Last weekend’s cold snap had many of us dreaming of an escape to a warmer clime, possibly as a treat for the coming Valentine’s Day. Last minute air reservations to the Mediterranean or even Caribbean are often hard to manage, but a bit of advance planning and some judicious shopping can produce a delightful Valentine’s Day feast without physically transporting oneself to the sunny shores of Greece or many of its idyllic islands.
Food is one of the easiest ways to set a table and imagine yourself in a different clime. Fortunately, today’s supermarkets cater to a variety of ethnic tastes. Finding ingredients like grape leaves in a jar or that wonderful readymade, frozen phyllo dough, does not need to become an impossible quest. So, let us embark on a cooking adventure with a foreign, but not impossibly difficult menu.
This light lemony chicken soup, an all-time Greek favorite, is quickly prepared with a bright flavor for any season. Heat 6 cups of chicken broth to a boil, add 1/4 cup rice, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, whisk 2 eggs with the juice of 1 lemon in a medium bowl. After 20 minutes whisk a cupful of the hot broth from the pot in the eggs and then on medium heat whisk the egg mixture into the soup pot using long strokes to create long stands of egg in the soup. Lower the heat, gently stir in 2 cups of baby spinach, 1/4 tsp pepper and continue to cook for a minute or two until the soup thickens. Do not allow to boil. Serve hot sprinkled with a bit of dill.
Stuffed grape leaves or Dolmades are not really complicated but require a bit of time to wrap the delicious filling in each grape leaf. This is a slightly simplified version from a recipe from a N.Y. Times cookbook by Claiborne and Franey (1983).
Drain grape leaves bottled in brine, separate them slightly in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let stand until ready to wrap around filling.
Put 1/3 cup rice in a pan with boiling water, simmer for 8 minutes and drain.
In a mixing bowl combine 1/2 lb. ground lamb, and the rice.
In small pan melt 3 tblsp butter and sauté 1/2 cup finely chopped onion with 2 chopped garlic cloves until onion is wilted. Add this to the lamb and rice, plus 3 tblsp dill, 2 tsp mint, 1 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper. Mix the stuffing thoroughly with your hands.
Drain a few leaves at a time, spread out on a plate, place a heaping teaspoon of the filling on each leaf and fold the leaf around the filling like an envelope. Arrange the filled grape leaves tightly in single layer in a 12 inch pan with a lid. Pour 2 cups low sodium chicken broth mixed with the juice of 1 lemon over the grape leaves. Bring to boil, lower the heat to simmer and cook tightly covered for 45 minutes. The liquid should be reduced to less than 1/2 cup. Serve warm or cold. Can be made ahead and reheated.
Spanakopita or savory Greek spinach pie may sound a bit exotic, but, like lasagna, it is a savory dish made in a large baking pan to be served in individual pieces.
Thaw a package of phyllo dough according to package directions. Thaw a package of frozen spinach and drain well, squeezing out any extra liquid.
The filling: sauté 1 large chopped onion in 2 tblsp olive oil for 5 minutes, stir in 2 minced garlic cloves for 1 additional minute. In a large bowl beat 3 large eggs, 1/2 cup ricotta cheese, 8 oz. feta cheese crumbled and 1/2 tsp lemon pepper. Stir in the onions and the drained spinach.
Unroll the thawed phyllo sheets and place them between slightly damp kitchen towels to keep them from drying. Have ready 1/4 cup olive oil and a pastry brush. Prepare a 7x11x2 inch baking dish by brushing the bottom and the sides with olive oil.
Line the dish with 2 sheets of phyllo fitting up the sides, brush with olive oil and repeat with another 2 sheets of phyllo and brush. Spread the spinach-feta filling evenly in the pan and cover with 2 sheets of phyllo, brush and repeat with another 2 sheets of phyllo. Fold the bottom side and end phyllo over the top sheets, sealing the filling. Brush again with olive oil and sprinkle with a few drops of water. Cut the spanakopita in squares being careful not to cut the bottom layer. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour until the top crust is crisp and golden. Allow to cool a bit before finally cutting in squares to serve.
So, open a flavorful red wine, add some fresh pineapple with pomegranate seeds for desert and you won’t even miss the bouzouki players.
(I. Winicov Harrington lives in coastal Maine and is the author of “How to Eat Healthy and Well for Less than $5.00 a Day: the Smart-Frugal Food Plan”; website: winicov-harrington.com.)