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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State Street Eating House — Get the Grilled Sardines

Sardines-1

When I can’t decide where to go for a casual dinner here in Sarasota, I usually end up at State Street Eating House — to sit at the bar for a plate of their exceptional, grilled sardines. And a few glasses of wine.

There’s something about eating at a restaurant’s bar that just feels good. (This one is no exception.) And in a town where so many places are doing too much to their food and charging too much for it, those sardines with their pleasantly-assertive taste always seem to satisfy.

Discretely listed on the menu under appetizers, the dish features two perfectly-grilled sardines, simply dressed with nothing more than a sprinkling of salt and a touch of olive oil. Keeping them company on the plate are a toss of baby arugula, some lemon and a slice of grilled peasant bread that’s most definitely addictive. To complete my rustic, yet very civilized, meal at the bar, I add an order of charred broccolini.

This little dinner would be nothing out of the ordinary in, say, Montreal. Or Barcelona. But in Sarasota, it certainly is. And when you consider those lovely sardines only set me back $11.00, it’s even more so.

But to me it’s all about taste. These are uniquely flavorful fish. Not “fishy” tasting at all. And they take to the grill like they were concieved for the fire because of their ultra-high oil content. Charred, smokey and super-savory when they come off the heat, grilled sardines are one of those simple culinary pleasures that I just can’t get enough of.

OK. I know some of you are saying, two little sardines — that can’t be enough for a meal. Well, the ones at State Street aren’t the same size as those little guys you find packed in a can. They’re a whole lot larger.

If you’re into esoteric cocktail conversation: The average weight of a fresh sardine is 3 to 6 ounces. It’s packed with protein, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. And the delicious little fish is mercury free.

Even so, occasionally my wife is up for something other than sardines. And she’s not been dissapointed here. At least, not lately. (Early on, some of the oven-roasted, fish dishes didn’t live up to expectation.)

Here are some of the stand outs we’ve enjoyed of late at this casually-cool, little “hot spot” of a restaurant — a beautifully-composed roasted beet salad, a luscious duck burger, an “entree-sized” roasted sweet potato and a variety of expertly-grilled, whole fish from local waters.

And what about the service? Just as it should be for a place like this. Professional, personable and fun. Especially the people behind the bar!

State Street Eating House / 1533 State Street – Sarasota, FL
941.951.1533 / www.statestreetsrq.com

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