Monday, 23 May 2011

PASTA WITH SAUSAGE AND BLUE CHEESE, EPIRUS STYLE



I came across this recipe on the Saveur website. About a year ago Saveur magazine published a "Greek Food" issue. I would have purchased it, except I didn't find out about it until months later; I missed out! However, most of the articles and recipes are now on the Internet and trust me, I checked them out thoroughly. 

This pasta with blue cheese is a recipe I was not familiar with, so I decided to try it. It's pasta and sausage in a creamy blue cheese sauce and its flavoured with lots of fresh oregano. I found that the tangy tasting blue cheese brought a nice kick to the dish, complementing the sausage very well. 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 flavoured with fennel seed, orange peel, garlic, leeks, and wine. If you can't find Greek sausage, substitute with a mild Italian sausage or any other type that you prefer. Try not to use a variety that's heavily seasoned; allow the kick in this recipe to come from the blue cheese. (Alternately, you can omit the sausage and turn this into an excellent vegetarian dish)!  

The native name for this recipe is "Makaronia me loukanika kai tyri," which literally translates to "pasta with sausages and cheese." It hails from the province of Epirus, which is a mountainous region in  Northwestern Greece. The shores of Epirus rest on the Ionian Sea, and right across the sea, only a short ferryboat ride away is Italy. Ioannina, a city with a history which 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 centre 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 types of European cheeses. Dairy production and especially cheese making are big business in the area.

From a postcard, a lakeshore view of the city of Ioannina surrounded by the Pindos mountain range. 

I've had occasion to visit Ioannina, and I'll never forget the adventure of getting there! First, I should tell you that Ioannina is surrounded by the Pindos mountains which at elevations of over 2,500 meters in some places, are the highest mountains in Greece. We had to drive through the Pindos mountain range to reach 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 and 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 which would suddenly appear on either side of the road. Did I mention there were few guard rails? Mishandle the steering wheel, and it would be goodnight and goodbye and down you go, all the way down a sheer, cavernous drop. The terrain reflects the names given to the villages: the place where we stopped to fill up with petrol was named Katara, which means "Curse." The driver of our car was none other than my brother, and in his estimation, the ride was "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 Pindos range.  By the way, the road appears wider in the picture ... 

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 the song playing on the radio, a song that up until that day I pretty much disliked. Believe it or not, since then, I am happy to hear it (usually happy to hear it  not all conditioning lasts a lifetime): Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson, Aqualung! 


Part of the Pindos range






I found this photo and the one above it on the Internet. The road is just as I remember it. This is part of the Via Egnatia, initially constructed by the Romans in the second century BCE ... No kidding here: built by the Romans, the Via Egnatia (a continuation of the Via Appia), was a path which reached from Epirus to Byzantium. It has obviously been widened and paved ... These areas are abundant with forests and wildlife. This is also a biker's and a hiker's paradise. 


I'd like to ask WHY? Some may say the recent improvements to the road were necessary. I believe this bridge is an eyesore. Sometimes, you've just got to let the mountain win (this is a photo from the Internet). 



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 highway going through those mountains. It's been constructed with lots of tunnels and bridges to avoid the sharp turns. Also, because of the tunnels, this new highway doesn't have to close down as often during the snowy, icy winter months. As recently as ten years ago, it had been too perilous for traffic to go through during winter and the road was closed for about a two month period. 

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 of a few key ingredients. Many contain dairy products, which are plentiful because shepherding is a mainstay occupation in the region. The livestock, mostly made up of sheep and goats, graze freely on the large variety of wild grasses, greens, and herbs. Their milk, which carries the taste notes of the various herbs they consume, is used to make excellent cheeses that 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. 


A previous incarnation of Pasta with Sausage and Blue Cheese. The sausage here is sweet Italian sausage. 


Here then is how to make the simple and delicious pasta with blue cheese and sausage Epirus style: 

Ingredients: 

3 tablespoons of olive oil
8 ounces Greek or mild Italian sausage, sliced into 1-inch pieces. Remove the casing.
8 ounces pasta such as penne, or this curly type I used. What is it called?  I've forgotten its name. 

1/2 cup white wine  
1/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled, plus 1 tablespoon crumbled blue cheese to use for garnish
1 clove of garlic, smashed and chopped very well
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves - reserve about 1 tablespoon for garnish.
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
salt, to taste


Directions:
  • Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, then strain. 
  • Meanwhile, begin cooking the sausage: heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausages and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are browned, about 7 minutes.   
  • Add the wine 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 pasta and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Transfer the pasta to a small platter and add the grated Parmesan cheese. 
  • Season liberally with black pepper and mix. 
  • Garnish with the reserved oregano leaves and blue cheese.

Wednesday, 4 May 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 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! Which I find ironic now that I think of it, because up until the age of twenty or so, I wouldn't go anywhere near it ... 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 in which case I can have two tablespoons. Correction: three tablespoons. It can also be used as a stuffing. Come autumn, stuff squash with it why don't you? Here's how to make Greek rice pilaf:

Ingredients: 
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, chopped
  • 4 mushrooms sliced
  • 5 leaves romaine lettuce, chopped 
  • 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, roasted
  • 3 cups vegetable broth that has been brought to the boil
  • 1  1/2 cups of rice (raw, white -- I like to use long grain or basmati rice for this recipe)
  • 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/180°C oven until they are aromatic and golden in colour. Remove them from the oven, let them cool and reserve.
  • Heat the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the onion until it becomes translucent.  
  • Add the garlic, parsley, dill, lettuce, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and cook for two minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Add the rice, raisins, pine nuts 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.
Serve and enjoy!

Monday, 2 May 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 website. 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 the Middle East.  I think this recipe makes a nice "ushering of spring" meal. The colourful peppers and vegetables look as good as they taste. The only drawback 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 get orange ones if you prefer)
  • 1 medium red pepper, cored, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 2 cups vegetable broth or water, plus another 4 tablespoons broth or water. 
  • 1 cup rice (uncooked)
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 scallions, white and soft green parts, chopped
  • 3 medium shallots, finely chopped
  • 4 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/180°C. 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 peppers. Core and seed them, reserving the stems. Set 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 give 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.
  • The peppers will be done when they appear shriveled up; That's when they get really tender: their skin can literally be peeled off. Make sure there's always liquid left in the bottom of the pan. This way the peppers and the rice will stay moist through out the baking process.
 Serve and enjoy!