Greek Summer Meals

20 Oct

I am not a vegetarian, but some of my favorite dishes from my kid-hood are: tomatoes and green peppers stuffed with rice and mint; fresh green beans simmered with potatoes, onions and dill; spinach-and-rice, tangy with generous squirts of fresh lemon juice.  These dishes could be eaten at room temperature, with a cool salad, and the triumvirate of feta-olives-and-bread, all perfect for a hot summer’s afternoon.

Most summer mornings after my grandfather had retired and no longer woke up at 3 a.m. to work, he would set out for the market, bringing back bags weighed down with produce, fronds of dill or spinach poking out from the top.  He would lay them on the counter, then quietly disappear, leaving my grandmother to her work.  A few hours later, the meal cooked, she would turn off the burner, cover the pot, and go sit on the balcony for a quiet mid-morning cup of coffee or, occasionally, come down to the beach for a swim.  By two or three in the afternoon, when we could no longer ignore our growling stomachs, the food in the pot would have cooled to a pleasing temperature, and we would sit down to our meal with gusto.

Now, I often find myself hungry for some stuffed tomatoes (I never liked the peppers!) or spanakorizo (spinach with rice), especially in the summer.  But I save these for an occasional weekend, when I can find the time to settle in to cooking.  More often, I turn to simpler dishes that evoke those Mediterranean flavors — and, perhaps more importantly, that share the structure of those meals.

Mark Bittman writes in “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” that meat meals and vegetarian meals follow a very different logic:  meat meals are centered on, well, the meat, with one or two “side” dishes cast in supporting roles.  Vegetarian meals, on the other hand, usually include several dishes, all of them playing equally important parts.  My favorite Greek summer meals, while vegetarian in content, are carnivorous in form, offering a main dish, with salads, cheese, olives and bread as accompaniments. And this, I realized, thanks to Bittman, is probably the main reason I’m not yet a vegetarian (that and I’m still attached to Easter lamb, Irish shepherd’s pie, and hearty English stew).  When I set out to cook, or sit down to eat, I crave a main event.  I also want color and brightness, which many of the vegetarian dishes I have run across (like the latest one I found for potato and cauliflower burritos) seem to lack.

And so I was DELIGHTED when I tromped up to the second floor of our public library last weekend and found Anna Thomas’s “The New Vegetarian Epicure” on the shelf.  Thomas has organized her cookbook largely around the seasons, offering full menus, all carefully crafted around an enticing opening, a dramatic main event, and a satisfying, sometimes surprising, resolution.  Her flavors are bright and her colors intense.  You can see her training and skill as a film-maker (she co-wrote and produced the Oscar-nominated film “El Norte,” and helped write the Oscar-winning film “Frida,” among many others) in every meal.

Anna Thomas at work.

Thomas’s book offers something, I think, to please almost every palate and sensibility, whether you’re an avowed or “questioning” carnivore, a vegetarian-seeking-structure, or a vegetarian delighting in the chaos and egalitarianism of “typical” veggie meals.  And, for those of us who are facing plummeting temperatures and diminishing sunlight, Thomas has recently published  “Love Soup,” a collection of recipes that, she says, saved her when she was faced a few years ago with a very empty nest.  Love and soup — what else do we need to help us survive empty nests, or impending long, dark winters? ( You can check out Mary MacVean’s review of “Love Soup” in the Los Angeles Times.)

Two of my favorite recipes from “The New Vegetarian Epicure” that remind me of Greek summer meals, though this book spans the globe.  Used with permission from the author.

Roasted Beet, Asparagus, and Garlic Salad

(Sometimes, when I can’t find golden beets, I just use red ones; and sometimes when I don’t have asparagus, I replace it with roasted red, yellow and orange peppers).

My version of Thomas's Roasted Beet Salad, made with peppers instead.

1 lb. red beets (small if possible)

1 lb. golden beets

1 head garlic

1 lb. slender green asparagus

1/4 cup + 1 Tbs. olive oil

salt to taste

2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

1 Tbs. minced onion

pepper to taste

Trim the beets and scrub them well.  Break the garlic up into individual cloves, but don’t peel them.  Put the red beets in one glass baking dish and the golden beets in another, and scatter the garlic cloves evenly between them.  Add about 1/2 cup water to each dish, cover them tightly with lid or foil, and cook them in a 400 degree oven for about 1 hour, until perfectly tender.  The time will vary a bit depending on the size of the beets.

Meanwhile, wash the asparagus stalks and trip off any tough ends.  Drizzle them with a tablespoon of olive oil, roll them around on a baking sheet until they are evenly coated, spread them out, and sprinkle them with salt.  Set aside until the beets are cooked.

When the beets are tender, allow them to cool slightly so you can handle them, then peel and cut them into wedges or slices, keeping them separate.

At the same time, raise the oven temperature to 450 degrees and roast the prepared asparagus stalks for 15-20 minutes, depending on their thickness, until tender but not browned.

Squeeze about 10 cloves of the soft, cooked garlic into a bowl and mash it well with a fork.  Add the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil, the balsamic vinegar, orange juice, minced onion, slat and pepper, and whisk together thoroughly.

Add 2 tablespoons of the dressing each to the red beets, golden beets and asparagus in their separate bowls.  Toss gently to coat, and leave the vegetables to marinate for a few hours.

Just before serving, arrange the beets and asparagus on individual plates in attractive random patterns of these spectacular colors.  Don’t toss them together, or the red beets will stain everything!  Serve this salad at room temperature.

Serves 6 – 8

Roasted Eggplant Dip

3 medium eggplants (about 3-4 lbs.)

salt to taste

3 medium yellow onions

1-1/2 Tbs. olive oil

1-1/2 Tbs. butter

1/2 cup red wine

pepper to taste

chopped fresh oregano to taste

juice of 1 large lemon

Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise, making several incisions in the cut side with a sharp knife, and sprinkle with salt.  Lay them cut side down on lightly oiled baking sheets.

Roast the eggplants in a 400 degree oven for 50-60 minutes, until they are completely soft.  Allow them to cool, then scoop out the flesh, scraping out any pockets of dark seeds and discarding them.  Chop the pale flesh coarsely.

Chop the onions and cook them slowly in the olive oil and butter until they are caramelized to a deep golden brown.  Deglaze the pan with the red wine, let it simmer away, stirring often, and then season to taste with salt, pepper, and a touch of oregano.

Stir the soft brown onions into the chopped eggplant. Taste. Stir in lemon juice, a bit at a time, and keep tasting; correct with a little salt if necessary.

Serve this warm or at room temperature, with pita bread.

This makes enough for an ample first course for 6 – 8 people.

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One Response to “Greek Summer Meals”

  1. Kathy October 20, 2011 at 10:24 pm #

    This has made me ridiculously hungry, even though I just ate. Thanks for the new recipes.

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