Friday, September 23, 2016

You've Had The Food at the Annual Greek Fest, Now Learn How To Make Them! (And Something About Ouzo)

This blog post is being written under much duress.

When we started working on this post, several, shall we say..."obstacles" began heading our way.

First off, the car died. Like flat out just wont start. And when our trusted mechanic of several years is just staring into the maw of our engine, scratching his bald head and going, "Yeah...this one is a mystery to me", you know we are doomed. So that prevented us from getting anywhere to do a piece with a bit more meat attached to it. All the images you see on this post are uploads from the internet. Not our usual way of going about things. Sucks.

Next up was a complete blackout in our neighborhood. Literally, the few blocks surrounding us, and no one else, was dark for most of Wednesday September 21st. We lost a bit of work and had to wait till the lights came back on (later that night) to save what could be saved, so this post isn't as awesome as we thought it would be. Sorry about that.

Not to mention a blackout in 100 degree heat just kept us quiet and drinking cool water as the central air was off and slowly, as the day progressed, it became a bit swampy in the Tucson Homeskillet compound. Not fun. And without a car, we were stuck there.

But...whatever. We press on! Let's do this.

It's autumn which can only mean one thing: Pumpkin spiced 40oz of malt liquor!

(Wow...that would be weird wouldn't it?)

No. Actually the autumnal equinox means that the annual Greek Festival at St. Demitrios Church on Ft. Lowell begins. It's a four day bacchanalia celebrating not just Greek culture, but, and this is most important, Greek food and drink. We attend every year and for us the Greek Fest means that the good weather is about to start here in Tucson, the holiday season is upon us and the next day, after much Greek hedonistic mirth, a slight headache from the tall cans of Keo beer and many shots of Ouzo is to be had. Hey....tradition!

Last year we were lucky to be privy to the backstage area of the cooking tent, getting deep with those assembling gyro sandwiches, doling out dolmas and making the flames rise high as saganaki gets drenched in clear booze on a hot skillet.

So to attempt something new, we thought maybe this year we'd try out some recipes inspired by some of the cuisine you might partake of at the Greek Festival. At least some of our favorites. We got as close as we could to what they create during the annual event and we hope you enjoy the following dishes (and drinks!) as much as we do.

And speaking of flaming cheese, the saganaki is the first item up for your cooking consideration.


Upon entering the Greek Festival, outside of the lines of crafts, jewelry and dancing going on, you are usually met with someone yelling "Opa!" as flashes of fire extend from a searing hot pan. That means that saganaki, or "flaming cheese", is being made. It's one of our favorites and is always a great way to start off the festivities. 

The cheese is gooey with a light crust from the frying and alcohol char with a quick splash of lemon to round it all off, giving it a well deserved citrus note. 

Saganaki is crazy delicious and fairly simple to prepare. You just have to be a little brave is all because cooking with face high fire might have you cry "AHH!" instead of "OPA!"

Check it out and good luck:

1 slab of Greek cheese, such as Halloumi or Kasseri, about 1/2 inch thick and trimmed of any rind
1 heaping Tbsp. of olive oil
All-purpose flour for dredging
1/2 shot glass of Ouzo (we'll get to that later...)
Wedge of lemon

Pre-heat a heavy-bottomed skillet (a cast-iron pan works very well) to a medium-high heat. Place your slab of cheese under running tap water then dredge in all-purpose flour. Shake off any excess flour.
Add your olive oil to the skillet. Add a sprinkle of flour into the pan to test if the oil is hot enough. As soon as it sizzles, add your cheese to the skillet and sear for a couple of minutes. Carefully flip the cheese with a spatula and allow to sear for a couple of minutes on the other side.
Turn off your heat source and carefully carry your cheese saganaki to your table and pour the brandy ( or Ouzo) over the cheese and ignite with a lighter. Move your head back, shout “OPA!” and squeeze the wedge of lemon over the cheese.
Serve immediately with crusty bread, some Ouzo and a can of Keo beer.


Look, just like Indian cuisine, we leave the complicated food prep to the professionals. Trying to recreate the flavors of gyro spit meat cannot be duplicated in a small kitchen such as ours. But we can get down with a mean tzaziki.

Tzatziki is great on its own with just some bread but we also like it with shwarma and, of course, a meaty gyro sandwich or gyro plate. It adds a bit of texture, cools down the heat a bit and makes the girth of bread and beef go down a little smoother.

Lemony, dilly and....cucumbery(?), a good tzatziki can make any Greek dish brighter and more yogurty(?). Nevermind.

Anyway, here is what we came up with:

2 cups plain Greek yogurt
2 cups diced cucumber (or shredded)
½ cup fresh dill - minced
¼ cup lemon juice
2 garlic cloves - grated
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl check for seasoning. Add more dill, lemon, garlic or salt/pepper to your taste.
Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.


Now here is where things get serious.

At its essence, pastitsio is Greek lasagna. And...its amazing.

Just layers of seasoned meat sauce, baked pasta and, of course, lots of cheese. The best part about real authentic pastitsio is the addition of a bechamel sauce. It really adds a whole level of flavor but, unfortunately, can make this recipe a bit time consuming and tricky. In the end though, it is very worth it.

This year you can find pastitsio in the fancier dining area as the Greek Fest people have separated the food stations into "street" and "dinner service". It makes sense because years past you just find yourself winding through an endless line that reminds you of a busy day at Disneyland, except at the end you get incredible Greek food rather than a ten second ride with R2-D2s and Buzz Lightyears and stuff bleeping and blooping you into near psychedelic hysteria.

Forget that....let's get cooking!

The Meat Sauce

1 ½ lbs. ground veal (or beef, though minced lamb can also be used)
1 large or 2 medium-sized yellow onion(s), finely diced
2 bay leaves
2 cloves of garlic, grated
1 ½ cups fresh strained tomato juice (or ¼ cup tomato paste diluted in 1½ cups of water.)
¼ cup white wine
¼ cup - ⅓ cup Greek extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

The Pasta

1 lb. of Greek pasta (or Bucatini, or Ziti)
2 tbsp. Greek extra virgin olive oil
3 egg whites, beaten (the yolks will be used in the béchamel sauce)
¼ cup grated Kefalotyri (or Parmesan cheese if you try but cannot find the Greek cheese)

The Béchamel Sauce

4 cups of scalded milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup grated Kefalotyri cheese (or, you know, Parm) 
½ cup of salted butter
3 egg yolks, well beaten
½ - 1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the diced onions over a medium heat until soft. Add the ground veal to the pan and break it up thoroughly. Keep stirring constantly over a medium high heat for 5 minutes or so to brown all of the meat and mingle it completely with the onion.
Once the meat is completely browned, add the rosemary, garlic, wine, and the fresh tomato juice (or tomato paste diluted in water) to the pan along with salt and pepper to taste, and mix well. Bring to a boil, add the bay leaves and make sure to immerse them in the sauce, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pan with its lid leaving it only slightly uncovered to allow the excess water to evaporate as steam. Simmer for about 30 minutes or so. Stir the sauce occasionally. When ready, the meat will have absorbed the liquid in the pan. Remove the bay leaves and set aside when done.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, add the pasta to the water and parboil it until soft but not fully cooked (about 3/4 of the suggested cooking time on the package).
While the pasta is cooking, make the béchamel sauce. Start by melting the butter in a deep saucepan over a medium heat, then, using a whisk or immersion blender with a whisk attachment, slowly incorporate the flour by adding it to the melted butter in stages while stirring continually to avoid the formation of lumps. Once the flour has been fully incorporated, slowly add the hot milk while continuing to constantly stir the butter and flour paste to ensure a smooth consistency. Once the milk has been added, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the grated cheese, nutmeg, pepper and egg yolks in that order while continuing to rapidly stir the mixture. Set aside when smooth and well-mixed. However, do not let it stand for too long without a good stirring as you do not want the top to start congealing. By this point your pasta should be ready.
Drain the water completely from the pasta pot and return pot with pasta to the heat, add the two tablespoons of olive oil to the pasta and mix well to ensure a thorough coating of oil as we do not want the pasta to get sticky. Remove the pot from the heat, let stand for a few minutes to cool and then add the egg whites to the pasta, along with the ¼ cup of grated Kefalotyri cheese and mix well, then set aside momentarily.
Rub a little olive into the sides and bottom of your baking dish, and then add about two-thirds of the pasta to the dish to form a bottom layer. Make sure to spread the pasta evenly in order to completely cover the bottom of the dish, make sure not to leave any empty spaces.
Spread the meat sauce over top of the bottom pasta layer, ensuring to distribute it evenly and right to the edges of the casserole. The meat layer must be of uniform thickness and must not have any gaps.
Add the remaining pasta over top of the meat layer, distributing it evenly.
Pour the béchamel sauce over of the final pasta layer, make sure to cover the entire surface area of the dish.
Place the casserole uncovered in an oven pre-heated to 350°F (180°C) and bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until the béchamel sauce is golden brown.
Remove casserole from oven and set aside to cool before serving. As already mentioned above, this dish is best served on the following day after its baking. However, if you must eat it on the same day, make sure it has a chance to cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting it into pieces. Do not make the mistake of cutting it before it has had a chance to cool, you will end up with messy servings. Cut it only when it has cooled, (ideally overnight in the refrigerator) and warm the pieces before serving.


Luckily there are vittles at the Greek Festival that wont damage your waistline or wallet. If you're just looking for a sweet treat, look no further than the honey speckled, deep fried goodness of loukoumades.

If donut holes went Mediterranean, loukoumades would be it. There are variations on this snack; some top it with chocolate sauce, sometimes honey, others sprinkle powdered sugar on do what you want because any way you embellish them these lil' dough bites are tasty. But the recipe that follows is pretty straight forward Greek style and the walnuts add a well intended crunch.

Very unlike the pastitsio, these guys are fairly straight forward and simple but just be careful when you toss 'em in the hot oil.

If you had enough Metaxa, such as we did, you get a little heavy handed and throw them in like slammer Pogs and, trust us here, hot fryer oil kinda hurts. Buzzing heavily or not.

Lets go...

4½ cups + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon instant dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
2¼ cups warm water, divided
Vegetable oil, for frying
1-2 cups honey, for drizzling
Ground cinnamon, for sprinkling
Coarsely ground walnuts, for sprinkling

In a large bowl, mix 4½ cups flour and the salt. Dissolve the yeast in ½ cups warm water, together with 1 tablespoon honey and 1 tablespoon flour.
Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the yeast mixture. Add the remaining 1¾ cups water. Mix using a spatula, until you get a sticky, loose batter. If the texture of the batter isn't like this, add more water to achieve the right consistency. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let raise for 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
Fill half of the pot with oil and heat to 375°F.
Now you need to shape your loukoumades. There are two ways to do that:
1) Oil your hands, take a handful of the batter and clench your fist around it. Squeeze out a knob of the batter between your fingers, scoop it up with an oiled tablespoon and drop into the hot oil.
2) Oil two tablespoons. Lift a little bit of the batter on one and push it off into the hot oil using another one.
The puffs are ready when they rise to the top and are light golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and dry on paper towels.
Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with cinnamon and walnuts.


Yeah, we're not going to give you a recipe for Ouzo...because, no. Again, leave the complicated items to the seasoned pros. Making your own Ouzo is essentially doing moonshine because this stuff is for real Greek airline fuel.

If you grew up drinking Ouzo then the hint of anise and the fact that just a few sips in you're breaking plates wont bother you. For most of us in western society, Ouzo is a curiosity and a "once in a while" liquid delicacy. As is the Greek Festival. It's literally the only time we drink it. But maybe you're different. Maybe you down the clear distilled hooch like cheap beer. And that's how we like to enjoy it, with a tall can of Mythos or Keo...again, only consumed at the Greek Fest.

What's fun about Ouzo is that if you put ice in it the liquor goes a milky color. Kind of like absinthe, the oil in the anise causes emulsion and if your friends are good n' drunk, lot and lots of rude names come to mind when you chill Ouzo with ice. But we usually drink it straight. Just get it over with.

Here's the tricky part: Sort of like tequila, Ouzo sneaks up on you. If you do a shot or three you wont notice an immediate intoxicating effect. That...comes later. After a few is when your pals Greg and Dakota are on the stage trying to do the traditional Tsamiko dance, totally wrecking it and embarrassing themselves but afterwards they roll up to you, warbling and slurring, and proclaim:

"Did you see us up there? Killed it!"

Just drink responsible kids. The cops are out in mega force during Greek Fest, so be sure to eat enough souvlaki and baklava to soak up the booze before you hit the road home to cook up these delicious dishes.

Above all though...just have fun! We always do.  If you like what you ate at the Greek Fest then give these recipes a shot. Most are pretty easy, one takes a bit of time but all in all if you can't get to the festival this year, at least you can eat, and drink, like you did.

Ya sou!

Typing, Taste Testing and Uploads
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Getting Ready for the Greek Festival, 2016

Metal Influence:

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