The South Aegean region is a paradise for foodies. The bright sunshine and dry climate of the islands concentrates the flavors of the produce and something as simple as a salad can become a transcendent experience. Eating seasonally is a way of life in the region and when the fruits and vegetables are ripe, they can't be beat. While the following recipes are inspired by the South Aegean, food always tastes better when enjoyed with family and friends at a seaside taverna.
Among the favorite foods of the region are cheeses such as San Michali from Syros and Graviera from Naxos in the Cyclades. Krasotyri from Kos in the Dodecanese is a white goat cheese aged in red wine giving it a distinct flavor and red color on the outside. Fragosika, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, is a favorite on all the islands, including Symi where it is called the island's `banana', according to Taste Atlas.
Santorini is known for tomatokeftedes or tomato fritters, made with the island's small, yet flavorful tomatoes, and Assyrtiko wine which is one of the most famous Greek varieties in the world.
Gemista, stuffed vegetables, are a favorite in the region as well and made in many cultural cuisines, with and without meat. Stuffed grape leaves, dolmadakia, are a classic recipe, often made alongside gemista when the grape leaves are available. They are a specialty on the island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese where they are known simply as filla (leaves). In other areas, including Rhodes, they are also called yaprakia.
The idea to use grape leaves as a wrapping for food probably goes back to prehistory, and at least to the cultivation of grapes which began 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Stuffed vegetables are common in the cuisine of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Russia, and Central Asia. Most of the recipes for the filling include rice, ground meat, or grains, onion, herbs like dill, mint, or parsley, and spices. The meatless versions are cooked with olive oil and can include only rice or a combination of rice, herbs, onions, and raisins or currants, and/or nuts. Use the combination of herbs you prefer to personalize the dish.
Grape leaves in the jar are readily available in most supermarkets these days, though if you happen to grow your own vines, feel free to pick fresh leaves and use them for stuffing. When using fresh leaves from the vine, small to medium-sized leaves work best for stuffing since the larger leaves can be tough to chew no matter how long you boil them. Topping the dolmadakia with avgolemono (egg-lemon sauce) adds richness and that delicious lemony kick.
Tomatokeftedes, Tomato Fritters
1 1/2 cups tomatoes (3-4 small-medium tomatoes), finely chopped
3.5 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1 large red onion, grated
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh spearmint, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano
1/2 cup all-purpose, unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Greek sea salt and freshly ground paper, to taste
Greek olive oil for frying
Place the chopped tomatoes with a pinch of salt in a large, fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and set aside for about 30 minutes. After some of the liquid has drained off, place the chopped tomatoes in a bowl and add the grated onion, herbs, and feta, and mix to combine well. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and pepper to taste. Add the flour mixture to the tomato mixture and stir to combine. Shape into balls using about a tablespoon or so of the mixture, place on a tray, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes. If preferred, shape the balls into small patties.
Heat the oil in a large deep skillet over medium high heat. Fry the tomatokeftedes for about 2-3 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Place the fried tomatokeftedes on a paper towel to drain any excess oil. Serve immediately with Greek yogurt for dipping.
Gemista, Stuffed Peppers, Tomatoes, Eggplant and Zucchini
2-3 large peppers, the color of your choice
2-3 medium-large tomatoes
2-3 small-medium eggplant
1-2 medium zucchini
1/2 cup Greek extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large onion, diced
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped, or more to taste
1 can (28 oz.) San Marzano tomatoes, chopped, or 4-5 medium fresh, ripe plum tomatoes
1 cup water
1 and 1/2 cups rice
Greek sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 packages (8 oz. each) mushrooms of your choice, sliced (optional)
If using mushrooms, sauté them in a large frying pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Don't crowd the pan so the mushrooms can brown properly and develop their full flavor. When the mushrooms have cooked down, add salt and pepper and remove from heat. Set aside to cool, then dice and add to the stuffing later.
Prepare the vegetables by cutting the tops of the peppers off and removing the seeds. Reserve the tops for the caps of the peppers once they are stuffed. For the tomatoes, cut the bottoms off for the caps, the stem side down creates a more stable stuffed tomato, and scoop out the insides with a grapefruit spoon, reserving the flesh for the stuffing. Knead the eggplant to loosen the seeds inside, cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds to form a cup. The half will serve as the cap for the eggplant. Cut the zucchini crosswise to form a tube about three inches long, slice a round from the top for a cap and scoop out some of the center to form a cup, making sure to leave enough of the zucchini intact to hold its shape and the filling.
Set a pot of water to boil and parboil the peppers for about 3-5 minutes just to begin the cooking process. Using tongs, remove the peppers from the boiling water, set them to drain on paper towels. Depending on the size of the peppers and your pot, you may need to parboil in batches, so continue with the rest of the peppers and the eggplant. The tomatoes and the zucchini will cook in the oven and do not require parboiling. Arrange the vegetables in a large baking pan and sprinkle the inside of each with a pinch of salt before stuffing.
For the stuffing, heat a large deep sauté pan, add olive oil and sauté the onion until translucent. Add the tomato, eggplant and zucchini flesh scooped out earlier, and the chopped San Marzano tomatoes or the fresh tomatoes, if using. Sluice the can with a little cold water and add to the pan. Bring up to a boil, then reduce the heat, add the rice, salt and pepper to taste and simmer. Stir in fresh chopped mint and cook until the rice has absorbed some of the water, but is not completely cooked. It will finish cooking in the oven. Stir in the cooked mushrooms at this point, if using, and begin filling the vegetables.
Using a spoon, fill the peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini with the stuffing. Cap with the reserved vegetable tops. Drizzle with olive oil and bake in a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour or until the vegetables just begin to brown on top. Sliced potatoes may be added to the pan to bake alongside the stuffed vegetables, just sprinkle them with salt and pepper to taste. Check on the baking vegetables since you may need to add water to the pan in case the pan dries out. If the tops seem to be browning too quickly, tent the pan with aluminum foil, or alternatively cover the pan with aluminum foil for the first 35-40 minutes of baking, then remove foil to allow the stuffed vegetables to brown a little at the end.
Traditionally, the stuffed vegetables are also called `ladera' because they are made with olive oil and are eaten on fasting days when oil is not prohibited. Serve the stuffed vegetables with feta (when not fasting), fresh bread, and greens or a salad. Bulgur wheat can also be substituted for the rice in the stuffing. To increase the protein, add cooked beans or lentils to the stuffing mixture as well.
Stuffed Grape Leaves with Avgolemono
2 pounds ground beef
4 tablespoons Greek extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
1 can (28 ounces) tomatoes, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups water
1 cup rice
1 teaspoon dried mint or 3 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill and/or parsley
1 jar of grape leaves (1 pound)
For the Avgolemono:
2 large eggs
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
About 1 cup reserved liquid from the dolmadakia
To make the filling, brown the ground beef in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Drain any excess fat and add the olive oil and the onions. Sauté until the onions are translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes, the water, one teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of freshly ground pepper. Bring up to a boil and add the rice. Stir in the herbs of your choice and remove from heat. Allow to cool slightly.
Meanwhile, set a pot of water to boil and remove the grape leaves from the jar and rinse under cool water. If using fresh leaves, remove any stems and rinse thoroughly under cool water. Then, cook the whole grape leaves, whether from the jar or fresh, in the boiling water for 5 minutes; drain in a colander.
Cover the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven with any torn grape leaves. Place one grape leaf on your work surface, place a spoonful of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf's dull side, tuck in the sides and roll to form your dolmadaki. Continue with remaining grape leaves and filling. Place the stuffed grape leaves in pot or Dutch oven, layering them as needed. Once finished rolling and placing the stuffed grape leaves in the pot, pour just enough water to cover them in the pot. Place a plate to keep the stuffed grape leaves submerged, and place a cover slightly ajar on top of the pot and cook over low heat for about an hour or until the filling is cooked through. There should be some cooking liquid left after a half hour, but check in case it evaporates too quickly before the stuffed grape leaves are done, in which case more water can be added and continue simmering until done.
Reserve about a cup of the liquid from the cooked dolmadakia to make the avgolemono. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs with a fork, add the lemon juice and continue beating. Gradually add the reserved liquid from the dolmadakia and continue beating until thoroughly combined. Pour the avgolemono over the dolmadakia and serve immediately.