Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

No doubt many people saw the mediocre movie made from this book  Corelli’s Mandolin,  beautifully filmed but as usual, not nearly as compelling as the book, which is written in lively, colorful prose from the viewpoint of several unique characters. These unique individuals include the main female character Pellagia, a traditionally raised Greek daughter who dutifully cooks for her father and becomes engaged to the local stud but then flips convention on its head with her later choices; Dr. Iannis, her father, who has his head in the clouds, who cures wild animals as well as human beings and whose inner monologues kept me vastly amused and entertained; and of course, the titular character himself, Captain Antonio Corelli. It was a wonderful read, but also very depressing and sad…..kind of like life itself.  Set on the gorgeous island of Cephallonia during World War II, the heartbreak of war is brought vividly to life in this place that has remained timeless until now. I suppose it goes to show that the horror of war leaves no place and no one untouched.

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Being set in Greece, of course the food depictions are luscious, with descriptions of wonderful octopus, mezedakia, which are little finger-type foods served like appetizers, dolmades, spinach pies in miniature, and my favorite, the passage below, set during the feast of the local saint, St. Gerasimos.

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“Outside, the pilgrims unloaded animals laden with feta, melons, cooked fowl, and Cephallonian meat pie, shared it with their neighbours and composed epigrammatic couplets at each other’s expense.”

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How can you not love a book that uses the word “epigrammatic” in the same sentence as such a delectable food passage? Anyhoo, kreatopita is the traditional meat pie eaten on Cephallonia, and can contain ground beef, feta cheese, onions, oregano and assorted other ingredients such as potatoes, rice, garlic, or tomatoes. The idea, I gather, is that each Greek cook has their own individual version of this recipe, and that is what true home cooking is all about. Having the skills to cook something and add tweaks or twists that make it truly your own, and which is part of the joy of this blog for me. It’s the ultimate in creativity, and I did it again here with the Cephallonian meat pie, using a base recipe from the marvelous blog site Lemon and Olives, with some added tweaks of my own.

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INGREDIENTS
16-20 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed and covered with damp towel
1 cup melted butter
1 lb. good-quality ground beef, preferably organic
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
Fresh oregano, fresh mint and fresh dill – use dried if fresh are not available but use less
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup of good, drinkable red wine.
1 cup of crumbled feta cheese
Squeeze of lemon juice
1 1/2 cups of frozen green peas

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 365F. In a skillet under a medium burner, add the olive oil and saute the onion and garlic for about 10 minutes, adding a bit of sea salt for flavoring and to keep the onion from burning. Add the ground beef to the onions and garlic in the pan, and brown for about 10-15 minutes, stirring to break up the meat.

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Chop the equivalent of a 1/2 cup each of the fresh oregano, mint and dill. In another bowl, crumble up the feta cheese with your hands, and add the fresh herbs to this mixture. Fresh herbs really allow the flavors to come through, so if you use dried, use 1/2 tablespoon of each. Stir to mix and let the flavors mix together while you attend to the still-cooking meat.

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Add the tomato paste and the wine and the beef and stir again. Lower the heat  to medium low and let the red wine reduce, stirring occasionally. Add in the peas and stir again, so that the heat of the skillet will help them defrost. The scent of the meat, the wine, the peas and the herbs will rise up and hit your nasal passages like a dream. Delicious!

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You want the liquid reduced to nothing, so as not to make the phyllo dough soggy, so once the liquid is all gone, remove the meat mixture from the heat and let it cool for about 10-15 minutes. Once cooled, add the crumbled feta and herb mixture, mix well, and leave while you prepare the phyllo dough pie base.

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In whatever type of baking pan you have – I used a buttered disposable baking pan – lay one sheet of phyllo dough and brush it with melted butter. Lay another sheet of phyllo and brush with butter again. Continue in this vein until you have 8-10 sheets of phyllo layered on top of each other, each layer covered with butter. You need to do this fairly quickly, as the phyllo dough dries out easily. If you cover the dough sheets with a damp towel, this should help, but don’t take too long at this stage.

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On this buttery surface, add your meat-feta-pea mixture and spread everything out so that it evenly covers the dough. Add another sheet of phyllo dough on top of the meat mixture, brush with butter, and repeat until you have a topping of 8 more phyllo sheets to cover the meat.

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Poke a few holes in the top of the dough and pop that bad boy into the oven to bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. You’ll be able to smell everything baking and your mouth will probably water so much that you’ll need a swig of wine to help. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly and eat with joy in your heart! Opa!

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Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

In memory of my beloved grandfather Tito Baca, who lived his life to the fullest. Just like Zorba.

Zorba the Greek is a man well known to me. This book, as well as the movie, was something I read as a teenager, not really “getting” it, but when I came across a used edition in a bookstore, I remembered reading it and comparing the boisterous Zorba and his love of food, dancing, music, women, wine and life to my grandfather, Tito, who was very much the same.

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The book is narrated by the unnamed financier of a lignite mine who meets Zorba as they travel together to oversee the mining operation and meet the working-class men who labor there. It’s really a study in contrasts. The financier is a rather repressed man, focused on work and profits and the details of life. Zorba, on the other hand, loves to sing and dance and drink and eat and make love to women. These two men are able to forge a friendship and share each of their unique personalities with the other, opening up to seeing the world in a different way.

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I think what I took away from the book, rereading it this time around, is the importance of living life to the fullest. Don’t just sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else. Get up and dance! Eat the food you love! Drink the wine you enjoy! Celebrate all that live has to offer. If you love someone, tell them. Don’t let fear or apathy or worry about other’s opinions keep you from doing what makes you happy.

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This is not to say Zorba is a saint, because he’s not. He has decided macho tendencies, though he loves women, but in the sense that he desires them physically. He loves the soft curves of women, the floral scent of their hair and skin, their cooking, their lovemaking……..but he is as much a heartbreaker as he is a lover.

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Zorba is a man of appetites, including food. The descriptions of the luscious seafood and Greek cuisine in this book are truly mouthwatering and make me wish I lived closer to the sea. This description of a beach celebration during Lent was particularly mouth-watering.

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We returned to our hut, where Zorba treated everyone to wine and Lenten hors d’oeuvres: octopus, squid, stewed beans, olives.

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In my interpretation of this luscious sentence, I decided to make a Greek seafood stew with octopus, squid, shrimp, mussels and clams, with some olives thrown in. Opa!

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Recipe courtesy of the amazing Greek food blogger Diane Kochilas, with (of course) a few flavoring tweaks by moi.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb. medium-sized squid
1 lb. shrimp
1 lb. mixed seafood – I used clams, mussels, and octopus
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 14-oz. cans chopped tomatoes
5-6 fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup anise liqueur – I used Pernod
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 bay leaves
12 Greek olives, pitted and sliced in half
1 cup feta cheese, for sprinkling
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Start the tomato broth up to two hours prior to cooking the seafood, so that the flavors meld. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and add the onion and garlic. Stir and cook for about 10 minutes.

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Add the tomatoes, wine, anise liqueur, herbs, bay leaves, and a splash of fish stock if you have it. If not, use tomato bouillon in addition to the canned tomatoes. Simmer, stirring occasionally and tasting for seasoning, for two hours.

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Allow the seafood to thaw for up to an hour before cooking. Cut up the squid into rings, and remove the shrimp tails.

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Add the squid, the shrimp, and the other seafood to the tomato sauce, and stir in the olives. Simmer another 10-15 minutes.

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Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if so desired. Simmer all together for 10 minutes and serve with good, crusty bread and some strong red wine. You can garnish with some sprinkled feta crumbles if you like, which adds such a nice saltiness to the briny seafood. The oregano and olives also make this dish quintessentially Mediterranean and you can almost imagine Zorba dancing with glee before devouring his bowl of deliciousness from the sea.

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