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January 1, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Celebrating St. Basil

in vegetarian

and the New Year: Fresh Greek with a San Francisco Twist

Pretty much all I ever do is dream about when I’ll get back to Greece. Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true — I do think about story ideas and what to make for breakfast the next morning when I have friends staying over or if I really do need that new sweater, but often, underneath it all, I’m remembering the Mediterranean and feta and long afternoons on a rocky beach with a sun that nearly always shines hotly down but never feels too harsh. If you choose to go the island route you’ll most likely be blessed with balmy breezes and the gentle slap slap of the water against the sea-wall near to where you sit with your morning frappe (or maybe that’s just me) but the mountains are equally lovely. Up north, goats drift through the woods and you can hear the bells as you drink cold water from a spring (water that’s colder, almost, than in the high mountains of Yosemite) and nibble cucumbers. Or if you go to Halkidiki you can ride a mykanaki all round the peninsula and tumble in late for thick, salty tatziki and a cold glass of retsina or two.

OK, fine: I do really think about Greece more often than not. Can you blame me?


[Spetses, 2007.]

I have written before of sweet, sweet Spetses and my visit there so very long ago (last August, but must I really be forced to remember just how long ago that was?). It was, in a word, fairly perfect. This was the trip I finally gained a true appreciation of feta, consumed more than my fair share of olives and pistachio nuts, and sunned myself until I didn’t think I could sun any more (note: impossible). Here in San Francisco we’ve been plagued with days of rain and fog which is quite lovely in its own right but is poor consolation when you’re dreaming of a dusty, sun-bleached landscape and a warm ocean.

So last night, to help jump me over what was quickly turning into a self-indulgent bout of nostalgia, what I did was: I threw a new year’s party to conjure, for a few hours, my little dream of Greece. I couldn’t catch a plane ‘cross the oceans and continents to that beloved place so instead I cooked. I mean, it’s a strange day when cooking doesn’t manage to soothe and comfort and as it’s been a long year for most of us I wanted to cook things that were comforting, calm, delicious — and full of the flavors of Greece. I invited all and sundry — some San Francisco friends and some friends from way back — cajoled my brother into helping me cook, and we put on a feast.

We started with

my usual lemony hummus
assorted cheeses and bread
spanakopita (traditional Greek phyllo-spinach pastry)
dolmas (grape leaves)
olives

And continued on to

chicken roasted in olive oil and rosemary, with orzo and fingerling potatoes
lots of little red roasted potatoes
black eyed pea, tomatoes and chard stew
green beans sauteed in olive oil and lemon
gratin of tomatoes, zucchini and potatoes
eggplant with feta and tomatoes
tzatziki

And finished with

baklava
Greek new year’s cookies
vasilopita

When I devised this menu I had two things in my mind: simple and satisfying. Now, I’m not much of a meat cooker (and, yes, I did obsess over what kind of chicken to buy because it had to be local and free-range, I mean of course. I went with a Rosie, from Petaluma, though I did agonize over it a bit due to Michael Pollan’s critique in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and I promise in the future to make a more educated choice — perhaps, say, from my neighborhood farmers’ market). I wanted to incorporate some of the favorite dishes from my own family — dad’s special grape leaves and mom’s spanakopita — and also I wanted to create a well-rounded plate sparkling with color and freshness. The green beans, I’ll admit, are not necessarily a Greek dish but with all that good cheese and potatoes I knew we needed something a little lighter (Kurt’s eggplant I hear was superb though as I always refrain from eggplant I took a pass). And I will tell you I was quite pleased to discover a black-eyed pea dish in my cookbook (black-eyed peas being synonymous with luck when eaten on new year’s).

I haven’t thrown a party for such a crowd in a very long time — unofficial estimates put the group at around 20 or more — and I thoroughly enjoyed (and stuffed) myself. There was lots of laughing, lots of champagne, lots of reminiscing on 2008 and, of course, lots of good food.

Last year I wrote an article for the Chronicle about St. Basil’s day, which is celebrated by Greeks on January 1. St Basil was one the forefathers of the Greek Orthodox Church and is remembered each as being kind to the poor and children (as, one would hope, were they all). This year, because I hosted a party, I baked a the vasilopita, the traditional new year’s cake, tucked a coin inside (whoever find the coin also receives special luck for the next year), and made my brother cut it (traditionally the man of the household does this and who better to do so than my little brother?) into thin slices for all my guests. At midnight we dug into a piece of cake and toasted to better days ahead.

(I don’t think anyone left hungry.)

I’m including some of the recipes I used last night, mostly drawn from Modern Greek, 170 contemporary recipes from the Mediterranean, which is my oft-used Greek cookbook not only because of the stunning photography on its pages. It includes recipes, as is my wont, that are a bit pared down and simple with dishes composed of clean, clear flavors. My Greek feast probably lacked a bit of authenticity (though we did have Greek feta, procured earlier in the day by my intrepid brother) since I wasn’t actually there in that much-missed country to gather up all the ingredients needed, but I do hope, on the very last day of a very long year, the food brought a bit of sun, a bit of sea and salt, and a bit of goodness to everyone who tasted it.

Χρόνια Πολλά! And cheers to 2009! It will be great, I know.

For your files …

Tzatziki

2 seedless cucumbers
6 cloves garlic peeled and crushed
4 cups plain, Greek-style yogurt
salt

Peel the cucumbers and grate. Place the cucumber in colander weighted down with a plate to drain for 15 minutes. Put the yogurt in a bowl and add the cucumber, garlic and salt and mix well.

Spanakopita

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 box phyllo
1 large onion, chopped
2 bunches spinach, coarsely chopped
8 green onions, finely chopped
12 ounces feta, cumbeled
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 Tb. olive oil

Blanch the spinach and drain, then remove to a large bowl and allow to cool. Add the other ingredients and mix well to combine.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil a 9×9 inch square baking pan. Place one sheet phyllo in the pan and brush with olive oil. Put half the phyllo in the pan, brushing each sheet with oil. Add all the filling and spread the remaining phyllo on top, brushing each with olive oil.

Bake for 40 minutes until golden brown.

Mavromatika Me Seskoula
Black-eyed pea and chard stew

1 cup dried black-eyed peas
12 ounces chard
3 Tb. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 onion, chopped
6 roma tomatoes, chopped
salt and pepper

Soak the peas overnight in cold water and drain. Wash the chard and trim the stems. Roughly chop stems and leaves. In a large pot, sautee the garlic, onion, and tomatoes on medium heat until the onion turns translucent.

Meanwhile, cover the the peas and chard with water and simmer for 20 minutes. Drain and add to the onions and garlic. Stir very well and season with salt and pepper.

Roasted potatoes

lots of small potatoes, red or fingerling, unpeeled
olive oil
salt

Preheat oven to 400 F. Wash the potatoes well and add to a large baking dish along with the olive oil and salt. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until tender but not mushy.

Baklava

1 lb. of chopped nuts (almonds, walnuts, or pistachios are best, or use a combination of them)
1 lb of phyllo dough
1 cup of butter, melted
1/3 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/3 teaspoon of ground cloves
8 ounces of honey, warmed but not boiling

Lightly grease a 9×13 pan and set the oven to 350°F.

Thaw the phyllo dough according to manufacturer’s directions. When thawed, roll out the dough and cut the dough in half so the sheets will fit in the pan. Cover with a damp towel to keep it from drying out.

Process the nuts until in small, even sized pieces. Combine with sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. In a separate bowl, melt the butter in the microwave.

Place a sheet of phyllo dough into the pan. Using a pastry brush, brush the phyllo sheet with melted butter. Repeat 7 more times until it is 8 sheets thick.

Spoon 1/4 cup nut mixture on the phyllo. Repeat first step and add more filling. Repeat until the phyllo is used up.

Cut into 28 triangles and bake for 30-35 minutes or until lightly golden brown, and edges appear slightly crisp.

Remove the baklava from the oven and pour the warm honey over it. Let cool and serve at room temperature.

Kourabiedes
Christmas shortcake

1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg yolk
1 2/3 cups flour

2/3 cups almonds finely chopped
1/2 tsp. baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and beat for a few more minutes. Add the flour, almonds, and baking powder and beat for a few more minutes until smooth.

Knead the mixture until it forms a smooth dough. Drop by teaspoons or form into crescent shapes on a baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes or until pale golden.

Vasilopita

1 cup butter
2 cups white sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
6 eggs
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup warm milk
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds
2 tablespoons white sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease a 10-inch round cake pan.

In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Stir in the flour and mix until the mixture is slightly mealy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Combine the baking powder and milk, add to the egg mixture and mix well. Combine the lemon juice and baking soda and stir into the batter. Pour into the prepared cake pan.

Sprinkle the nuts and sugar over the cake, and bake for about 45-50 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. Gently cut a small hole in the cake and place a foil-wrapped quarter in the hole.

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