Wednesday, June 3, 2009

a meal to remember

i grew up with my mom
making hummus - to us,
it was middle eastern fare,
which we brought to school
for bring-a-recipe-that-represents-
your-heritage-day. it was the
appetizer that was served
before holiday dinners
and the comfort food that i
took back with me to college,
eating with carrots
for lunch instead of swiping
my meal card.

it was all that.
but, in my eyes, it wasn't greek.
and yet, until college, save for occassional
spanakopita, it was the closest i
came to greek food.
i started my first real job 3 months
before my 23rd birthday.
all my life, 
i had claimed that i wanted to write.
so i went to school to get 
my journalism degree,
worked on the college paper,
got an internship
at the asbury park press, 
another after graduation at a men's magazine,
suffered a six week stint at a county newspaper
covering board meetings, 
where they actually
spent hours fighting over 
whether or not the
town should have access
to the YES network,
and then, just when i had flopped myself on
my mom's bed, 
crying and telling her that i
was wrong, 
i don't want to write for a living,
i finally landed my first job
as an editorial assistant 
at a women's magazine.
in the decor department.
trading spaces was huge at the time.
i had made it.

my grandfather passed away 
10 days before i started. 
the magazine was an hour and 15 minutes
from my house - without traffic - and i had never
driven on the 
new jersey turnpike 
before my
i started the day
after memorial day, 
unsure of the policies - could
i wear open-toed shoes, should i don a skirt? 
do i bring lunch? 
i had to silently 
plead with truck drivers to
let me into their lane several times, 
after repeatedly almost ending up
in staten island, new york city
and at the newark airport. 
i had been stuck behind an accident for 5 miles.
i didn't know where to park once i got there.
i was flustered.
yet, i was determined to be calm, professional,
never let them see you sweat.

and then, as i waited with the receptionist,
cathy and trish walked in.
i had loved cathy from the second the
interview started. she had 
made me feel like i was giving
legitimate answers, like i might not
be some dumb 22-year-old who
thinks she'll be the next paige davis
and like maybe, my clips weren't half bad.
and, she was funny and friendly
and i knew when she offered me coffee,
that if i took it (which i didn't) i wouldn't
be judged.
during the interview, tricia, 6-months-pregnant
with her first child walked out to introduce
herself (or as i later learned, to check me out).
i had crossed my fingers to
work with them.

they took me back to our cubicle
and into our life as a 3-person
department, never making me feel
stupid or slow for not remembering
where the stapler was kept.
at lunch time,
cathy announced we 
were ordering and got us a large
greek salad and hummus with pitas
to share.
as i stared at the grape leaf in
my salad, trying to decide if 
i would like it, 
cathy pulled out a picture -
tricia, cathy and three men -
before saying, 
this is tricia's husband, my fiance 
and their third brother. do 
you have a boyfriend?
oh my, i thought.
but, so began the best 
work relationship 
i've been lucky enough to have, 
amazing friendships,
and, also, my love affair with greek food.

i fell hard for taramosalata,
a dip made from fish roe that almost
no one else will eat with me,
shrimp gyros, avoglemeno,
different types of feta and olives, 
vegetarian eggplant moussaka,
skordalia, tzatziki and too many
other things to name.

and over time, i started to really
see the beauty and deliciousness
in properly made dolmades,
or stuffed grape leaves.
when fresh, they're filled with
herb-dotted tender rice,
bound together tightly by
a briny grape leaf. they're a treat
tucked into salads, hiding in 
pita with vegetables, or garnishing
a plate the way a pickle might.

cool and refreshing, they're not
heavy and ultimately,
a sum greater than its parts.

until i noticed recipes popping
up everywhere,
i always thought it was a dish
better left to the professionals,
or, families
who grew up with this as a traditional
treat. but, i am usually up for a
(kitchen) challenge,
so when tasked with bringing an 
appetizer for memorial day,
i steered clear of the cheddar
and crackers
and headed straight toward...
questionable behavior.
i'm not so great at precision,
i was making three other dishes,
i had to shop late afternoon
for almost all of the ingredients,
and yet, i thought this was
a good idea.

i was looking forward to the
rice mixture, which was simple 
sauteed onions and garlic,
rice, cumin (oddly enough), 
dried currants and chicken 
broth, oregano and pine nuts.
and putting that part together
was easy.
very easy.
i felt like a super hero.
what had i been worried about?
but i looked at the clock and
i had started later than
i thought, and oh, i just wanted
to lay down.
i remembered, thank goodness,
another trick i had learned from culinary
school to help cool things down quickly.
so i covered a baking pan with 
parchment, spread the rice over
and let it sit until it was room
next, i figured that rolling the leaves
would be like anything else. 
the first one or two wouldn't be
easy, but after that, i would
be on a roll.
did i mention i'm terrible
at things like this?
the rice was the perfect consistency
and yet, i couldn't roll
the leaves tight enough,
some were breaking, the rice
was falling out on the cutting
board and i had a large pile
of discarded leaves.
then, larry suggested that i
lay two leaves, just overlapping
to give myself a greater surface
area to roll. 
i'm embarrassed to say that i laughed.
but then, as he walked out of the 
room, i tried it. 
it worked! 
yes, i'm sure the grape leaf to rice 
ration increased 
to ridiculous proportions.
but it worked and suddenly they
started to line up on the cutting
board like obedient soldiers.
it was then that i noticed,
that in my frantic state,
i had rolled some the wrong
way and instead of hiding inside,
a lot of the line-up boasted very
visible veins.
i steamed them, 
let them cool, 
and then 
wrapped them into two containers:
can be viewed by the public
must be kept in hiding.
the next morning, i made
a quick dip of yogurt and feta
(i've never heard of dipping
dolmades, but a lot of recipes
recommend it). on the way down,
i panicked that the second people
picked them up, the rolls would fall
apart and called my family,
calming down only when
my mother said i could use
her pita chips to round out
the plate.

the dip was a huge hit and
at the end of the night,
the nutty grape leaves were all gone,
too. some guests had never
tasted one before, and i felt
like i was delivering a psa
on greek food,
but, i really do believe most 
liked them.
i would love to make a salad
and use them traditionally.
it's one of those foods that makes
me feel like i've come a long
way and oddly, because really,
it's just a grape leaf, often
makes me think of a whole
lot more than how much
i enjoy greek food.

i know that cathy and tricia
were eating greek before 
i started at the 
but because over the years
we spent so many birthdays 
at the local greek restaurant,
ordered from them so 
often, celebrated
my last day at the job almost
six years later with a greek delivery
and met at the restaurant two days
before my wedding (where
cathy did a reading and tricia's
daughters were the flower girls),
i like to pretend that our first 
shared salad, was everyone's first.
and even if not - there's no harm
in delusion, right?
pinenut and currant dolmades
adapted from bon appetit magazine
i know that i couldn't roll these, but i'm very much under the belief that i just lack certain coordination skills that most people possess. i also am under the belief that these are not actually hard to roll once a normal person gets the hang of them. even though i changed the rice mixture considerably (left out the parsley and mint, used low-sodium chicken broth, added oregano and reduced the oil) i still think it was really delicious - it would be great, served piping hot as a side dish.

1 jar (8 ounces) grape leaves, drained
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large white onion, peeled and diced
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and diced
1 cup long grain white rice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano
4 cups low-sodium, fat-free chicken broth, divided
1/2 cup dried currants
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 lemon, juiced

place grape leaves in bowl with cold water; let sit 30 minutes.

in large saucepot over medium heat, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil; add onion and garlic and cook 10 minutes, stirring sometimes, until very tender. add rice, cumin and oregano and cook 1 minute more, stirring constantly. add 2 cups chicken broth and currants; bring mixture to a boil. reduce heat to low; simmer, cover and cook 20 minutes or until broth is absorbed and rice is tender. transfer to a bowl and stir in pine nuts, salt and pepper. let cool.

drain grape leaves; cut off stems. place one grape leaf, vein side-up on cutting board. place a heaping tablespoon on end of grape leaf. roll, like an eggroll, tucking sides in first. (if this doesn't work for you either, feel free to steal my two grape leaf trick). repeat with remaing leaves and filling.

place stuffed grape leaves, seamside down, in large 14" skillet or two 12" skillets. divide remaining oil and chicken broth amongst skillets; squeeze with lemon juice. cover; bring heat to medium-low and simmer 30 minutes, or until all liquid is absorbed. uncover and let rolls cool completely. transfer to platter or sealed container and store in the fridge. can be made one day ahead of time.

lemony feta yogurt dip
greek yogurt is great because you do not have to spend time draining it - also, because it is so thick and delicious, i always buy the fat-free and no one ever knows. or cares. with this dip, play around, adjusting seasonings until it suits your taste. you can serve it with the dolmades, on a sandwiches, with pitas or with veggies - and probably a million other things.

1 container (17.6 ounces) fat-free greek yogurt, like fage 0%
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 teaspoons dried oregano
kosher salt
black pepper

in bowl, combine all ingredients; season with salt and pepper. cover and chill. sprinkle with paprika, if desired.


Jeff K said...

While observing the wildlife at Robbie's including a very mean fox, I tried the yogurt dip and it was delicious.

ybf721 said...

I agree with Jeff but he left out that the rabbit and mean red fox were enjoying your wonderful grape leaves and yogurt dip. He was very brave to stand by and watch. Blair, you are very lucky!

brooke said...

oh, yes, and we had a "fox" (or, what some might call a rabbit) get somewhat close to our bbq.
thank you, both - i'm glad you enjoyed.
jeff, you can make it at home!