Tuesday, December 30, 2014

First Day Food

The first day of the new year. It's important. It's our first step--our proverbial toe in the water--and yet we focus more on the big bash of the last day of the current year than the first day on the upcoming new chapter in our lives.

To encourage us all, I'm posting a few links to ideas for food to enjoy on the first day of the new year, but first I'd like to share with you the new year's day tradition of my Greek heritage, Vasilopita. (Pronounced, vah-sill-O-pita. Not a long "o" as in Oprah. It's a short "o" sound as in shop or dock.)

Having spent the first few years of my life in Greece, I am reminded of the one Greek food tradition of the first day of the year, the cutting of theVasilopita, so named for St. Basil (Vasili). There are many variations on the story of the origin of Vasilopita, with even more versions for how to make it. Sometimes it's a cake, sometimes a sweet bread, sometimes it's a spice cake, sometimes there are nuts and dried fruit in the batter. In my family it's a large round cake flavoured with orange juice and grated orange peel. Once it's cooled and ready to serve, the cake is dusted with powdered sugar. If you google images for Vasilopita, you'll get a huge return on your search.

On the first day of the new year, this Greek tradition requires that the most senior member of the family cut the cake, declaring the first piece for God, the second for the house and then for each family member and any guests. It is believed that the person who discovers the coin in their piece of Vasilopita will be blessed with good luck all year. I remember the anticipation and excitement of discovering who had the coin. It was always a wonderful time! Traditions are important in lifting an ordinary day to a higher level and in helping us to pause and reflect, spending time with loved ones in the process of a simple act that's been repeated every year for the entire history of my family and in that of all Greek families in Greece and around the world.

In Spain the idea is to consume 12 grapes (one for each month of the new year) just as the clock strikes midnight and we enter the new year.

My Swedish friend serves up rice pudding with a whole almond in one of the dishes. The person who consumes the almond will have good luck in the new year; possibly will marry or be blessed with a baby.

Here in the South, we typically consume collards and black-eyed peas, while others prepare Hopping John for the first meal of the day. We're all stacking the cards for a financially abundant year.

In all of these traditions, the idea is to begin the new year with the best possible odds for success and good health. For a list of these food traditions, you may wish to read these articles from epicurious.com and serious eats.

The good folks in the Southern Living test kitchen have a very easy method for cooking collards. It's a short video.

Electrolux has a food website called Live. Love. Lux. with ideas for a new year's day brunch buffet for all budgets. Southern Living offers an assortment of ideas including one for Hopping John Noodle Bowl. Now that is creativity, fusing the traditional with the influence of the Vietnamese Pho. Epicurious has a list of Menus for feeding friends and family on the upcoming first day.

Personally, other than the Vasilopita, I'm going to go a little nuts and serve my Greek-Style Stew of Black Eyed Peas with a couple of Collard & Cream Cheese Dumplings in each serving.

Collard and Cream Cheese Dumplings
My recipe is vegetarian all the way.  For a meat-lover's version, you may want to try Paula Deen's recipe, which uses ham hocks. Be sure to incorporate some of the meat in your filling.   If you have a favorite way of preparing collards, stick with that recipe and substitute it here.  To fold the dumplings, I recommend watching this video tutorial, or you can fold into whatever shape suits you.  I don't think anyone will be standing by to rate your folding technique.

2 cups cooked collards, cooled completely and chopped finely
8 oz cream cheese at room temperature (so that it is soft enough to mix)
12 dashes of hot sauce (I prefer Texas Pete)
40 wonton wrappers
small bowl of water
vegetable oil for frying

Combine the collards, hot sauce and cream cheese, adding more or less hot sauce to suit your taste. Place about 1 teaspoon of the filling onto the center of a wrapper, moisten two sides and fold over into a triangle, pinching sides together to seal in the filling.  Remember, you can fold into a more traditional dumpling shape by watching thiseasy video tutorial.  Heat oil and fry dumplings about 3-4 minutes. Place on paper towels to absorb excess oil.  Allow to cool a bit before serving.

Vegetarian Collards (for filling)
One bunch of  collards
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper, adjusted to suit your taste
water or vegetable stock

Heat a heavy pan on high, pour all olive oil, stir in onions and garlic.  Turn heat to medium-low and continue to cook until onions are wilted.  In the meantime, wash collard leaves well.  Gather a few leaves, roll into a large cigar-shape and cut into 1/2" ribbons.  Add to the pot, stir to combine everything, season and pour in the water or vegetable stock, which should cover the collards by about one inch.  Bring to a rolling boil, cover and reduce to a medium boil.  Collards should be tender and ready to eat at around 30 to 45 minutes.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Soul Food of My Childhood

Yes, you guessed, it's chicken soup. Of course, it's chicken soup, but I'm Greek by birth, so it's Souppa Avgolemono. A mouthful, I agree, but you can just say Greek Chicken Soup, and then go fill your mouth with its comforting goodness. Here's what you do.

Greek Chicken Soup (with a fancy-looking creamy finish)

Ingredients for Broth
1 chicken or hen *
1 large carrot (peeled and cut into large chunks)
1 large celery rib (strings removed and cut into large chunks)
2 T Italian parsley

Remaining Ingredients
1 cup rice
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
4 large eggs (6, if you want the soup to be extra creamy)
large pinch of salt
freshly cracked black pepper

Get the biggest pot that you own (big enough to hold the chicken and to cover it with water), Into the pot goes the chicken and vegetables and then enough cold (as in cold from the faucet) water to cover and come about 1-2 inches above the chicken. Place the pot on the stove over high heat and cover with a lid. Regarding the salt and pepper, you'll have to learn how much to add. If you don't have enough, you can adjust this later.

Bring the whole thing to a rolling boil, take the lid off, reduce heat to medium and skim off any "scum" that comes to the top. Cover the pot and continue to cook for 1 1/2  - 2 hours. You're doing this to cook the chicken completely and to extract the flavor from the bones and meat.

Once the chicken is cooked, use a large strainer to remove the chicken and all vegetables from the broth. Taste the broth and add salt, if it's needed. Increase the heat, bring broth to a boil and gauge (or measure, if you must) the quantity. You'll want about 8 - 10 cups of broth. Stir in 1 cup rice, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Rice should be tender.

While the rice is cooking, debone the chicken, keeping the meat warm.

Once the rice is done, turn off the heat and pour 2 cups of broth into a bowl. You'll add this to the lemon and egg mixture at the end to temper the eggs.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the salt. I use an electric hand-held mixer. When the eggs are thick, creamy and have a pale color, slowly mix in the lemon juice. Now, begin to ladle in the hot broth very slowly. Move the bowl next to your pot and slowly stir in the egg mixture into the broth. I use the ladle. Continue stirring, until everything is properly incorporated. Cover with the lid and allow to sit for a couple of minutes.

Ladle soup into bowls, top off with a generous amount of the chicken meat and dust liberally with the black pepper.

*Can substitute with 3-4 lbs chicken parts. The parts should be with bone and skin on, to release the most flavor. Also, please be sure to include the backs, which have mostly bones.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Blending Cultures With Pastry

Someone challenged me recently to come up with a recipe for a delicious but easy bite-sized pastry recipe. Actually, it was my beautiful sister Antonia. She's a fabulous cook, but she was stumped. She wanted something that felt like a traditional Greek pastry, but she also wanted it to be much easier and not take up an entire day to make. Done! I blended two traditional recipes, the Greek Baklava and the German Apple Strudel.

The recipe that I created is for phyllo (a.k.a. fillo and filo) dough cups that you fill with a German strudel-like filling. See what you think. Taste testers like them warm (not long after they're out of the oven) and just as much when properly cooled.

Strudel Phyllo Cups

Yield: 45 bite-sized cups (60, if not mounded)
This is a very easy pastry to prepare. There are many steps, but they’re all easy, and the baking only takes 30-40 minutes. Will keep for up to 2 days. The phyllo will soften after 2 days; for maximum crunch, serve within one day of baking.

45 mini phyllo cups (60, if you will not mound the filling) These are sold in packs of 15.
2 cups shelled pistachios, ground coarsely
2 cups slivered almonds, ground coarsely
powdered sugar, for dusting

For the breadcrumbs:
2-2 ½ cups fresh breadcrumbs (Cut crust off bread, cut into cubes and run through food processor until you have small to medium crumbs. Don’t over-process or the bread will become a paste. You can also cut into smaller cubes, using a very sharp knife.)
4 T. salted butter

For the apple filling:
5 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into small cubes
juice of half a lemon
zest of one lemon (use a zester that gives you thin threads)
1/8 t. cinnamon
I cup sugar
1 cup water

For the syrup:
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
zest of 2 lemons

All of this can be prepared up to one day ahead. The filling must be cooled before filling, so it’s fine to prepare everything ahead of assembly and baking.

Melt butter in medium-hot pan. Stir in breadcrumbs and toss at first, to coat bread evenly with the butter. Continue to cook for about 15 minutes, until crumbs have a golden-brown color. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Put all ingredients in a pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. This will allow lemon zest to impart flavor to the syrup. The zest will also take on enough sugar so that it can be used as a candied topping for each cup.

Apple filling:
Stir everything into a pot over high heat until it’s bubbling, then reduce to medium-high heat for a slow bubbling. Stir occasionally and continue to cook until the sugar and water have been absorbed by the apples, leaving about 2 tablespoons of liquid.

Assembly, Baking and Presentation:
Remove the phyllo cups from the freezer 10 minutes before you are ready to use them. Pre-heat oven to 375F and place rack in the middle.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and place the cups evenly on the paper.
Combine the apple mixture with the nuts and breadcrumbs. You can do this right in the pot that the apples were cooked in, once the mixture has cooled. Stir to make sure the nuts are mixed throughout.

Fill each cup with about 1 tablespoon of the mix, depending on how many you are making and if you’ll be mounding the filling or stretching it by filling only to the top of each cup. Press down lightly.

Bake for 30-45 minutes, depending on your over. You should have a golden-brown look on the filling, ensuring that the nuts have developed a strong roasted flavor.

Set the pan on a cooling rack and spoon some of the syrup directly on each cup, placing a lemon zest thread on top of each cup. If you find that you don’t have enough threads, adjust your recipe and zest in one more lemon next time. Lemons vary in size and will yield more or less zest.

Dust heavily with powdered sugar and allow to cool.

If serving on the following day, cover well with plastic wrap and dust again with powdered sugar prior to serving. 

To serve, place a white cloth napkin on a large silver tray or platter and place the cups directly on the napkin.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Food Blog & My 100,000 Plus Views: A History

I'd like to introduce you to the starting point of my blogging journey. Courtesy of the talented and generous Maura O'Connell, I got hooked on sharing my recipes and on blogging on her website's community pages. To date, I've had well over 100,000 views of my beginner food blog (118,611 to be completely accurate).

While I'm beginning to update recipes from that site and post them here, I am eternally grateful to Maura and to her webmaster husband for opening up their "home", allowing us all to learn and grow with the internet while we were growing a community around our shared love of Maura's singing and live performances. If you've enjoyed any of my recipes or the stories that I've shared with you, I recommend that you trust my musical taste and visit Maura's website. If you're so inclined, you might even buy a CD.
When it was first released, I wrote a review of Maura's last CD. You can read it on Amazon.com, if you are so inclined.

Thank you, Maura, for being such a genuine and generous person. If I'm ever in Nashville again, I promise to impose myself on you and your family. I'll be bringing gift of wine and food, of course.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Breaking Breakfast Rules

Breaking the rules is just another way of breaking out of the box, coloring outside the lines or not conforming to popular standards, am I right? Of course, I'm right, silly!

Standard Breakfast: Eggs, potatoes, grits, toast, pancakes, syrup, sausage, bacon, cereal, porridge. Got it. Love all of these things.

Confession: Today I broke the breakfast rules.

Leftover lentil salad topped with a beautiful soft-boiled egg and a few crumbles of blue cheese. It was delicious and loaded with nutritional goodness. It was also easy to prepare, pack and take to work with me. While my 3-minute egg was cooking, I scooped lentil salad into a portable container and sprinkled with the crumbled cheese. Timer goes off, egg goes under cold running water. I peeled my egg, placed it on the lentils, dusted with black pepper and salt and gently broke in two. All done in just enough time to take my laptop to the car, drink a glass of water, wash up the coffee cups, pack my lunch and kiss my sweet husband on the cheek.

Go on, see how you can break the rules today. You've had breakfast for dinner before (everyone has), so you already know how. Maybe dinner will be a picnic? Hmmmm...food for thought, sho' 'nough!