Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas, Chinese Food & Me

I was hardly disappointed to find out that my brother had arranged to pick up Chinese food for Xmas Eve. Having it on Christmas Day might have been more predictable for a family with Jews in the mix. But we non-Jews regularly blend right in with all the Jewish customs and are big Chinese food eaters going way back to our Stockton roots...So why wait?

(That same day, I received a very interesting article explaining why Jews eat Chinese on Christmas, a tradition begun on the Lower East Side of Manhattan about a hundred years ago. Among the reasons for that, the obvious: Chinese restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas (though not exclusively nowadays). Also something I had not focused on: Chinese food does not contain dairy. Read the article!)

"Tropical Chinese"
Good Chinese food is hard to come by in some Miami neighborhoods, so just picking up a take-out order from the VERY popular "Tropical Chinese" was a feat -- wading through a sea of folks waiting festively to pick up or sit down. There is a large window looking out from the kitchen into the main dining room if you are willing and able to follow dizzying kitchen action happening around super-hot woks. I watched for awhile, wishing we were home at the dinner table already. Finally we did very much  enjoy our meal -- which included braised pork belly and Prawns in a Basket (oops!) -- before proceeding to "the next phase," as my niece called it: opening Christmas gifts :)  

Peppered Spareribs

While in Stockton recently, I had (sort of) abandoned my constant craving for Mexican food and gone more for Chinese. Twice, the current Chinese restaurant of choice, Yen Du, was closed -- so where to go? In the first instance I picked New Canton Garden  (also 4 stars) from Yelp. It's not far from our old family home, and I must have passed this place hundreds of times. As mentioned in the reviews, it is nothing to look at on the outside. But the food was pretty good, especially the House Chow Fun and Pepper Salted Spareribs. The latter was something that my pal Debbie Buck and I had not been expecting. But the dish was quite tasty/spicy -- and reminded me of the chicharonnes we eat in Miami. The price was right at $7.25. I'll go back.

And just before I left Stockton, I was on the southeast side of town and decided (half-heartedly) to eat lunch at New On Lock Sam's (3 stars) on S. Sutter Street. That's the updated version of where we ate Chinese as kids -- in the original restaurant on Washington Street, after climbing up a flight of stairs and into a mysterious, smoky room of booths hidden behind red velvet curtains. The diminutive, feisty owner Ruthie always used to threaten, "If you don't finish everything, I won't give you as much next time!" Needless to say, we complied.

Dad, Mom, & Thea (1998)
Eating there now could have been very disappointing. Ruthie and her family are long gone. The dining room was nearly empty at 1:30 pm -- and seemed a bit shabby as I looked wistfully toward the booth that I remember sitting in last with my parents, my aunt, Oly Spanos and Anthe Faipeas. Outside in a little rock garden area behind a large window, a German Shepherd was jumping up against the glass. Oy veh! What had I gotten myself into? And what was I going to eat?

Then I saw it: Lunch Combo #2: consisting of sweet and sour pork w/pineapple (my mother's absolute favorite), fried prawns and pork fried rice -- all staples of our family visits so many years ago. The smell, the taste, and the little bowl of Chinese mustard/ketchup transported me back in time. Delicious, actually...and all for the princely sum of $7.90. I was not disappointed!

On the other hand, I just may leave On Lock's at that and quit while I'm ahead.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Banana Squash Pitta with Crisco!

Memories of childhood always include my grandmother Pauline Xanttopulos' Banana Squash Pitta -- a "horiatiki" (village), rustic-styled creation with a crust made from scratch that is light in its own way due to multiple layers of dough rolled together. She depended on Crisco instead of the oil/butter mixture used back in her hometown of Naousa in Northern Greece...It's somewhat complicated compared to making pitta using fyllo dough bought at your neighborhood supermarket -- but well-worth the effort! Check out more details at my "Greek-American Family Notes" blog HERE.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Kokkari Estiatorion and Gigantes ("Giant Beans")

On the road for awhile, I finally had an opportunity on 11/20 to eat lunch at Kokkari Estiatorion of San Francisco, a very well-known Greek restaurant. Just as I was starting to write this, I saw that Kokkari has been ranked Number One SF restaurant in the Zagat 2015 Survey -- dethroning long-time champ Gary Danko in a newsworthy Bay Area culinary coup. OPA!

I had made a date with my old friend Lori Durbin after being jealous every time she mentioned Kokkari on Facebook. Turns out that Lori was also familiar with The Dead Fish restaurant in Crockett. That woman does get around. But I digress...

Kokkari lived up to my expectations and then some. It's an elegant place with an Old World feel right down to the fireplace with a lamb roasting on a spit...not to mention an enticing display of killer rustic bread loaves. Resisting the temptation of lamb as it should be cooked, we decided to share mezedhes (appetizers).

Unfortunately, I couldn't get Lori to agree to one of all-time favorites, Fried Smelts (see photo at top of this blog) as served with skordalia. So we settled on Grilled Calamari stuffed with feta, fennel & orange with black olives -- sublime!

The always-always-hoped-for Horta (braised seasonal greens with lemon & olive oil), were good -- but under-cooked according to my over-cooked Greek vegetable preferences, which I realize are not particularly gringo-friendly. I would have also preferred dandelion greens.

The Eggplant Salad (Melitzanosalata) and Tzatziki were excellent -- and the lush pita bread that comes with them quite satisfying.

But the pièce de resistance was the Gigantes,  oven-baked "giant beans" with tomato sauce, olive oil & herbed feta. Lori became an instant a fan, even as I warned her that the authentic beans are hard to come by if you don't have a "Greek store" in your town. The package pictured here that I bought at Miami's St. Sophia Greek Festival for $6 is going on Amazon for $13.20 with Free Shipping directly from Greece.

Kokkari added a new twist to the usual Gigantes dish that was not disclosed in the menu description (probably with good reason) and caught me by surprise: a generous drizzle of pesto over the top that at first provoked an anti-nouvelle cuisine knee-jerk reaction. The beans were pretty awesome, but I had still had issues.  No Greek cookbook I checked with -- including the game-changing, European-leaning "Greek Cookery" by Tselementes -- mentions Gigantes w/pesto.

Then a few days later I ran into Nick Thomas in my hometown of Stockton. His Greek father was in the produce business same as great-uncle Tony Gust and my father Steve. And, he said, after sharing various memories, "My mother made the best pesto!" So there you have it -- worthy of another OPA dedicated to trying something different if you know what you're doing. Bravo, Kokkari Estiatorion!

NOTE: Beans baked or cooked stove-top in tomato sauce have always been a favorite in my family. Indeed, "Mom's Gigantes" -- found on Page 68 of the St. Basil's "International Cookbook" (2010) -- is a testament to that. But they were usually made with dried large lima beans or even frozen limas. No "Greek store" in Stockton after the Fotinoses closed theirs...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Provence 1970" + Tribute Dessert à la 2014

If you haven't read Provence 1970 by Luke Barr, you must...It's a brilliant description of 3 winter months spent in the South of France by culinary luminaries who changed the face of American cooking. Just ask Alice Waters!

Barr is the grandson of MFK Fisher's sister Norah, and he somehow pulled this mouth-watering narrative together from interviews, letters and articles as painstakingly corroborated in pages of footnotes -- and lovingly quoted throughout the book to lend both credence and context to his story. In 1970, Fisher -- an eloquent food writer, with 27 tomes to her credit -- was traveling with Norah both for nostalgia's sake and also to decide what to do with the rest of her life. She was 62.

They met up with Julia and Paul Child, Simone "Simca" Beck, James Beard, Richard Olney, and food editor Judith Jones -- all Americans except Beck. Regardless of their idiosyncrasies, the fellow travelers got together in each others homes away from home, cooked meals for each other, and talked into the night in simple unencumbered surroundings -- something that was not done much any more Stateside even then. (Indeed, the members of the Travel & Recipe Club at the Brockway Memorial Library recently discussed the book and cooked a beautiful shared meal, wishing that they did that more often these days themselves.*)

Times were indeed a-changin'. Julia Child, with her successful TV show and other enterprises, had already begun to back away from what was extolled in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (2 volumes) which she had written with Beck. "Simca" was not happy about that -- and more so the dedicated francophile Olney, who had recently written The French Menu Cookbook and lived in a house he renovated there in Provence with a wine cellar that he spent 6 years digging himself!

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was food-obsessed:"After breakfast she was on her own. And MF continued to be troubled by food. The look of it. The constant search for it." (p.184). On top of that, she was in the throes of doubting her heretofore dedication to French life. In December, 1970: "She had made up her mind. 'I do know that I have, apparently, turned my back on the old vague dream of establishing myself in S. France, as I once dreamed.' " (p.196) She then went home and established herself at "Last House" in Glen Ellen, California, where she died in 1992 at the age 93.

In 2010, Barr took Grandma Norah, his wife and daughter back to Provence for a look at the various homes where the food icons had stayed, including Child's "La Pitchoune" (which by then reverted back to the Beck Estate). He and his guests to some extent relived the spirit of 1970. But while some things never change, others are gone forever...

*Tribute Dessert: On p. 11, MFK Fisher talks about her love for tangerine sections. And on p. 232, Barr reports on a simple country meal she had prepared for her famous friends, including Ice Cream w/Pureed Plums. Searching for a connection, I took a recipe for Prunes Poached in Red Wine (which included orange zest in the prep), pureed the prunes, put them over vanilla ice cream, and added a tangerine section. My tribute to MFK Fisher!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

As for peppers, how about roasting some?

Recently I decided to make Spicy Roasted Red Bell Pepper Hummous from scratch, including roasting the peppers -- a bit labor intensive, but the results were pleasing to me and my Rosh Hashanah guests. After thinking about it for too long, I finally roasted some peppers the way my mother Angeline used to do it. It's not difficult.

Yes, I can still picture Mom roasting (mostly bell) peppers until charred and then putting them immediately into a paper bag from the super market to steam awhile and facilitate peeling. Not sure exactly how she separated the seeds from the peppers. I simply cut the them into sections, scrape the seeds away, and then turn them over in order to gently pull the skin away. Some cooks rinse the seeds away, but not I so as to not lose any of the smokey flavor...Lay the peppers in a container where you can marinate with olive oil, vinegar, and a clove or two of garlic until served or otherwise used.

There are many ways to roast peppers and many different kinds of peppers to roast. You can char your peppers directly on the burners of a gas stove, on a grill, or in the oven. I chose oven-roasting at 450 degrees rather than under the broiler to protect against burning holes in the peppers. Problems with peeling seemed to arise if the pepper was not thick-walled, making choosing those peppers at the green grocer key. Make sure they are firm and shiny.

NOTE: As for making the hummus, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Michelle Bernstein say on a recent episode of "Check Please" that she prefers using canned chick peas over dried ones. I do, too, but prepare them a bit first rather than using straight from the can. Bring the chick peas to a boil in chicken broth along with a section of sweet onion pierced with 2-3 cloves. Turn off the burner and let the chickpeas sit for 20-30 minutes. Drain and reserve liquid to be used later if needed. OPA!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Olympus Burger revisited (Why do those Greeks grow those super hot peppers anyway?)

When in Port Hope, Ontario, I do what most others do -- lunch or dinner at Olympus Burger. According to Trip Advisor, it is the #1 restaurant in Port Hope (out of 51) and #5 in all Ontario for American Cuisine. Double OPA!

"Ares" Burger
Liked it a lot when I visited last May, and even more this time -- even though I yet again did not fully take up the Hercules Challenge. But at least I made progress...And I had one of the best burgers I have ever eaten: "Ares" (Peppercorn beef patty, crispy bacon, caramelized onion, sauteed mushrooms, Olympus BBQ Sauce, lettuce/tomato on a whole wheat bun). Just look at it!

Kallonakis Family
Olympus Burger is very welcoming, with front man George Kallonakis (a mover-and-shaker in the Port Hope restaurant community) as backed up by his parents Georgia and Manolis from Hirocambi, about 15 minutes south of Sparti...This time I met the parents. And I had barely sat down for lunch when Dad Kallonakis brought me a bag of tomatoes grown in his garden at the back of the restaurant, a very Greek thing to do. Then he proceeded to produce my burger and the amazing "Olympus Poutine" featuring Ivanhoe cheese curds, a very Canadian thing to eat.

The "Labour of Hercules" Challenge requires you to eat a 6 oz. beef patty, w/crispy bacon, lettuce/tomato, caramelized onions, jalapenos, habanero peppers, and secret Olympus Hot Sauce (also slathered on top of the bun!) -- in 15 minutes with one glass of water, after signing a waiver. It's followed-up w/a milkshake to cool off the stomach, if you get that far. So far 211 customers have tried and only 63 have succeeded (30%), including 6 of 9 women (66%). Survivors get a free t-shirt and serious bragging rights.

According to George, Mom Kallonakis likes spicy and pushing the limits of spicy. So they started growing Trinidad Moruga Scorpion peppers in their backyard, NOT a very Greek thing to grow. Scorpions were until recently the world's hottest peppers with a 1.2 -2 million Scoville heat unit score depending on the plant -- or at least 250 times hotter than the average jalapeno. Thus the Olympus Hot Sauce and the Hercules Challenge...and the rest is (not quite) ancient history.

Most of the burgers/sandwiches at Olympus burger are indeed Greek god themed -- with names like Athena (lamb patty), Hermes, Dionysus, Poseidon (salmon fillet), Artemis (chicken breast), and Hera (Portobello mushroom cap). Something for everybody and fabulous home-cut fries to boot.

One evening, I managed to eat a burger -- the "Achilles" from the Secret Menu -- slathered w/2 little cups of the Olympus Hot Sauce, one more than last time. My friend Greg managed only one cup, but that was his first try...Next time, who knows?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Agricultural fairs like they used to be!

Like they used to be in my hometown of Stockton, California, that is...Not in Canada, where the fair/harvest festival season is in full swing -- including the 183rd Edition of the Port Hope & District Agricultural Society Fair ("Farming, Food & Fun") this past weekend. It was quite a show!

Rice Crispie cookie shaped like
farm animal (3-5 years!)
It was a thrill -- I kid you not! -- to see the results of the baking (many w/ specified ingredients) and canning (fab pickles of every kind!) competitions, not to mention all the things made by children. And then to see entire families scanning the results, learning about all sorts of things, and just having a great time.

There were prizes for vegetables/fruits, and even hay bale cuts. And how about that elementary school spelling bee and the cooking demos? I was touched and mesmerized...remembering when that all happened at the San Joaquin County Fair, which is now just a shadow of itself and on the brink of extinction.

The Goat Show
On the second day, I visited South Field where the animal competitions took place, along with a variety of very cool exhibits like all stages of the Monarch Butterfly (live!)...4-H Clubs were well-represented at the cattle show. There was also a Goat Show, while the Maplewood Stables Drill Team showed-off their moves following an equestrian competition held the day before. Geese dominated the fowl tent (with no mention of foie gras). The Children's Pet Show hit a high note as kids and their cats/dogs vied for an array of awards for shortest legs, longest tail, weirdest coat color, etc.  And the weather cooperated!

Did you know that: "Despite being classified as a red meat, goat meat is leaner than both lamb and beef. Because it is so lean, goat is particularly good when braised or cooked with moist heat so it won't dry out, preserving the tenderness." Saw an interesting recipe for "Goat Water" from Montserrat in the "Enjoy Goat" display...Look for Chevon, Cabretto or Cabrito when shopping at your local grocery story/butcher shop -- though you might have to place a special order. (Price Choice Market in Miami, here I come!)

Geese make the
best "watchdogs"

Of course, I supported the Lions Club both days by consuming my share of their awesome fries (practically the national dish!).  But then I did walk around for about 8 hours total -- finishing up with a look at a slew of vintage chain saws, about 200 vintage cars/trucks, the horse pull, and vintage tractor guys competing to see who had the slowest tractor. The Port Hope Fair covered all the bases and then some -- Double OPA!

Looking forward to the 184th Edition ("Denim Dreams")...Meanwhile, planning to visit the Roseneath Fair (9/26-28) and the Wesleyville Harvest Festival (9/28), too. In Canada, that's a Hat Trick!

NOTE: After checking out all the baking competitions/rules I saw one for "Any baked item containing coconut." Next year in Port Hope, with Esta Friedman's macaroon recipe! 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Ode to Greek wines, including Retsina...

I actually love retsina, though the large barrels of authentic, room-temperature brew no longer dominate taverna dining rooms like they once did. Poured into ubiquitous metal carafes refilled over-and-over again, retsina used to be the mainstay of 3-4 hour dinners where wine and spirited conversation ruled the night.  Retsina is Greek wine flavored w/pine resin that has been made for over 2,000 years, and is an  acquired taste worthy of acquiring...(In a pinch, chilled bottle-capped Malamatina retsina will do just fine, but you really must eat something with it.)

Greece is home to 300 grape varietals -- the most well-known being Assyrtico, Moscholfilero, Savatiano, Roditis, Agiorghitiko, and Xinomavro. Now mass Greek wine production and European favorites have been challenged by a new breed of small production wineries championed by partner distributors like Cava Spiliadis (beautiful website!). Andreas Zinelis and Canadian Sommelier Elyse Lambert recently presented its line at Wine By the Bay in Miami.

We tasted 10 wines from Domaine Biblia Chora, Driopi, Domaine Gerovassiliou (in Epanomi, not far from Thessaoliniki), Domaine Katsaros, and Parparoussis. Epanomi native Evangelos Gerovassiliou has benefited from working with Emile Peynaud of Domaine Carras fame and also makes wine under the Biblia Chora label. The Gerovassiliou Malagousia 2013 (100% Malagousia) is a unique white mouth-filling wine from a grape referred to as Greece's answer to viognier (in its own way).

But it was Parparrousis, a small organic winery near Patras  run by founder Athanassios Parparoussis and his two daughters, Erifili and Dimitra, that caught my full attention. "Gift of Dionysos" 2013 (100% Sideritis) is an unoaked white beauty. The "Taos" 2005 (100% Marvrodaphne) was amazing for what it wasn't. Previously I had only drunk Mavrodaphne as a chilled dessert wine. "Taos" (Ancient Greek word for peacock) is a memorable dry red wine with eucalyptus and gingerbread flavors that opened up new vistas -- Double OPA!

Some of these wines can be found in Miami at Wine By the Bay,  Sunset Corners Fine Wines & Spirits,  Vintage Liquor & Wine Bar -- and wherever else good Greek wines are sold. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Moral of the Story?

Saw the film "The Hundred-Foot Journey," and it seems like the movie was not entirely loyal to the book. Movies seldom are -- but the Producer team of Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg do know how to make movies that make money...And this one surely will with its poignant story line, gorgeous cinematography (hail to the Eiffel Tower!), Helen Mirren (not her best role), and a very charming and handsome protagonist...

I liked the new ending, because it reminded me of what a chef friend in New York told me about cooking: You cook best what you are (not to mention that you are what you are)...He is Italian-American and once had a restaurant named Cibo in upstate New York to prove it.

I am Greek-American. And even while I do not pretend to a fabulous Greek cook, I absolutely do know what Greek food is supposed to taste like, smell like, and look like. That's both my obsession and competitive edge with Greek Foody Talk.

And that's what called out to Hassan Kadam in the movie when he shared an Indian meal cooked by the wife of a sous-chef in the Paris restaurant where he had become King of Innovation.  That's when we knew how the movie would and should end -- OPA!

Friday, August 15, 2014

East meets West on August 15th in honor of Pontian Nation!

Today I observed the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by recalling one of the the seminal experiences of my ten years in Greece (68-78): A pilgrimage to Panayia Soumela on August 15, 1973, to both observe an important religious holiday and revel in Pontian culture.  (For the background on those amazing people from the Black Sea, please click here to visit my other blog.)

In that same vein, I rediscovered a recipe card entitled "Miliasta (Sonia's Aunt)" and fell further back in time with vivid memories of many meals at Greek village tables. Visits to Pontian households were special on several levels. And even though I usually could not understand what Pontian yiayias were telling me due to an Ancient Greek-based dialect, they always knew that I loved their cuisine.  

I especially loved "Miliasta" -- which is a soup of Pontian staples including Korkota (dried or roasted cracked corn), dried beans and greens. It has the added attraction of calling for a hot pepper. Opa!

What did I have on hand to make this Ancient Greek soup? No dried crack corn, but plenty of "chicos" (dried small corn) that I had bought from Tina Martinez in Santa Fe. So I broke 1/2 c. down in a food processor. The recipe called for finely chopped cabbage, and I had about 1/2 pound of cut kale in the fridge. These were cooked with 1 cup of dried pinto beans -- to which I added a pinch of salt, 1 T. of butter and 1/2 dried hot Sandia pepper purchased from Nellie Herrera in Belen.

And that's how East met West on August 15th in honor of Pontian Nation.

NOTE: Happy Name Day to all that are named Mary, Marios, Despina, Parthena, Panayiota and Panayiotis. A little Pontian dance music, please!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

What's in a pot? (From Guardian Service Dome Cooker to ANOLON Nouvelle Copper Covered Casserole)

Believe me, I have had my share of pots and pans over many years -- mostly mismatched in order to have what I specifically needed, especially liked, or wanted to keep in the family.

Guardian Service
After downsizing last year, I realized that I no longer had a casserole that I could or wanted to put in the oven. My black Le Creuset pot bit the dust a few years ago. And while I still have a Revere Ware sauce pan and pasta pot that my mother favored + 2 original Paderno sauté pans from Italy (that we sold when I worked at the "Professional Kitchen" near the Bowery in Manhattan, circa 1982), I was using my grandmother's trusty hammered aluminum "waterless" Guardian Service 4 Quart Dome Cooker to cook almost everything. But I really did not want to chance ruining Yiayia's pot by using it in what is now a very hot apartment oven.

Upon hearing that I was looking for a heavy pot for the oven, a dear friend immediately drove me over to her apartment and gave me a beautiful, teal Dansk Kobenstyle 3 Quart Casserole with it's trivet/cover -- which still graces my glass coffee table when it is not in the oven. The 1956 design is a classic!

Shortly thereafter, I was also the recipient of an ANOLON Nouvelle Copper 4 Quart Covered Casserole. And I love it, too -- for the size, beautiful tulip shape, and a base that includes a copper core (layered between aluminum and magnetized stainless steel, making it suitable for all cooktops).  It is oven safe to 500° F and made from hard anodized aluminum twice as hard as stainless steel with a non-stick interior that is metal utensil safe.  The stainless steel handles attached using innovative flat-rivet (no place for food to stick on the inside) technology and the elegant close-fitting lid are real bonuses. OPA!

Here's the best part (after several trials):  Because of that non-stick interior and even heat distribution/reduced "hot spots," I do not have to constantly monitor the food I am cooking to make sure that it won't burn at the bottom of the pot. The ANOLON website  says that it "delivers effortless food release and easy cleaning" -- and that is so true!  This pot has revolutionized my current kitchen with both it's advanced features and versatility. Most importantly, it's perfect for cooking Greek dishes like lamb or beef and vegetables (green beans, zucchini, peas, and/or okra) with tomatoes...Double OPA!

NOTE: The vintage Guardian Service pot that my Yiayia probably bought at a Tupperware-type gathering about 80 years ago (with its first-edition Knight's helmet and crossed swords design on the lid) has been safely retired -- at least for the time being -- to the cabinet above my refrigerator...If you have any of your mother or grandmother's Guardian Service pots or pans, please send us a photo. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

More Yiayias in Chimayo & Los Chavez, NM + Chiles for Athens, Greece!

There always seems to be yet another yiayia (grandmother) in the picture...Like Tina Martinez, a cultivator of chilies among other things in Chimayo on the High Road to Taos (30 miles north of Santa Fe on State Road 76). And Nellie Herrera, the matriarch of Damasio's Chili* Shack run by her son Richard in Los Chavez (or Belen, 32 miles south of Albuquerque on State Road 314). I was lucky to meet both in my recent New Mexico travels. 

Teresita & Tina Martinez
I met Tina and her daughter Teresita while they cheerfully sold their powdered red chile peppers and a few other things at the Santa Fe Market. The bright purple shirts they wore accentuated an unmistakable mother-daughter connection. Tina's family has been cultivating chiles since the 1800's in Chimayo, a town known both for a legendary Sanctuario with holy healing dirt and Heirloom chiles with special powers of their own. Tina challenged me to buy her chile to compare w/that of another seller I had just bought from; Tina's did look more orange, a sign of being sun-dried rather than oven-roasted. She also sold me some chicos (dried corn, smaller than pozole), which I had never noticed before stangely enough...The Martinezes lamented that I would not be around for the upcoming ristra-making season. So did I!

Nellie Herrera
A few days later, I finally located Damacio's -- also a U-Haul Store -- after a circuitous drive down the original El Camino Real. There I was greeted by Nellie Herrera with the bad news that the Hatch green chile harvest was late and there was no crushed green pepper for me -- not in the bin, the backroom or even the kitchen. For now some crushed and whole dried hot Sandia chiles would have to suffice, along with one pound of pozole. She said that their best seller was Estancia Pinto Beans, and they looked mighty fine. Husband Frank gave me the low-down on where to find Judy Chicago's studio near the Harvey House train museum...Then I noticed a slim cookbook on the counter that had been put together by a local home economist. Recipes and Recuerdos includes "Grandma Nina's Recipe" for Natillas (custard) that Nellie had submitted to preserve a generations-old family recipe. That revelation made my day!

NOTE: The Herreras also revealed that every 3-4 months they send 50 lbs. of dried chiles to someone for a restaurant in Athens. They just don't know the name of the restaurant...Stay tuned!

*In NM, the spelling is chile and chiles. Damacio's seems to have gone with the AP Stylebook chili and chilies version.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Yiayia Maria's Kitchen of Albuquerque...just Ring Bell For Baklava!

A column in the ABQ Alibi entitled "Turkish Delight, the Decadence of Baklava" jumped out at me -- especially the paragraph touting Yiayia Maria's Baklava as "Best in town, hands down." Had to have it and find out more about Yiayia Maria!

So yesterday we drove to Yiayia Maria's Kitchen in an Albuquerque industrial neighborhood where the baklava and other all-natural Greek pastries are made, sold and shipped. Kevin Mallory greeted us and told us about his grandmother from Metsovo -- coming to America circa 1935, and returning for a visit got stuck in Greece during WW II -- and her remarkable, resilient life with affection and pride. At one point, she was the head of the American Red Cross in Washington, DC...The motivating factor for a bakery was to keep Maria Nikopoulos' memory alive by perpetuating her recipes. She loved to bake and give her Greek cookies to family, friends and neighbors...and "who doesn't love cookies," Kevin said.

Yiayia Maria's baklava -- a dessert from Ottoman times, but is it really Turkish? -- is hand-made with 30 layers of organic phyllo, coarsely chopped walnuts and almonds, "lemony honey married to cinnamon," and a signature clove in the center of each piece.  Totally awesome...sorry you couldn't join me for the taste test!

When I mentioned my love for my own Yiayia's melomakarona (finikia), Kevin immediately offered me a box of Yiayia Maria's "Decadent Finikia." Kevin enjoys sharing family stories and cookies, just like his Yiayia did. 

You can try Yiayia Maria's Greek pastries yourself by ordering online, or by going in person to 740 Rankin Road in ABQ (8 am - 3 pm). And don't forget the totally addictive finikia, which melt in your mouth -- and are still my all-time favorite Yiayia treat (with or without syrup).

Bon appetite...or, as they say in the Old Country, Kali Orexi!

NOTE: The baklava at Anatolia Turkish & Mediterranean Grill at 313 Central Ave. NW was pretty good, too...I actually ate there on my birthday -- it's all Greek to me!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Keeping it simple and real w/ Brownie Brittle and Fage Greek Yogurt

For weeks since attending BlogHerFood in Miami, I have pondered the out-sized focus on food photography --  seriously considering buying an iPhone at one point just for that reason and setting up some sort of style table in my apartment even while questioning the necessity of it all. Thank goodness for The New York Times article "Your Eyes Are Happier Than Your Stomach" (Dishes Worthy of Instagram, but Not Your Appetite) published last week to put things back in the proper perspective.

Are photos more important than substance, with an implied and sometimes audible disdain for authenticity and/or spontaneity?  The Times article tackled the issue of restaurants pandering to "photo journalism" (so-to-speak), with increased plating space in kitchens and dishes over-designed for social media -- all of which can result in cold, not so tasty food.  Should I worry more about the sophistication of my photos than the authenticity of food I might want to report on or prepare?  Is there any good reason not to publicize something simple and real?

Paula's Delight
To that end, I tackled my craving for Sheila G's Brownie Brittle pieces mixed w/plain Fage Strained Greek Yogurt and fresh fruit, minus any razzle-dazzle.  I share Sheila G's obsession with crunchy edges and am a fan of Fage's dense deliciosity with little sugar content. Add fresh raspberries, which traditionally go well with chocolate, and you have a treat akin to a Dairy Queen Blizzard -- but significantly healthier. It's delightfully yummy and super-easy to put together. The photo says it all...really.

NOTE: While living in Greece circa 1968-78, I bought the terra cotta pot pictured above full of yogurt. That's how we got our yogurt, covered with a parchment-like paper not unlike that covering Fage yogurt beneath the plastic lid.  Turns out that Kalypso Greek Yogurt today sells its yogurt -- available only in New York City and Long Island -- in terra cotta pots to preserve and protect a product that has been strained until 97% of the whey has been removed.  Gotta get me some of that!

Monday, June 30, 2014

King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Bread = "Greek Toast" any day of the week!

Always wondered about King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Bread, as it silently called to me from countless grocery bread racks over the years. Recently, I had a chance to try it, and my worst fears were confirmed: I can easily toast some of that bread and think I am eating "Greek Toast" made with tsoureki bread any day of the week! 

Tsoureki is a braided sweet bread made with eggs, milk and butter, usually by your Yiayia (grandmother) twice a year. It is traditionally served on Easter with a red hard-boiled egg or 2 or 3 planted on top, or on New Year's Day as a "Vassilopita" with a lucky coin in it. I always look forward to toasting leftover tsoureki for breakfast and eating it with feta cheese. "Greek Toast" can easily become addictive.

The rest of the year there is usually no tsoureki and thus no "Greek Toast," unless you bake it yourself or are able to score a Jewish challah bread. But there is always King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Bread -- which comes in dinner rolls and sandwich rolls, as well as a large round bread and sliced bread. If you are on a budget, the small package of 4 dinner rolls will do just fine; I cut that square loaf into six neat slices. When toasting it, I savored the unmistakable scent of tsoureki.  And voila, "Greek Toast!"

Paula's Greek Toast
Tried it immediately with feta cheese, of course -- and, yes, real Greeks do eat olives for breakfast...Also tried it with orange marmalade and, for good measure, I slathered a slice with "Bees Knees" peanut butter w/honey. If I had some tzatziki handy, I would have tried that, too. Indeed, King's Hawaiian Sweet Bread Sandwich Rolls would probably make for fabulous gyro sandwiches. But for now, let's just keep it simple: King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Bread = "Greek Toast" any day of the week!

NOTE: “This post is part of my entry in to the KING’S HAWAIIAN® Go PupuleTM Recipe Sweepstakes. For details on how you too can enter for a chance to win the sweepstakes prize by entering the KING’S HAWAIIAN® Go PupuleTM Recipe Sweepstakes, go here:”

Sunday, June 29, 2014

There may be a Greek food truck in your future!

My disappointment in the outcome of tonight's Greece-Costa Rica soccer game was somewhat assuaged by finding The Original Greek food truck parked in my neighborhood. Michael from Cleveland and Karpathos (located between Crete and Rhodes) had been too busy to follow the game to conclusion. I gave him the bad news, and we wished that Greece had taken better advantage of the great opportunity it had. Greeks in Greece could have sure used a second soccer celebration...

Mom's Spinach Pies
I had seen the truck last weekend and was thinking either spinach pie (they looked so good!) or moussaka for dinner -- both reasonably priced as are the calamari, saganaki, and Greek fries w/feta. Michael's mother makes most of the truck's food, and this week it was pastitsio instead of moussaka. The seasonings were nicely-balanced both in the chopped meat filling and bechamel sauce. Nothing worse than pastitsio or moussaka that has been dumbed down seasoning-wise in fear that someone might not like it.

Michael and his real gyro!
Next time I might try the gyro sandwich, and for good reason.  Michael makes gyro the right way, by actually pressing individual pieces of steak meat down on a spit (see photo) and then trimming the edges off when they are cooked. Nowadays, too many Greek establishments use a large prefab gyro of pressed meat and the cuttings are smooth and not terribly tasty. Soon there will be spits for pork and chicken in that blue food truck, too -- OPA!

NOTE: The Original Greek food truck will be in Plantation and Pt. Lucie (Tradition Square) this coming week. And on the 4th of July at Royal Palm Beach Commons, 11 am - 8 pm. Just look for that blue truck, hopefully somewhere near me next Sunday. Call 305-501-1352 for more info and for catering services, or tweet to @originalgreekfl.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

I do luv peanut butter, even if it's not exactly Greek!

Addictive Stragalia
Not that Greeks don't eat peanuts, they do. Salty things go particularly well with ouzo. So do most nuts and roasted chick peas called "stragalia."  Those little gems are totally addictive and can either be bought at your nearest Middle Eastern grocery store or roasted at home with various spices -- crunchy AND spicy!  If a Greek child is going to spread anything nutty on bread, it will be the hazelnut-chocolate spread "Nutella." 

But they mostly likely have not yet tried "Dark Chocolate Dreams" by Peanut Butter & Company.  I met PB&C reps at the recent BlogHerFood in Miami, and they were kind enough to share a few of their 10 natural peanut butters with me.  "Dark Chocolate Dreams" was awesome on strawberries and would probably be even better on bananas. "The Bees Knees" peanut butter w/honey is another version that might make many Greeks happy.  I do luv peanut butter, and no-stir "Crunch Time" fits right into my (unfortunate) eat-it-with-a-spoon mentality.

And along came something totally different -- "The Heat is On," an all-natural peanut butter "blended with fiery spices" and right up my alley. And fiery it is -- peanuts blended with chili powder, cayenne peppers, crushed red peppers, paprika, palm fruit oil, vinegar and salt (and also gluten free, vegan and kosher like their other peanut butters). Hot stuff!

Paula's Rojak Plate
So I immediately thought of "Rojak," a sauce/spread including crunchy peanut butter, chili sauce, and crushed red pepper that I have made for many years from a recipe taken originally from Sunset magazine and adjusted over time. It's also something totally different and not difficult to put together -- and people usually like it served with carrot sticks and other raw veggies. The dish Rojak is actually more complicated than just the spread or sauce that might be served on it. But when my version is put on vegetables and/or fruit, it does square with rojaks made in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia...

Here is my newly-readjusted version of "Rojak" using PB&C peanut butters: 1/3 c. "The Heat is On," 1/3 c. "Crunch Time," 3 T. firmly packed brown sugar, 1/4 c. lemon juice, 4 T. ketchup (catsup), and 1/2 t. soy sauce. You can adjust the amount of hot peanut butter accordingly or add the aforementioned spices to regular peanut butter...and I am wondering how 1-2 T. tamarind paste instead of lemon juice might taste. In any case, mix and enjoy with carrot sticks and apple slices.

NOTE: It's all Greek to me!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Greek Tarama prospers in Paris -- who knew?!

I have always loved "Taramasalata" or simply Tarama -- a Greek caviar spread made basically with fish roe blended with bread (or mashed potatoes), olive oil, and lemon juice. It goes very well with ouzo and seems to be somewhat of an acquired taste in the U.S. (just like ouzo)...and is certainly cheaper than pure caviar, I might add.

Grand Epicerie
So when in Paris recently, I was flabbergasted to find a variety of Taramas in a variety of stores, from the Bon Marche's Grand Epicerie (VII) to La Maree Beauvau traiteur in the historic Beauvais Market (XII) to the Franprix supermarket near our hotel on Rue Duret (XVI) -- proof-positive that the French really do know something about food, AND how to save money! 

(I suffered a similar shock when I first visited Canada and discovered "tzatziki" in almost every supermarket throughout Ontario. But there is only one kind of tzatziki, as long as you add enough dill - no matter how you cut or grate the cucumbers or how much garlic you add, and even though the commercial versions often include cream cheese and other strange things.)

Franprix Taramas
Here are the roe-based taramas I found in Paris:  Rose (regular pink), Ouefs de Cabillaud Sauvage (wild cod eggs), Corail d'Oursin (w/coral sea urchin), Piment d'Espilette (w/Basque chili pepper), Blanc (white w/cream or white cheese), Oeufs de Truite (trout eggs), Crabe (w/crab), and one made with Boutarque Memmi (dried mullet roe preserved in wax that is often shaved by chefs and used in lieu of Parmesan cheese).  In the end, I had to be settle for the basic pink tarama that Mr. Antonis of "Au P-Tit Grec" slathered onto a galette for my last meal in Paris.    

Amazingly enough, I discovered an 8 oz. jar of Krinos prepared Taramasalata (w/carp roe) in my downtown Miami neighborhood Price Choice Supermarket, which also has delightful seafood department with many off-beat offerings. My own rule of thumb is that if you can see the orange fish eggs in any "prepared" Taramasalata, it needs to be further blended and balanced with wet bread, olive oil (preferably Greek Koroneiki) and lemon juice until it thins out and is not too salty. (The Oriental Bakery & Grocery on Coral Way also carries the Krinos pure carp roe Tarama, which means you have to start the blend from scratch using the ingredients listed above.)

Today's re-blended batch will be tasted by the Miami Shores Library Recipe/Travel Book Club on Thursday. Let's see what they say...

Paula's Tarama
NOTE: We have been reading Eurydice Street (A Place in Athens) by Sofka Zinovieff (2004), an authentic and well-written memoir by a British anthropologist who married a Greek man and moved w/2 small children to an Athens suburb. It brought back many memories of my 10 years in Thessaloniki and updated me, too. Many things have changed, but some things will never change -- OPA!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"La Picada" is simply elegant!

Recently I got caught up in finding an appropriate dish for a wine-tasting featuring the Bonarda grape -- the second most grown red grape in Argentina next to Malbec (even though both come originally from Italy and France).

It took only moments to discover the Argentine "Picada" on Google. Picadas are not complicated. They can be small with 1-2 items for a nibble before dinner. Or quite large and elegant, making up an entire meal. And everything is simple and easily obtainable. The beauty is in the presentation.

Oft-mentioned ingredients: cured meats (including hard salamis and ham), cheeses (including Laughing Cow wedges), green olives (not-pitted), peanuts, bread-sticks, potato chips, and pickled veggies. Cheeses and ham should be cubed. Roll-ups of salami and cheese are the most labor-intensive. The fun is in arranging everything on a platter or cutting board.

My Picada consisted of peanuts, cured pork loin, sesame bread-sticks, smoked Provolone cheese rolled in Sopressa salami,  green olives stuffed with (a hint of) Blue cheese, and Danish Fontina (which was fabulous w/the Bonarda). Tooth picks, of course, abounded.

I loved putting my Picada together. And something that seems common was both beautiful and satisfying -- like a Super Meze Plate. To that I say, "OLE!"

NOTE: One of the wine favorites was sustainably-produced Santa Julia "Innovacion" 2013 (90% Bonarda, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon)  -- a one liter bottle going for about $10 at Whole Foods...

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Friday is for fishy stuff, how about calamari w/rice?

Yesterday was Friday, which is traditionally a day for fish among Greeks. So I walked down to a neighborhood supermarket here in downtown Miami where there is always an unusual array of seafood, including cooked octopus and wild-caught smelts. I even discovered the makings for tarama in the deli box near the yoghurt, a bonus! 

5" squids (calamari) caught my eye, and I immediately thought of calamari w/rice and tomatoes. Spinach or leeks w/rice -- which I enjoyed many times in my 10 years living in Thessaloniki -- are a typical Greek comfort food and fasting dish, especially during Lent. Squid, like octopus and shellfish, qualify for Lenten dishes because they do not have spines or bleed...I had never made the rice w/calamari, so I consulted my current favorite Greek cookbook and veritable fount of information, The Olive and The Caper by Susanna Hoffman.

"Spinach Pilaf" on p. 239 addresses the gamut of rice w/various -- including shrimp, snails or's an easy dish to make: sauté one medium, finely-chopped onion and 1 cup short-grained rice in 3T of olive oil until translucent; stir in 1 cup of tomatoes and their juices; cover and reduce heat to cook for about 12 minutes. 5 minutes before rice is ready, add 1 cup of washed and cut-up squid. When all is cooked, stir in 2T chopped fresh dill, 2T chopped fresh mint, 3T chopped flat-leafed parsley, 1t lemon zest, 3T lemon juice, pinch of ground nutmeg, 1t salt, and 1/2 t ground pepper. Remove from the heat, fluff and serve.

Being on a use-what-you-have-on-hand kick, I used about 1t freshly dried dill (leftover from making tzatziki 2 weeks ago) and 1t dried mint (culled a few weeks ago from a live Mojito Mint plant). No parsley. And no lemon zest, just about 1-2 T. lemon juice. No salt, especially since I used canned tomatoes. It took longer to cook w/the squid, and I added water to extend the process. Next time I will add the squid from the beginning and perhaps cut them into narrower rings. Or I might take a tip from Alice Waters' The Chez Panisse Restaurant Menu Cookbook and sauté the squid for 1-2 minutes before adding it (per  a recipe for "Squid w/Leeks and Red Wine"). 

The real key -- as for many Greek dishes -- is a balance of herbs/spices and lemon juice. So taste and adjust as needed. The dill, mint and lemon are really wonderful with these rice dishes. And the finished product really made my day -- OPA!

NOTE: My vegan friends can add 3 lbs. of washed, torn-into-small-pieces spinach (to a larger pot, it will cook down) OR 2 bunches of leeks (minus stem ends and green parts) when adding the tomatoes -- then cook as proscribed.