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Archive for November, 2009

It was a success: Cooking with love, enjoying great company, and stuffing ourselves silly! (As proven by picture above) 🙂

Peggy, Evie, Anna and I spent alllll day preparing the meal, making the table festive, and cleaning house. (To avoid confusion, Evie is my cousin- I’m not talking about myself in the third person!) We divided the duties, thank goodness! Otherwise I have no idea how anything could have gotten done.

Evie did a gorgeous job with the table, didn’t she? The yellow napkins bloomed like tulips from the glasses. They added a bright elegance to the table. The low centerpiece was a collection of gourds, miniature pumpkins, candles, whole almonds, and walnuts.

Once the table was set and the stuffing was in the oven, we took a break for a light lunch.  Dinner was scheduled for 8pm and we needed something to hold us over. I brought over sun dried tomato and spinach wraps, along with poached pears stuffed with marscapone-raisin-cinnamon cream. We deserved it!

E Entertainment television (a.k.a. the vapid network) was on while we were eating and Anna kept exclaiming at the TV. She is perplexed at the inane females at the “Girls Next Door” Playboy Mansion reality show. I can’t blame her, those girls are pretty dumb. We also analyzed the catalyst that put the Kardashians in the limelight…seriously, why ?

But I digress!

An hour before dinner, there was showering, blow-drying of hair, makeup application, and lots of “which looks better, this outfit, or that outfit?”  We weren’t too exhausted to look pretty.

This may be another sign of my crazy neuroticism, but I labeled each serving platter. It really does help! (Don’t make fun).

As much as we cooked and planned, once guests arrived it was still hectic! But happily hectic. We were reheating the stuffing and corn pudding, making the gravy, and pouring drinks!

This was our friend Diamandi’s first Thanksgiving! He brought an incredibly tasty Apple Cake and also made us great margarita’s before the meal!

Peggy and Anna pulled the wishbone and Peggy got the lucky pull! We all thought that was well-deserved for her upcoming wedding in the summer! ❤

Then dinner was served! Cornbread, Corn Pudding, Ciabatta-Chestnut-Pancetta Stuffing, Creamy Mashed Potatoes, Cranberry Chutney, Turkey, Glazed Carrots, and Baby Spinach Salad (with burnt bacon that looked like raisins…ooops).

There was very little dialogue during the first 10 minutes of the meal. Everyone was eating eating eating!! I was so tired at this point but so happy that it didn’t matter. It was really nice to be seated with good friends enjoying the wonders of excess and gluttony together!

The desserts were…possibly even better than the food. Seriously! In addition to Evie’s Pumpkin Pies and White Cake, Peggy and Anna’s Pecan Pies, my Chocolate Tart…Kathy and Nikola brought Profiterole and Konstantino and Despoina brought Chocolate Cake and Pears, and Rita and Diamandi brought a beautiful Apple Cake….phew!

My chocolate tart, decorated with maple leaf stencils:

Evie’s Regal White Cake with stunning pearl garnishes!:

Kosta did us proud and managed to fit everything on the small dessert plates!

The kitchen looked like a war zone by the end of the night. Peggy is an amazingly efficient cleaner. I have to admit, I did the least amount of washing and drying…so major props to Peg, Evie, and Anna for that!

Here, some are recovering on the couch:

We really missed Peggy’s fiancee Ted who is in New York. But next year he will be here for the whole fiasco. I’m confident that we will drive him insane with all of our antics…:)

….I’m still full and in stretch pants.

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Can you tell I’m excited? I guess my healthy eating kick has really built up the momentum for this day of excess!

For those of you who are hosting Thanksgiving, I have a few tips for making this a non anxiety-ridden event. (For those of you who aren’t cooking- read all that goes into it to have compassion for your hosts!)

Actually, I’m type A and neurotic, so I just love the planning and organization that goes into this big feast. I actually typed the order in which everything should be prepared and printed out copies for us 4 girls who are cooking. I hope I’m not driving everyone crazy, but I think this kind of craziness makes the day go much smoother.

If you aren’t cooking with others as I am, then you definitely need to make sure you are especially organized. There is a ton to cook, and you have to know what can be prepared in advance (desserts, cranberry sauce, salad dressing) and what needs to be done last minute (gravy, mashed potatoes). You need to know how much room your oven has, and what can be baked simultaneously.

This depends greatly on your menu. Up to 5 days before, you can make and freeze cheesecake for example. You can also make cranberry sauce this far in advance. (Avoid the canned stuff if you can- real cranberry sauce takes minutes to make and is soooo good. You can add chopped apples, walnuts, raisins, candied ginger-any combo you like).

Up to a few days before, you can make your dressing.If you are making homemade pumpkin pie, you can make the puree days before baking as well.

Bake your pies the night before. Don’t stress yourself out this the day of, while you have a ton of savory dishes to assemble and bake.

Also make giblet gravy the night before. Take the giblets (excluding the liver!) from inside of your turkey, and put it in a pot with chicken stock, a few carrots, celery stalks an onion, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil and simmer for an hour- drain through a sieve, and you have a great stock that will make an amazing gravy. As far as flavor goes- canned stock just doesn’t cut it. And gravy is such an essential part of the meal!

Some people assemble the stuffing before baking the night before, but I don’t do this for fear of a soggy result. Prepping the vegetables and bread, though, is definitely a good option.  In fact, you can prep most of your veggies for whichever dish you make the night before.

On Thanksgiving, do things like setting the table and straightening up while the turkey is in the oven. Multi-task. Delegate. Accept help from others.

I really recommend having all your recipes in front of you so you can see what can be done early and what you need to leave for a few hours before the guests come. Write out the order. Once there is a list, a lot of the stress goes away, because you know exactly what needs to be done. Be familiar with your recipes. Don’t wait until the moment you’re preparing the dish to read them. This way you can gauge the active cooking time.

And don’t get dressed until right before guests come or you may end up receiving guests with a gravy stained top!

Here’s a Checklist that will reduce stress!!

(obviously this is a mock list and can be adapted to your specific menu)

14 Days Before: Guest list and Menu Choices

9 Days Before: Write out your Ingredient list

8 Days Before: Buy your turkeys- figure out when it all needs to be defrosted

1 Week Before: Make anything than can be frozen and defrosted, such as     Cheesecake or Giblet Stock. Also you can make pie crust and freeze (this can be done several days before this, if desired).

6 Days Before: Grocery Shopping

5 Days Before: Cranberry Sauce

4 Days Before: Salad Dressing, Pumpkin Puree

2 Days Before- Brine Turkey

1 Day Before- Prepare Desserts

Chop up veggies and bread for stuffing- or for any other veggie dish.

If you don’t have animals or small children, you can set the table from now- otherwise move this to Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving Day! Assemble and Bake Stuffing and all Casseroles, Turkey, Potato Dish, Gravy, Enjoy!!

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I don’t care how many years I live in Greece, I will never stop celebrating Thanksgiving. I have a great family of fellow ex-pat cousins and friends who keep this tradition alive with me. And what tradition is this? To eat our weight in turkey and stuffing by the end of the day, of course.

Now this is a group effort, and I really have to take off my “foodie” hat for this meal. After I was told that everyone preferred canned pumpkin rather than fresh pumpkin for the pies…well, I got the hint. 🙂

But don’t get me wrong! The traditional meal does remind me of home and youth and warmth. It’s so much fun to cook with the girls all day, drink wine, and munch secretly before dinner!

Here is the menu we’ve planned:

  • Skillet Cornbread with Homemade Apricot Butter
  • Brined Turkey
  • Ciabatta, Chestnut, and Pancetta Stuffing
  • Brown Butter Mashed Potatoes
  • Toasted Corn Pudding
  • Maple Glazed Carrots
  • Grand Marnier Cranberry Sauce
  • Pecan Pies
  • Pumpkin Pies
  • Chocolate Truffle Tart
  • and…oh, yeah…a salad. 🙂  Spinach Salad with Bacon and Apple Cider Vinaigrette.

I’m thinking of bringing an avocado carrot salad and some poached pears stuffed with cinnamon raisin mascarpone as a treat to us cooks before the feast. I know we should probably save our appetites for dinner, but everyone’s coming over at 8! We can’t starve all day!

Our host Peggy is welcoming 13 people and four of us are cooking. We’re preparing  portions of 16, but we are pigs and it probably won’t even be enough… :-/  While making a holy mess of the kitchen, Peggy runs around frantically cleaning up after us while we’re chopping and stirring and baking and gossiping.  As long as I don’t get red wine stains on my dress, I feel clean. (I can just see my mom shaking her head in shame, calling me a “louie!”-the Greek word for dirty neck…

We make desserts the night before to spend all day on the savory dishes. No matter how many times I’ve cooked Turkey, I used to feel at a loss for the timing. A meat thermometer has been my salvation. Its best to take out of the oven a few degrees before “cooked” because it continues cooking out of the oven, and you don’t want it to dry out. I also highly recommend brining for an extra juicy bird.

When it comes to gravy- use the giblets inside the turkey cavity to make the stock! This makes the flavor incredible. And a basic butter-flour roux to thicken is easy and effective. Use truffle butter if you want to do something extra wow.

I’m making the chocolate tart. I decided I would decorate the top by sprinkling orange sugar in the shape of a maple leaf, and powdered sugar around its outline. I use a printed stencil, they are easy to find online. I might also add bourbon flavor to the chocolate batter for a more thanksgiving-y bent to this chocolate dessert.

I’m also going to make a centerpiece, but I haven’t decided what exactly…I might use a hollowed pumpkin as a vase for flowers. Is that cheesy? I haven’t decided yet. Hmmm. Yeah that’s tacky. I’ll figure something out.

We celebrate on Saturday this year due to schedules, and I’ll post the pictures and how everything turned out on Sunday!

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I’ve made many Iranian friends in my life. They have welcomed me into their home and dinner table countless times. I cannot tell you how touched I have been by their hospitality and graciousness. Pomegranates are highlighted consistently in their dishes, and so I did not want to end a discussion of pomegranates without including this cuisine.

There are many similarities between Greek and Persian cooking. We regularly use many of the same staple ingredients, such as lamb, walnuts, almonds, parsley, cinnamon, and pomegranate.

Pomegranate is probably native to Iran, actually, and only later cultivated in Mediterranean regions. There are many varieties of pomegranates in Iran that range greatly in color and also sweetness.  There is even a black pomegranate which is much more rare and expensive…I would love to hold and taste one someday!

Iranian cuisine is known for its pomegranate soup, and pomegranate chicken dishes.

I remembered having a braised lamb dish with pomegranate years ago. The dish is called Lamb Fesenjan. Though I do not have their recipe, from memory I re-created the dish, added some whims of my own, and it is part of my regular repertoire:

BRAISED LAMB WITH POMEGRANATES

serves 4

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 chopped shallots
  • 1.5 lbs lamb-any kind of stew cut-shoulder, leg, etc.
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup beef stock
  • 1 cup fresh pomegranate juice
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup chopped almonds
  • 1/2- 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • 1 tbs lime juice
  • 1 tbs lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
  • 2 tbs chopped fresh parsley
  1. In a medium-large pot, saute shallots in olive oil.
  2. Once the shallots start caramelizing, add lamb cubes.
  3. Simmer for 20 minutes
  4. In another smaller pot, simmer pomegranate juice until it is reduced by 1/2 or more- it should become slightly syrupy
  5. Then add this reduction in another pot with chicken and beef broth, nuts, all the spices, and S&P- let simmer for 15 minutes
  6. Drain the beef and add to the broth-pomegranate-spice mixture.
  7. Let it simmer until the lamb feels tender
  8. Sprinkle with fresh pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley.

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I’m taking a brief interlude from “Pomegranate Week” to discuss something that has been on my mind these days.

Above is a picture of a meal my mom makes in Greece ever year, when the snails come out…Spicy Snail Stew with Onions, Tomatoes and Potatoes. It’s not a great picture, but I wanted to share because each of the ingredients are so fresh and compliment one another so beautifully. The snail essence infuses into the vegetables. The liquid reduces into a concentrated medley of veggie-seafood flavor. And this kind of meal applies directly to the subject of my post today- It’s easy, affordable, homey, and an exquisite result of local products.

We are all aware of the recent explosion of the “organic” “local product” “garden to plate” movement. There are different sections in the grocery store for organic products. Chefs in interviews, on cooking shows, and in recipes emphasize using organic this and organic that. Michelle Obama facilitated a White House produce garden. For some, this is an important and essential ideal for our health as a society. For others, it is elitist and impractical.

On food forums, such as Chowhound.com, people debate this topic with pretty feverish passion. When people are tight on money, have less resources in their respective areas, live in colder climates, or are busy working parents with two kids…I can understand how the criticism of processed, packaged foods feels like unfair personal attacks.

I feel so fortunate for the moments sitting on the steps with my great aunt in Karpathos, cracking open fresh almonds.  The aroma alone…sigh.  Or eating fresh eggs just hatched from my grandparent’s chickens…These pure experiences of ingredients is certainly ideal…

And I am idealistic, but I can be practical. I don’t raise chickens here in Athens. But there are countless recipes that are fast and affordable that do not come out of a box or can. Specialness of food needs to be demystified. It is not just for fine dining and connoisseur cooks. Even for those who do not enjoy the process of cooking, or see food as an afterthought to the course of their day…well, small choices make big differences. And I really do believe much can be achieved more simply that people may think.

No one needs to grow a garden in their small apartment balcony, or take 3 hours to cook a meal, or spend exorbitant amounts of money.

But isn’t it always better to strive for the healthiest options? Isn’t it better to be aware of our choices and the consequences of our choices?

Let each community strive to make this lifestyle more accessible for everyone. We have to start somewhere. Change is never a speedy process.

Here in Greece, we are lucky. It is much more accessible to get our hands on fresh yet inexpensive produce. There is Laiki, the open air market in a different neighborhood each day; In the center of Athens, the Agora is the mecca for food- spices, fruit, veggies, seafood, meat- all extremely fresh; Most neighborhoods are within walking distance of small-business produce markets.

Unlike most places in America, it is actually more affordable to buy from these smaller markets…

Which means we have fewer excuses. Why not support the local sellers of produce? It’s good for our economy and good for our bodies.

There are always better choices based on our respective means and opportunity. We can try to prepare seasonal ingredients which is healthier, affordable and tastier. We can buy frozen instead of canned if it’s not going to be fresh. I definitely boil and freeze the beautiful thin green beans that are only available in spring. Sure, I’d rather eat fresh- but I don’t have time today for grocery shopping, and so this is a better option than a powdered soup. I’m going to sautee some of the green beans with garlic. Choices.

This dialogue is important, and I’m glad it is happening.

What are your thoughts?

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I am currently addicted to podcasts of Eric Ripert’s cooking show: Avec Eric. I highly recommend that you become addicted as well.

I’ve always had respect for Eric Ripert. (He is head chef of Le Bernardin-a 3 michelin, New York Times 4 star restaurant). As I see it, he is one of a handful of chefs that consistently challenges himself to explore new flavors, develop new dishes, and take risks. He does not rest on a handful of famous recipes that gave him his reputation. I don’t want to sound like a sycophantic bore, but there truly is something special about Ripert’s wide-eyed love for food.

He expresses enthusiasm, wonder and appreciation for each component of cooking.  You’d think that he discovered gold when biting into a freshly picked ripe-red tomato.  Food doesn’t have to be complicated to be great. When people are busy or when money is tight, remember that a simple assembly of a few great, fresh ingredients can be divine.

Ripert also values savoring and celebration.  He emphasizes the community that results when food and cooking brings people together. I unashamedly relate to this sentimental approach to food.

I’ve been trying the recipes available on his website: http://www.aveceric.com. A simple goat cheese appetizer inspired me to create a few simple variations to showcase pomegranate.

In Ripert’s recipe, goat cheese is rolled into balls and rolled in a bread crumb mixture seasoned with olive oil, herbes de provence, fresh sea salt and pepper. The cheese is then broiled briefly and served on thin slices of baguette. Simple and lovely.

I adapted this recipe to create a sweet-savory combination. Goat cheese goes well with many fruit flavors, such as cranberry and pears. Pomegranate seeds add a great bite in texture with the creamy cheese. I add toasted walnuts as well for an earthy, toasted dimension.

POMEGRANATE GOAT CHEESE TOASTS- 4 appetizer servings (two toasts each)

  • 8 ounces goat cheese
  • 2/3 cup pomegranate seeds
  • 1/4 cup crushed, toasted walnuts (or more if you like)
  • 4 tsp walnut oil or olive oil
  • 4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 8 thin, toasted slices of french baguette bread
  • arugula leaves-optional
  1. Set your oven to broil setting
  2. Leave goat cheese out of the fridge to come to room temperature
  3. Mix pomegranate seeds, walnuts, oil, and S&P in a bowl
  4. In your hands, slice and roll the goat cheese into 8 individual round balls
  5. Roll the cheese in the pomegranate seed mixture
  6. Broil for 2-3 minutes
  7. You can plate these on toasts, or in a bed of arugula leaves drizzled with walnut oil and extracted pomegranate juice. OR on toasts resting on a bed of arugula leaves.

In the spirit of appreciation and respect for ingredients, try to get your pomegranates and walnuts from local food markets. Try to find the french goat cheese from a reputable store instead of a packaged grocery store variety. And savor all sensations of each bite.

Christina, stop rolling your eyes and calling me corny. I see you!

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I think what I proposed as Pomegranate week is going to turn into…weeks. There is so much I want to try and share about this berry.

The Babylonians believed chewing pomegranate seeds made them invincible in battle. When I drink one too many glasses of pomegranate liquor I feel invincible too.

Since making this will take a little over a month- start now to have it available for Christmas or New Years- or winter in general. Anything bright red feels festive to me.

I have many friends who would roll their eyes at the mention of how many days it takes to make this.  “Why not just buy one from the store?”  “Why wait one month when you could have it now?” etc. etc. But making homemade liquor requires actually very little active time and is quite easy. And, of course, there is such satisfaction when your own hands and time go into the process. I enjoy something so much more when it is a creation rather than a product. Watching others enjoy and savor is even better.

This can be drunk after dinner (or before dinner, or at lunch, or in the morning) as a dessert liquor. It can also be mixed with champagne or sparkling wine for a great cocktail. Garnish with pomegranate seeds or a wedge of orange. (I use orange zest to flavor the liquor).

I added orange zest and star anise the second time I made this and it improved the flavor of this drink. The acidity from orange instead of just lemon adds another dimension of acidity. Star anise adds an almost spicy liquorice taste. It comes in powder form, but I prefer to use the star-shaped, rust colored fruit in its entirety.

***Brief interlude of star anise info-Star Anise is a fruit native to China and Vietnam, but now grows in southern China and Japan. Its star shape ranges from 5-10 point sections. It is picked from trees before it is ripe, and then dried. The flavor is much more pungent than anise seed or fennel seed. It is wonderful to use in mulled wine, rice, rice puddings, meat marinades, and fruit salads (among other things).

Okay, back to the recipe. After a few variations, this is my favorite method and recipe for Pomegranate Liquor:

MADE WITH MY OWN HANDS POMEGRANATE LIQUOR

STEP 1

You will need:

  • 1 large sterilized glass jar that can be sealed tightly
  • 2 cups of “base” liquor like vodka or gin
  • one strip of lemon zest and two strips of orange zest- without white pith
  • 2 pieces of star anise
  • 5 large, heavy, firm pomegranates (you may only need 3 or 4, but get 5 just in case)
  1. Cut Pomegranate in half.
  2. With a presser or any kind of handy  juice strainer, extract as much juice as you can. You need to end up with 10 ounces of pom. juice
  3. Put juice (with its pulp- but NO white pith or rind allowed) in the glass jar, and add to it the vodka, and lemon and orange zest.
  4. Seal jar TIGHTLY
  5. Steep this mixture for at least 2 weeks and up to 4 weeks in a cool, dark space. Turn over every few days.

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STEP 2

You will need:

  • A strainer
  • 1 1/4 cup Sugar
  • 2/3 cup Water
  • a 2nd bigger glass jar if needed
  1. Strain the pomegranate-vodka mix- do not squeeze too hard.
  2. Boil the sugar and water together until it dissolves- let cool
  3. Add syrup to pomegranate-vodka mix and seal quickly in a bigger jar now if necessary.
  4. Let steep for 3 weeks to 1 month.
  5. Bottle. I like to add a few fresh pomegranate seeds to the bottle-this is a lovely little decoration.

You can of course decorate your bottle in many ways, and give as a gift- Make your own design into stickers, wrap and tie with colorful twine, etc. Play with textures and colors.

*note- if there is “sludge” at the bottom of the liquor, just take all the clear liquid from the top to bottle and leave the sludge behind.

When I take my first drink on Christmas, I will let you know how it turns out. Ask me any questions you like, and let me know how it turns out for you!

“clink”- Stin Iyia Mas! (A Greek toast- To Our Health)

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