Sunday, November 15, 2009

Recipe for Kale Puttanesca (Μακαρονάδα Πουτανέσκα με Κατσαρό Λάχανο)

Kale added to spicy puttanesca sauce makes a surprisingly delicious topping for chewy pasta. We recently enjoyed Kale Puttanesca for dinner and spent the whole meal alternating sounds of satisfaction with “this is really good” and “mmmmm -- I want this again.”

My recipe calls for more capers, garlic, and anchovies than are often used in puttanesca recipes; kale and chewy pasta balance the strong flavors.  Even so, Kale Puttanesca is best served to those, like us, who like assertively seasoned food.

To complement Kale Puttanesca sauce, I used Maccheroni al Ferratto, rustic artisanal pasta, originally from Calabria, that was traditionally shaped around iron umbrella spokes.

Lately, I’ve been comparing regular dried pasta from the supermarket with more expensive “artisanal” pastas found in specialty stores and upscale markets.  All dried pasta is made using extrusion dies, metal patterns that create unique pasta shapes.  However, the dies used to make regular and artisanal pastas differ: regular pasta is made using dies with a Teflon insert and artisanal pasta is made with bronze dies.

Regular pasta has a hard, slick finish, while artisan pasta is rough and uneven: “Traditional dies made entirely of bronze make the pasta surface rough [and more porous], which helps to capture the sauce, whereas the Teflon insert gives the product an even surface and a smoother texture,” according to food scientists. On the other hand, makers of Teflon-die pasta claimthe rougher surface [of bronze-die pasta] allows cooking water to penetrate too quickly, making for less-than-ideal quality.”

The two types of pasta also differ in how they’re dried. Regular pasta is dried in ovens “the size of a football field” for 2-4 hours over high heat.  Artisanal pasta is dried for 24 to 50-plus hours “in very warm (but never hot), humid environments in which moisture can be reduced slowly, without damaging the texture of the finished product.”

I prefer artisanal pasta with very simple pasta sauces, such as oil and garlic, where the texture of the pasta makes a significant difference. I also prefer artisanal pasta in dishes, like Kale Puttanesca, that call for thicker, chewier pastas.  For all other purposes (and when I don’t want to spend the money on artisanal pasta) I happily use regular dried pasta from the supermarket.

No matter what type of pasta you use, be sure to cook it al dente; soft, overdone pasta is the bane of even the best pasta sauce.

Kale Puttanesca  (Μακαρονάδα Πουτανέσκα με Κατσαρό Λάχανο)
Serves 4
Any sturdy green, wild or domesticated, can be substituted for kale. The amount of crushed red pepper depends on how spicy you like your food.

1 bunch kale
3 Tbsp. capers, preferably salt-cured
3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
10 anchovy fillets, minced
1/2-1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
2 14.5 ounce cans diced tomatoes, with juice
1/2 cup oil-cured black olives or throumbes, pitted and roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper

12-16 ounces Machheroni al Ferratto or other chewy-style pasta

Wash the kale to remove any dirt.  Strip the greens from the tough center kale stems. Shred the kale greens and discard the stems (or save them for another use).

Rinse the capers well. If using salt-cured capers, soak them in a bowl of cold water for at least 10 minutes.

Fill a large pot with enough water to cook the pasta, salt it well, and put on a burner over high heat.

Heat the olive oil until it's just warmed though, using a pan large enough to hold all the ingredients. (If oil is too hot, garlic will burn; it’s best to warm the oil over medium heat.) Stir in the garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes, olives, freshly ground black pepper, shredded kale, and drained capers. Bring to a boil, cover, turn down the heat, and simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the kale is tender.

While the sauce is cooking, and when the salted water reaches a full boil, cook the pasta until it’s al dente (exact cooking time depends on the type of pasta).  Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta.

When the kale is tender, stir in the cooked pasta, making sure all of it is coated with sauce. Taste and add freshly ground black pepper, as needed. If the sauce is too thick for your taste, thin it with a little pasta cooking water. 

Serve immediately with plenty of crusty bread and a crisp green salad.
This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, sponsored by Haalo and hosted this week by Winnie from Healthy Green Kitchen.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Salty Cake (Easy Cheese Bread) (Kέικ Αλμυρό)

Greeks are famously hospitable.  Visitors to Greek homes are warmly welcomed and showered with treats of all kinds.  Coffee with sweet pastries, ouzo with savory delicacies, water with preserved fruits; no matter your beverage, a Greek hostess quickly puts together a tasty accompaniment.

For some of us, enjoying Greek hospitality comes with a cost: overeating.  Before I spoke Greek, this was more of a problem. Because we couldn’t converse, people communicated love and affection by giving me double portions. Since everything was delicious, and I didn’t know how to decline, I ate it all.  Unfortunately, I was gaining 5-10 pounds for every month we spent in Greece, and dieting for 2 months afterwards so my clothes would fit again.

I finally learned how to say no. This is more difficult than it sounds.  It’s nearly impossible for a Greek hostess to accept “no” for an answer. The more you decline, the more you’re offered.  It’s also slightly rude on my part; if I were a more polite guest, I’d graciously accept some of the tasty tidbits.

After ten years of declining all snacks (and apologizing for being such a difficult guest), our friends and family have grudgingly accepted this peculiarity of mine – at least when it comes to sweets. Diabetes is rampant in the village and, in the last few years, turning down sweets has become a medical necessity for many.  Since so many can’t eat sweets, village hostesses now keep a supply of “salty” (almyro-αλμυρό) snacks on hand.

In the village, salty snacks aren’t things like potato chips, pretzels, and peanuts. Salty, in this context, just means not sweet.  Salty cookies (koulourakia) look identical to sweet cookies but, without the sugar, taste like thick crackers. Salty cakes include ingredients like cheese, olives, or ham; in the US, they’re called quick breads.

Lately, when I decline something sweet, a hostess may triumphantly declare that she has something salty instead.  Surely, I can try a few bites of a salty treat, something with absolutely no sugar? No, I sadly say, I can’t manage anything salty either, even though I’m sure it’s absolutely delicious.

Although I’m a difficult guest, I happily fulfill my duties as a hostess. In our village house, where visitors constantly stop by, the refrigerator is stocked with beverages, pastries are in the cupboard, and there’s even a salty little something for those who don’t eat sweets.

Treasured Recipes: A Collection of Personal Recipes from the Women Members of the Hellenic Athletic Club of Khartoum and Their Friends (Khartoum 1983), the Sudanese-Greek cookbook I recently wrote about, has an interesting recipe for Salty Cake.  This recipe is quite simple, but produces a rich, cheesy quick bread with wonderful flavor and a hint of mint. It’s tasty served to visitors as a snack or for brunch, but it also makes a nice accompaniment to soup or chili.

Salty Cake (Easy Cheese Bread) (Kέικ Αλμυρό)
Makes 1 9”x9” square bread or 1 9”x5” loaf
Adapted from Lefko Tsanakas and Lucy Vassiliou’s recipe for “Cake Almiro” in Treasured Recipes: A Collection of Personal Recipes from the Women Members of the Hellenic Athletic Club of Khartoum and Their Friends (Khartoum 1983)
Lefko and Lucy call for either feta or a combination of various cheeses, but emphasize using some “feta cheese is essential.” The recipe may be doubled and baked in a Bundt pan for an attractive brunch offering (when doubling the recipe, use 7 whole eggs and no egg yolks). This bread is best served warm. If you bake it ahead, wrap it in foil and refrigerate; to serve, warm in a 350°F oven for 20 minutes.

3/4 cup softened butter
3 large eggs
1 egg yolk
2 cups crumbled feta or 1 cup crumbled feta and 1 cup grated graviera, asiago, or other cheese
2 Tbsp. dried mint, crushed
1 3/4 cup flour
1 1/2 Tbsp. baking powder
3/4 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Butter a 9” square pan or 9”x5” loaf pan, dust bottom and sides with flour, tap out and discard any excess flour.

Beat the butter until creamy. Beat in the eggs and yolk, one at a time.  Add the cheese and mint and mix to combine.  Stir together the flour and baking powder.  Add flour to the cheese mixture one third at a time, alternating with additions of milk (one third at a time), until all is combined. Pour batter into the prepared pan. Smooth out the top to evenly distribute the batter.

Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the bread has a nice brown crust on top.  Let cool for 30 minutes and remove from pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Greek Cookbooks: Hellenic Athletic Club of Khartoum with Recipe for Spiced Gazelle Pilaf (Πικάντικο Πιλάφι με Κρέας)

Modern Greeks have been in Sudan since the early 20th century.  In 1910, a Greek Orthodox church opened in Khartoum.  By 1956, there were 6000 Greeks and 1000 Cypriots in the country.  The Greek presence was particularly strong in the capital, Khartoum, where all the restaurants, cafes, hotels, cinemas, and most shops were Greek-owned.” 

In 1983, the Sudanese president imposed Islamic Sharia law, which fanned the flames of civil war between the Muslim north and Christian-Animist south.  From then to now, civil war and famine have killed millions of Sudanese. Many Europeans fled to their homelands. By 1992, only 500 Greeks remained in Sudan.  Today, there are only about 300.

Dancers at the Greek School in Khartoum, Sudan
Photograph courtesy of Apouro

Although the way of life for Sudanese Greeks has changed since 1983, there is still a Greek Orthodox church and Greek school in Khartoum.  The Hellenic Athletic Club is a hangout for Khartoum expats.  The Greek school’s students celebrate Greek Independence Day, Greek Easter, Oxi Day (when Greece stood up to Mussolini), and the 1973 Athens Polytechnic Uprising against the then-ruling Fascist junta.

Greek readers should check out this compelling description of a scalding hot Greek Easter in Khartoum, written by the Greek Ambassador to Sudan. For English speakers, the poetry of the original Greek is so powerful, it seeps through the vagaries of Google translator. Anyone interested in more about Khartoum can read this fascinating blog written by a Greek teacher who lives there (in Greek, but with fun pictures).

In 1983, the year the Sudanese civil war reignited, Greeks in Khartoum published a cookbook: Treasured Recipes: A Collection of Personal Recipes from the Women Members of the Hellenic Athletic Club of Khartoum and Their Friends (148 pages, 191 recipes, 6.5” x 9”). The editors explain the recipes “reflect the nature of our community here in the Sudan, and the influences upon our cooking, resulting from our way of life, from travel, and through marriage to other nationalities.”

Just as I’ve learned to cook Mediterranean food in Alaska, Greeks in Sudan adapted traditional recipes to their new country.  Fish recipes call for Nile perch, a giant freshwater fish that grows over 6 feet long and over 500 pounds.  Sudanese limes are recommended in lieu of lemons. Egyptian Roumi (Romy) cheese stands in for traditional Greek varieties. Spicy shatta is used for seasoning.

The recipe for Stifado (Greek stew) calls for gazelle meat. Its creator says when the stew is done, “The only thing left is to sit before the camp fire with some friends and polish the whole thing off!”  Gazelle also makes an appearance in George Limnios’ recipe for “Rice and Gazelle Pilaf.”  (An internet site counsels Khartoum visitors who “fancy” a camping safari to call “Greek guide George Limnios [who] happily provides safari advice and organizes trips.”)

Other interesting recipes in Treasured Recipes include: Tomato-Bacon Soup, Eggplants with Eggs, Spaghetti with Bacon-Olive Sauce, Sheftalia, Purslane Stew, Stuffed Mortadella Rolls, Baked Eggplant Packets, Grape Leaves with Onion, Zucchini, and Carrot Stuffing, Salty Cake, and four different recipes for Olive Bread (no explanation for the abundance of Olive Bread recipes).

The idea of “gazelle pilaf” stuck in my mind; I had to make it. (I also had to buy my home when I saw it had a gazebo and have a strong attraction to gazetteers.)  Luckily, there were moose steaks in the freezer to stand in for gazelle, though deer, lamb, or beef would also work. 

The tantalizing, cinnamon aroma of tomato-meat sauce soon filled the house.  Even before adding rice, the rich and spicy sauce was amazing on its own; neither of us could keep our tasting spoons away from its deliciousness. (The sauce, thinned with a little stock, would make terrific soup.)  The tastes of the individual spices had blended into an entirely new and wonderful flavor; no single spice dominated.  The rice soaked up the sauce, ensuring we enjoyed every last bite of the pilaf.

Spiced Gazelle Pilaf (Πικάντικο Πιλάφι με Κρέας)
Serves 4-6
Adapted from George Limnios’ recipe for “Rice and Gazelle Pilaf” in Treasured Recipes: A Collection of Personal Recipes from the Women Members of the Hellenic Athletic Club of Khartoum and Their Friends (Khartoum 1983)
The cinnamon sticks and whole cloves must be removed before serving. To make this easier, wrap the spices with cheesecloth or muslin and tie the packet up with string, instead of cooking them loose in the liquid.

1 lb. boned and trimmed gazelle (or moose, deer, lamb, or beef) meat
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cups diced yellow onion, 1/4” dice
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. coriander seed, ground
1 tsp. cumin seed, ground
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper or 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 cup red wine
1/4 cup tomato paste
4 cups water
3 cinnamon sticks
8 whole cloves
1 cup long-grain rice

Wash the meat, dry it well, and cut it into 1” cubes. Season the cubes on all sides with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Heat the olive oil in a large pot (that has a lid) and thoroughly brown the meat.  Stir in the onions, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and sauté until they soften and begin to turn golden. Mix in the garlic, coriander, cumin, and Aleppo pepper and cook for 1 minute.  Stir in the wine, bring to a boil, and cook until it reduces by half. Stir in the tomato paste until it’s evenly distributed.

Stir in the water and packet of cinnamon sticks and cloves.  Bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer for 75-90 minutes or until the meat is tender and the liquid reduced to about 2 1/2 cups.  Remove and discard the cinnamon sticks and cloves.  Stir in the rice, cover the pot, turn down the heat as low as possible, and cook for 20 minutes or until the rice is cooked and the liquid absorbed.  Serve immediately.