One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Shrimp Saganaki

Put a Greek and a Turk in a room together and it is pretty much inevitable that they will start quibbling about food, more accurately the origins thereof. "We invented baklava!" will cry the Greek. "Yeah, right!" will scoff the Turk. "And don't forget that feta is Turkish!" So on and so forth. Of course, with centuries of interlinked history, it's probably impossible to determine where anything originates. There is one thing though that I cannot quibble over: The Greeks' addiction to feta far outweighs the Turks'. They throw it in everything! Pastries, salads, even seafood gets its share of salty cheesy goodness. My Greek friend C. always says that I can't make proper Greek food until I get baptized. My sneaky plan is to blind him to my lack of religious initiation by putting extra feta on his plate! 

One classic Greek dish that puts feta to great use is shrimp saganaki. At its base a simple preparation of shrimp cooked in tomato sauce, it is topped with nubs of cheese that give it a delectable creamy, salty quality. Yet for me, the star of the dish is not the feta but the spices in the tomato sauce. Cinnamon and allspice taste, to my Turkish palate, pretty exotic when mixed with shrimp and tomatoes, but the combination has a comforting aroma that will have you wiping every drop of sauce off your plate with bread. 

Shrimp Saganaki
Adapted from here. Only use fresh tomatoes if they are in season, i.e. in the summer. To obtain pulp from fresh tomatoes, halve them and rub the cut side against a box grater until you are left with the peel. Serve with bread. Serves 4.

1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1 can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes, or pulp from 7-8 medium tomatoes (800 g)
1 1/4 lb (500 g) peeled and deveined shrimp
1/4 lb (125 g) good quality feta, crumbled

1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, cook for 5-7 minutes until soft. Add garlic, cook for another minute. Stir in spices, cook for 30 seconds.

2. Add tomatoes and salt. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes. 

3. Add shrimp. Simmer until shrimp are opaque and cooked through, about 5 minutes.

4. Top with feta and serve. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Russian Beet "Caviar"

Hello hello! I've been away from the blog for a long time, but I have a good excuse: A nasty bout of food poisoning completely destroyed my appetite for a couple of weeks. The dish I'm sharing today was the first one that I could eat with relish after my recovery. It comes from a book called "Please to the Table" about the cuisines of the ex-Soviet countries. Before I checked this gigantic tome out of the library, I didn't know much about Russian food. Sure, I had vague notions of bland, sour cream-laden fish and potato dishes, but the book pleasantly surprised me with its wide range of vegetable and meat recipes, not to mention delicious-sounding dishes from the Caucasus, the Baltics, Uzbekistan and the Ukraine like a saffron pilaf with pomegranate, chicken with walnut-garlic sauce and a wild mushroom "caviar". Caviar seems to be the term applied to a wide range of minced cooked vegetable spreads. I fell in love with this roasted beet caviar after I made it for a holiday dinner. It gets just the right amount of sweetness from some prunes and a nice crunch from walnuts. It's perfect served with pumpernickel bread, or shoveled in straight from the bowl if you are ecstatic about recovering your appetite after food poisoning like I was!

Russian Beet "Caviar"
Adapted from here. This is best made a day ahead, which gives the flavors time to meld and mellows out the garlic. If you are going to serve immediately, use less garlic than called for in the recipe. Bremzen has you first soak the prunes for 30 minutes in brandy but I've omitted this step as it didn't make too much difference to the taste. You can also boil or steam the beets, although their taste will be less intense. Served on triangles of black or pumpernickel bread, this makes enough appetizer portions for 8-10 people. 

3 medium-large beets
3/4 cup roughly chopped walnuts
7 pitted prunes, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp brandy (optional)
3-5 tbsp mayonnaise

1. Heat oven to 400F (200C). Wash the beets and wrap them in tightly in foil. Roast for 40-50 minutes until easily pierced by a sharp knife. 

2. When the beets are cool enough to handle, peel them and cut into a few pieces. Pulse in a food processor until minced (but not pureed).

3. Mix the beets with the next five ingredients. Stir in 3 tbsp mayonnaise, then more if you feel the mixture isn't creamy enough. (Don't worry if the garlic tastes too sharp at this stage, it will mellow as it sits.) Season with salt and black pepper and chill until serving.