PASPALAS: The Flavor-enhancing Rustic Pork Confit

Like many foods we grew up with and take for granted, I have somehow overlooked until now the humble fried bits of pork we use in Kea as general flavoring for greens and any vegetable or bean dish. It is prepared each winter with leftover scraps of pork and fat, after the traditional slaughtering and butchering of the family pig. In the old days, the bits were heavily salted so that they wouldn’t spoil as they were stored in clay jars, to be used throughout the year. Costas calls paspalas ‘the Kea bacon,’ but unlike bacon it is not smoked and it is already fried when you use it to flavor eggs and other dishes.

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The importance of this rustic flavoring became apparent when I prepared it in the kitchen of Zaytinya—Jose Andres’ Greek and Middle Eastern restaurant, in Washington DC. Last month we were trying traditional winter dishes from Kea and other Cycladic islands, for a pork and xinomavro wine feast, and Chef Michael Costa was immediately taken by paspalas’ intense and versatile flavor. We made several batches, using pieces of locally grown pork that the chef and his sous-chefs butchered in the kitchen. Besides the Kean scrambled eggs–also called ‘paspalas’ –we filled jars with the pork confit for future use. Bonnie Benwick, from the Washington Post got enamored with it, as well as with the eponymous scrambled eggs from Kea, that she made the dish famous in her column! (more…)

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My Fragrant Roasted Chicken

I rarely roast chicken, since here on the island we get the worst and cheapest kind from the mainland, or the old-fashioned, tough local roosters that need to cook slowly in a broth…

Costas picked me up at the airport when I returned from my US trip, last week, and while we waited for the ferry we got this free-range chicken at the well-stocked Lavrion supermarket, near the port.

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I haven’t roasted a bird since Christmas, I realized. Looking around in the kitchen I decided to make my basic flavoring paste using preserved lemons—I have lots from last year and I am ready to make more—garlic of course, and also oranges. Costas has filled our large wooden trough with delicious fruits from our neighbor Maria’s garden. Our overgrown rosemary bushes need trimming, so I used some of the fragrant sprigs in my roast.

See the Recipe: Roasted Chicken with Rosemary and a Preserved Lemon, Garlic, and Orange Paste

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Comforting Cauliflower

For many years roasting was the only way I cooked the cauliflowers I got from my Saturday farmers’ market in Athens. But when we moved to Kea I was faced with a completely different kind of cauliflower. The huge heads my neighbor Maria grows in her family’s organic garden are so delicious that we can’t stop eating them. But I have to invent a lot of recipes to use them up, especially consume their considerably long but perfectly tender stems; just serving the florets, boiled as a salad, as is the custom here, is a really shame…

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Starting from the flavorings of the previous salad, the garlic and the anchovies, I decided to make a gratin-like dish using the creamy but light béchamel I have developed for my moussaka–with olive oil and yogurt. To it I add the mashed in the blender cauliflower stems, and the resulting sauce is smooth and thick, ready to turn golden brown in the oven. We are addicted to this winter dish that uses all the parts of the cauliflower, and is comforting without being heavy as some traditional French gratin dishes can be. (more…)

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My Cauliflower Re-invention

As a kid cauliflower was one of my least favorite winter vegetables. The stench, as it cooked in a large pot of water for considerable time—my father liked it well-cooked, almost mushy–lingered for hours, if not days in the kitchen of our Athens apartment. Of course my mother didn’t know that the longer you cook the cauliflower and its cousins– the cabbage, the Brussels spouts etc.–the worse they smell. My father, who knew nothing about cooking, insisted that she should add celery leaves in the water; but we often didn’t have any to add, or my mother knew that it wouldn’t eliminate the smell, so this became the cause for a shouting match. No wonder neither I nor my sister looked forward to cauliflower salad.

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When I started to cook in my kitchen I tried to learn more about each of the vegetables, especially about the ones that I remember as challenging. There was no instant internet search then. I had to look up books and ask my scientist friends. I found that steaming the cauliflower florets—something not common in traditional Greek kitchens–was a big improvement; very little smell. But roasting it in the oven was a revelation! Practically no smell, especially if I added a few branches of thyme or oregano; and the roasted cauliflower was delicious, even without dressing! (more…)

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Silky Cheese Pies: Steamed and Baked

Croatian štrukli struck me, to put it simply. If ever there were a dish that connects the phyllo-wrapped pies of Eastern Europe and the Middle East with Italian stuffed pasta, štrukli is it. A recipe by Bozena, a Croatian from Melbourne started me on my štrukli adventure. I rolled a quite large sheet of phyllo, spread the cheese filling all over it, then carefully rolled it – more precisely I folded the sheet several times over the filling – to create a long log. Up to this point there was nothing unusual or new about this pie, as similar shaped pies are commonly formed in Turkey and the Balkans, then coiled and baked in a pan.

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But for this Croatian pie the roll was then cut into pieces, which were boiled and finally browned in the oven. I was afraid that in cutting the pieces the filling would ooze out. It did not, however, as the soft, resilient, home-rolled phyllo successfully sealed the edges as I cut the pieces with the dough scraper. But I didn’t like the look of the pieces I carefully boiled in softly simmering water. Some of the filling dissolved into the water and my intention was not to create a tasty broth. (more…)

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