Spinach pie and semolina cake from Greece

September 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Spinach and semolina sound like school dinner hell rather than fond food memories don’t they? Trust me, they really can be good given the right treatment.

The summer holidays are over and the boys are back at school, though in George’s case this is the last time I’ll be able to say this as, all being well, he’ll be a college student next September. I’m still thinking longingly of our week spent in Greece in mid August. We went back to Paleros on the Ionian Coast, a straight repeat of last summer’s holiday but it worked just as well this year too.

The village streets are still lined with enticing little tavernas:

Who wouldn’t want to retreat in here for a leisurely lunch on a hot afternoon?

I love the geometric perfection of the Greek script on a taverna menu:

Though an English menu is more practical for the majority of us:

I fact we confined our taverna visits mainly to the evenings and most lunches were picnics in little bays like this one, a short boat across the bay from Paleros:

And our picnic foods of choice were wedges of freshly baked spinach and cheese pie from Paleros’ bustling little bakery:

I’d carry these back from the bakery, crisp, savoury and still warm. I’ve sought out an authentic Greek recipe from George Moudiotis’ excellent and informative book “Traditional Greek Cooking – The Food and Wines of Greece” which I’ve adapted and given below. The widespread availability of ready made filo pastry and bags of washed and prepared spinach make this a cinch to put together.

To complete our picnic, we’d add tomatoes and ripe pears or watermelon wedges to the bag, plus a little sweet something from the bakery. The Greeks clearly have an extraordinarily sweet tooth and, sandwiched between east and west, their baking has a combined culinary heritage. The buffet table at our hotel would be crowned by over-the-top layered and decorated sponge cakes in the western tradition adorned with swirls of crème patissière and whipped cream, highly coloured icings and glacé fruit. My preference was for the more austere but deeply sticky and sweet middle eastern influenced pastries, kourabiedes, baklava, kadaifi and the like. Here’s the simple yet enticing display of these goodies at the local bakery, reverently screened as a protection from marauding insect life:

I tried out the moist little lozenges topped with sesame seeds and a single decorative almond for the first time. I tried desperately hard with my phrase book modern Greek to find out their proper name but ended up with me and the bakery lady smiling and helplessly shrugging shoulders as I failed to understand what these cakes were called. Whatever they are called, they were dense, moist and syrup-laden, a great energy boost after a long swim:

Looking for what they might be in my Greek food bible “Traditional Greek Cooking” once again, I found a recipe for a simple syruped semolina cake called Revani. This is a traditional cake from Northern Greece which I think sounds a little less dense than the cake I tried but similar in flavour and appearance. I give my adapted version of the recipe below and will be trying it out over coffee very soon to bring back those memories of summer.

Recipe for Spanakopita – Greek spinach and cheese pie

Adapted from George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking – The Food and Wines of Greece”

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

900g spinach, washed, stems removed and roughly chopped
1 bunch spring onions, trimmed and chopped
150ml extra virgin olive oil
225g crumbled feta cheese
4 eggs, beaten lightly with a fork
3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs – a mixture of flat leaf parsley and dill is good
salt and freshly ground black pepper
250g filo pastry, about 12 sheets
pinch grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C (170 degrees C fan).

In a large frying pan big enough to hold all the spinach, fry the chopped spring onions in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil until soft but not browned. Tip into a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Add the spinach to the frying pan and cook for about 3 minutes until wilted. Tip into a colander and press out as much excess water as you can. Add the drained spinach to the mixing bowl which already contains the cooked spring onions and add the feta, beaten eggs, chopped fresh herbs, salt, pepper and nutmeg. When seasoning, don’t add too much salt as the feta is already quite salty. Mix well to combine.

Brush a 4cm rectangular deep baking dish with oil. Metal is best to conduct the heat and cook the pastry. Choose a tin that is a little smaller than the dimensions of the filo sheets. Lay the first sheet of filo over the base letting the edges overhang. Brush the sheet with oil. Repeat until you have used half the sheets of pastry. This constitutes the base of the pie. Spoon over the filling, spreading it evenly over the pastry. Cover with the remaining filo sheets in a similar manner, brushing each one with oil as you layer up, not forgetting to brush the top sheet with oil.

Using a really sharp knife, score the top surface of the pie marking out 6 or 8 portions. Prick the surface of the pie evenly all over to give an additional way for steam to escape. Trim the overhanging pastry edges but still leaving a small border. Fold this small border over the top and press lightly to seal. Spritz the pie with a little water to prevent the pastry from curling and bake in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes or until the pie is golden brown and crisp.

Serve warm or cold.

Recipe for Revani – syruped semolina cake from Northern Greece

Adapted from George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking – The Food and Wines of Greece”

Serves 10-12

Ingredients

For the cake

225g golden caster sugar
6 eggs
5 tablespoons warm milk mixed with 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
225g fine semolina
150g self raising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt

For the syrup

450g golden caster or granulated sugar
400 ml water
75g unsalted butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
finely grated zest of half a lemon

To decorate

Toasted whole blanched almonds

Line a 12 inch round cake tin with baking paper. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C (170 degrees C fan). Mix together thoroughly the semolina, self-raising flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer, whisk the eggs and sugar together at high speed for about 10 minutes, adding the milk and vanilla extract mix gradually, until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Sift the flour mixture over the whisked egg mixture in three batches, gently incorporating each batch with a balloon whisk trying to retain all the whisked air bubbles in the mixture.

Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and cooked through.

While the cake is baking, make the syrup. Put the sugar and water into a medium saucepan and bring to the boil without stirring. Once the sugar is dissolved, boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the butter, lemon juice and zest and leave to cool.

Spoon the cooled syrup over the hot cake shortly after it comes out of the oven. Do this carefully as you do not want the cake to collapse. Leave the cake in its tin to cool completely. Cut it into lozenges and decorate with toasted whole blanched almonds.

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Neapolitan pastries

November 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

Surprise, surprise, I didn’t find any UK style “Neapolitan ice cream” on our recent trip to Naples and the Sorrento peninsula – you know, that rigid tricolour block of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate flavours touted by Walls and similar industrial concerns.

What I did find was cake in profusion – on every street corner there’s a little pasticceria catering to what is clearly a very sweet Italian tooth. What’s on offer ranges from trays of positively austere little biscotti sold by the etto (100g) to some of the most over-the-top and lurid confections I’ve come across, like this glazed blue swan marvel from Sorrento:

The city of Naples itself is home to some of the most long-established family run pasticcerie like this one, Angelo Carbone’s, complete with its obligatory skein of drying laundry. You’ll find Carbone’s in Largo Regina Coeli, a mini-square amidst the maze of streets that makes up Naples’ centro storico.

We stopped here after a visit to Naples’ wondrous Museum of Archaeology and refuelled on thimblefuls of espresso and a generously proportioned zuppa inglese pastry and wild strawberry tartlet:

Tempting they may look, but my goodness they were heavy! Those fragoline di bosco atop the tartlet may look delicate but beneath was a layer of hefty pastry and a crema pasticcera that you could use to repoint the walls of Pompeii.

Perhaps a better option might have been a slice of home-made torrone, a Carbone speciality, or a jam-filled biscuit:

Of course we couldn’t leave without sampling some of Naples’ famous sfogliatelle. The name, meaning “many leaves” implies a light-as-air puff-pastry confection and indeed one type, the “riccia” exceeds expectations in this regard. I fell instantly in love with this organza-wrapped parcel of clamshell-shaped loveliness.

The intricate pastry encloses a dense sweet filling of cooked semolina, ricotta, candied fruit and spices. Oh, and they’re served warm, generally from a hot cabinet, much as we buy our cheese and onion pasties back here in the UK.

Just to confuse the novice pastry-eater, there’s a second type of sfogliatella known as a frolla, the plainer country cousin of the glamorous riccia, made with a sweet, crumbly shortcrust pastry encasing the same semolina/ricotta filling. In the interests of research, I had to try one of these too:

I’d happily eat either of these for breakfast along with a cappuccino. Having looked at recipes for each, I might consider having a go at baking a frolla, but shaping the riccia looks enough to have even a proficient croissant-maker quaking in his or her boots. There are videos of the process on youtube if your curiosity is piqued http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GGmqK6VVz4&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL

I think the conclusion I’ve drawn is that Italian pastry-chefs come into their own when they’re not aping their French cousins. This display from Capri’s legendary Pasticceria Buonocore would seem to prove my point – don’t these look inviting?

And maybe the best Italian cakes are home-made – Marcella Hazan and Anna del Conte’s recipes for walnut cake, ricotta cake, apple cake and the like are enough to persuade me that this is the case. In fact, some of the best cakes we ate on our trip were not professionally made but were these slices of nutty chocolatey Torta Caprese and lemony lipsmacking baked ricotta cheesecake served up at a little café above Capri’s blue grotto and made by the proprietor’s wife. Home bakers rule!

Pizza from Naples vs pizza from Pizza Express

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Arguably the highlight of our recent half term trip to Naples was a pilgrimage to Da Michele, the self-appointed “Temple of Pizza” to sample the city’s most influential cultural export.

This venerable pizzeria, founded in 1873, has a shabby, typically Neapolitan exterior and is tucked away in a sidestreet (Via Cesare Sersale 1) in the centro storico not too far from the main station.


We arrived at noon for an early lunch and were rewarded by not having to queue, in fact we bagged a prime table with an excellent view of the preparation area and all-important wood-fired oven.

I mused as we waited to order how little this oven differed from the ancient Roman one we’d seen in Pompeii the previous day. Clearly the appeal of freshly-baked flatbreads is centuries old. It’s rather fun to imagine Caecilius and his chums tucking in to their own version of pizza (minus the tomatoes of course).

The interior of Da Michele is unfussy, in fact its two rooms could be described as austere – white and green ceramic tiles on the walls and simple marble topped cast iron tables lined up in rows.

The menu is equally minimalist – just 2 types of pizza, the classic Margherita (tomato sauce and cheese) and the even simpler Marinara (just tomato sauce without the cheese).

The place runs like a well-oiled machine. There’s a guy (and yes, the staff are exclusively male) to seat you and take your order which is then passed to the compact open-plan kitchen; the first chef forms the pizza dough into rough rounds; a second tops the dough with tomato, cheese and a solitary basil leaf; a third expertly flicks the pizzas into the oven with a wooden paddle; a fourth tends the fire and removes the cooked pizzas from the oven. Finally, in the corner of the room behind a small corner counter sits like a benign genie a venerable gent in a white coat collecting the money and keeping a watchful eye on proceedings.

Enough of the preparatory stuff – what was the pizza like? This is how it looked as it came out of the oven, truly a thing of beauty:

The crust was chewy rather than dry and crispy and frankly quite deliciously soggy in the middle. This meant it had to be eaten at least in part with a knife and fork though I couldn’t resist picking up the crust later on:

We subsequently discovered that we were sitting in the very same seats occupied by Julia Roberts when the film “Eat, Pray, Love” was filmed here a couple of years back. Dressed in a similar black sweater, the staff must have taken me for a Julia groupie. If only I had the hair and bone structure to match…

As we were seated so close to the open plan prep area I couldn’t resist having a closer peek at the pizza ingredients and attempting a brief chat with the kitchen staff.

The tomato topping was quite a runny sauce which was ladled onto the dough. I couldn’t tell if this was prepared using fresh or tinned tomatoes let alone whether they were the well-known San Marzano variety. I couldn’t bring myself to ask if these were tinned tomatoes nor, thankfully, could I remember the Italian word for a can so decided to abandon this line of questioning.

However, I did manage to pluck up sufficient courage to ask about the cheese.

“E mozzarella di bufala?” I yelled and pointed.

What luck! I’d made myself understood and the response came back:

No – fiordilatte” – So it’s a cow’s milk mozzarella rather than the prized and frankly expected buffalo kind.

Buoyed up by my success, I kept the conversation going and enquired about the second harder and more finely grated cheese which went on to the pizza along with the mozzarella.

Che formaggio?” I shouted and pointed at the second cheese container:

Bingo once again – “Pecorino!” was the response.

So now I, and you too now, know the secret to an authentic pizza topping.

And now the answer to the question I posed at the outset – how does the ultimate pizza from Naples compare with what I can pick up at my local Pizza Express in South Manchester?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Da Michele version gets my vote, BUT only just as I didn’t find it very much more wonderful than the pretty good pizza we can get back home.

Capri lemons, Vesuvius lemons, Sorrento lemons

October 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Zingy, sunshine-yellow, mismatched, lumpy, bumpy, fragrant lemons will be the abiding memory of our recent half-term trip to Naples and the Sorrento peninsula in Italy. We found them everywhere adorning roadside granita stands:

ready to be turned into the most refreshing pick-me up ever – and I can’t abide the Americanised translation of a granita as “slush” which is just not right for something as elegant as this:

sipped overlooking a view like this one in Positano:

or maybe this one overlooking the Faraglioni rocks on Capri’s southern coast:

There were boxes of lemons stacked outside the humblest little cafés and restaurants like these spotted in Pompeii:

destined for a spremuta di limone, the Italian version of lemonade – fresh lemond juice and water in a tall glass with ice – add your own sugar and stir for the most refreshing drink imaginable, eye-wateringly, mouth-puckeringly sharp:

perfect for sipping on as you wait at Sorrento’s Marina Piccola harbour for the jetfoil across the bay to Naples:

Perhaps best of all spotting the lemons growing on trees in groves right in the heart of Sorrento town, in most cases still a slightly unripe green:

and we soon worked out that strolling through the Cataldi citrus groves was a much pleasanter way of reaching Sorrento’s frenetic Piazza Tasso than braving the Lambretta and Fiat crowded narrow streets:

Sorrento lemons are turned into all sorts of lemon products of varying quality and taste. Most famously there is the signature lemon liqueur Limoncello. At its best it can be rather good, aromatic, zesty with a touch of bitterness to cut through the sweetness. At worst, it’s like a chilled LemSip decanted from a dodgy cupid-shaped bottle.

How is it that the Italians have a reputation for being stylish when they produce some of the worst tat in the world? A country of many contradictions…

as a holiday souvenir, I left alone the lemon-flavoured bottles, packets, jams and soaps and contented myself with half a kilo of fresh lemons complete with fragrant green foliage from the local fruit and veg shop.

What to do with my precious cargo now we’re back home? I’ve collected together the following four lemon recipes I fancy having a go at in the next week or so. There’s a zesty lemon cake from Capri, a classic lemon granita, a simple pasta recipe and an unusual lemon salad. Having belatedly checked in one of my favourite cook books, Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, I’m pleased to say that none of these recipes appear there – it would have been a bit of a downer to repeat what’s already been done! I’m sure they’ll bring a ray of Mediterranean sunshine into the approaching English autumnal gloom…

Recipe for Caprese al limone – Capri lemon cake

Caprese al limone

This cake along with its dark chocolate cousin, is served up all over the island of Capri. I’ve hunted down a number of different recipes and this one, adapted from Salvatore di Riso’s “I dolci del Sole” sounds the most workable whilst remaining authentic.

Serves 10 or more

Ingredients

100g extra virgin olive oil
120g icing sugar
200g blanched whole almonds
180g white chocolate, finely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
grated rind of 1 Amalfi lemon (or 2 medium or 3 small normal lemons)
5 medium eggs
60g caster sugar
50g cornflour
5g (1 teaspoon) baking powder

Line the base of a 22cm round cake tin (preferably springform or loose bottomed) with baking paper and butter and flour the interior.

In a food processor or liquidiser, grind the almonds to a coarse powder with the icing sugar. Set aside

Whisk together the eggs and sugar using an electric mixer for 10 minutes until you have a thick foam (as if making a génoise mixture).

In a large bowl, combine the ground almond and sugar mixture with the grated chocolate, the grated lemon rind, the cornflour and the baking powder. Mix together well.

Add the olive oil, vanilla extract and the beaten egg mixture to the bowl and mix well to combine not worrying unduly should the eggs collapse a little. This is a dense, moist cake rather than a light fluffy one.

Pour the mixture the prepared cake tin. Bake at 200 degrees C for 5 minutes then reduce the heat to 160 degrees C and bake for a further 45 minutes.

When the cake is done, cool in the tin. Turn out and serve sprinkled with icing sugar.

Recipe for lemon granita

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s master granita recipe given in “The Classic Italian Cookbook” but incorporating the lemon water ice trick of infusing the lemon zest in the syrup for added zing. You’ll notice there’s much less sugar than in a classic water ice recipe.

Ingredients

8 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (maybe 4 lemons?)
peel of 4 lemons removed using a vegetable peeler, roughly chopped
325ml water
50g granulated sugar

Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan and bring to the boil stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the mixture has come to the boil, turn off the heat, throw in the chopped lemon peel, cover and leave to infuse until the mixture is cold. Strain and stir in the lemon juice.

Pur the mixture into one or more shallow metal or plastic trays or boxes (a pair of old fashioned metal ice cube trays with the plastic dividers removed would be ideal). Put into the freezer and check after 15 minutes, stirring the mixture with a fork to break up the ice crystals, scraping them down from the sides and in the corners where they will form first. Repeat the process again after 15 minutes and thereafter every 8 minutes until the granita reaches the right texture. This may take 3 hours or so!

Serve in pretty glass goblets with a teaspoon, or more informally in a plastic tumbler with a strawer and spoon.

Recipe for fettucine al limone

Adapted from a recipe for “Danny’s Lemon Pasta” featured on the BBC Radio 4 programme “Woman’s Hour” aeons ago and which I’ve been storing in my recipe files for an age. The Danny in question is Danny Kaye and the chef one Ruth Reichl.

Ingredients

4oz best unsalted butter
10 fl oz double cream
2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
finely grated zest of 4 small lemons
freshly ground black pepper
1-2 oz freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for the table

1lb fresh egg fettuccine

Serves 4

Melt the butter in a large, heavy bottomed frying pan or sauté pan. Add the cream, lemon juice and half the lemon zest and bring to the boil over a medium heat and reduce by one quarter. Remove from the heat and cover.

Cook the pasta in a large pan of salted boiling water until al dente (this will take only 2 to 3 minutes). Reserve a little of the pasta cooking liquid and drain the pasta in a colander.

Add the drained pasta to the frying pan containing the sauce along with the reserved lemon zest, 2 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water, the grated parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper. Toss well.

Recipe for lemon and cucumber salad

Not for the faint hearted! Inspired by the lemon salad served on the island of Ischia where chunks of peeled and thick-pithed local pane lemons are simply dressed with olive oil and flavoured with salt, pepper and aromatic mint and flat leaf parsley.
This would work well with simply grilled fish or a thick barbecued veal chops.

Serves 4

Ingredients

3 unwaxed lemons, peel left on, very thinly sliced
1/2 cucumber peel left on, very thinly sliced using a mandolin
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flatleaf parsley
1 small medium hot red chilli, halved, deseeded and finely shredded
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Lay the lemon slices on a platter, sprinkle with a little salt and leave for half an hour. Once the half hour has elapsed, wipe off the salt and liquid drawn out with kitchen roll.

Arrange the salted lemon and cucumber slices attractively on a serving platter. Scatter over the chopped herbs and chilli, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Final paean to Greek food: moussaka and kourabiedes

October 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

This is my third and final post on recreating Greek food back home after our recent holiday on the Ionian coast.

Whether you consider moussaka to be a classic or a cliché, you’ll find it on the menu of every little waterside taverna like this one in the port of Vathy on the island of Meganisi:

Having eaten moussaka at Paleros’ New Mill Tavern where chef/owner Kathy serves up some of the best home-cooked Greek food around, I’m convinced that it’s a classic rather than a cliché:

What was so good about it? Its simplicity – slow cooked lamb and unctuously soft aubergines topped with a baked cheese and egg mixture – and its fantastic flavour – the meat subtly spiced with cinnamon and the cheese deeply savoury. So many weird versions of this dish abound some of which end up tasting more like lasagne than authentic moussaka.

Back home, I started looking for an authentic recipe for moussaka wanting to recreate the New Mill Tavern experience. The moussaka you find in the UK is sometimes more like lasagne or even our homegrown shepherd’s pie than the real deal. I remember my mother cooking this dish for family teatime back in the 1970s. Her multilayered creation interspersing white sauce with layers of tomatoey meat and a vegetable mix comprising potato and courgette as well as aubergine was rather good but nothing like the moussaka I’d tasted in Greece.

Delia Smith has a pretty good version in Book One of her “How to Cook” series. The meat base is spot on but the ricotta in the topping strikes an alien note for me and gives a a less than desirable spongy mouth feel.

So it was back to my new favourite cookbook, George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking” to see what he has to say on the subject. Clearly my search for an authentic moussaka was misguided as Mr Moudiotis says:

“Authentic moussaka does not exist; there are some good, some bad and some very bad versions, especially those served in most restaurants and pubs. The dos and don’ts of a moussaka are too numerous to mention. In general, a moussaka should be creamy and rich but not too heavy, the ingredients should be of good quality and well balanced. The amount of oil should be carefully controlled; it is a misconception that the more oil you use in a moussaka, the tastier it will be.”

He goes on to add that as well as aubergines you can use courgettes, potatoes, artichokes and even rice, nuts and currants. So, mum, you were right all along!

Now I have an admission to make. The delicious looking moussaka pictured below was prepared in my kitchen but by Laura who comes in to help with the boys and general housekeeping. She had the rather inspired idea of cutting the aubergine into strips which to our taste are a big improvement on the usual unwieldy big slices.

Here they are during the salting process:

And again once they’ve been fried:

It’s really important to fry the aubergines thoroughly so that they are quite soft. That way they have an unctuous melting texture in the finished baked dish. Undercooked aubergines can be a bit fibrous and bitter – not what is wanted at all.

What other changes did we make to the recipe? Well, we adjusted the portion size. I think this quantity serves 8 to 10 people rather than the 6 suggested in the original recipe. They clearly have big appetites in Greece. I’ve also tweaked the meat base ingredients a little, adding a bit more tomato passata and chopped fresh mint to the mixture.

Here’s what it looks like as it reduces:

And here is the dish as it is being assembled in layers:

The other major change to the original recipe was increasing the quantity of sauce topping. I found that there wasn’t nearly enough so I’ve increased it by half and if you plan to bake the moussaka in two or more smaller dishes rather than a single big one then I’d recommend increasing the sauce quantity I’ve given by another third. Oh, and I twiddled around a bit with the grated cheese and breadcrumb quantities.

Here is the completed moussaka ready to bake:

And again in all its golden baked perfection, and yes it tasted as good as it looks so congratulations Laura!

I won’t lie. This is neither a quick nor a simple dish to prepare. But it is good tempered (you can make it your own pace, it refrigerates, freezes and reheats well) and it’s well worth the effort.

Finally something sweet to conclude this three-part mini Greek epic.

The Greeks have a sweet tooth and you don’t have to look too hard to find an array of syrup-drenched pastries in bakeries and cafés – baklava, loukomades and the like. I came across this generous display of freshly baked icing sugar dusted goodies at Paleros’ town bakery:

I bought a bagful – they’re sold by weight – as a sweet conclusion for our island hopping picnic. They turned out to be the lightest, crumbliest buttery almond shortbread biscuits. I can attest to their crumbliness – packed in a rucksack they disintegrated into the tastiest bag of crumbs imaginable!

A little research back home confirmed these melt-in-the-mouth biscuits to be kourabiedes – a sweet Greek treat popular at easter, Christmas, weddings and frankly at any time. I give the recipe below but, a word of warning, I haven’t attempted these at home yet.

Our picnic destination was to have been the island of Ithaca, home of Odysseus. It proved to be too far for our slightly underpowered boat that day. Never mind. In the words of twentieth century Greek poet CP Cavafy:

“Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.”

Recipe for moussaka

Adapted from George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

For the meat base

4 medium aubergines
2 tablespoons flour
Olive oil for frying the aubergine strips
1 tablespoon olive oil for frying onion and meat
1 large onion, chopped finely
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
900g minced lamb
2 tablespoons chopped flatleaf parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
150ml red wine
150ml tomato passata
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
150ml stock (cube or Marigold powdered stock dissolved in water are fine here)
1/2 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce topping (I suggest you increase this by one third if you are dividing the mix into 2 dishes rather than 1 large one)

110g butter
9 tablespoons plain flour
900ml milk
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons plain thick Greek yoghurt

To assemble
Butter for greasing and dotting
2 and 1/2 oz grated grana Padano or similar hard mature cheese
4 tablespoons white dry breadcrumbs

Begin by preparing the aubergines. Wash them, cut off the ends then cut lengthwise into slices and then again into chunky strips. Sprinkle with a little salt and leave for an hour to draw out the bitter juices. Rinse and pat dry and coat sprinkle with 2 tbsp flour to coat lightly.

Heat a little olive oil in a your largest frying pan and fry the strips in batches until golden brown on each side. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a deep sauté pan or failing that a shallow saucepan and fry the onion until soft but not coloured. Add the chopped garlic and fry for a minute or so more. Add the minced lamb and cook for a further 10 minutes or so. Add the parsley, wine, passata, cinnamon, stock, honey, oregano, salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, partially cover (leave the lid at an angle) and simmer for about half an hour. Check and stir from time to time and add a little more stock or water if the meat seems to dry. If after half an hour the meat is too liquid, raise the heat, remove the lid and cook to reduce. You are aiming for a moist well flavoured meat mixture with most of the liquid evaporated. Now skim off any excess oil which will have cooked out from the lamb and discard. This step is really important if you want a light and delicious moussaka rather than one drenched in oil. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Now make the sauce for the topping (an enriched béchamel). Melt the butter, stir in the flour to make a roux and cook for about 1 minute. Off the heat, beat or whisk in the milk little by little. Return the pan to a medium heat and cook, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon or whisk until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Beat the egg yolks in a bowl then add a little of the hot sauce to the eggs, whisking all the time. Now tip the egg mixture back into the sauce and whisk again. Finally add the yoghurt or cream to the sauce and beat again until the sauce is thick and creamy.

Now you’re ready to assemble the dish. If you’re baking it straightaway, preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (fan). Butter a large rectangular baking dish. I use a big white French porcelain lasagne dish which is perfect as it withstands both the heat of the oven and the cold of the freezer too if you are preparing ahead of time.

Scatter half the breadcrumbs on the base of the dish then spread one third of the aubergines on top of the crumbs. Layer half the meat sauce on top of the aubergines and one third of the grated cheese. Start again with another layer of aubergines, meat and grated cheese. End with a layer of aubergines.

Pour the sauce over the aubergines and smooth it out with a palette knife. Sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese and breadcrumbs and dot with a little butter.

If you want to prepare the dish ahead of time, then stop at this stage, cover, and refrigerate or freeze.

If cooking straightaway, bake in the oven for approximately 1 hour until golden brown and crusty.

Recipe for kourabiedes – Greek almond shortbread biscuits

Adapted from a recipe in George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”.

Makes about 30 biscuits

Ingredients

200g butter at room temperature
75g icing sugar, sifted
2 teaspoons aniseed liqueur (eg ouzo) or brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
100g ground almonds
450g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

a little diluted aniseed liqueur (eg ouzo) or rose water, and sifted icing sugar for coating the baked biscuits

Cream the butter with the icing sugar until light and creamy. Beat in the aniseed liqueur, vanilla extract and ground almonds. Sift together the flour and baking powder then stir into the creamed butter and sugar mixture to make a soft dough. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 150 degrees C (fan oven). Break off small walnut-sized pieces of dough and shape each into a flattened ball. Place the balls onto baking trays lined with silicone-coated baking paper spacing them 5cm apart to allow for spreading during baking.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until firm and a very pale gold colour. You may need to adjust your oven temperature to ensure they do not overbake. Cool on a rack.

Once they are cool, sprinkle with diluted aniseed liqueur or rosewater and roll in icing sugar until liberally coated (see picture above). Store in an airtight container dusted with more icing sugar until ready to eat. They keep well apparently for up to a month (they won’t last that long in my house!)

Feta with everything: more food from Greece

October 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Two more Greek classics today, inspired by our recent trip to Paleros on the Ionian coast.

This was the route of our daily stroll from our hotel into Paleros town:

On the way we’d often encounter this herd of itinerant sheep. Even if you couldn’t see them, you could often hear at dawn and dusk the evocative clink-clank of their bells echoing round the surrounding mountains:

Sheep and goats seem to graze on every patch of scrub in this part of Greece. It’s ewes’ milk and occasionally goats’ milk which is used to make the crumbly, salty pure white feta cheese which appears on every Greek menu whether in a simple Greek salad or as a filling for pies and pastries.

Every taverna seems to have its own take on what a Greek salad should look like. Here’s the rather magnificent volcano-like version on offer at the Paleros Yacht Club:

But the Greek salad I like to make is based on a recipe given by Aussie chef Bill Granger in “Bill’s Food” one of his many simply written and gorgeously photographed cookery books.

You can it eat this salad on its own for lunch with a wedge of crusty bread, or serve it as an accompaniment to a simple main course. I like it with moussaka, a recipe for which will follow in new post very soon.

The salad works best if you use a tomato with a a bit of flavour – a named vine-ripened variety perhaps(or of course home-grown if you can), a tasty cucumber and authentic feta cheese, olives and extra virgin olive oil all from Greece. Just think, you’ll be giving the Greek economy a much-needed boost too!

If like me, you struggle with the harsh flavour of raw onions, then follow my tip for soaking the onion in cold water before squeezing out and chopping and adding to the salad.

Feta isn’t just for salads though- it appears in all manner of savoury stuffed pastries, like these little homemade fried cheese pies sprinked with sesame seeds and served drizzled with honey as an appetiser at Paleros’ New Mill Tavern:

And Paleros’ little bakery turns out a mean spanakopita – Greece’s famous spinach and cheese pie sold by the slice. Perfect for a beach picnic whilst touring the nearby islands of Skorpios and Meganissi:

I’ve found a classic spanakopita recipe in my new favourite cookery book George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking” which I give below. Now all I have to do is take a bite, close my eyes and imagine I’m back by the Mediterranean…

Recipe for Greek salad

Adapted from Bill Granger’s “Bill’s Food”. Serves 6

Ingredients

12 cherry tomatoes, halved or 4 medium tomatoes cut into chunks
1 cucumber, peeled and cut into thickish slices (you can half peel the cucumber to give a decorative striped effect if you prefer
a green pepper, halved, deseeded and cut into strips
1/2 red onion
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (I like the Gaea brand from Crete)
1 teaspoon Cretan balsamic vinegar or ordinary red wine vinegar
16 black olives, stoned, preferably Kalamata
1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, left whole
3 tablespoons fresh flat-leaved parsley leaves, left whole
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g piece of feta cheese

Began by preparing the red onion. Slice it thinly and throw the slices into a bowl of cold water. After half an hour, remove the onions from the water and squeeze them with your clean bare hands trying to squeeze out as much onion juice as possible. Finely chop the resulting squeezed out onion slices. This treatment should render the raw onion mild and palatable and won’t give anyone eating the salad nasty onion breath.

Put the prepared tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper and onion into a mixing bowl and mix with the olive oil. Set aside for 10 minutes to allow the flavours to meld. When you’re ready to serve, add the vinegar, olives, mint, parsley and seasoning to the bowl. Mix well and transfer to an attractive serving bowl. Scatter over the roughly crumbled feta cheese and serve.

Recipe for Spanakopita – Spinach and cheese pie

Adpted from George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

900g spinach, washed, stems removed, roughly chopped
1 small bunch of spring onions, trimmed and chopped
150 ml olive oil
225g feta cheese, crumbled
4 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or flatleaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
250g filo pastry, about 12 sheets
pinch of grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.

In a large frying pan,sauté the spring onions in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil until soft but not brown. Set aside in a large mixing bowl. Add the spinach to the pan and, without adding extra oil or water, cook over a medium heat for about 3 minutes until wilted. Tip into a colander and squeeze out all the moisture then add the spinach to the onions. Mix in the cheese, eggs, herbs and seasonings (bear in mind that the cheese is already salty so be careful not to overseason) and mix everything together well.

Brush a rectangular metal baking tray 4cm deep with oil and lay a sheet of filo in it. Brush the pastry with oil. Repeat until you have used half the filo sheets. Spread the filling over the pastry then cover with the rest of the filo, brushing each layer with oil as you go.

Using a very sharp knife or baker’s scalpel, score the top sheets into diamonds to allow steam to escape during baking. Trim the edges and fold them over the top to seal brushing with extra oil to make them stick.

Sprinkle the top with a little water to stop the pastry from curling and bake the pie in the oven for about 45 minutes or until crisp and golden brown. Serve warm or cold.

Greek food for an Indian summer

September 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve always been a bit lukewarm about Greek food – until recently my memories were of greasy moussaka washed down with cheap retsina sampled on an Interrail trip to Athens back in the 1980s. I followed this up with lurid pink taramasalata and overcooked lamb in the Oasis Kebab house catering principally for Cambridge’s student population.

After a week on the Ionian coast of Greece this summer, I’ve changed my mind. There’s nothing glitzy or overtly spectacular about the little seaside town of Paleros, but very soon, enjoying breakfast or a drink on the terrace looking out onto the rugged hills of the island of Lefkas becomes a daily pleasure:

And it’s rather delightful to see olives this way rather than in a bulk white plastic container on a deli counter:

While my thoughts are still on the cocktail hour, here are lemons growing on the tree just moments before they’re sliced into your gin and tonic:

There seems to be an inviting-looking taverna terrace on every street corner like this one belonging to the New Mill Tavern in Paleros:

A glance at the guestbook shows you that the New Mill is no run-of-the-mill (sorry!) taverna. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Rick Stein and Delia Smith have all eaten here enthusiastically and and here’s what a certain Gordon Ramsay had to say:

And after a memorable evening meal there, I’d have to concur.

It isn’t the usual restaurant experience as there’s no menu, no prices on display (though don’t worry, the final bill won’t be unreasonable), no chef, no professional kitchen at all in fact. Proprietor Cathy who is both head chef and runs front-of-house (though it does seem a little disrespectful to refer to this august Greek matriarch in such familiar terms) welcomes you with chilled Greek rosé and a selection of dips.

Clockwise from the right we have a beetroot dip, a garlicky skordalia made with mashed potato, the classic tzatziki, and finally a soft mild cheese dip.

Cathy’s daughter charmingly suggests that you don’t overdo it on the dips and bread and, boy, is she right as the courses keep on coming! The dips were followed by the lightest grated courgette tart flavoured with a touch of cinnamon; next deeply savoury prawns baked with wine and garlic. Two more classic Greek dishes came next, an exemplary moussaka and a stifado. Groaning, we found room for the lightest baklava and a thimbleful of Greek coffee before the moonlight stroll back to our hotel.

Cathy cooks everything herself right there in her own home kitchen with just a little help from her extended family. She prepares what’s fresh and in season that day, no choice, no fads or foibles and in my opinion you can’t fail to enjoy whatever she serves up.

The food really was wonderful and definitely my kind of cooking – simple, fresh, carefully seasoned – beating any overworked restaurant dish hands down. I couldn’t wait to recreate some of Cathy’s food back home and although I didn’t find the right opportunity to ask for any of her recipes that evening, I’ve recently bought the excellent “Traditional Greek Cooking’ by George Moudiotis and have been trying out a few dishes back home.

So far, I’ve found his instructions clear and simple to follow and the end results very successful with an authentic Greek flavour. Here are my versions of tzatziki and skordalia, perfect for eating outdoors to accompany barbecued meat, fish or vegetables during out last few days of precious Indian summer…

Recipe for Tzatziki

Adapted from a recipe in George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”.

Serves 8 as part of a mezze selection. The inclusion of dill gives the dish authenticity but you can use mint if you prefer.

Ingredients

1 large cucumber
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh dill or mint
salt and freshly ground black pepper
500g tub of full fat Greek yoghurt – I like Total, imported from Greece

Extra chopped herbs, a drizzle of olive oil and a few shiny black Kalamata olives to garnish

Peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut the cucumber into small dice (3-4mm) and place them in a sieve. Leave them to drain over a small bowl for 30 minutes.

Mix the drained cucumber with the garlic, oil, vinegar, chopped dill or mint and salt and pepper. Mix in the tub of Greek yoghurt, cover and chill in the fridge for an hour or so to allow the flavours to meld.

Spoon into a serving dish, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with extra chopped herbs and scatter over the olives.

Recipe for Skordalia

Adapted from a recipe in George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”. This is the Greek island variant which adds mashed potatoes to the basic bread, garlic and oil mixture.

Makes 1/2 pint so serves 8 as part of a meze selection, or add a little stock and use as a thick sauce to accompany grilled fish, meat or vegetables.

Ingredients

3 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar for soaking the garlic
a further tablespoon white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
3 thickish slices day-old white bread, crusts removed
3 medium waxy potatoes, boiled in their skins and left to cool then peeled and put through a food mill or potato ricer

Soak the peeled garlic cloves in the wine vinegar overnight. Reserve the wine vinegar for another salad dressing or discard. Roughl crush the garlic with the salt in a pestle and mortar then tip the crushed garlic into the bowl of a food processor.

Soak the bread in water briefly, then squeeze dry with your hands and add to the processor bowl. Pulse quickly to mix then add the vinegar, salt and pepper and a little of the olive oil. Pulse again. Add the mashed potato and a little more olive oil. Pulse again. Continue adding the olive oil little by little, pulsing as you go, until it is all incorporated. Be careful not to overblend otherwise the texture of the Skordalia will be too sticky and gloopy.

Taste and adjust seasoning adding more salt, pepper, vinegar and oil as required.

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