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Archive for the ‘Greek’ Category


Yogurt, plain and simple

Throughout the two-plus years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve never dedicated a post exclusively to yogurt. I’ve used it as an ingredient here and there, sure, but it’s never played a leading role. That’s not acceptable. Not for a Mediterranean food blog, at least. I plan on changing that today.

On my recent trip to Aleppo I was reminded how important yogurt is in Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s everywhere. Cow, goat or sheep. Strained, plain or cooked. In the Levant there’s even a popular refreshing drink called Ayraan (عيران) that’s made from yogurt, but more on that later. Today I need to set things right. Today is all about yogurt.

Before we begin, I’d like to dispel the myth that suggests you should buy a fancy yogurt maker to incubate your milk. Please don’t. If you already have, I won’t hold it against you, but you really don’t need one. If the machine made the job any easier, I can understand, but the truth is, making yogurt is pretty simple.

While I was in Aleppo, Leila (my maternal grandfather’s brother’s wife’s sister), shared with me her way of making yogurt. Take a look:

Before I met Leila, I used to make my yogurt in the pot I heated the milk in. Not anymore. I really like her idea of dispensing the yogurt into smaller jars.

mise en place

Midway through the process (usually as the yogurt is cooling), I like to turn on my oven to the lowest setting and turn it off after 5 minutes. This helps keep my oven barely warm enough to properly incubate the yogurt — which is essentially what the yogurt machine does, except it doesn’t cost extra money and doesn’t limit how much yogurt you can make.

heating the milk

Once you heat the milk to 180 degrees F (a near boil), you need to cool it. I like to use a thermometer, particularly for this step, so that the yogurt starter has an ideal environment to initialize the incubation process. That temperature should be between 107 and 112 degrees F (41 and 44 degrees C).

nestled inside the oven

Since the pizza stone in my oven can retain lots of heat (as can the metal rails), I like to line the base with a kitchen towel before placing the jars of yogurt inside the oven. Then, as Leila mentioned in the video, you want to cover the jars with another towel so they remain warm throughout the incubation.

plain goat milk yogurt

Keep the jars overnight in the oven and move them to the fridge first thing in the morning. It’s that simple — saha wa hana (صحة و هنا)/bon appetit!

Homemade Yogurt

Makes 1/2 gallon

Components

  • 1/2 gallon milk*
  • 10g yogurt starter*

Putting them all together

  1. Heat milk to 180 degrees F (82 degrees C) over medium heat.
  2. Cool the milk between 107-112 degrees F (41-44 C) and slowly mix in the yogurt starter.
  3. Dispense the milk into 4-5, 16 oz. jars.
  4. Place the jars inside a barely warm oven lined with a kitchen towel and cover them with another towel to keep them warm throughout the incubation process.
  5. After 6-8 hours (or overnight) move the jars into the fridge and store until ready to use.

notes: If you don’t have yogurt starter you can use any plain yogurt that has live active cultures. Usually I like to go with the Organic Stonyfield Plain Yogurt. You’ll also get better results by using full-fat milk — 2% milk won’t get nearly as creamy.

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refreshing pasta

A few days ago, when I wrote about my grandfather, I was touched by the support I received in the form of emails and comments. I called my grandmother actually, and read her a few of the messages bloggers and non-bloggers had left describing their personal relationship between food and family. At the expense of sounding sappy, it made me realize how much I enjoy blogging. I really do. As for my grandmother, she said I ought to cook a nice dinner for everyone. Since we’re all scattered around the world, however, I thought I’d share with you the next best thing, a post on one of my favorite refreshing pasta dishes you can enjoy all summer. 

mise en place

This dish takes approximately 11-13 minutes to put together – depending on the time it takes to cook your favorite kind of pasta. For this dish, and most others in fact, I go with farfalle. I like how they look on the plate; butterflies or bow ties, they have a simple elegance to them. Perhaps I can also argue that the perfectly-pinched middle creates deep nooks ideal for the yogurt sauce to settle in, but this dish isn’t that fussy, in fact, any pasta shape will do – and if you want more sauce, go ahead and eat with a spoon, no one’s looking.

garlic paste

For this dish you’ll want to mince, or pretty much smash, the garlic into a smooth paste. If you add salt to the garlic while you’re mincing, the friction will help break down the cell walls of the garlic and also help create a smooth, paste-like consistency. 

yogurt sauce with dried mint & garlic

The sauce is the what makes the dish special. Throughout the Middle East, Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean, yogurt is predominantly used for savory dishes. The yogurt has a cooling effect that helps counteract the spicy heat of the raw garlic and also acts as a smooth, creamy sauce for pasta.

Pasta with Mint Yogurt Sauce

approx 4-6 servings

Components

  • 1 lb pasta
  • 24 oz plain, whole milk yogurt (3/4 large container)
  • 1 1/2 – 2 tbsp dried mint
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • salt, to taste
  • extra-virgin olive oil, optional

Putting them all together

  1. Make sauce by mixing together yogurt, garlic and mint. Set aside at room temperature.
  2. Bring water to a boil, season with plenty of salt (1-2 tbsp), and cook pasta according to instructions on the box.
  3. Once pasta is done cooking, drain very well and mix with yogurt sauce that has been sitting at room temperature.
  4. Season with salt and drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil.

notes: If you want a thicker sauce, try using a combination of Greek (strained) yogurt and regular yogurt. I prefer mine to be more on the light refreshing side, so I only use regular yogurt. 

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pasta with refreshing yogurt sauce

My Big Fat Greek Post

During the month of January, A Taste of the Mediterranean was all about the ubiquitous French tart. Crispy, buttery, but not always sweet; the challenge was to create your spin, either sweet or savory, on this classic French pastry. The winner for January is Maggie from Dog Hill Kitchen with her Vegan Orange Cream Tarts with Almond Crusts! Congrats Maggie! You could check out her entry and all the other tart entries here.

This month we’re hopping from France over to the Greek islands with Peter from Kalofagas. For those (very few) who don’t know who Peter is, well, he’s a gifted Greek blogger who lives in Canada and who, I’m convinced, knows everything there is to know about Greek food. He’s the host this month for the A Taste of the Mediterranean contest and he’s calling on bloggers to make their own twists on the classic Greek pastitsio. To kick off the contest I decided to make my variation of this Greek lasagna using as many flavors from around the Mediterranean as I could.

mise en place

The classic recipe for pastitsio calls for meat sauce and bechamel spread between layers pasta. For my variation I incorporated Fontina cheese from Italy, red wine from France and harissa paste from Northern Africa, mainly because I had those ingredients laying around, but also because I enjoy mixing complimentary flavors from different regions of the Mediterranean.

this is where the flavor starts

The first thing I did was get my meat sauce going. It’s extremely easy, but takes time for the flavors to develop and turn into a proper meat sauce. The sauce starts with the classic mirapoux (i.e. the trinity) of carrots, celery and onions. The key is to cook them over medium heat so that they become soft, but it is important they don’t caramelize.

food therapy

I decided to go into full-on Greek mode for this recipe. This means I took no short cuts and made sure to multiply the recipe by three. I then stored two pans of the pastitsio in the freezer ready to go for those days when the bachelor in me wants food to magically appear on the table without chopping an onion or stirring a pot.

a 30s dunk is all it needs

Once you’re done rolling out the dough, all the pasta needs is a quick bath in boiling water. You don’t want to cook it all the way though… this is just to give it a head start. Once the pasta boils for 1-2 minutes, shock it in an ice bath to immediately stop the cooking process. The pasta will then finish cooking with the rest of the ingredients in the oven.

my idea of being healthy: meat+greens

Once the meat sauce is done cooking, you’ll be happy. Your entire kitchen will acquire the aroma of the meat sauce and you’ll find yourself in the tasting stage, wondering if there is anything missing. Perhaps a little more salt and pepper might be good? Sometimes that helps, but often the addition of anything fresh and green will strike a balance with the rich flavors of the sauce. I used frozen petite peas for this because they’re green, but also because they have a creamy bite to them that I enjoy.

flavor development at its peak

The layering is up to you and mostly depends on the ingredients you use and your own personal preferences. I always start with a thin layer of bechamel on a buttered pan because that helps prevent sticking. From there I start by layering pasta, more bechamel, meat, cheese, ham, even more bechamel and then pasta again. I do this until I reach the very top, which I finish off with a little more bechamel, a sprinkling of fontina cheese and a thin layer of parmigiano reggianno on the very top to develop a nice crust in the oven.

dinner

This was my humble recreation of Greek pastitsio done alla Mediterranean. It was my dinner last night, tonight and it will probably be my dinner for a few more nights this week. I can’t wait to see other variations of this dish for A Taste of the Mediterranean! Remember that the winning pastitsio post will win a $50 gift certificate to iGourmet!

Pastitsio

yields one 9×13 pan

Components

  • 4 cups bechamel
  • 1 1/3 lbs ragú
  • 1/2 lbs of sliced ham
  • 1 1/2 cups fontina cheese, grated
  • 1/3 cup parmesan for top layer
  • lasagna sheets, fresh or dry

Putting them all together

  1. Prepare all the components to the pastitsio and set aside for assembly.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and butter a 9×13 baking pan.
  3. Begin by adding a thin layer of bechamel to the bottom of the pan.
  4. Follow with a layer of pasta, a layer of bechamel, a layer of meat mixture, a layer of ham, and a sprinkling of fontina.
  5. Repeat until you reach the top of the pan (usually 2-3 layers of meat).
  6. Top the final layer of pasta with a final thin layer of bechamel, a thin layer of fontina and finish off with parmesan cheese.
  7. Bake covered for 30 minutes and uncovered for the last 15 (broil for a couple minutes at the end if you want an extra crispy crust).

note: You can make your own pasta dough or use the dry lasagna sheets available at your local supermarket.

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Making the neighbor’s cookies

It’s time I made a dark confession. 

You see, when I started this blog, I promised you the whole Mediterranean – and I played favorites. I withheld from you the Aegean nations, the lands of Greece and Turkey. Two ancient countries with glorious cuisine, and I simply rubbed them right off the map! As you well know, I was reared in a kitchen that straddles Lebanon and Syria; I’ve discussed the details of turning humble chickpeas into delightful hummus. I’ve strolled the streets of Florence in search of traditional Tuscan biscotti; I’ve even blogged about the time-honored Moroccan art of preserving lemons. Yet I have not seen the Parthenon, nor have I savored the moussaka of an Athenian gourmet chef.

Today, dear readers, we will travel together to Greece in spirit and in palate. For food, I decided to raid my Greek friend Peter’s blog, who most of you might already know as Kalofagas, the Greek gourmet. I promise to focus on my Turkish deficit later this week. One country at a time.

stepping outside my comfort zone

I put on a light jacket and looked for my favorite black scarf buried deep within the box of winter clothes tucked away in the corner of my room. For now, here I was; figuratively stepping out of my comfort zone (i.e. my humble front porch), ready to document unchartered territory on this blog. I went for a walk to clear my thoughts and enjoy the crisp fall air snuggled within the sunny day. It was the perfect weather far basking in the remaining fall foliage.

After my walk, it was difficult not to get excited for the upcoming holiday season. Call me a cliché, but there’s something mystical about this time of year that seamlessly brings everyone together. Now that I was officially craving something festive for my Greek adventure, I opened Peter’s site for some culinary inspiration. As I clicked through his blog, I realized I was bookmarking every other post. There were simply too many recipes I wanted to try. A simple ‘Christmas’ search narrowed my overwhelming operation to ten posts, three of which featured sweets. Of these three, it was the powdery white appearance of his Kourabiedes cookies that had me wishing Christmas was right around the corner.

mise en place

Peter calls for a shot of brandy in his recipe, but I had to make do without any. I did, however, fill up my favorite shot glass with amaretto and prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Cornell pride

The ingredients for the cookies are basic, but they’re classic and well-loved. One of my favorite characteristics of any holiday cookie is the unadulterated buttery undertone that comes through in every bite. This flavor can only be achieved by using clarified butter, essentially butter with all its milk solids removed. This process couldn’t be easier and is one that shouldn’t be skipped. By removing the milk solids from your butter fat, you raise the temperature at which the butter begins to burn and end up with the desired clean, buttery flavor.

every good cookie starts with butter and sugar

Once you’ve creamed together the butter and sugar, the dough comes together almost effortlessly. Mix in the egg, amaretto, vanilla, baking powder, vegetable oil, salt and slowly start incorporating the flour so as to not overwork the gluten. Once your dough comes together, gently fold in the chopped, roasted almonds to make it a done deal.

At this point, if you haven’t already done so, break off a morsel of your beautiful dough and tell me you wouldn’t be happy eating the entire batch straight from the mixing bowl? I would, but then I wouldn’t have any Greek cookies to share with you and I’d be back to square one. So I resist the urge to eat the dough and proceed to preheat my oven. 

line up the cookie sheet

Peter shows off his Greek skills by forming the dough into traditional crescent shapes – I can’t be trusted with the dough any longer than I absolutely need to, so I opt for simple spherical shapes instead. The cookies eventually make it safely into the oven, with minor collateral damage, and bake while I prepare them their sugar bath.

Henry Ford would’ve been proud

After a 20 minute tanning session, these cookies are ready to rest for a bit and roll around in a bowl of powdered sugar. Greek cookies definitely know how to live the good life. Peter even says that these cookies will last for up to three months in an airtight container. Then again, I doubt these cookies will last nearly for that long, but that’s good to know.

Kourabiedes (κουραμπιέδες)

These cookies literally crumble and melt in your mouth; the perfect treat for the upcoming holiday season and any spontaneous, mythical trip to Greece. This cookie is for you, Peter!

Kourabiedes

approx 40 cookies

Components

  • 1/2 lb of clarified butter
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 cup roasted almonds, roughly chopped
  • 1 shot of amaretto
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 egg yolk
  • extra powdered sugar for coating
  • pinch of salt

Putting them all together

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Clarify butter by melting it over low heat, carefully skimming off the milk solids that form at the surface and pouring out the butter fat that remains (also discard any white watery liquid that settles at the bottom). Allow butter to cool.
  3. Cream the butter and the sugar until pale and fluffy.
  4. Mix in vegetable oil, egg yolk, amaretto and vanilla extract.
  5. Slowly incorporate the flour and gently knead until a dough is formed.
  6. Fold in the chopped almonds and form cookies into walnut-sized balls.
  7. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
  8. Allow cookies to cool, roll them in powdered sugar and store in an airtight container.

note: Cookies will last up to three months in an airtight container stored in a cool dark place. 

Recipe slightly adapted from Peter Minakis.

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opa!

Tzatziki on Everything!

This entry is dedicated to Dean Davidis, one of my favorite people to chat food with. Thank you for your endless inspiration and support; here’s to you – OPA!

My tzatziki recipe was born on accident after having strained yogurt too far while making a Middle Eastern spread called labne. I eventually tended to my forgotten disaster, but it was already too late – the once creamy yogurt had turned into a solid cheese-like mass. This is when the 1/16th Greek in me chimed in with the thought of turning my losses in for a spectacular tzatziki sauce.

Tzatziki is traditionally made with semi-strained yogurt (i.e. sour cream consistency) and salted, drained cucumbers. Well, what if I don’t drain the water from the cucumbers, what then?

Aside from receiving angry e-mails from Greek purists, the sauce turns out just fine. The moisture from the cucumbers perfectly compensates for the excess loss of moisture in the straining process. Personally, I even find the accident sauce tastier just because the cucumber liquid is more refreshing than the stuff that drains out of the yogurt.

You can execute the following recipe either way: traditional or not, just by adjusting how far you strain your yogurt. Regardless of the route, the final sauce is a tasty complement to almost anything your culinary mind can conjure. My favorites pairings for this sauce are kebabs, sandwiches and salads.

 

tzatziki

Tzatziki Sauce (Greek Yogurt Sauce)

(yields approx. 2½ cups)

Components

  • 16 oz. super strained yogurt (2 cups)
  • 6 oz. cucumber
  • 2 tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp. fresh dill
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • salt, to taste
  • 5 oz. drained cucumber, diced (optional)

Putting them all together

  1. Either make or buy strained yogurt (also known as Greek yogurt). To make strained yogurt, strain plain yogurt in a cheese cloth overnight with ½ tsp of salt per cup of yogurt.
  2. Process all the ingredients except for the drained cucumber in a food processor.
  3. Optional: dice cucumbers and salt lightly. Let sit for 15-20 minutes in a colander. Squeeze out any excess moisture and stir into tzatziki sauce at the end for extra texture.
  4. Refrigerate until ready to use.

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