Cincinnati chili when I visited him.  Admittedly, the first time I tried it, I couldn’t figure out why everyone made such a big deal about it.  It’s basically just beef chili seasoned with cinnamon and other “warm” spices served over spaghetti and topped with cheese, onions, and black beans.  Then, about a week later, I started craving it.  Something about that combination of the meat, onions, and cinnamon stayed with me.  I still love it, and on the rare occasion that we have a cool night during our Miami winters, I often make a big pot of it. 

stifado over rice

Just in case you are wondering what Cincinnati chili has to do with Greek Cuisine, I’m getting there.  It seems that its origins date back to the 1920s when Macedonian immigrants modified a traditional Middle Eastern stew to a chili and began serving it over hot dogs and spaghetti.  In 1949, Nicholas Lambrinides, a Greek immigrant, adapted a similar recipe based on his mother’s stews and began Skyline Chili, the most popular and franchised Cincinnati chili parlor with over 250 locations.  I hadn’t even thought about the connection of Cincinnati chili to Greek Cuisine until I found a recipe for Stifado, and I knew that this must be the traditional stew that was adapted. 

Traditionally, stifado is a rabbit stew seasoned with pearl onions, vinegar, red wine, and cinnamon.  It may be served over rice or buttered wide noodles.  I had to try this out!  I made it with beef and served it over rice.  The flavors are reminiscent of Cincinnati chili, and the sweet pearl onions are a perfect accompaniment to the deep, rich flavors from the beef and red wine. 

My week of Greek Cuisine was one of the most enjoyable weeks I’ve experienced in a while.  The day of comfort foods taught me so much about familiar dishes, and as always, prompted a great appreciation for the time and case necessary to present such simple, delicious, and authentic dishes.  I’m still bragging to friends and family that I successfully grilled octopus, and I am excited to try it again and improve my techniques.  All in all, a wonderful time of good food and reminiscing!

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