GREEK DINNER AROUND THE AROUND EVENT – BOOK RELEASE- SPANAKOPITA

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Happy New Year Everyone! I hope this post finds all of you well. Regrettably, my last post was several months ago, but I hope this gave you a chance to scroll back and look at some of my past posts and recipes—especially my newer followers.

Let me catch you up on what has been keeping me away. Like most people, the holidays kept me very busy—Baking, decorating and shopping. In addition the second book in The Gift Saga was about to be published and I was inundated with details and decisions.

I’m happy to announce the continuation of Evanthia’s Gift is now available on kindle and in print and is titled Waiting For Aegina. Just as I had in Evanthia’s Gift, I added recipes between some of the chapters—spanakopita, stuffed peppers, eggplant dip and Loukoumathes.

Today is a social media event day, which celebrates Greek food and culture. If you #GreekDinner you can find posts by Greeks from all over the world sharing a meal, a story, their blog, business, or books. You can go to my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see how I celebrated and what I cooked for this event.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared a recipe with you, so here is one for Spanakopita.

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Spanakopita

2 pounds fresh spinach

1 teaspoon kosher salt

6 finely sliced scallions

1 medium onion, diced

¼ cup olive oil

½ cup loosely packed fresh parsley and mint combination, chopped

¼ cup fresh dill, chopped

2 pounds imported Greek feta cheese, crumbled

¼ cup breadcrumbs

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Pepper to taste

A dash or two of nutmeg

1 pound packaged phyllo

1 cup unsalted butter, melted

 

Preheat oven to 350°

Sauté the scallions and onion until tender. Normally, what most people do, and what I’d always watched my mother do, was to sauté the spinach, and then squeeze out the excess liquid. This is where I decided to cheat a bit. I saved myself the aggravation of all that pressing and draining and it paid off! It was a risk, but it was worth the try.

In a huge bowl, toss the spinach, sautéed scallions & onions, parsley, mint, dill, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, eggs and the feta together. The spinach is going to melt down when it cooks in the oven and, by not sautéing it beforehand, it won’t wilt down as much.

Grease a large baking pan and lay 8-10 phyllo leaves down, brushing each layer with butter. Spread the filling over the buttered pastry leaves. Lay another 8-10 leaves on top, brushing each leaf with butter. Tuck in any overhanging phyllo edges. Score the spanakopita with a sharp knife into square pieces. Pour any remaining butter evenly over the top. Bake for 45 – 55 minutes until golden.

 

 

 

 

 

COUNTDOWN TO GREEK EASTER – PASTITSIO

IMG_2490“Make the pastitsio exactly like yiayiá did,” my children and nieces tell me each year since my mother passed away. I use her recipe, but I pull out a little bit of the butter. Believe me! There is still plenty, and the little I omit will not be missed. But according to the younger generation in my family, who miss my mother terribly, everything must remain the same.

I’d like to share an excerpt from Evanthia’s Gift with you in this post since it directly relates to Easter. Although, just reading again it has me choking up, as it had each time I wrote and revised this section of the book. My mother was the inspiration for Ana, and both women’s Easters and the months that followed were similar in many ways. But I know my mother is looking down on us and is joyful that we’ve carried on the traditions she treasured and looked forward to each year.

The foods we cook, especially the recipes handed down to us, are not simply meals. They are the legacies of our ancestors and what ties us to our past.

Excerpt

     Ana spent hours in her kitchen, cooking and freezing trays of pastitsio, moussaka, spanakopita and tiropita. She prepared these foods for Easter, but also for a future occasion, one where she may no longer be with them. In the evenings, she sat by the fire snuggled into her husband’s arms, where she always felt safe, and they reminisced about the wonderful years they’d spent together. She spent time with the twins separately, giving them each her undivided attention, and schooled them with all the wisdom she would have bestowed upon them during their most impressionable years. She wanted her words to follow them through their joys and their heartaches, leaving them with invaluable life lessons, “Yiayiá style.”

She presented Nicky with a beautiful rose gold and diamond bracelet, one that her father had given her. “This is for you to give your wife one day — not your girlfriend.” She shook her finger at him. “Your wife. My father gave it to me and I am passing it to you. I will give it to Mommy to hold for you. You will know who to give this to. She will be the person you can’t live without.”

“I don’t want your things, Yiayiá. I want you,” Nicky told her.

“You will always have me, only not in the way you are used to.”

~ Pastitsio ~

Meat

2 pounds chopped meat                                                    ½ cup water

½ stick of unsalted butter                                                   ½ cup breadcrumbs

1 chopped onion                                                               ½ cup grated cheese

1 cup white wine                                                               Salt and pepper to taste

1 – 4 ounce can tomato paste

Dash of nutmeg

2-3 cinnamon sticks

Melt butter in a large skillet. Add meat and onion. Cook until meat is brown. Add wine, water and tomato paste. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add breadcrumbs and grated cheese.

*While preparing meat mixture, boil water for 2 pounds of pastitsio pasta. It looks like ziti noodles the length of spaghetti. You can find it in specialty stores and many Italian and Greek groceries. The pasta should be very al dente when you take it out of the pot and drain it.

Béchamel sauce

1½ sticks unsalted butter

1 cup flour

4 cups warm milk

Salt to taste

Dash of nutmeg

4 egg yolks

1 cup grated cheese

Make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan and whisking in the flour. Stir for 2-3 minutes on medium heat. Add the warm milk while continuously whisking until the sauce thickens. Add the salt and nutmeg. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Add the grated cheese. Slowly add the beaten eggs to the sauce while whisking, so not to cook the eggs in the sauce. The sauce should be smooth and pale yellow in color.

To assemble – Add some butter and grated cheese to the pasta to give them flavor and coat well. Layer the bottom of a deep baking dish with half the pasta. Distribute the meat mixture on top of the pasta and layer the rest of the pasta on top of the meat. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top layer of pasta. Sprinkle lightly with breadcrumbs. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350° until the top is golden brown, about 25-35 minutes. Let it set and cool a bit before cutting into squares.

 

 

Countdown to Greek Easter – Spanakopita

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Yes! I said Easter. Orthodox Easter arrives much later this year, May 1, and today begins Holy Week. For those of us who will be doing the cooking, this week’s fasting restrictions present a challenge. Tasting your food to make sure the seasoning is correct is vital, but since our diet is restricted this is impossible. No meat, dairy or olive oil is to be consumed. The experienced cook, and that includes most Greek moms and yiayiás, have learned to cook tradition recipes without sampling.

In honor of Greek Easter, this week’s posts will include the delicious foods being prepared for Easter, and some recipes to try while holding the fast. Of course, if you are not restricted this week, feel free to try these healthy recipes, as well as the foods you probably have only tried at Greek festivals.

I’ll start with an easy one. Spanakopita. Don’t get intimidated by the phyllo. It’s easier to work with than you think. Make a few trays and freeze them. It’s a crowd pleaser and having them already prepared saves last minute work.

I remember “the making of the spanakopita” as the laborious main even of the day. The spinach would have to be washed and rinsed from the sand at least two or three times, and then dried. Then my mother would sauté the spinach and press out all the excess liquid through a fine strainer.

I have so many good memories of watching my mother bake and cook, and learning all that I know from her, but this was not something that looked like fun to me. For years, I never made spanakopita. I made little triangles of tiropita, but never trays of spanakopita. I let my sister slave in the kitchen over that one.

I had this idea. What if I didn’t sauté the spinach? How would it come out? Well, I got my answer. Delicious. And the best part? I didn’t slave for hours.

I forgot to tell you about my second cheat. Now anyone that is acquainted with me, knows I’m not one to cut corners, or use ready-made products, but for this recipe, I only use baby spinach that has been triple washed! A little more expensive, but worth it!

 

Spanakopita

 2 pounds fresh spinach

1 teaspoon kosher salt

6 finely sliced scallions

1 medium onion, diced

¼ cup olive oil

½ cup loosely packed fresh parsley and mint combination, chopped

¼ cup fresh dill, chopped

2 pounds imported Greek feta cheese, crumbled

¼ cup breadcrumbs

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Pepper to taste

A dash or two of nutmeg

1 pound packaged phyllo

1 cup unsalted butter, melted

 

Preheat oven to 350°

Sauté the scallions and onion until tender. Normally, what most people do, and what I’d always watched my mother do, was to sauté the spinach, and then squeeze out the excess liquid. This is where I decided to cheat a bit. I saved myself the aggravation of all that pressing and draining and it paid off! It was a risk, but it was worth the try.

In a huge bowl, toss the spinach, sautéed scallions & onions, parsley, mint, dill, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, eggs and the feta together. The spinach is going to melt down when it cooks in the oven and, by not sautéing it beforehand, it won’t wilt down as much.

Grease a large baking pan and lay 8-10 phyllo leaves down, brushing each layer with butter. Spread the filling over the buttered pastry leaves. Lay another 8-10 leaves on top, brushing each leaf with butter. Tuck in any overhanging phyllo edges. Score the spanakopita with a sharp knife into square pieces. Pour any remaining butter evenly over the top. Bake for 45 – 55 minutes until golden.

 

 

 

 

GREEK DINNER AROUND THE WORLD – 2016

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On Friday, January 15th 2016, I participated in an event that was taking place around the globe amongst chefs, bloggers and authors. Greek Dinners Around The World. The purpose was to share and promote Greek food, culture and tradition, and to widen a network of individuals who do so.

Through this event, I’ve met, via social media, many interesting people—authors like myself who are either Greek or have written a book where Greece or Greek culture is the focus. Chefs and food bloggers and magazine publishers from the US, Greece, the UK, Australia, Canada and dozens of other countries participated, sharing their menus and photos.

Three years ago, Keri Douglas of 9 Muses News came up with this concept, and what a brilliant idea it was. This was the first year I was involved, but I hope to do it again.

Coming out of the holidays, I hadn’t planned what I was going to do until five days before. I was still taking down Christmas decorations, trying to arrange some additional promotions for my book, Evanthia’s Gift, attempting to take some time to work on the second book in the saga, and I do actually have a day job. I wrote a very ambitious menu, and prepared almost everything I’d planned on. But in the end, I had more food than my guests could eat.

I wasn’t even sure of my guest list. Only several days before, I made some calls, and my two sisters and the few friends I phoned were more than happy to attend.

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The menu

Meze

Greek cheese – kasseri, manouri, feta

Pastrourma (aged and spiced cured meat, sliced very thin)

Tiropita

Greek salad (the real Greek salad. No lettuce)

I wanted to make saganaki (my favorite) but time ran out. And I forgot to put the dolmathes on the table. No one noticed. Everyone was busy chatting and drinking wine and beer.

I bought two Greek table wines, and two dessert wines, along with Mythos beer. My non- alcoholic drink was visinatha (another favorite).

Dinner

Leg of lamb, stuffed with garlic and roasted potatoes

Chicken baked with lemon, garlic, olive oil and oregano

Youvarlakia in avgolemono

Youvarlakia in red sauce

Pastitsio

Green peas with onions and cinnamon

(I wanted to make spanakopita, but never got to it. In my defense, I cooked everything that day.)

Dessert

Revani

Kadaifi

(I never got to the galakteboureko)

 

Eleni, my daughter made delicious frappes for everyone, and by midnight, our evening was over.

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If you would like to see what others did for Greek Dinners Around The World, go to 9musesnews.com.

THANKSGIVING COUNTDOWN – CHESTNUT STUFFING

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Growing up, I didn’t have the stereotypical Greek family that has been portrayed in films and television. I don’t have eighty cousins or a father who roasted lamb on a spit. We were a small family and we didn’t have anyone close by to celebrate holidays with.

My mother’s parents lived in Athens, and she had only one sister who’d never had any children.

My dad’s father died when I was three, and after that, my father’s mother moved back and forth between Myteleni and New York. My dad only had one brother who was a merchant marine and never married.

So, my two sisters and I have no first cousins—none. My dad had some cousins in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but no one in my mother’s family ever left Greece.

When the holidays came, my mom would cook and bake for days, use the good china and set a beautiful table, but it was the same five of us that sat for dinner every evening. I thought nothing of this at the time because I knew nothing else, and Mom always made the day special. For Thanksgiving, we would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV and later have a traditional American meal, with a few Greek appetizers thrown into the mix. Later, we would wait for It’s a Wonderful Life to come on the TV and we would all watch it. This was before the days of blue ray players and DVRs. If we wanted to watch a show or a movie, we had to wait until it aired. Imagine that!

Every year, my mother made the same stuffing, and we waited all year for it. Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without my mom’s chestnut stuffing. It doesn’t have too many ingredients, but peeling the chestnuts can be a bit labor intensive. I have to say, though, it’s worth every bit of effort.

For the last thirty years, Thanksgiving has become my holiday to host. The dynamics of our family have changed, and our gatherings are much larger. I have two daughters, my one sister also has two daughters and my other sister has a son and a daughter. Our children are lucky to each have four first cousins on just my side of the family, not to mention the four cousins on their father’s side. Not wanting anyone to have to choose where they would go for Thanksgiving, I invite everyone! All extended family and sibling in-laws. There were years where I had close to thirty people over.

I may be the one who has made the stuffing for years now, but the “children” (they’re all over 18 now) never refer to it as Mom’s stuffing or Aunt Effie’s stuffing. Nope! It’s Yiayia’s stuffing. And that’s as it should be.

 Chestnut Stuffing

1 pound chestnuts, boiled and peeled

2 loaves unsliced white bread, crusts cut away and cubed to 2 inch squares

1 celery heart, sliced thin

1 very large onion, chopped

3 sticks of unsalted butter (1½   cups)

1 cup warm milk

2 tablespoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 350º

In a large sauté pan, melt the unsalted butter. Add the celery and onions and sauté until tender.

In the meantime, cut the crusts off the unsliced bread and cut into cube. Place the cubed bread in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle ½ teaspoon of salt and a few dashes of pepper to the bread and toss, mixing evenly. Pour the warmed milk over the bread and gently mix. Add the celery/onion mixture, distributing the excess butter over the bread. Add the chestnuts and mix one last time. Spoon into a baking dish and bake for 1 – 1½ hours. When the top crusts over, lay tin foil on top to prevent further browning, but do not seal.

*If you choose to add the stuffing inside your turkey, please make sure the internal temperature all the way into the center of the stuffing is 165º.

** On another subject – I’m running a promotional price on my novel, Evanthia’s Gift, until November 16th for 0.99 cents on the kindle format. After that, it goes back up to regular retail price. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0692471839/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_CwX3vb1KS8FQ3

I’m also running a giveaway on Amazon. Win 1 of 5 print copies. https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/d428f60c3b528c9f

SPANAKOPITA

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“It was time for the eating marathon to begin. The dinner was a traditional American Thanksgiving — turkey, stuffing, yams, brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes and corn bread — but the appetizers or mezethes as they called it, were strictly Greek. The table had platters of dolmathes, tiropitas, spanakopitas and taramousalata.”

-An excerpt from Evanthia’s Gift  (available on Amazon – goo.gl/iPo1pa)

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It pains me to even use a Thanksgiving reference from the book, since I have no desire to give up on summer yet. However, this excerpt is a perfect example of how most of the American holidays in our family went. To be perfectly honest, I’d be happy with the mezethes, and more than willing to forgo the turkey.

I remember “the making of the spanakopita” as the laborious main even of the day. The spinach would have to be washed and rinsed from the sand at least two or three times, and then dried. Then my mother would sauté the spinach and press out all the excess liquid through a fine strainer.

I have so many good memories of watching my mother bake and cook, and learning all that I know from her, but this was not something that looked like fun to me. For years, I never made spanakopita. I made little triangles of tiropita, but never trays of spanakopita. I let my sister slave in the kitchen over that one.

I had this idea. What if I didn’t sauté the spinach? How would it come out? Well, I got my answer. Delicious. And the best part? I didn’t slave for hours.

I forgot to tell you about my second cheat. Now anyone that is acquainted with me, knows I’m not one to cut corners, or use ready-made products, but for this recipe, I only use baby spinach that has been triple washed! A little more expensive, but worth it!

I would like to share the information of a fellow Greek blogger. Unlike me, the home cook who learned from mom and experimentation, the kouzounaskitchen blog is written by a Cordon Bleu trained chef from Greece who also learned her Greek recipes from her yiayia and mother. Follow her blog, instagram and twitter, and wait for the release of her upcoming cookbook inspired by recipes from her yiayia’s island.

Spanakopita

2 pounds fresh spinach

1 teaspoon kosher salt

6 finely sliced scallions

1 medium onion, diced

¼ cup olive oil

½ cup loosely packed fresh parsley and mint combination, chopped

¼ cup fresh dill, chopped

2 pounds imported Greek feta cheese, crumbled

¼ cup breadcrumbs

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Pepper to taste

A dash or two of nutmeg

1 pound packaged phyllo

1 cup unsalted butter, melted

 

Preheat oven to 350°

Sauté the scallions and onion until tender. Normally, what most people do, and what I’d always watched my mother do, was to sauté the spinach, and then squeeze out the excess liquid. This is where I decided to cheat a bit. I saved myself the aggravation of all that pressing and draining and it paid off! It was a risk, but it was worth the try.

In a huge bowl, toss the spinach, sautéed scallions & onions, parsley, mint, dill, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, eggs and the feta together. The spinach is going to melt down when it cooks in the oven and, by not sautéing it beforehand, it won’t wilt down as much.

Grease a large baking pan and lay 8-10 phyllo leaves down, brushing each layer with butter. Spread the filling over the buttered pastry leaves. Lay another 8-10 leaves on top, brushing each leaf with butter. Tuck in any overhanging phyllo edges. Score the spanakopita with a sharp knife into square pieces. Pour any remaining butter evenly over the top. Bake for 45 – 55 minutes until golden.

 

 

 

 

HAPPY CHEESE LOVERS DAY!!! SAGANAKI THREE WAYS

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Today, My dear friend Lita Smith-Mines, Editor-in-Chief of BOATING TIMES LONG ISLAND MAGAZINE, informed me that today is National Cheese Lovers Day. Certain that if she went on my blog she would find a “cheesy” post to add to her Hungry Boater App page, she found a recipe for French onion soup topped with gooey melted cheese. If I only knew about this day—one so important to a person like myself—a self-proclaimed cheesaholic. So, in honor of this day—I give you saganaki. So what exactly is saganaki? Saga-what? It sounds Japanese, but it’s not, It’s a Greek appetizer made from pan-fried cheese.

The way to make this depends on where in Greece the cook is from or what restaurant you go to. My mother insisted her way was the authentic way. But that’s an Athenian for you. She took an inch thick slab of kasseri or kefaloteri cheese and dipped it in egg and flour. She would then fry it in a hot olive oil, just enough to coat the pan. When the first side was golden, she flipped it over and waited for that side to turn a golden color. Transferring it onto a plate, she squeezed fresh lemon on the cheese and sprinkled it with oregano. It’s quick, it’s simple, and it’s heaven.

Many years ago I went to a Greek restaurant and ordered the saganaki. When it arrived it didn’t look like the saganaki I was used to, but it was delicious. It was more like a dip or a casserole. I often make this when I entertain. It is easy to prep ahead and great to serve to a crowd. For this version thinly slice tomatoes and onions. Pat dry the tomatoes and set them aside while I parboil the onions. Drain and dry the onions. In the bottom of a baking or casserole dish place the onions and tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and oregano. Grate the kasseri or kefaloteri in shreds and generously lay over onions and tomatoes. Sprinkle lightly with oregano. Bake in oven at 400 degrees until the cheese bubbles and begins to turn golden. Serve immediately with crusty bread or pita. Some restaurants present this dish flambéed. It’s great for dramatic effect—shooting flames, a couple of shots of ouzo and maybe break a few plates for good luck.

At the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival participants can sample food from over thirty countries. Each country has a tiny building or kiosk to represent it. In “Greece,” I sampled a version of saganaki in a way I never had before. They simply griddled a slab of cheese until it crusted on both sides. To finish it, they drizzled honey and roasted pistachio nuts on top. That’s it! It tasted like a sweet and savory dessert. I replicated it at home and discovered it was still easier to egg and flour the cheese. I tried it without the egg and flour and the cheese just melted all over the pan.

Now for the real dilemma. How do I decide which way to prepare it when each way is equally delicious?

Pastitsio – Greek Comfort Food

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 It seems that once Halloween is behind us, the holiday frenzy begins. The shelves in the stores are cleared of any evidence of autumn and spook, Thanksgiving seems to be all but ignored and all focus goes to scoring the best deals on gift purchases. But I like tradition and even though my children are older now, I still carry on the little rituals our family created. More so, I treasure the traditions and foods that have been passed down through the generations in my family and my heritage. The stuffed peppers I made for Halloween were the very ones my mother made— Yemista. It’s comforting to me to make the foods she cooked for us when we were children. In a small way I feel I am preserving history and giving our children a sense of where they come from through the food of their ancestors. Each culture tells a story through their cuisine and the Greeks are certainly passionate about their food. Just try and leave a Greek woman’s home without eating something. Any of you reading this who have been to my mother’s home would know this firsthand!

Aside from the questions and requests I get about baklava and “those cookies with the powdered sugar”, people ask me if make “that Greek lasagna.” The answer is yes. But, although layered like lasagna, it is quite different. The pasta needed for this dish look like spaghetti length ziti. No tomato sauce is poured between the layers, and the top layer is béchamel sauce. Although in Northern Italy, lasagna is made with a layer of béchamel on top.

I will warn you, that although this is not difficult to make, it is time consuming and requires many pots. For this reason, I double or triple the recipe and make several trays at a time and freeze them. I cook, cool and cut the squares before freezing. It is nearly impossible to cut neat squares when this dish is hot. I can guarantee you the pastitsio will taste just as good out of the freezer and heated as it did the first day you made it.

I happened to have a tray in the freezer and knew I was having a large crowd, so in addition to the stuffed peppers, I served the pastitsio. So, here is my mom’s recipe(with a little less butter), and I know she would have something to say about that!

Pastitsio

Meat

2 pounds chopped meat

½ stick of unsalted butter

1 chopped onion

1 cup white wine

½ cup water

1 4 ounce can tomato paste

Dash of nutmeg

2-3 cinnamon sticks

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup breadcrumbs

½ cup grated cheese

Melt butter in a large skillet. Add meat and onion. Cook until meat is brown. Add wine, water and tomato paste. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add breadcrumbs and grated cheese.

*While preparing meat mixture, boil water for 2 pounds of pastitsio pasta. You can find it in specialty stores and many Italian and Greek groceries. The pasta should be very al dente when you take it out of the pot and drain it.

Béchamel sauce

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter

1-cup flour

4 cups warm milk

Salt to taste

Dash of nutmeg

4 egg yolks

1 cup grated cheese

Make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan and whisking in the flour. Stir for 2-3 minutes on medium heat. Add the warm milk while continuously whisking until the sauce thickens. Add the salt and nutmeg. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Add the grated cheese. Slowly add the beaten eggs to the sauce while whisking, so not to cook the eggs in the sauce. The sauce should be smooth and pale yellow in color.

To assemble– Add some butter and grated cheese to the pasta to give them flavor and coat well. Layer the bottom of a deep baking dish with half the pasta. Distribute the meat mixture on top of the pasta and layer the rest of the pasta on top of the meat. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top layer of pasta. Sprinkle lightly with breadcrumbs. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees until the top is golden brown, about 25-35 minutes. Let it set and cool a bit before cutting into squares.

Happy Halloween! Stuffed Peppers & Tomatoes

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Like most families, there are certain events we look forward to year after year. In our family, deviating from what has now become tradition is not an option. As we enter the holiday season it will become crystal clear as I share my stories.

Each year on Halloween I would make stuffed peppers for dinner. Afterwards, my husband and brother-in-law would take our children out to trick-or-treat in the dark, and then come home to warm apple crisp and hot cocoa. The “kids” now range from 19 to 28 and we continue to do this— well, their dads don’t take them out in the dark, but we do the dinner part. Now, we have a new generation to take about in the neighborhood—a niece and nephew, and they look forward to it as much as our girls did.

So why stuffed peppers? It was actually a practical decision. I needed a meal that I could prepare ahead of time. Most Halloweens I worked and came home to take the kids around the neighborhood. Cooking at that point would have been impossible. Because the peppers and tomatoes are in season, I generally only make this dish in the fall.

Over my lifetime, I must have watched my mother make stuffed peppers a hundred times. Not one of those times did she pull out a measuring cup or spoon. I learned what to do from watching her—no recipe needed. So please, don’t get caught up in measurements. A few years ago a neighbor stopped by to chat. I was engrossed in her conversation and she was engrossed in my culinary activity. I wasn’t even aware that she was paying attention to what I was doing as she’d often told me she didn’t cook. Two days later she called to review everything I did while she was over and she only had one question. I was stunned that she’d remembered every detail without a recipe. She made the peppers for dinner and called the next day to tell me they came out delicious!

Stuffed Peppers and Tomatoes

4 peppers

4 tomatoes

2 lbs. lean chopped meat

Extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves chopped garlic

1 large chopped onion

1 cup white wine

1 ½ cup water

Salt, pepper, parsley

½ rice

8 ounces tomato paste

1 large can crushed tomatoes

Breadcrumbs (seasoned)

Potatoes (optional)

In a large roasting pan, coat the bottom with a little olive oil. Prepare the peppers by cutting the tops and removing the seeds and membranes. For the tomatoes, cut the tops and hollow out the middle. Find the largest tomatoes available. Use any peppers you enjoy. I like a mixture of red, yellow and orange. I find green peppers very strong and overpowering, so I don’t use them. Arrange the peppers and tomatoes in the roasting pan. In a large, deep skillet add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. In a large skillet, sauté the onions and garlic for one minute. Add the chopped meat. When the meat is fully browned, add the wine, water, salt, pepper, parsley, tomato paste and the rice and crushed tomatoes. My mom always added the rice by feel. I pour about two handfuls in the skillet, just as she did. I’ve estimated that to be ½ cup. Let the mixture simmer for about fifteen minutes on medium heat. That will give the rice a chance to begin to cook. If you feel you need more fluid, add a little more water. If the reverse is the case, let the mixture simmer a little longer. Remove from heat. Fill the peppers and tomatoes. Sprinkle breadcrumbs generously on top and drizzle with olive oil. Peel the potatoes and cut them into quarters. Place the potatoes between the peppers and tomatoes. The potatoes help to support the tomatoes and peppers, but they serve as a nice side dish as well. Don’t forget to season them. Bake for 1½ hours at 375°. After the tops have browned (about 45min.), you may want to lay a sheet of tin foil over pan. Do not cover tightly or seal. You want to bake the peppers, not steam them. I usually double this recipe. I like finding the leftovers in my fridge on a busy day. They heat up in the microwave easily without compromising the taste, or you can eat them the way I like them—cold.

* Try this meatless alternative

Vegetarian/Vegan Stuffed peppers

 6 peppers

2 celery hearts, sliced thin

1 large Vidalia onion, chopped

3 large cloves garlic, chopped

Extra virgin olive oil

1 cup white wine

½ cup pignoli nuts

1 cup rice

Salt and pepper, to taste

Oregano

Parsley

Grated cheese

1 cup bread crumbs (seasoned)

Cut the tops off the peppers and take seed and membranes out. Arrange in a baking dish. Heat a large skillet and sauté celery, onions and garlic with ¼ cup of olive oil until soft and tender. At the same time, boil 1 cup of rice in 3 cups of water for 10-12 minutes. Drain the rice and set aside. Add salt, pepper, oregano and parsley to the celery mixture. Add wine and cook on high heat to burn off liquid. If making a vegan version, use vegetable broth or coconut water. Remove from heat. Add the rice, breadcrumbs and pignoli nuts, and stir well. Fill the peppers. Generously sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs and grated cheese. (Vegans can skip the cheese) Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

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