Friday, 5 April 2013

Day 19: Vegan Sweet Potato Skordalia, April 5, 2013

When we think about skordalia, our first thought is usually garlic.  Our second thought may be the  food that we serve with skordalia, or even the potatoes.  We did not think about sweet potatoes, however.  Yes, sweet potatoes!  The beautiful orange tubers that melt in our mouths with a little butter and brown sugar do not seem, at first,  to go with garlic.  But, the authors of The Olive and the Caper offered a simple recipe for sweet potato skordalia, that we became intrigued and had to try it.

The authors of the book write about the importation of potatoes into Greece, and how sweet potatoes are still a new food in Greek cuisine.  But, finding a place for the sweet potato may be difficult, since many classic dishes use potatoes which are savoury and have a tomato base; sweet potatoes may not fit into some of those recipes.  Using them with garlic and vinegar seemed out of place to have that sweet, creamy base with the bite of the garlic and the tang of the vinegar.

But, if a Greek household such as ours is to learn about how to use sweet potatoes in traditional fare, then this is a good place to have our first lesson.  Our other thought was that during Great Lent, we make skordalia regularly; we tried the walnut one, so why not try this suggestion, too?  This very informative cookbook has given us some really great recipes and stories, so we had some faith that this would turn out well, too.  And, we only had to buy sweet potatoes -- we had all the other ingredients.

For this recipe, you will need:
2 medium sweet potatoes
1/3 cup pine nuts (can use almonds as a substitute)
3 large cloves of garlic
1 cup olive oil
1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
dash of cayenne pepper (or other hot pepper)
1/2 cup water
and a food processor

The first step to this recipe is to peel the sweet potatoes, then cut them into cubes. You want to cut them into similar sized cubes so that they cook at the same rate while boiling.  Uniformity is important in a lot of foods for this reason, so make sure they are similarly sized chunks of potato.  Put the sweet potato cubes into a pot full of water, and boil until they are just tender.  If a fork is put into the piece of potato, and the potato slides off the fork then it is done cooking.  You want to make sure there is a very slight bite to the potato and it is not mushy.

While the potatoes are cooking, start mixing together the pine nuts and the garlic in the food processor.  Give this a few pulses so that the two mix together well.  The pine nuts do not have to be well-pureed here, because they will continue being smashed when adding other ingredients.

Next, add the oil and the vinegar to the food processor.  Add the cayenne pepper, too.  Remember that cayenne pepper, as do many hot peppers, get a little hotter as they sit, so don't go too crazy with the spicy.  The bite of skordalia should come from the garlic, not the hot pepper.

Beat the ingredients together until you have a smooth and creamy mixture.  It will look a little like Hollandaise sauce or mayonnaise when it is all whipped.  But, we are not done yet.  So, this is the point to make sure that the nuts, garlic, oil, and vinegar are smooth and creamy.

now it is time to add the sweet potatoes to the food processor.  But, first, take them out of the boiling water and drain them in a colander.  Give them a moment to cool, or, run them under cold water to stop the cooking process.  Drain all the water you can off of the sweet potatoes, and then, add them to the nut/oil mixture.

Use the pulse function on the food processor to get to a chunky consistency.  If you want the final product to be chunky, then add only half to two thirds the amount of sweet potatoes initially, and reserve the remaining sweet potatoes for the adding at the end.  If you prefer a smooth and creamy texture, then continue to blend until you reach the desired consistency.

But, you are not done yet!  Now, with the lid on, and using the lowest speed setting on the processor, begin pouring in the water to the mixture until it is all blended well.  This will make the sweet potato skordalia a little fluffy and add the last bit of creaminess to this dairy free delight.

Whip this until you achieve the smooth, creamy consistency of a dip or a spread.  If you chose to withhold some of the sweet potatoes to get to a chunky version of skordalia, then add them after the water and continue with only the pulse function in order to get to the consistency you want.  Then, when you are done blending, chill the mixture until you are ready to serve it.  Put it in a serving dish and garnish as you would any skordalia -- with capers, crushed pepper flaks, oil, pine nuts or just parsley.  Now, you can enjoy the sweet potato skordalia!

Prior to making this dish, we were not sure what we would think about this skordalia.  As much as the recipe appeared interesting, and given the fact that we really like this cookbook, this was so different from the traditional versions that we don't know what to expect.

So, what is the verdict? It is an unexpected surprise to get the sweetness of the sweet potato, followed by the little bite of garlic.  The pine nuts were completely unnoticeable in this.  We think that they were used more as a binding agent than a flavouring.  Almonds may have gone better for flavour in this.  We garnished with a little oil and a sprinkling of hot pepper just to keep it simple.  That extra bite of hot pepper was nice, but did not really match the expectation of sweet that we wanted from the sweet potatoes.   Actually, we all thought the recipe needed a little more red wine vinegar.  We all agreed that it was a lovely texture, spreading so easily and smoothly onto our crackers and bread.  We even used it as a sandwich spread with lettuce, tomato, and onion. That was interesting!  Somehow the sweet potato really worked with the onion and tomato -- the lettuce was just for the crunch.  We also used it with some roasted vegetables and that seemed to be the best combination.  The sweet roasted peppers and zucchini were perfect matches with this sweet potato creation.  The pairing just 'worked.'

We don't know that we would make this too often, but it is a nice surprising dish that combines flavours in a new way.  It is worth trying, and worth using as a treat.  Now, we have yet one more way of making skordalia, and that is always a bonus!

"Many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head and knows not that it brings the abundance to drive away the hunger."

St. Basil the Great

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Day 18: Vegan dish: Orange Slices in Honey Syrup - April 4, 2013

Do you ever have a day when you want something sweet, but not too sweet?  Or, you want something juicy sweet, but you get tired of eating raw fruit?  We have days like that.  And, with that in mind, we found this lovely preparation for orange slices in a honey syrup.

Citrus is a great winter fruit.  Of course, if we were in Greece, there would be an abundance of citrus fruit throughout the year (particularly during this time of year)-- with lemons, oranges, and grapefruits ... the list goes on!  And, we know that citrus is grown in many parts of the world.  Even OUR house has a lemon tree in Toronto!  The point is that citrus fruit are plentiful and in such great variety; they are rarely boring.

So, why would we douse an orange with syrup?  Well, the idea behind this dish is that it makes the fruit fancier.  In this dish, you get the sweetness of the honey in the syrup working with the slightly sour juice of the orange, and you get symphony of flavours.  It is refreshing and bright, and can be served by itself (like glyko tou koutaliou) or over yogurt or ice cream (not during Lent), or just plain cake.  This dish will last in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks in an airtight container.

For this recipe, you will need the following:

2 oranges, peeled and sliced
3 TBSP honey
1/8 cup orange juice
1 TBSP orange liqueur or brandy
cinnamon, to taste, for garnish

The preparation is pretty straightforward, and the most important part of the directions is making sure that the oranges are cleaned well.  Instead of just peeling the orange, use a knife and follow the line of where the white pith meets the flesh, and carve off the skin as if you were skinning a melon.  Make sure none of the white pith remains on the sides, because that is the bitter part of the fruit and can ruin the end result of your product.

Lay the slices into a single layer, or alternating double layers.  We used a glass baking dish.  The important part is that all of the orange slices become fully covered with the syrup, and laying them out in single layer form allows that one side of every slice will be in syrup.  If you are lucky, then both sides will be covered.  There have been some poeple who would put the slices in a bowl, lining the sides of the bowl so that half of each slice was dipped, and then they would occassionally shake the bowl to coat the other half of each slice.  The flat dish worked for us, but you may try a bowl.  Lay all the orange slices together.  If there are some that are not complete circles, you should snack on those, or put them in a separate dish for the family.  It sounds like something a mother would say, "Save the nice looking pieces for company."  But, in this case, we agree.

Now, make the syrup.  The syrup starts by putting the honey, orange juice and liqueur into a sauce pan or a frying pan.  Mix the ingredients together in the pan and put it on medium high heat.  Heat the syrup until it just comes to the boiling point.  Once it starts to boil, turn down the heat to a medium low and simmer for about 10 minutes.  You don't want to cook the syrup too much because it will become dark brown because of the honey in the recipe.  By keeping the heat at medium low, you are giving enough heat to cook through the alcohol, but not enough to change the light golden colour of the honey and juice mixture.

Now, pour that hot syrup over the organge slices.  Try to distribute the syrup to coat all of the slices.  And, please note that the warm syrup will somewhat penetrate the pourous orange slices.  But now you have to cover the dish and let it stay in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 hours to completly cool and set a bit.  The syrup will not solidify.  When you add alcohol to things they don't solidify, so the liquid will not become viscous.  But the syrup does cool and will seem to be a little thicker than when it was hot.  So, make sure to give the dish time in the refrigerator to cool thoroughly. After tasting the final product both husband and two others commented that this was a very juicy, refreshing and, surprisingly, not cloyingly sweet at all. Yum!

Please note the powdered cinnamon over the oranges and syrup
When serving, sprinkle a little cinnamon on top (unless you are a cinnamon hater).  Serve this at the end of any meal and it will satisfy any thoughts of dessert in a healthier manner than some other dessert choices.  This is a delicious and easy way to incorporate fruit into a meal, as the Greeks often do!

If you want to make variations for oranges in honey syrup, you could add cloves or allspice berries to the syrup, use a different type of liqueur, or use a different citrus fruit.  We are looking forward to trying to make this with grilled pineapple slices!  If you come up with another combination appropriate for Great Lent, we would love to hear your ideas.

“As a moth gnaws a garment, so doth envy consume a man.”

St. John Chrysostomos

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Day 17: Chick Pea Fritters With Tomato Sauce - Ρεβυθοκεφτέδες με ντομάτα - April 3, 2013

We had some leftover canned chickpeas.  What do you do with leftover chickpeas?  We had made hummus, we made some soup, but we still have about a cup of chick peas lef tover.  Now what?  Well, we decided that we would take the plunge into a Veffa cookbook (Veffa's Kitchen) and see what Veffa would do with revithia (Greek word for chickpeas).  Fritters!  Of course!  We read her recipe, and then decided that we knew more or less how to make fritters, and we could "wing it" without needing exact amounts.  We saw the ingredient list she used, and that was more important than knowing if we had 1/2 teaspoon of something.  As we looked through the fridge, we realized that we had the onion, the tomato sauce, the mint, and the chick peas.  Then, we grabbed our self-rising flour and decided to go for it!  We had about 30 minutes to complete this recipe, so we were very focused in our task.  (It did not take all 30 minutes, but we did not make too many fritters).  And, good thing, too, because these made the perfect appetizers for unexpected company!

For this recipe, you will need:

About 1/2 can of chickpeas
1/2 onion, chopped fine
6-8 mint leaves
salt and pepper to taste
about 1/2 cup tomato sauce (we used a San Marzano tomato puree)
some self-rising flour (maybe 1 cup, a little less)

So, we were winging it, remember, and we tried to make it easy for everyone who follows.  First, you mash up the chick peas.  Using a potato masher works well because it separates the skins from the peas and leaves some of the revitiha whole or slightly smashed.  This really contributes to the varying texture that we love in food.

Chop the onion to a fine dice.  You don't want discernible pieces of onion to jump out of the fritter, since they are chickpea fritters - chickpeas should be the focus.  Add the onion to the smashed chickpeas and mix well.

Next, chop the mint.  We have mentioned before about lining up the leaves of any herb, rolling them into a cigar shape cylinder and cutting fine, ribbon-like pieces, so do that.  You want the mint chopped fine so that it is distributed throughout the fritter.  Now, add the mint to the mixture and mix well.

At this point, you can stop using the potato masher and switch to a spoon.  One of our favourite cooking utensils that we use for so many things is the rubber spatula.  It is probably one of four utensils we cannot live without!  So, add the mint and mix everything together.

Now, pour some tomato sauce into the mixture.  You want to add enough that the mix is wet, but not runny.  The consistency should be like cooked oatmeal.  Add a little salt and pepper and taste the mix to find out if you need more salt, pepper, or even mint.  Adjust your seasonings to your taste.

Then, add the flour.  Sprinkle some flour into the mixing bowl and fold it all together.  You want to use the folding method here so that you don't over mix and have chewy fritters.  You will know that you have added enough flour once the mixture begins holding its shape without falling down the sides of the bowl.  The batter will be firm, but not runny or dry.  You should have made a very soft dough instead of a runny batter.  Allow this mixture to sit for 15 minutes, while you heat up the oil.

Pour some frying oil (vegetable, canola, or peanut oil) into a pan.  Using a pot is nice because it gives depth to the frying area, which is helpful when frying fritters.  Heat the oil to the point when you drop some of the fritter mixture into the hot oil, the fritter will sink to the bottom and then immediately surface.  If the fritter mixture does not surface, the oil is not hot enough!  There shouldn't be any splatters, either.  That would mean that the oil is too hot.

Using the two spoon method, scoop some of the fritter batter into one spoon.  Working the ball back and forth between spoons will form an oblong, almost football-shaped  fritter (the North American type of football).  Drop that in the hot oil.  Allow the fritters to fry for 3- 5 minutes on the first side.  You should turn them over in the pan of oil, so that both sides turn a nice golden colour.  Or, you can ladle the hot oil over the top side.  It is easy to flip them over -- it's just not easy making the fritters stay!

Once the fritters have turned light brown on each side, pull them from the oil and place them on a paper towel to drain any excess oil.  Serve warm as a dinner entree or as an appetiser.

We liked these fritters.  The should have sat a little longer to make them a bit more airy.  Self-rising flour needs time to rise, and that entire 30 minute rest would have helped.  But, we did not have 30 minutes, and these turned out fine.  They could have been more airy, yes, but we did not have any leftovers, so we know they were tasty!  We also think that we could have added a little garlic.  Surprisingly, Veffa's recipe did not have garlic.  We thought garlic went into every dish with onions, but not this one.  Next time, we are going to sneak in some garlic.  Lastly, we served these fritters with a piece of lemon nearby for those who thought these may have needed a little something.

These were very tasty.  We all enjoyed these modified mezedes, especially the complex textures of the whole chickpeas combined with the mashed ones and the smooth tomato.  The lingering hint of mint was a nice surprise.  So the next time we make them, a little garlic with our chick peas fritters will take us a long way in flavour.

"Every family should have a room where Christ is welcome in the person of the hungry and thirsty stranger."

St. John Chrysostom

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Day 16: Dried Fruits and Nuts - Part 1 - Χυροί Καρποί - April 2, 2013

Top row, left to right: soy nuts, macadamia nuts, roasted pumpkin seeds,  corn nuts.  Bottom row, left to right: mixed nuts, peanuts, cashews, whole almonds, pecans, walnuts.
When one thinks about the Mediterranean diet, and the Greek one in particular, usually the following components come to mind: lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, fish, wild greens, oregano, olive oil and wine. What often gets overlooked by those not familiar with the Greek table is the essential inclusion of ξυρούς καρπούς (xirous karpous) - or dried fruit and nuts.

Traditionally, these dried fruit and nuts suited the agrarian nature of the Greek farming family well as they are very energy dense and nutrient rich. In fact, my husband's grandparents would always bring with them dried figs and raisins to their daily farm work as they were easy to transport and very high in sugar and fibre.

Dried nuts have been documented in ancient Greek recipes since time immemorial. The world's oldest intact cookbook, "The Deipnosophists" by Athenaeus has several references and recipes to dried fruit and nuts. A Romanian Greek classics student, Anda Pleniceanu, has an interesting blog entry on Athenaeus' Gastris "cake" made with nuts, poppy and sesame seeds. Click here to read this very interesting modern interpretation of Atheanaeus' ancient Greek recipe

So, if dried nuts and fruits are so important to the modern Greek diet, how are they suitable for Great Lent?  Well, for one, most of these foods are high in protein and fibre, making them ideal snacks to satiate one's appetite using small portions, while providing a nutritious boost when one is not eating animal-based proteins.  And, with the variety of nuts and fruits available in the markets, there is likely something for everyone's taste!  Here are a few of the more common nuts that are seen throughout Greek cuisine.  When you mix them all together, you get a nice snack mix that is possibly healthier than some pre-fabricated trail mixes available in the stores.

But these nuts are not just for snacking.  They are used in a variety of foods -- both sweet and savoury.  Yes, we all immediately think of walnuts and baklava with Greek sweets.  But, there are many other nuts used for sweets. You can find almonds as a typical spoon sweet (γλυκό του κουταλιόυ) that are made when the almond is still very immature and, thus, very soft, and pine nuts in a wide variety of dishes - both sweet (e.g. mixed with honey) and savoury (pine nut and rice stuffing for poultry). 

With so many people today being allergic to peanuts, modern Greek folks are finding substitutes that include dried soy nuts; although not really a nut (it is a bean), dried soy nuts are slowly being assimilated into common Lenten fare in some households which are fasting.

Over the next week we will dedicate a few blog entries about this very versatile category of Greek Lenten food; we have will highlight some nuts  and dried fruit for you to consider when making your next Greek delight - whether that is a dessert, side dish, or even an entree.  We are nuts about Greek food, and Greek food is often about nuts!

Roasted Pumpkin 
Walnuts.  Used commonly in Greek desserts

Macadamia Nuts

Roasted Soy Nuts
Roasted Peanuts
Corn Nuts.  Not typical in the Greek diet, but a tasty snack.
Mixed Nuts, including cashews, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, and Brazil Nuts.

"Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition for our existence."

St. Basil the Great