Sunday, February 22, 2009

Kolokithopita (Greek Cheese & Pumpkin Pie) & How to make (the best) Greek cheese pies

When we arrive in Greece, we always take a bus from the airport to the bus station that services the Peloponnese. The bus joins the chaos steaming along newly built highways and speeds past half-completed concrete buildings, through the industrial outskirts of Athens. From the other side of the bus window the chaotic momentum of this magnificent, sprawling, modern city begins already to weave its magic spell on your jet-lagged eyes, making them big and wet again. And then you pull into the big old bus station made of painted tin and it's a different world altogether. Gypsies and business men wait by suitcases and bundles of fabric, while priests read newspapers and old men sell lottery tickets. Old, old Greek music spills through crackling speakers at a volume they can't handle. And people sit down for something to eat before long journeys. I love this wait for all these reasons - and because I always buy a tiropita from the cafeteria.

It's one of the things I do to make sure I'm really there - because in Greece tiropita, or cheese pies, are everywhere. They're sold at stations, through shop windows on the street and in bakeries all over the country, and there are so many varieties that I've accepted I'll never be able to try them all. Outside of Greece, the most well-known seems to be spanakopita, the cheese and spinach pie - but I sometimes worry that it's become one of those dishes people make only when they have a vegetarian coming over. A good Greek cheese pie - let's start calling them pita - should be something everybody loves, something perfect to take to parties, barbecues and to have for dinner with a salad.

This is also a recipe request from my darling friend Yardena who wants the recipe for spanakopita. Instead, I made a kolokithopita (cheese and pumpkin), but have included instructions for turning this into a number of Greek cheese pie delights. And I've also included photos and instructions on how to make Greek cheese pies village-styles, because whenever I make them like this, people swoon. For some reason, many people are scared of using filo pastry. Which is a damn shame because it always seems to me to be the easiest to handle of any kind. In fact, the whole dish is superbly simple and can be thrown together in very little time.

In Greece when you buy tiropita or spanakopita they're often hand-sized and made with flaky pastry, which contrasts wonderfully with the salty, creamy filling. At home, they're usually made with filo like mine below - for this style filo is best. I've used a non-commercial filo that I buy from a Turkish grocery store - you'll see that it's a little thicker and easier to deal with. It also goes wonderfully crispy when brushed with butter and baked. Try Middle Eastern food stores and continental delicatessens, but if you can't find it, just use the commercial variety and adhere two sheets together by brushing with butter to make a thicker piece.

The pumpkin pita has everything that is excellent about the cheese pita, with the sweetness of the pumpkin to contrast with the salty creamy filling. You simply grate the pumpkin into the cheese mixture raw and it cooks inside the pie, lending moisture and lightness without ever becoming soggy. The ricotta, with the help of an egg, sets the filling just firm, and the best thing about making it into a round whirligig is that this spiral of sweet and salty cheese and pumpkin is encased in layer upon layer of thin, crispy casing. To take it to the next level, add a grating of nutmeg and a swirl of good honey to the filling. Trust me, everyone will ask you for the recipe.

Kolokithopita (Greek cheese and Pumpkin Pie)
Note: the amount of pastry (and filling) will depend on the size of your tin or tray. To make spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie), substitute the pumpkin for a bunch of spinach, wilted, strained and finely chopped. Instead of honey nutmeg, use some dill or fennel fronds. For tiropita (plain cheese pie), increase the ricotta and feta by 100g of each. I leave the nutmeg and honey in, but do as you please!

100g butter melted
3 large round sheets of handmade filo pastry, halved or around 12 sheets of commercial filo pastry

For filling:
500g fresh ricotta
400g feta (goat or sheep milk is best)
1 egg
350g pumpkin, grated
a grating of nutmeg
1 tbsp honey
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 180ºC/350ºF.

Crumble ricotta and feta into a mixing bowl. Add egg, nutmeg and honey, then mash and mix up with a fork until combined. Add grated pumpkin and season with salt and pepper, remembering that the feta is salty. Mix with fork.

Brush tin or tray with melted butter to grease.

Spread pastry out and brush all over with melted butter. If using commercial filo, join two sheets with butter and use as one. Spoon filling along one long edge of pastry almost to the edges. Fold in edges, then roll the pastry away from you to form a tube. Fit into tin, bending gently to curve. Repeat until the spiral is complete. You should have some butter remaining - use this to brush over the top of the pie generously.

Pop into oven for 40 - 50 minutes or until golden brown. In a rental property oven (like mine), you may need to turn the pie halfway through cooking and/or leave it in a little longer. Cut into wedges and serve straight from the pan.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mussels with Loukanika and Saffron

About an hour and half drive from Melbourne, along the Bellarine Peninsula, there's this little place called Portarlington. We love it there. It's not the fanciest place to visit, or the most idyllic beach you'll ever come to, but this small town has something calming about it - a slower sense of time passing. It's the kind of place that is still dominated by summer houses built in the 1950s and has parks with big old trees and electric barbecues right behind the sand. There's a couple of small bakeries and a mini-supermarket and a pub and there's an excellent fish and chip shop that serves South Melbourne Market dim sims. And on the end of their pier you can buy fresh mussels right off the boat for very, very cheap.

A big bowl of steaming hot mussels is so impressive; it always seems to me like a seafood banquet we somehow acquire, fortuitously, for only $10. But really, they're always that price and they're so easy to cook. You can poke them into a paella-like rice dish right at the end, pop on the lid and let them steam until they open, or smoke them on a barbecue like Jamie did in his Jamie at Home series. I like them best simply steamed with a fragrant, white wine broth that you can tailor to whatever you feel like or have on hand. And, lucky for us, loukanika is what I had on hand last week when we got back from Portarlington.

Loukanika is a Greek sausage that is used a lot like a chorizo, although it is typically flavoured with wine, orange or leeks. They're delicious sliced and fried with a squeeze of lemon served as a meze, or sliced into a pan and browned before adding beaten eggs to make a heart-stopping/heart-winning scramble. Here, a spicy orange loukanika is sliced and fried, before adding chopped onion, garlic and fresh tomato to make a robust and heady base for the mussels. The whole sticky lot is then deglazed with dry white wine and a good pinch of saffron, delicate and luxurious, is thrown in to bring the whole lot together. After this, it is simply a matter of throwing in the scrubbed mussels, giving the whole lot a big stir and popping on the lid until the shells open and release their delicious sea juices. In winter you could serve this with potatoes, roasted or mashed, but in summer I like a big piece of toasted sour dough to mop up all that flavour.

Mussels with Loukanika and Saffron
1kg fresh mussels
1 tbsp olive oil
1 Greek loukanika sausage, sliced
1 medium white onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, chopped finely
2 large tomatoes
1/2 cup white wine
3/4 cup fish stock, or vegetable stock
A good pinch of saffron threads
A good handful of continental parsley, roughly chopped

At least an hour before cooking, pour mussels into a bowl or sink of cold water to soak and release any sand or grit. When ready to begin, scrub mussels with a stiff brush and if necessary, debeard. For detailed instructions on preparing mussels, look here.

To peel tomatoes, cut a small X into the base of each fruit and put into a bowl. Pour over boiling water until covered and leave to stand for a few minutes. Drain and when cool enough to handle, peel. Skins should slide off easily. Chop peeled tomatoes into a rough dice, reserving juices.

Heat the olive oil on medium heat in a pot large enough to hold all the mussels. Add sliced loukanika and fry until crispy and golden on both sides. Remove from pot, set aside and fry onions in all the goodness from the sausages until they become soft and a bit sticky (turn down the heat if they seem to be cooking too quickly). Add garlic and fry for a minute or so. Add chopped, peeled tomatoes and juices, stirring to combine. Fry for around 5 minutes until the mixture thickens, then add wine. As it bubbles up, scrape the bottom of the pan with your spoon to collect all the brown goodness. Put the loukanika back in and add the stock. Pop the lid on, turn the heat up slightly and let the whole lot come to a boil. Taste for salt, remembering that the mussel shells will impart a sea water saltiness - I usually leave salt out.

When the pot seems excited and ready, add the drained mussels and give the whole lot a big stir. Replace the lid and steam for about 8 minutes. Give the pot a good shake a couple of times to give all the mussels a chance! Take a peek - they're ready when open. If not, give them a few extra minutes. When ready, ladle into bowls with some of the juices. Add parsley to each.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Smoked Trout, Edamame and Udon Salad

I'd be the last person, usually, to order that ubiquitous 'Asian' salad found just about anywhere these days. Heavy noodles, over or undercooked vegetables and defrosted prawns just isn't my thing. But after my successful frozen pudding experiment last night (where I proved that frozen gingerbread pudding from Christmas could be thawed, sliced and fried in a little butter and served with custard) - we felt like something a little lighter for lunch.

With half a smoked trout in the fridge, I knew it had to be salad. And then my 2009 promise to actually use all those things in the pantry yielded a packet of organic udon noodles. Something came over me; I suddenly felt that a delicious noodle salad was actually possible and that there was nothing I wanted to eat more. So I came up with this. It made me remember that throwing things together without planning and recipes often yields the best and most surprising dishes.

This is very, very simple, but fresh, cool and light for a hot summer's day (and the Lord knows that we've been enduring very hot days). The noodles are cooked until al dente (can you say that for a noodle?) and combined with some thawed edamame (soy beans), cold, crisp cucumber and the flaked smoked trout. Add chopped mint and coriander, then the whole lot is tossed with a dressing of soy, mirin and fresh ginger and served cold. Very refreshing. This makes a good lunch for two, but can be adjusted very easily to make more or less.

Smoked Trout, Edamame and Udon Salad

2 bundles (or 1 per person) of dried Japanese udon noodles
2 handfuls frozen, cooked edamame (Japanese soy beans in pod), thawed and de-poded
1 larger Lebanese cucumber, halved and sliced
About half a whole smoked trout, skin removed, flesh flaked
Handful each of coriander and mint, roughly chopped

For dressing:
2 tsp Japanese soy
2 tsp mirin (cooking wine)
a tiny dash of sesame oil
1 tsp sweet chilli sauce
3 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice
1 knob of freshly grated ginger (more or less to taste)

Cook noodles according to packet directions. Drain and refresh with cold water. Add to bowl with all other ingredients.

For dressing, combine and whisk all ingredients with fork. Pour over salad and toss gently.

Serve at room temperature, or cold from the fridge.
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