Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Bit of Greek Cooking for Thanksgiving.

Getting Greeks to give up their recipes is like pulling teeth.  Nah, I’m exaggerating. Pulling teeth is way harder. Perhaps it’s because they fear their recipes will be stolen. Like the Parthenon Marbles.

Frankly, I think it’s way past the time for worrying.  No, not over the marbles, the recipes.  Greek cuisine is taking over the earth…at least in major North American cities.  Some of the very best restaurants in the U.S. are Greek and I defy you to find a diner anywhere in the U.S. not connected somehow to a Greek.  

Still, last week I promised you recipes, and recipes you shall get.  Even a special one for this holiday week: A Greek style Thanksgiving turkey complete with stuffing, graciously contributed by public relations guru extraordinaire, Renee Pappas.

But first, a few traditional Greek dishes.

Who ever thinks of Greek food without “octopus” latching on to your thoughts?  To my way of thinking the best anywhere is found at New York City’s Periyali, and if you somehow get a hold of The Periyali Cookbook you’ll find some of the best Greek recipes anywhere.  Its signature octopus dish takes up five pages in the cookbook and three days to make!  But it’s worth it.

And while on the subject of worth it, the cookbook’s “Victor Gouras’s Sautéed Breast of Chicken with Lemon Sauce,” is my favorite chicken dish on earth.  I often watched Victor prepare it in his culinary-paradigm changing Patmian House restaurant on the Dodecanese Island of Patmos but his final cooking stage called for grilling the chicken in a panini-type waffle iron, not in the skillet called for by the recipe.  But let’s just keep that little secret between us chickoholics.

But I digress (to digest?).  Back to the octopus.  For those of you looking for a simpler way to prepare it than recommended by Periyali, let’s start with the basic premise of all dealings with octopus: First and foremost tenderize.  Unless of course you’re searching for a mandibular workout. 

Some say that if you start with frozen octopus the freezing process has already tenderized it.  I don’t buy that, even though I do buy frozen octopus.   I tenderize both fresh and frozen octopi, though not in the same way. 

The classic method for dealing with fresh is pounding the octopus one hundred times against a stone—definitely not recommended for the still frozen sort—and it’s the only method I use for those I catch in the sea. 

If you don’t happen to have a slab of granite in your kitchen or nearby, but still want to experience the slam-bam method, perhaps you might try using a sidewalk or an edge of a street in your neighborhood. Just be careful not to get yourself tenderized in the process by a passing motorist or charging PETA demonstrators.  By the way, this method has a critical final step. After the pounding is done, you must vigorously rub the octopus against the stone in seawater for five minutes or so, forming a froth as you merrily rub-a-dub-dub.

Okay, there’s a more practical approach to the tenderizing process, it’s one passed on to me many years ago by my buddy Panos Kelaidis’ mom.

Put the octopus and one full wine glass (“Greek size” she said) of red wine or vinegar into a pot, cover with a tight lid, and simmer for a minimum of two hours until a fork goes through it easily (octopus releases it’s own fluid as it cooks—or at least it’s supposed to). Remove the tentacles close to the head and grill them over a medium-hot charcoal grill or under a broiler for about four minutes.  Or sauté them in olive oil and whatever herbs you choose.  Once cooked, add olive oil and lemon to taste, plus pepper and a “bit” of the red wine (or vinegar) used to tenderize. And yes, I know there are a lot of other ways to do this, but you Yiannis-come-lately lost your chance to suggest your mommy’s favorite.

By the way, just in case you haven’t noticed by now, traditional Greek cooking follows the “by feel” rather than precise measurement approach—like the country’s accounting methods. (I know, I promised none of that.  Sorry.).

Not to be outdone by his mom, Panos contributed his own simple recipe for a staple of Greek traditional fare, oven roasted lemon potatoes:

Small round ones work best.  Soak potatoes in a mixture of salt, two cups of water, and two cups of lemon juice for two hours. Drain the potatoes, and toss them in a mixture of one-half cup olive oil, fresh cut-up garlic, and oregano.  Line the bottom of a roasting pan with one row of potatoes, bake for one-hour and forty minutes at 375 degrees, and finish off with twenty minutes under a broiler to crisp them up nicely.

A nice accompaniment to the octopus and potatoes is this easy to make recipe for tzatziki I plucked from Roz Apostolou at the Hotel Mykonos Adonis, my home on Mykonos:

Peel, grate, and strain one large or two small cucumbers, and allow them to sit in a strainer for at least one-half hour.  Place the thoroughly strained cucumber on a tea towel and wring out most of the moisture.
To two cups of yogurt (you can use light but it really isn’t as good), add
The wrung-out cucumber,
One-quarter cup finely chopped dill,
Two to three cloves of crushed or grated garlic (adjust to taste and/or anticipated up-close and personal encounters),
Three tablespoons of olive oil, and
Salt (again to taste).
Mix it all together and voila!  Or rather opa!

Okay it’s time for the turkey. But I need a drink first, and here’s a “brandy margarita” sort of drink from bar maestros, Nikos Christodoulakis and Jody Duncan, proprietors of Mykonos’ Montparnasse Piano Bar (think La Cage aux Folles, sans sequins). 

It’s their “Side by Side by Sidecar”:

Two ounces Wild Turkey 101 Proof Bourbon (if you’ve hit the lottery you can use Mount Vernon Estate rye at $85/pint or Buffalo Trace)

Three-quarter ounces Cointreau

One ounce slightly sweetened lemon juice

Put ice in a cocktail shaker and add all of the above ingredients. Shake the hell out of it, and strain into a chilled Mae West type champagne glass rimmed with superfine bar sugar. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Ahh, on to Thanksgiving…the floor’s all yours, Renee.

First, Renee Pappas’ twist on the traditional Greek stuffing/dressing recipe.

Soak overnight about 3 cups of currants (not raisins) in enough Madeira or Mavrodaphne wine to cover them.  Sauté one finely chopped medium onion, add in two pounds of ground meat and once it’s browned add in the currants and wine. Continue sautéing until the wine is absorbed, adding one teaspoon salt, one-half teaspoon allspice, and one-quarter teaspoon pepper. To the sauté, stir in two cups of prepared chestnuts cut up by hand, together with two cups of chopped walnuts and one cup of pine-nuts, and continuing sautéing all the ingredients together for about ten minutes.

In these days of food safety concerns the dressing doesn’t cook inside the turkey, but rather is served separately. So, stuff the turkey’s cavity with oranges and lemons cut into quarters.

Prepare a basting broth for the turkey by combining its neck, heart and liver with a few sprigs of parsley, sage, an onion stuck with cloves, two Knorr chicken bullion cubes and a carrot in eight cups of water.  Allow it all to simmer for about an hour.  Strain the liquid, throw away the innards and vegetables, and add to the basting broth one-half of the bottle of wine used in preparing the dressing (assuming you haven’t been drinking it just to keep up with all this).

Now on to the bird… 

To ready the turkey for the oven, massage it all over with melted butter and put it breast down (very important) in a deep pan lined in aluminum foil. Wrap the wings and ends of the legs in foil and place it in a pre-heated 350-degree oven.  Baste the bird every fifteen minutes. Once the bird's back turns golden, turn it over and roast until the breast is golden brown, remembering to keep basting (every fifteen minutes) with the broth and melted butter.  It should take about twenty minutes per pound to cook.

Once cooked, remove the turkey from the oven and place it on a large cutting board. Strain the basting liquid into a saucepan. Throw away the oranges, lemons and "gunk" and put the turkey back into the pan, tightly covered with aluminum foil, and allow it to “rest” at least a half hour before carving.

Add the rest of the wine to the basting broth and cook it down, adding a paste made of cornstarch and wine, to thicken it into gravy.


Happy Thanksgiving everyone, with a special thanks to Renee, Roz, Jody, Niko, and Panos. 



  1. Jeff, my mom, a very wise woman, always said a town had to have a Greek population to have good restaurants. The restaurants didn't have to be Greek, but a portion of the populace had to be.
    She also realized one should start reading news stories at the third paragraph, that the first two were mere decoration. When I became a copy editor, those were words to live by - or trim by.

    1. I see your mother's daughter did not fall very far from the souvlaki, Betty.:) Wise words indeed on both restaurants and reading. Frankly, I've always liked Earl Warren's comment that he read the sports page first, before the front page, as the former highlighted mankind's successes, the latter its failures. Today I think we'd have to start with the food section.

  2. Ah, Jeff, I guess I misunderstood your instructions. I gave you a cocktail recipe, and it was a Thanksgiving themed article. Oh well, we certainly plan to imbibe on Thursday, so this was a good option for that day. But if I had been paying attention, you might have gotten my recipe for Fassolakia Prasino, or as we say in America, Greek Beans! They've become a Greek staple of our Thanksgiving dinner, requested in advance each year by several family members. Nikos makes them best, with dill, onion and grated tomatoes. But that's for your next cookbook, a mystery writer's kitchen adventures. Hope you and Barbara have a wonderful holiday. Speaking of which, it will be our first Thanksgivvukah, and I'm hoping someone will bring pumpkin latkes this year!

  3. No reason to apologize, Jody, I just assumed you were--as usual--not paying attention to a word I said:). Enjoy the Holidays, and love your Mom, Niko and the rest of your Fassolakia loving family.

  4. I notice a theme, Jeff... Lots of pounding and shaking, preceded or followed (or often both) by lots of wine! Best of Thanksgiving to all!

    1. A regular shake n' bake reunion I'd say. And a Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, my friend.