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.