Each year we pick a cookbook from a different world cuisine. We meet monthly at a member’s home with the hostess choosing a main course recipe from the book. The rest of us fill in the gaps with appetizers, sides and desserts. The only rule is you must follow the recipe as closely as possible. So no extra cinnamon, more onions or dashes of sherry for flavor even if it’s killing you and you know in your cooking-instinct heart of hearts that you should. Since we started 4 years ago we’ve traveled the world: Brazil, France, Italy and even Spain with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow (I know, I know, but those were her pre-Goop days.)
This year we’ve chosen The Country Cooking of Greece by Diane Kochilas. It’s a beautiful, weighty, almost 400 page volume jammed with hundreds of recipes from Mount Olympus to Crete and all places in between. It features the expected (grape leaves, lamb and feta) but also the unexpected (pumpkin-sweet potato moussaka and potato salad with purslane). Purslane? Yes, the same spindly green plant that grows in my yard. Wikipedia has a whole section devoted to purslane’s culinary uses. Who knew?
The icing on the cake -or maybe the honey on the halva?- is that one of our members is Greek. Okay, Effie’s not technically Greek because she speaks with a southern accent (as in “y’all”, not Peloponnesian) and grew up in small-town Texas. But her parents’ Greek heritage lives strong. She can whip out a huge pan of baklava like it was apple pie and even grows grape leaves in her backyard. Yes, you can actually grow grape leaves for cooking in the suburbs. See…another newly-found fact and we haven’t even begun cooking yet.
But what are we waiting for? Let’s get started…
- Homemade dolmades
- Fresh feta cubes with oregano
- Cretan Beet Salad with Yogurt and Walnuts (Patzarosalata Kritis)– page 33
- Halkidiki-Style Easter Lamb Baked over Herbed Rice (Psima)– page 283
- Artichocke Moussaka with Caramelized Onions and Feta (Anginares Moussaka)– page 155
- Savory Baked Rice and Feta from Lefkada (Galatopita Almyri)– page 192
- Sauteed Spinach with Orange and Garlic (Spanaki Sotarismeno Me Portokali Kai Skordo)– page 129
- Serifos Zucchini Bread (Kolokythopsomo Apo Tinserfo)– page 213
- Almond Shortbread Cookies (Kourambiedes)– page 337
(All recipes from The Country Cooking of Greece by Diane Kockilas)
What does Cookbook Club say?
Homemade dolmades and fresh feta cubes with oregano
Effie surprised us. These weren’t on the official menu. She made the dolmades from grape leaves grown on her side fence. And the feta? She shared with us her favorite brand, “Israeli Feta” store-made in Central Market. Like other artisan cheeses, it tasted so much better – creamy, rich and not too salty- than the packaged brand. Flash Feedback: We hope Effie teaches us to make dolmades sometime. The feta was really, really good.
Cretan Beet Salad with Yogurt and Walnuts (Patzarosalata Kritis).
This is a salad made with the simplest of ingredients: fresh beets, walnuts and a yogurt-balsamic dressing. It’s easy, delicious and gets extra points because the dressing would work on almost any salad. Flash Feedback: Everyone liked it, even if they aren’t a “beet person.”
Halkidiki-Style Easter Lamb Baked over Herbed Rice (Psima)
Our hostess, Effie, made the main course with tender lamb chunks, mint and sultanas. Flash Feedback: Delicious one pot meal which she put on the stove just a few hours before we arrived. A good, reliable dish.
Artichoke Moussaka with Caramelized Onions and Feta (Anginares Moussaka)
A meatless version of the classic moussaka, this version gets its flavor from artichokes, potatoes and layers of caramelized onions. Flash Feedback: Holly, who made the recipe, was frustrated that the potatoes never softened, despite an extended cooking time. Her biggest beef? The onions overwhelmed the more delicate artichokes. Everybody else liked this dish. Next time, maybe we’ll decrease the number of onions and increase the artichoke hearts.
Julie made this cheesy rice casserole which is almost a dense, rich pudding. The recipe calls for Carolina Greek rice. As a substitute, she says use risotto rice and rinse thoroughly until the water runs clear. Flash Feedback: For some cookbook clubbers, this was their favorite recipe of the month. It would be a delicious, unusual alternative to cheese grits. The recipe for this Baked Rice and Feta casserole is here.
Sauteed Spinach with Orange and Garlic (Spanaki Sotarismeno Me Portokali Kai Skordo)
The cookbook author, Diane Kochilas, says in the description for this very easy recipe that she has never seen this combination of orange zest, garlic and spinach in Greek cuisine before. Flash Feedback: When she tested the recipe at her house, Louise was afraid that the orange zest was too bitter and strong with the milder spinach. No one at lunch agreed with her, though. They thought it was an unusual and tasty dish.
Serifos Zucchini Bread (Kolokythopsomo Apo Tinserfo)
This is a quick bread, made with loads of zucchini and two kinds of cheeses. Flash Feedback: Betsy, who’s a long-term tester for Cooks Illustrated and knows her way around new recipes, was surprised when she took the cooked bread out of its pan. It completely fell apart into a messy blob on her countertop. She quickly scooped it back into the pan and hurried over to Effie’s house. Everybody thought it was delicious (probably because we weren’t faced with a messy blob in our kitchens.) A possible solution? Maybe it could be baked in a round casserole and served like spoon bread.
Almond Shortbread Cookies (Kourambiedes)
According to the cookbook, these are the most traditional and ubiquitous Christmas cookies in Greece. Flash Feedback: Ellen, who owns The Cooking School and is a good judge of recipes, made these crunchy, sand tart-like cookies. She was disappointed that they were a bit bland. Everyone else thought they were okay.
Despite a couple of unexpected results in the cooking process, everyone enjoyed the recipes chosen this month because of the flavors. The use of ingredients were interesting, i.e. zucchini in a light and savory, but not sweet, bread; orange zest-filled spinach and a very basic, but incredibly rich, feta-rice casserole So what do you think? Loves, hates or general comments? What tweaks would you make to the recipes?