Saturday, January 24, 2009

February Royal Foodie Joust -- Mushroom Pastitsio with a Cauliflower "Bechamel"

I was pretty excited by the selection of February's Royal Foodie Joust ingredients: cauliflower, mushrooms and noodles. There were a million different ways to go with these humble ingredients for my second entry into this friendly competition hosted by Jenn over at The Leftover Queen. If you aren't already a member, please visit Jenn's forum where you'll find a great spot to interact with fellow food bloggers, participate in giveaways, join in on the friendly Joust or simply vote for your favorite Jouster--of course, that would be me ... wink, wink!

I knew from the start that I wanted to use the cauliflower in some sort of puree as I love the silky texture you can get from this earthy vegetable. Having just made a traditional Greek Pastitsio a couple of weeks ago, I still had Pastitsio on the brain the other day when I finally decided to tackle this Joust. Now, a traditional Pastitsio (which is the only Pastitsio my family and I have made) features layers of long noodles and cinnamon-scented ground meat topped with a decadent bechamel. To create a dish for the Joust, I decided to change up a traditional bechamel, make it a bit healthier if you will--my mom's Pastitsio recipe features a bechamel of 1/2 a gallon of milk, a stick of butter, 12 tablespoons of flour, a cup of grated cheese and a whopping 6 eggs--by using pureed cauliflower to replace much of the milk, flour and butter. This yummy cauliflower "bechamel" topped off earthy portobello and button mushrooms squeezed between layers of Greek Pastitsio noodles to make this light, entirely nontraditional Pastitsio.

Kali Orexi!

Mushroom Pastitsio with Cauliflower "Bechamel"
Makes a 13x9 casserole

8 oz. pancetta or bacon, thinly sliced
3 shallots, chopped
2 lbs. mushrooms, wiped clean, stems removed and sliced thick (I used portobello and button mushrooms)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Thyme leaves stripped from 3 or 4 sprigs
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 package Misko No. 2 Pastitsio Noodles

Cauliflower "Bechamel":
1 large head of cauliflower, cut into large florets, steamed until tender and drained well
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup half & half
1 cup milk
3/4 cup grated Kefalotyri (easily substituted by grated Parmesan)
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3 large eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a large skillet, render the pancetta or bacon until crisp. Remove from the skillet with a slotted spoon and into a separate bowl. Add the shallots to the skillet and saute until translucent. Stir in the mushrooms along with the garlic, salt and pepper and cook until the mushrooms are tender and cooked through (add the olive oil as the mushrooms are browning if they seem too dry). Sprinkle with the thyme and adjust the seasonings. Combine with the pancetta or bacon and sprinkle with the chopped parsley.

Boil the noodles according to the package directions. Drain well and begin layering in a 13x9 inch baking dish. Layer the noodles first, followed by the mushroom mixture and then another layer of noodles. Set aside.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large pot, mash the cauliflower well until fairly smooth. Over medium heat, stir in the butter until melted then add the half & half and milk (stir the milk in gradually depending on how thick the mixture looks). Add the Kefalotyri, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. (If at this point the sauce does not seem thick enough, briskly whisk in a tablespoon or so of flour.)

Remove the pot from the heat and add the eggs one at a time, stirring briskly after each addition. Adjust the seasonings if necessary then pour the cauliflower "bechamel" over the noodles in the baking dish. Sprinkle with some grated cheese and bake in the center of the oven for about 40 minutes until slightly golden on top.

Let cool at least 15 to 20 minutes before serving. (Letting the dish cool before cutting and serving is crucial as pieces will fall apart upon cutting without first cooling slightly.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Duo of Dips --- Roasted Red Pepper and Feta & Lemony Chickpea and Thyme

When entertaining I find the easiest option to include in a spread of appetizers is a tasty dip accompanied by toasted pita triangles, crispy bread rounds or zesty crackers. There are, of course, endless possibilities from melitzanosalata (eggplant dip), to kopanisti (Greek cheese dip), to kafteri (spicy Greek feta dip), to tzatziki (the well-known yogurt/cucumber/garlic dip, although chatty guests and garlic aren't a very good mix), to traditional hummus or two of my favorites, a flavorful roasted red pepper and feta dip and a lemony chickpea and thyme spread.

Whether you roast fresh red bell peppers or invest in a good jar of roasted red peppers, or whether you prep dried chickpeas or use canned chickpeas, these dips are simple and satisfying. Serve alongside plump Kalamata olives and you're good to go (those shiny, tart and meaty olives pictured above come to you directly from my father-in-law's grove in Agrinio, where he grows two types, Kalamata and Agriniou).

Roasted Red Pepper and Feta Dip

2 red bell peppers
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1/2 cup crumbled feta
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Place whole red peppers on an oiled baking sheet and "roast" under the broiler until the skin is well charred and the peppers tender. Remove from baking sheet, place in a plastic or paper bag and cool. Once cooled, remove peppers from bag, peel skin, remove seeds and cut stem.

Add the peppers to the bowl of a food processor along with the garlic and lemon juice and process until smooth. Stir in the crumbled feta, olive oil, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper and parsley and pulse the food processor a couple of times. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Lemony Chickpea and Thyme Dip

2 cups chickpeas (if using canned, rinse chickpeas and drain or if using dried, soak chickpeas in water overnight, drain, then simmer about two hours until tender)
2 cloves garlic
1 lemon, juiced
Thyme from about 3 fresh sprigs
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place first four ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and mix. Add the olive oil a little at a time, processing until the mixture is smooth (adding more olive oil as necessary). Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Spanakorizo (Greek Spinach Rice)

A quick go-to meal for my family is often a pot of lentil soup, a hearty pasta and veggie dish or a vitamin-packed helping of spanakorizo. The latter, in particular, is an ideal meal that takes no more than 30 to 35 minutes to make, is filling and is laden with vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants.

According to sources, eating spinach can prevent memory loss and cataracts. And that's not all: this iron-rich leafy green can help protect us against osteoporosis, heart disease, colon cancer, arthritis and numerous other diseases. In fact, researchers have identified at least 13 different flavonoid compounds in spinach that function as antioxidants and as anti-cancer agents, specifically protecting those whose diets include a healthy helping of this veggie against prostate and ovarian cancers.

So, it's quick, it's tasty and it's healthy--what are you waiting for? Accompany this simple spanakorizo with some feta, a few Kalamata olives and some crusty bread and you're good to go.

I'm sending this dish over to Rachel of The Crispy Cook as she is hosting this week's edition of Weekend Herb Blogging, a fun event originally created by Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen and now overseen by Haalo of Cook (Almost) Anything Once.


Serves 4 to 6

1/3 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 scallions, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried mint
1 1/2 cups rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
10 oz. chopped tomatoes
2 cups water
24 oz. of spinach
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the oil in a dutch oven over medium heat and add the onion and scallions, stirring until fragrant and softened. Toss in the mint and then add the rice, stirring until coated well with the onion mixture.

Stir in the wine and boil until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add the chopped tomatoes to the dutch oven along with the water, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the rice is cooked halfway through. Stir in the spinach and add more water as necessary, simmering until the rice is cooked through.

Sprinkle with parsley and a bit of olive oil just before serving.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Grilled Pork Chops with Rosemary and Sage

I spoke a little about my hesitance in using rosemary in a post last week. I am glad to say, however, that I am a true convert now. The Rosemary and Mandarin Muffins I made then were a delightful surprise and as I mentioned in that post, I used the remainder of that fresh rosemary to marinate a few pork chops, which also turned out great.

I must admit I was initially inspired by a recipe I read on Epicurious that called for using fresh rosemary, sage, garlic, fennel seeds, white wine and olive oil on a large pork shoulder roast. The end result sounded divine, so I fiddled with the ingredients to make my meager pork chops--leaving out the fennel seeds, I used rosemary, sage, garlic, coarse sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, white wine and olive oil to make a paste, which I rubbed into the pork chops. Having the leisure to, I let the pork chops marinate overnight and then grilled them on a stovetop grill pan. The trick here, of course, is to heat the grill pan really well, get a good sear on the pork chops and shy away from overcooking (I seared them about 7 minutes per side). The flavors were great and the chops turned out pick-the-bones-and-gnaw-at-them good.

I squeezed a bit of lemon on top just before serving and accompanied these flavorful bone-in pork chops with a creamy orzo with peas (much of the goodness of risotto, with a little less TLC required--and a dish I'll post about a little later).

Pork Chops with Rosemary and Sage
Makes 6 Pork Chops

2 tablespoons fresh sage, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
4 garlic cloves
1 1/2 tablespoons coarse salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dry white wine
1 tablespoon olive oil

6 bone-in pork chops

Place the first seven ingredients in a food processor and pulse until paste-like and well combined. Rub the mixture into both sides of the pork chops and set aside for a few minutes (or if marinating, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight).

Heat a grill pan til very hot and sear pork chops over medium-high heat until just cooked through (about 7 minutes per side). Squeeze a bit of lemon juice over and serve.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Soutzoukakia Me Hilopitakia (Greek Meatballs and Egg Pasta in Tomato Sauce)

I've mentioned before that I love pasta, but seriously, who doesn't? Carbs schmarbs. Pasta is great and it shouldn't be something anyone purposely avoids eating. Everything is fine in moderation--although I can probably eat a serving of pasta a day. That doesn't mean that I do of course.

Pasta is, however, something I usually make about once a week. My husband loves the basic linguine or fettuccine and he's not too keen on other shapes or forms of pasta. The kids--like their mother--eat anything put in front of them. So--fortunately for us, unfortunately for him--the hubbie is outnumbered. And I'll often make anything from penne, to orechiette, tagliatelle, linguine, orzo, campanelle, cavatelli, fettuccine, farfalle or the versatile Greek egg pasta known as hilopites.

I often use hilopitakia (as the smallest of this egg-based pasta is usually called) with stewed chicken or beef but decided yesterday to serve them with soutzoukakia (Greek meatballs in tomato sauce).

I'm hoping to get a pasta attachment for my KitchenAid standmixer so I can start experimenting with making this versatile pasta myself as I'm pretty sure it makes quite a difference to cook with fresh homemade pasta as opposed to store bought. For now, however, Misko is my favorite source, specifically their line of region-specific pastas and the Hilopitakia Metsovou I used below.

I'm sending this dish straight to Ivy of Kopiaste as she is hosting this week's edition of the yummy Presto Pasta Nights, originally created by Ruth over at Once Upon a Feast. Kali Orexi!

Soutzoukakia me Hilopitakia
Serves 6

1 1/2 pounds ground beef/pork/veal combo
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon dried mint
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Small onion, grated
1/3 cup breadcrumbs
2 eggs
Salt and pepper, to taste

4 tablespoons olive oil
Small onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1 26.5-oz. box chopped tomatoes
2 teaspoons tomato paste, diluted in 1/2 cup water
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon dried Greek oregano
Salt and pepper, to taste

1 pound Hilopitakia (small square-shaped egg pasta)

In a large bowl combine first 8 ingredients and knead briefly to mix. Cover and refrigerate for about an hour (time permitting).

In a large skillet heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Form the meat mixture into small oblong-shaped portions and brown in skillet. Remove each batch of browned meatballs to a plate and cover to keep warm.

Once all the meatballs have been browned and removed, add remaining two tablespoons of olive oil to the same skillet and saute the chopped onion and garlic until the onion has softened (scraping up all those tasty brown bits). Stir in the crushed red pepper flakes and then add the chopped tomatoes. Bring to boil, add the tomato paste, broth, parsley, oregano salt and pepper and stir. Reduce heat and simmer for about five minutes. Add the meatballs back to the skillet and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes more.

Spoon meatballs and 1/2 to 3/4 of sauce into a platter and keep warm. Add the hilopitakia to the skillet along with some water and cook until tender (add additional water or broth as needed to cook pasta through). Serve with the cooked soutzoukakia and tomato sauce spooned over.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Rosemary and Mandarin Muffins

I've never really been a fan of rosemary. My Giagia used it only in her revithia (that's Greek for chickpeas) and my mom ... well, I don't think my mom has ever used rosemary. Needless to say, it's never been an herb I've gotten excited about. I used it with some lamb chops a while back (it may even be four years already), but there weren't any oohs and aahs emanating from the dinner table that evening and I haven't bought another bunch of rosemary since. That is until last week.

I decided to give this fragrant herb another shot. I used most of what I had purchased in a pork dish, which--I must admit--turned out great (stay tuned next week for that recipe). And then I got to thinking of what I could do with the rest. For some reason unbeknownst to me, my thoughts turned straight to muffins. Plus, having just glanced over at the crate of mandarins my husband brought home a day earlier, it was really a no-brainer--Rosemary and Mandarin Muffins it would be.

The muffins were moist, with a hint of rosemary and sweet mandarin. I imagine they'd be perfect with brunch. I personally enjoyed two today--one with my morning coffee and one with my mid-afternoon cup of Chai (which I just started drinking and--much to my surprise--really like).

Rosemary and Mandarin Muffins
Makes about 18 muffins

1 stick of butter, softened
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup thick Greek yogurt (or sour cream)
1 tablespoon rosemary, finely chopped
Zest and juice of 1 mandarin

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tin with baking cups.

Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a bowl.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in rosemary, mandarin zest and juice.

Blend in one third of the flour mixture, then half the yogurt, alternating between the two until done. Fill the muffin cups 1/2 to 3/4 full and bake until golden (I didn't pay attention to the exact timing, but when they start getting some color, just insert a toothpick into the center, make sure it comes out clean and voila!).

Monday, January 5, 2009

Tsoureki Bread Pudding

Happy New Year everyone! I hope this year brings peace, joy, love, health and happiness to all.

I ended 2008 with a festive dessert and decided to to start this new year off with a subtly sweet one that brings together some of my favorite things--tsoureki and pudding.

My own Vassilopita (the traditional New Year's cake made by Greek families) follows the tradition of my Giagia's orange and cognac scented cake but many Greeks make a sweet bread-like version in the form of, what's known in Greek as, tsoureki. One of my aunts gifted us with one such tsoureki inspired Vassilopita as we hosted a warm family dinner New Year's day. It was an extra-large Vassilopita that perfectly accomodated the 25 slices (including those slices dedicated to Christ, our home and the poor) we needed to cut that evening. The lucky coin was discovered within my cousin's slice (that of my own Vassilopita, which we cut early New Year's morning, was found between my husband's and the poor's slices).

The Vassilopita my aunt so kindly bestowed upon us was so large, I had quite a bit left over since everyone was so full from everything else we devoured that evening. This Saturday while we were waiting for some friends to come by for a quick get-together, I decided to use the remaining tsoureki in this bread pudding, which was subtly sweet and accented with a handful of juicy sultanas. I drizzled a bit of honey over it just before serving, but would seriously consider making a sauce to complement it next time.

By the way, I love bread pudding and the best bread pudding I've ever eaten was seven years ago at the Grand Hyatt Kauai--I ate that sinfully rich, loaded-with-butter-eggs-and-cream bread pudding for six straight mornings during our stay there. Hey, we were on vacation ... that's allowed, right?!

Tsoureki Bread Pudding

8 to 10 thick slices of tsoureki
2 tablespoons butter
4 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 1/2 cups milk
1/3 cup raisins

Use some of the butter to grease a 13 x 9 inch baking dish. Tear or cut the tsoureki into 1- to 2-inch pieces and arrange in the baking dish.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar, vanilla, cream and milk. Pour over the bread and let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes or up to two hours covered in the refrigerator.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle the raisins over the bread pudding and press some of them in to submerge. Bake until the bread pudding sets and is slightly golden and quite puffy, about 40 minutes. Cool a few minutes. Drizzle with honey (I used my favorite--thyme honey from Greece) and serve warm.