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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My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Thanks to TB for the photography.

This book took me five years to read, but not because it’s particularly long or boring. No, My Name is Red is one of the most entertaining and complex murder mysteries I’ve ever read. The book is told from 12 different viewpoints, including the murder victim himself – a painter in the Sultan’s palace; a Jewess matchmaker; the daughter of the house Shekure; her suitor Black; a dog painted on a wall; three of the murder victim’s colleague painters; Satan himself; the murderer; and the color red. Hence the title.

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I’ve read many books set during the Ottoman Empire, that is, Istanbul in the 17th century, but this is by far my favorite. It’s a murder mystery, a love story, and a very Byzantine – pardon the pun – treatise on the power and nature of art and symbols, politics and religion, and the meaning those concepts hold in everyday life.

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I am not an expert on the Islamic religion, but from this book, I took that representing the human form was required to be highly stylized – to be depicted as Allah would see the individual, not as the artist would – and that depicting anything from the Koran is deeply disrespectful and forbidden because of the fear that the image would be worshiped instead of God. It’s interesting, because I have a Jewish friend and a friend who practices Islam, and the three of us have had long and intense discussions about the nature of religion and God/Jehovah/Allah, and how different religions and cultures have their own ways of depicting the divine.

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The long and very complicated -and let’s face it, mostly warlike – relationship between the Jewish religion, the Christian/Catholic faith, and the beliefs of Islam do have some fascinating parallels and commonalities. They have as many points of differentiation, however, and it was so interesting to read this book and see how art and artists, in particular, were revered and feared in 18th century Istanbul as artists during the Renaissance, but for such different (and similar!) reasons.

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Esther, the matchmaker, is a Jew and carries love letters between Shekure and Black, the two main characters whose love story is a pivotal part of the book. One of my favorite voices in this book, Esther describes this beguiling passage about her own self-perception and the marvelous foods eaten at various ceremonial events.

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I love social gatherings because I can eat to my heart’s content, and at the same time, forget that I’m the black sheep of the crowd. I love the baklava, mint candy, marzipan bread and fruit leather of the holidays; the pilaf with meat……………

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I’ve been wanting to try and make baklava for ages now. I warn you, working with phyllo dough is a pain in the ass. It’s ultimately worthwhile, but my God, it’s fiddly. I would recommend having everything completely ready before you even start working with the phyllo, because it dries up so quickly. I also wanted to try my hand at a good pilaf dish, so I found a yummy recipe on Nigella Lawson’s website.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the old family recipe given to me by a Greek-Turkish acquaintance. The addition of the orange flower water and vanilla are mine. Though I didn’t give a method for the saffron chicken pilaf, the recipe calls for not just the saffron in the rice cooking liquid, but also some bruised cardamom pods. Cardamom is a new spice for me, but a definite favorite! It smells so lovely, light and floral and perfumey and adds such a unique note to the rice, as does the brilliant gold of the saffron threads.

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INGREDIENTS
1 and 1/2 cups water
1 and 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon rosewater
1 tablespoon orange flower water
2 tablespoons vanilla

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1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
4 generous tablespoons cinnamon
2 packets phyllo dough
1 and 1/2 cups melted butter

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350F. Combine the water, sugar, and lemon juice in a pan . Cook over medium-high heat until it boils. Keep it boiling for 5-6 minutes, whisking occasionally.

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Add the rosewater and orange flower water. Remove from the heat, stir again, and decant into a pitcher. Add the vanilla, stir, and put into the refrigerator to cool completely, where it will form a thin syrup.

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Melt the butter in the microwave, and mix the cinnamon with the pecans and walnuts.

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Dampen several paper towels and squeeze out the excess water. Unroll one packet of phyllo dough onto several damp paper towels. Cover immediately with the other damp towels.

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Spray a baking tray with butter spray. Carefully unroll two sheets of phyllo dough onto the baking tray, and brush with melted butter. Continue layering two sheets at a time, brushing each with butter, until you use all the phyllo sheets. (Remember to keep the unused phyllo covered at all times with damp paper towels, to avoid a world of hurt.)

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Sprinkle over the cinnamon-dusted nuts. You may have to press them into the phyllo dough with your hands to make them adhere.

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Repeat the phyllo layering with the second package of dough. Spread two or three sheets over the nuts, brush with melted butter, and continue in this vein until the second package is used up. Pour over the last of the melted butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon.

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Cut across in diagonal lines, then repeat crossways so you form diamond shapes. This is FAR easier in concept than it is in practice. Wear an apron, that’s all I’m saying. Bake for 35 minutes and remove from the oven to cool slightly.

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Pour over half the cooled syrup, let soak in for a few minutes, the pour over the rest. Let sit for 30 minutes, then scarf down.

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The saffron chicken pilaf was simple: cubed chicken thighs marinated in Greek yogurt, lemon juice and a bit of cinnamon and browned and rice cooked in saffron- and cardamom-infused chicken broth, mixed together in a skillet with toasted almonds and fresh green parsley. A divine treat to go with the baklava!

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