Sunday, June 27, 2010

Announcement: Picturing Anchorage

Erin Pollock and Steph Kese, Artists

In addition to Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska, I'm now writing/creating Picturing Anchorage, a photographic odyssey of daily walks, on city streets and forests deep, in Alaska's largest city. Picturing Anchorage features urban art, natural wonders, and quirky visuals. Please stop by!

A 2 Part Tale of 2 Plants in 2 Countries with 2 Recipes: Purslane-Tomato Salad (Ντομάτα Σαλάτα με Γλιστρίδα) and Beach Lovage-Tomato Salad/Salsa (Ντομάτα Σαλάτα με «Άγριο Σέλινο»)


In Greece, friends and relatives are endlessly curious about Alaska. We’re quizzed about daylight, animal life, cost of living, how many thousand miles we live from family. Every exotic Alaskan detail is examined and catalogued.

Back in Alaska, a vast land peopled largely by recent transplants, we describe life on a Greek island in a small village filled with relatives (family roots on the island go beyond reach of transmitted memory). We divert Alaskans with stories of family intrigues, open-handed generosity, and island bureaucratic snafus.

Greece and Alaska could not be more different. Yet, in both places, I shop for groceries, forage for wild edibles, and cook with abandon.

A friend of mine recently asked whether a dish cooked in a Greek kitchen tastes the same when made in Alaska. The simple answer: no.  The same recipe tastes different in Greece and Alaska because the ingredients aren’t the same in the two places.

For example: Greek tomatoes have more flavor, as do Alaska spinach and lettuce. Wild greens available in Greece don’t grow in Alaska and vice versa. American and Greek flour, butter, and eggs all bake up differently. Similar differences are found with virtually every ingredient. In both countries, I use the same basic recipes, but the results always vary, sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly.

No matter where one cooks, the key to a good result is tasting what you are making as you are make it. No one should ever blindly follow a recipe (even mine), no matter how trusted the source. The flavors of vegetables, herbs, spices, meats, cheese, fruits, you name it, all change subtly from purchase to purchase and day to day. The only way to compensate for these changes, and to generally adjust a recipe to please your palate, is to taste.

Two articles with recipes follow that illustrate this point. Part One was written in Greece last summer. It’s about purslane, Portulaca oleracea, a weed growing rampant in much of the world (including North America, but not Alaska). I combined the purslane with tomato to make a cooling salad.

Part Two is about a recent gathering expedition for beach lovage, Ligusticum scoticum, in Alaska. Using the Greek Purslane-Tomato Salad as the starting point, I tweaked the flavors to accommodate my Alaskan ingredients.  I served Beach Lovage-Tomato Salad with grilled king salmon; loaves’ herby freshness and the salad’s tart dressing nicely complimented king salmon’s richness.

Part One: Purslane-Tomato Salad in Greece

For years, our yard in Greece was a wasteland of weeds.  Every year on arrival we whacked down the tangle and borrowed a truck to haul away several loads of debris.

Our messy yard contrasted sharply with the carefully tended gardens of family, friends, and neighbors. Cousin Effie has an especially green thumb.  Most of her yard is paved over, but her narrow strip garden holds an impressive collection of flowering plants.

A couple years ago, Effie was sighing over her lack of a vegetable garden.  Since she lives only a few blocks away, and we are in Alaska for most of the year, we suggested she use our yard.

Now, when we arrive in Greece, we open the gate to a healthy, green garden, both decorative and edible, instead of a jungle. We planted roses and a bottle brush tree.  Effie and cousin Tzani have surrounded them with smaller, flowering plants. Blue jasmine from Tzani and a sweet-smelling white-flowered vine climbs the neighbor’s wall. What were tiny rosemary starts are now bushes.

This year the vegetable garden includes eggplant, okra, green beans, summer squash, tomatoes, mint, and celery.  The eggplants are heavily laden with fruit.  We pick them only when it’s time to cook (or gift eggplants); their texture and flavor are dramatically better than any supermarket eggplant available in Alaska.

While in the village, we take over weeding and watering the garden.  This year, purslane and crab grass were the most dominant weeds. While crab grass is purely an annoyance, purslane makes a tasty edible green.

Purslane has been used in Greece throughout recorded history.  Hippocrates, Galenus, and Dioscurides documented its many medicinal uses.  In the kitchen, it’s used raw in salads, mixed with yogurt, added to soups, served with meat or fish, and pickled for winter salad.

In Greece, purslane is best harvested by June or July, at which time both stem and leaves can be used. In September, stems are too tough to eat, but leaves still taste great.

This year, our first day back on the island, we drove to the main town to shop for basics. The day was a scorcher; we returned home hot and tired.  I wasn’t in the mood to cook and, after a day spent under the relentless Greek sun (at least to an Alaskan), didn’t want to eat more than a salad.

While I cut vegetables, Steve collected a colander full of purslane from the garden. Its succulent, slightly sour leaves, combined with sweet tomatoes and tart lemon juice, made a refreshing salad, perfect for a hot day.

Purslane-Tomato Salad (Ντομάτα Σαλάτα με Γλιστρίδα)
Serves 2 – 4
If you don’t have fresh purslane, see the recipe below for Beach Lovage Salad and follow the recommended substitutions there for a fresh, cooling summer salad.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes, 1/2” dice
1 1/2 cups cleaned purslane leaves
3/4 cup diced cucumbers, 1/2” dice
3/4 cup diced red onions, 1/2” dice
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. minced fresh mint

Make the dressing: Whisk the olive oil into the lemon juice. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Make the salad: Toss all the ingredients together. Drizzle with the dressing and toss again. (You may not need all the dressing.) Taste and add salt or freshly ground black pepper, as needed.

Beach Lovage and Chocolate Lilies

Part Two: Beach Lovage-Tomato Salad in Alaska

Nearing the spring equinox, by June’s second week Anchorage was enjoying almost 20 hours of daylight. Winter doldrums were a distant memory; the whole town was in a good mood.

Sunday we woke early. Sun streamed in the window, warming our faces. The sky was clear bright blue. Staying in bed wasn’t possible. We headed out to find a beach where we could harvest wild plants.

After making the circuit of possible foraging sites, we finally came across a field of beach lovage (Ligusticum scoticum).  Also known as Scotch lovage, sea lovage, wild celery, and petrushki, beach lovage grows on sandy beaches along the coasts of Alaska, Canada, and the Northeastern United States.

Beach lovage is easy to identify with its three-lobed leaflets and smooth, reddish-purple stem.  It’s best harvested before flowering.

One caution: Beach lovage is in the Umbelliferae family and its flowers are similar to those of relatives like carrots, parsley, and dill. However, water hemlock, a poisonous plant is also in the Umbelliferae family, and has similar flowers but very different leaves. As with all wild foraging, be certain you know what you’re gathering and be sure to follow the forager’s primary rule: “when in doubt, throw it out.”

The flavor of fresh beach lovage is unique and wonderful. The closest approximation would be to mix celery, parsley, and a little lemon zest, but there is still a missing flavor, the hint of wild bitterness that makes beach lovage special.

Although the flavors of purslane and beach lovage are not at all the same, both have a tart freshness that can't be purchased in a supermarket. As I tossed about ideas for using the beach lovage, I kept thinking about the Purslane-Tomato Salad we'd had last summer. With that in mind, I started mixing and tasting, adding cucumbers, then more mint, then more lemon juice, a little of each at a time, until the balance of flavors was correct for beach lovage - and for our palates.

In the last two weeks, I’ve used beach lovage in a risotto that was devoured by guests, a lovely topping for pan-fried halibut, and delicious halibut cakes.  The best way I served beach lovage was in the modified version of my Greek Purslane-Tomato Salad.

Beach Lovage-Tomato Salad/Salsa (Ντομάτα Σαλάτα με «Άγριο Σέλινο»)
Serves 4 as a salad, or 8 as salsa for serving with fish
If you don’t have beach lovage, substitute 1/4 cup minced parsley, 1/4 cup minced celery leaves, and 1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest (or 3 Tbsp. minced parsley, 1 Tbsp. minced lovage, and 1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest).

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes, 1/2” dice
1 1/2 cups diced cucumbers, 1/2” dice
3/4 cup diced red onions, 1/2” dice
1/2 cup minced fresh beach lovage leaves
3 Tbsp. minced fresh mint

Make the dressing: Whisk the olive oil into the lemon juice. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Make the salad: Toss all the ingredients together. Drizzle with the dressing and toss again. (You may not need all the dressing.) Taste and add salt or freshly ground black pepper, as needed. 

This post is included in Weekend Herb Blogging compiled by Chris from Mele Cotte.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Recipe: Spinach Saganaki (Σπανάκι Σαγανάκι)

Fresh garden greens started trickling into Anchorage farmers’ markets this morning. In two weeks, the trickle will turn into a flood. Greens of all kinds thrive in our cool maritime climate.

Though cultivated greens are only now appearing, we’ve been eating wild greens for the past month. As soon as the snow melted, dandelion greens insistently pushed their way through the saturated earth and were ready to be harvested.  Fireweed shoots, devil’s club, and nettles; chickweed, dock, lamb’s quarters, and shepherd’s purse; all end up in the pot. (For tips on harvesting wild plants, go here.)

Until my husband and I first lived in Greece (1987), eating wild plants never once crossed my mind. I grew up in a family where picky eating was an art form. My father didn’t eat cheese, yogurt, or sour cream. My mother didn’t eat lamb, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, squash, green pepper, and so many other foods I could never keep track.  If my parents didn’t eat it, neither did we.  Plus I had my own food quirks; raw tomatoes didn’t pass my lips until I was 24.

So wild greens? Not likely. It wasn’t just my family; the concept of eating wild greens didn’t remotely exist in the small Pacific Northwest town in which we were raised.  In our world, food came from the grocery store. Food could also come from the garden, but only from seeds that were planted and carefully tended. For wild food, we only knew berries, seafood, and dead animals. 

When  the first rains came the autumn of our arrival in Greece, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the village.  Once the rain stopped, half the village took to the fields, quickly gathering the emerging flush of snails. Over the next week, the dirt roads surrounding the village became peppered with the bent-over backsides of black-clad women, systematically working their way through the fields, gathering an abundance of fresh wild greens.

Though my Greek was limited in those days, I learned by example which greens were tastiest, how to harvest them, and how to clean them. I learned a mixture of different greens cooked together tastes better than a single variety cooked on its own.  I learned to love and crave greens of all kinds, wild and domesticated.  Most importantly, foraging became a permanent, enriching part of our lives.

These days, we eat greens several times a week, and I regularly post recipes using them.

For the past year, my favorite greens recipe has been Spinach Saganaki, based on a dish we had at Tzitzikas and Mermigas (Τζίτζικας και Μέρμηγκας), a restaurant on Mitropoleos Street, just off Syntagma Square, in downtown Athens. (A tasty place to eat on a shady street, particularly if you’re carrying a heavy load of way too many cookbooks; but that’s another story.) I’ve made the dish with a wide range of different greens, alone and combined, including spinach, Swiss chard, kale, amaranth, nettles, and dandelions; every version has been a success.

Two notes about the name:

1) I like calling it Spinach Saganaki only because it translates in Greek to the perfectly alliterative “Spanaki Saganaki.” Ignore the name and don’t limit yourself to making it with spinach; the dish is delicious with all kinds of greens. 

2) I recently described this dish to someone who asked why it had “saganaki” in the name since it didn’t include flaming cheese.  In Greek, “saganaki” is a small two-handled frying-pan, and gives its name to a range of dishes that are traditionally served in the pan, including shrimp saganaki, mussels saganaki, and cheese saganaki. As for setting cheese saganaki on fire, I’ve seen it done in Greece rarely, though it’s common in the US. I can’t explain the difference.

Spinach Saganaki (Σπανάκι Σαγανάκι)
Serves 4 as vegetable or 8 as part of appetizer spread (mezedes/μεζέδες)
Inspired by Βλητοκορφές Σαγανάκι at Tzitzikas and Mermigas/Τζίτζικας και Μέρμηγκας in Athens, Greece
Any wild or domesticated greens, alone or in combination, may be used for Saganaki. Because they cook fastest, it's easiest with greens like spinach, Swiss chard, domesticated dandelions, nettles, vlita (amaranth greens), or poppies. The recipe may be assembled hours in advance and refrigerated; bring to room temperature before baking.)

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
3/4 cup chopped green onions, both white and green parts
3/4 cup diced fresh tomatoes, 3/4” dice
1/2 - 3/4 cup roughly crumbled feta cheese
3 -4 Tbsp. olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound spinach, or any roughly chopped, cleaned greens (6 packed cups raw, 1 1/2 cups cooked)

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Mix together all the ingredients except the spinach.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the spinach and cook just until it wilts (NOTE: The length of cooking time depends on the greens used. Spinach is done after 10 seconds; tougher greens will take longer.) Drain the spinach, quickly squeeze out any excess liquid, and mix it with the other ingredients. (The recipe may be made ahead to this point.)

Put the greens mixture in a 9” glass pie pan or other shallow baking dish.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Serve immediately with crusty bread and olives.

Variation: Substitute Peppadew peppers, or roasted red peppers, for the tomatoes. I’ve done this when I’ve been out of tomatoes and it changes the dish entirely, but in a very delicious way.  With tomatoes, the flavor of the dish is lighter and fresher; with peppers the flavor is deeper and heartier.

Variation: Substitute wild sea lovage or purslane for the parsley. (I’ll write about wild sea lovage and purslane tomorrow or the next day.)

This post is included in Weekend Herb Blogging hosted by Rachel from The Crispy Cook.