A Taste of Santorini — Domato Keftedes

It wasn’t the spectacular views. Or the smoldering volcano still lurking somewhere below. Or even the donkey ride up the precipitous path to the top of the ancient island that impressed me most.

Crazy as it sounds — it was the intensely flavored tomatoes I tasted on Santorini that really got to me. They were amazing.

On this iconic island in the Aegean sea, where little whitewashed houses cling to the rugged cliffs like pieces of cubist sculpture and wonderous vistas abound — tomatoes were once the basis for a major industry supplying most of Europe with the prized produce.

These were no ordinary tomatoes. Grown in volcanic soil under hash conditions, their taste was the essence of tomato-ness. Tiny and delicious there was no other tomato like them. Anywhere.

There still isn’t. If you don’t believe me, go ahead, Google it.

But since the mid-50s, most of the large tomato farms on the island have vanished. The massive earthquake of 1956 had something to do with it. And so did the fact that many farmers thought that working in the new tourist industry might be a much better idea.

Luckily, the Santorini tomato is still being cultivated and it’s a must have if you ever end up on the island. One of the best ways to enjoy the “tomataki” or little tomatoes, is to have some “domato keftedes” or tomato balls in a taverna over looking the sea.

A glass or two of Asirtiko from Santorini’s Sigalas Vinyards will make the experience even better. It’s a bright, white with just enough minerality and citrus to make things interesting.

If a trip to Santorini isn’t going to happen anytime soon, here’s a recipe for some “killer” domato keftedes that should be the next best thing. Give them a try — they’re great on a hot summer eve.

Domato Keftedes / Tomato-Dill Fritters

Here’s what you’ll need for 24 tasty fritters:

1 1/2 lbs plum tomatoes, halved, seeded, chopped (about 4 cups)
1/2 cup finely-chopped sundried tomatoes
1 cup chopped red onion
2 tbs extra-virgin Greek olive oil
2 tbs chopped fresh dill
1 tsp dried oregano
1 cup all purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper

8 tbs olive oil

The preparation:

Mix the tomatoes, onion, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon dill and the oregano in a large bowl. Let stand for 30 minutes. Then mix in flour, salt and pepper. Let stand until the mixture becomes moist, about 1 hour.

Preheat your oven to 300 Degrees F. Heat 6 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Drop 1 heaping tablespoon batter into oil. Repeat, forming 8 fritters total. Using slotted spatula, flatten each to a 2-inch diameter round. Cook fritters ’til brown, about 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. Transfer to a baking sheet and place in over to keep warm. Repeat with remaining batter for 2 more batches, adding more oil as necessary.

Sprinkle with dill and serve. One bite — takes you to Santorini!

To complete the meal, maybe do a shredded romaine salad with feta and Greek vinaigrette along with some grilled fish. Oh, and don’t forget the Sigalas Asirtiko. Yes, the wine is available here.

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It’s Always Better — with Smoked Salt

I first heard about it in a cookbook by Eric Rippert — one of the top chefs in NYC. Don’t know him? He’s the low-key, French guy creating magic in the kitchen at Le Bernedin, that long-running, Michelin three-star, seafood restaurant on West 51st Street.

In his cookbook, Rippert uses smoked salt to finish some seared scallops. And that grabbed my attention. What a great idea. He calls for just a sprinkle. Adding a smidge of salinity and a subtle hint of smoke to the sweetness of the barely-cooked seafood.

Like a grace note, a small embelishment — but one that makes a big difference. And not only on scallops. On almost anything.

Smoked Salt. Who knew? Thanks, for the cool idea, Chef.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. Salads, eggs, pastas, grilled anything — fish and chicken and vegetables, Greek meatballs, those Asian open-faced dumplings called shu mai, they all tasted better to me with smoked salt. Sometimes just a touch. Sometimes a lot more.

And then there was the night I tried smoked salt on popcorn. My wife and I both loved how the smokiness gave an appealing new depth to the the warm, just-popped white corn. You have to try it.

But before you do, you need to consider just what kind of smoked salt suits your taste. And then the specific dish you’re making. You might want to begin your affair with this dangerouly seductive condiment by first trying it on an old favorite. Maybe grilled asparagus. Seared tuna. Or your Sunday Brunch scrabled eggs.

Of course, you’ll find the best selection of smoked salt online — hickory, mesquite, applewood, alderwood. As a general rule, hickory and mesquite are the most intense. Still, I love ’em all.

If you’re up for adventure, why not get a small package of each and experiment away. You know that’s what I’ve been doing.

Add the smoke-infused salt while you’re cooking as you would any regular salt, tasting as you go. Keep in mind, you’re going to sprinkle on a little bit more right before you serve to finish the dish.

If you like mashed potatoes like I do — try them with smoked salt and a splash of truffle oil and be prepared to eat too many. I don’t use cream or butter in my potatoes, only milk and olive oil. Even so, these end up astoundingly rich, luscious and best of all, smoky.

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A Greek Easter Dinner — I’ll Never Forget

There it was. I still remember it after all these years — sitting on a big, white, restaurant platter in the center of my Greek grandparents’ table. A roasted lamb’s head! Worse yet, it was staring straight at me.

When you’re five years old that can be a traumatic event. Eating spinach or mom’s favorite, lamb’s liver, couldn’t even come close.

But no one else at the table seemed to be bothered. That helped. In fact, everyone was in a festive mood, celebrating this most important of Greek holidays and they treated the “old-country” dish that was so shocking to me with the reverance due a very special delicacy.

Then I was really tested. Like never before. My grandmother reached over and offered me — an eye! She said it was one of the most delicious bites. And that it had miraculous powers to improve my sight.

Well, no way was I going to find out. Desperately shaking my head, I managed to shout out “oxi!” (No) And it worked. She pulled back the fork, gave a smile and popped the lamb’s eye into her own mouth.

Thankfully, I didn’t see that. My hands were over my eyes. At least that’s what I was told as my family happily recounted the infamous “tale of terror” at almost every Easter dinner in the years to come.

Back on that fateful night — even though I kept trying to avoid looking at the lamb’s head in the center of the table, or what was left of it, I had no problem enjoying the crispy, fat-drenched pieces of oven-roasted leg of lamb, dotted with garlic, that ended up on my plate.

I might have even asked for more.

And at the end of the meal when the deep red Easter eggs were passed around, I know my young Greek self was throughly convinced that roast lamb was, indeed, something special. Something delicious.

I feel the same way today. Especially around Greek Easter time.

Although red meat is rarely on our table, I’m always more than delighted when I taste lamb roasted like my family used to serve. Or spring lamb, cooked slowly on a spit, smoky and succulent. Or butterflied leg of lamb, marinated with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and Greek herbs, grilled to a crusty char in spots and thinly sliced.

Then there was the rack of lamb good friends so lovingly prepared. Slow-cooked at a low temperature to gently coax maximum flavor out of the elegant, medium-rare chops that absolutely enchanted me.

So with Greek Easter (and Easter) not far off, I’ve been thinking a lot about lamb. This year, I’m going to try a new recipe. Sort of like my grandmother’s, but a bit different. It’s from popular Greek chef and peripatetic cooking teacher Peter Minaki up in Toronto. I found the recipe on his website www.kalofagas.ca You might want to try it too.

Or if you’re not up for leg of lamb, Peter’s got a lot of other great Greek recipes on the site. The kind you want to cook over and over.

Slow-roasted leg of lamb

Here’s what you need for this recipe that serves 8-10:

1 leg of lamb (bone in) or 2 short-cut legs of lamb (6-8lbs.)
1 head of garlic
fine sea salt
fresh ground pepper
approx. 2 tsp. garlic powder
approx. 2 tsp. sweet paprika
2 medium onions, peeled & quartered
1 cup dry white wine
2-3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
10 sprigs of fresh thyme
2-3 tsp. dried Greek oregano
2-3 bay leaves
juice of 2 lemons
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
hot water
salt and pepper to taste

The preparation:

Peel the skins off the garlic cloves and slice them into slivers. Stick a paring knife into the lamb, then into the hole slip in a sliver of garlic. Repeat and insert as many slivers of garlic as you can.

Pre-heat your oven to 550F and place the rack in the middle position. Drizzle lamb with some olive oil and season with salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika. Place lamb in a roasting pan that just fits the leg. Place in oven and roast uncovered for about 10-15 minutes or until browned, then flip the leg over and roast for another 10-15 minutes.

Remove lamb from oven and reduce heat to 350F. Place quartered onions around lamb, add any remaining slivers of garlic, along with the herbs (thyme, bay, rosemary, oregano) lemon juice and the wine. Add the olive oil and enough hot water to cover third of the lamb.

Cover the roasting pan and put the lamb back in the oven for 2 hours (add more hot water if needed), basting once an hour. After two hours, flip the leg of lamb again (add more water if necessary and adjust seasoning of liquid in the pan with salt and pepper).

Total cooking time is approx. 3 hours — you’ll know it’s done when the lamb is a deep brown and the meat is separating from the bone.

Remove the lamb from the oven, baste and allow to rest. Serve with Greek roast potatoes or pair with roast potatoes tossed in lamb drippings. (Peter didn’t mention it, but I’m sure he’d apporve of adding a Greek Easter salad of chopped romaine and dill dressed with red wine vinegar and olive oil. For the recipe check a previous blog post.)

*TIP: Have some peeled potatoes (quartered) to roast in another roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Pour enough pan juices from the lamb leg to come up a third of the way on the potatoes and toss to coat. Taste, adjust seasoning and crank your oven up to 450F and place the potatoes in the oven to roast for 35-40 minutes or until fork-tender (the lamb will stay warm covered in the roasting pan on the stove-top).

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Sicilian Memories — Meatballs in Lemon Leaves

I love lemon trees. You probably would too if you had a few prolific specimens in your yard like I do. Especially if you’re into cooking.

As you might imagine, lots of lemons end up in my kitchen. And, of course, I’m always looking for new ways to use them. That’s why one of my most memorable experiences on our trip to Sicily this past October was an unexpected dish of meatballs grilled in lemon leaves.

Grilling in lemon leaves. What a great idea. I’d never seen it done before. Never even knew anyone used those fragrant leaves in that way.

Kissed with lemon-tinged smoke, the tasty mix of meat and assertive spices surrounded by partly charred leaves seemed to me so Sicilian: all at once, sensuous, mysterious, rustic, refined — with more than a wiff of Ancient Greece and North Africa! They were molto delicious.

And visually cool on the plate. An ideal prelude to the pasta that was to follow. They made my evening. And their memory lingers on…

Not to say I wasn’t impressed with other things Sicilian. Like the intimate vineyard lunch and wine tasting at a family estate nestled in the countryside not far from Palermo with the owners of Winery Feudo Disisa. Or the valley in southern Sicily at Agrigento with its well-preserved ancient Doric temples. Seven of them. Golden in the sun.

Then there was the city of Syracuse, with its intriguing ancient Hellenic history and baroque piazzas. It certainly made an impression. As did the spectacular view from the Greco-Roman Amphitheater in the touristic hilltop town of Taormina overlooking the Ionian Sea.

But, strange as it sounds, it was that “che figata” (cool) plate of polpette alla foglia di lemone that moved me the most.

To add to their mystique, the authentic, little restaurant where I discovered those citrus-scented bites happened to be hidden in a lemon grove, far from the unpleasantness of tour buses and urban squalor — on the very island known as “the land where lemons grow.”

When it gets warm enough to grill where you are you might want to make a batch of these smokey-tasting Sicilian treats. I’ve already made them a few times since I’ve been back. Here’s the recipe I’ve finally ended up with. Go ahead, tweak it even more if you like.

Grilled Sicilian Meatballs in Lemon Leaves

Here’s what you’ll need to make about 24 meatballs:

1/2 cup fine fresh breadcrumbs
1/8 cup milk
1/2 lb coarsely minced pork*
1/2 lb coarsely minced veal*
2/3 cup grated pecorino cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tbs finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tbs finely chopped fresh marjoram
2 tbs finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp toasted fennel seeds, roughly ground
1 clove garlic
Smoked salt and fresh ground black pepper
48 lemon leaves, washed thoroughly
olive oil
lemon wedges
red pepper flakes

* If you’d like, substitute both with 1 lb ground turkey

The preparation:

Toast fennel seeds in a small pan on low heat until they become fragrant, taking care not to burn. Then roughly grind with a mortar and pestle. Or you could smash them under a towel with a heavy pan.

Combine milk and breadcrumbs with your hands to form a paste.

In a large bowl throughly mix together the ground pork and veal (or turkey) with the breadcrumb paste, pecorino, egg, parsley, marjoram, fennel seeds, garlic, 2 teaspoons of smoked salt and a healthy grind of black pepper. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

When the grill is hot and you’re ready to cook, form tablespoons of the mix into balls. Place each ball on a lemon leaf and cover with a second leaf, pressing down to flatten the meatball a bit. (Glossy sides of the leaves should be facing out.) I do this on a large sheet pan before I finally place the packages in a flat grilling basket with a handle that I use to easily flip all of the little guys at the same time when they’re on the heat. 5 minutes per side is what it usually takes to cook them through. Take a nick out of one to make sure they’re done.

Then just plate them up and get them to the table hot and smokey. Now you might be tempted — but don’t eat the lemon leaves!

What you want to do is uncover the meatballs on your plate, hit them with a good squeeze of lemon juice, followed by a splash of your best olive oil and a spinkle of red pepper flakes before taking a bite.

Can’t find lemon leaves? Sautee the meatballs in olive oil. Add smokey lemon flavor by grilling lemon halves to squeeze over the dish.

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Soulful Seafood — in the City of Fado

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It’s on everyone’s list. The best place in Lisbon for seafood, they say. It’s loved by locals. And it’s a favorite for travelers and, yes, tourists.

Cervejaria Ramiro — sounded ideal for our first night in Lisbon. Nothing fancy, just an authentic spot with possibly the best seafood the city could offer, simply cooked, in a bustling, no-frills setting.

So after waiting in queue outside for about twenty “hungry” minutes (they don’t take reservations) we were ready to find out if the accolades from our guy, Anthony Bourdain, and others were warranted.

To get right to the point, yes, they were. And we too were taken with the impeccably-prepared, straight-forward kind of food that ended up on our plates as well as the frenetic, high-energy vibe of the place.

Much like the Fado music of Lisbon, that hauntingly-soulful music of the streets that always gets to you emotionally, satisfying something deep within — the seafood at Ramiro effortlessly manages to do the very same thing. Take just one bite and it finds that same sweet spot.

Briney little Portugese clams. That’s how we started. Then, succulent langustinos, Trulee’s new favorite food. Followed by some spectacular tiger prawns a la plancha that surpassed even the best of lobsters.

We couldn’t have been happier — even at a big-deal, Michelin-rated restaurant. And it seemed to me most everyone sitting around us at the crowded, paper-covered, communal tables felt the same way.

It didn’t take long before we were chatting with other happy campers about what we all had ordered, what we were drinking, eventually, trading personal stories. We even made some cool new friends.

Ok, maybe the wine had something to do with it. But Cervajeria Ramiro turned out to be exactly what Trulee and I had wanted for our first dinner in the city of Fado — a simple meal of first-rate seafood, interesting dining companions, some stellar Portugese wine.

And speaking of wine, have you tasted any from Portugal? We hadn’t. Or if we had, it certainly didn’t make much of an impression. Sad to say, what we knew about the wines on the list was less than limited.

But we were in for an exhilarating surprise. A very drinkable one.

Thanks to our server, we ordered a seafood-friendly white — an Alvarinho, produced from a grape of the same name grown in the Vinho Verde region, north of Lisbon. It reminded me of a Spanish Albarino, only a bit more complex. (yes, they’re both made from the same grape) Turns out, Alvarinho is one of Portugal’s most prized varieties.

What made the teasingly-tart Alvarinho we had been drinking even more intriguing was the aristocratic-looking, Portugese gentleman seated at the table next to ours. “Excellent wine choice,” he told us.

Not only that, he went on to say the winery — Palacio Da Brejoeira — was started by his grandfather. What are the odds! But then again this was Lisbon. And Cervejaria Romiro. I guess this is what happens.

Cervejaria Ramiro / Avenida Almirante Reis 1, Lisbon, Portugal
www.cervajariaramiro.pt

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First Class food — in the Second City!

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Yes, it’s the Second City, but that didn’t stop us. Too many good friends have waxed poetic over Chicago’s architecture, galleries, museums, parks, public art and impressive culinary scene.

Even some of those those jaded souls from NYC.

So when a favorite couple of ours suggested a weekend trip to that much-maligned midwestern city — to do a dinner at one of the world’s most respected three star restaurants, that’s all I needed.

We had just watched a “Chef’s Table” Netflix episode featuring the chef — Grant Achatz — and his restaurant Alinea and all four of us were completely overcome by the sensual artistry of his cuisine.

It wasn’t easy getting the reservation. And it wasn’t inexpensive. But we decided to do the culinary splurge and go for it. Then the doubts settled in. Would everything live up to our expectations?

Wow! The magic began, once we were served the first course of the 14 course tasting menu. And it didn’t stop. Course after Michelin-blessed course (accompanied by wines paired to the flavors on the plate) continued to seduce us for the rest of the awesome evening.

This was creative New American Cuisine at the highest level. Not over-the-top, “molecular gastornomy” craziness created simply to amaze. This was accessible, inventive and incredibly delicious.

For example — imagine a luscious corn broth presented in a beautiful ceramic bowl topped with delicately thin, wide, pasta ribbons. But they’re not really pasta, they’re made with a puree of scallops.

As the flavors come together in that first bite, you realize that this is actually an elegant corn and scallop dish. But one like you’ve never had before. Deep, intense corn flavor from the broth. Sweet succulence of scallops from the “pasta.” You don’t want it to end.

Chef Achatz amazed us that night with his culinary creativity. As he’s done consistantly for so many others — making Alinea one of the most praised restaurants in the entire world. But that’s only a part of what makes his story so fascinating. And so inspirational.

After receiving his first Michelin star the chef was diagnosed with stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. Life looked bleak.

Even so, he persevered. Found the right doctor, escaped surgery, and is now cancer free. His autobiography, “Life on the Line” tells the tale and then flashes back to his journey to Michelin stardom.

If you can’t get to Alinea to experience his award-winning cuisine, you might want to read this very special chef’s personal story.

ALINEA / 1723 N. Halsted, Chicago, Il 60614 / www.alinea.com

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Lionfish – Dangerously Invasive, Seriously Tasty!

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They’re multiplying at an alarming rate. They’re endangering our native fish stocks. And they have very few natural predators.

That’s why environmentalists, researchers and now some concerned chefs are trying to do something about the situation.

The concensus: create a market for this dangerous, but delicious fish. Put them on enough plates so that the exploding population of voracious predators can be controlled. At least, that’s the plan.

And according to the chefs I’ve talked with — it just might work!

That’s because lionfish do taste good. How can I explain? I’m thinking somewhere between a snapper and a grouper. Mild flavor. Appealing meaty texture. Fillets that are ideal for the grill or the pan.

If you care about health stats, I’m told lionfish are just loaded with those beneficial, heart-healthy, Omega 3 fatty acids — out scoring farmed-raised talapia, bluefin tuna, red snapper and even grouper.

What’s not to like!

I first tasted lionfish not too long ago at a special “Trash Fish Dinner” — designed to draw attention to the importance of sustainable seafood. A cause that a lot more of us should be interested in.

It was a cool event. Thanks to star chef Steven Phelps of Indiginous Restaurant in Sarasota. He put together the dinner along with the national Chef’s Collaborative organization and Edible Magazine. And for the near-capacity crowd of food friendly folks at the tables that night there was much to think about and much more to savor.

Throughout the evening as we all sipped wine and talked about each new plate from the kitchen, Phelps and a small group of like-minded chefs were combining forces to create a progression of inventive fish dishes using overlooked, local, sustainable species.

Lionfish was one of the featured fish that evening, showing up as a ceviche, in Asian spring rolls and deep fried. All were tasty, as well as interesting. But the clean-tasting citrus ceviche was my favorite.

Here’s a ceviche recipe I found that should come pretty close to that tasty Trash Fish Dinner dish. It’ll serve four as an appetizer.

Lionfish Ceviche

1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
3 Tbs. fresh-squeezed lime juice
Pinch of sugar to taste
Pinch of salt to taste
1/2 lb. lionfish fillets cut into 1/2-inch cubes
12 cherry tomatoes, stems removed and quartered
1 small, ripe avocado, pitted and cubed
1/2 cup cubed English cucumber
2 serrano chilies, minced
2 Tbs. fresh cilantro, chopped
2 Tbs. olive oil

Directions:

In a nonreactive bowl, stir together lemon, lime, and orange juices. Season with salt and a pinch of sugar.

Cut fish into 1/2-inch cubes, add to the citrus juice. Make sure fish is completely covered by juice. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

In an another bowl, add tomatoes, avocado, cucumber, chilies, and cilantro, stiring well to combine all the ingredients.

Transfer fish to a colander and drain for several seconds. Then add the fish bits to the tomato bowl and mix everything thoroughly.

Drizzle with olive oil, taste and adjust with salt to taste.

Divide the ceviche among four small bowls and serve immediately.

Of course, you could use any mild fish for this recipe — but go ahead, give lionfish a try. I’m sure you’ll like it. And how can you not like the fact that you’re helping save endangered fish stocks.

One caveat: Make sure you have the freshest fish possible!

Lionfish are available at some Whole Foods locations around the country and at select environmentally concerned markets. But if you can’t find them, ask your favorite fish source to get some!

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Keftedes — An Athenian Recipe

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She could actually see the Acropolis from her house. And as a child she played on the breathtaking ruins of the Parthenon, where ancient Greeks gathered to worship the goddess Athena.

That young girl from Athens grew up to become my grandmother. My golden-haired, Greek grandmother. My seriously stoic Yia Yia.

She was an impressive presence. And, still is — you see, I always think of her when I make keftedes, those tempting, pan-fried Greek meatballs, seasoned with mint, cinnamon and allspice.

Have you ever tasted keftedes? Her recipe for them is amazing. Sort of rustic, yet so sophisticated. Like a Greek Rembetiko blues tune. Lots of notes. Tasty, spicy, and maybe mysterious to some.

Keftedes are a favorite appetizer when I do a Greek dinner for friends. Or I make them a casual main course when it’s just Trulee and I at the table. Served with a Greek salad and grilled bread.

To me, they’re more than simply exciting on the palate. They taste of memories. They’re an intimate connection to heritage, history — and that young Athenian girl who played on the Acropolis.

Keftedes

OK, first a little disclaimer: This recipe was “adjusted” by my mother and slightly “modified” by this health-concious grandson who substitutes ground turkey for the original ground beef.

Here’s what you’ll need to make a batch of 25 to 30:

1 lb ground turkey
1/2 28 oz can tomatoes
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp allspice
Dash of cinnamon
2 tsp dried mint
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp chopped Italian parsley

1/2 cup flour for dredging
Olive oil for pan-frying

The preparation:

First squeeze the liquid from the tomatoes. Then in a large bowl mix well all of the ingredients except flour and olive oil, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for four hours or over night.

When you’re ready to cook, form the mix into balls using the palms of your hands (about 1 tablespoon per) and, just before firing up the stove, roll in flour on a large plate to lightly cover.

Pour a 1/2 inch of oil into a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it shimmers add as many meatballs as you can without crowding, cook until lightly browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn them over, cover the skillet, cook 2 to 3 minutes more, browning the other side. (Test one to make sure they are completely cooked.) Transfer to paper towels. Repeat until all are done.

You should know, most Greeks like their keftedes room temperature. I do too when I serve them as an appetizer or meze. But when I have them as a main course, I like them hot from the pan.

So — go ahead, get your Greek on, give this recipe a try. It’s easy. And when you do be sure to give a nod to my very Greek grand mother from Athens, Hariklia Kalimani Chakeres. I always do.

By the way, that’s her engagement photo at the top of the post. Don’t you just love the “old country” feel of it? She’s standing with my grandfather, Demetrios and their proud sponsor-matchmaker.

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Soft-Shell Crabs — The Summer Seduction!

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It happens every year from May to September — Soft-shell crab season. And it’s a time to savor. Especially if you happen to be somewhere near the Chesapeake Bay. Or the Eastern Shore.

My wife and I were lucky enough to live in Washington DC, an evolving food city at the time, where chefs couldn’t wait to get their hands on the first soft-shells of the year. I felt the same way.

When those succulent crustaceans are available, just after they shed their shells, I can’t get enough of them. Sauteed, grilled, or deep-fried, no matter how the soft-shells happen to be prepared, if they’re on the menu, I just have to order them. Every time!

That’s not an exaggeration. On our last summer-time trip back to DC, over the course of a five-day, culinary stay, we managed to have soft-shells every day. Even on the one day we cooked in!

We were staying with our friends Robin and Judy who suggested we cook a mess of soft-shells ourselves one night — knowing how much Trulee and I crave the sweet taste of this seasonal delicacy.

And what a meal that was. The freshest of crabs, simply prepared, sharing the plate with flavorful, just-picked local corn and favas.

In a tiny kitchen, my culinary compadre, Robin, a talented artist and seasoned soft-shell guy, sauteed the crabs in a cast-iron skillet with a bit of butter. Meanwhile, I pan-roasted the corn along with a diced potato that I had par-boiled and a handful of the favas.

We finished the dish with a vibrant olive vinaigrette. Thanks to an old Jean George Vongerichten cookbook that caught our attention.

You might want to try the vinaigrette over grilled or pan-roasted snapper, swordfish or stripped bass. That’s what I’m going to do when I can’t get soft-shells. Just whisk the ingredients together.

Olive Vinaigrette

1/2 cup thinly sliced green olives
2 Tbsp finely chopped shallots
1 Tbsp capers- rinsed and drained
2 Tsp finely chopped jalapeno
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp + 1 Tsp lime juice
1 Tbsp + 1 Tsp Champagne vinegar
5 Tbsp good quality olive oil
A pinch of smoked salt

But back to the soft-shells. After all of this, some of you might be wondering — if they’re so good just what kind of crabs are they?

They’re blue crabs — that shed their shells as they grow larger. Crabbers typically capture the crabs before they molt and hold them in saltwater tanks. When they shed their shells, the crabs are pulled out of the water which stops a new shell from forming.

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Wood-Fired Delights — at Miami’s KYU

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Something new is going on amidst the spray-painted walls of Miami’s Wynwood Arts District — that area best known for its concentration of contemporary art galleries, cafes and eclectic bars.

Something I really care about — good food.

It’s happening thanks to a number of talented chefs who are showing up to join the dynamic neighborhood’s creative mix. And these adventuresome chefs are expressing themselves with just as much originality and fervor as the local grafitti artists whose striking work in the hood simply can’t be overlooked.

That’s certainly the case with Chef Michael Lewis. His restaurant, an inviting Asian inspired place with an open kitchen featuring smoky, wood-grilled delights, is called KYU. (Pronounced “Q”)

You guessed it, “Q” — as in barbecue. But to me, what Michel is doing is much more than Asian barbecue. He’s turning out nothing less than beautiful, nuaunced, sophisticated dishes.

Exactly what you’d expect from a CIA grad who’s trained under Chef David Bouley at Bouley Bakery in NYC and Chef Eric Ripert at NYC’s top-rated Le Bernedin. Michael was also Chef de Cuisine at Jean Georges, another iconic, award-winning NYC restaurant.

And it shows on the plate! My dinner at KYU a few weeks ago was one of the best meals I’ve had in Miami for a long time.

Of course, I’m partial to this kind of cuisine. Deceptively simple, artfully-conceived dishes with a remarkable blend of subtle smokiness, a hit of heat and the complex flavors of Asian spices.

Our table of four blissed out sharing bites of crispy softshell crabs on steamed buns, one-of-a-kind pork and shiitake gyoza taken to another level by smoked truffle ponzu sauce, luscious wood-charred octopus, and an elegant beef shank with sweet soy and garlic that may have changed my mind about eating meat.

Wow! What a dish it was. The shank’s killer presentation was so surpisingly original and seriously impressive — that it was only surpassed by the beef’s incredible, deeply-haunting taste.

The charred meat, succulent from a pre-grilling, 10-12 hour slow smoking, comes to the table atop its large bone, almost imperceptively sliced and ready to be lifted with chopsticks and placed, bite by bite, into bibb lettuce leaves along with fresh shiso and cilantro. Then just before you tuck the morsel into your mouth you drizzle on spicy sauces that have been waiting in tiny vials.

So simple. So engaging. So Japanese.

Aesthetics abound at KYU. You’re aware of them as you first walk into the restaurant’s hipster-cool, minimalist interior. Raw concrete walls are softened with a painterly patina. Stacks of wood appear curated and arranged just so waiting for the fire. Even the Parsons-like tables couldn’t be more appropriate.

Then there are the servers. Casual, professional and charming. They seem to be just as appropriate and appealing as the surroundings. Ours certainly was as he guided us seemlessly through what became a more-than-memorable Miami evening.

I’m jazzed! Now there’s another good reason to wind up in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District: The outstanding food at KYU.

KYU / 251 NW 25th Street, Miami, FL 33127 / 786-577-0150 / www.kyumiami.com

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