Monday, May 23, 2011

PASTA WITH SAUSAGE AND BLUE CHEESE, EPIRUS STYLE



I came across this recipe on the Saveur web site.  Not too long ago Saveur magazine published an issue which featured Greek food.  Unfortunately, I wasn't a subscriber so I didn't receive that issue.  Most of the recipes and articles are on the Internet now, so I have checked them out thoroughly.  This is a recipe I was not familiar with, so I decided to try it.  It's pasta and sausage in a creamy sauce of blue cheese, flavored with lots of fresh oregano.  I found that the tangy tasting blue cheese gave a nice kick to the sauce and complimented the richness of the sausage very well.  I added a bit more blue cheese than the original recipe called for, but if you make it, add blue cheese according to taste.  As for the sausage, if you're lucky enough to find Greek sausage, use it.  Each Greek region has its own sausage recipes, but generally most contain pork and lamb, and are flavored with fennel seed, orange peel, garlic, leeks, and wine.  If you can't find Greek sausage, substitute with Italian or any other type that you like.  The native name for this recipe is "Makaronia me loukanika ke tiri," which literally translates to "pasta with sausages and cheese."  It hails from the province of Epirus, which is a mountainous region in the Northwest of Greece.  The shores of Epirus rest on the Ionian Sea, and right across the sea, a short ferryboat ride away, is Italy.  Ioannina, a city with a history that dates as far back as 700 CE, is the capital of the province of Epirus.  I imagine that this recipe was created in Ioannina or its surroundings, because it includes the addition of blue cheese, which is not a traditional Greek-type  cheese.  The city has always been a busy trading center, so I can see how foreign traders could have introduced the locals to blue cheese. Near Ioannina there is a cheese cooperative that specializes in making Italian and other type of European cheeses. Dairy production and especially cheese making are big business in the area.  I've had occasion to go to Ioannina, and I will never forget how I got there. 

 
From a post card:  The city of Ioannina with the Pindus mountains in the distance.
 First, I should tell you that Ioannina is surrounded by the Pindus mountains, which at over 2,500 meters in some places, reach the highest elevations in Greece.  We had to drive through the Pindus  mountain range to get to our destination.  For the most part, the road consisted of two narrow lanes running in opposite directions, with nothing such as a median between them.  Our car climbed round and round, winding higher and higher, making harrowing, sharp turns that put the fear of God into us.  We had some very scenic views of mountain vistas, but we were also concerned about the steep drops that would appear on either side of the road.  Did I mention there were no guard rails?  Mishandle the steering wheel, and it would be goodnight and goodbye, all the way down a sheer, cavernous drop.  The difficult terrain reflected the names given to the villages: the place where we stopped to fill up with petrol was named Katara, which means "the curse." The driver of our car was none other than my brother, and he found the ride "awesome" and "exhilarating."   He knew I found the road dangerous, so he thought it would be funny if once in a while he scared me by yelling out "oh, no, we're going to die!"  I wasn't too amused at the time, but now, as I write this, I can't help but chuckle.   

This photograph brings back so many memories...  I will never forget the stark beauty of the Pindus mountains.  By the way, the road appears wider in the picture.  In reality it was much narrower.  Truly.  Would I stretch the truth?   


Things started looking better when we began to descend the mountain.  The road widened and the city of Ioannina became visible in the distance.  I felt such relief that I started singing along with a song playing on the radio, a song that up until that day I pretty much disliked.  No more.  Since then, I am always happy to hear it: Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson, Aqualung! 


Another post card of the Pindus mountains, with a tiny village nestled amidst the forest.  How well I remember that grayish color of the mountain peeks! 
 

It's been a little more than twenty years since we took that trip.  I have been told that today there is a new, safer road going through those mountains, with lots of tunnels and bridges to avoid the sharp turns.  Also, because of the tunnels, this new road doesn't have to close down as often during the snowy, icy winter months.  In the old days, no traffic would go through during the winter.  So Epirus is rugged country, and its folk have been toughened by centuries of hardship.  The cooking is no-nonsense yet versatile; recipes are uncomplicated, consisting a few key ingredients.  Many contain dairy products, which are plentiful because shepherding is a mainstay occupation in the region.  The livestock, made up of sheep and goats, graze freely on the large variety of wild grasses, greens and herbs.  Their milk is used to make excellent cheeses which are popular all over Greece.  It's interesting to note that "Dodoni Feta," one of the best brands of feta cheese, is made in Epirus.  Here then is how to make the simple and delicious pasta with blue cheese and sausage Epirus style: 


Ingredients: 

4 or 5 tablespoons of olive oil
about 3/4 of a pound Greek or Italian sausage, sliced into 1 inch pieces
1 pound pasta such as penne, or this curly type I used.  What is it called?  I've forgotten its name. 

1 cup white wine
3 ounces blue cheese, crumbled, plus 1 tablespoon crumbled, to use for garnish
1 clove of garlic, smashed and chopped very well
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup fresh oregano leaves - reserve about 1 tablespoon for garnish.
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
salt, to taste




Directions:


  • Heat the 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausages and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are browned, about 7 minutes. 
  • Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, then strain.  Mix the rest of the olive oil with the pasta and reserve. The bit of olive oil is added so that the pasta doesn't become sticky while reserved.   
  • Add the wine to the sausages and cook to deglaze the pan.  Cook until the wine is  reduced by one quarter, about 2 minutes. Add the blue cheese, garlic, cream, and oregano and cook until the mixture is thick and the cheese has melted, about 2 minutes.
  • Stir in the reserved pasta and season with salt.
  • Transfer the pasta to a small platter and sprinkle the grated Parmesan cheese on top. Season liberally with black pepper and garnish with the reserved oregano leaves and blue cheese.

1 comment:

  1. This looks fabulous! All the flavors I love. I think it's called rotini pasta. I like the great info you give us about Greece.

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