Yesterday I was part of a media event where I led a group of lifestyle journalists through New York City, where we visited five different restaurants, tasted a variety of cuisines and paired them with wines from Burgundy. Yes, I know – I have a tough job in many ways when it comes to watching my weight, but this is my #1 passion and there is no way I would do anything else. Our last stop was a Greek restaurant, and the hostess and chef, Maria Loi, is a wonderful woman and also the Ambassador for Greek food in the U.S. She made me miss my summers in Greece when I was a teenager – my sister lived on the island of Skiathos for many years, in fact she even got married and had kids there. I have always loved Greek cuisine, because of its simplicity and clean, fresh flavors . I love the little mezedes, the Greek word for “tapas”, small dishes made with vegetables and produce from the garden right outside your door, so tasty to snack on while sipping on a glass of Assyrtiko or Agiorgitiko.
Lemon juice, oregano, and extra virgin olive oil are used frequently, and grilling (a very healthy method to cook your food) is often the way they choose to cook their proteins. Octopus, fish, chicken and lean beef is marinated in all the aforementioned spices and condiments, and just served grilled that gives it that nice, charred flavor. Accompanied with a Greek salad with lots of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, olives and a few sprinkles of feta- what could be better?
Perhaps sitting on a verandah of a beautiful white house overlooking the gorgeous blue sea would top it, instead of sitting here in the misty rain in New York? Well, we can always recreate the meal at least, so here’s a shot at a healthy, flavorful two course Greek meal that you can test out this weekend! These are all adapted from the fabulous book “Olive and Caper” by Susanna Hoffman
DOLMADAKIA (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
Makes about 3o pieces
30 -40 bottled grape leaves, stems cut off
2 tbsp dried currants
2 tbsp golden raisins
1/4 white wine (or retsina if you can find – the Greek wine)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup short-grain rice, such as Arborio
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 tbsp finely chopped lemon zest
3/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill, stems reserved
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint, stems reserved
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Lemon slices for garnish
Combine the currants and raisins with the wine and let stand for one hour.
Remove grape leaves from jar gently to avoid tearing, and squeeze out the excess liquid. Set aside
Heat the oil in a medium sized skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, and garlic and saute for a minute. Add pine nuts, zest, salt and rice and make sure the oil coats the rice. Reduce heat to medium and saute until onion in transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the currants and raisins with their liquid, and saute until the liquid has almost evaporated, about 3 min (the rice will not be cooked through). Remove from heat and stir in the dill and mint leaves.
Line the bottom and sides of a medium-size pot or saute pan with torn or extra grape leaves and some of the reserved dill and mint stems.
On a counter, lay out as many grape leaves, veined side up, as you have room for. Place about 1/2 tbsp of the rice mixture near the stem end of each leaf. Roll the bottom of the leaf up over the stuffing. Then fold in the sides of the leaf to partially enclose the filling. Continue rolling to completely enclose the filling, forming a stubby cylinder.
As you fill and roll the leaves, tightly pack the dolmadakia, leaf tip down, in the pan, forming concentric circles until the bottom is completely covered. When one layer is complete, make a second layer.
Continue stuffing, rolling and tightly packing the leaves until all the stuffing is used. Try to keep the top layer as even and flat as possible. Cover top layer with remaining dill and mint stems and any extra grape leaves.
Fill the pan with enough water to barely cover the leaves. Pour the lemon juice over all. Weight down the dolmadakia with a heavy plate or a slightly smaller pan partially filled with water. Set the pan on stove and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until rice is tender, about 1 hour. Allow to cool before removing and carelly pour off the liquid, pressing down on the leaves slightly to extract excess liquid. Chill until completely cool. Serve with a yogurt mint sauce and garnish with lemon slices.
SOUVLAKIA (Skewers of meat)
Makes 4 1/2 inch skewers
12 oz lean beef, lamb, pork or chicken
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp chopped fresh oregano leaves (or 1/2 tsp dried, but I prefer fresh)
1 bay leaf, crumbled
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
3 whole grain pita breads
olive oil for moistening bread
6 lemon wedges
Cut the meat into 3/4 inch cubes, trim off any fat. String enough meat on each of the six small skewers to stretch 4 1/4 inches, leaving an inch or two of space at the pointed end of the skewer. If using wooden skewers, make sure you soak them in water for about 1 hour prior to using.
Mix together 1/4 cup oil, the lemon juice, oregano, bay leaf, salt and pepper in a nonreactive dish that is large enough to hold the skewers. Place the skewers in the marinade and turn to coat. Cover and place in fridge for 1 hour or up to overnight, turning occasionally.
Remove meat from fridge about 1/2-1 hour prior to cooking. When ready to cook, heat a grill to medium high or heat a griddle. Cut each slice of pita into 6 triangles. Place skewers on grill, cook for 2-3 minutes, turn and cook for another 2-3 minutes, taking care not to overcook the meat. While meat is cooking, moisten the pita lightly with oil and place on grill. Toast until brown all around, about 30 seconds per side.
To serve, spear 2-3 pieces of pita on the tip of each skewer. Squeeze the juice from 1 lemon wedge over each skewer. Place souvlakia on plates and garnish with lemon wedges. Serve with a nice Greek salad or salad of your choice.
Note: If you like, you can also add some pieces of vegetables on the skewers as well, such as zucchini, peppers and/or eggplant.