Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Knefeh: The royal breakfast of champions in Lebanon

It was my favorite Sunday morning breakfast growing up. The ritual, the walk down the hill to "sea Sweet" bakery, the way to order it "easy on the syrup," the walk back home all culminates with all of us sitting on the balcony enjoying Knefeh Bi-jibn (or knefeh with cheese). Some think that it is all in the bread. The bread, oh the bread (a picture I found on the web is on the right). I can go on and on about it: Not sweet, not chewy, with enough crust, and covered with sesame, shaped in just right way to be used as a vehicle for the knefeh. In fact, it is made for knefeh, exists only for it. It is a sort two-in-one version of the trinity. Now, on to the real part. I made knefeh this weekend (picture below). It has two parts, the cheese part and the "cake" part. I am not sure what cheese is used, sweet cheese (technically it is not sweet, it is just a cheese without salt), but mozzarella should work. I used some cheese from the Arab store here. The cake part is typically some mixture based on semolina, but I used shredded philo (which is widely available) since it easier to handle. You bake both cheese and philo together, and you add a sugary syrup infused with rose water and orange blossoms. You take a piece and slowly stuff it inside a pocket in the bread.
I dare any breakfast, anywhere, to come close to this. No. No.
I will tweak the recipe a little more before I post it.

Scenes from Foreign Cinema

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Galopita a.k.a. Yellow Stuff

My Yiayia Lola is legendary throughout Greek Chicago for her honey soaked diples. Many have tried, but few (if any) have mastered these meticulously rolled and fried, sweet, flakey treats. If there’s a wedding, baptism, or any special occasion really, you’re sure to find my yiayia’s diples stacked beautifully on a silver tray with a prime location on the dessert buffet.

Although I love my yiayia’s diples, don’t get me wrong, the star dessert for me growing up was my yiayia’s galopita, or “yellow stuff,” as we lovingly called it. After my yiayia spent days preparing and making the diples, as kind of an afterthought, she’d take any extra eggs she had and would make a galopita “for the kids” (the adults were certain to get their fair share as well). Considering the number of weddings and baptisms in our circle of family and friends, it seemed that any time we would go to my yiayia’s house there’d be “yellow stuff” waiting on the counter to be picked up by our little fingers and devoured in an instant—it was as certain as the hug and kiss we’d get at the front door. For some reason, the “yellow stuff” was never hidden in the back room with the other desserts either. She must have known just how much we loved it, because along with all the savory appetizers—spanakopitas and such—my yiayia would place the “yellow stuff.” A dessert before the meal! Clearly, it was special.

Sprinkled lightly with cinnamon, this Greek custard cake is a child’s answer to the finest crème brulée—it’s creamy and sweet, but can be picked up with one’s hands. It’s usually served room temperature or even chilled, which makes it a refreshing bite on a summer day. Even chilled though, it tastes of warm vanilla and cinnamon. The moment you take a bite of this light, spongy cake, the semolina granules dance on your tongue until they melt away. It’s the perfect treat for child and child at heart.


(The recipe has been halved from the original which serves well over 20)

2 c. milk (the fattier the better)

1/2 c. sugar

1/4 c. semolina (or farina) (plus extra for coating greased pan)

1-2 tbs. butter

1/8 tsp. salt

5 eggs

1/2 tsp. vanilla

Heat milk until just scalding. Add semolina and 1/4 c. sugar, whisking until medium-thick consistency. Whisk in butter and salt. Set mixture to side. Beat eggs and the rest of sugar on high speed until light and creamy. Add vanilla to egg and sugar mixture. Using wooden spoon, fold egg into semolina mixture until fully incorporated. Grease an 8 by 12 inch cake pan and coat with a layer of semolina. Pour cream in pan. Preheat oven to 375۫ and bake for about 30 minutes until the top is golden brown. Sprinkle cinnamon when still warm. Once cool, cut into squares and enjoy!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mustard and Garlic Roasted Chicken

Last night I made the most delicious chicken (I know I'm tooting my own horn, but it was just that good!). It was a variation on Jacques Pepin's Quick-Roasted Chicken with Mustard and Garlic that I found in Food & Wine's 2009 cookbook (these books are great if you're anything like me- you read Food & Wine, get super excited about 80% of the recipes in the magazine, and then never quite get to it before it's thrown in the recycling bin; the book has all the fantastic recipes in one place, and is organized by alpha-index and food category).

In any case, Pepin's recipe calls for the following (
with my variations):

4lb chicken (
5lb chicken cut up- I'm always looking for the easy way!)
4 large garlic cloves, minced (
5-6 large garlic cloves)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard (2.5 tablespoons course ground Dijon- it looked beautiful)
2 tablespoons dry white wine
(2.5 tablespoons dry California Riesling)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
(2.5 tablespoons olive oil)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
(1 tablespoon sweet-ginger teriyaki sauce by "East West"- it's a fat free sauce found at Dominicks/Safeway and I loove it!)
1 teaspoon Tabasco
(I skipped this, but in hindsight, I probably could have added some hot pepper flakes)
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
(I didn't have this either, so I put approx. 2 teaspoons fresh thyme and rosemary)
1/2 teaspoon salt
(1tsp. salt because of the larger chicken and change from soy sauce)

After mixing the above and spreading the chicken with the lovely mixture, Pepin's recipe calls for browning the chicken on the stove for 5 minutes before roasting it in the oven at 450 for 30 minutes. Considering I don't have my stove-to-oven cookware in CA, and didn't want to dirty another pot, I opted instead to simply add 1/2 c. of water to the pan and roast it in the oven at 425 for about an hour (basting it with the liquid every 10 min or so after the first half hour).
It was juicy, and flavorful, and I served it with mashed potatoes and the same dry California Riesling used in the sauce. I hope you try it!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I found my thrill on Potrero Hill (well, good pizza at least)

My husband and I were on a quest this last weekend to find the perfect apartment in San Francisco. After five hours of driving up and down the streets (literally), we still hadn’t found an apartment we loved, although we had learned that North Beach is actually Little Italy and, just like North Beach, South Beach is not a beach at all.

Our last stop of the day was Potrero Hill to see a quaint two-bedroom for a reasonable price, and we figured even if it didn’t work out, we could wallow over some Anchor Steam, one of our favorite local brews; we knew it would be fresh because Anchor Brewery was just down the street.

The apartment didn’t work out, and who’d have thought that the brewery was only open on weekdays. We walked up to 18th Street (again, literally!) and, looking for a place where we could have a nice cold one, stepped into Goat Hill Pizza. It’s a no-frills neighborhood pizzeria with red and white check tablecloths and a piano in the corner on top of which is a plastic jug with a sign, “tips for musician.” Locals come in and out to pick up deliveries, and while waiting may read a local paper that is stacked by the piano, or watch the TV located by the entrance, even though they aren’t necessarily interested in Mexican soccer. Finally, they excitedly get their pizza and rush out the door, hardly able to wait to eat it while it’s still hot.

We were seated in the front area, with a nice street view. A super-friendly waiter (the kind that calls you “honey”) came and took our order – minestrone served with garlic bread, small “Greek Gourmet” pizza (my husband, born and raised in Greece, is obsessively drawn to anything that says “Greek”), and two draft Anchor Steams. A busboy came to our table with a Rubbermaid pitcher designated with black permanent marker, “H20 – Water.” Like I said, no frills.

I was first impressed with the minestrone. Filled with an assortment of chunky vegetables, fresh greens, and a ton of garlic, it surely surpassed my expectations of the minestrone I’m accustomed to getting at pizzerias, generally a bit more watered down with some elbow macaroni. The pizza was also delicious. Although I couldn’t necessarily make out that the crust was sourdough, which Goat Hill prides itself on, the crust was flavorful and baked to crispy perfection in the kitchen’s brick oven. It was topped with Goat Hill’s fresh tomato sauce, provolone, mozzarella, and feta cheese, sliced red onions, green olives, fresh tomatoes, and spiced with rosemary and thyme. Not a crumb was spared.

It took a bit of coaxing to get the check, but I didn’t mind the wait considering the laid-back atmosphere; it just felt natural. It also gave me a chance to look at the black and white photos lining the walls, some frames askew, of Potrero Hill circa 1900.

Goat Hill Pizza is a great place to go if you’re in San Francisco looking for good beer, good pizza, and good people. I know I’ll be back for their Monday all-you-can-eat “neighborhood night,” even if we don’t end up belonging to the neighborhood.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Spice house - Evanston

It took Easter and making homemade Sausage for me to take a trip back after a VERY long time to our local SPICE store. And, what a treat this was. Walking in, the smell of anise/cinnamon/red chile/ welcomes you, with tons of jars alongside the walls, you immediately feel that this is the real deal. I immediately thought this is how an old 1950's pharmacy -where pharmacists literally filled your prescription- must have looked like: Different size glass containers, meticulously labeled and displayed alphabetically, and some by region. They had the Paprika wall of fame, along side the outstanding collection of various kinds of chiles from Mexico and beyond, opposite the green wall of various oreganos, Turkish peppermint, zaatar, cilantro (or coriander),... You order by the bag or by various size jars. We got cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, Paprika, and crystallized ginger (yes - the sausages were ok- that is another topic).

I really enjoyed this place, a temple for spice, and why not, can you eat anything without it? Try.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Maamoul: Festive cookies - Lebanese style

Typically made on special occasions such as Easter, these delicate cookies are festive, beautiful, and tasty. The base is made out of semolina flour and butter, with rose water and flower concentrate (Maa- Al'Zahr and Maa-Al'ward). Then come the fillings!. We had three: Walnuts, Pistachios and dates mixed with spices (cinnamon and allspice) and sugar. A piece of the well rested dough is made into a ball, filled and molded into a wooden piece whose shape depends on the type of filling: The pistachio was the elongated (which would contain the least amount of filling) one, the walnut in the round pyramid like (my favorite), and the dates in the round cylindrical shape. They are then baked and served on a plate with powedered sugar on top. Well, we made a walnut batch tonight. We are still tweaking the recipe, but based on a quick sample, they are delicious.
The nuts and the sugar with the flower infused semolina are a nice combination.
Those are my absolute favorite cookies and no celeration should be allowed to proceed without Maamoul on the table. Certainly, Maamoul will be on full display on the sweets table this Sunday.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I moved to Silicon Valley from Chicago about two months ago, and am on a continuous hunt for good food. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat hard to find amidst the high-tech corporate campuses and sprawling apartment complexes. I had all but lost hope when I stumbled upon Dishdash in Sunnyvale. My husband and I walked in for lunch on a weekday to a loud, but welcoming buzz of people. The fact that the restaurant was crowded was not necessarily telling, however, as most eateries in Silicon Valley are packed around lunch time with engineers hurrying to get a quick bite. Nevertheless, as I looked around, the diners seemed pleased and their food looked delicious.

Dishdash is a welcoming space with bright colored walls, high ceilings, and modern Mediterranean décor. Despite the rush-hour, we were seated immediately at a small table by the kitchen. Whereas in some restaurants this could be a turn-off, I found it exciting. The kitchen was a machine. I sat wide-eyed as the team of cooks zipped back and forth along their stations, from frying freshly mixed falafel to grilling an assortment of kebabs. Waiters seamlessly picked up the wonderfully presented food, added some freshly warmed pita, and scurried to their tables with not a moment missed.

My husband and I opted to begin with the Maza Sampler, an excellent option for diners like me who can never decide between the babaghanouge and tabouli and can’t leave without tasting the hummus. The Maza Sampler (which we ordered for two, but can be ordered for more depending on your party) was beautiful – seven enticing appetizers separated by strips of pink pickled turnips, cucumbers, and kalamata olives, and sprinkled with vibrant red sumac. After first trying and being pleasantly pleased with the hummus, the litmus test at any Mediterranean restaurant, I moved on to the babaghanouge, with its creamy texture, subtle smoky flavor, and slight zing of garlic. The tabouli, to my surprise, had curly parsley, which I always believed to be less flavorful than its flat-leaf counterpart. However, the tabouli was wonderfully refreshing and aromatic with lemon, and the curly parsley added a nice texture to the salad. Perhaps I should revisit curly parsley now that I’m in California. Next to the tabouli was the khyar b’laban, a cool yogurt-garlic sauce with grated cucumber and fresh dill. Beyond these staples, we were introduced to rihan and m’nazaleh. Rihan is a salad with fresh tomato and grilled eggplant that is dressed in what I considered a Middle eastern-style pesto made with basil and almonds, and topped with feta cheese. At first I was bit turned off by the pesto, wondering if it had lost its way to the Italian restaurant next door; however, I realized that I kept returning to the salad because of its freshness and wonderful balance of flavors. The m’nazaleh, more reflective of what I consider traditional middle-eastern flavors, with grilled eggplant, red bell pepper, walnuts, lemon and garlic, was simply delicious and brought a bit of spice to the platter.

The Maza Sampler served with warm pita could have been a meal in itself, however it’s hard to stop there knowing what Dishdash’s kitchen offers. Following a vegetarian diet, I ordered the falafel wrap. Rather than simply stuffed in a pita with tomato and tahini sauce, the homemade, perfectly crunchy falafel, along with cucumber, tomatoes, grilled eggplant, and tahini sauce, were wrapped in a grilled Tannour bread, warm to the touch. I could smell the fresh parsley, tahini, and eggplant with every bite.

We finished the lunch with m’halabieh, a traditional pudding with rosewater, cardamon, pistachio, and shaved almond, drizzled with a dark caramel sauce. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to eat rice pudding again after trying this rosewater infused, velvety, delectable dessert.

Dishdash is reasonably priced with quality food, efficient service, and pleasant ambiance. It’s a Mediterranean gem in Silicon Valley.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

MORE: the cupcake outpost

I have never been been a real fan of cupcakes. Cup and cake or cake in a cup, or cup on top of cake, or what? It has always been the ton of frosting on top that turned me off, and also once you get to the cake part of the cup, it is typically yellow and yuk. But, recently, in the last few years, the cupcake has made a comeback. It has been re-constructed, re-introduced and re-made with extreme forms of ingredients such as nutmeg, allspice, and coconut (it reminds me of artisanal chocolates). The cupcake has become as cool as Gossip Girl. Well, I was still skeptical.
Yesterday, we picked up half a dozen from this place called MORE. Wow. They were outstanding. We tried a delicious chocolate hazelnut, a lemon poppy seed, and a BLT (yes with bacon and maple syrup). My favorite was the lemon poppy seed. The frosting was cream cheese based lemon infused light and smooth.
And once you dig deep, you get a rich yogurt-like in texture, sour and lemony, cold and gooey mixture that is well into the cake part. Wow. I will be picking those cuppies more often.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Green Gold

This is what my family calls olive oil. As in all Greek families, this rich, green oil is taken very seriously. Twice a year, or so, we receive a container of oil sent direct from the “motherland.” We don’t joke with what is found in the local grocery store – even if it says “extra virgin.” The vat is sent directly from Sparta, Greece, where my grandfather once had his own olive orchard, via New York to Chicago. It seems we aren’t the only Greeks in the U.S. yearning for a piece of our homeland. There are several Greek-American owned import companies serving restaurants and Greek-American families just as mine – insisting no other country in the world has a more genuine olive.

It is said, after all, that the olive came to being on the mythical island of Crete, where it was first cultivated around 2500 B.C. Although many other countries, such as Spain, Italy, Tunisia, and the U.S., now cultivate the smooth fruit, it remains the Greeks that lifted this tiny fruit to a level of, dare I say, reverence. Indeed, the ancient Greeks believed that olive oil was a gift from the gods. In Greek mythology, Zeus held a competition to award the patronage of Attica. Athena, presenting the olive tree, won this competition because of the olive tree’s “soothing (and delicious) oil, welcome shade, and valuable wood.” The olive branch and olive oil were “symbolic of all that was good and noble in mankind, and of performance and perseverance.”

Realizing the extensive trip the olive oil makes from Sparta to Chicago, we take great care in emptying the vat. It’s a kind of ritual: my mother prepares glass bottles, clean and dry, on the counter, and places a deep pan in the kitchen sink lest a single drop of the oil spills as my father hoists the vat and fills the bottles over the sink using only a funnel (of course, there are pumps to do this messy work, but we like to keep the process dramatic). Once all the bottles are filled, we pour some of the gold on a plate, dip a fresh piece of bread, and marvel.

Greeks grow up cherishing the oil – from our baptism as babies, during which the priest anoints our mini hands and feet with olive oil in the sign of the cross; to earaches as adolescents, when our mothers dip a cotton ball in the silky oil and place it in our ear to ease the pain. Without question though, we treasure olive oil for its miraculous work in the kitchen. You would be hard-pressed to find a Greek dish that does not require olive oil: our salads dressed in it, our pitas brushed with it, our fish garnished with it. Greeks do not know the meaning of butter and cream (we leave that to the French). Even Lenten meals at times seem gluttonous as we devour an assortment of vegetables – eggplants, zucchinis, okra, beans, potatoes - all slathered with the rich, pungent oil (and perhaps some crushed tomato).

Happily for all lovers of green gold, the FDA stated in 2004 that the monounsaturated fats found in olive oil may actually reduce one’s risk of coronary heart disease. In fact, the “Mediterranean Diet” has become all the rage in recent years. In style or not, olive oil remains a staple in my kitchen, as I hope it is in many.

Prairie Grass Cafe

Well, it took a while before we made it back to Prairie Grass Cafe, and after I went back home, I was thinking seriously of when I will be back here again (Update: I went again on Friday night and had another amazing meal!). Let me say at the outset, chef Sarah Stegner's kitchen belongs up there among the top in the area for producing some amazing food using midwest ingredients grown by organic/friendly to animals farms. From the simple pesto pizza with ramp and an organic fried egg, to some wonderful homemade lamb sausage, to the out of the world Halibut on a bed of (crunchy) beans sprinkled with baby greens, to the friendly service and the beautiful room. Bravo PGC.