Greek Food Month

I didn’t see my parents over the holidays, so when they came down for a visit a couple of weeks ago, we had a Christmas in March gift exchange. Among the loot I scored was the recently-published cookbook Vefa’s Kitchen, by Greek food expert Vefa Alexiadou.

Let me back up.

In August 2002, I went to Corfu and fell in love. Not with the asshat with whom I was traveling, but with the Greek islands. My week in Paleokastritsa, in the middle of the August holiday, was filled with fresh Greek salads with chunks of feta the size of my head, lazy afternoon walks through hillside olive terraces, swimming in the cool turquoise sea, scrambling over hot rocks and heaping ruins, pasty Brits burning on the beach, and sun-kissed Italians buzzing past on mopeds. In other words, I was in heaven.

Paleokastritsa by X3JA on Flickr.

I’ve longed to go back ever since, but found myself repatriated to the USA in 2005. Sadly, I no longer get the six of weeks of paid vacation a year that is standard in Britain (and which is considered stingy by Continental Europeans!), and the closest I have been able to get to the dreamy Golden Fox Hotel pool in Lakones (truly, my favorite place on earth) is my cracked concrete, 1950s apartment building pool in downtown Austin (if you really squint, so you can just barely see the blueness of the water, and if you can manage to drown out the choppers and sirens, you can just about transport yourself…).

As anyone who knows me is aware, I am acutely, chronically homesick for England; and I could go on and on about all the things I miss there. But I think the Greek islands are the ultimate. The climate, the mountains, the food, the sun, the olive groves, the turquoise water, the palpable sense of history, the feral cats, the blue, blue doors – what’s not to love?

So my stepmother, being the observant person that she is, realized that Vefa’s Kitchen would be a very welcome gift. It’s a big block of a book, bright blue and white, filled with diverse recipes from all over Greece, and littered with luscious photographs. Flipping through it, the first one that caught my eye was Meatballs with Yogurt from Thrace. I was determined to make it immediately, and my partner, Eric, was forced to look at the beautiful photograph in the book repeatedly while the meatballs baked.

“But, look at them! They look delicious!”

And they were.

The cookbook is so spellbinding, in fact, that Eric suggested we christen April “Greek Food Month” and cook almost exclusively from Vefa’s masterpiece. Having recently planted our own crop of Mediterranean herbs, tomatoes, and lettuce in our nearby allotment, this seemed like a great way to incorporate them into some new dishes. Vefa’s Kitchen, like traditional Greek food, is also heavily vegetarian, which makes it easy for the omnivore cook (me) and the vegetarian sidekick (him). There are also pages and pages of dessert and pastry recipes, which I look forward to tackling. I can’t wait to try the Ruffled Milk Pie.

Meanwhile, my coworker, Alex (who spent the first few years of her life in Athens) and I have been joking about moving to the Greek islands for the past two years. We often discuss Greek culture and food over our Dublin Dr Peppers, and drool over the daily photographs posted on the Greek Islands Facebook page. When I told her about my Greek Food Month, she mentioned that April was the perfect choice, because the fun could be finished with a spread of traditional dishes for Greek Easter. This idea then evolved into me inviting myself to Alex’s backyard for a full celebration. It’s still more than three weeks until Greek Easter (which falls on the same date as Western Easter this year), but we’ve already begun the preliminary menu planning and started searching for a local source of young goat!

So the countdown to Greek Food Month begins. Check back here tomorrow for the first dish!

Fruit and vegetable market in Corfu, by Lee Cannon on Flickr.

Mediterranean Turkey Burgers with Dill Yogurt Sauce

Now that summer’s upon us in full force here in Central Texas, I am one happy blogger. One of my favorite things in life is relaxing in or near a turquoise body of water, and I can’t help but daydream about Greek Islands. In 2004, I had the great fortune to be able to spend a week in Corfu, and it was the closest place to heaven I have yet been.

So, for tonight’s dinner, I decided to combine the very American organic ground turkey in my fridge with some of my favorite Mediterranean flavors. I’ve also been on a yogurt and (especially) sour cream kick lately, so this really hit the spot. It’s a pretty straightforward concoction, but the result is, both refreshing and satisfyingly savory, if not as gorgeous as the Ionian islands.

For the sauce
1 cup cup Greek yogurt
2 Tbsp sour cream (optional)
juice half a lemon
1 heaping tsp Dijon mustard
1 clove of garlic, minced (or dash or garlic powder)
1 flat tsp dried dill

In a bowl with an airtight lid, stir all ingredients thoroughly and refrigerate for at least two hours. This will allow the dill time to soften, and for the flavors to blend. This sauce can be used on a pita or sandwich, as a salad dressing, or as a dip for raw vegetables. It also makes an easy and delicious base for potato salad (warm or cold).

For this recipe, a side of raw vegetables for dipping makes a great addition!

This sauce will keep for several days in the refrigerator, as well.

For the burgers
1 lb ground turkey*
2 Tbsp pesto of your choice
~ 1/4 cup red onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh mint, finely shredded and diced
1 tsp ground paprika
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper, or to taste
1/2 cup fine Italian breadcrumbs
2 Tbsp olive oil (if cooking on the stovetop)
2 whole wheat pitas
1 cup feta cheese
lettuce or greens of your choice
fresh Kalamata olives as garnish (optional)

1. In a large bowl, mix the turkey, pesto, onion, herbs, salt and pepper, and breadcrumbs. Stir thoroughly with clean hands until all ingredients are evenly mixed.

2. Form mixture into four balls of equal size and mash out flat on a cutting board or other clean surface, to form patties, each approximately 3/4″ or so thick.

3. These may be cooked in a skillet with a little olive oil (about 5 minutes each side) or, as I frequently do, on the grill. As is usual on a weeknight, I used my George Foreman Grill for these (about 5 or 6 minutes). If cooking outside, factor in time to get your grill prepared before tossing them on.

4. While burgers are cooking, prepare pitas by cutting them in half and warming them slightly in the oven, microwave, or high on the grill. Chop any vegetables, such as carrots and cucumber, that you will be serving alongside your burgers.

5. Assemble burgers by sliding the patties into the pita halves and finishing with a dollop of Dill Yogurt Sauce, feta, and some lettuce. Use any extra sauce for dipping side vegetables. Add olives, if using, and serve immediately.

Serves 4.

* Of course, you could also substitute lamb.

Zakynthos, by Craig Grocott, on Flickr