Easy Peasy Saganaki – Pan Seared Cheese

ImageFried cheese – Greek style!

Yes it really is as glorious as it sounds with a heavenly crust and oozing insides, even more so with a few extra embellishments. Invoking the spirit of the Mediterranean, this dish is frugal and beautiful in its simplicity; it sates this salty craving I have which never seems to disappear when temperatures soar.

This dish can form part of the legendary meze table and is known commonly as ‘Saganaki’, referring to the pan in which it is seared. Usually Kefalotyri, Kefalograviera or Kasseri cheese is used.

Click here for my easy peasy cheesy recipe.

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Missing the Med

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This winter is stretching out until the bitter end. As a cloud of toxic smog looms over the UK, I’m stuck at home, gazing out the window at bare branches and uninspiring grey skies. Its at times like these I welcome memories of balmy summers in the Mediterranean where pleasures are simple; the rasps of crickets in the hot arid air, the smell of ripe tomatoes and freshly grilled fish. Why not reminisce with me and revisit the enchanting island of Crete.

Just enough, and not too much.

Another pregnancy niggle; loss of appetite, rather, everything edible in sight making you feel sick to the stomach.

The smell of lettuce, a rogue mushy blueberry,  meat.. Every unexpected smell and off-key texture led me to eat ‘safe’ beige food for the best part of six months. For a lover of food, I was more than frustrated with plain pasta with cheese, cheese on toast and butter on bread near enough forming part of my daily meals.

Luckily, as the bundle is almost here, my desire to be more daring has returned – yippee!! But I wont be eating mackerel just yet, by any account.

The other morning, I gathered a few more exciting beige ingredients together and formed a treat, light enough to be free of guilt and tasty enough to want more. Normally, I’d have drizzled the finished pastries with honey and smattered them with sesame seeds, but this time round a light powdering of icing sugar sufficed.

I present you with Ricotta, Lemon & Honey Filo Envelopes. Click here for recipe.

Meaty Stuffed Vine Leaves

My mother in law is visiting us, and with her came an array of gifts and packages of food straight from the city of dreams. Amongst the numerous baby clothes, jewellery and candied chesnuts (Murat’s favorite) came a mysterious, humid bag. To my delight, the heavy package contained vine leaves.

When I first visited Murat’s family in Istanbul, his three sisters and mothers gathered around at tiny table, crafting Yaprak Sarmasi in honour of my visit and his return. They chattered excitedly, stuffing and rolling what seemed like hundreds of leaves.  Quite the excuse to get together and pitch in, I’ve now mastered this traditional recipe much to Murat’s delight.

The family in law in Istanbul.

This recipe results in succulent meaty rolls with a subtle heat. It is absolutely authentic and often eat in Turkish households. This version is best served warm with a dollop of cooling strained yoghurt. Stuffed vine leaves can also be made without meat and with the addition of pine nuts, sultanas and dill, usually served cold.

Click here for my recipe.

Invoking the Spirit of the Med…

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Fried cheese – Greek style!

Yes it really is as glorious as it sounds, even more so with a few extra embellishments. As Autumn sets in what better than something comforting and easy to make, especially if it invokes the spirit of the Med.

Usually Kefalotyri, Kefalograviera or Kasseri cheese is used, ‘Saganaki’ actually reffers to the pan in which it is fried. Yamas! have a great Saganaki cheese, widely available.

Click here for my easy peasy Saganaki recipe.

Borek / Burek / Byrek / Pite / Rustico – Mediterranean Pies

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Warm, crispy and satisfying, filled pies are the ultimate in comfort food. Wherever you go in the Med you’ll find different versions. From Turkish Borek, Balkan Burek / Byrek / Pite and Mantija, Boureki of Greece to the Rustico of Southern Italy – fillings and shapes vary to form indulgent meaty feats, cheesy delights, simple vegetable snacks or sweet treats.  The possibilities are endless and the end result always satisfying.

It’s one of those foods which is loved; a staple from warm-hearted family kitchens or consumed from kiosks and simple eateries with mopeds whizzing by. I’ve always struggled to find the authentic stuff, reminiscent of the Med in London until I stumbled upon Akdeniz Gida Pazari on Station Road, Wood Green. For £1 a pop you can buy different types of Borek fresh out of the oven, made by the hands of two smiling Bulgarian women behind an abundantly stacked counter. Safe in the knowledge I have a place to go for a quick Borek fix, I usually prefer to make my own.

In the Balkans I  watched as women made dough from scratch, tirelessly kneading and rolling with the thinnest of rolling pins. They’d work the pastry to unbelievable elasticity, picking up the delicate sheets and stretching with careful plucks.    The pies were finished with neatly pinched pleats.  Needless to say my first attempt at this was disastrous.  To make pastry by hand is indeed a labour of love. I prefer to buy ‘Yufka’ pastry which is widely available in Mediterranean supermarkets.

Here are my Borek recipes;
Sevkiye’s Borek – Oven baked layered yufka pastry with various fillings (Meat, Cheese, Herby Courgette)

Village Style Borek – basic filo dough layered with white (feta) cheese

Pan Borek – quick borek made in pan with yufka pastry.

Mantija – Meaty Balkan parcels

Yamas!

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A premature summer has officially arrived in London, albeit a. badly timed and b. destined to be short lived. By day sun shines brilliantly and in the evenings I open my windows to welcome wafts of jasmine. I can’t complain seeing as its my favorite season, but why couldn’t this have held off until my wedding just weeks away.  This heat is making me lazy and I have so much to do!

With the date fast approaching my sister took us all to Greek restaurant Elysee for an unforgetable hen party, where we smashed plates, threw flowers, drank Ouzo and danced to live music until 4am. It was an absolute fix of the Med right here in Fitzrovia. The next morning (afternoon) as I lay fuzzy headed with bouzoukia still ringing in my ears, my mind wandered back to Crete, a sun-drenched Island I visited with my father last year. I remembered Ergospasio, a taverna we stumbled upon in Elounda, and it’s owner Dimitris who invited us for appetizers and Ouzo, and then became offended when we asked for the bill.

“How dare you try to pay! Just come back some day. You’re always welcome”   Looks like we’d made one more Cretan friend by sharing cheese and olives.  And there was another taverna up in Rogdia, where we ate an amazing Feta Salad and Dakos (rusks topped with tomatoes and cheese) overlooking the entire city of Heraklion. It’s the simple things in life which are the most memorable, be it soaking up the sun, a meal accompanied by live music or, er, cheese!

Well timed then that Yamas! have sent me four lovely samples from their range, helping to appease my taste for the Med. With them I have created three very cheesy, very Greek dishes; Graviera stuffed fennel seed burgers, baked feta with tomatoes and green pepper and courgettes stuffed with smoked feta and bulgur wheat .  Sound complicated? Well, not at all. These dishes are easy.

Yamas! don’t just offer your bog standard feta which seems to be one of only two Greek cheese already widely available.  They aim to make good Greek cheeses more accessible to the UK and beyond, by offering comprehensive, no fuss and fairly priced products. Great website too! Managing director Neil is so passionate about the brand that he constantly travels to Greece and Cyprus ensuring top quality and authentic products.  The range although young, is already widely available, and for Greece’s second favorite cheese Graviera it is the first time it has reached such an audience. The products themselves are of utmost quality: the feta is creamy and not overly aged, the smoked cheese has a subtle smokiness, the Graviera nutty and sweet and halloumi perfect for grilling and not overly salty. All products are good enough for the cheese board yet versatile enough to use in cooking.

Host of My Greek Kitchen, chef Toni Buxton, was also excited by the Yamas! range saying ” It’s wonderful that these cheeses will finally be available in the UK!”

Statistically Greece eats more cheese per person than any other nation! If we take Sophia Loren’s famous saying “All you see I owe to Spaghetti!” and apply in Greek terms, “All you see I owe to cheese”, its no wonder Tonia looks the way she does. I think I’ll be exploring the world of Greek cheeses in more depth.

Now raise your glasses and toast to the summer – Yamas!

Una Faccia, Una Razza!

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It’s a saying which shaped the foundations of NazarBlue and a philosophy in which I have always believed; One face, one race.

Wherever I am in the Med I’m overcome with the same emotions: a sense of nostalgia invoked by musical laments, a sense of exhilaration from pulsating cities, and insatiable hunger spurred on by tempting street food. The air is thick and perfumed with pine resin, the crickets rasp in arid shrubbery and socialising is almost always centered around good food and wine. A plate of fried Calamari on the seafront is a must, cats with huge begging eyes lurk under taverna tables and swipe at falling scraps. Siesta time ceases with the whirrs of moped engines. People converse on lantern lit terraces with waving hands and raised voices. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in Italy, Greece or Istanbul, the scenes are always the same.

‘One Face, One Race’ is a saying which acknowledges the similarities between Italians and Greeks. In fact, I believe it can be said for any of the Mediterranean’s people who have been both unified and separated by slithers of sea. With the shifting of borders as empires advanced then retreated, cultures intermingled and languages, music and food were shared.

Some may patriotically claim Baklava, Turkish Coffee, and Falafel to be theirs, but in disregarding language barriers we can see a common knowledge and mutual love.                                   Ouzo, Raki, Arak and Sambuca may go by different names but essentially it is a liquor made with anise, consumed in the same way. Shakshuka to the North Africans is as Uova in Purgatorito to the Italians. Meze, Mezzeh, Tapas and Antipasti are a way of life, essientoal to the sociable ways of eating. Pizza as we know it hails from Napoli, yet what influenced this iconic food? Well, how about Greek Pitta bread or Turkish Pide – flat breads with various toppings. Then there is Manoush from the Eastern Med. Could the most famous dish from the chaotic port city have its origins further East?

Even the most frugal of dishes add a sense of pattern to the Med’s colourful mosaic. Farinata di Ceci, wet dough made from seasoned chickpea flour and baked with plenty of olive oil, is particular to Liguria. However Karantita from Algeria and Calentita from Gibraltar are both of uncanny similarity.

It’s rainbow season in London: The blustery winds are relentless and storms seem to roll pass often, appeased once in a while by brilliant bursts of sun. Last Saturday as I took shelter in my flat I sorted through my DVD collection and decided to watch Mediterraneo, a hilarious Italian film about a group of soldiers who are sent to a Greek Island during WWII. They find themselves stranded when after becoming intoxicated with Opium supplied by a Turkish fisherman, they come too, discovering their arms and transport have been stolen. The Italians soon forget their duties and ease into Island life, accidentally missing the fact the war ended some three years before.

‘Una Faccia, Una Pancia!’ one soldier says mocking the hefty appetite that Greeks and Italians share. One face, one belly! It’s not only appearance which unifies the Mediterraneans, it’s their mutual love of food too.

Here’s a more in-depth explanation of Una Faccia, Una Razza, written by my lovely sister.