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My husband found an article on a variation of the traditional cucumber yogurt sauce using beets instead of cucumber.  Beets?  I would have never thought to interchange cucumber for beets, but I was very interested in this new concept.  What really sold me what the color of the tzatziki sauce-bright purple!  Since we are trying to incorporate beets in more of our dishes (chicken with beets), I thought this would be a great way to do it. 

I have to admit that I was skeptical to change my classic tzatziki sauce that has been working out pretty well, but I was excited to see if the beet tzatziki could beat it.  (ha!)  So here we go.  First, you roast the beets and then let them cool.  This process can take about 2 hours, so you may want to prepare the beets the day before.  Then you shred the roasted beets and stain your hands purple in the process.  Then you combine all the rest of your ingredients, and watch as the color changes from light pink, to purple to bright purple (or “hot purple” as I thought to name it while snapping photos of this jazzy sauce). 

Although it looks wonderful, and I was eager to dip a piece of broccoli in to taste this colorful sauce, we found it necessary to add more ingredients.  This recipe leaves out some essential pieces that I think add that extra zing to my traditional tzatziki sauce, and the lack of these ingredients really decreases the flavor of the sauce.  So a tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of wine vinegar, and an extra clove of garlic should find their way into the sauce  I was especially happy to use the dill I have been growing in a planter in a third floor window of our house.  The delicate green color looked great against the purple, but as I stirred it into the sauce, the color got lost amidst all the purple. 

 

Beet tzatziki sauce is its own thing.  It is not the cucumber yogurt sauce that we are familiar with, but it definitely has flavor.  The minute you taste it you will identify that there are beets in there.  The beet flavor establishes itself in the yogurt.  Next time I may try half beets and half cucumber just to see which flavor will stand out more, and see more variations in color.  This dip will definitely be a conversation piece as you place the purple yogurt sauce onto a plate, and watch as your guests try to figure out what it is.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the greens away from the beets, leaving about 1/4 inch of stems. (Later this week, we’ll show you how to sauté the greens.) Scrub the beets and place in a baking dish (or lidded ovenproof casserole dish). Add 1/4 inch of water to the dish. Cover tightly. Place in the oven and roast small beets (three ounces or less) for 30 to 40 minutes, medium beets (four to six ounces) for 40 to 45 minutes, and large beets (eight ounces or more) for 50 to 60 minutes. They’re done when they’re easily penetrated with the tip of a knife. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the covered baking dish. Cut away the ends and slip off the skins.

Beet Tzatziki Sauce (adapted and revised from the New York Times)

3 medium beets

3 garlic cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 container low-fat Greek style yogurt (or full fat)

Black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon finely chopped dill

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon wine vinegar

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  First, roast the beets.  To do this, cut the greens away from the beets, leaving about 1/4 inch of stems. Wash and scrub the beets, removing any dirt.  Place beets in a baking dish with lid, and add 1/4 inch of water to the dish. Cover tightly. Place in the oven and roast small beets (three ounces or less) for 30 to 40 minutes, medium beets (four to six ounces) for 40 to 45 minutes, and large beets (eight ounces or more) for 50 to 60 minutes.  Test to see if the beets are done by piercing with a fork.  If the fork goes in easily, then they are done.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the covered baking dish. Once cooled, cut the ends of each beet and pull off the skins.Then, grate the roasted beets on the large holes of a grater. Chop garlic cloves finely, and place in large bowl with salt and lemon juice.  Let stand for 10 minutes.  Add the yogurt and stir the garlic into it.  Add black pepper, olive oil and wine vinegar.  Then stir in the beets and dill.  Watch as the color explodes.

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Baklava

One of my friends is having a birthday this week, and I decided that it would be appropriate to do some baking for this special day.  My friend usually requests baklava when I ask what to bring to her and her family around the holidays.  Not many bakeries sell baklava, you typically need to go to a Greek diner, or to one of the bakeries in Astoria , where my parents will stop for me.  I have never actually made baklava from scratch.  I actually do not believe that I have had homemade baklava.  

There are many variations of baklava-some add whole cloves, some bay leaves, and some switch lemon for orange. Choosing a recipe was a little tricky because the Greek cookbook I usually rely on called for breadcrumbs, which seemed odd to me and which I decided to avoid.  I ended up going with the recipe on the box of the phyllo dough, but I increased the amount of spices and decreased the amount of phyllo sheets.    

Working with phyllo dough can be difficult because you do not want the sheets to dry out.  So make sure you have all your ingredients ready to go before you start peeling the sheets from the packaging. 

I used a food processor to chop up the nuts, which only took a few seconds.  Buttering each sheet of phyllo is the only time consuming part of this dessert.  I was not sure if I was putting on too much butter, but when a recipe calls for a cup of melted butter and to brush each of the 24 sheets of phyllo you are using, can there really be too much butter.

As the baklava cooks in the oven, it creates this heavenly scent of cinnamon, cloves, sugar and butter.  It smells like a holiday in your kitchen.  As the baklava reaches a golden brown, I started working on the syrup that you pour over the baklava as it cools.  The syrup is incredibly sweet as it calls for sugar and honey.  I dressed it up with a cinnamon stick and lemon peel.  I would suggest using Greek honey, such as Attiki, if you have it, which is much stronger than the regular honey you find in the plastic bear in the grocery store. I do not know much about honey, but my little research has yielded this fact: the best honey comes from the thyme, lavender, rosemary, lime-tree and orange-tree.  My sister brought us honey from thyme as a gift when she returned from Greece .  This honey is extra special as it came from the island my Dad is from, Kefalonia, which just seems to have great food, great sights, and great smells (cypress trees!). 

Although the baklava is a gift for my friend, I thought it was necessary to taste it in order to make sure it turned out ok. 🙂  It was very sweet.  Surprisingly, the phyllo sheets stayed a little crispy and there were lots walnuts that retained their crunch. 

Baklava (adapted from recipe on Athens Phyllo box)

For the nut mixture:

5 cups chopped walnuts

1 ¼ tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground cloves

1/3 cup sugar

24 sheets of phyllo dough

½ cup melted butter (1 stick)

For the syrup:

1 cup sugar

1 cup honey

2 cups water

1 cinnamon stick

1 lemon peel (from 1 lemon)

Preheat oven 350 degrees.

Allow phyllo dought to thaw for about 2 hours.

Chop walnuts into small and even pieces.  Using the food processor on the pulse setting for chop made this extremely quick and easy.  Toss chopped walnuts with cinnamon, cloves and sugar.

Melt the butter.  In a buttered 9 x 13 inch dish, lay one sheet of phyllo and brush with the melted butter.  Repeat 7 more times, until the phyllo is 8 sheets high.  Each sheet should be brushed with butter.  Then add one half of the nut mixture, and spread evenly on top of the sheets.  Again, lay one sheet of phyllo and brush with the melted butter.  Repeat 7 more times, until the phyllo is 8 sheets high.  Add remaining nut mixture and spread evenly.  Again, lay one sheet of phyllo and brush with the melted butter.  Repeat 7 more times, until the phyllo is 8 sheets high.

Using a sharp knife, cut the baklava into squares in the pan.  You can make them as large or as small as you like.

Bake in oven for 30 minutes, or until a light golden brown.  Remove and let cool.

While the baklava is baking in the oven, add ingredients for the syrup to a sauce pan.  Bring to a boil, and then simmer for 10 minutes.  Strain the syrup and let cool.  Then pour the syrup over the baklava, and allow to cool completely before serving.

Decorate the top of the baklava with a couple of whole cloves or some of the chopped nuts. 

Some tips:

If you like the crunchiness of the phyllo, then I suggest increasing the amount of sheets on the bottom and top to 16 instead of 8.  The phyllo usually comes in a package containing 40 sheets, so you should have just enough.  I would keep the 8 sheets in the middle.

When making the syrup, do not walk away from the saucepan to work on something else, or you may get a small explosion.  Once the syrup begins to boil, turn the heat down right away because it will overflow with too much heat, and then you have a very sticky mess to clean up.  I think my stovetop may still be sticky.

I did not use a 9 x 13 inch pan as the recipe suggested. Instead, I used a rectangular Pyrex glass pan.  My phyllo sheets were a little larger than the pan, so I simply folded the edges of the sheets when I placed them in the pan.  If you are also using a smaller pan, make sure you alternate which side you are folding or fold both sides evenly to make the sheets fit, because you don’t want it to become lopsided.

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Pastichio is the Greek equivalent to lasagna.  It involves layers of pasta and meat sauce, but it has the added extra of the béchamel sauce (cream sauce) on top.  There are many ways to make pastichio, and you will never find two Greek people who agree on the proper way to make it.  Some people added cinnamon to the meat sauce, some add nutmeg to the béchamel, and some, like myself, forgo those spices and rely on good old salt and pepper and use ground turkey, which would make any Greek creator of pastichio cringe at the thought.  I prefer not to use cinnamon and nutmeg because I think they overpower the other flavors in this dish, and all you can think about is…wow there is a lot of cinnamon in here.  I think the salt and pepper brings more of the flavors out of the dish.  I use ground turkey because I rarely have ground beef on hand, it is healthier, and I prepared the dish once with ground turkey and we really liked it.  Traditional pastichio is made with a noodle called #2 macaroni (I just learned the name), which can be found in Greek grocery stores.  However, if you do not have a Greek grocery store near you, then you can substitute penne or ziti.

I was able to add a little something different to my pastichio this time, and it was kasseri cheese, which is a Greek cheese made from sheep’s or goat’s milk. It has a sharp and salty flavor. I had some left over from Easter, and I decided to grate it and add it to the top of the béchamel sauce. 

Something fun about making the meat sauce is changing the red wine you use.  It really does change the flavors a bit, and it is always interesting what you get when you use pinot noir versus merlot.  I even mix French red wine into this Greek dish, and I love the outcome.  This time I added Malbec, from Argentina, and it was probably the best addition yet. 

Pastichio with Ground Turkey

What you need:

Meat Sauce

1 lb ground turkey (or ground beef if you prefer)

1 large can crushed tomatoes

4 cloves garlic chopped finely

1 ½ onions chopped finely

2 bay leaves

Olive oil

½ cup good red wine

1-2 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp dried oregano

½ tsp black pepper

¼ tsp salt

Pasta

1 box of ziti (or #2 macaroni or other tube pasta)

2 egg whites

1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Bechamel Sauce

½ cup butter

1 cup flour

4 cups whole milk

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

3 egg yolks

¼ tsp black pepper

Extra grated parmesan (or grated kasseri) for top of béchamel sauce.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Meat Sauce

First, using a large sauce/sauté pan with high sides, sauté your finely chopped onion in olive oil.  When the onions are translucent add the ground turkey, salt and pepper and throw the garlic in on top of the meat.  Brown the meat, chopping it up along the way in the pan. Then, add the crushed tomatoes, bay leaves, oregano and wine.  Cook for about 20 minutes so that all the flavors combine. 

Pasta

While the meat sauce is cooking, boil the pasta.  Once the pasta is cooked, drain and rinse with cold water.  Then, add egg whites to the pasta with 1 cup of grated parmesan cheese.  Toss to combine.  The egg whites will help the pasta stick together in the pan.  Set aside.

Meat Sauce and Pasta Layers

When meat sauce is finished cooking, remove the bay leaves, and add a thin coating to the bottom of a medium lasagna pan.  Then add half the pasta, and make sure that the noodles are lying as flat as possible and covering the entire pan.  Then add the remaining meat sauce.  Spread it out over all the noodles.  Add the rest of the pasta, again making sure the noodles are lying as flat as possible and covering the entire pan.  Set the pan aside.

Bechamel Sauce

Heat 4 cups of milk until hot but not boiling.  Melt butter in a medium to large sauce pan.  Add flour, stirring constantly to avoid lumps.  Once, smooth, add the milk all at once, again, whisking constantly to avoid lumps.  On low-medium heat, whisk until the sauce thickens.  When the sauce has thickened, remove from heat, and add egg yolks, ½ of grated parmesan cheese, and pepper.  Whisk together until combined.  Then pour this sauce over top the exposed layer of noodles, making sure the entire pan is covered.  Then add a light coating of grated parmesan or grated kasseri cheese to top of sauce.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes or until golden brown.

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What is this sauce?  What is it called?  Za-zi-ky, or cucumber yogurt sauce to put is simply, is a yogurt sauce primarily used in Greek and Mediterranean dishes.  It is that mystery sauce that people seem to like, but many do not know what it is called.  Due to my half-Greek background, I am always called upon to pronounce and describe this sauce to others.  I find it fun to help my friends try to say it, and I like that they are surprised by the ingredients.  Usually found on gyros (yee-ros) or souvlaki, it is also great with pita bread, veggies, or with other meat.  Tzatziki sauce is now a mainstay in our home.  I make it weekly.  It adds a great kick to your food.  You can make the sauce as strong and flavorful as you would like.  We like it with lots of garlic for a really strong flavor, but if you prefer less just reduce the amount. 

If you have only had tzatziki sauce on gyros from fast food places, you may be surprised that there is garlic and dill included.  Many places tend to skip those two ingredients.  The recipe only calls for a little bit of dill, and dill is typically sold in bunches, so you will have lots extra.  Since I make this sauce so often, I am growing dill at home so that I always have some on hand and don’t have to waste the rest.  However, my dill is still in its baby stages, and as I am waiting for it to grow, I purchased a bunch.  I chopped up the whole thing, placed the extra in a Ziploc bag and threw it into the refrigerator.  The dill may last up to two to three weeks in there, for future tzatziki making occassions.

 

I have tried the recipe with lower fat yogurt, but the full fat yogurt provides more flavor  and a better consistency in my opinion.  I must mention that I once had a gyro in Bayonne, NJ were they made the sauce with mayo.  No, no, no!   Try to find the Greek yogurt, which most grocery stores carry now, because you will be much happier.

What you need

1 container Greek yogurt (I prefer Fage, but any will do)

1 cucumber

1 tbsp dill

4 cloves garlic

1/8 tsp salt

1/8 tsp pepper

1 tbsp olive oil

½ tsp vinegar

First, scoop the yogurt out of the container and into a medium sized mixing bowl.  Skin the cucumber, cut it in half, and shred the cucumber over a grater into a separate bowl.  I prefer to use two different blades on the grater.  One large and one smaller so that there is some texture from the cucumber in the sauce.  Once grated, remove some of the cucumber juice and put the rest of the cucumber into the yogurt.  You can use a regular cucumber or an English cucumber. 

Next, chop the garlic finely and chop up the dill.  I like to use a little more than 1 tbsp of dill, but it is a personal preference.   Put both into the yogurt/cucumber mixture.  Add the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.  My dad prefers to use white pepper.  I did not have any on hand so I just used black pepper.  I have used both balsamic and wine vinegar in the past.  Either works fine.  I would advise against using red wine vinegar because it is too tart.

Mix all the ingredients together.  Place in a container and store in fridge.  Let sit for a day before using so that all the flavors can mix together.

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After Easter, we had so much food left over that I did not need to cook for the next few days.  When deciding on what to make for dinner last night, I decided I wanted something a little lighter than all the heavy foods we had been eating from the holidays, and I wanted to use my leftovers as much as I could.  We had plenty of eggs left over from Easter since I bought 4 or 5 dozen, due in part to dying eggs as well as the unsuccessful 15 egg Easter bread.  We also had olives and feta cheese left over as well.

Frittatas seem to be popular these days.  Lately, whenever we go to breakfast/brunch on weekends, there always seems to be a “frittata of the day”.  I do not typically order frittatas in restaurants though because I find them to be too heavy.  However, upon browsing through several cookbooks the other night, I came upon two recipes for frittatas from Weight Watchers, and I decided to sort of meld the two together.

The two recipes both called for a combination of whole eggs and egg whites.  I decided to substitute mozzarella for feta cheese, and I added spinach, chopped kalamata olives and oregano.

What you need:

 3 whole eggs

4 egg whites

10 ounces frozen spinach thawed and drained

5 kalamata olives

1 Tbsp oregano

1/3 cup low fat milk

1/8 tsp salt

¼ tsp pepper

1/3 cup feta cheese crumbled.

 First, gather your eggs together.  Crack three eggs into your medium sized mixing bowl. Then, add the four egg whites.  To separate the egg whites, I typically use the shell of the egg and move the yolk back and forth, while letting the whites slip out into the bowl.  I recently learned a trick during a cooking demonstration to use your hands.  Crack the egg open, and allow the whites to slip through your fingers while the yolk remains in your hands.  At first, I did not enjoy the messiness of this, but now I find it to be a much easier way to separate egg whites.

 Add the milk and the spinach (thawed and drained) to the eggs, and whisk together.  Chop up the olives, and stir in the olives, oregano, salt and pepper to the egg/spinach mixture. 

Spray an omelet pan (or small-medium frying pan) with some cooking spray so the eggs won’t stick, and heat the pan on a medium heat.  Once the pan is warm, pour the egg mixture into the pan.  Now, add the feta cheese.  The feta will give the frittata a saltier taste, so if you prefer something less salty, go with the mozzarella.  When the eggs firm up around the edges, start trying to lift the sides of the frittata with a spatula, just so you can get it ready to be flipped. 

When the mixture appears to be firm in the middle (no runny egg), then flip the frittata.   This frittata is pretty hefty because of the amount of spinach, so I suggest using two spatulas to flip it.  Place both spatulas under the frittata, be brave, and flip it. When I flipped mine, a little piece in the middle came apart, but once it cooks on the other side it will meld together again. Cook for a few more minutes, and then you are done.  I like to cut the frittata up like a pizza to serve.

The result:  A lighter-kind of frittata.  What made this frittata the best was the oregano.  Using good oregano is a must.  Fortunately, we were lucky enough to have oregano direct from Greece (via my aunt), and it had a strong and distinct flavor.  Typically, oregano from the spice jar in the grocery store lacks flavor and when added to recipes, gets lost among the other flavors.  However, the oregano we used in this frittata was definitely noticeable.  One bite and we were both reminded of the eggs my aunt made us for breakfast when we visited Greece two summers ago.

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For the second time this weekend, I am attempting Greek Easter Bread, known as Tsoureki.  It is a sweet, light and airy bread that is served during Easter.  It is usually topped with a red Easter egg and almond slivers.  My first attempt was Friday night, when I followed a recipe that I had found online.  I have a Greek cookbook that I took from parents home many years ago, and the recipes in there always seem to work out well.  It is a delightful cookbook with recipes from members of the church.  However, the recipe for Easter bread yielded 7-9 loaves and called for 10lbs of flour, which I thought may be a little excessive.  So, adverturously, I found a random recipe online that seemed reasonable, and began my search for the two spices I never heard of…mastic and mahlepi.  I called my best friend, whose mother makes Easter bread every year, and she graciously provided me with these spices.  I love trying something new when it involves cooking, so I was excited to use these new “exotic” spices.  However, my bread, although it smelled like the delicious Easter bread I remember, looked and tasted nothing like it.  It was dry, bland, and flat. 

Ok, take two…

The next day I bravely attempted a second time to make Greek Easter bread for my guests.  This time I followed a recipe from my friend’s mother that was dictated to me over the phone.  Perhaps I wrote something down incorrectly, perhaps I just can’t follow directions, or perhaps this bread is just temperamental, but again I did not succeed.  This time the bread smelled and tasted more like tsoureki, but it came out super thick. 

So my second adventure started with 15 eggs.  Yes, that is correct…15 eggs. 

 

 I added the 5lbs of flour, the yeast, the mahlepi.  I mixed the eggs and the sugar with a splash of mastic.  I added butter and milk.  What I got was a super sticky concoction. I wrapped it in a blanket, per advice of friend’s mother, and ran it up to our third floor, the warmest part of the house, so that it could rise.  I was patient.  I checked every 2 to 3 hours, and nothing happened.  On hour 5, it looked like it had risen a little bit, but maybe I just didn’t remember how much was in there, since I had been waiting 5 hours for this sticky mess to do something.  On hour 8, I gave up.  I added some more flour to the “dough”, and decided to cook it anyway.  I placed it into two bread pans and one cake pan, and cooked it at 350 degrees for about an hour.  At one point, the bread in the cake pan on the bottom rack in the oven, rose so much it broke through to the top rack to visit the bread pans. 

Surprising, it smelled and tasted like Greek Easter bread, although it did not resemble it one bit, not withstanding the fact that I did not include the red easter egg or almond slivers.  Practice makes perfect, or so they say, so perhaps after a few more attempts (next year), I will create the bread I remember fondly.

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Greek Easter Eggs

So you might be thinking what makes an Easter egg, a “Greek” Easter egg?  Well, it really is just the color.  People who follow Greek Orthodox traditions dye eggs red on Easter.  So when I was little, all the other children could have pink, green, blue, and glitter eggs, but we only had red.   Why red?  The red color symbolizes the blood of Christ (keeping religion in the holiday is never a bad thing).  Of course, you can buy red dye, but I wanted to to try the traditional, old-fashioned method which involved Spanish onion skins. First, remove a dozen eggs from the refrigerator so that they may reach room temperature. 

You will need about 12-15 Spanish onion skins.  I started collecting the onion skins a few weeks before.  Whenver I used an onion while cooking, I saved the onion skin in a ziploc bag, and stored it in the refrigerator.  

Then, in a stainless steel saucepan, bring the onion skins, 5 cups of water, and 2 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar to a boil.  Once boiling, lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes.  Strain the liquid into a glass bowl, and let the liquid cool to room temperature. 

Once cooled, in the stainless steel sauce pan, add the liquid and the eggs.  The eggs should be in one layer and covered by the dye.  When I placed the eggs into the pan, the tops of the eggs were not covered by the dye, so as they cooked I turned them frequently so that each part of the egg could be covered at some point.  Bring the eggs to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes.  Do not exceed 20 mintues or the eggs will begin to break.

  If you do not feel that the eggs are red enough, let the pan cool with the eggs inside, then place it in the regriferator until you get the desired red color.  

I thought the eggs looked a little dull once they were finished cooking, so I placed then in the regrierator to deepen the color.  Remove eggs with a slotted spoon (the dye may discolor your spoon, so I suggest using a stainless steel spoon), and place on a rack to cool.  I left the eggs in a colander to cool and dry.

Once at room temperature use olive oil to polish the eggs.

My Easter eggs came out a little splotchy in places, perhaps adding another 1/2 cup of water may cover the eggs and produce a more even color.   The color came out a dark red, which, according to Greek family members, is the correct color.  I placed the eggs in square glass vases, and put them out on the table for Easter.

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