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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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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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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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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Restaurant Rant: Fandango Cafe

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How could any professional kitchen screw up a skewer? You know, a kabob. Well, I didn’t think it would be easy – so that’s what I ordered the other night at Fandango Café, a casual Mediterranean place on Osprey Avenue not far from where I live here in Sarasota, FL.

Having had a less than satisfactory experience not long after they opened last year, I thought I’d give them another chance. Why not?

That was a big mistake on my part.

Not inexpensive at $15.95, my chicken skewer, prepared, according to the menu, with “a saffron-lemon marinade and char-grilled” came with a small Greek salad, a side order of my choice (I thought baba-ghanoush would be good) and some warm pita bread.

Things started out, well enough. The Greek salad was predictably small but good. I have to admit, I’m easily won over with feta.

However, the moment of truth arrived when the skewer of pale yellow, chicken chunks (without a hint of char — or marks from the grill, for that matter) was placed on the table in front of me. A puddle of pureed eggplant kept the lack luster kabob company on the plate.

Not what I had hoped for. Even so, I could have overlooked appearances if something actually happened when I finally put a few bites of the stuff in my mouth. No such luck. Nothing that honestly could be called saffron was there. Neither was much else. Maybe some turmeric. The limpid yellow color had to come from somewhere.

And in keeping with the blandness of the ill-fated bird on the skewer, the baba-ghanoush, (spelled baba-ghanoosh on the menu) gave off none of the characteristic smokiness that makes this Mediterranean specialty, so special. No smokiness?! That’s exactly why I ordered it.

Things were shaping up like a dinner at an all night diner in Akron, Ohio. Yes, I’ve been there. Unfortunately, on both counts.

Self absorbed in serious disappointment, I almost forgot about my wife sitting across the table. Trulee had ordered the lamb kabob. Not a surprise, she loves lamb. Was it at least acceptable?

From the look on her face, I knew the lamb offered no redemption. After only one bite it was apparent she couldn’t go on to the next.

“Dry.” “Strange.” “Unpalatable.” That’s what she told the waiter when asked about the food. She then insisted he take a bite, to see for himself. I didn’t think he would. But to our amazement, he did.

And to his credit, the accommodating young fellow came close to the same conclusion. Maybe not quite as vehemently voiced. But enough to give us at least some satisfaction and to brighten our mood a bit.

Here’s hoping things will improve. It wouldn’t take much. Just some concern about how the food really tastes, and a willingness to listen.

I could suggest some excellent cookbooks too. No doubt they’d help.

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