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Archive for the ‘cheese’ Tag

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.


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!


yields one 9×13 pan


  • 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.



a twist on an all American classic

I have no clue what it is about a couple slices of bread, some good quality cheese and a dab of fat that enables the humble grilled cheese to stand a chance in today’s culinary colosseum, but it does. As much as I consider myself a foodie and lover of all things gourmet, sometimes I don’t want fois gras topped with caviar and doused with fancy white truffle oil – no, thanks. Give me a couple grilled cheeses, a big bowl of soup and a Law & Order marathon (SVU or CI, of course) and I’m a happy camper. The star of this post is the ubiquitous grilled cheese and all the ooey, gooey, mouth-burning goodness that it brings to this world. 

Judging from the loads of fall recipes overflowing our RSS feeds, and by the mere fact that it’s no longer sunny all the time, fall is here. I’d be remiss as a food blogger not to share with you one of my ultimate culinary gems: Middle Eastern grilled cheese sandwiches.

mise en place
mise en place

Before you click away frustrated because you don’t know where to find Armenian string cheese, don’t fret. These days you can find it in most major grocery stores, usually hidden away in their cheese department. Middle Eastern stores will also carry some if you happen to have any around your neighborhood. Some perfectly suitable substitutes also include Halloumi (Greek cheese), Queso Blanco (Spanish “white cheese”) or any semi-firm white cheese.

Middle Eastern/Armenian String Cheese (جبنة مشلشلة)
Middle Eastern/Armenian String Cheese

Now for those who are lucky enough find this cheese locally, this is what you’ll likely get; a pearly white braided cheese studded with Nigella seeds, or حبة البركة in Arabic, which translated literally means “seed of blessing.” In the Middle East this seed serves medicinal purposes and is even considered an anti-parasitic, hence its name. But its unique flavors alone are enough to win me over.

dried mint
dried mint

The second component of this Middle Eastern grilled cheese is the dried mint, which of course, also serves medicinal purposes. If anyone ever got a tummy ache, signs of a fever or any such symptoms in my house growing up, my mom would be there to make them one of these sandwiches alongside a mug of warm chai (Middle Eastern Tea). In short, these grilled cheeses are nothing short of amazing.

olive oil instead of butter
drizzle of extra virgin olive oil

As most of you know, after Executive Culinary Order 2924-5, it is against the law for the preparation of a grilled cheese sandwich to go over the 5-minute prep mark. This variation is no exception. From the time your craving strikes to the time you’re screaming in blissful pain because you anxiously bit in too soon, is less than 5 minutes – 4 if you practice.

perfect with hot tea
Middle Eastern Grilled Cheese

You absolutely do not need a panini press to make these sandwiches. Any method you’ve used in the past will probably work perfectly. Just be sure to make it under 5 minutes and don’t burn your mouth.

Middle Eastern Grilled Cheese

makes 1 sandwich


  • 1 pita bread, with pockets
  • Armenian String Cheese*
  • dried mint
  • extra virgin olive oil

Putting them all together

  1. Place the slices of cheese inside your pita.
  2. Sprinkle with dried mint and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
  3. Grill/broil/panini press until golden brown and cheese is melted.

notes: Whole Foods, Wegmans and other major grocery stores should have the Armenian string cheese. You can also look for it online or at any Middle Eastern market.


it’s not a grilled cheese without stringy cheese
string cheese

anything wine-braised goes

It’s getting close to graduation and I can’t get myself to start packing all my food stuff for the big move this Sunday. Each time I told myself to focus and pack, my ADD kicked into high gear and the cardboard boxes and bubble wrap took a back seat to my distractions. Yesterday I decided to procrastinate with good taste and make wine-braised mushrooms with a goat cheese and mascarpone topping. What, what? I still have 4 more days until the parental unit gets here and starts complaining about how unproductive I’ve been this past week.

mise en place
mise en place

Anna, my host mom from Italy (and my friend Francesco’s actual mom), came a week early to spend time in Ithaca before the big day. Since I’m a believer that not every dinner party has to be an 8-course, 20-guest ordeal, I called up Francesco and invited him and his mom over for some wine and appetizers. I made her biscotti recipe and whipped up a batch of my wine-braised mushroom cups.

simple/cute puff pastry cups
making puff pastry cups

Puff pastry is key for this appetizer; and if you haven’t already discovered Foodbeam, Fanny offers a brilliant step-by-step crash course on this classic French dough. Can you make do using the store-bought stuff? I guess. But only if your foodie conscience actually allows you to pick up the pre-packaged dough that has been sitting in the frozen isle of your local grocery store for who knows how long and has been stamped with a generic 2-year window of expiration… sigh.

Braising the mushrooms is a walk in the park. All you have to do is sauté them over high heat, deglaze the pan with balsamic vinegar and red wine, and lower the heat until most of the liquid evaporates.

Wine-Braised Mushroom Cups
Wine-Braised Mushroom Cups

Wine-Braised Mushroom Cups

(yields approx. 24 cups)


  • 1 lb. crimini mushrooms, de-stemmed
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp. fresh thyme
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 300 ml wine (1 small glass)
  • 300 g. puff pastry
  • 150 g. goat cheese
  • 100 g. mascarpone cheese
  • zest & juice of 1 lemon
  • chives, for garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Sauté mushrooms over high heat with butter, olive oil, thyme and garlic for about a few minutes until browned.
  2. Deglaze the pan with balsamic vinegar and wine and lower heat to medium until most of the liquid has evaporated (apprrox. 25 minutes) and set aside.
  3. Cut out circle rounds of puff pastry and bake in a mini muffin tin to make the individual cups (poke holes before baking to prevent excessive puffing).
  4. Mix the cheeses, lemon zest and lemon juice for the topping.
  5. Scoop a few mushrooms into each cup and top with the lemon-infused cheese mixture. Garnish with chopped chives and serve.


la dolce vita: sharing good food with friends and family
eating puff pastry mushroom cups