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.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

PILAF, GREEK STYLE (Pilafi - Πιλάφι)


Love this rice dish!  It is a pilaf (pilafi in Greek), meaning it's cooked in broth and has vegetables or even meat mixed into it.  Various versions of pilafs are popular in the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, Greece.  I bet once upon a time there was an original recipe that got carried by ancient traders from Mediterranean coast to Mediterranean coast.  People loved it, and adapted it to suit their tastes.  So today we have all these rice pilaf variations, and as far as I am concerned they are all great.  I never say no to rice!  Greeks have a plain version of pilaf made with just broth and butter, and then they have this one.  It can be served on its own in which case I can have a whole plateful, or it can be served as a side dish with lamb, chicken or game.  It can also be used as a stuffing.  With some really minor changes it makes a great turkey stuffing, and I guess some November day I'll make it as a stuffing and show it off here.  Now, here is how to make Greek rice pilaf:


Ingredients: 

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
  • 4 mushrooms sliced
  • 5 leaves romaine lettuce, chopped (yes, lettuce. Some Greek dishes contain braised lettuce)
  • 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • about 1/2 pound Italian sausage (hot if you like heat - which I don't)
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, roasted
  • 3 cups boiling chicken broth
  • 1 & 1/2 cups of rice (raw, white)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • a small handful of peeled and roasted almonds for decoration

Directions:


  • If your raisins are really dry place them in water to cover and let them stay in the water until they plump up and soften.
  • Place the almonds and pine nuts on a baking sheet and toast them in a preheated 350°F oven until they are aromatic and golden in color. Remove them, let them cool and reserve.
  • Remove the sausage from its casing and crumble it up.   Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan and cook the sausage until it's no longer pink.  Place it onto a plate lined with paper towels and reserve it.
  • Heat the rest of the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the onion until it begins to brown slightly. 
  • Add the garlic, dill, lettuce, mushrooms and tomatoes and cook for two minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Add the rice, raisins, pine nuts and reserved sausage and mix well. 
  • Add the broth and season with salt and pepper.  Cover and cook on low for about twenty minutes, until almost all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender and moist.  Let the rice rest for 5 to 10 minutes.  It will absorb any liquid that is left over. You want a rice that glistens and is moist, but is not mushy, dry or runny.  
  • Place on a serving platter and decorate the top with the roasted almonds.
Then eat and enjoy!

Monday, May 2, 2011

STUFFED PEPPERS with RICE, RAISINS and PINE NUTS


Welcome to the first Monday of this month of May. Today I chose to make stuffed peppers from a recipe to be found on Martha Stewart's web site. It's a recipe that was contributed by Mrs. Kostyra, who was Martha's mother, and I thought it would be a timely choice since mother's day is so close.




A mixture of rice, raisins and pine nuts may sound strange to some, but it's a popular combination of ingredients in almost all the cuisines of the Mediterranean and Middle East.  I think this recipe makes a nice "usher in spring" meal.  The colorful peppers and vegetables look as good as they taste.  The only draw back for me was that I didn't have time to go to my grocer,  so I purchased the peppers at my local supermarket.  I didn't check the price, but I found out during checkout that they cost $4.70 per pound.  I wound up paying close to $19.00 for 6 peppers.  Way too much.  Oops! 


Ingredients:


  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 5 small tomatoes, cored, seeded, and sliced about 1/2 inch thick 
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (from 2 oranges)
  • 6 nice sized yellow bell peppers or 3 yellow and 3 orange
  • 1 medium red pepper, cored, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 2 cups chicken broth or water, or a combination of the two, plus another 4 tablespoons broth or water. 
  • 1 cup rice (white, uncooked)
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 scallions, white and soft green parts, chopped
  • 3 medium shallots, finely chopped
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme, plus 1 teaspoon thyme leaves
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley plus 6 sprigs

Directions:
  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread the pine nuts in single layer on a small baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 8 minutes. Shake the pan halfway through baking to make sure the pine nuts toast evenly.

  • Line up the tomato slices on the bottom of a baking pan that's going to be just large enough to hold the 6 peppers. Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper, sprinkle a little olive oil on top, and place a piece of thyme sprig on each slice.
  • Combine the raisins and orange juice in a small bowl. Let stand until the raisins are plumped, about 15 minutes.
  • Using a sharp knife, cut around the stems of the yellow peppers. Core and seed them, reserving the stems. Set them aside.
  • In a sauce pan, bring the broth or water to a boil. Add the rice, and simmer, covered, until the rice is just a little undercooked, about 15 minutes.
  • Meanwhile heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the scallions, chopped pepper and shallots, and cook until the shallots are translucent, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

The combination of basil, raisins and orange juice gave the stuffing an incredibly delicious flavor.
  • Stir in the chopped tomatoes and the raisins with their orange juice.  Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Add the thyme leaves, basil, parsley and pine nuts, stirring to combine. Stir in the cooked rice.

  • Fill each pepper with one sixth of the rice mixture. Cap each pepper with the reserved pepper stems.

  • Fit the peppers into the baking dish on top of the tomatoes, and place the parsley sprigs between them. Pour 4 tablespoons of water over the peppers and sprinkle them with the remaining olive oil.
  • Cover with parchment paper-lined aluminum foil, and bake for one hour.
  • Uncover, and continue to bake until the peppers are tender and the rice is heated through, about 30 minutes longer.
This pepper used to be orange.  During baking, peppers loose some of their pigment.  In my case, it was a bit difficult to tell which pepper was yellow and which was orange.  So why did I choose two different colors? 
  • The peppers will be done when they appear shriveled up as you can see in these last two pictures.  It's how I prefer them.  That's when they get really tender: their skin can literally be peeled off.  Make sure there is liquid left in the bottom of the pan.  This way the peppers and the rice will have stayed moist through out the baking process.
 Serve and enjoy!