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

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.

The Benefits of Farmer’s Markets & My Recipe For Portabella Mushroom Ravioli in a Marsala Sauce

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I have childhood memories of going to the Farmer’s Market in Bethpage near Grumman with my parents. It was a huge building with a carousel in the middle. We would stop by the many individual sections where you could purchase specialty foods. There was the pickle man and the cheese monger. In the largest area, you could see farmers delivering locally grown fresh vegetables. There was a fresh bread section, a bakery, an Italian food market and a florist. I could go on and on. Somehow, the Farmer’s Market died, and the only place to find fresh produce was at roadside farmstands. Now, as if it’s a new concept, Farmer’s markets have been popping up for the last several years—and thriving! Americans have finally realized that the way their great grandparents ate and the way many Europeans still eat is much healthier than the food we have been consuming for the last few decades. Box foods riddled with chemicals and preservatives can only lead to health issues down the road. So, what was once old and forgotten is new again. If you haven’t visited your local Farmer’s Market, I urge you to do so. What a great place for the cook and non-cook alike. For the culinary creator, you will find organic fruits and vegetables of every variety. Spices, cheese, honey, fresh pastas and even real Greek yogurt in clay pots made from an old family recipe. For the non-cook or for the busy person looking to supplement their meal, there are dozens of ready-made fresh products to take home. Breads, cakes and pies. Pasta sauces, salad dressings, salsas and empanadas. They even had fresh treats for my little dog Chestnut!

One of my favorite restaurants in Port Jefferson is The Fifth Season. Their menu changes four times a year with each season, and they use locally grown fresh in-season ingredients. I give a full review of the Fifth Season in Boating Times Magazine. A few months ago, I ordered the portabella mushroom ravioli with a Marsala wine pan sauce. Knowing I would have to wait until spring to once again order this dish at the restaurant, I decided to make my own version at home. The pasta vendor at the Farmer’s Market promised I would love his fresh portabella ravioli, so I gave it a try. It did not disappoint. The pasta to mushroom ratio was perfect. The flavor was rich but not overpowering. Below is the recipe for the sauce. It is not exactly like the one I had at the restaurant, but it was also very tasty and a perfect compliment to the delicious pillows of portabella.

Portabella Mushroom Ravioli In Marsala Pan Sauce

2 portabella caps, cut in half and sliced                  1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch

1 large shallot                                                                      2 Tablespoons water

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter                                2 Tablespoons unsalted butter

1 ½ cups Marsala wine                                             3-4 slices pancetta, microwaved crisp

2 cups chicken broth                                                 Fresh chives, snipped

1 pound fresh portabella                                            Shaved grated Parmesan

mushroom ravioli

Sauté the sliced portabella caps and shallots in 2 tablespoons of butter on medium heat about seven minutes. Start a pot of water to boil for the ravioli. Don’t forget to salt the water. Add the Marsala wine to the mushroom and shallot mixture. Bring to a boil and then add the chicken broth. Simmer approx. ten minutes. Drop the pasta in the boiling water. It will not need more than 6 minutes to cook. In a small bowl make a slurry of cornstarch and water. Add it to the sauce while whisking. Simmer one to two minutes. Take off the fire and add 2 tablespoons of butter. Whisk to blend. Plate the ravioli first. Spoon sauce over ravioli and garnish with pancetta, chives and Parmesan.

*Hint – Pancetta should be as crisp as bacon. Microwaving it on a ridged bacon pan will keep the grease away.

Throwback Thursday – Asian Noodle Salad

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With all the summer parties, picnics and boat outings, finding food that is “sun friendly” is sometimes a challenge. When refrigeration is not available, look for recipes that are dairy free. Forget the same old potato and macaroni salads that are drowning in mayonnaise. Try a Southwest bean salad, a Mediterranean lentil salad or the Asian noodle salad I am about to share with you. I originally posted this dish four years ago on my Livejournal blog and it’s still a favorite with my family and friends. Make it a day or two ahead when entertaining, or make a batch to keep in your fridge for an easy lunch or a side to any meal. It’s quick and easy!

Asian Noodle Salad

Dressing

2Tbsp. sesame oil                                       ¼ cup vegetable oil

1/3 rice wine vinegar                                     ½ cup soy sauce

juice & zest of 1 lime                                    2 cloves crushed garlic

1Tbsp. minced ginger                                    1tsp. black pepper

1Tbsp. cornstarch                                    2Tbsp. brown sugar

2Tbsp. plum wine (optional)

Whisk all the ingredients together and set aside.

Salad

1 lb. spaghetti (white or whole wheat)            1-cup julienned carrots

1-cup small broccoli florets                                    ½ cup scallions

½ cup red onion sliced thin                                    2 Tbsp. sesame seeds

1 ½ cup red, yellow & orange peppers julienned

Mix dressing into spaghetti. Add the vegetables. Mix well. Add sesame seeds. The dressing will take a little while to absorb into the pasta.