The House Guests makes its debut at your favorite bookstore in just four weeks. I’ll be giving you hints about it for the rest of this month. And today’s hints are, of course, about food!
The House Guests is set in Tarpon Springs, Florida, which is home to a higher percentage of Greek Americans than any other city in the country. Greek sponge divers from the Dodecanese Island began arriving in the early 20th century to harvest the rich beds of sponges in the Gulf of Mexico. At one time sponges were the top industry in Florida, more important than citrus and tourism.
These days Tarpon Springs still leads the world production of natural sponges, but it’s also well known for St. Nicholas, its beautiful Greek Orthodox cathedral, the Sponge Docks, with their tourist shops on the Anclote River, and its fabulous Greek restaurants.
After deciding to set The House Guests in Tarpon Springs, how could I not have a Greek restaurant in my story? So welcome to Yiayia’s Kouzina (Grandmother’s Kitchen). Find a table and sit for a while. Then when Yiayia herself comes to welcome you, say yes to anything she suggests.
So let’s talk about Greek food, because, well, food, right? How else do we judge a place we want to visit—or read about?
I became a fan of Greek food in, of all places, Greece, when I visited years ago. I’ve experimented with it every since. Greek food is known for its place among the healthiest of cuisines, with an emphasis on baked, not fried food, and seasoning with fresh herbs instead of rich sauces–the bechamel here is an exception. Olive oil and lemon enhance many dishes, and the Greeks make fantastic use of the vegetables they grow and the fish from their native waters.
I’ve made many versions of moussaka, a classic Greek dish which appears on the menus of most Greek restaurants. Several years ago I was treated to this one when friends invited us to dinner–and you can see I later it put it to good use for more friends. I begged for the recipe because according to my taste buds, the combination of flavors is absolutely perfect.
I’d like to think Yiayia would approve of this recipe, so I’m going to call this version:
MOUSSAKA from YIAYIA’S KOUZINA
1C finely chopped onion
1½ lb. ground beef or lamb–I plan to try this with ground turkey soon.
3 cloves crushed garlic
1t dried oregano leaves
1t dried basil leaves – I used fresh
Dash of freshly ground pepper
2 cans (8 oz.) tomato sauce (You can thin tomato paste with 2 cups of water if you don’t have tomato sauce.)
CREAM (BECHAMEL) SAUCE: (My hostess doubled this but I haven’t seen the need. The sauce is rich enough.)
½t salt, dash of pepper
2T olive oil
3 cups milk
3 medium to large sized eggplants washed and peeled. (Fresh from the garden, eggplant may not need to be peeled.)
½ C olive oil
2T dry bread crumbs
1 ½ C grated white Cheddar (Kefalotyri or another hard Greek cheese would be more authentic. Cheddar is still delicious.)
1C grated Parmesan
BROWN meat, garlic, onion 10 min.
ADD herbs, tomato sauce.
BRING to boiling, stirring to prevent sticking. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for ½ hour. (To break up your time in the kitchen, you can do this the day before, along with the eggplant. Refrigerate overnight.)
HALVE peeled eggplant, sliced lengthwise and sliced crosswise ½ inch thick. Place on broiler pan. Brush both sides with olive oil. Broil 4 inches from heat 4 minutes per side or until golden. You can also spray with olive oil.
MAKE cream sauce. (Do not walk away from the stove. Concentrate! It’s not hard, I promise.) Melt butter, stir in flour, salt and pepper, and cook whisking constantly until bubbly. Add milk gradually. Bring to boiling, whisking until mixture is thickened. Remove from heat. Add ½ C grated Cheddar cheese; stir until melted and blended into sauce. In small bowl beat eggs, gradually beat in small trickles of hot cream-sauce stirring constantly to prevent egg from cooking. Return egg/sauce mixture to pan of sauce and mix. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 .
ASSEMBLE IN DEEP DISH BAKING DISH (12 X 8 X 2 or 13 X 9 X 2 are good for lasagna, too. An inexpensive example.):
- Layer half of eggplant overlapping slightly if possible.
- Sprinkle with half of Parmesan and Cheddar cheeses.
- Stir bread crumbs into meat sauce and spoon entire meat sauce evenly over eggplant.
- Sprinkle remaining cheese over top.
- Layer rest of eggplant overlapped as before.
- Pour entire cream sauce over all. Sprinkle top with additional Parmesan cheese.
BAKE 35-40 minutes or until golden brown and top is set.
COOL slightly before serving. Cut into squares. Makes 12-15 servings.
FREEZE cooked or uncooked. Uncooked: cover with layer of plastic wrap and second layer of foil. Thaw and cook 1 hour. It should be golden brown and set.
MORE GREEK GOODIES FROM YIAYIA’S KOUZINA:
I usually serve moussaka, as well as my favorite pastitsio, with the same horiatiki salad we couldn’t get enough of when we visited Greece. Cassie and Amber share a horiatiki salad at Yiayia’s Kouzina, in The House Guests because it’s, well, delicious.
Our version is simple: Fresh cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, Kalamata olives, slices of red onion, sprigs of fresh Greek oregano and a thick slice of Feta cheese. Before the cheese is perched on top of the sliced or chopped vegetables, we toss it with red wine vinegar and a splash of olive oil. Think of the onions and olives as garnishes. But the amounts are up to you depending on your own preference.
Fresh is the key to this salad and to anything Greek. The fresher the ingredients, the better. I highly recommend you rush out to your local garden store and buy a small Greek oregano plant for your container garden or border. In many places oregano will winter over and you’ll have all you need for possibly the rest of your life. It not, bring it inside and see if you can keep it until the weather warms again or start from seed indoors (teensy little things) in late winter. In a pinch you can use dried oregano or marjoram. But fresh is so much better.
Like the moussaka, I’ve made many versions of pastitsio, another dish topped with bechamel sauce. Recently I tried Ina Gaarten’s version, and loved everything about it. I used Kasseri cheese instead of Parmesan, and I scooped up real pastitsio pasta in Tarpon Springs to use instead of shells. You can find it on Amazon, too. I think this sent the dish over the top.
If all this sounds like a lot of work, here’s the good news: Both recipes can divided into individual portions and frozen, and they taste nearly as good heated in microwave safe containers and served later in the month. I won’t warn you to use them quickly. They won’t last long enough to worry about, but moussaka or pastitsio in the freezer is the definition of culinary security.
Still sound like too much work? Get ye to your local Greek restaurant and try something new. You won’t be sorry.
(I’m an Amazon Associate so if you order using the links I provided, I get an itty-bitty royalty.)