Monday, June 30, 2008

The Golden Hills of Greece with Recipe for Bouyiourdi (Spicy Baked Feta and Tomatoes) (Μπουγιουρντί)

By summer’s end, the hills of the Greek island we call home are painted in golds and browns. Patches of green appear only in the island’s narrow valleys, its vineyards, and the ubiquitous fig trees.

Until we remodeled my husband’s grandmother’s house in Greece, I’d spent my life in the maritime regions of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. For me, natural beauty meant lush foliage, evergreen-lined shores, and snow-topped mountains.

It took me years to appreciate the subtle beauty of dry Mediterranean hillsides. And appreciate I do. Joy fills my heart when we begin our approach to the island’s tiny airport and I get my first glimpse of its golden hills.

Without trees to obscure the view, the deep blue Aegean sky and sea are constant companions. Their brilliant blues combine with the burnished gold landscape and lazy cries of circling birds to induce an overwhelming sense of peace and calm.

We walk in the morning, before the sun’s heat makes outside forays intolerable for my fair Alaskan skin. In September, a month we are always in Greece, prickly, inhospitable plants dominate the hillsides, so we walk on the farm roads surrounding the village.

Spiky plants abound in late summer because they're the only ones that survive the constantly grazing sheep and goats which scour the fields of more forgiving flora. It’s difficult to begrudge the grazing, knowing it’s responsible for the full-flavored sheep and goats milk that villagers turn into excellent cheeses.

Cheese is ever-present on village tables. Each meal is accompanied by chunks of white cheeses like kalathaki or feta, or harder cheeses like melixloro, ladotyri, or graviera. Saganaki, fried cheese served with a squeeze of lemon, has long been a favorite island appetizer.

In recent years, a new-to-the-island appetizer called Bouyiourdi (boo-your-DEE / Μπουγιουρντί) has conquered the hearts of island taverna patrons. Although Bouyiourdi is now popular on the island, I first learned to make it in Alaska from my friend Maria Baskous, who learned it from her friend Lily Koukourikou of Thessaloniki.

Bouyiourdi is feta baked until hot and creamy with slices of tomatoes and spicy hot pepper flakes. Last year, at our final island dinner before returning to Alaska, our table of 12 downed three orders of Bouyiourdi in quick succession before even looking at the many other appetizers gracing the table.

Back in Alaska, I often bring Bouyiourdi to potlucks. It’s one of my most requested recipes. As I tell my friends, Bouyiourdi may be dead simple to make, but it’s dangerously addictive. Consider yourself warned.

Bouyiourdi (Μπουγιουρντί)
Measurements are provided as a rough guide but, in truth, I never measure anything when I make Bouyiourdi. I layer 1/2” slices of feta in whatever baking dish I grab, sprinkle it with oregano and red pepper flakes, layer it with tomatoes and peppers (or green garlic as shown in the picture), sprinkle it with more oregano, drizzle it with olive oil, cover and bake. You can also bake Bouyiourdi in aluminum foil packets.

1/2 pound feta cheese cut in 1/2” slices (see NOTE below)
1 Tbsp. dried oregano, crushed
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
2 medium tomatoes cut in 1/2” slices
1 cubanelle or Anaheim pepper (or 1-2 stalks green garlic), sliced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Thin slices of crusty bread, fresh or toasted

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Cover the bottom of a baking dish with slices of feta. Sprinkle with half the oregano and all the crushed red pepper flakes. Cover with slices of tomato and peppers (or green garlic). Sprinkle with the remaining oregano and drizzle with olive oil. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 5 – 10 minutes, or until the cheese and oil are bubbling. Serve immediately with slices of bread.

NOTE on Feta: In the US, my favorite fetas all come from Greece and are made from a mixture of sheep and goats milk. Dodonis is the brand I prefer. No matter where it’s from, the best feta is kept in brine until it sold and is available in specialty cheese stores, ethnic markets, and groceries like Whole Foods.

If you can’t find feta in brine, buy firm feta in vacuum packed bags. Never buy pre-crumbled feta; too often it is made from the bits and pieces that fall off larger pieces of cheese. Feta takes two seconds to crumble in your hand, so you don’t even save any time when you buy the pre-crumbled stuff. As for “lite” feta, don’t even think about it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Recipes for Mango and Feta Salad & Pan-Fried Scallops with Mango Salsa (Μάνγκο και Φέτα Σαλάτα & Χτένια με Μάνγκο Σάλτσα)

Fruit and cheese pair beautifully.

Pears and blue cheese, apple and cheddar,
watermelon and feta: all are wonderful combinations.

When I came across Mango and Feta Salad on
Feeding Maybelle, I started craving it immediately. Feeding Maybelle is my Taste and Create partner this month.

Taste and Create is an event created and organized by
For the Love of Food in which food writers are paired with a randomly assigned partner, and asked to cook and review one recipe from their partner’s blog. Although there are many wonderful recipes on Feeding Maybelle’s blog, I had to try the Mango and Feta Salad.

As is usually the case in Alaska, the grocery store mangos were rock hard. I bought them anyway, and ripened them at room temperature in a brown paper bag. Mango is ripe when it yields to a gentle squeeze (similar to testing avocados for ripeness).

Mangos have a very large, flat seed. The easiest way to remove the seed is to cut off half the mango flesh as close to the seed as possible. Cut off the second mango half as close to the other side of the seed as you can. You’ll be left with two large pieces of mango and a seed encircled by mango flesh.

How to Cut MangoWith the proper technique, cutting up mango is easy. Cut crosshatches in the flesh of each mango half, being careful not to cut through the skin, and push up from the bottom so the mango half is inside out. Cut off the mango chunks and discard the skin. Peel the flesh surrounding the seed and cut off as much mango flesh as possible (or chew it off as a chef’s treat).

The mango is now ready to eat or use in a recipe.

With my mango ripened and cleaned, I turned to the Mango and Feta Salad recipe. Sweet mango, salty feta, herby basil, and spicy pepper dressed with best quality extra virgin olive oil made a wonderful salad and a perfect lunch.

I liked the salad so much I made it again for dinner, only this time I diced the ingredients to make a salsa and added minced jalapeños and red onions. I served the Mango Salsa with Pan-Fried Scallops for a light and delicious summer supper.

Mango and Feta Salad
Mango and Feta Salad (Μάνγκο και Φέτα Σαλάτα)
Serves 1 as a meal and 2 as a side salad
Adapted from
Feeding Maybelle

1 ripe mango, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
1/4 cup crumbled feta
1 tsp. minced basil
1 Tbsp. best quality olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Lightly toss the mango, feta, basil, and olive oil together. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.

Scallops with Mango Salsa
Pan-Fried Scallops with Mango Saltsa (Χτένια με Μάνγκο Σάλτσα)
Serves 2
It you don’t like spicy food, use only 1 Tbsp. jalapeño.

Mango and Feta Salsa:
1 ripe mango, peeled and cut into 1/2” dice
1/3 cup crumbled feta
2 Tbsp. minced red onion
1 – 2 Tbsp. minced jalapeño
1 Tbsp. minced fresh basil
2 Tbsp. best quality olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

12 large scallops (about 1 pound)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. olive oil

Wash the scallops, removing any tough muscle clinging to the scallops' sides. Dry them well and season on both sides with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Make the Salsa: Lightly toss all the ingredients together. Taste and add salt or freshly ground pepper, as needed.

Cook the Scallops: Heat the olive oil over high heat in a frying pan large enough to hold all the scallops. When the oil is very hot, add the seasoned scallops, and cook on the first side for 2 – 3 minutes, depending on the scallops’ size. Turn the scallops over and cook for 2 minutes more. Except for turning them over the one time, do not move the scallops or fidget with them while they cook. The scallops will brown better if they aren’t repeatedly turned.

While the scallops are cooking, warm the plates (this is easiest to do in a microwave; put the dry plates in the microwave for 1 minute on high). Place equal amounts of mango-feta salsa in the center of each warmed plate. Arrange the scallops around the salsa. Serve immediately.

Monday, June 23, 2008

How to Harvest Spruce Tips with Recipes for Using Spruce Tips (or Pine Tips or Fir Tips)

Spruce tips are one of the more unusual, least used, and tastiest wild edibles in Alaska. Over the last few weeks, I picked a bucketful and had a great time playing and experimenting with them.

(I used spruce tips because they grow in my yard. Pine tips and fir tips are also edible; my spruce tip recipes could just as easily be recipes for pine tips or recipes for fir tips.)

The key to cooking with the tips of evergreen trees is to harvest them when they first begin to emerge from their brown papery casings. At this stage, spruce tips are very tender and have a fresh flavor that tastes lightly of resin with hints of citrus.

As spruce tips mature, the resinous aspect of their flavor intensifies. When the spruce tips begin to harden, form actual needles, and lose their bright spring green color, I no longer use them for cooking.

Spruce tips are rich in Vitamin C. Spruce tip tea (just dry the spruce tips) has long been used by indigenous peoples to soothe coughs and sore throats, and to alleviate lung congestion.

To harvest spruce tips, pop the tips off the end of the bough as if you’re picking berries. When you’re done picking, remove and discard the papery casings, and discard any hard stem that may have broken off with the tip. The spruce tips are now ready to use.

As with all plants, the tips of spruce trees develop more quickly in warmer areas, locations with good sun exposures, and at lower elevations. The tips of spruce trees on the south side of my yard are past harvest time, while those on the north side are still harvestable. Further up the Anchorage hillside (where temperatures are cooler than at my house), there may be spruce trees still ready to harvest.

The first time you try spruce tips, pick only a few to make sure you enjoy their taste. (This is good advice to follow the first time you try any new-to-you wild edible.) For cookie-eaters, a good recipe to start with is Spruce Shortbread – it’s quick, easy to make, and addictively good. When baked in shortbread, spruce tips have an almost fruity flavor, reminiscent of raspberries.

As with many seasonal foods, I try to extend the spruce tip season by preserving them in various forms for later use. Spruce Tip Vinegar, Spruce Tip Salt, Spruce Tip Sugar, Spruce Tip Syrup, and Candied Spruce Tips are all now happily residing in my pantry.

NOTE: If this post is too late in the season to harvest spruce tips in your location, or to harvest pine tips, or to harvest fir tips, bookmark it for next spring and discover the wonderful flavor of evergreen trees.

Spruce Shortbread
Makes 16 1”x 3” cookies
The trick to making shortbread is processing the dough just long enough so that it can be rolled out but still appears a little crumbly in the bowl. If you process the dough until it forms a ball or sticks together in the processor, the cookies will spread out on the baking sheet and their texture will suffer.

1/4 cup fresh spruce tips
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)

Preheat the oven to 300°F.

Process the spruce tips and sugar until the spruce tips are finely chopped. Add the flour and process in bursts to mix well, being sure to scrape out any sugar or spruce tips trapped in the corners of the food processor bowl. Cut the butter into 1/2” chunks, add to the processor bowl, and process until the butter is evenly distributed and the dough holds together when pinched.

Dump the dough onto parchment paper and form into an evenly thick rectangle. Roll out with a lightly floured rolling pin until the rectangle is 6”x 8”. Using a straight edge as a guide, cut the rectangle into 1” crosswise strips and then in half lengthwise to form 16 1”x 3” cookies. Prick each cookie 5 times with the tines of a fork. Carefully place on a parchment paper lined baking sheet.

Bake in the preheated oven for 23 – 26 minutes, or until the cookies are set and just starting to turn golden (not browned). Let cookies cool before serving. Store in an airtight container.

Spruce Tip Mayonnaise
Makes 1 cup mayonnaise
Spruce Tip Mayonnaise is a wonderful spread for Bacon-Lettuce-Tomato (BLT) Sandwiches, as a dip for Grilled (or Steamed) Artichokes or Shrimp, in Potato Salad, or in any recipe where an extra boost of flavored mayonnaise would be welcome.

1 cup mayonnaise
(homemade or store-bought)
1/4 cup minced spruce tips
2 tsp. lemon juice

Thoroughly mix all the ingredients. Let flavors blend for at least 1 hour before serving.

Grilled Artichokes with Spruce Mayonnaise: Parboil artichokes in salted water, cut in halves or quarters, clean out the choke, toss with salt and olive oil, and grill over a medium-hot fire. Serve with Spruce Mayonnaise on the side.

Shrimp with Spruce Mayonnaise: I prefer using side-stripe shrimp or spot shrimp, two kinds of cold water shrimp that remain moist and tender after cooking. Boil a large pot of salted water, dump in the shrimp, turn off the heat, and let shrimp remain in the water until cooked through, about 2 - 3 minutes. Serve with Spruce Mayonnaise on the side.

BLT with Spruce Mayonnaise: Cut bacon slices in half and cook until crispy but not over-browned. Spread Spruce Mayonnaise on toasted bread, top with slices of tomato, cooked bacon, and crispy lettuce. Top with another slice of tasted bread spread with spruce mayonnaise.

Spruce Tip Gravlax
Gravlax substituting 1 cup of roughly chopped spruce tips for the dill. Although I scrape off the dill and peppercorns before serving my regular gravlax, I leave on the aromatics with Spruce Tip Gravlax. The peppercorns and cured spruce tips add wonderful flavor to the salmon. (The recipe makes 2 sides of salmon gravlax. I quarter the salmon sides and freeze all but one of the quarters for later use.)

Spruce Tip Vinegar
Makes 2 cups vinegar

Use Spruce Tip Vinegar to add an interesting twist to mixed greens salads, raw or cooked.

2 cups red wine vinegar
1 cup roughly chopped spruce tips
1 tsp. black peppercorns

Mix all the ingredients, put in a jar, and cover. Let the vinegar sit at room temperature for 10 days, shaking the jar from time to time. Strain into a sterilized bottle.

Spruce Tip Salt
Spruce tip salt is particularly good on potatoes and other root vegetables.

1/2 cup coarse salt
1/2 cup roughly chopped spruce tips

Process in bursts until the spruce tips are finely ground. Let dry at room temperature in an uncovered pie pan, stirring a couple times a day, until the flavored salt is completely dry. The salt will initially be very moist; break up any lumps as you see them forming. When the salt is dry, give it a whir in the food processor to break up any remaining lumps. Store in an airtight container.

Spruce Tip Sugar
The sugar can be used to add extra flavor to baked goods, to flavor tea, or to make winter batches of Spruce Shortbread.

1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup roughly chopped spruce tips.

Process in bursts until the spruce tips are finely ground. Let dry at room temperature in an uncovered pie pan, stirring a couple times a day, until the flavored sugar is completely dry. The sugar will initially be very moist; break up any lumps as you see them forming. When the sugar is dry, give it a whir in the food processor to break up any remaining lumps. Store in an airtight container.

Spruce Tip Syrup
Use spruce tip syrup on pancakes, waffles, or French toast, to sweeten beverages, or to make ice cream.

2 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 cups roughly chopped spruce tips.

Put all the ingredients in a saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the syrup cool completely. Strain, put in a sterilized container, and refrigerate until ready to use.
Candied Spruce Tips
As my final step in making Spruce Syrup, I use it to candy some spruce tips. This enhances the syrup’s flavor while making a tasty garnish.

Spruce Syrup (see above)
1 cup whole spruce tips
1/2 cup sugar

After straining the Spruce Syrup, and before refrigerating it, add 1 cup whole spruce tips and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the spruce tips cool in the syrup. Strain the syrup, put in a sterilized container, and refrigerate until ready to use. Thoroughly drain the syrup off the spruce tips. In small batches, toss the damp spruce tips in granulated sugar to coat and spread the candied spruce tips out on waxed paper to dry. When the candied spruce tips are dry (this may take several days), put them in an airtight container, and refrigerate until ready to use.

This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by its creator, Kalyn from Kalyn's Kitchen.

From my front window: Moose at Rest