Sunday, January 30, 2011

Around the World...Greece

Greece has always held a certain fascination for me. Steeped in a long and rich history, this country can be credited for much of what we know today. From famous philosophers to the arts, language and even food, Greece has had much impact on the world.

From 900 B.C. to 158 B.C. (a span of 700 years) Greece was a powerful military force in the Mediterranean, with bases or colonies on the coast of Asia Minor, Cyprus, Egypt, Gaza, Italy, France, Spain, Sardinia, Persia and India. Greek colonists brought with them beautiful pottery, sculpture and crafts as well as food from home such as olives, cheese, figs, oil, wheat, barley, wine and honey. Because of Greek influence similar recipes, many with the same names, are found in all of these countries. When Rome became the dominant power in the Mediterranean after 158 B.C., the Romans' respect and admiration for Hellenic culture influenced them. Their Greek teachers taught them how to appreciate the arts, including the art of dining.

In 312 A.D., combined forces of Christian Romans and Greeks moved the seat of culture to Constantinople where it remained for 1000 years. The Byzantines retained the best of their 2 heritages: Greek art, language and literature, plus Roman laws and government. So when we talk of Mediterranean food we can truly say it encompasses the entire region.

As we know, Mediterranean food is considered the world's healthiest cuisine. What makes it so healthy is that its core features fresh produce. In addition, whole grains, beans, fresh and abundant seafood, fowl and occasionally meat make up the difference, along with loads of olive oil, all washed down with wine. The cuisine offers a plethora of nutrients that are vital for human health: vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, etc. Thank God it's my favorite cuisine!

I have an old Greek cookbook in my collection from which, over the years, I have made this dish fairly often. I recently thought about it again after having realized I hadn't made it in a while. It's on this week's menu.

Baked Lemon Oregano Chicken

1 roasting chicken, disjointed
1/4 lb. butter
1/4 cup oil
2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. dried oregano (if you prefer using fresh, use less and chop very fine)
2 lemons, juice only
3 cups boiling water
2 Tbsp. cornstarch

Wash chicken under cold running water. Pat dry. Heat butter and oil together until hot. Pour half of it into a shallow baking pan, spreading it to cover bottom. Lay pieces of chicken in pan. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and oregano. Mix remaining butter mixture with strained lemon juice and baste fowl. Bake 1 hour at 375F, basting 3-4 times during baking. When cooked, remove to platter. Crank up the heat to 475F.

To make the gravy: add boiling water to pan drippings. Use a spatula to scrape bottom and mix in. Dilute cornstarch in 1/2 cup cold water and stir into pan. Place baking dish (minus the chicken) back in oven for 5 minutes at 475F.

Serve with mashed potatoes or rice. I like to serve a green vegetable on which the lemon gravy would also be delicious, such as broccoli, green beans or asparagus. A Greek salad to start would also not be bad.

The recipe doesn't say, but this should serve a family of 4 easily. (For only 2 people, prep 2 chicken breasts or 4 thighs or whatever, and cut recipe in 1/2 or 1/3).

To complete the Greek theme, serve olives and feta with pita chips to start, and finish with Baklava for dessert. Voila - Greek vacation minus the expense.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Magnificent Madeleines

One of my favorite cookies is the Madeleine. At once simple, yet elegant, they are understated perfection. I made them yesterday afternoon because I had a hankering for something cake-like and light and lemony. These fit the bill.

Traditionally molded in a pan with shell-shaped indentations for the batter, Madeleines are perhaps most famous for their association with involuntary memory in the Marcel Proust novel In Search of Lost Time, in which the narrator experiences an awakening upon tasting a madeleine dipped in tea:
"She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…"
The Madeleine consists of common baking ingredients you likely have in your kitchen right now. I mean, what are most desserts made out of anyway but the usual eggs, sugar, flour, butter? Basically a Genoise cake batter, or French sponge cake, the Madeleine was traditionally eaten at afternoon tea. The basic recipe is just the above 4 basic ingredients, plus vanilla. But flavorings can also be added for a little twist. Lemon zest or orange zest are great additions and my favorite. I've also seen a French recipe that called for rose water but I don't care for anything rose-flavored and because I am a lemon-lover, that's my favorite version. It is not a lemon cookie; it has only the slightest hint of it, just enough to perk it up.

Though I've never been a fan of buying specialized baking pans meant for a specific purpose, this is the one formed pan I have purchased, and it has been well used. You can find Madeleine pans in any good cooking store such as Williams-Sonoma or Crate & Barrel, at Target, or online at if you don't want to leave the house.
I hope you'll make these sometime. They are a lovely addition to any afternoon tea with friends or family, or while sitting in front of the television watching cooking shows......!!! The best thing about the Madeleine is that it is so simple to make. They are best eaten fresh, the same day they are made, when the outside has a little crust and the inside is moist and cake-like. YUM!


Melt 1/4 lb. (1 stick) butter, allow to cool.

Combine in a mixer:
3 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
then add:
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Mix on medium speed for 3 minutes until light and fluffy.

Meanwhile, sift the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch (or 1 1/4 cup cake flour in lieu of the above 2 items)
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt

Add the melted butter to the egg mixture first, then add the dry ingredients, all the while keeping mixer on low. When everything's incorporated, turn off mixer and stir in flavoring (1/3 cup shredded coconut or 1 tsp. lemon or orange zest, or 1/2 tsp. cinnamon).

If you're using a non-stick madeleine pan like I have, just brush pan with melted butter. If you have a regular pan, brush with butter, then dust with flour. Non-stick pan: bake 10 minutes. Regular pan, bake 10-12 minutes at 375F.

Makes about 24 cookies. Best eaten same day.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Tools of the Trade: the Slow Cooker sees a revival

What is it about the slow cooker lately? Clearly, its convenience and ability to produce easy one-pot meals makes it a great, inexpensive item for every kitchen. I must admit that for the longest time, I thought of the slow cooker as a sort of relic - a throwback to a time when American cuisine was unadventurous and unexciting - and mine sat in the far reaches of a kitchen shelf for the longest time. But these days I am seeing every cooking website and magazine imaginable boasting their favorite slow cooker recipes! What's going on? It seems the slow cooker has come back.

And you know what, that's fine by me, because last year I actually got mine out again and started using it. There is a trick though, to ensuring that these one-pot meals turn out with a maximum of flavor.

Be forewarned. Though you may think slow cooking is as easy as piling everything into the cooker and turning it on, that's not the best way to achieve the most flavor out of the foods that go into it. To do that, go one step further by browning the meat and vegetables in a saute pan before putting them in. The carmelization that comes from browning on the stovetop cannot be achieved in the slow cooker, and that is what adds so much flavor to the dish.

If you have a slow cooker and you are only cooking out of the recipe guide that came with it, you are missing out. I have yet to find a recipe in there that really stands out (although you usually can't go wrong with your basic chili). I found a lovely cookbook called "The Gourmet Slow Cooker" by Lynn Alley, from which I have many numerous recipes, and I've enjoyed nearly every one I've tried. If you need some inspiration for your slow cooker, I highly recommend it.

I have 3 favorites from the book that I wanted to share with you: Baked Eggplant, Greek Bean Soup, and Provencal Chicken Stew. It's the Baked Eggplant that I plan to make again this week that prompted this post. I serve it along with numerous "mezze" (Middle Eastern appetizers or nibbles). I will scoop up the eggplant with warm pita bread, and have feta cheese, kalamata olives, roasted peppers and other cut up veggies, and falafel. It's all vegetarian, fantastically flavored, and makes for a light supper.

Baked Eggplant

1/2 cup olive oil
2 large or 3 medium eggplants, peeled and cut into cubes
3 cloves garlic, pressed
juice of 1 lemon
extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley for garnish
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves for garnish (optional)
4 oz. feta cheese, crumbled, for garnish (1 scant cup)

Pour 1/4 cup of the olive oil into the slow cooker and rotate to coat the bottom. Add the eggplant and the remaining oil and toss lightly. Cover and cook on high for about 2 hours or on low for about 5 hours, until the eggplant is quite mushy. Stir 2-3 times during cooking.

Add the garlic, lemon juice, and salt to taste, and stir well to break up any large chunks of eggplant (sometimes I puree it if I want a smoother texture, especially if I'm going to be using it as a dip). Transfer to a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and garnish with the herbs and feta. Serve warm or at room temperature. Scoop up with pita bread or pita chips.

Greek Bean Soup

2 cups dried white beans
6-8 cups water or chicken stock
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 ham bone (optional)
3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced, or 1 (14.5 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
Leaves from 2 sprigs oregano, coarsely chopped
1 cup packed spinach leaves, young dandelion greens, or arugula
1 Tbsp. salt
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Rinse and sort the beans. Place them in the slow cooker and add enough of the water/stock to cover. Cover and cook on high for about 2 hours, until the beans begin to soften. Or, better yet, soak the beans with water to cover overnight, the drain, rinse, and transfer to the slow cooker. Add the water/stock to cover.

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. Add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic and saute, stirring frequently, for 10 min. or until lightly browned. Add the vegetables and ham bone to the beans in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours, until the beans are tender. (At this point, you can puree some of the beans for a thicker consistency if you like).

A few minutes before serving, stir in the tomatoes, oregano, spinach, and salt. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the parsley. Serve immediately.

Provencal Chicken Stew

3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 chicken, cut into serving pieces and skinned
1/4 olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine (sometimes I use red, if I already have that open)
1 (14.5 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
freshly ground black pepper

For garnish:
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
1 cup kalamata olives

Combine the 3/4 cup flour and salt in a resealable bag. Add chicken to the bag, several pieces at a time, and shake to coat completely.

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add oil. Add chicken and cook, turning once, for 8-10 min. until browned on all sides. Using tongs, transfer to paper towels to drain, then arrange in the slow cooker.

Set the saute pan over the heat again and add the onions and 2 Tbsp flour. Saute, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Add garlic and stir 2-3 min. Add the wine and stir to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Increase to high heat and add the tomatoes and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes until some of the tomato liquid has evaporated.

Pour the onion mixture over the chicken in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 3-8 hours, until chicken is tender. At 3-4 hours, the chicken will still be firm and hold its shape. At 6-8 hours, the meat will be falling off the bone.

Divide the chicken among dinner plates and garnish with the parsley, basil and olives.


A word about slow cooking safety.
"When cooking large pieces of meat, remember that they will take some time to come to temperature.  Browning the meat in a saute pan before slow cooking can jump-start the heating process and kill any bacteria on the surface of the meat. Don't fill the insert of the slow cooker more than 2/3 full or the food near the top will take too long to cook. Place those ingredients that take longer to cook, such as larger pieces of meat, carrots or potatoes, near the bottom."
And these bits of information I found on wikipedia.
"Cheaper cuts of meat with connective tissue and lean muscle fibre are suitable for stewing, and tastier than stews using expensive cuts, as long slow cooking will soften the connective tissue without toughening the muscle."
"Raw kidney beans, and some other beans, contain the toxin phytohaemagglutinin, which is destroyed by boiling for at least ten minutes, but not by the lower temperatures of a slow cooker, so dry beans must be boiled prior to slow cooking to avoid poisoning. Even a few beans can be toxic, and beans can be as much as five times more toxic if cooked at 175°F (80°C) than if eaten raw, so adequate pre-boiling is vital. Cases of poisoning by slow-cooked beans have been published in the UK, poisoning has occurred in the US but has not been formally reported."
Some websites highlighting their favorite slow cooker recipes:,, and Food

If you have a favorite slow cooker recipe you'd like to share, please do!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ways with Citrus


Winter is here and so are citrus fruits. My local farmer's markets are brimming right now with grapefruit, mandarin oranges, blood oranges, clementines, tangerines and lemons, and they are hard to resist. After all the sugary sweets of the holiday season, it's such a nice change to eat something naturally sweet from Mother Nature. Since citrus are acids, they are great detoxifiers after the excesses of the holidays.

I just love the burst of flavor that citrus adds. Even as a young child, I was immensely fond of lemons (and still am). One of my all-time favorite dressings is simply EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), lemon juice, salt and pepper. A simply dressed salad like that is just lovely. Lemon actually brightens the flavor of orange, so it may be a good idea to add them both to a dish.
But as much as I love lemons, as an homage to the county in which I live, Orange County, I want to start the new year off by celebrating oranges.

The fruit likely originated in Asia somewhere, and has undergone various genetic manipulations over the years in numerous countries, so there are many types of oranges available. In California though, the mostly widely cultivated varieties are navel and valencia oranges, the sorts you'll typically find in supermarkets. This is yet another reason to venture over to your farmer's market. Our local growers offer us variety and taste unmatched by supermarket chains.

Though Orange County was once nothing but acres and acres of ranch land and orange groves, now it's one master-planned community next to the other. But there are still pockets of orange groves to be found, perhaps left there from bygone times or newly planted as an homage to our namesake.

Either way, the orange is delicious in so many ways. I have included two recipes that I have made from a couple of cooking shows on the Food Channel, but I'd rather leave you thinking about how to substitute oranges and their juice into your cooking this season.

Slice orange wedges and avocados on top of your fresh green salads and add some tangerine juice in lieu of vinegar to your dressing (a little basil in this dressing makes it really great). Citrus juice is a great addition to vinaigrettes and marinades and adds a nice twist from the ordinary. Marinate your chicken or seafood in any types of citrus juice and some sesame oil for a lovely Asian-inspired flavor.

Though it's a little bit of work, it is an absolutely amazing salad: roasted beets with a reduction of orange and tangerine juice as a dressing. Topped with bleu cheese, this one will knock your socks off (click here for the recipe).

A little orange juice, cinnamon and honey blended into some plain yogurt makes a healthy dressing for fruit salad.

When making chocolate pudding, I sometimes add a little orange zest and cinnamon to it before it sets. It makes the dessert something you wouldn't ordinarily expect (click here for recipe).

When looking for ways to incorporate oranges, note that they pair nicely with the following: Armagnac, bananas, basil, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, cranberries, cream and ice cream, grapefruit, honey, lemon, mint, olive oil and olives, onions, pomegranates, rosemary, vanilla, vinegar and walnuts.

I do have a recipe for an orange pound cake that I want to try.........if it's any good, I'll let you know. If you have any great uses for citrus or their juices, I'd love to hear from you.

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