Recipes: Go Greek, it’s pure ambrosia

Moussaka recipe from New York City restaurant has 25 ingredients, while baklava is an irresistible dessert

Yes, the recipe for moussaka has 25 ingredients. No, I never run recipes that long, because who has the time?

To be honest, when I decided to write about the food of Greece I wasn’t even thinking of including a recipe for moussaka, because it is too obvious a choice. Almost everyone who wants to make moussaka already has a recipe for it. But then I saw that the recipe came from Molyvos, a restaurant in New York City. And suddenly I could not wait to try it.

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Greek food is one of the world’s great cuisines, and no wonder. Greek civilization has been around for thousands of years and, for all of that time, they have been perfecting ways to cook with the wonderful, fresh ingredients they have on hand: fish, lamb, olives, lemons, cinnamon, garlic, honey, goat cheese, yogurt and oregano.

And wine, too. Don’t forget, the ancient Greeks had a god of wine, Dionysus.

Of all the great and memorable Greek meals I have had in my life, the best and most memorable was at Molyvos. The restaurant is smack-dab in the middle of midtown Manhattan, and we found it the last time we were in the city.

I ordered the grilled octopus. It was surprisingly tender for octopus, and delicately sweet, with just the right amount of char to add a faint counterbalance of bitterness and a light crunch. Dionysus would have approved.

So for my culinary tour of Greece, the birthplace of democracy, I determined to make the Molyvos recipe for moussaka — even though it has 25 ingredients.

Moussaka is essentially a layered casserole, with slices of potato on the bottom topped with slices of eggplant. This being a restaurant recipe, the potatoes and eggplant are both fried before being layered. You could save calories by baking them (though that would take time) or sautéing them (though that would save fewer calories), but if this is the first time you make the recipe, try frying them — you won’t regret it.

The next layer is ground lamb spiced with cinnamon, ginger and allspice cooked in a flavourful tomato sauce. Think of it as a sloppy joe, only exponentially better and considerably less sloppy.

The top layer, and this is where restaurant cooking really comes into play, is a ridiculously rich bechamel sauce. Bechamel is a thick white sauce made from butter, flour and milk, but this version dials up the amplitude by adding egg yolks and Greek yogurt.

The result is pure ambrosia, to use a Greek term.

A much easier dish, and very nearly as good, is shrimp with feta and tomato, or garides saganaki. At first, this seems like a typical dish of shrimp in a tomato sauce — you can never go wrong with shrimp in a tomato sauce — but it has two distinctions that make it better than the others.

The first distinction is the onions. Rather than using yellow or white onions to deepen the taste of the tomato sauce, this recipe uses green onions. Their taste is sharper, but also milder, which gives the sauce a bright flavour without dominating it.

The second distinction is the feta cheese, which lends a nice briny counterpoint to the earthier tomato sauce. Softened slightly, the cheese also studs the sauce with occasional bits of chewy texture.

I also made a true Greek salad, which is to say the way they make it in Greece. In Greece, the traditional salad called horiatiki does not have lettuce.

It’s practically the law. In Greece, what we think of as a Greek salad consists only of tomatoes, onions, cucumber, parsley, olives and feta cheese, topped with oil, red wine vinegar and dried oregano, plus salt and pepper.

Put it all together — at the last minute, please — and it is an incredibly fresh dish, bursting with well-balanced flavours and wholly satisfying.

For dessert, I thought that because I had already made moussaka, I may as well make baklava. In for a drachma, in for a euro, as they say.

Like moussaka, baklava takes time to make (though not as much). Like moussaka, the result is worth it. Baklava, of course, is the irresistible dessert made of layers upon layers of thin and crispy filo dough, stuffed with lightly sweetened (and cinnamoned) chopped nuts and doused in a sweet syrup.

The key ingredient of baklava is butter. Each fragile, individual sheet of filo must be brushed with melted butter, which is why it takes a while to make. If you have never worked with filo before, it can be a little tricky, because the thin dough tends to tear.

But there is one simple trick to solve that problem. Use a pastry brush with soft bristles. A silicone brush will just leave you with an ugly, tangled mess.

Moussaka 

Makes: Eight servings

1/4 cup dried currants
1 (28-oz) can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
4 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1 lb ground lamb
1 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground allspice
• salt and black pepper, to taste
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, cored and finely chopped
1 cup red wine
1 1/2 cups canola oil
1 1/2 lb eggplant, cut crosswise into
1/4-inch slices
1 large russet potato, about 1 lb, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups milk
1 bay leaf
• freshly ground nutmeg, to taste
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
3 egg yolks
1 cup grated parmesan

Put currants into a small bowl and cover with boiling water; let soften for 30 minutes. Drain and set aside. Purée the tomatoes in a blender and set aside.

Heat 1 Tbsp of the olive oil in a six-quart pot over medium-high heat. Add the lamb, cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring to break up the meat, until browned, about five minutes. Transfer lamb to a large strainer set over a bowl and drain; discard any liquid left in the pot.

Return the pot to the heat and add the remaining three Tbsp of olive oil along with the garlic, onions and bell pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, for about 10 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost evaporated, for 10 to 15 minutes. Add the reserved tomatoes, currants and lamb, and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Heat the canola oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, add the eggplant slices and fry, turning occasionally, until tender, about five minutes. Transfer slices to paper towels. Working in batches, add the potatoes and cook until tender, about five minutes, and transfer to paper towels.

To make bechamel sauce: Melt butter in a two-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, until pale and smooth, for about two minutes. Whisking constantly, add the milk in a steady stream until incorporated. Add the bay leaf and cook, whisking often, until reduced to two cups, for about 15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and discard the bay leaf. Let sauce cool for five minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and egg yolks and whisk into sauce until smooth.

Heat oven to 400 F. Place the reserved potato slices in the bottom of a three-quart baking dish (or two 1 1/2-quart baking dishes), and season with salt and pepper. Put the eggplant slices on top, season with salt and pepper, then cover with the meat sauce. Pour the bechamel over the top of the meat sauce and spread evenly with a rubber spatula. Sprinkle parmesan evenly over the top and bake until browned and bubbly, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Recipe by Jim Botsacos of Molyvos restaurant, via Saveur.

Shrimp With Feta and Tomato

Makes: Six to eight servings

16 medium raw shrimp
5 Tbsp olive oil
1 3/4 oz green onions, including some of the green part, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 (14-oz) can crushed tomatoes
4 Tbsp chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, divided
• salt and black pepper
4 1/2 oz feta, crumbled

Note: This is an appetizer, small portions meant to be shared among several people.

Peel and devein the shrimp, leaving the tails intact. Heat the oil in a wide nonstick pan that has a lid and sauté the onion on medium-low heat until softened. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add the tomatoes, 2 Tbsp of the parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Put the lid on and simmer for
10 minutes or so.

Add the shrimp to the pan and turn to cover all of them with sauce. Simmer, uncovered, for three to four minutes. Scatter in the feta, put the lid back on and cook until the feta just softens, for about five minutes, shaking the pan once or twice. Serve with a good grind of pepper and the remaining 2 Tbsp of parsley scattered on top, and some lovely Greek bread.

From Food From Many Greek Kitchens, by Tessa Kiros

Greek Salad (Horiatiki)

Makes: Two servings

2 Tbsp roughly chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish
2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 small cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 medium white onion, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1/8 tsp dried oregano, plus more for garnish
• salt and pepper, to taste
6 oz feta, cut into thick slabs
8 kalamata olives

Combine parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in a bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar and oregano; season with salt and pepper and pour over cucumber mixture. Toss. Transfer salad to a serving bowl and top with feta and olives. Garnish with more parsley and oregano; season with pepper.

Recipe from Saveur

Baklava 

Makes: About 30 servings

2 cups plus 2 Tbsp granulated sugar, divided
2 Tbsp honey
Juice of 1/2 small lemon
1 strip of lemon peel
2 or 3 small cinnamon sticks
1 cup almonds, chopped finely, but with some texture
1 cup walnuts, chopped finely, but with some texture
2 tsp ground cinnamon
22 sheets filo pastry (one roll of frozen filo)
10 Tbsp (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, melted to golden brown

About 30 whole cloves, for decorating

Preheat oven to 350 F.

To make the syrup, put two cups of the sugar, honey, lemon juice, lemon peel and cinnamon sticks in a saucepan with 1 cup water and bring to a boil, stirring. Lower the heat to simmer for five to six minutes, then take off the heat and cool.

Mix the almonds, walnuts, the remaining 2 Tbsp of sugar and ground cinnamon together in a bowl. Have the filo sheets ready, covered by a dish cloth to prevent them from drying out. Brush the base of an 8 1/2-by-12-inch baking dish with butter.

Lay one sheet of filo on a clean work surface and brush with butter (use a pastry brush with soft bristles).

Cover with another sheet, brush it with butter and continue in this way until you have a neat stack of 10 sheets. Place these on the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Spread half the nut mixture over the filo, patting it down firmly and leveling the surface.

Cover with two more sheets of phyllo, buttering each one. Scatter the rest of the nuts over evenly and press down gently. Now lay down the last 10 sheets of filo, buttering each one, and finishing with the last layer buttered on top.

Using a small sharp knife, cut diamonds on the diagonal of about 2 1/2-by-2 1/2 inches. Cut all the way through the layers of filo. Flick just a little cold water over the top to prevent the layers from curling up. Stud the centre of each diamond with a clove.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until gently golden on top. Gently pour half the syrup all over the baklava. Wait for it to be absorbed, then pour over the rest.

Leave it to cool totally before serving (remember to tell guests to remove the clove before eating). Will keep, unrefrigerated, for at least a week, covered with a dish cloth or foil to deter flies and bees.

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