Soutzoukakia.

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As Europeans begin to ask more questions about where their meat comes from and sales of supermarket beef drop, I think it’s a good time to share a recipe that champions good quality beef in a very comforting way.

I love meatballs and there are some great recipes out there.  Already, I’ve shared my recipe for Keftedes (Greek meatballs), but today I want to share one for soutzoukakia (soo-zoo-ka-ki-yah). These are usually little sausage-shaped meatballs which are more like kofta and are served in a tomato sauce.  They’re gorgeous and a little spicier than ordinary meatballs.

My mum makes killer meatballs, maybe the best, but my recipe comes close; certainly close enough that I feel no shame in sharing it with you.  These beauties melt in the mouth and will permanently stain whatever clothing they touch, so cover up when you tuck in.  They’re great with all kinds of food, but I love them with a fresh cabbage salad and chunky chips.  They freeze well too, so make a big batch and then tub it up for a rainy day.  We had some on pasta recently and it was a real treat!

Soutzoukakia

For the meatballs

750g minced beef

2 large onions (quartered)

1 slice of white bread

handful of fresh coriander/dill (chopped)

12 fresh mint leaves (finely chopped)

3 tblspoons dried oregano

1 tblspoon ground cumin

3 tspoons cayenne pepper

2 tspoons ground cinnamon

half tspoon ground nutmeg

salt

pepper

For the sauce

3 tins chopped tomatoes (about 400g each)

10 garlic cloves

1 glass red wine

1 cup beef stock

1 tblspoon tomato puree

2 tspoons cinnamon

1 bay leaf

1 tspoon dried oregano

salt

pepper

Make breadcrumbs with the white bread and pour into a large mixing bowl with the beef.  Puree the onions and garlic in a food mixer and add to the beef.  Next, add all of the meatball ingredients to the bowl and use your hands to squeeze everything together until fully combined.  This takes some time and is best done when the minced beef is at room temperature.

You can leave the mixture overnight to let the flavours develop, or you can get on with making the meatballs.  Wash your hands well and leave them wet if you are going to make the meatballs immediately.  This prevents the mixture from sticking to your fingers.  Break off small chunks (or whatever amount you would like) and roll into a little ball.  Set to one side ready for frying.

In a large casserole, gently heat enough olive oil to cover the base.  Add the meatballs in batches and get some nice colour on them before removing them.  Let them drain on kitchen paper in a bowl.

When all of the meatballs have been cooked, keep the heat low and add the red wine to deglaze the casserole, stirring all the time with a wooden spatula or spoon.  Get all of the bits of meatball off the base and add the tomatoes and the beef stock.  Bring to a rolling boil and stir gently for around two minutes; just enough time to burn off the alcohol in the red wine.

Lower the heat and stir in the puree.  Bruise each garlic clove before throwing into the sauce.  Finally, add the dry ingredients and stir.  Once the sauce is simmering, gently add the meatballs and add enough stock to cover them.  Keep the sauce simmering for at least an hour with the lid off to reduce the liquid.  Stir from time to time and stop cooking when the sauce is nice and thick (or to your liking).  Taste the sauce and season it if necessary.  Remove the bay leaf before serving.

The good news is that soutzoukakia can be served with all kinds of things.  As I said earlier, I love them with chips and a crunchy cabbage salad, but they’re just as good with mash, roasted potatoes or in a hot baguette with some grated cheese on top!  You gotta love meatballs!

SAM_1607

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The taste of home.

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I spent a couple of weeks in Crete rediscovering the tastes and smells from my early days there. It was surprising to find that the food which brought back the most memories was not the most memorable itself.

Sitting at a table by the sea, I looked at the myriad of plates and began to add this and that to my own. There was one dish, however, which I mistook for houmous until I tasted it. I dipped in some beautiful bread and suddenly I was four years old again. The taste was rich and comforting and so familiar. “What is this? I recognise the taste, but I don’t know it’s name”. It was fava.

The reason that I love fava so much is because it is a fantastic vehicle for olive oil. It’s very simple to make and there are very few ingredients. The main ingredient is yellow split lentils. When cooked down to a thick consistency, they carry the flavour of extra-virgin olive oil like few other foods can. If peasant food isn’t your thing, or you don’t care for the taste of good olive oil, this is perhaps your time to bail and return when there’s a pudding recipe (next week). If you are like me and crave the good stuff, then fava is a truly wonderful way to make use of that oil in your cupboard reserved for only your best dishes. Will fava wow your friends at a dinner party? Nope, but your tummy will love it!

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Fava

250g yellow split peas

2 onions (sliced)

1 garlic clove (chopped)

extra-virgin olive oil

juice of half a lemon

sea salt

Rinse the split peas in cold water and then put them into a pan of boiling water with the onions.  Bring back to the boil and simmer.  I usually put just enough water in to cover the peas and then add more as it is absorbed.  When the split peas are thick and mushy, I transfer them to a container that I can use my hand blender in without getting spattered.  I add the garlic, lemon juice and a lot of extra-virgin olive oil and blitz it.  The fava should be soft and full of the flavour of the oil.  Be careful not to add too much lemon juice and then season with a little salt until you’re happy with it.

I like eating fava on its own, but it’s also great served alongside fish and any Greek dishes.  Drizzle more oil onto it just before serving.  Fava refrigerates well and can be brought back to life in the microwave and the addition of (yet more) olive oil.  Serving it warm, rather than hot is the way to go.  So grab a chunk of your favourite bread and dive into my favourite comfort food!

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Pastitsio vs Stifado

“You can’t beat a good stifado” he said, pointing at me and grinning mischievously.  Years later, surrounded by the aroma of tomato and beef infused with cinnamon, I’m tempted to say that the maths teacher was right.

At high school, I had a perfectly friendly maths teacher who did his best to get his pupils to where they should be, but every now and again, a colleague of his would stride into the classroom and on his way in or out, would strike up some friendly banter with me about the merits of various Greek dishes.  His opening line was always the same: “Had any stifado recently?”

Having guessed that my origins were Greek from my name, this chirpy maths teacher (Mr. J) enjoyed sharing his memories of beef stifado and seemed to like hearing about my own affections for pastitsio: a dish that my mum made and that I still make now with a mixture of love and utter glee.  Note to self: must update the recipe to include my own bechamel sauce which has been perfected recently.

The maths teacher and I would continue our faux argument over which dish was champion until it was time for him to let the lesson continue and for me to focus once more on things more likely to help me gain qualifications.  I wished that the stifado enthusiast was my teacher, but he wasn’t and so our conversations rarely moved beyond sauce and seasoning.

Stifado is essentially pieces of meat cooked slowly in tomatoes and red wine with baby onions.  I like beef stifado, but it can also be made with rabbit.  It’s a wonderfully warming dish with a rich sauce and satisfying flavour.  I wonder what Mr. J would make of my version of the classic Greek dish?  I dare say he’d prefer it to my first attempts at high school maths.

Beef stifado

500g best braising beef

500g baby onions

1 glass red wine

2 tins chopped tomatoes

half cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic

2 tspoons ground cinnamon

1 tblspoon dried oregano

If you want to marinate the beef in red wine and garlic overnight, be my guest.  It does help.  If you don’t have that kinda time or forethought, then begin by shallow frying the peeled baby onions until golden.  Remove from the oil and set aside.

Next, brown the beef in the onion oil and add the cinnamon and oregano.  Pour in the chopped tomatoes and bring to the boil.  Add the red wine and boil for a minute or so to burn off the alcohol.  Drop some cloves of garlic into the pot.  I usually give them a quick bash with the back of my knife so that they release their flavour during cooking.

Simmer with the lid on for an hour.  Keep the heat low enough not to burn everything in the pot, but just high enough to keep everything on a gentle simmer.

After an hour, add as much black pepper as you dare and plenty of salt to taste.  Tip the onions in and cook uncovered for at least another hour until the beef is very tender and the sauce thick.  If the sauce reduces too much, just top up with water or stock.  Eventually, you’ll end up with a nice thick sauce, melt-in-your-mouth beef and beautifully flavoured baby onions.

Stifado goes well with potatoes and I sometimes have a fresh cabbage salad on the side because it has quite a rich sauce.  You’ll certainly need plenty of your favourite bread to mop it all up!

Greek food tastes best the day after it’s made: The two-day tray.

Thank goodness that mum learned to cook lots of Greek dishes while in Crete.  It allowed me and my brother to keep our links with Greece during a confusing and rather chilly time.  Moving to England was strange and the comfort of familiar flavours was important.

One of the dishes that has graced mum’s dinner table over the years is stuffed vegetables.  Mum would spend time preparing the mixture of beef and rice with herbs and then cook a range of peppers and tomatoes in a roasting tin until the aromas filled the house with the memory of warmer days.

As children, the variety was a big draw and the colours brought excitement to the table.  For once, vegetables were the centre of the meal.  We didn’t care what mum served the stuffed vegetables with.  Often we’d have them on their own or with a salad.  They are quite filling and cheap to make; another reason why mum made them regularly.  The best part though, was knowing that we’d be eating them the next day too.  Mum always made what I came to regard as a “two-day tray”.  God bless you, mum!

Something I’ve enjoyed making is spanakorizo, which is a mixture of rice, spinach and tomatoes.  It makes a lovely side dish, but I decided to use the spanakorizo to stuff some tomatoes and peppers and roast them in the oven like mum used to.  We ate the vegetables over two days and really enjoyed them.  I hope you do too!

Spanakorizo-stuffed vegetables

4 peppers (halved)

3 beef tomatoes

350g long grain rice

350g spinach

1 tin chopped tomatoes

chicken stock

1 tblspoon dried oregano

1 tblspoon fresh mint (chopped)

1 tbslpoon tomato puree

olive oil

sea salt

pepper

Cook the rice in the chicken stock until it has absorbed the liquid and cooked through.  Add the chopped tomatoes and oregano and bring to the boil.  Add the spinach and tomato puree and simmer until the liquid has reduced.

At this point, I usually pour in a good glug of olive oil and stir it through the rice.  I also season the rice with sea salt to taste.  Grind plenty of black pepper over the rice and mix in.  Finally, stir in the chopped fresh mint.  Now you’re ready to stuff the vegetables.

Cut the peppers in half and drizzle some oil in each half before adding spoonfuls of the spanakorizo to them.  Cut a lid off each of the beef tomatoes and scoop out the seeds and flesh.  Drizzle some oil inside and then fill with the spanakorizo.

Roast the vegetables in the middle of the oven at 160C until the rice is beginning to brown and go crispy on top.  I love olive oil, so I usually drizzle all of the vegetables with more oil and season them again before they roast.  As the juices in the tin collect, baste the vegetables every now and again.  This keeps the flavours in your vegetables.

If you want the rice on top of the tomatoes to crisp up, just take the lids off for a while in the oven.