Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nikos Taverna

Date night almost didn't happen yesterday. Both DC and I were feeling under the weather, me from the still-lingering, apparently never-ending cold I've had for weeks, DC from a pulled muscle that made him want to stay home with his ice-pack. However, we rallied at the thought of mouthwatering Greek food, and ventured out to Nikos Taverna on Davis Drive in Morrisville. Nikos Taverna is a family-owned restaurant, and a newly=opened companion to their Durham location.

This was our second visit to Nikos, and just like last time, the food was terrific and the service top-notch. I was ravenous, as my only sustenance thus far had consisted of polishing off the mango smoothie and peach yogurt DS had left in the fridge.

The moment we walked in the door, we were welcomed warmly by the host and seated at a cozy table. Nikos has tables only, all 4-tops, thank goodness, but no banquettes. (I hate being squeezed into a 2-top, that invariably is too small for the all the food and plates.) The colors are vibrant yet soothing, accented by rich cranberry red and tea green.

Our waiter appeared promptly to take our drink orders: ginger ale all around! (Yeah, we're just party animals!) To his credit, our waiter did not bat an eye, despite the alluring selection of lovely wines on the menu. The waiter also asked if we wanted to hear the dinner specials-- which I appreciated, since at times when eating out we either never hear about the specials OR the waitperson drones on and on about them when we've already made up our minds. There were three dinner specials: one was a grilled whole yellow snapper (which sounded amazing), a surf & turf combination, and I can't remember the 3rd!

The menu offers a nice selection of appetizers, dips, vegetarian dishes, oven-roasted entrees, pastas, grilled offerings, and seafood. The appetizer selection includes some of my favorites, including octopus (mmmmm!) and dolmades, stuffed grape leaves. We decided to start with the saganaki, the traditional flaming cheese appetizer, as well as an order of taramosalata. While we were waiting for the appetizers, the waiter left us with a basket of fresh, warm crusty bread and herb-infused oil to dip it in. It was really good! Had we not known what was coming, we would have asked for more!

The saganaki was very festive, and delivered with a hearty "Opa!" When the flames died down the waiter squeezed fresh lemon juice over the cheese-- yum, yum! The lemon was perfect with the warm, salty cheese. DC thoroughly enjoyed it!

I have to admit that as delicious as the saganaki was, I was more enamored of the taramosalata (red cavar dip) and the fresh, fresh, fresh, warm house-made pitas. Wow, the pita bread was amazing-- fresh from the oven, it was soft but the crust had just the slightest amount of delightful crunch to it. Irresistible! The waiter had to bring us seconds, as we finished the pita before the dip was gone. The taramosalata was so good I couldn't stop eating it! I am not a huge caviar fan, but this charmingly pink dip was pure magic: rich, smooth cream cheese studded with salty bits of roe, delivering just the right amount of unctuous ocean flavor. (Yes, I mean "fishy," but in a good way!) Yum-O! I was thrilled that DC seemed to enjoy it also. It's a good thing DS wasn't with us, as he and I would surely have been fighting over the dip :)

As I mentioned, the menu offers an impressive selection of dips, including the Trio Combination. You get to choose any 3 dips, and they are served with feta and stuffed grape leaves. I seriously could make a whole meal from this, only as DC doesn't like hummus or cucumber, and is iffy on eggplant, I fear we could not find 3 dips he would enjoy.

When the entrees arrived, they were gorgeous! I really appreciate the fact that the portions are normal-sized, rather than large enough to feed a small village. (Don't worry, you WON'T leave hungry, we're not talking nouvelle cuisine here!) DC ordered the Stuffed Shrimp "Garrides Bacon," which was 4 or 5 lovely-looking enormous prawns stuffed with crabmeat and wrapped in bacon (how could you go wrong??). It was delicious! After much thought, I ended up choosing one of the evening's specials, grilled filet mignon with scallops. I love steak!!! I love seafood!!! Score!!!

I really appreciated our waiter's thorough knowledge of the menu and preparation of each dish, because I was having trouble deciding between the Greek-marinated grilled ribeye and the filet special. I was really feeling in the mood for something well-marinated, so I asked whether the filet was. The waiter told us that it was marinated briefly in olive oil and rosemary before going on the grill. Was the ribeye more marinated? I wanted to know. Turns out it receives the same quick treatment as the filet. I picked the filet since it came with scallops (which I adore).

The filet arrived with a mushroom demi-glace, and it was perfectly cooked, medium rare, just as I'd asked for. It was flavorful, juicy, and melt-in-your-mouth tender. The only slight disappointment was that being filet, it didn't taste "steaky," more like roast beef. Of course, that is the nature of filets, and I knew that when I ordered it. Even without being "steaky" it was still scrumptious! The scallops were delicious, neither overcooked and rubbery (sadly, too often the case) nor undercooked and gooey. Just sweet, tender essence of shellfish. Perfect!

I really must take a moment to talk about the sides. To me, the sides are every bit as important as the entrees. It was clear from the beautiful presentation that the sides weren't just an afterthought, but carefully prepared to complement the entrees. We both had the same sides. First, a medley of fresh vegetables: carrots sliced on the bias, snowy-white cauliflower, and broccoli florets. Sadly, I generally avoid the "steamed vegetable" choice like the plague at most restaurants, as they are invariably dreary, overcooked lumps that all taste the same, like overcooked broccoli, which generally accounts for 70% of it anyway. This was NOT the case with the vegetables at Nikos. They were perfectly cooked and seasoned with a tasty sauce with just a hint of garlic. DC even commented on how good the carrots were, and he almost never touches his vegetable sides when we eat out.

The real star, however (arguably of the whole meal, in my opinion :) ), were the sumptuous lemon potatoes. Truth be told, my entire entree choice was based upon whether it included lemon potatoes or not!! They are WONDERFUL-- piquant with lemon, firm but tender, and well, I hate to use this word, because it sounds bad, but mealy or flaky is the only way I can describe it-- you know, the way a really good baked potato is kind of dry and starchy? (I hate it when the baked potatoes are "baked" in foil, because really, they are steamed, and moist inside, which to me, defeats the whole idea of a fluffy baked potato.) I could have happily made a whole meal just of lemon potatoes! I can NEVER get them to taste this good at home. Hmmm... wonder if I could cajole the recipe out of them?

By now we were stuffed to the gills, but it was one of those days where I knew I wouldn't feel like I'd had dinner if we didn't get dessert. You can sure tell I'm from the South, I have a sweet tooth that just won't quit. (Have you ever noticed how Southerners call everyone Sugar, Honey, and Sweetie Pie? It's no coincidence: we're all addicted to sugar!) DC was really too full for dessert, but he's very indulgent! He graciously agreed to look at the dessert tray. I am a bad influence on him :(!

The dessert tray included lemon custard, baklava, chocolate rum ball, cheesecake, red velvet cake (it's a Southern thing!), chocolate cake, and an assortment of Greek cookies. We both ended up ordering the amazing, stupendous, house-made lemon custard. (Did I mention I'm a bad influence on DC?) There are a few desserts that the owner's wife bakes fresh each day: the Greek cookies, the baklava, and the lemon custard are among them. There are no words to describe the utter, total deliciousness of the lemon custard- to eat it is to be instantly transported to paradise. "Lemon Custard" is a bit misleading, as it really consists of a heavenly, rich lemony custard tenderly wrapped in a delectable crisp phyllo crust and served doused in honey syrup. (Well, maybe not exactly doused, but "coated" sounds so pedestrian!) I had mine with hot mint tea (with sugar, of course :) ).

Our meal at Nikos Taverna was thoroughly enjoyable. From the tasteful and soothing decor to the exquisite food to the solicitous yet unobtrusive service (the waiter kept our ginger ales topped off, though I am sure it must have pained him to see that beautiful food washed down with such swill!), I highly recommend Nikos Taverna. If you have not tried it, I urge you to hurry over as soon as possible, before it becomes so popular it's impossible to get a table.

We give it the coveted 5 Wooden Spoons!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Hall of Fame Ingredients

In Ina Garten's homey Barefoot Contessa Family Style, she lists "9 Ingredients You'll Use Again and Again." I thought it would be fun to look in my kitchen and find the things I "couldn't live without," or what I'd want if I were marooned on a desert island (presumably with a nice kitchen!). After I made my picks, I looked back at Ina's list, and 6 of her 9 ingredients are on my list too!

This is MY all-star lineup, in no particular order:

1. Extra-virgin olive oil

I use this for almost everything, except deep-frying. EVOO has the best, richest flavor. For years my preferred brand was Colavita. I recently tried 365, the Whole Foods Store brand, and found it as good as, if not better than, my old stand-by. And at considerably lower price. 365 has a wide range of EVOOs, from Italy, Spain, Greece, etc. I really don't know the differences between these, but I have always been happy with Italian olive oil, so that's what I've been using. I think the most important things to look for when choosing an EVOO, are to make sure it is cold pressed/first pressing, has a good, rich, color, and a taste that YOU like.

2. Kosher Salt

Kosher salt has a much purer taste than ordinary iodized table salt. Once you become accustomed to the taste of the kosher salt, when you taste regular table salt, it tastes extra salty and full of chemicals. I keep a dish of Kosher salt next to my stove, so I can add it as I need to whatever I cook. I just take a pinch or two, sprinkle it in, stir, and taste. I use it for everything, even baking. Actually, I think SALT is one of the reasons that people enjoy restaurant food: many people undersalt their food at home. If you salt a bit at a time while the food is cooking, it is much more flavorful and tasty.

3. Unsalted butter

I love unsalted butter and use it exclusively for cooking and baking. It is easier to tell if butter is fresh if it is unsalted, as salt can mask the taste of rancidity. Of course, you would not to cook with rancid butter! Because butter is highly perishable and also prone to absorbing food odors, I store most of my butter in the freezer. It stays much fresher that way, and you can also stock up while it is on sale. Butter will stay fresh in the freezer for at least 6 months.

4. Chicken broth

Although nothing can match the taste of home-made chicken stock (Alton Brown even calls it "Liquid Love"), high-quality prepared stocks and broths are a pantry staple for me. I love the resealable packages that you can keep in the fridge. Having broth on hand can help me to get a soup on the table pronto. Broth also adds lots of flavor to rice, sauces, etc.

5. Organic, Cage-Free Extra Large Eggs

Not only do I feel safer buying organic, free-range, antibiotic free, locally produced eggs, they TASTE better than the regular grocery store eggs. I like the extra-large size, I feel I get a few more nutrients for the $.

6. White Lily Flour

White Lily Flour is milled in the South from soft red winter wheat and is an absolute must-have for making tender biscuits, fluffy pancakes, and other baked goods. We love biscuits so much that I would buy White Lily only for that. Regular all-purpose flour has a higher gluten content and will produce tough biscuits. I most often buy the White Lily Enriched Bleached Self-Rising Flour.

7. King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

King Arthur is the oldest flour company in the U.S., and was founded in 1790! I'll just quote from their website: "No flour is subject to stricter specifications than King Arthur Flour. The resulting purity and consistency has made King Arthur the trusted flour of baking enthusiasts and professionals for over 200 years." Besides the quality, purity, and consistent performance of this flour, I used to live in Norwich, VT, where King Arthur is headquartered-- so I feel a personal connection to it :)

8. Rumford Baking Powder
It contains no aluminum and therefore does not contribute a bitter flavor to baked goods. To my taste, it is definitely superior to other baking powders.

9. Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract
Horribly expensive, but the best-tasting vanilla in the world. They also make Tahitian and Mexican pure vanilla extracts.

10. Hunts Diced Tomatoes
Consistently high quality, ripe, delicious tomatoes, diced and recipe ready. I can't live without these, especially in winter, when fresh tomatoes are not at their best.

11. Grey Poupon Country-Dijon Mustard

I find this is the best-tasting mustard for cooking, sandwiches, and salads. I love to use it for Honey-Mustard Chicken, and also for toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches!

12. Barilla PLUS Pasta

Barilla PLUS is a multi-grain pasta that is higher in fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids than traditional pasta, but tastes every bit as delicious. My family has never even noticed the difference!

13. DeCecco Pasta

My favorite kind of "traditional" pasta.

14. Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise
The best-tasting mayonnaise on the market (to my taste).

15. Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
My favorite Worcestershire sauce, it is consistently high-quality and adds wonderful flavor to soups, sauces, marinades, and salad dressings. Also delicious on steak.

16. Pick-A-Peppa Sauce
From Jamaica, this spicy, savoryBold sauce adds oomph wherever I need extra flavor, especially in soups.

17. Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

Another terrific flavor booster, these hot, smoky peppers have an inimitable flavor. The picture also demonstrates one of my favorite techniques, freezing recipe-size portions in plastic bags. I generally only use 2 or 3 peppers at a time, and once I open a whole can, it's great to know the leftovers will be waiting in the freezer.

19. Fresh ground black pepper
The only kind of pepper I ever use. My Peugeot pepper grinder was a gift given to me by my dear friend Steve in approximately 1990, and it's still going strong!

20. Orange-Blossom honey
My favorite kind of honey, it has a light, sweet, slightly floral flavor with a touch of orange. Try adding it to whipped cream in place of sugar for a delicious change of pace.

21. Mazola Pure Canola Oil spray
I couldn't cook without non-stick spray, and this canola oil spray adds a light, natural taste to foods.

22. Fleur de Sel
This hand-harvested sea-salt has a distinctive taste and crunch that are perfect for finishing salads and other foods. I never use this delicate product for cooking, it is for "tasting" only. A light sprinkle on buttered, homemade bread is a real treat! As an aside, I found this article on salt highly entertaining.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ah Pita the Ful!

OK, this was unnecessarily cruel and unusual punishment, but I couldn't resist! :)

If you have never tried making your own pita bread, it's surprisingly easy, and so good! Especially with simple dishes like Ful Medames. Most often, I make the Greek-style pocketless pita bread, since it's quicker to make than the yeast-raised kind (with the pocket). This is very similar to making flour tortillas.

HomeMade Pita Bread (Makes 6 pitas)

Here is what you will need:

3 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
3/4 t. baking soda
1 1/4 c. warm water
1 1/2 t. sugar
3/4 t. salt
1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil

1. Put the flour, baking powder, and baking soda in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to blend the ingredients.

2. In a 2-cup glass measure, mix together the warm water, sugar, and salt, and stir to dissolve. Add the olive oil. (I did it in a bowl, but trust me, it's easier to pour if you use the measuring cup.)

3. Turn on the processor and while it's running, pour the liquid mixture through the feed tube. Ideally, in about 10 seconds, the dough will form a little ball on top of the blade, cleaning the sides of the bowl. If this does not happen, DON'T PANIC. It just means the dough is too dry. That's what happened to me:

The dough didn't form a ball because it was a little too dry. You can tell it's too dry because there are little flecks of dry flour in the bowl, even though I added all the liquid. Lots of things can affect how quickly the flour will absorb moisture, including the humidity level in your kitchen.

4. If the dough is too dry, add a tablespoon of warm water at a time, with the motor running, until the dough does form a ball. It should be moist, but not sticky. Ta-da!

If the dough is TOO moist, it will feel sticky and probably won't clean the sides of the bowl. If it's sticky, add about 1 T of flour and pulse to blend.

5. Place a piece of waxed paper on your countertop and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Turn the dough out onto the waxed paper and gently shape it into a ball. Try not to overwork it, so your pitas don't turn out tough. (I learned that lesson the hard way, "helping" my gramma make fry bread. "Fry frisbees" was more like it! The whole family was mad at me.) You don't have to use the waxed paper, it just makes it easier to clean up afterwards. If you have a pastry board, feel free to use it.

6. Divide the dough into 6 pieces.

Roll each piece into a ball. Put the dough balls on a lightly floured baking sheet (or stick with the waxed paper) and cover the dough with a clean, damp kitchen towel.

7. Let the dough relax for 30-60 minutes.

8. Once the dough is "relaxed," work with one piece of dough at a time, keeping the other pieces covered with a damp towel so they don't dry out. With your hands, gently flatten a dough ball into a disk. Place the disk on a lightly floured surface. With a rolling pin, roll the disk out into a circle about 8 inches in diameter and not quite 1/4 in. thick. You can help to keep the dough in a round shape (or at least, a rounder shape!) by picking up the dough and rotating it a quarter turn to the right each time you roll over it. (Roll, lift, turn, and repeat.) Even if they aren't completely round, they still taste good!

As you can see, I forgot to make the disk with my hands and then use the rolling pin, and I have to admit, the pitas turned out tougher than usual. But still tasty!

Here is one rolled out, and you can see it's about 8 inches across. (I really do use my ruler, it helps me to make them mostly the same size).

9. Roll out the rest of the dough, sprinkling each rolled-out pita with a little flour, and stack them on a plate. Keep covered.

10. Heat a griddle or a large dry skillet (cast iron works well) over medium low heat until it is hot. If it's too hot, the pitas won't cook all the way through, even though the surface is browned. You'll have to go by trial and error until you find the right setting for your stove. I find that about "4" on my electric stove is perfect. My griddle fits across 2 burners, so I set both of them to "4." (Your griddle or pan can be heating while you are rolling out dough.)

11. Place a pita (or however many will fit at a time, I can do 2 on my griddle) on the hot griddle and cook until the bottom is lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Turn the pita and cook the other side for 2 more minutes. Don't worry if it puffs up, it will de-puff as it cools.

Side 1

Side 2

Place the cooked pitas on a large plate covered with a cloth napkin to keep them warm. If you are not going to serve them immediately, wrap up the plate and napkin in foil, and hold in a 150 degree oven. They will stay fresh and warm for several hours.

Done!! Perfect! Yum, Yum!!

P.S.: You don't have to make these in a food processor, it's just easier that way. To make them by hand, sift the flour, baking soda, and baking powder into a large bowl, and use a whisk to combine them. Make a well in the center of the flour, and put the sugar, salt, water, and oil into the well. Stir the liquid with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar and salt. Then gradually blend the dry flour into the wet ingredients. It should clump together to form a dough. Knead it gently in the bowl until it forms a ball, adding more flour or more water if needed to make a moist, but not sticky, dough. Turn it out onto a floured surface and knead for 2-3 minutes, until the dough is smooth and shiny. Shape the dough into a ball, and proceed with the recipe at step 6. (You can see that using the food processor cuts down on your chances of overworking the dough.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Ful for Love

Or more accurately, at our house, we love Ful! I'm talking about Ful Medames, the national dish of Egypt, which features fava beans. I know this is practically blasphemy, but I'm forced to admit I don't actually like fava beans, nor do I make my version of ful with them. We were first introduced to the idea of Ful in Crescent Dragonwagon's tour de force vegetarian cookbook, Passionate Vegetarian.

While I was planning menus for this week, DS put in a special request for Ful, one of his all-time favorite dishes. I understand that in Egypt and the Sudan it's usually eaten for breakfast, but as our taste for breakfast foods tends to run to eggs, cereals, and donuts, I usually prepare it for dinner. With some misgivings, I jotted it down for last night's dinner selection. While DS and I have quite often been used to eating vegetarian, DC is a devoted carnivore. Although he is very willing to try anything I cook, naturally I would prefer that he enjoy his food! But as it turned out, we ALL love ful!

Since it is not only extremely healthy and easy to prepare, as well as delicious, I thought I would share my version of Ful with you. It is basically Crescent Dragonwagon's recipe, with some minor simplifications. She calls for the traditional fava beans, but says you can substitute white beans or black-eyed peas if you prefer. I always use Great Northern beans, but I am sure that dried Lima beans or even garbanzos (chickpeas) would work fine.

Stefan's Ful Medames

Here are the ingredients you will need:

1 1/2 c. dried Great Northern beans
2 t. salt
2 1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. fresh ground black pepper
1/2 t. sweet Hungarian paprika
1/2 t. turmeric (more, to taste)
1/4 c. chopped Italian parsley (leaves only)
3-6 cloves garlic, peeled and run through the garlic press
Juice of 1 fresh lemon
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
3 extra-large eggs, hard-cooked and diced

1. Pick over the beans to remove any foreign matter or cracked beans, then place in a colander and rinse thoroughly.

2. Spray a large, heavy soup pot with non-stick spray and put the rinsed beans in the pot. Add cold water to cover by about 2 inches. (I usually measure by adding water until it reaches the 2nd knuckle on my index finger.)

3. Add 2 t. salt, place the pot on the stove over high heat, and bring to a boil.

Here, let me just say a few words about bean cookery. Many people believe that cooking with dried beans is both time-consuming and difficult, requiring long soaking and hours of cooking. Let me reassure you, THIS IS NOT TRUE.

It is not necessary to soak most types of beans before cooking. It may take somewhat longer to cook unsoaked beans, but seriously, what's another 30 minutes or so, compared to the advance planning needed to soak the darn things beforehand? Some people do find that soaked beans are a bit easier to digest, but this is only the case if you pour out the soaking water (along with some of the nutrients!) and add fresh water for cooking.

The length of time it takes to cook dried beans will vary with the age of the bean, something we as consumers don't have much control over. It generally takes about 2 hours of cooking time for the Great Northern beans I buy to become tender (unsoaked).

Dried beans are so much more economical than canned ones, plus you have the option to season them as you like, that the advantages of using them outweigh the disadvantages.

Another myth I would like to de-bunk is that adding salt to the cooking water will toughen the beans. In my experience, this is simply not true, and the beans also taste so much better if you add salt to them while they are cooking.

4. Cover the pot, reduce the heat, and simmer until just barely tender (about 1 hr. and 45 minutes).

5. Add the cumin, paprika, turmeric, and black pepper, partially cover, and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes more.

6. The beans should not be terribly soupy, they should have absorbed most of the cooking water. (If necessary, boil uncovered for a few minutes to reduce some of the liquid. Adjust it to your liking!). Add the parsley, garlic, lemon, and olive oil, and more salt and pepper if needed. Remove from the heat. **Please note, the amount of garlic is chiefly where Crescent and I part company. She likes quite a bit more than I do! That's why I say 3-6 cloves. Adjust the garlic to your taste.

7. I should have said this earlier, but while the beans are simmering, you can be prepping the other ingredients: chopping tomatoes, cooking and dicing the eggs, peeling garlic, squeezing the lemon, chopping parsley, etc. Put the tomatoes and eggs into separate bowls and set aside.

8. Also while the beans are simmering, you can be preparing this AWESOME sesame sauce to serve with the Ful:

In the food processor, combine:
1/2 c. sesame tahini, 1/2 c. fresh squeezed lemon juice (from 3-4 lemons), 1/2 t. salt, and 3 cloves of garlic, crushed in the garlic press. Add 1/2 c. water or more, to thin down the mixture to pouring consistency.

Heat the sauce in the microwave until nice and hot, but not boiling.

9. To serve, ladle some of the beans into each person's bowl. Let them add chopped tomato and egg.

Top with warm sesame sauce, and serve with pita bread.

Chi miigwetch SCL: thank you to my son for creating this logo
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