Sunday 4 December 2016

Recipes: A Greek Odyssey

From politics to literature and olive oil, the Greeks come bearing many delightful gifts, says Brenda Costigan, including dishes such as kebabs, moussaka and bandit's lamb

Published 04/09/2011 | 05:00

Had a staycation and the weather didn't deliver? Why not have a virtual holiday instead, and cook the dishes of one of your favourite holiday destinations? .

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Take, say, Greece and the islands, which conjures up images of crystal-blue seas, whitewashed walls, blue skies and olive-tree-dotted countryside. Since as far back as the 5th Century BC, Greece has had a culinary reputation every bit as distinguished as its reputation for literature and politics



The olive tree is hugely important to Greece, and olive oil plays a vital part in the cuisine. Garlic is another typical Greek ingredient, as is lemon. The sharpness of the lemon is used to balance the richness of the olive oil. Popular herbs and spices include oregano, rosemary, cumin, cinnamon and allspice.

GREEK LAMB KEBABS WITH PISTACHIOS

Ideally, use metal skewers for these kebabs -- the metal acts as a heat conductor, and helps to cook the meat in the centre. Chill the kebabs in the fridge before you cook them, as doing so helps to set the meat in place. Serves 4-5

You will need:

Olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons mild paprika

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

500g (1lb 2oz) minced lamb

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

100g (3½oz) pistachio nuts, unsalted, coarsely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4-5 metal skewers

Green salad, to serve

Pitta bread, to serve

Heat some of the olive oil in a frying pan and fry the finely chopped onion until it becomes soft. Add in the crushed garlic, the ground cumin, the mild paprika and the cayenne pepper, and fry gently, stirring until the aromas waft up.

Remove the frying pan from the heat, transfer the contents to a bowl and leave to cool for about five minutes. Add the minced lamb to the bowl, along with the chopped fresh thyme leaves, the chopped fresh parsley and the coarsely chopped pistachio nuts. Season well with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mix everything well together. Mould the meat mixture around each skewer, making a long, narrow cylinder of meat around the skewer's centre. Squeeze the meat firmly in place. Chill in the fridge for ten minutes or so to set the meat. Brush each kebab lightly with a little olive oil and grill under a hot grill or on the barbecue, turning once or more often until they are golden brown on all sides and cooked through. Serve hot with a green salad and pitta bread.

MOUSSAKA

This is a great dish for a party or for the weekend, and it can be prepared in advance. It is somewhat similar to a lasagne, but instead of pasta, in this classic Greek dish, the meat sauce is layered with slices of lightly cooked aubergines. Moussaka freezes well. Serves 6-8.

You will need:

2-3 aubergines

2 large potatoes

Olive oil, about 3-4 tablespoons

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 large onion, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

700g (1½lb) minced lean lamb

About 300ml (½pt) passata (sieved tomatoes available in jars)

½ teaspoon dried oregano

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

2 teaspoons tomato puree

1-2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

50g (2oz) grated mozzarella or Cheddar

15-25g (½-1oz) grated Parmesan

Green salad, to serve

For the bechamel sauce, you will need:

50g (2oz) butter

50g (2oz) flour

600ml (1pt) fresh milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

25g (1oz) grated Cheddar

15 g (½oz) grated Parmesan

2 large eggs, lightly whisked

Preheat the oven to about 190°C, 375°F, Gas 5. Most recipes don't peel the aubergines, but it is probably better to do so, as the skins are relatively tough. Peel the aubergines and the potatoes. Cut the vegetables down their length into slices of about 0.5cm (¼in) thick -- the slices should be thin, but not wafer thin.

Grease a baking tin with a thin coating of olive oil and, in a single layer, arrange the sliced aubergines and potatoes on it. Season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper and drizzle a little olive oil over the top. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes -- baking the aubergines, rather than frying them, prevents them soaking up too much oil -- then turn the sliced aubergines and potatoes over and continue baking them for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven.

While the aubergines and potatoes are baking, you can start on the meat. Fry the chopped onion and the chopped garlic in a pan with a little olive oil until they become soft and golden, then lift them out and transfer them to a saucepan. Next, fry the minced lean lamb in three or four lots until it is lightly browned. Drain all the fat off and add the browned meat to the fried onions and garlic in the saucepan. Season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir the passata into the meat mixture, then add the dried oregano, the ground cinnamon and the ground allspice. Stir in the tomato puree and the chopped fresh parsley. Mix everything well together. Cook over a moderate heat, half-covered with a lid, stirring occasionally. If necessary, add a little more passata to moisten the meat sauce, but be careful not to make it runny.

To make the bechamel sauce, in a saucepan, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, to make a paste, but do not let it turn brown. Heat the milk separately, then add it all at once into the butter-and-flour paste (which is known as a roux), stirring very briskly with a whisk until all the lumps disappear. Season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper and the ground nutmeg. Bring to the boil, stirring all the time. Add the grated Cheddar and the grated Parmesan. Take off the heat and allow to cool down for a while. Then mix in the lightly whisked eggs.

Use a lasagne dish approximately 30.5cm by 23cm (12in by 9in). Lightly coat the dish with olive oil. Arrange the baked potato slices in a layer over the base, then use half of the aubergine slices to make a layer on top. Next, spread half the meat sauce over the aubergine slices. Scatter a little of the grated mozzarella or Cheddar, whichever you are using, over the top, and some of the grated Parmesan. Use the remaining aubergine slices to make another layer, and top with the rest of the meat sauce. Scatter the remaining grated mozzarella or Cheddar, whichever you are using, and the rest of the grated Parmesan on top. Finally, pour the bechamel sauce in a thick layer all over the top.

Bake in the oven -- preheated to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4 -- for about 45 minutes, until the mousakka is golden on top and bubbling nicely all around the edges. Allow to stand for about 15 minutes before slicing. Serve with a green salad.

GREEK-STYLE SALAD

(Pictured)

To give the salad an even better flavour, marinate the feta in the dressing for a little while before assembling the salad. Though not traditional, I often add some finely shredded little gem lettuce. Serves 3-4.

For the dressing, you will need:

60-75 ml (4-5 tablespoons) olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon dried oregano

¼ teaspoon ground cumin (optional)

1 small teaspoon honey

You will also need:

150g (5oz) feta cheese

3 tomatoes, about 275g (10oz)

½ crisp cucumber

10-12 black olives

1 small onion, thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon caster sugar

¼ teaspoon coriander

¼ teaspoon dried oregano

Crusty bread, to serve

To make the dressing, in a salad bowl (do not use a metal bowl) mix together the olive oil, the lemon juice, some salt and freshly ground black pepper, the dried oregano, the ground cumin, if you are using it, and the honey. Cut the feta cheese in small cubes and add to this dressing. Cover the bowl and leave it to one side. Cut the tomatoes into quarters and cut each quarter in half. Put the tomato wedges in a separate bowl. Cut the cucumber into bite-sized chunks and add to the tomatoes. Mix in the black olives and the thinly sliced onion. Season with some salt, freshly ground black pepper and the caster sugar. Mix in the coriander and the dried oregano and leave the bowl to one side for about half an hour. To assemble the salad, add the prepared tomato, cucumber and olive mixture to the salad bowl containing the feta cheese and dressing. Toss everything together. Serve with the crusty bread.

ARNIKA KLEFTIKO

According to legend, this dish would be made with a stolen lamb. The thief would cook the meat over many hours in a hole in the ground, which he sealed with mud so that no steam could escape to give him away. This recipe has many variations, but the essential element is that the meat is cooked in a closed container so all the juices are trapped inside. The traditional way to cook this is in a wood-burning oven, but this version below is cooked in a casserole. Serves 4.

You will need:

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

2 onions, sliced

3-4 large garlic cloves, chopped

2 potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced

1 stick celery, chopped

1 carrot, sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼-½ teaspoon dried oregano

¼-½ teaspoon ground cumin

¼-½kg (3-4lbs) whole shoulder of lamb

Juice of 1 lemon

3-4 fresh bay leaves

Small sprigs of thyme or rosemary

Use a casserole with a tight-fitting lid. You can use a layer of foil or baking parchment between the casserole's base and lid to make a very snug fit.

Preheat the oven to a very hot temperature -- 230°C, 450°F, Gas 8. If you have a cast-iron casserole, heat it in the oven for about 15 minutes. Have all the ingredients prepared, ready to pop into the hot casserole.

Carefully lift the casserole out of the oven on to a mat. Pour a few tablespoons of the olive oil into the base of the casserole. Arrange the sliced onion over the base, and in a layer over them, arrange the chopped garlic, the peeled, thickly sliced potatoes, the chopped celery and the sliced carrot. Season well with some salt and freshly ground black pepper and sprinkle with some of the dried oregano and some of the ground cumin.

Sit the shoulder of lamb on top of the vegetables. Drizzle more olive oil over the lamb and the visible vegetables. Drizzle the lemon juice over everything. Season with some more salt, freshly ground black pepper, and the rest of the oregano and ground cumin. Scatter the bay leaves and the rosemary or thyme, whichever you are using, over the top.

Close the casserole and put it into the hot oven for about 20 minutes, then reduce the heat right down to 150°C, 300°F, Gas 2, and cook for about 3-4 hours. Avoid the temptation to check the meat too soon or the steam and juices will escape.

Serve the shoulder of lamb along with the vegetables from the casserole, and the meat juices, with the fat spooned off.

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