Wednesday, March 31, 2010

BEET SALAD


Sorry folks! I 've found out that taking pictures of beets is very, very difficult. These photos were the best of a very sorry lot, so you can imagine what the rest of them looked like. I've sworn to myself to make this recipe again and try once more to photograph the crimson root Beta vulgaris. The older photographs will remain however, hidden in some corner of this post under the heading comic relief. Anyway, today, Holy Wednesday, has been very busy. A day of house cleaning and planning for the big family meal this Easter Sunday. For dinner today we had Lenten fair: beet salad, skordalia, and zucchini. Plus good homemade bread. The beets were peeled, halved and cooked in the oven. This was much simpler than boiling them, which is what traditional beet salad recipes call for. They tasted great! An additional bonus was the lovely odor coming from the kitchen as the beets were baking.


Ingredients:

  1. 3 beets with stems and leaves left on
  2. 2 cloves garlic finely sliced
  3. salt and pepper to taste
  4. olive oil
  5. vinegar
  6. lemon juice
  7. lemon rind
  8. some parsley
  9. some fresh oregano
Directions:

Wash and peel the beets. Cut the stems and leaves in half, and also cut the beets in half.
  • Choose a baking dish with a cover and line the bottom and sides with a piece of aluminum foil. Place the beets inside, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle them with olive oil, cover and bake for an hour until beets are soft.
  • Take them out of the oven and let them cool. Cut them in slices.
  • Place the beets in a serving bowl, stems and leaves included. Season again with some salt and pepper, add the sliced garlic, lemon juice, lemon rind, parsley, oregano, and just the right amount of olive oil and vinegar.
  • Serve and enjoy. They can be eaten lukewarm or cold. Beets are nicer when accompanied by skordalia.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

SKORDALIA (Potato - Garlic Sauce)


Skordalia (from the word skordo, σκόρδο, meaning garlic), is a thick sauce somewhat similar to aioli, made with garlic, olive oil and some type of bulking agent such as potatoes, walnuts, or bread. It is a favorite accompaniment to salt cod (bakaliaros), and other types of fish. It's also served with fried or boiled vegetables. It's tantalizing and delicious, but beware: the amount of garlic used is plentiful, so don't eat skordalia if you're planning a romantic tête-à-tête after dinner. My grandmother, as I have often been told, always made her skordalia by using just walnuts to bulk it up. I am used to the more popular version made with potatoes. Here's how I make skordalia:

 Ingredients:

  •  3 potatoes (should add up to little more than a pound)
  •  4 or 5 cloves garlic, chopped
  •  1 tablespoon walnuts, chopped fine 
  •  1/2 cup olive oil
  •  juice of one lemon
  •  1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
  •  salt and pepper to taste

Directions:


• Peel the potatoes, cut them in pieces and place them in a saucepan. Cover them with water, add some salt and boil them until soft. Drain but reserve some of the water to use if necessary.

• In a food processor puree the potatoes with the garlic and walnuts. (Today most everyone uses a food processor, but I remember as a child watching an aunt prepare the garlic for skordalia by mashing it up in a beautiful marble mortar and pestle. I was completely fascinated and I wanted that mortar and pestle for my toy box! She never gave it to me... even though she was generally very kind to me... Well, it's fun to reminisce).

• Combine the oil, vinegar and lemon juice and add them slowly to the potatoes, mixing all the while. The skordalia should be thick and soft. If it is too lumpy add some of the reserved water to soften it.

• Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

• Skordalia should have a garlicky taste. Use as much garlic as you are comfortable using. No more and no less.

 

PAN SEARED HALIBUT WITH SKORDALIA



March 25 is an important day in Greece, a double holiday with national and religious significance. Orthodox Christians celebrate the Annunciation of the Theotokos, the day that the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to bear a child. Christ's birth followed nine months later, on December 25. It was on Annunciation day, in the year 1821, that a prominent bishop of the Peloponnese named Germanos, proclaimed the beginning of the struggle for Greek independence. Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Greece had been under the occupation of the Ottoman empire. A revolution began in 1821 and in 1832 Greece was finally recognized as an independent nation.

Bishop Germanos, center, detail from the painting "Epanastasis" (Revolution), circa 1849.

So March 25 is and has been for Greeks a day of parades and great national feeling, and also a day of religious devotion and fasting. In Greece, religion and tradition pretty much regulate what will be placed for dinner on the table. On March 25, most Greeks will eat some type of seafood accompanied by skordalia, a garlicky potato dish. (You can find my recipe for skordalia here). Today at my house, halibut is on the menu. All of us love its firm texture and its delicately sweet flavor. In cooking halibut, I've learned not to let it dry out. This is important as the fish contains little oil of its own, and can easily become tough if overcooked.





My favorite way of preparing it is to quickly pan sear it. One can play with a lot of sauces and spices while pan searing, but for today's holiday, considering that we fast, we'll cook it plain. Then we'll serve it with a bit of skordalia and a nice tomato salad.




Ingredients:

  1. 4 halibut fillets, about 6 ounces each
  2. Salt and pepper to taste
  3. Lemon juice to taste
  4. Flour for dusting the fish
  5. 3 tablespoons olive oil
  6. 2-3 tablespoons butter
Directions:

  • Sprinkle the halibut with some lemon juice and season it with salt and pepper. Dust both sides with flour, then shake off the excess flour.
  • Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan large enough to hold all four fillets. When the oil starts to smoke faintly, add the halibut. Let it cook on medium high for three to four minutes, until the seared side has turned dark golden brown.
  • Turn the fillets over carefully, and lower the heat to medium. Cook for another four minutes or until the internal temperature of the fish reaches 120° F. Check by inserting a cooking thermometer into the thickest part of the fillet.
  • Add the butter to the pan and swirl. Don't let it burn. Using a spoon baste the fish with the butter, cooking for another minute.
  • Transfer the halibut to a serving platter and let it rest for a couple of minutes before serving.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

MASTIC, MASTIC GUM, MASTIC FLAVORING & MASTIC TREE TEARS FROM CHIOS


Mastic is harvested from the sap of the broad leaf evergreen mastic tree. This tree is endemic to the Greek island of Chios (birthplace of the poet Homer), and it has been cultivated there in large numbers since antiquity. Its crop is valued internationally, and for that reason it has made the island of Chios famous. Today mastic is used in folk medicine preparations and more importantly as a flavoring in food and spirits. It is also an ingredient in Chrism or Myrrh, the consecrated oil used by the Orthodox, Roman and Anglican churches. To harvest mastic, incisions are made in the bark of the trunk and branches of the tree.
From these incisions a resin begins to appear. It is pea sized, globular and translucent, and it is commonly referred to as “tears.” As the resin begins to fall to the ground the tree is said to be “weeping.”
They really do look like tears!
The mastic tears are collected, cleaned and dried. Mastic for flavoring is sold in air tight containers that contain small pieces of tears. Before using them in recipes the tears must be pulverized into powder form. To make powdered mastic, use a mortar and pestle to pound the resin. It is easier to smash it by adding a little sugar or salt. The flavor is slightly sweet and reminiscent of cedar. Historically one of the more popular uses of mastic was to chew it in order to freshen the breath. Thus it was given its name mastic, which derives from a Greek verb meaning to chew. The English verb masticate derives from the same root, and the Greek word for chewing gum, is “mastiha.”
As a young child growing up in Greece, I remember that I could buy a small package of about 3 pieces of "mastiha from Chios" for the cost of half a drachma, which back then amounted to less than a penny U.S. I could afford it better than the tiny box of minty chicklets which cost one whole drachma. So I would chew my gum from Chios, carefully at first because its texture was hard at the outset. Soon it would take on a gummy consistency and it would release its distinct freshening flavor which would last for a good half hour. Then it would be time to discard it and buy some more. Alas, I gave up chewing it when I discovered bubble gum!

Mastic gum flavoring can be purchased in specialty Greek or Middle Eastern stores.

MAHLEPI

What wonderful blossoms! They have the aroma of mahlepi, sweetly fragrant. This picture of the St Lucie Cherry tree, which yields mahlepi, comes from a Wikipedia article about mahlepi.

Mahlepi has been widely used throughout the Mediterranean for centuries, to flavor breads, biscuits and less sweet cakes and pastries. In Greece mahlepi is used for holiday desserts such as tsoureki and other egg based yeast cakes. It's an unusual and fragrant spice made from the stones of the black cherry tree Prunus mahaleb, which grows throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East.

The cherry stones are cracked and the kernels are extracted, dried, and sold as mahlepi. Before using, the kernels must be ground to a powder either with a mortar and pestle or with a coffee grinder. The flavor of mahlepi is a combination of almond and cherry, and it gives a sweet nutty tone to the desserts it flavors. It can be found in specialty Greek or Middle Eastern stores where it is available both whole or ground. However, as it quickly deteriorates once ground, it is preferable to purchase whole and grind the kernels when needed. Store it in airtight containers. Tip: for a subtle note add one teaspoon of ground mahlepi to pastry for fresh fruit flans. Try adding a bit of mahlepi to rice pudding.


TSOUREKI or GREEK EASTER BREAD


This tsoureki will take eight hours to prepare, including the six hours needed to let the dough rise. The recipe yields one large loaf or two medium ones. You can whip up this bread at Easter or at any time of the year.  Give it a try. It's not difficult to make at all. You just need a free afternoon. The recipe makes a very fragrant and tasty tsoureki.  I guarantee that you will be overjoyed with the way it tastes!  Plus, there is no kneading by hand, as is the traditional way.  Here, the stand mixer takes over this job.  
Other than for Easter, when it's usually served with coffee at the end of the meal, tsoureki can be eaten year round as a snack or for breakfast. Try it toasted with some orange marmalade on top.



Ingredients:

  1. 3 tablespoons active dry yeast
  2. 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  3. 2 tablespoons plus 6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more flour for dusting of your work area.
  4. 2 tablespoons plus 1 ½ cups sugar
  5. 1/4 teaspoon salt
  6. 4 eggs plus one egg white
  7. 2/3 cup milk, lukewarm
  8. 14 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  9. 1 teaspoon mahlepi, ground up (see note)
  10. 1 or 2  pieces of mastic, ground up (see note)
  11. rind from one large lemon 
  12. 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  13. butter or vegetable oil(not olive oil) for greasing bowl
  14. parchment paper for the pans
  15. Sliced or slivered almonds to be used for topping
  16. 1 beaten egg mixed with 2 tablespoons milk to make egg wash for topping



Directions:

Reserve the 2 tablespoons flour and sift the 5 cups of flour with the mahlepi and mastic.

In a medium sized bowl mix the yeast with the warm water. Add the reserved 2 tablespoons flour, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Stir, then let it stand in a warm place until the mixture bubbles and foams, about 10 minutes. 

In the bowl of an electric mixer and using the paddle attachment, beat the 4 eggs and the egg white. Add the remaining 1½ cup sugar, the milk and the melted butter.  Beat well, on low speed.  Stir in the yeast mixture and then add the vanilla and lemon rind. Keep beating on low speed until incorporated.
From now on, you will need to use the dough hook with your electric mixer, so go ahead and change to it.  

Add the flour, one cup at a time, beating well on low after each addition.  Keep scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Gradually a dough will begin to develop which will be sticky at first.  Keep beating on low, adding flour just until the dough stops clinging to the sides of the bowl. 


Here the dough is starting to separate from the sides of the bowl.  Just about another minute before it's done.




When the mixing is finished the dough should be soft and really pliable.  Not sticky, not hard. Remove it to a floured surface. 
  

If you can pull the dough easily as I have done in the picture below, the right consistency has been achieved.  The dough is not sticky, and not hard.



Form the dough into a round shape.

Place the dough into a large bowl that has been greased.  

Cover with a piece of plastic wrap and one or two or three clean towels. Leave it in a warm place free of drafts. 
Pretend the dough is a baby and wrap it really well. Protect it as a mother would!

Let it rise until it has almost doubled in bulk, about 3 hours. Punch it down and turn it over in the bowl. Cover it again with the plastic wrap and the towels. Let it rise again until it has almost doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.

Outside weather such as humidity, heat, or cold influence the way tsoureki dough rises.  It's more temperamental than regular bread dough because tsoureki contains heavier ingredients such as eggs and butter. If it's cold outside, it might not rise as required. If its too hot, the dough could be sticky and require more flour. If it's humid.... well you get the picture. Just do your best and keep in mind that practice makes perfect.  A friend of my mother's decided to buy an electric blanket to cover her dough with so that it can rise at the optimal temperature. She reports that all her tsoureki troubles are now over, and her dough rises beautifully. Perhaps I should follow her example and buy an electric blanket.  We'll see.  
This recipe, even though it requires patience during the rising, makes a very fragrant and tasty tsoureki. I guarantee that you will be overjoyed with the way the Easter bread tastes.



Once the dough has risen to double its size flour your work area and prepare to roll it out. Separate the dough into 2 even sections.  Take each section, cut it in 3 pieces, and roll each piece into a rope about 14 to 15 inches each.  

Braid the ropes by starting at the middle of the braid.  

The method of braiding is the same as braiding long hair. Don't braid too tightly so that it can bake evenly.



At this point preheat the oven to 350° F.  You will want a really hot oven. 
Place each braid on a cookie sheet covered with greased parchment paper.  Let rise about an hour until it has doubled in bulk. Brush it with the egg wash and sprinkle it with the almonds.



Bake 30 minutes until it's golden in color. Keep an eye on the oven because baking time varies with each oven.  If the tsoureki begins to brown before it's done, top it with aluminum paper while it finishes baking. 


Let the Easter bread cool for about 20 minutes to half an hour before slicing. 
Tsoureki can be stored in the refrigerator.  It can be eaten cold, at room temperature, or even toasted. You can even freeze some to have on hand later on.





Note: Information about mahlepi is found here.   Information about mastic flavoring is found here:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

BISCOTTI WITH PECANS AND ORANGE FLAVOR




These crunchy biscotti, flavored with orange peel, are great to have with a cup of coffee or tea. What makes these different is their size. They are smaller in size than the average biscotti, which makes them a better choice if you are counting calories.


Ingredients:


3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
rind of one large orange
1 cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 & 1/2 cups flour



Directions:

  • Beat the oil and the sugar about 10 minutes, until they are very well mixed.
  • Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.
  • Add the vanilla extract and orange rind and mix.
  • Sift the flour with the baking powder.
  • Add the flour mixture gradually, mixing well.
  • Add the pecans and icorporate into the mix.
  • Place the dough in a storage bowl and keep in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Remove fom the refrigerator and shape into three or four small logs similar in size.
  • Place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper and bake in a preheated 300° F oven for about 25-30 minutes. The biscotti should come out soft and light in color.


  • Allow to cool for about one hour
  • Transfer each log onto a cutting board and cut with a sharp knife into 1/2 inch diagonal slices.



  • Carefully arange the sliced biscotti on baking sheets.
  • Bake at 300° F for another 20 minutes or until the biscotti are golden in color.

  • Allow to cool and store in cookie tins.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

LEEK AND POTATO SOUP


What's for dinner tonight? It's a chilly, rainy day in early March, so I thought a nice soup would be appropriate. With a salad, and a few slices of good bread, maybe some feta cheese to end with, there we are, that should make a nice meal. The leeks are looking good, I have a few nice potatoes left, and I just need to run out and get some parsley and cream. I'll be making leek and potato soup. Be right back... This is going to be a quick trip to the market. Although it's March, snow is still piled high on our lawns, and I've started to feel that all our spring greenery will permanently disappear underneath the brown muddy cover of the earth. So I want to be indoors, downing spoonfuls of warm soup, peeking to see if the rain has stopped, imagining how my garden will look in its prime, imagining I can go outside now, there to look up and see blazes of yellow and brilliant blue piercing through outstretched naked tree branches.


How do I make leek and potato soup?


First off, prepare the bouquet garni. Gather bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns and rosemary. Bind the garni safely inside some leaves of leek. The garni will bring a wonderful aroma to the soup. Now get to work.


Ingredients:

  1. 5 tablespoons olive oil
  2. 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  3. 1 Spanish onion, finely chopped
  4. 4 stalks celery, finely chopped
  5. 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
  6. 4 leeks, well cleaned and sliced in thin strips. Use only the white and light green part of the leeks.
  7. 4 or 5 Yukon gold potatoes, enough to weigh 2 & 1/2 pounds, diced into one inch pieces
  8. 4 or 5 cups low sodium chicken broth
  9. 1 cup half and half
  10. salt and pepper to taste
  11. chopped chives 
  12. bouquet garni made up of 1 bay leaf, 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, 5 sprigs fresh thyme, 15-20 peppercorns. Wrap the bouquet with a few tender leek leaves and tie it with kitchen twine. You may need to make separate accommodations for the peppercorns, as they might slide out of the bouquet during cooking. A good option is to tie the peppercorns separately, inside a piece of coffee filter or cheesecloth.  
Bouquet garni on chopped leeks, and peppercorns that will be bound in a piece of coffee filter.


Directions:

  • Clean and prepare the leeks for cooking. Cut off the root end and discard the rough green leaves. Save the white and light green part of the leek. Cut it in half lenghwise, and rinse each half several times under cold running water. This method ensures that the soil and sand that has remained between the leaves is washed off. Chop the leeks into thin slices.
  • In a stockpot heat the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, celery, parsley, and the leeks. Simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients become soft. Make sure they are not browned. If necessary add about two tablespoons of water to keep them from browning.
  • Add the potatoes, the bouquet garni and the chicken broth. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce the heat. Simmer for about 30 -35 minutes, until the potatoes are very tender. Discard the garni.
  • Ladle half the soup out of the stock pan and reserve.
  • Using an immersion blender puree the soup remaining in the stock pan.
  • Return the reserved portion of soup to the stock pan. The soup will now be a nice mixture of chunky and pureed textures.
  • On medium-low heat warm the soup. Once the soup is again hot, turn off the heat.
  • Warm the half and half in the microwave. Slowly pour it in the soup, stirring. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. Ladle into to soup plates and sprinkle some chopped chives on top if desired. Serve while still hot.