Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Vegetarian Youvetsi
with Roasted Cauliflower and Red Pepper


Last time Tony and I moved house it was a rather stressful experience for us. I'd just sold my apartment and Tony and I were moving in together for the first time. It was all very rushed and we ended up choosing a house that didn't really suit our needs (like proper heating and somewhere to park the car).

Call us crazy but three years later we are still living in this uncomfortable house. On the surface it's a beautiful, character-filled art deco home, but both Tony and I really struggle with the cold and living in a house with pathetic heating and no insulation is something we just can't do no more. It's also dark, the bathroom is a thousand years old and we have possums living in the ceiling. The only reason we're still here is because of our grand plan to move to Brisbane. We decided to stick it out until we were ready to move to sunny Queensland, and didn't want the hassle of making another move in between.

Learning from our past mistakes, this time we are planning our move well in advance. Moving interstate also means the logistics will be more complicated than just moving to another suburb. We've actually postponed our move until February now so we have plenty of time to pack and clean this place and find a suitable house in Brisbane that we both love. It's seven months away, but yes, I've already started packing!

This time around I am thoroughly going through stuff and culling what I can before it gets packed. I'm not going to just throw everything in boxes without labelling and leaving them piled up in cupboards and under beds for years like I've done in the past. There are so many of these boxes still lying around in this house with who-knows-what in them.

So by "packing" I mean I've been "unpacking" these boxes over the last few weeks to reassess what stays and what goes before repacking again. And boy have I found some stupid things. Have you ever kept the empty packaging for a set of wooden spoons? Or a 3-year-old opened box of cereal? (Even a 3-year-old unopened box of cereal would be weird.) These are the sorts of ridiculous things I'm finding in unpacked boxes from our last, very unorganised move.

However, among the rubbish in these boxes are some great forgotten treasures like old records, Greek Drachma coins, an old upright telephone with a dial on the base, film negatives and hand-written recipes. All this nostalgia got me thinking about what life used to be like before the internet, mobile phones, digital cameras, and iTunes. Oh, those were the simple days. Some things don't change though, like the food we love and remember eating at home when we were young.



As a Greek-Australian child with a hardly-at-all Greek and very-much-Australian upbringing, we didn't eat a whole lot of Greek food at home. But the Greek food I do remember eating left a very memorable impression on me – food like Pastitsio and Youvetsi.

Pastitsio is a pasta bake, usually made with macaroni or penne pasta at the base, then covered with a minced meat and tomato sauce, and topped with a thick layer of b├ęchamel and cheese.

Youvetsi is a hot-pot casserole dish made with lamb shanks, slow cooked in a fragrant tomato-based sauce with a risoni or orzo type pasta.

I remember these family favourites well but being meat-based dishes, I haven't eaten either of them for many years.


Reminiscing and longing for the flavours of youvetsi and pastitsio, I started thinking about ways to vegetarianise these dishes. The main flavours in youvetsi come from the tomatoes and spices in the sauce, so replacing the meat was all that was required.

Cauliflower is a vegetable I don't use much in cooking, but it is eaten widely in Greek cuisine. It also holds together reasonably well when cooked at length and absorbs flavours like a sponge so I thought it would work well with youvetsi.

To create a deeper flavour, I decided to roast the cauliflower first. I made up a simple mix of spices with a bit of garlic, lemon and olive oil and roasted the florets until they were golden and sizzling. Of course I couldn't just throw these into the youvetsi without trying one first, and Oh My God. These were so yum.

Before I knew it, I'd eaten half of my star ingredient! What was left wasn't enough to add to the youvetsi so I ended up eating the rest with my dinner that night and made another batch the next day. I'm telling you, these roasted cauliflower florets were so delicious I'm going to write a separate post on them. But back to the youvetsi.

Youvetsi is traditionally cooked in a lidded casserole dish in the oven for several hours, mainly to slow-cook the meat so it ends up falling off the bone. This being a meatless Youvetsi means it's not necessary to cook this dish in the oven, although I'm sure the Youvetsi police would still be horrified to know I cooked mine over the stove. I probably could have cooked this in the oven but being a bit of a control freak I like to look and stir and generally hover over a pot of sauce while it's cooking, rather than just trust the oven to do this for me. Especially when the oven has a broken seal (yet another problem with this house!).

I did, however, use genuine Greek kritharaki (risoni).


The rest of the recipe stays true to most versions of youvetsi I've seen, and certainly tastes a lot like the youvetsi I remember as a child – a hearty pasta casserole for a cold winter's night, with a rich tomato sauce, hints of cinnamon and lots of grated cheese on top.

So what about Pastitsio? You will have to wait for my next post to see what I've come up with to vegetarianise this Greek family staple. It's based on a recipe of my mum's that is so full of flavour you wouldn't even know the meat was missing.


Vegetarian Youvetsi with Roasted Cauliflower and Red Pepper


Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

For the roasted cauliflower
  • 1/2 large cauliflower (or one small one), cut into florets
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 lemon, juice of whole lemon, zest of half the lemon
  • 1/3 cup water

For the pasta and sauce
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large onions, finely chopped
  • 2 large red peppers/capsicums
  • 6 large tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 heaped tablespoon honey
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup uncooked risoni or orzo pasta
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Grated hard cheese* for serving

* Many hard Greek cheeses are made with animal rennet. Unfortunately I've yet to find one that isn't. When serving dishes that call for a hard or sharp cheese, look for one that uses non-animal rennet. There are plenty of tasty cheeses that are suitable and recently I've found a pecorino (True Organic brand) that works really well to replace Greek cheeses. Thankfully, most fetas and haloumis are animal-rennet free :)

Instructions

  1. Slice peppers length ways and remove seeds. Place skin side up on a greased baking tray, spray with olive oil and grill under high heat for 10 minutes until blackened.
  2. Place pepper slices in a plastic bag and leave to sweat for 10 minutes.
  3. Prepare the roasted cauliflower. Combine the oil, spices, garlic, salt and lemon rind in a large bowl. Add the cauliflower florets and mix well to coat. Arrange in a small non-stick roasting pan with cut sides down, and pour in combined water and lemon juice. Roast in a pre-heated oven set to 180 degrees celsius for 20–30 minutes, or until golden and sizzling.
  4. Prepare the sauce. Heat olive oil in a large heavy-based pot. Add onions and turn down the heat. Fry for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are lightly golden.
  5. Meanwhile, score (in a cross shape) the bottom of each tomato with a sharp knife and blanch tomatoes for 20 seconds in boiling water. Remove tomatoes from boiling water and immediately place in a bowl of cold water. After a few minutes the tomatoes will be cool enough to handle so you can easily peel off the skins.
  6. Chop the tomatoes finely and add to onions along with tomato paste, wine, cinnamon, honey and bay leaves and stir thoroughly. You can either add the cauliflower now if you prefer your cauliflower to be really soft and tender, or later (in the last 10 minutes of sauce simmering) to retain the roasted flavours and a bit of bite.
  7. Remove pepper slices from the plastic bag and peel off the skins. Cut into small pieces, add to the sauce and stir.
  8. Allow sauce to simmer, uncovered, on low heat for at least one hour, stirring occasionally.
  9. Place the risoni in boiling water and cook for ten minutes. It should be only partly cooked. Drain and transfer risoni to tomato sauce during final 10 minutes of sauce cooking time and place lid on pot. Also add cauliflower to the sauce at this point, if you prefer your cauliflower a little more bitey. Check after a few minutes that the sauce is still bubbling, and not sizzling. If it is too thick, add 1/2–1 cup of water and stir.
  10. Serve Vegetarian Youvetsi with lots of grated cheese.




Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Kalamata Olive and Walnut Dip
and an update on the old family house in Limnos


Around six weeks ago my dad Takis and his wife Julia left Melbourne for another 9-month stint in Limnos, Greece. For the last ten years they have been making this annual pilgrimage to spend their retirement years slowly restoring our old family house and generally enjoying the relaxed Limnian lifestyle.

I've previously written a little bit about the Limnos family house here on the blog and thought I would talk some more about this very special place, especially given that Tony and I will soon be back in Limnos ourselves.


I was a young teenager the first time I visited Limnos, way back in 1983. The house was then used as a holiday house during the summer months by my dad's sister Efterpi and her husband Andreas. For the rest of the year the house was occupied by families of mice and cats, and in winter was subjected to the many damages that ice and snow can bring to an old uninhabited house (yes, it actually snows in Limnos!).

For many decades, the 150-year-old house had survived earthquakes, inclement weather, bad renovations and neglect, but ten years ago my dad and Julia started the process of bringing the house back to its former glory.

Unforgiving winters still present problems for the old house during the months that dad and Julia aren't there. The mice and cats still take residence during that time and things deteriorate rapidly. So when dad and Julia come back to Limnos each year in early Spring, the first jobs usually involve repairing cracked pipes, drying out damp rooms, sweeping up mouse poo and rejuvenating garden beds.

This year's Limnian winter was not so harsh, and tasks around the house and garden were kept to a minimum. This allowed my dad to focus on the things he really loves – tinkering around in his workshop, mastering the art of cappuccino-making, or cooking up a storm in the kitchen. With the help of his trusty little helper, Anesti, he also loves to get involved in larger projects around the house like bathroom renovations and out-house constructions. My dad turns 81 this year and yes, he still renovates bathrooms.

Below: The site of dad's workshop, before reconstruction. September 2004.


The new workshop, reconstructed entirely from stone found on the property.


My dad in his element, woodworking in his workshop.


Bathroom renovations underway.


Reconstructing the laundry house with Tony (centre) and Anesti (right). August 2009.


The finished laundry house (and my proud dad!)


Julia is dedicated to maintaining and constantly improving the garden of the property. Ten years ago she transformed the plot of weeds and rubbish into a flourishing quarter acre of beautiful landscaped gardens and vegetable beds. There are some original 100-year-old olive, fig and almond trees that still bear fruit and nuts, and recently planted pear, peach and apple trees provide an abundance of fruit each year.

Every meal that is cooked in the house sources a bunch of ingredients from the garden, from garlic, onions, herbs and salad leaves, to peppers, tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant. There's an old well in the middle of the garden that supplies plentiful water for the garden, and an outside wood oven called a "furno" that has been restored from a pile of rubble.

Below: Julia enjoying her daily garden potterings. That's a genuine Hills Hoist washing line in the background, brought over to Greece from Australia – Julia couldn't live without one!


The house and garden, before any renovations or landscaping. September 2004.


House and garden today.


The outdoor furno (wood-fired oven) before reconstruction. September 2004.


Restored furno, ready for wood-fired pizza!


Tony and I have been visiting Limnos together every year for the last four years. Airfares from Australia to Europe are not cheap but this annual holiday is the one thing that I would gladly spend my last pennies on to ensure that we make it to Limnos each year.

Dad and Julia have put so much work and money into making this house the beautiful structure it is today. Sadly though, this is a large, high-maintenance house that they can't look after for ever. One day the responsibility of maintaining the house will be left in the hands of the willing and able. Tony and I are more than willing, but at this stage, not able. We both have work commitments here in Australia, and the expenses involved with keeping a house of this size are substantial. Unfortunately, there are no other family members interested enough to take on the financial and physical responsibilities of the house so my dad is now considering options to rent it out in the future, find someone who might want to turn it into a bed and breakfast, or, as a last resort, he might have to sell it.

But my dad isn't doing anything yet. His connection with the island and his country is stronger now than it ever has been and he will move mountains to make sure the house stays a part of the family for as long as possible. At the same time, Tony and I make the most of every one of our visits to Limnos.

We keep hoping for a miracle that one day we might be able to take over the responsibilities of the house, but for now we are looking forward to going back to the island next month – to spend time with family, cook in the Limnos kitchen, eat at the sea-side tavernas, swim in warm shallow waters, pat some cats, feed the stray dogs and of course take millions of photos.

Below: Riha Nera beach, walking distance from the house. Riha Nera is Greek for "shallow waters".


Gorgeous Greek kitten at a taverna.


Wind-surfing at Riha Nera beach.




My recipe for today is a simple Kalamata Olive and Walnut dip. It can be made up in a few minutes and is the perfect appetiser to enjoy with crusty bread, crackers, or celery and carrot sticks.


Kalamata Olive and Walnut Dip


Makes about 1 cup

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup pitted Kalamata* olives
  • 1/2 cup shelled walnuts
  • 1 tablespoon good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 3–4 teaspoons plain Greek yoghurt**

* Kalamata olives are grown in the city of the same name in Southern Greece. They have Protected Designation of Origin status in the EU and are available at good delicatessens world wide. 

** To veganise, soy yoghurt can be used. The role of the yoghurt is to smooth down the consistency of the dip so you could also use a liquid such as soy milk, almond milk, olive oil, or even water to replace the yoghurt.

Instructions

  1. Pulse the olives, nuts and olive oil in a food processor until a paste is formed. This can be used as is, similar to how you would use pesto.
  2. To turn the paste into a dip, add 3 to 4 teaspoons of yoghurt and continue to pulse until it reaches the desired consistency.
  3. Told you it was easy!




Monday, July 8, 2013

Greek Dukkah-encrusted Zucchini Fries


I'm so excited about sharing this recipe with you!

Crunchy and full of flavour on the outside, soft and melt-in-the-mouth on the inside. These oven-baked dukkah-encrusted zucchini fries are so good you'll wonder how you ever ate two whole zucchinis to yourself.


I usually need to experiment with a new recipe idea several times before I get it right (sometimes I never get it right) but today I think I nailed this perfect snack dish on first attempt.

I am in love with these!! Never in my wildest dreams did I expect them to crunch up so well and taste so amazing. I'm so excited about this I've just finished twirling around on my office chair about 12 times in a row…


You may be familiar with Kolokithakia Tiganita (fried zucchinis) – a delicious Greek appetiser found on many Greek restaurant menus – well this is one of those dishes I've never been able to master. The zucchinis are usually sliced and dipped in a light batter then fried, and when done properly, they have a delectable crunch and stay sog-free until you finish them. But definitely not when I make them!

Since I've not had much success with traditional fried zucchinis in the past, I thought I'd put the batch of Greek-style Dukkah I made a few days ago to good use and experiment with my own take on zucchini fries, baked in the oven. And wow, what a result!

There are the usual techniques required when coating anything using the flour/egg/crumb method, like working quickly and keeping your hands goo-free, but everything else is so straight forward and easy!

These zucchini fries come out of the oven surprisingly crunchy, and stay that way for a good 15 minutes or so – plenty of time to eat the whole lot! The dukkah forms the perfect crust that seals in the zucchini juices and when you take a bite, it's all crunchy-soft and heavenly yum!


Greek Dukkah-encrusted Zucchini Fries


Makes about 24 fries

Ingredients

  • 2 large zucchinis
  • 1/4 cup wholemeal flour
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten with 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 cup of Greek-style Dukkah
  • Olive oil spray

Instructions

  1. Cut ends off the zucchinis. Cut each zucchini in half, then cut each half length ways into three strips. Then cut each strip length ways in half. You should end up with 12 sticks per zucchini.
  2. Roll the zucchini sticks in flour and dust off.
  3. Quickly dip each stick into the egg wash, then coat generously with dukkah.
  4. Place zucchini sticks onto a greased baking tray and sprinkle more dukkah over the top if necessary.
  5. Spray sticks with olive oil.
  6. Bake at 200 degrees celsius for 30 minutes, or until sizzling and golden.
I'm sharing this post over on Veggie Mama's blog today for Meatless Mondays. Today she's come up with a gorgeous spaghetti dish using simple pantry favourites.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Imam Bayildi, Limnian style
(Eggplant Stew)


We are still freezing our bottoms off here in Melbourne, where the daily top temperatures average around 13 degrees celsius in July. It's usually cloudy and rainy, sometimes very windy. It even snows on occasion over the nearby hills, only an hour away from where we live. Morning frosts can be severe, but beautiful. As long as you are watching from a warm place. Which is something Tony and I can only dream about in our non-insulated, refrigerated house with practically non-existent heating.

As you can imagine, we are willing down the days to both our trip to Greece next month, and our upcoming move to the warmer Australian state of Queensland later this year.

In the meantime, we get through the days by enjoying soul-warming soups and comforting stews.


In my last post I talked about the many recipes that are shared amongst Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. Imam Bayildi is a delicious stuffed eggplant dish that is found all over Turkey and Greece. The people of these two countries lived together for 400 years during the reign of the Ottoman Empire so naturally there are many similarities between their styles of music, food and other cultural aspects.

The phrase imam bayildi is Turkish for "the priest fainted". It is believed the aroma and appearance of this dish when first served to the priest was so overwhelming, it caused him to faint! Some say the priest fainted from eating too much. Others believe he was frightened by the abundance of oil in the dish!

Some recipes for Imam Bayildi do call for a slathering of olive oil, but many recipes don't. My recipe here leans toward the lesser oil variety and also takes on another characteristic that doesn't normally appear in traditional recipes for Imam Bayildi.

When you order Imam Bayildi at a Greek restaurant, you will be served a plate of two or more eggplant halves stuffed with a herbed tomato/onion mixture.

On the island of Limnos where my dad's family is from, tavernas serve Imam Bayildi as a stew. Many people with Turkish origins live in Limnos given its close proximity to the Turkish coast, and if the people of Limnos have accepted Imam Bayildi served up as a stew at their tavernas, then I think it's safe to say this may be the traditional Limnian way to cook Imam Bayildi.


This dish is very simple to make and only takes a few ingredients. I also added some zucchini to mine because, well, eggplant and zucchini are made for each other.

So while this version of Imam Bayildi treats the eggplant in a slightly different way, the ingredients and cooking methods are basically the same, and I think it's still good enough to make a priest faint.


Imam Bayildi (Eggplant Stew)


Adapted from a recipe from the book From a Traditional Greek Kitchen – Vegetarian Cuisine by Aphrodite Polemis

Serves 3 as a main meal or 6 as a side

Ingredients

  • Olive oil for frying
  • 2 eggplants
  • 2 zucchinis
  • 1 large onion, finely sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 400g can chopped tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius.
  2. Slice the eggplants and zucchinis length wise, around 1cm thick.
  3. Sprinkle eggplant slices generously with salt* on both sides and layer onto a large plate. Allow to stand for 20 minutes then rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
  4. Meanwhile, fry the onions in oil over low heat until soft. Add garlic, tomatoes, parsley, salt and pepper and allow to simmer for around 20 minutes.
  5. Lightly fry the eggplant and zucchini slices in oil until they start to change colour and arrange in layers in a medium baking dish, around 20cm x 30cm, spreading some of the tomato sauce between layers, and topping with remaining tomato sauce.
  6. Cover with foil and bake for around 40 minutes.
  7. Imam Bayildi is traditionally served at room temperature, but can be eaten warm topped with crumbled feta or dollops of Greek yoghurt.

* It is said that salting the eggplant is necessary to draw out the bitter juices before cooking but I don't always do this. If eggplants are slow cooked as they are in this dish, this gives the juices time to break down and caramelise without the need to salt them beforehand. Salting still helps to sweeten them a little, but if you're strapped for time you can skip this step.



Thursday, July 4, 2013

Greek-style Dukkah


Making your own dukkah is really easy and tastes delicious. Create your own mix of home-made dukkah and you'll never buy store-bought again.

Dukkah is a gorgeous blend of nuts and spices that can bring just about any dish to life. My favourite way to eat it is simply sprinkled over a bowl of thick Greek yoghurt. This is a delicious way to enjoy a savoury yoghurt but be warned, it's severely addictive!


Greece, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries all share something in common when it comes to food. They know how to blend herbs and spices to create absolutely stunning flavour combinations that are uniquely Mediterranean and Middle Eastern in flavour. Many dishes between these countries have similar tastes and textures because of the herb and spice blends they share.

During the reign of the Ottoman empire the people of Greece and Turkey shared many recipes and cooking techniques. Imam Bayildi is the Turkish name for a delicious stuffed eggplant dish which has been widely enjoyed across both Turkey and Greece for hundreds of years. You'll also find many different recipes for Briam, Halva, Dolmathes and Dukkah in various countries from Southern Europe to Southern Asia.


Originating in Egypt, duqqa, or dukkah as it is more commonly spelled, is a blend of spices traditionally ground with hazelnuts and sesame seeds. While different versions of dukkah have now spread across many countries I've actually never heard of a Greek-style dukkah. The closest thing you might find to dukkah in Greek cuisine is a seasoning mixture made up of dried oregano, salt and pepper that is usually used to encrust lamb or chicken.

Now tell me if this has already been done but I think it's time for Greece to induct dukkah into its repertoire of Middle Eastern-influenced dishes. I've made many dukkah blends before but never thought to Greekify this versatile little condiment and I would be so CHUFFED if I was the first one in the world to have thought of this. Imagine that! Oh I know, I'm sooooo DREAMING.

Fantasies aside, here's what I reckon should go into a Greek Dukkah:

Gorgeous brightly-coloured pistachio nuts are a must for this mix, along with almonds, sesame seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, dried oregano, salt, pepper, and of course cinnamon. What do you think?

Well today I made a mixture using these ingredients and I'm telling you, I could not stop eating it. The earthy Middle Eastern flavours are definitely still there, but the aromatic surprise of cinnamon and the rustic hint of oregano give this dukkah blend a distinctive Greek taste.


And here are just a few ways you can eat Greek Dukkah:

– Generously sprinkled over scrambled eggs.
– Used as a crumb for lentil keftethes or veggie burgers.
– Zucchini chips encrusted in dukkah (recipe here).
– Sprinkled over b├ęchamel sauce layer of moussaka before baking.
– With crusty bread dipped in good quality extra virgin olive oil.
– Simply served over a bowl of thick Greek yoghurt.


Greek-style Dukkah


Makes about one cup

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup shelled pistachio nuts
  • 1/4 cup raw almonds
  • 2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
  • 4 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 2 teaspoons whole peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Instructions

  1. Place nuts and seeds on a baking tray and roast for five minutes in a moderate oven, preheated to 180 degrees celsius. Remove from oven and allow to cool a little.
  2. Add peppercorns to the nut and seed mixture. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the mixture in batches until nut pieces are crushed to various sizes of between 1 and 5mm. I find using a mortar and pestle very therapeutic, especially if there's something on my mind I need to vent about! But if you don't have a mortar and pestle, or you'd rather not expend too much muscle power, you can use a nut grinder or food processor for this task. Just make sure the nuts don't grind down to a powder.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
  4. Dukkah is best stored in an air-tight container in the fridge and will keep for at least one month.