February 2010

Charlotte Freeman

cookbookslut

Greece is the Word

Winter is long in Montana, although this year itís apparently not as long as it is in the rest of the country. As I type, itís snowing all over the East Coast, and here in the northern Rockies, itís 43 degrees, the sun is shining, and my dog is lying in the front yard soaking up the sunshine that we havenít seen since late October. †

Nonetheless, to fight the winter blues, Iíve turned these past few weeks to Greek food. All those sunny flavors: lemon, garlic, olive oil, oregano. The bright yellow of an avgolemono can go a long way toward keeping oneís head above water when the wind is blowing, and itís still getting dark at five oíclock. †

Although I grew up in Chicago, and made many a trip to Greektown where we took in the sights of waiters bearing flaming plates of cheese stacked up their arms, Greek food wasnít something we ever ate or cooked at home. It was my garden that turned me on to Greek cooking. Greens are one of the few things that grow like gangbusters here. That first year, when I was faced with bumper crops of chard and spinach and beet greens and kale, I ordered a bunch of Greek and Mediterranean cookbooks to figure out what to do with them. †

So it was with great pleasure that I greeted the arrival of these three new cookbooks at my door. I needed to expand my repertoire. And my sweetheart, The Man Who Doesnít Eat Vegetables, does like Greek food, thanks to the cooking skills of the mother of his high school girlfriend. Since Iím not very good at following recipes, what I want from a cookbook is general techniques that I can then apply to a host of different situations. All three of these books gave me plenty to play with on that front. †

Vefa Alexiadou's Vefaís Kitchen and Michael Psilakis's How To Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking were really fun to play off of one another. Vefaís Kitchen is one of the encyclopedic cookbooks that Phaidon does so well -- you can find all the favorite recipes that, say, your high school girlfriendís mother used to make, as well as a number of classics that have not yet made it into mainstream Greek-American cooking. How To Roast a Lamb contains many of those same dishes, revised by Michael Psilakis, who is both Greek-American and a real chef -- the man who elevated Greek restaurants in New York to fine dining. Theyíre terrific bookended, because you wind up with both basic technique and some really great tricks for making good recipes even better.†

There was one big hole in my recipe testing. I skipped the seafood recipes. While seafood is available from a couple of shops who source for the restaurant industry, itís expensive, and frankly, carries too many food miles for me. Both books contained a number of recipes that nearly broke down my reserve, and the next time I go visit my stepmother in Seattle, where thereís plenty of good local fish, I think Iíll be dragging these along. †

However, there were plenty of other things to experiment with. The biggest hit around here, and the one that will go into regular rotation, is ďMeatball Soup with Egg-Lemon Sauce.Ē The meatballs are spiced with garlic, onion, dill, mint, and contain uncooked rice -- when you poach them in broth, the rice plumps up and adds a marvelous lightness to these little wonders. While both Alexiadou and Psilakis make theirs with ground beef, we used ground lamb because weíd just bought half a lamb, and because thatís how the Sweetheart remembered his high school girlfriendís mother making them. You poach the meatballs for twenty or thirty minutes in broth, then make an avgolemono out of it. What you wind up with is an immensely cheerful bowl of creamy, lemony soup dotted with delicious meatballs. And if you make the avgolemono like Psilakisís mother did, by separating the eggs, and lightly whipping the egg whites, you wind up with a frothy soup as well. Itís delicious, dead easy, and the color alone is enough to get a person through the depths of winter. †

Michael Symonís Live to Cook, co-written with Michael Ruhlman, is a different animal altogether -- a reflection of Symon's Greek-Italian-Slovakian heritage, and the unexpectedly deep food traditions of his native Cleveland. Symon is in love with bright flavors, with grilling, and, most of all, with pork. His keftedes, those little meatballs that serve as an appetizer at most Mediterrenean gatherings, are finished with a shower of lemon zest and mint leaves, exactly the kinds of bold bright flavors that characterize his cooking. The ďSpicy Stuffed PeppersĒ were a big hit, although I had to replace the Hungarian hot peppers with fresh poblanos, since they were the only ones I could find around here. Whatís not to like about peppers, stuffed with sausage, grilled lightly and then finished in tomato sauce? Hot, porky, tomato-y. We ate them for dinner over spaghetti noodles and they were a big hit, and next summer I think these might be a go-to dish for barbecues and potlucks. His pierogi recipe is genius. The dough is a cinch to mix together, and although I used leftover pot roast instead of his (delicious-looking) beef cheeks for the filling, that was exactly why Iíve become a devotee of this recipe. The classic pierogi is filled with potatoes and cheese (which Iíve had to promise the Sweetheart that I will make for him), but what I love about this dough is that itís simple. Iím not so good at homemade pasta. I often have stuff that would make a good ravioli filling, but the idea of dragging out the pasta machine, well, it all seems sort of fiddly. This dough is easy to whip up, and to work with, and it cooks up beautifully. So, leftover pierogies are going on the regular menu. And Iím anxiously awaiting morel season, so I can try out the ďCrispy Gnocchi with Morels and Spring PeasĒ which looks fabulous. Another couple of months. †

I loved all three of these cookbooks. From each of them Iíve learned some solid new technique, whether itís how to work with avgolemono, or putting uncooked rice in meatballs, or how to make a pierogi dough. Also, each of these books contains flavor combinations I hadnít used so much before. Tomato-based sauces spiced with just a hint of cinnamon, allspice and clove, or smooth combinations of lemon, garlic, dill and egg, or in the case of Symon's book, sharp pickles to offset the unctuous nature of braised pork. There are terrific recipes in here for people who like to follow recipes exactly, and enough room for those of us who have a hard time with that. Iím looking forward to returning to each of these books, especially as the weather warms up, and weíre eating from the garden and the barbecue once more.