Next month, I will be teaching an intimate group of people a class on a winter warmer dish and transporting them to a place far away.The classes are always full of surprises for both me and my students. Each class, we visit a different country and simply lose ourselves for a couple of hours. Some students walk in and are super charged, others bring some of their inhibitions with them but however they show up, this is no right or wrong way. Once we have loosened up over a few wines and a canape indicative of the country we are going to, it is time to roll up the sleeves and make way for our inner artist. Next month, we are going to Greece. Whilst I do make some Greek dishes at home, such as, roasted chicken with lemon potatoes and Moussaka, I felt like changing it up so that I could also learn something new before I pass the baton to someone else. Like most good things that transpire over a conversation and a cup of coffee, so did a strong menu for my class. I grabbed a moment with my friend Vera Giannaris who is known for her warmth and hardcore Greek cooking. Vera talked to me about various dishes and what you would serve for a luncheon, an intimate gathering, as well as the Greek perspective of what spices pair well together and what don’t (these are the things the cookbooks don’t tell you). Her recipes were colorful or rather a collage of stories to include parents, grandparents, friends and children all glued together with a little chaos and a lot of fun. Of course a meal that lacked vibrancy would never make the cut on any given day in a Greek home, and Veras dishes were anything but lackluster. Oven roasted red peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice, raisins and spices, pies with sautéed leeks and spinach and Pastitsio. Her description of Pastitsio and everything it stood for definitely made this dish a strong contender for my class. It is the perfect winter warmer with it’s slow braised ground lamb sandwiched between tightly packed noodles and the fluffiest béchamel (there is a secret behind the fluffiness). I made a big tray of this and served it Greek style at my home – a home filled with cute naughty children (some of which were my own might I add), friends and family. Sunday lunch was the way all Sundays should be – filled with inviting scents of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon and high decibel conversation of people jumping between Romney and Obama debates one minute to hearty laughter the next. With so much action, why should any host miss out and be stuck in the kitchen. This dish can be fully prepped ahead of time so that all you need to do is pop it in the oven and show up like a guest. Ingredients Ground meat 1 lb ground lamb or beef (chuck) 1 medium sized onion, finely diced 1 tsp. black pepper Salt to taste ½ tsp. nutmeg 4 cloves 2 bay leaves 1 ½ cups whole peeled tomatoes (crushed) Pasta 1 lb. boiled pasta Handful of breadcrumbs to dust the oven dish Tbsp. butter to butter oven dish Bechamel 3 tbsp. plain flour 3 tbsp. butter 2 cups milk Pinch of nutmeg 2 egg yolks, evenly combined ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese Method Meat 1) Sweat the onions with black pepper and salt 2) Add the ground meet and cook on high heat until nice and brown 3) Add the nutmeg, cloves and bay leaves and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook on gentle simmer for 45 minutes covered with a lid Bechamel 1) Melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Cook on low heat to make a roux for a couple of minutes to lose the raw flavor 2) Combine the yolks and Parmesan cheese. Warm the milk and add to the roux. Allow the béchamel to thicken. When it has a custard consistency, add a couple of tablespoons to the yolks to temper it (this avoids the eggs from cooking when it is added straight to the béchamel) – cook on very low heat for a couple of minutes and remove from heat Assembly 1) Butter the oven dish and sprinkle with breadcrumbs 2) Tightly pack the noodles 3) Layer with the meat 4) Spread the béchamel over the top
Last week, I was invited by Haven Havens Kitchen to take part in their cooking class. For those of you who live in New York City, Havens Kitchen is a most charming cooking school with a feel of Nantucket, a backyard farm, flip flops and Lionel Rand’s ‘Let there be love’. The pace in that kitchen is certainly a novelty for this city and the class has that ‘super-chilled’ dinner party feel. There is a little store and café at the front and a kitchen that is lined with jars of rose petals, celery seeds and bark-like spices. I took a class Vegetarian Summer’s Meal class taught by cooking instructor Ashton Keefe. The class confirmed my recent findings at the farmers market – the produce may cost a little more but the strong flavors means there is a large impact with less ingredients. We made chili corn pasta from fresh corn kernels, cheese and tomato pie and wheat berry salad. Feeling inspired by the wheat berry salad, I came home and made an adapted version of the dish with left over veggies. Try this dish, it is a great alternative for rice and works really well as side dish or a salad. I briefly threw down some peppers, fennel slices and snap peas on a hot griddle pan for some charring and tossed them together with the cooked wheat berries and a mustard-basil dressing. Ingredients 1 red pepper 1 medium sized red onion 1 medium sized fennel Handful of snap peas 1 cup of uncooked wheat berries ¼ cup olive oil 1 tbsp. honey grain mustard Handful of basil leaves Salt and pepper 1 tsp. honey 2 tsp. red wine vinegar Method 1) Bring wheat berries to a boil and then simmer for 1 hour until tender. Drain and set aside 2) Coat the griddle pan with oil and cook the vegetables on high heat for a couple of minutes each side until there is some charring, remove and set aside 3) Whisk together the honey, mustard, oil, basil, red wine vinegar to create an emulsion 4) Dress the salad ingredients together whilst warm to allow flavors to weld 5) Serve warm or cold
In walked a man with curly locks and a long beard. His presence is Biblical only to be betrayed by his uber posh English accent. His name is Behroush Sharifi but just call him ‘The Saffron King’. Royalty of the highest mystical order, 5 minutes of conversation with him made me realize that no other name could suffice to describe him. He is a spice merchant and when he walks in to the kitchens of illustrious restaurants throughout the U.S., it is only he who can command the immediate attention of a busy chef, a chef who surrenders to both Behroush’s wisdom and fine product with the attentiveness of a curious child. Speaking to The Saffron King, the conversation took us through choppy waters, across continents, fighting spice wars and time warping us to the era of the Bible. Behroush’s collection of spice never fails to amaze even the most ‘resourced ‘chef. Manna, the spice that saved the Israelites in the Old Testament is sold in tiny clusters and his Iranian fennel and cardamom boasts of a fragrance so intense that special packaging is required to keep their scents separate from everything else. His knowledge of spice marries together the paradigm of food and that of Persian poetry. Growing up in the U.K. and the latter part of his childhood spent in the South interwove with his Iranian roots. He saw endless possibilities of how spices could be incorporated in food and beverage whether one was making something exotic or a simple mashed potato. However, his Iranian knowledge of herbs, spices and dried fruits also made him aware of just how listless a lot of these ingredients looked whether it was at a supermarket or specialty store. And the Saffron King was born. He defied the odds and imported ingredients from Iran at a time of political instability and U.S. trade sanctions. This was just a snap shot of what this King was determined to take on. He imports many spices, but the one that is nearest and dearest to his heart is Iranian Saffron. These seductive garnet strands have stood the test of time and at $3,000 per kilo,“like a handful of valuable things -gold, money, prostitution and real estate, this commodity has maintained it’s status” says Sharifi. Many cultures use saffron in their food. Italians use it in Risotto Milanese, the French use it in Bouillabaisse and the Spanish use it in more dishes than not. According to Sharifi, this is part of a rich “cultural dialogue” and demonstrates how Persian footprints merged with local cultures all over the world to create new culinary experiences. Whilst saffron seems expensive at first blush, it actually isn’t and just a few strands go a long way on a big dish. The key is to extract as much taste, color and aroma by grinding it in a pestle and mortar with a pinch of sugar to make a uniform fine powder. As he very richly articulated, “when this mixture is combined with a couple of tablespoons of boiling water, the infusion will draw out the full majesty of the spice with maximum taste”. This was a surprise to me on a personal level, as I have always just tossed a few strands in to a simmering dish and assumed a weak hue of orange is what these threads deliver to a dish. Today, I made a simple chicken, chorizo and shrimp paella. When an ingredient is that intense and beautiful, it begs for very little else. This one pot dish has sweetness from the peppers and a sultry smoky touch of saffron; flavors which delicately coat the rice, shrimp, chicken and fish. Taking the suggestion of The Saffron King, I ground the saffron which in turn made my paella look sun-kissed. Ingredients Paella 4 strands of saffron, a pinch of sugar 1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth/ stock 2 tablespoons olive oil 1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (reserve the shells) 1lb chicken thigh, with skin Chorizo, ¼ lb, sliced in to thin disks 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 cups long-grain rice 1/4 teaspoon paprika 2 fresh tomatoes, diced 1 large red pepper, roasted and skinned, sliced in to slivers Coarse salt and ground pepper 1 cup frozen green peas, thawed Handful of cilantro Method Saffron Mixture Combine the saffron and sugar and pound to a fine powder PaellaMixture 1) Clean the shrimp and bring the shrimp shells and broth to a boil with the saffron. Remove from heat and let all ingredients steep 2) Sauté the onions, garlic and chorizo until the onions are translucent. 3) In a separate pan, cook the chicken – skin side down until it is golden brown and half cooked 4) Add to the pan with the chorizo. Add the diced tomatoes, season with salt, pepper and paprika and cook until soft. 5) Strain the stock 6) Toast the rice in the tomato and chorizo sauce. Add the stock, boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook covered 7) In a separate pan, briefly sauté the shrimp on high heat, cook half way through only. When rice is half cooked, throw the shrimp over the rice with the frozen peas and continue to cover whilst it simmers. Once rice is fluffy, remove from heat, sprinkle with cilantro Serving Suggestions Serve with lemon wedges and a green salad dressed in olive oil and red wine vinegar Pearls Of Wisdom I add the shrimp half way through to avoid over cooking
I have been out of touch for a few weeks and would like to say that I really missed writing the blog. The reality, I sheepishly admit, is that I didn’t get to miss it much as I was swept away by my vacation in Santorini. This Greek island with parched mountains, clusters of white-washed blue-capped homes and onyx colored sand that is moistened by the Aegean waters could easily leave one feeling stunned if not intimidated by its beauty. Santorini has so much to be boastful of and yet she takes her beauty in her stride. There are vineyards and wineries dotted all over the island in the most unassuming manner. The island is also known for it’s cherry tomatoes, capers, white aubergine and honey with notes of thyme. Driving through the island, we received the occasional wave from the sun-kissed farmer or the ladies in small shacks motioning us in to sample local specialties. Taking up the invitation and feeling like we were reuniting with long lost friends, we were offered small plates of sundried cherry tomatoes, pickled aubergine and of course a swig of homemade vin santo. Just like the beauty and people of Santorini, the cuisine is also simple, honest and direct. With minimal ingredients and the absence of laborious cooking techniques, the food has a flavor that represents the magic of the Mediterranean and furthermore, the magic of the volcanic soil it has emerged from. With a spread of tomato kefta’s (meatless tomato balls), fava (yellow split pea), white eggplant that is molten in the mouth and capers, the feast begins with the eyes. Today’s dish is mashed yellow split peas with a garnish of sliced onions and tomatoes. There is a dried fruity flavor to this lentil which sets it apart from other lentils and it is often served as a side dish or as part of a mezze. It can also be enjoyed as a lighter alternative to humus and eaten simply with warm pita. Ingredients 1 cup yellow split pea lentils (available at most supermarkets and ethnic stores) 5 cups of water Salt 1 medium sized onion, finely diced Extra virgin olive oil Juice of ½ a lemon 1 small onion, thinly sliced 5/6 cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced Method 1) Wash the lentils 2) In a medium sized pan, sweat the diced onions in a little olive oil until they become translucent. Add the lentils and water, season with salt and bring to a boil. Reduce to a gentle simmer and cook covered for approximately 45 minutes. The lentils are done when they lose their bite and begin to fall apart. If the lentils are too hard, add more water and if they are fully cooked, increase the heat, and uncover the pan until the water has evaporated. 3) Check for seasoning, add the olive oil and lemon juice and mash until it makes a fine puree. 4) Serve warm and sprinkle with sliced onions and tomatoes Serving Suggestions Serve with warm pita or a crudité of radishes, cucumber, red bell pepper whole cherry tomatoes Pearls of Wisdom If you are not planning to use the mashed fava immediately, it will need to be loosened with some water.
This week, my family and I were subject to the Fall’s not so pretty side – ‘germs’. When GERMS strike, I lose sight of all things autumnally beautiful and after 5 days of soups and stews, I get sick of those too (note to soup: I love you, I just need a little space right now). The good news is that we are finally shaking off this nasty cold and are on the mends. So what’s for dinner tonight? Today I fancied something where techniques of sipping and dunking were not required. No broths, no sauces, no effort. Believe me my friends, there is such a dish, it is my Aristotle Chicken and potatoes. Before you have visions of Aristotle preparing and eating this dish, hold your horses, I gave it that name because it sounds more interesting than calling it ‘Saira’s college Greek friends cooking on a Sunday night dish’. Looking back at my Greek friends, I can now appreciate a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ they possessed in the kitchen. They ate halloumi’s whilst the rest of us ate doner kebabs (of the fastest of foods variety), they drank ouzo whilst we drank diluted beers..getting the picture? This was their life and I was lucky to share a dorm with them!! I love this dish, it epitomizes what Greece is famous for: olive oil, lemon, garlic , thyme and parsley. It is also very simple to make and requires you to blend the aforementioned ingredients (and few more mentioned below), marinade and bake. Also, note the Greek technique of roasting the potatoes. They are cooked with the meat in the same allowing them to very valuable flavor from the chicken. Ingredients 3 lb chicken leg with skin 5 medium sized potatoes 1 onion 8 cloves Garlic 1 ½ juiced lemon 1 lemon rind 1 cup olive oil 1 cup parsley 1 tsp of thyme Method 1) Blitz together the onion, 8 cloves of garlic, 1 cup of olive oil. Keep 1 part aside for the potatoes and the remaining 3 parts for the chicken marinade 2) Cut the potatoes into wedges and toss in the garlic and olive oil, sprinkle with salt and a pinch of thyme. 3) Blitz the remaining olive oil and garlic with parsley, black pepper, salt and 1 ½ lemon juice, lemon rind. Pour over the chicken to marinade for as long as possible (preferably 3 hours) 4) In an oven proof dish, place your chicken with the potatoes arranged around it. Cook covered at 400 degrees for 45 minutes and cook uncovered on broil (grill) for 15 minutes or until golden and crisp. Serving Suggestions If you’re feeling garlicky, throw down a few whole cloves of garlic and place your chicken on top before roasting. Don’t worry about bad breath since it is cooked for so long and doesn’t retain the after taste and if you simply prefer to smell clinical, reach out for those Listerine strips. Pearls of Wisdom 1. Of course, the longer you marinade the chicken, the more flavorful and juicier it will be. 2. Also, when broiling this dish, keep an eye on it as it can burn very quickly. After half way through broiling (grilling), turn the pieces over.
Last Monday I decided to swan around Union Square farmers market. It was a magical afternoon surrounded by the gifts of nature. With a brief stop at Eve’s cidery to quench my thirst, I moved on to the Hawthorne valley farm tent looking at the prettiest and tinniest Sungold cherry tomatoes that were so pretty, they should have been set in a ring…fearing my next stop may be at the jewelers, I moved on swiftly. Pulled by my eyes and nose I arrived at the lush green tent filled with foliage, boasting of potted lavender, basil, mint and oh so many more herbs. I wondered how charming it would be to have my apartment smell like this. But as usual, my voice of reason went off and I reminded myself that i didn’t inherit dad’s green fingers and I owed it to Mother Nature to not kill off yet another one of her plants. After much deliberation, I picked up the bundles of mint, cilantro and parsley and decided that even if I can’t grow them, I can cook them. I pulled out my Ottolenghi book as I knew Sami and Yotam (the culinary geniuses behind this fantastic cookbook) had a recipe in there using all three herbs in a rack of lamb dish. And there it was: marinated rack of lamb with mint and honey. I was so excited to make this and I got to be Yotam and Sami for a little while. With limited deviation, I made this rack of lamb and after one bite, all I could say was ‘bless these boys for their contribution to the world of ‘serious eaters’. Ingredients 1 kg rack of lamb 1 cup of flat leaf parsley 1 cup of mint 1 cup of cilantro/ coriander leaves 4 cloves of garlic 1” piece of ginger 2 green chillies ½ tsp salt 50ml lemon juice 60ml soy sauce 120ml olive oil 3 tbsp honey 2tbsp red wine vinegar 4 tbsp water Method 1) Slice the rack of lamb into pairs or single pieces 2) Blend together the remaining ingredients in the food processor 3) Pour the marinade over the rack of lamb and allow to sit in refrigerator overnight 4) Preheat oven to 200 degrees 5) On the stove top, heat a large skillet and sear the lamb chops for 5 minutes on each side (if you sliced the lamb chops in to single pieces, sear for about 3 minutes on each side), reserving the extra marinade for later 6) Transfer the chops to a baking tray and bake for about 10-15 minutes depending on desired level of cooking Serving Suggestions 1) This can be served with any side dish one could possibly think of. Here are some suggestions: 2) Golden beet and feta salad 3) Rice with cashews and raisins 4) Roasted butternut squash 5) Baby field of greens, sliced onion and cannellini beans 6) Wine ~ Spinetta’s Barbera Ca di Pian Pearls of Wisdom When searing the lamb chops, do not place more than 3 -4 chops at a time or it will become watery and you will lose that crisped skin