The Original 19c. Pasticcio from Syros

Greeks love pasticcio (or pastitsio), a dish of ground meat cooked with onions in a cinnamon-scented tomato sauce which is mixed with macaroni, cheese and béchamel, then baked topped with more béchamel. It is our version of Macaroni and Cheese, a comforting filling dish that mothers bake for their kids even when they are grownups… 

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Although its name is Italian (it means, literally, “a mess”), pasticcio as such does not exist in Italy, but its roots are in the elaborate old timbales—pastry-enrobed pasta, meat, vegetable and egg pies prepared there for special occasions. When I first visited Kythera, the island at the edge between the Aegean and the Ionian Sea, which divides Greece and Italy, I asked around about local dishes; the standard answer I received was “You must find the recipe for the Venetian Pasticcio”. Pasticcio, of course, is a dish prepared all over Greece and if you have visited the country, you have probably seen it listed on the menu of a tavern or restaurant.

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A Leafy Sweet Pie from Provence (Tourte de Blettes)

CHARD-Tourte-INGR---Piece1-This is an unusual dessert from Provence where chard leaves are the main ingredient, complemented by pears and raisins or currants, soaked in Pernod, the anise-flavored liquor. The pastry has yeast, olive oil and eggs, and is scented with lemon zest.

My recipe is based on the Tourte de Blettes posted by Camille Oger. In her very interesting blog Le Manger she collects recipes from France and from Asia. She is an anthropologists interested in the roots and history of the dishes. Her introductions to the recipes are often fascinating, but unfortunately only some of them, the ones from Asia, are also in English while those from France are only in French.

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Chards are used in sweet pies or turnovers in Catalonia and also on the Greek island of Tinos. In my book The Foods of the Greek Islands I have a recipe for the delicious Seskoulopita, the fried chard turnovers. In my head-note I write: “Cooks on the island of Tinos use the leaves of Swiss chard the way Westerners use rhubarb, tucking them into these festive turnovers. Traditionally made for Christmas, these turnovers are fried and sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.”

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Octopus, Calamari, and Classical Music

Octopus, cuttlefish, and calamari replace meat during the forty days of Lent preceding Easter giving us one more excuse to enjoy our beloved cephalopods!

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Schools close for two weeks for Easter in Greece, which we celebrate on May 1st this year. But when I was growing up Easter was the most frustrating ‘vacation.’ Theaters and cinemas were dark during holy week, except for the few that showed the Passion of Christ and other biblical-Hollywood films, which we ended up seeing repeatedly.

Most were low budget black and white movies, which my friends and I identified with code-names. One we called “the merci” because, although dubbed into Greek, Mary Magdalene in one scene thanked Christ in perfect French.  In another of those movies, dubbed ‘the bicycle,’ an anachronistic two-wheeler was clearly visible traversing the background of the frame during the climactic crucifixion scene. (more…)

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Recycling my Marmalade

We still have quite a few jars of perfectly delicious marmalade and various jams from years past, I realized as I was arranging in my cupboards the new pots of Seville orange marmalade I made last week. Besides offering to friends, using it as an ingredient –instead of sugar—in cakes and breads, I thought that maybe I could use these leftover marmalades to make some kind of fruit ‘cheese,’ or a locum (Turkish delight). These intensely citrus-flavored pastes would surely make bites infinitely more interesting than the usual colored rose-water, I thought.

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Looking up recipes, I was sure somebody else had probably thought of thickening a jam to create fruity bites, but I didn’t find anything on the web, so I decided to improvise, starting from the basic recipes for Turkish delights. (more…)

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A Spicy, Versatile Meat Sauce

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Ground meat, from the local free-range veal of the island, is something that I use a lot. The dark red meat is delicious, but quite tough and stringy, and for that reason I prefer to choose a nice piece, usually soon after my butcher has slaughtered an animal, and mince the meat somewhat coarsely. Unlike most of our neighbors, I rarely make Keftedes, but sometimes I do make my kind of burger, mixing the minced meat with bacon, onion, herbs and plenty of breadcrumbs or ground rolled oats.

Spicy Ground Meat is one of the latest all-purpose sauces I try to have in my fridge or freezer, divided into cups. (more…)

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With Garden Castoffs and Leftovers

I have almost forgotten the last time I thought of a dish first, and then went to buy the necessary ingredients.

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The radish seeds we planted in January grew tall, lush leaves but no radishes. ‘There was some problem with the seeds,” said our friend at the nursery when I asked him if the reason was my putting too many in a small space. “Take them out and throw them to the neighbor’s sheep,” he said, offering to give me new, guaranteed radish seeds. But the greens were wonderful, tender, crunchy and somewhat spicy, so I braised them with garlic, adding slices of the delicious, smoked local sausage I got from Petros, the butcher at the port. I complemented the dish with some of the half-cooked wheat berries or farro (see the Note HERE) that I keep in the freezer. We loved this dish of greens and grains, flavored with pepper flakes and turmeric, and drizzled with lemon juice.

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I probably will never be able to make it again, though, as I doubt that I will be able to grow this kind of mock-radish greens anytime soon.

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My Green Taramosalata

Lately I have moved from rengosalata –smoked herring or kipper spread— our family’s traditional Kathari Deftera spread, back to the common taramostalata –carp or cod roe spread.

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Fortunately, we can now get good quality carp roe, a far cry from the salty and tasteless, red-dyed one, that was the basic ingredient for the iconic meze. I guess my mother had chosen to make the more time-consuming smoked herring spread because she couldn’t stand the pink, salty, yet flavorless taramosalata that the majority of taverns and homes served.

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She prepared rengosalata using the roe of smoked herring (kipper) carefully choosing a herring with swollen belly to make sure it had enough roe for the spread. In the turn of the 20th century wealthy Athenians used Russian caviar, or avgotarraho for the iconic, elegant Kathari Deftera meze. (more…)

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Instant Pies with Greens or with Chocolate and Nuts

Skillet pies –tiganokouloures or tiganopsoma in Greek, and gözleme or saç böreği in Turkish— have become our everyday project these days.

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There are three reason for this late obsession of ours: First because Costas has almost completely mastered the art of rolling perfect phyllo and he is eager to use his new skill as often as possible; second, we gather plenty of wonderful, juicy spinach as well as chervil, fennel and other aromatic herbs from the garden; the third, and probably the most important reason of these repeated attempts is the newly acquired electric saç (hot-plate) that I brought from Istanbul.

Not that skillet pies cannot be cooked perfectly on a griddle or ridged skillet. They are ingenious creations of the frugal Mediterranean cooks who prepared in minutes a delicious snack or meal with whatever they happened to have at hand: wild or cultivated greens and herbs, grated zucchini or squash, eggplant, pepper or even cooked grains or beans, usually flavored with cheese and/or sausage. The recipe I have in my Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts can be prepared in any kitchen, either here, or on the other side of the Atlantic. And this has been proven, since David Tanis chose to publish it at the New York Times, calling it ‘Greek Pie on the Skinny Side’.

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Cabbage Revisited: with Dried Mint and Other Spices

We had just gotten an enormous cabbage from our neighbor’s garden and I was contemplating using the outer leaves to make lahano-dolmades –stuffed cabbage leaves— or maybe my simpler stuffed cabbage logs.

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Then I saw Ozlem Warren’s recipe for kapuska, a kind of de-constructed stuffed cabbage leaves, where cabbage, ground meat and bulgur are braised together. I also remembered that in my book The Foods of the Greek Islands (published in 2000) I had a kapuska recipe from Chios; it was pork with cabbage in a fragrant, and spicy tomato sauce.

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Here is what I wrote in the head-note:

“This dish is called kapuska in Olympi, an unspoiled medieval village on the island of Chios. The word is probably Slavic, and it is also used in Turkey for a similar dish. (more…)

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A Pie-like Stuffed Bread with Broccoli

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As it often happens with my garden’s vegetables, I forgot to cut the broccoli when it was still hard and firm. Now it had opened and was soon going to fill with tiny yellow flowers, but I knew that this didn’t mean it wasn’t still delicious. I separated the stems from the very tender tops, and cooked them in boiling water for about ten minutes; I added the tops and cooked for another four minutes, then drained everything through a fine colander.

There was quite a bit of green mash at the bottom of the colander, from the over-ripe florets. I diced the stems, added the green mash and decided to use it as stuffing for breads. I was inspired by Scacciata con i Broccoli, a Sicilian stuffed focaccia from Catania originally made with the purple, very flavorful broccoli that was once the only kind we had in Greece. (more…)

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