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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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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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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Greek Salad — No, Not That One

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What comes to mind when you think Greek salad? I’m sure some variation of the classic “Village Salad” — that super-satisfying mix of tomato, cucumber, onion, olives and feta, dressed with olive oil and a touch of oregano. It’s traditional. And it’s almost everywhere.

In Greek, it’s called “Horiatiki Salata.” But you proably knew that. The ubiquitous salad’s listed that way on more than a few menus.

What you might not know is that there’s another Greek salad. One that’s not as familiar to most non-Greeks, even though it’s really delicious and more refined than the Horiatiki. I happen to love it and serve this elegant little salad with most of my Greek dinners.

And even though I make it year round, spring is the customary time for what is called “Manoulo” salata. The name means romaine — and that’s what this salad is all about. Well, almost.

To very thinly-sliced romaine, you add lots of chopped dill, some chopped scallions, then lightly dress the greens with lemon juice or red wine vinegar and your best olive oil. When I make the salad, I leave out the scallions and add a good handfull of crumbled feta.

It’s light, tangy and just the thing to serve with anything Greek! Especially, grilled octopus, like I did the other night. It’s also a natural with grilled swordfish, chicken, or butterflied leg of lamb. And with another favorite — my grandmother’s Greek meatballs.

Manoulo Salata

Here’s what you’ll need to make enough for four:

2 heads romaine, thinly-sliced
1/2 cup chopped dill
1/3 cup crumbled feta
1/2 cup olive oil
5 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
Ground fresh black pepper to taste

To me this salad is all about personal taste, so adjust the amounts as desired. I happen to like lots of dill, you might want less. Start by adding 1/4 cup and see what you think. Then taste. Taste. Taste.

Some final thoughts — on the feta. Make sure it’s from Greece. You want to find tart-tasting cheese made, in the traditional manner, from sheep’s milk or a combination of sheep’s milk and goat’s milk.

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Preserved Lemons — Hit the High Notes

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Lemons — they add a bright, resonating, high note to almost any dish. But if you’ve ever experienced the complex mojo of preserved lemons, you know they deliver even more of that acidic satisfaction. Along with an added jolt of earthy overtones. You might say, they’re operatic.

Well, lucky me! Last week there were still lots of lemons clinging to the twisted branches of the aging but prolific lemon tree on my property. Enough to make a big batch of preserved lemons. So that’s what I did.

Basically, all you need for the project is kosher salt and lemons. (And, if you have one, an electric juicer.) You should definetely give it a try.

Not only is it incredibly easy to do, it’s really rewarding. Once made, preserved lemons can be stored in the fridge for up to a year. Yes, a year! And the over-the-top flavor boost they give food is seriously memorable.

According to San Francisco, Michelin-starred Chef Mourad Lahlou, preserved lemons are Morocco’s greatest culinary contribution to the world — and an irreplaceable component in the country’s salads, stews, soups, tangines, marinades and sauces. But you don’t have to limit yourself to Morraccan cuisine. Just think of preserved lemons as a killer seasoning.

I like to use them, along with some red pepper flakes, in a lemon-olive oil vinaigrette to top grilled fish, chicken and lamb. Or to add interest to sauteed greens, roasted eggplant, smashed potatoes, and spiced rice.

You can also sneak bits of preserved lemon into most savory dishes to heighten and brighten their already existing flavors. In fact, lots of professional chefs are doing that these days. Now, you can do it too.

Preserved Lemons

Here’s all you need to make a one quart batch:

About 6 lemons for preserving
About 6 more lemons for 2 cups of juice
About 3/4 cup kosher salt

1-quart canning jar with a clamp-on glass lid and rubber gasket

The Process:

Sterilize the jar in boiling water. Or run it through the dishwasher on the hottest setting. Make sure it’s completely dry before you use it.

Next scrub the lemons under cold running water. Dry them thoroughly.

Stand a lemon on the stem end and slice down into it as if you were going to cut it in half — only stop about a 1/2 inch from the bottom. Now make a perpendicular cut, again stopping shy of the bottom in the same way, so that the lemon is basically quartered but still holding together.

Add the salt to a large bowl, hold the lemon over the bowl and pack as much salt into it as possible. Put the lemon in the jar, cut side up, and repeat until the jar is filled. Clamp the lid and leave the jar sit over night.

The next day, the lemons will have softened a bit and you might be able to add another lemon to the jar. If that’s the case, use a clean spoon to press down all the lemons before you add an additional piece of citrus.

Now squeeze some lemons to end up with about 2 cups of juice. Or enough to cover the lemons in the jar. Fill it to the brim, clamp the lid closed and put the jar in a dark spot, like a kitchen cabinet or pantry.

For the next week, turn and shake the jar once a day. Add more juice if the lemons are no longer submerged. And that’s basically it.

Well, you do have to be patient and wait. But for only a month.

Once they’re ready, that’s when the excitment begins. To use your new seasoning, cut a preserved lemon in quarters and then scrape the pulp away from the rind. It’s the softened rind you’ll be using, not the pulp.

When I first used it, I simply diced the rind and sprinkled it into a vinaigrette of equal parts lemon juice and olive oil with a hit of red pepper flakes. That’s a good place to start. After that — just experiment.

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The Perfect Paella

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Ever since I tasted the Paella Valenciana at a traditional,”old-school” Spanish restaurant in downtown Washington, DC, more than a few years ago — my fondness for the distinctive flavors of this beautifully festive dish became somewhat of an obsession. One that’s still with me today.

Smoked paprika. Onions. Garlic. Tomatoes. Chorizo. Saffron. When combined properly, they conspire to transform what could have been just another, ordinary, rustic rice dish into something so much more thrilling.

But finding a recipe to make that happen has been no easy task. There are so many. And to complicate things even more, I wanted one that would recreate the experience I had back in DC. Or at least get close.

I haven’t had much luck. That is, until a few weeks ago when I found a recipe for a “paella mixta” with seafood, chorizo (dried, smoked, ready-to-eat pork sausage,) and chicken. It sounded like it might be the one.

And it was! In fact, after a little improvisation, the recipe became the basis for our family Christmas dinner. Everyone loved it — so it will most definitely be on the holiday table again next year. But I won’t wait until then for another taste. I’ll be serving this paella throughout the year.

The original recipe came from San Francisco chef and culinary writer Christine Gallary, who says “the key to the dish is the crusty, caramelized layer of rice, called socarrat, that forms on the bottom of the pan.”

I couldn’t agree more. That socarrat adds a characteristic layer of smoky flavor and a bit of crunch to the paella. It’s actually the soul of the dish.

Why don’t you give this paella a try! It’s not that difficult. It’s great for a party. And I’m certain your guests will love it. This recipe serves 6 to 8.

Paella Mixta

In addition to a 15″ paella pan, here’s what you’ll need:

2 medium ripe tomatoes
16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton dulce)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1″ pieces
8 ounces Spanish chorizo, cut into 1/4″ thick rounds
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, as needed
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
2 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large pinch saffron threads
2 cups paella rice (bomba or Valencia)
1 tespoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning shrimp and chicken
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
16 clams, well scrubbed
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped Italian parsley leaves
2 medium lemons, cut into 8 wedges for serving
Aluminum foil, enough to cover paella pan

The preparation:

Core and halve the tomatoes. Grate the flesh side of each half on the large hole of a box grater over a medium bowl, discarding the skin. You should have about 3/4 cup of pulp and juice; set aside.

Place the shrimp in a medium bowl, add 1/4 teaspoon of the paprika, and season with salt and pepper. Toss to combine and refrigerate.

Place chicken in a bowl, generously salt and pepper; set aside.

Place the paella pan over two burners, heat until hot, about 2 minutes. Add the chorizo, stirring occasionally, until it starts to brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the chorizo to a large bowl; set aside.

There should be a thin layer of fat in the pan. It not, add some olive oil, then add the chicken, stiring occasionally, until the pieces are golden brown, about 6 minutes total. (Rotate the pan from time to time to evenly dsidribute the heat.) Transfer chicken to the bowl with chorizo; set aside.

Add the onion to the pan, season with salt and pepper, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed so that onions don’t burn. Add garlic, remaining 3/4 teaspoon paprika, and saffron, stir to combine, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the tomato pulp and juice, cook until mixture has slightly darkened in color, scrapping up browned bits from the bottom of the pan, about 3 minutes. Add the rice, teaspoon salt, and stir to coat rice in the mixture.

Add the broth and stir to combine. Arrange the rice mixture in an even layer. Distribute the chorizo and chicken over the rice, adding any juices from the bowl. (Don’t stir the rice from this point on.)

Bring mixture to a lively simmer. Continue to cook until rice grains have expanded, most of the liquid has been absorbed, and rice begins to make a cracking sound, about 12 minutes. (Rotate pan occasionally to evenly distribute heat, adjusting heat as needed to maintian lively simmer.)

Arrange shrimp and clams (hinge-side down) in rice. Sprinkle in peas, cover pan with foil, and cook until clams have opened, shrimp are cooked through and rice is tender but al dente, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Remove pan from heat, let stand 5 minutes. Remove foil, discard unopened clams, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve with lemon wedges.

Round out the meal with a simple romaine salad, topped with manchego cheese and some grilled, crusty bread, drizzled with your best oilve oil.

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Spicy Charred Octopus — A New Recipe

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Can’t tell you how happy I am! My new kitchen is finally finished–after too many days of dust and disruption. Yes! Now I can entertain again.

And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. Sharing my food with friends.

One of the first dishes I decided to cook after being away from the stove for so long — was “spicy octopus with yogurt and herbs.” And it’s become a real favorite. Tender and tangy, everyone seems to love it.

This isn’t the typical Greek version, seasoned with lemon, oregano, vinegar and olive oil and then grilled. No, this is totally different.

The tastes here are bolder and yet somehow more refined. Subtle hints of the Southeast Asian mix of hot, sour, salty, and sweet in an “attention-grabbing” glaze give a complex dimension to the octopus. Some smokyness is added when the well-glazed tentacles get a good sear.

To me, its addictively delicious! And it looks good on the plate too.

What’s even better, it’s ridiculously easy to make. It really is. First you braise. Then you sear. That’s it. Actually, the octopus is fully cooked after the braise. But don’t stop there — give it that final glazed sear!

Spicy Charred Octopus

Here’s what you’ll need to make the dish:

For the braise:
1 1/2 gallons water
2 lemons, cut in half and squeezed
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup kosher salt
3 bay leaves
3 to 4 lb. octopus (just get the 8 tentacles)

For the spicy glaze:
2 garlic cloves, minced
1″ piece ginger, peeled and minced
1/4 cup Sambal Oelek chili paste
2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp. seasoned rice vinegar

For the plate:
2 cups torn fresh herbs and baby greens
(basil, mint, cilantro, watercress, arugula
and maybe some thinly sliced fennel)
1 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt
A very good olive oil
1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice

The preparation:

Combine all the braise ingredients in a large pot, except the octopus. Bring to a boil and then holding the tentacles with tongs dip them into the boiling water 3 times, leaving them submerged for 3-5 seconds each time. After the final dip, put the octopus back in the pot and cook, partially covered, for 60 minutes. Transfer to a sheet pan to cool.

(Once cooled the octopus can be held in the fridge for up to two days. But I usually do the braise the day before I want to make the dish.)

While the octopus is braising, make the spicy glaze by putting all the ingredients a small bowl and blitzing with an immersion blender. The glaze can be made up to one week in advance, just cover and chill.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. (Take the octopus out of the fridge 1/2 hour before, separate the tentacles and cut into equal lengths.) Splash some olive oil over the tentacles, season with salt and pepper. Then sear, turning from time to time, until charred, 8-10 minutes. Brush with glaze, turning occasionally, until well caramelized, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and add olive oil to coat.

Finally, toss the herb salad with the lime juice and a discrete splash of olive oil. Smear a large dollop of yogurt across each plate, top with octopus and a handful of salad, then drizzle some glaze around the plate.

This is a recipe for four: serve two tentacles per plate as an entree. Or one per as a first course and save the rest for the next night. Maybe serve them sliced with pasta, olives, capers and a light tomato sauce.

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