Sunday, March 28, 2010

Tahini Cake for Lent

Recently I hosted a Greek Independence Day dinner (see full post here). For dessert I offered grapes and a parfait of yogurt, honey (from our own hives) and toasted pistachios, but I also wanted to offer a baked item as well. The challenge is that I needed to offer an item that fit within the dietary requirements of Greek Orthodox Lent: no dairy or eggs (yes I know the yogurt is dairy, but I knew I breaking the rules for that one).

I made this tahini cake, not quite knowing what to expect. For those not familiar with it, tahini is sesame paste. You've probably eaten it in hummus and maybe in that creamy sauce you sometimes get with falafel, but it's not something many people (myself included) think of as a dessert ingredient.

So this cake was an exciting discovery. It tasted like peanut butter (but without peanut butter allergy issues, for those who are concerned about that)! The recipe called for candied fruit, so I used some candied kumquats I made earlier this year. If you have good quality candied fruit, use it, but if not, double the amount of dried fruit instead.

Tahini Cake
Makes one 9x12 baking pan - this is a pretty dense "cake" (it's more like a bar cookie), so you'll likely want to cut it into small 2"x 2" pieces. This recipe is adapted from the cookbook The Complete Book of Greek Cooking. This cookbook is a great resource for Greek food lovers: it's a community cookbook professionally published in 1990 by a Greek Orthodox church in Hempstead, NY.

Make sure your tahini is fresh: Taste it, do you want to eat it? Then it's fine for cooking. Tahini can go "off" or turn rancid pretty easily. Store your tahini in the fridge to ensure longer life.

  • 1 cup (12 ounces by weight) tahini
  • 1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons brandy or bourbon (a new world touch for sure)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 cup (6.75 ounces) flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • pinch salt
  • 1 cup orange juice (I used grapefruit juice and didn't notice a grapefruit-y flavor)
  • 1 cup chopped toasted walnuts
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins (I used dried cherries)
  • 1/2 cup glacé fruit (I used candied kumquats - don't use that super sweet stuff from the supermarket. If you don't have access to great candied fruit, use dried fruit instead)
Preheat your oven to 350. Prepare a 9" x 12" pan: grease the bottom and sides and line the pan with parchment or waxed paper.

Beat the tahini with a mixer to aerate it a little (it won't fluff up like butter would, just soften it up). Pour in the sugar and keep beating to combine. Add the baking soda to the brandy and then pour the mixture into the tahini. Beat to blend.

Whisk together the flour, cinnamon and salt.

Beat in the flour mixture and orange juice alternately to the tahini. When all the flour and orange juice have been added, add the fruit and nuts. The batter will be very thick.

Spread the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for about 45 minutes until deep golden brown. Cool in the pan on a rack. When cool, cut into small pieces and dust with confectioner's sugar if desired.

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: A Greek Independence Day Celebration

March 25 is a National Holiday in Greece. It commemorates the start of Greece’s war of independence over the Ottoman Empire. Prior to the start of the revolution, The Ottoman Empire had ruled Greece for nearly 400 years. The revolution lasted from 1821 to 1832, when the treaty of Constantinople was signed.

If you live an area with a Greek population, look for Independence Day parades and celebrations on the 25th or the weekend after it.

This Saturday, with the help of Foodbuzz, I hosted a Greek Independence Day party for friends. Due to the fact that Independence Day falls during the observance of Lent, I decided to [mostly] follow the dietary restrictions that Greeks have to follow when planning my menu. This means that menu shouldn’t contain meat (although certain types of seafood are permitted), dairy or eggs.

Greek Orthodox Lent has very strict dietary restrictions. During Lent, practicing Orthodox Christians must abstain from eating meat, or meat products (so this means no dairy or eggs either) and fish (shrimp, squid, octopus and shellfish are fine). Ultimately, you consume a primarily vegan diet (except for certain types of seafood) for the entire 40 days.

There are fasting exemptions for certain feast days, particularly those celebrating the Virgin Mary (Panagia). On those days, Greeks can also include finfish in their diet. Due to its ease of storage and transport, salt cod (also known as baccala or bacalao) has become traditional on Annunciation Day, March 25th. Annunciation Day is the same date as Independence Day, so we can take advantage of the lifting of certain dietary restrictions.

One of Greece’s greatest culinary traditions is that of mezethes.
Mezethes are small dishes usually eaten with drinks – ouzo of course. They fall into the same place that tapas or antipasti do in Spanish and Italian cuisine. A great advantage for the party host us that a lot of them can be made ahead and plated up when your guests arrive so there’s less hands on work to do when folks come over.

I made a collection of dishes that would show the variety of dishes that can make up a mezethes table. In true Mediterranean fashion, I made too much to eat and everyone did a great job keeping up with the parade of plates coming out of the kitchen. I tried to keep my Independence Day menu in line with the dietary restrictions outlined by Lent and Annunciation Day.
I confess there were few dairy items on the table and I’ve noted that in the menu list below.

The Menu

  • Salt Cod Fritters with Skordalia (garlic-walnut sauce) - recipe below
  • Hearty Greens Pies
  • Olive Pies
  • Beet and Orange Salad
  • Grilled Octopus with Roasted Lemon Sauce - recipe below
  • Ktipiti (tangy cheese dip) – contains dairy
  • Tzatziki (yogurt-cucumber dip) – contains dairy
  • Melitzanosalata (eggplant spread)
  • Taramasalata (cod roe spread)
  • Pickled Artichoke Hearts
  • Fava (yellow split peas) with Tomato-Caper Sauce
  • Stuffed Grape Leaves with pistachios and currants
  • Tahini Cake with Walnuts, Candied Kumquats and Cherries
  • Yogurt Honey Cups – contains dairy
  • Fruit

The Drinks

Ouzos: Barbayianni & Ploumari (both from the island of Lesbos)
Red Wines: Notios (Peleponnese), Argyros (Santorini), Axia (Florina – thanks Dale!)
White Wines: Amethystos (Drama), San..Torini (Santorini – thanks Bill!)
Beers: Opa-Opa and Mythos (thanks again Bill)


Salt Cod Fritters

You can find salt cod in a lot of supermarkets. It’s usually in the refrigerator case where pre-packaged seafood is sold. It may be in a bag or a little wood box. Store it in your refrigerator until you’re ready to use it. The hardest part of this recipe is remembering to start soaking your cod a day ahead.

  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, dry-salted baccala
  • ¼ cup chopped dill
  • 1 cup beer, I used a lager
  • 1-1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • oil, for frying – I like an olive oil / vegetable oil blend
  • salt and pepper

In a large bowl, cover the baccala with cold water. Soak, refrigerated, for 24 hours. Changing the water every 6 to 8 hours.

Drain for the last time and pat dry with paper towels. Shred the baccala with your hands (you’ll have to tear it), for a finer texture in the finished dish, use a knife to cut the baccala into short lengths and then shred the pieces apart. Add the dill to the baccala.

In a separate small bowl, whisk the beer into the flour. Stir into baccala until combined. If it seems too stiff add a little more beer, too loose, add flour. You want a batter than will drop off a spoon, but still hold its shape.

Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot (about 325-350), gently drop small amounts of batter into the oil (about a generous tablespoon). Don’t crowd the pan, you will need to make these in batches. Cook the fritters until golden brown and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve with skordalia.

Skordalia (Garlic-Walnut Sauce)

This version of this sauce uses stale bread as a thickener. There are also versions that use cooked potatoes, but I prefer this version. I used pita, since I had it on hand – I needed one and a half pieces to make three ounces.

  • 4 slices (about 3 ounces) stale white bread
  • 1 cup shelled walnuts
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon red white vinegar

Soak the bread in 1/2 cup water for 2 minutes. Press excess water from the bread so that it is damp.

Put bread, walnuts and garlic in a food processor and pulse until a chunky paste forms. Add the olive oil and salt and process until well blended – it may not get completely smooth. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the lemon juice and vinegar. Adjust salt to taste.

Braised Octopus with Roasted Lemon Sauce

This dish was real star of the party. It was actually the first time I cooked octopus, and so I was more than little worried about it turning out well. I used the braising method from Michael Psilakis’s fabulous Greek cookbook How to Cook a Lamb and a modification of his roasted lemon purée as a sauce.

I found octopus in the freezer case of the supermarket. A Greek family owns one of our local supermarket chains and some of their locations carry frozen octopus (for local reference, Market Basket in Danvers, MA was where I found mine). Call around your local area, it’s probably easier to find than you think.

My octopi (I bought two) were 2.5 and 1.5 pounds respectively and provided 12 small appetizer portions as part of my meze table. The method is infinitely scalable, so I’m going to give you the technique, but feel free to scale it up or down, depending on how many people you’re feeding. Also great, you can do almost all the cooking a day ahead and just heat it right at mealtime.

  • Octopus, thawed if frozen
  • Garlic cloves, peeled
  • Chili flakes
  • Bay leaves

Your octopus will most likely be whole. (I did not cook the head I just used the tentacles.) With a pair of kitchen shears, cut the tentacles from the octopus body. Rinse the tentacles and then dry them with paper towels.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Heat a large skillet over high heat. When the skillet is super hot, lay a few tentacles, sucker-side down into the pan. The tentacles will contract as they hit the pan, don’t be alarmed. Sear the tentacles for about 2 minutes, and then put them into a braising dish (a covered casserole or oven safe dish with the top covered in foil). They will turn red and will curl up a bit. Repeat the process with the remaining tentacles, making sure the pan gets superhot each time and making sure not to crowd the pan. (I seared mine in four batches.)

Add garlic cloves (I used 6 whole cloves), chili flakes (I used about 1 teaspoon) and a bay leaf to the braising dish along with the octopus. Cover the dish and put the pot into the oven. That’s right, do not add any liquid to the pan. Braise, covered for an hour to two hours, depending on the size of your octopus tentacles.

My tentacles were pretty thin, so my octopus was done in one hour. It’s done when you can slide a sharp knife easily into the flesh. If it feels tough at all, return the octopus to the oven to continue braising. (You should be able to cut it with a table knife without any sawing.)

At this point, you can put the octopus into the fridge until it’s time to serve it.

When it’s time to serve, heat a grill pan, or charcoal or gas grill to very hot. Remove the tentacles from their braising liquid (which will likely have formed a rich jelly) and lay them into the pan or onto the grill. Depending on the size of your pan, you should do this in batches. Grill until hot and slightly charred – about 1-2 minutes.

Serve with an oil and lemon salad dressing or the Roasted Lemon Purée.

Roasted Lemon Purée

This is also a method from Michael Psilakis’s fabulous Greek cookbook How to Cook a Lamb. This time I had to use “regular” supermarket lemons, but if you have Meyer lemons on hand do use them in this preparation.

Yields about 2 cups

  • 2 lemons, well scrubbed
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • sugar, to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste

Place a rack (roasting rack or cooling rack) into a baking dish or roasting pan.

Wrap the lemons in foil, place them on the rack and roast in a 325-degree oven for about 90 minutes. The lemons will feel super squishy. Let them cool until you can handle them comfortably

Cut or tear open the lemons and remove the seeds. Remove the lemon pulp and place it into a food processor. Scrape away as much pith as you can from the inside of the lemon and coarsely chop the peel. Add the peel and any juices to the processor. Add the garlic and mustard to the processor and purée until smooth. Continue pureeing as you add olive oil through the feed tube. Taste the puree and add sugar (this amount will vary depending on how much pith you got off your lemon peel). Add salt and pepper to taste.

You can use the puree as is (it packs quite a punch) or thin it out with mayonnaise, more oil or crème fraiche or cream.

For the octopus, I dressed the serving plate with the puree and then drizzled additional oil over its surface. I placed the octopus on top of the puree so people could scoop up a little puree with each tentacle.

More about Foodbuzz and the 24, 24, 24 program: Each month, Foodbuzz sponsors events run by 24 different bloggers. 24 Meals, 24 Hours, 24 Posts is a great way to see what folks are doing all around the world. Check out the Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 page to see what everyone did this month!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Menu for the Week of March 21

Hi all, in our neck of the woods, Spring is coming in like a lion (purring to lull us into a sense of false security, then giving a good swipe with some razor-sharp claws) - hoping it'll leave like a lamb (the frolicking cheerful kind, not the grouchy give you a kick when aren't paying attention kind).

Dinner last night was a combination of several recipes: The base of the dish was hash browns from Sam Sifton's New York Times Magazine column (FYI - the recipe says not to overcook the potatoes when they are par-boiled - I overcooked mine and my browns fell apart a LOT. Still tasted good, but the presentation was lacking.). I topped the potatoes with grilled asparagus and a savory sabayon (a Mario Batali recipe from Food & Wine - mine was less peppery). Then to make it a more filling dinner, I topped the whole deal with a fried egg. Delicious. The sabayon gave a luxe hollandaise feel to the dish, without adding the weight of a super-buttery hollandaise.

Since the rest of the week is going to be lousy, weatherwise, the week's menu is focused on comfort foods to help us stay cozy.

Menu for the Week
Hash browns with grilled asparagus, fried egg and savory sabayon

Moro butternut squash salad with tahini dressing
Hard-boiled eggs
Olive flatbreads

Dinner out - watch out Eastern Standard, we're coming!

Braised lamb shanks with olives
Braised dandelions

Pasta with meat sauce

Pizza night

Friday, March 19, 2010

Drink of the Week: Diablo

Here's a drink to use some of the ingredients that are lurking in the back of your liquor cabinet: Dubonnet and orgeat syrup. Orgeat is a traditional ingredient in tiki drinks, but if a mai tai isn't in your future, this is a nice option.

The combination of the Dubonnet with the almonds in the orgeat made for a not-too-sweet spiced cherry pie effect.

Gin-haters, you won't notice the gin in this drink, so don't swap it for vodka. We used Gordon's, but a smoother gin like Plymouth would be more subtle. Traditionally, a cherry is dropped in for garnish, but my cherries were not to be found.

Combine in an iced cocktail shaker:
  • 1 1/2 ounces Dubonnet
  • 3/4 ounce gin
  • 1/4 ounce orgeat
Stir until very cold. Strain into an iced cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Other People's Sites

In lieu of a full post I thought I'd point y'all to a few posts on other blogs and websites. That risotto there, for instance, is a recipe I just posted over at Food52 in their "Your Best Risotto" contest this week.

Another site you should check out is Mary's Pretty Good. She and her husband attended my bread baking class last week. She took a ton of gorgeous pictures and here they are.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Drink of the Week: The Paddy

Getting ready for St. Patrick's Day?

Here's a drink option that doesn't require you to drink a lurid green potion to show your Irish pride. The Paddy is a sweet Manhattan variation that uses Irish whiskey instead of rye or bourbon. I haven't had much exposure to Irish whiskey cocktails, even though Irish whiskey is supposed to be the fastest growing spirits category in the United States (check out the spirited discussion in the comment thread here at Drink Boston).

This drink is a really nice introduction to this category of cocktails. Make sure your vermouth is fairly fresh (yes, its charms can fade after opening, so if your bottle has been sitting, opened, in your liquor cabinet for the last year treat yourself to a new bottle).

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the drink in the picture is too light to have sweet vermouth in it. A ha! You are correct, for our first version of the Paddy, I grabbed the dry vermouth in error. This resulted in a very light-textured drink: easily quaffed and very smooth. Sweet vermouth produced a more complex drink and brought out the toasty notes in the Irish whiskey.

The Paddy Cocktail
Combine in an iced cocktail shaker:
  • 1 1/2 ounces Irish whiskey (we used Bushmills)
  • 1/2 ounce sweet vermout
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
Stir until well chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Drink of the Week: Martinez

The Martinez cocktail is a classic cocktail drinker's classic cocktail. It's a martini variation that includes maraschino and bitters.

I recently picked up a bottle of Hayman's Old Tom gin to play with. Old Tom is a style of gin that was very popular in 18th century London. It's sweeter and not quite as junipery as a London dry gin (think Beefeater). Hayman's is a new gin that uses an 18th century Old Tom recipe.

The Martinez is a cocktail that is perfectly designed for Old Tom gin, but if you don't have any on hand, please try it with a lighter gin like Plymouth or Citadelle. I like a 1:1 proportion of gin to sweet vermouth, but there isn't consensus on this ratio, try 2:1 if you'd like a more "spirited" drink.

Combine in an iced cocktail shaker:
  • 1 ounce Old Tom gin
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1 bar spoon maraschino liqueur
  • 2 dashes orange bitters
Stir until very cold. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Quinoa Salad with Feta, Mint and Blood Oranges

This salad is being entered in one of this week's Food 52 contests: Your best recipe with feta, blood oranges and mint. You can check out all the entries in the contest here.

I used a mix of red and "regular" quinoa and chose to use pine nuts. I think pistachios would be really nice too. Another nice combo would use goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts and parsley instead of mint.

Quinoa Salad with Feta, Mint and Blood Oranges
Serves 4-6 as a side dish
Make this a main dish by topping it with a fried egg or topping it with some grilled chicken or sea scallops.
  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 3 blood oranges
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/4 cup chopped mint
  • olive oil
  • 3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
  • salt and pepper to taste
Make the quinoa: Rinse the quinoa in a mesh strainer. Bring the water and a pinch of salt to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the quinoa and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes until quinoa is tender.
While the quinoa is cooking, prepare the oranges. Cut the peel off of two of the oranges and then cut them into bite-sized sections, removing any really fibrous bits. (If you know how to supreme an orange - do that.)

Combine the cooked quinoa, chopped or supremed oranges, shallots, pine nuts, and mint. Squeeze the juice of the other orange over the salad and drizzle it with olive oil (about 2-3 tablespoons). Gently stir in the feta cheese. Taste the salad and add salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Vietnamese Caramelized Grilled Pork

Ok, I know what some of you are thinking: "Caramel? On a piece of pork? I dunno Mary."

But think about barbecue sauce for a second: it's got
brown sugar and molasses in it and we slather it on anything from chicken, to salmon, to beef.

The marinade for this pork is made from a simple caramel cooked with lime juice, fish sauce and shallots. The pork is left to marinate in the caramel for 30 minutes or so and then grilled. I've used this marinade on pork tenderloin and boneless country ribs (pictured). You want to use a cut that is thin and will cook relatively quickly, otherwise the sugar may burn and blacken before the pork is cooked through.

I served this with steamed jasmine rice, grilled eggplant and a carrot salad.

Vietnamese Caramelized Grilled Pork
Try this with chicken or jumbo shrimp too. This is fabulous the next day, sliced thin on a sandwich.
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons lime juice
  • 4 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 3 shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 pounds pork tenderloin, sliced into medallions, or boneless country ribs
Make the caramel: In a heavy skillet (preferably one that's light colored metal, so you can gauge the color of the caramel - this is hard to do in cast iron or in a non-stick pan) spread the sugar into an even layer. Turn the heat to medium high and watch the pan. In a few minutes, you'll start to see a little smoking and the sugar around the edge of the pan should start to melt. Shake the pan occasionally to keep the sugar melting evenly (the sugar will wrinkle, do not be concerned).

When the sugar is dark toasty brown, turn off the heat add the shallots, lime juice and fish sauce - the caramel will bubble up and sputter: watch your arms and fingers! With a wooden spoon, stir the liquid and shallots into the caramel. Turn the heat back on and stir gently until the liquid is incorporated into the sauce.

Turn off the heat and let the sauce cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.

Pour the marinade over the pork in a ziploc bag. Seal the bag and rub the marinade over the meat. Set aside for 30 minutes while you preheat the grill.

Remove the pork from the marinade. Grill the pork over medium-high heat until cooked through, about 3 minutes a side for thin medallions and about 4 minutes for thicker rib pieces. Cut in and check the doneness to be sure. Let the pork rest for 10 minutes before serving. Enjoy!

Week of February 28

Hello all, here's hoping everyone's got their power back. For those of you not in the Northeast: we had one hell of a windstorm on Thursday night. About 300,000 people lost power in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. My entire town was dark for about 18 hours, but a number of people were without power for 3 days or so. Wind gusts were clocked at 90+ MPH in Portsmouth, NH. Trees were snapped in half all over my town. We were super lucky and had no damage to our house or property.

Anyhoo, with that natural disaster out of the way this was actually a pretty great weekend. We had a productive Saturday and spent Sunday in Boston. We ate an enormous lunch at Myers and Chang. I'm talking enormous: way too much food and we ate all of it. After lunch we strolled down to Flour Bakery and picked up some treats for dessert Sunday night. Then we went over to the Museum of Fine Arts and checked out The Secrets of Tomb 10A exhibit. If you're interested in ancient Egypt, I really recommend a visit.

Dinner was supposed to me a lamb stew, but we were still full from our huge, enormous lunch. So I moved my Tuesday night dinner plan up to Sunday night. We had a big salad of quinoa with feta and blood oranges. With a green salad, it was a light yet satisfying dinner (recipe forthcoming).

Menu for the Week
Quinoa salad with feta and blood oranges
Green salad

Stir-fried noodles with tofu, scallions and peanuts

Lamb stew
Broccoli rabe with garlic confit

Macaroni and cheese
Green salad


Pasta with meat sauce
Green salad
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