Ladybugs

10 Jun

Four thousand ladybugs arrived all the way from Ohio to my home in central Wisconsin today.  They came Priority Mail.  A very concerned postman delivered them – the box was labeled “Live Ladybugs,” and it was a bit dented.  He was worried the ladybugs had been squashed; having never been responsible for delivering live ladybugs before, he wasn’t sure quite what to expect.  He also wondered why anyone would order 4,000 ladybugs from the Internet.  “To eat the thousands of aphids infesting my cherry tree,” I explained.

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I had waited expectantly all week, and they finally arrived.  They were shipped in a mesh bag, four thousand ladybugs cuddled together.  A small cold pack had been taped to the box next to the mesh bag, keeping the ladybugs’ body temperature low, so they would make their long journey in a calm, sleepy state.

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The sheet that came along with the shipment instructed me to keep the critters in the refrigerator, until it was time to release them.  At that time, I was to spray a sweet liquid nectar on the cherry tree leaves to attract the awakening ladybugs, who were sure to be very hungry.

We followed the instructions to the letter, carefully squirting the trees with the sweet nectar, gingerly opening up the mesh bag, and then coaxing the wobbly visitors toward their first aphid feast.  They stumbled, stretched their wings, and settled in.

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Ladybugs, of which there are more than 150 species in the United States (LadybugLady), love aphids, mites, and mealy bugs, among other tasty morsels that pester fruit and vegetable gardens.  They are considered harbingers of good luck the world over.  In Greece, they are called Paschalitsa because they are found abundantly around Easter time. In Turkish, they are called Uğur böceği, insects of fortune. In Catalan they are called Marieta, little Mary, after the Virgin.

I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow and go check on my Paschalitsas.  I hope they will be having a hearty breakfast of aphids, followed by a hearty lunch and dinner, with a few Hobbit-ish elevensies thrown in.  And perhaps after all that feasting, late in August, I will be able to pick the fruit from my aphid-free sour cherry tree, and share with you my Yiayia’s recipe for Visino, one of Greece’s most favored sweets – a sour cherry preserve.

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If you want to learn more about buying ladybugs responsibly online, check out a post by Chicago urban gardener and blogger Ramon Gonzalez on  Treehugger.

Honey, Olives, Octopus

22 Apr

If you can’t travel to Greece this summer, go down to your local bookstore and order a copy of Christopher Bakken’s Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table.  When it arrives, set up your own little table under a shade tree in the back yard.  Fill a bowl with olives — preferably the black, wrinkly ones from Thasos, though any Greek variety will do!  Fill your glass with wine.  When you are ready, open your book, take  a deep breath, and drop into the backseat of the little car driven madly by Tasos of Thasos, as he careens around switchbacks snaking along his island’s southern point, taking him, the author, and you, to his olive groves for a day of harvest.

Thus begins Bakken’s culinary travelogue, which takes us to Thasos and Crete, Serifos and Naxos, Chios and Kythira, tasting intensely local breads, cheeses, olives, roasted goat, Imam bayildi, raki, barbounia, fasolada. Bakken leads the way as we stroll passed white-washed houses, and dive for octopus in cobalt seas, and accept spoon sweets from black-clad, wizened women.  We sing with Cretans and throw our legs up high, our dance fueled by raki and kefi until dawn.

But Bakken, unlike so many culinary travel writers whose books now crowd the shelves, doesn’t stop at such outward, simply nostalgic signs of Greece.  He has written an idyll, not a fairytale.  He does not block out Athens, or the European Union, or the crushing economy, as no Greek can for very long.  He lets the modern world intrude quietly but profoundly, as it does, in village life:  through the snail making its imperceptible way up the leg of a plastic garden chair; through the stainless steel counters installed in the kitchens of an old taverna; through the roar of an Italian-made, gas-powered tsougrana (mechanical olive-picker) that drowns out, as Bakken writes, all “placid conversation” and precludes “the traditional harvest songs I imagined we’d sing.”

But again, the modern world under Bakken’s pen is about more than these outward sights and sounds.  It’s Kyria Eleftheria, a sublime bread-maker from Crete, sharing a quiet meal with Bakken in her cottage, momentarily engulfed by a loneliness that advances and retreats like the tides, her children long gone, having been lured away by the promises of the city.  It’s about Maria of Serifos, uncharacteristically soured into suspicion by experience, accusing Bakken of trying to plunder her culinary secretes for his own profit.  It’s about the old woman who trudges up the hill each night to light her abandoned village’s only street lamp, so she doesn’t feel so alone. It’s about Eleni and Yannis, stewards of Kythira’s bees, staving off the colony collapse disorder threatening hives and humans world-wide.

Bakken understands this darker side.  He feels the deep sadness and inherited anxiety carried by a people who have endured centuries of catastrophic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, brutal wars and military occupations, and more years of hunger than of plenty.  He understands the Greek resignation in the oft-heard phrase, “alla ti  na kanoume” (“but what can we do?”)  He also understands the inextinguishable optimism that allows the three brothers-in-spirit, Tasos and Bakken and Georgos, whose cancer has recently returned, to dream up plans of conquering Mount Olympus next autumn, and to seal their promises with a toast, entangled in grief and joy, heard at the end of every glorious Greek summer, to “tou xronou,” to “next year.”

Bakken is a poet, who was raised in Wisconsin and now teaches at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. He first visited Greece more than 20 years ago, and has been returning whenever possible ever since.  When he writes of Chios and Naxos and Crete, of Tasos and Georgos and Eleftheria, I respond with deep recognition.  I know that the portrait he offers is not just accurate, which is easy, but true.  And I am grateful that he has written this book.  At a time when the country is wracked again by pain and anxiety over an uncertain future, we really need to be reminded of everything that is beautiful about Greece and its Greeks, from its hard, scrubby mountains, fertile valleys and breathtaking seas to its spirit of endurance, generosity and hope.

When I finally close the cover on Bakken’s book, I do so reluctantly, saddened to leave the places I’ve visited and the friends I’ve made.  Such is Bakken’s power, and his gift.  So go down to your local bookstore and when your book arrives, set out a little table under a shade tree in your yard.  Fill a bowl with olives and a glass with wine.  Open the book’s covers, take a deep breath, and drop down into the car driven madly by Tasos of Thasos, joining him as he careens toward his olive groves and an increasingly uncertain, but still hopeful, future.

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Spring?

20 Mar

It’s the first day of spring. The world is white.  Snow has been falling steadily, the road underfoot is crusty with ice,  and the thermometer reads 9 degrees F.

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I am getting restless.  I think of gutting my 1970s kitchen, replacing its drawers that won’t open and its doors that won’t close.  I think of purging old memories asleep in boxes of stuffed animals, once-favorite coffee mugs and too-small concert T-shirts from my basement.  I think of writing a book, flying to Tahiti, joining the gym.

But it’s much too soon.  Spring won’t properly arrive for weeks.  I must ward off the fever.

And yet I’m thwarted.  The days are longer and just a wee bit brighter, and yesterday I spotted in a corner of my garden, the one facing the morning sun, a bright green shoot, a daffodil brazenly emerging from the earth.  I was in a hurry and didn’t stop to linger. When I returned this morning, it was buried in snow.  I trudged to the corner where I swore I had seen it and dug and dug until my knees were soaked and my fingers numb.  It had been there – it’s still there – I’m sure.

In this weather, my body craves winter food:  stews served with steam still rising, dense bread, deep red wine. But today I think I, too, will be brazen.  I will set the table with flowers from the supermarket.  I will serve a spring salad, with a light crusty bread, and even a glass of “white” wine, which, if I look closely enough, is not white at all, but tinged with the bright yellows and greens of spring.

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One of my favorite cookbooks is “The Food You Crave” by Ellie Krieger. Whenever I need “spring,” I turn to her Chickpea and Spinach Salad with Cumin Dressing, which serves four.  It’s great on the side or as a main dish with warm bread.  Adapted from “The Food You Crave”:

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  • One 15.5 ounce can low-sodium chickpeas, rinsed
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 finely diced shallot (or 1 small red onion)
  • 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • ¾ teaspoon ground cumin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 Tablespoons plain yogurt
  • 1 Tablespoon orange juice
  • ¼ Teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • ¼ Teaspoon honey
  • Bunch baby spinach leaves, rinsed and dried (I like to pluck off any long stems)
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh mint

In a medium bowl, combine the chickpeas, parsley, shallot (or onion).

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, zest, cumin, salt and pepper.  Pour the dressing over the chickpea mixture and toss.

In a third bowl, whisk together the yogurt, orange juice, zest, and honey.

Just before serving, place the spinach leaves in a bowl and toss with the chickpeas.

Divide salad onto four plates, top with yogurt sauce, and garnish with mint.

90 Years of Chicago Greeks and Candy

4 Feb

This past weekend, I travelled four hours south on a wintry day along Interstate 90 to the National Hellenic Museum located on the corner of Halsted and Van Buren in Chicago’s famous Greek Town.

I had come to see the museum’s new exhibit “American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration.”  To my delight, I discovered photograph after photograph depicting Greeks working in textile mills, on the railroads, in the copper mines – and Greeks working their own produce stands, cafes, ice-cream parlors, confectioners shops, hot dog stands, import grocery stores, and of course, the suburban diner on which they left an indelible mark.

From "American Moments" exhibit, National Hellenic Museum, Courtesy Library of Congress

Greek Cafe.  Library of Congress. From “American Moments” exhibit, National Hellenic Museum.

Growing up in New Jersey, I knew about the hot dog stands, grocery stores, and diners – but I was unaware of the monopoly that Greeks held on candy stores and ice-cream parlors in early 20th century Chicago. According to a 1915 editorial published in the Salonika Greek Press: “On every great business corner in Chicago you will find the brightly lighted, clean, neat and attractive Greek confectionary store . . .almost two thirds of the confectionary business of Chicago is in the hands of the Greeks.”

One of these businesses is still serving ice-cream and hand-dipped candies today.  Margie’s Candies has been serving customers since 1921, when Peter George Poulos decided to open an ice-cream shop on the city’s north side.  The shop was renamed in 1933 when Poulos’s son George Peter married his sweetheart, Margie.  Their son, George, according to Margie’s web site,  is now learning the family business.

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Over the past 90 years, the shop has been visited by Al Capone, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, as well as countless other Chicagoans and tourists .  So if you, like me, want to learn more about how Chicago Greeks contributed to the city’s food culture, stop by the National Hellenic Museum on the corner of Halsted and Van Buren, and then drive four miles to 1960 North Western Ave., for a memorable and very tasty history lesson.

For more on Chicago Greeks, order a copy of “Greektown Chicago: Its History and Its Recipes” by Alexa Ganakos.  And if you know of a Greek immigrant or Greek American with an important story to tell, you may want to participate in the National Hellenic Museum’s Oral History Project.  Their handbook will give you instructions on how to interview and record your friends’ and relatives’ stories for the museum’s archives.

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Newtown

19 Dec

I was going to write about high-end olive oil today, but I just couldn’t do it.  Students in Newtown, Connecticut, returned to school yesterday, and I thought of them as I pushed open the door to my school building — a door that has been marked by a sign reading “NO firearms allowed” ever since Wisconsin passed the “Personal Protection Act” last year, allowing people to carry concealed weapons, including on campus grounds (although the university can ban them in university buildings).

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I also thought of the law allowing firearms to be sold at gun shows without background checks, the law prohibiting the ATF from releasing fire-arm data to the public, the law prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control from advocating for gun control, the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban; of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora; of the thousands of fatal shootings that occur each year but never make it past local headlines or a few lines on the local obituary page.

And I thought that instead of writing about high-end olive oil today,  I would write to my senators and representatives instead.  For the Newtown students and everyone else who was, or will be, shot in our towns and cities.

Victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newton

Photo by HANDOUT/Reuters

Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs

10 Nov

I look at a map of Greece and am reminded that we are not that far removed from our war-torn neighbors, from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan.  The Internet affirms this, telling me that the distance between Athens and Kabul is about the same as that between Los Angeles and New York, approximately 2500 miles.  I look through my collection of Greek and Middle Eastern cookbooks, and realize that our culinary traditions are also not that far removed from each other.  We all seem to love lamb kabobs with squirts of lemon, and baklavas with walnuts or pistachios , and dolmas with rice and mint, and many of us call our appetizers “Mezze,” although some of us serve hummus, tabouleh, falafel and pita bread on our appetizer plates, while others of us serve cucumber-yogurt Tzatziki, stuffed grape leaves, zucchini fritters and olives.

I think about these things as I read Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories by Anna Badhken, a war reporter who has lived through and written about the Middle East’s most brutal conflicts.  In Peace Meals, Anna writes that one of the most important lessons she has learned from her work is that there is always more to war than the macabre, more to war than “the white-orange muzzle flashes during a midnight ambush; the men high on adrenaline scanning the desert through the scopes of their machine guns as their forefingers caress the triggers; the scythes of razor-sharp shrapnel whirling through the air like lawn-mower blades spun loose; the tortured and the dead.  There are also the myriad brazen, congenial, persistent ways in which life in the most forlorn and violent places on earth shamelessly reasserts itself.  Of those, sharing a meal is one of the most elemental.”

Anna reminisces about these meals, and what they taught her about the people and the conflicts she was trying to understand.  At first I was skeptical, fearing that this would turn out to be a “foodie” book that in the end just trivialized war.  But Anna always talks about the war first, her focus is always first on the suffering. This has led some critics to say that the connection between war and food in the book is too weak and the recipes just an afterthought.  But for me, when Anna does turn her attention to the shared meals, I feel as I imagine she must have felt, as if these were a much-needed source of physical and emotional sustenance, normalcy, and companionship snatched quickly and often as as an afterthought in a relentlessly cruel and deadly world.

Many of the recipes that appear at the end of each chapter I found comfortingly familiar.  I found one, though, that is both familiar and enticingly strange, for Mantwo, Afghan dumplings served with split pea, yogurt and meat sauces.  I’m going to try to make it this weekend, and think of Anna’s bravery in bringing us stories of war and survival in the lands of our neighbors.

From the wonderful blog, Mission: Food, by Victoria. You can visit it at http://www.mission-food.com/

From Peace Meals: A recipe for Mantwo that serves “8 very hungry people”

For the dough:

  • 8 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons salt

For the split pea sauce:

  • 1 cup dried yellow split peas
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 cups water or broth

For the yogurt sauce:

  • 1-1/2 cups plain yogurt
  • 4 teaspoons chopped fresh mint
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, crushed

For the mantwo stuffing and meat sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 pounds ground beef (or 1 pound ground beef and 1 pound ground lamb)
  • 4 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and grated
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1. Make the dough: Pour the flour into a large bowl and stir in the salt.  Slowly add 3 to 4 cups warm water to the center of the flour; add enough water to make the dough not stick to your fingers but also be pliant.  Knead for 5 minutes, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

2. Make the split pea sauce.  Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the peas mash easily.

3. While the peas are cooking, make the yogurt sauce. Combine all the ingredients and refrigerate.

4. Make the stuffing.  Heat the oil in a large skillet. Cook the meat and onions over low heat until all the meat is browned, stirring so that the meat doesn’t clump together. Drain the fat. Stir in 1 cup water, the carrots, salt, cumin, black pepper, coriander, cilantro and parsely and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until all the water evaporates.

5. Remove the dough from the fidge. Cut in half, then halve each piece until you have 52 pieces.  Roll out each piece into thin rounds about 2-1/2 to 3 inches in diameter.  Lay them out on a lightly floured surface).  Mound 2 large spoonfuls of the meat mixture in the center of a dough circle.  Dip a finger in water nad trace it around the edge.  Lay a second piece of dough on top and press around the edge to seal.  Roll up the edge.  Repeat until all the dough is gone.  You should have some meat mixture left over.  Steam the mantwo for 40 minutes.

8. Make the meat sauce.  Combine the remaining meat mixture, 2 tablespoons water, tomato paste, and cayenne pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the water has evaporated.

9. To serve, spread the yogurt sauce on a large serving plate. Put the mantwo on top. Pour the split pea sauce over the mantwo. Top with the meat sauce. Serve hot.

Cooking Greek

24 Oct

This weekend, 12 Wisconites gathered in my university’s laboratory kitchen. They were there to learn a little something about Greek cooking, and to try their hand at some traditional recipes.  One young man fell in love with Greek food when he traveled to Greece with his high school Latin club, one woman had had a taste of Greece through family members who were from Samos. Those who hadn’t had a chance to visit the country, definitely hoped to do so soon.

Our Group

We focused our class on making  mezethakia, or appetizers, most of which can be made ahead, and all of which can be easily enjoyed standing up, a small plate in one hand, a glass of wine in the other — in short, the ultimate party food.  We marinated olives and toasted pita chips; whipped up Meltzanosalata (Eggplant dip) and dozens of bite-sized Tiropitakia; rolled and simmered Soutzoukakia (cumin seasoned meatballs in a cinnamon scented tomato sauce); and sauteed Kolokithokeftedakia (zucchini fritters).

Preparing Soutzoukakia

Everyone’s recipe turned out well and the cooks all received an “A” — except for the group responsible for the zucchini fritters. This group had started the class a bit disappointed — they had been assigned the Eggplant dip, toasted pita wedges, and marinated olives, and they felt that these didn’t present much of a challenge.  What they hadn’t counted on were the zucchini fritters, which I had thrown in at the last minute after discovering an abundance of delicious looking zucchini squash that morning in the market.

Roasted eggplants, ready for Eggplant Dip.

The group dove into the challenge, grating the zucchini, sprinkling it with salt, and setting it in a colander to drain. However, we were short on time so they took a short cut and formed the fritters a bit too soon.  As usually happens when one cuts corners, their first fritter fell apart. So did the second, and the third. They were about to give up when one of the cooks suggested adding more fresh bread crumbs. The second suggested reshaping the fritters into flatter discs. And the third suggested sauteeing them in much less oil.  In the end, not only did the zucchini fritters turn out “just right,” they wound up being one of the tastiest items on our menu! The group’s final grade:  “A” Plus!

Triumphant!

For Zucchini Fritter recipes, check out Kalofagas — one of my favorite Greek food blogs (!) and Serious Eats.

Marinating Olives

Marinated Olives

  •  ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary, leaves removed from stem
  • ¼ tsp. dried fennel seed
  • Zest from one lemon
  • 1 lb. mixed Greek olives

In medium skillet, heat the olive oil, garlic, thyme, rosemary, fennel seed and lemon zest over medium-low heat for about 2 minutes until garlic and herbs become fragrant.  Add the olives, toss to coat gently and heat until warmed through.  Serve room temperature.

Preparing roasted pepper/feta “purses”

Spanakopitakia — Spinach & Feta Purses:  Yield 48 purses.  From Fine Cooking, Holiday 2007.

  •  1 ¼ cups crumbled feta (about 6 0z.)
  • 1 Tbs. chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 ½ tsp. chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
  • ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 Tbs. unsalted butter
  • 1 ½ cups thinly sliced scallions (about 2 bunches)
  • Kosher salt
  • ¾ lb. baby spinach, well washed and dried
  • 1 jarred roasted red pepper, drained, patted dry, and finely diced (about ½ cup)
  • 24 sheets phyllo, preferably 9 X14 inches, thawed overnight in the refrigerator

Heat oven to 400 F.

In a large bowl, combine the feta, oregano, thyme, lemon zest and black pepper.

In a large sauté pan, melt 2 Tbs. butter over medium-high heat. Add the scallions, sprinkle with ¼ tsp. salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and brown (about 3 minutes).  Add the spinach, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and cook, tossing with tongs until just wilted, about 3 minutes.  Transfer to a colander to drain and let cool for a few minutes before thoroughly pressing and squeezing out any excess liquid.  Add the spinach and the roasted red pepper to the feta mixture and combine well.

In a small saucepan, melt the remaining 6 Tbs. butter. Line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment or brush them with a little of the melted butter.

Unroll the phyllo and stack 24 sheets on your work surface. Cover the stack with plastic wrap and a damp dishtowel.  Take one sheet of phyllo off the stack and lay it on a large cutting board (cover the remaining sheets).  Quickly brush it all over with some of the melted butter. Top with another piece of phyllo and brush tha piece all over with butter.  Repeat with one more piece of phyllo.

Using a sharp knife, cut the phyllo sheets in half lengthwise, then cut each half into four even pieces so that you have 8 pieces about 4 ½ x 3 1/3 inches each.

Put 1 heaping tsp. of the feta filling in the center of each phyllo piece. Gather the corners of the phyllo together over the filling and pinch together firmly to enclose the filling.   Transfer to prepared baking sheet and repeat with the remaining sheets of phyllo and filling to make a total of 48 purses in five more batches.

Bake the purses until the phyllo is crisp and browned all over, 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through to ensure even browning.

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