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How to Know You’re in Real Diner: Koulourakia

12 Mar

Some Signs You’re in a Real, Live, Greek-Owned Diner:

1. There is no “hostess.” There is 60ish year-old, probably-balding man dressed in gray slacks and a white button-down shirt (top two buttons undone) who gives you a stern look up and down before seating you. He is probably named Gus, John, or Nick, is almost definitely the owner,  and is definitely seating you with the waitress he deems to suit you– the one who can handle 15 teenagers, the one who will call remember your order from last weekend, or the one who will flirt shamelessly with you.

2. The menu is 17 pages long, with an inserted “Specials” page. If the menu is not laminated, you are not in a diner. If there is no Sirloin steak special, you are not in a diner. If anyone orders off a page that is not titled “Breakfast,” “From the Grill,” “Greek Specialties,” or the aforementioned “Today’s Specials,” you are not in a diner (or you are with someone who has no business in a diner). Bonus points for authenticity if the Specials page is hand written and there is an instance of using a “p” where an “r” should be.

3. As soon as you walk in, there is a pastry case that has baking sheets upon baking sheets of cookies. There are some eclairs in there too, a couple cakes with the whipped-cream icing piled too high, and baklava. But the real show stoppers are the cookies.

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And that, my friends, is the recipe we’re eating today: koulourakia! These were my favorite growing up- they’re meant to be dunked in tea or coffee, but I love this only-slightly-sweet butter-based cookie all by itself. With traces of orange and vanilla and a biscuit consistency, they are the perfect cookie for just about any occasion.

I made these gluten-free with Cup4Cup, which has friggin revolutionized my gluten-free baking. I am going to write an entire post about Cup4Cup, but in the meantime–just know it is worth every penny. I also used coconut sugar in place of white sugar, and they turned out PERFECTLY. Just like I remember them from my grandfather’s diner.

Koulourakia: Orange Honey Twist Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1.5 c butter, softened
  • 1.25 c sugar (I used coconut sugar)
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 TBS orange juice
  • 3 tsp vanilla extract
  • 5.25 cups all-purpose flour (I used Cup4Cup for gluten-free)
  • 1.5  tsp baking powder
  • 0.75 tsp baking soda

Assembly

1. Preheat oven to 350F. In a large bowl of electric mixer, cream butter and sugar. Add 2 eggs; beat well. Beat in orange juice and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder and baking soda; gradually add to creamed mixture. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour or until easy to handle.

2. Roll dough into 1-1/4-in. balls. Shape each into a 6-in. rope; fold in half and twist twice (see this post for more details on twisting and billions of koulourakia pictures). Alternatively, you can just make them drop cookies.  Place 2 in. apart on ungreased baking sheets.

3. In a small bowl, beat the remaining eggs; brush over dough. Bake at 350° for 7-12 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Cool on wire racks.  Makes about 6-1/2 dozen.

London, Actually, Is All Around

19 Feb

What do two people who haven’t shared a line of longitude since 2009 do to celebrate Presidents’ Day? Jump a few time zones, naturally, and mosey on over to London to see their smart, beautiful, hilarious, cousin. FEBREGOSTO!

Quite by accident, pretty much the first thing we happened upon in London was the posh Whole Foods near Notting Hill.

IMG_1010Thought that use of “posh” was just a gratuitous Britishism? Think again. This Whole Foods has a Champagne Bar and AN ENTIRE ROOM DEDICATED TO CHEESE THAT IS HUMIDIFIED AND TEMPERATURE CONTROLLED. And that’s just on the first floor– we didn’t even make it to the other two levels.

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IMG_1013Then we headed over to Portobello Road, street where the riches of ages are sold

IMG_1018and poked about London, which was mostly sunny and not rainy- who knew?

IMG_1024After we headed to the Satchi, there was some street food that took a LOT of sibling-imposed restraint not to engage

IMG_1017and some mulled wine that neither of us tried even a little bit to talk ourselves out of.

IMG_1019Then, as per tradition, it was time for an Afternoon Caffeinated Beverage (yes–it’s a proper noun).

IMG_1025At which point I found out that I was accepted into a program to become a Nurse Practitioner, so we had to turn the ACB into a Celebratory Champagne Cocktail. Which is pretty much when people started to assume we were on our honeymoon.

IMG_1026Until JetSet did his very best impression of our Italian teacher, who loved to talk about Marie Antoinette’s breasts (known to Signora as “the tits”). Then it was pretty clear we weren’t dating. I hope.

IMG_1027We pulled it together for some tapas, whose number clearly overwhelmed me.

IMG_1028The next day was all business: the British Museum, Tate Modern, and OTTOLENGHI!

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IMG_1030Clearly, Yotam will get an entire post devoted to him (but check out this, this, this, and this to recall why I love him so).

JetSet and I continued our walking tour of London, where we ran into one of his colleagues from Dubai as well as a little piece of home, NBNY

IMG_1043not to mention the Globe Theatre

IMG_1053some lovely scenery

IMG_1055a farmer’s market JetSet went to like a year ago that was closed on Sunday but he swore it was the best ever

IMG_1057and St Paul’s.

IMG_1058Speaking of St Paul’s… does this view look at all familiar to you?

IMG_1046IT IS THE VERY SPOT WHERE DANIEL AND SAM HAVE THEIR HEART TO HEART ABOUT LOVE!

loveactually4-14Of course, we had to re-enact the moment

IMG_1050“What could be worse than the total agony of being in love?”

IMG_1051I insisted we head into a grocery store, where I found two travesties that make me THRILLED those people threw that tea into that harbor all those years ago:

photo 3Do not adjust your computer screen– that is, in fact, a Skittles Shake. Blech.

photo 2JetSet and I agreed: worse than the American mispronunciation of Oikos (οἶκος) is this British butchering of the spelling. Double blech. But at least Danon had the good sense to make this commercial.

Then, just as quickly as we came, it was time to be off again.

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It was an extremely lovely weekend- low on stress, high on family, and sure to happen again just as soon as I can rack up enough miles to fly across the world again for a long weekend.

Stuffed Tomatoes

17 May

Asking me to pick a favorite Greek Easter dish is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child– everyone knows she has one, but no one wants her to say out loud who it is.

Luckily–I’m not a mother. So I don’t mind screaming from the rooftops that gemista (literally: the stuffed) are my FAVORITE!

gemiste

On a scale of 1-to-easy, these are about a 5 or so. Lots of prep work involved, but not of the highly technical variety. I have been using this recipe for years and it is ALWAYS a crowd pleaser. ALWAYS. Except of course the first time I made them and I didn’t cook the rice and it took what I think was every ounce of self restraint for my Pappou not to laugh uncontrollably in my face.

My only additional thoughts are these:

  • DO NOT believe that raisins are optional. They are required. And they are delicious.
  • Use a serrated table steak knife (or any sharp but not too sharp knife) to remove the flesh. If you use your sharpest paring knife, you will accidentally cut through the skin of the tomato. Believe me when I say this.
  • You will have left over filling– use it in a casserole or over pasta or something. It is so yummy.
  • I never use a full 1.5 c water to bake the tomatoes in– I use a little less than one cup and then put a TBS or two of leftover filling between each tomato and bake it like that. But in the interest of keeping someone else’s recipe in tact, I have included the original instructions below.

    Stuffed Tomatoes

  • Ingredients
  • 10 medium perfectly-ripe beefsteak tomatoes (cheapest thing is to buy them day-of at Trader Joe’s)
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 10 heaping tablespoons rice, prepared
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese (unless you happen to have hard mizithra cheese or kefalograviera cheese), either shredded or the way it comes when using it for spaghetti… no idea what that’s called
  • 1/2 cup sultana raisin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • salt and pepperAssembly
    1. Preheat oven to 375. Cut off tops of tomatoes (retain tops) and carefully scoop out flesh (retain this as well) using a knife and spoon. Place tomatoes in a glass pan large enough to hold them comfortably.
    2. Take tomato flesh and process it until pureed.
    1. Add olive oil, rice, onion, garlic, mint, nuts, cheese, sultanas, 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper (or season to taste).
    2. Stuff the vegetables evenly with this mixture.
    3. Replace tops of tomatoes.
    4. Combine 1 cup of water and 1/2 cup olive oil with a scant tablespoonful of tomato paste and a little salt and pepper and pour this around the veg.
    5. Bake in a preheated 375F oven (180C) for approx 1 3/4 hours (vegetables should pierce easily and be slightly blackened in parts).
    6. Turn off oven and leave in for another hour to’mellow’ before serving.
    7. This is best served slightly warm or at room temperature.

Occupy the Grocery Store: Not-So-Giant Gigantes

24 Apr

Let’s play Family Feud. Except in this version, Steve Harvey won’t survey 100 people; he’ll survey just two people. Chef Kefi, RN and her brother, JetSet Kef.

Reasons for a Late-Night International Phone Call

5. Major holiday spent apart and What’sApp not working
4. Conference-call-style advice for a friend trying to recreate scenes from Love Actually to win over his one true love
3. Cooking advice
2. TIE: To find out an easily-googled phone number for drunk pizza delivery/ An update on FARAH’S life

And the number one reason to make a late-night international phone call for the SiblingsKef is:
1. TO INFORM THE OTHER THAT WE HAVE A NEW GREEK FRIEND AND THAT HE IS FROM THE SAME SMALL VILLAGE AS o παππούς μας (translation: our grandfather. And sorry — I don’t know how to use caps in the Greek alphabet yet).

So picture this. Good ol’ Chef Kef is having the time of her little life at the Zaytinya agorá, talking about this delicious Greek honey and rubbing shoulders (literally) with Chef Jose Andres. The Greek Table stand is right next to the Manoli Canoli stand, and I overhear that the oil comes from Sparti, birthplace of the FamilyKef.  This is the classic Greek-American Choose Your Own Adventure scenario: I could FREAK OUT AND DEMAND TO KNOW EXACTLY WHERE IN THE

IMG_0274SPARTA AREA THIS OIL IS FROM (obnoxiously classic Greek-American reaction), or I could play it cool and try to strike up conversation naturally with my new countryman (favored by the nouveau-cool caste of dual citizens everywhere). Bet you won’t need three guesses to figure out which I did.

For once, it turns out that choosing the former worked out–turns out that Manoli Canoli’s owner has a dear friend from the exact same teeeeeeeeeensy village that my family is from. Naturally, I took this as a reason to wake up my very hard-working brother from a dead sleep  half-way across the world and tell him that I know someone who knows someone who is from Potomiá. And there you have it, sports fans. The global village of Greeks strikes again.

In honor of all the excitement, I thought I’d whip up a version of Gigantes, a salad of giant beans and tomatoes that is popular in mezzeria and delis everywhere. I was very sad to find that gigantes are extremely hard to find in the Mid-Atlantic region (seriously–if neither Trader Joe’s nor Whole Foods has them, we’re talking about a rare find), so I subbed the traditional fasiola bean for something called the Great Northern bean, which comes in a can and cost a whopping $0.89. I also switched out the usual flat-leaf parsley for fresh dill, as I find parsley to be a complete and utter waste of an herb. All in all, a delish dish that doesn’t require much of you–just the way we like it.

Gigantes

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Ingredients

  • 1 can of Great Northern beans (available at Trader Joe’s) or 14 oz fasiola gigantes beans–if you find them, please tell me where
  • 6 TBS olive oil
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, diced
  • 2 tsp fresh thyme
  • 14 oz (1 can) diced tomatoes (fire-roasted is the best)
  • 2 TBS tomato paste, dilute in 1 c hot water
  • fresh dill, to taste (I used about 1/5 a large bunch)
  • black pepper, to taste

Assembly

1. If you are lucky enough to have gigantes proper, soak the beans in cold water overnight. Then drain them, rinse them again with cold water, and drain again. Cover the beans with cold water in a big pot. Bring to a boil. Cover the pan and cook for about 30 minutes, until they are almost tender.

2. For the rest of us: Preheat oven to 350F. Heat the olive oil in a saute pan, add the onion and cook until the onions become soft, a little golden, and fragrant–probably about 4 minutes. Add the carrots, garlic, and thyme. Stir with a wooden spoon until a delicious garlic smell is wafting from the pan (2-3 min).

3. Stir in the diced tomatoes, cover the pan and let cook on medium for 10 minutes. Add the diluted tomato paste, then add the beans. Add black pepper and dill to taste.

4. Transfer the bean/tomato mixture from the pan and into a glass baking dish. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until beans are tender and moisture has reduced (but mixture is not dry). The tomato sauce will look slightly burnt–this means it’s done!

Lakis: May His Memory Be Eternal

20 Jul

On this, his name day and anniversary of death, we remember my grandfather. Pictured above enjoying kefi with his lifelong friend Costas and below at the opening of the Fireside Diner. It is undoubtedly his presence in heaven that has kept Barack Obama from successfully staging the modern American military coup. Take it easy, take it easy!

The Marathon Begins

14 Apr

The first spanakopita of Greek Easter 2012 has just gone into the oven, which gives me a second to pause and think about why I spend an entire weekend every year covered in olive oil and spinach.

There are two main reasons that keep me looking forward to this time each year.  The first is that Orthodox Easter is usually 1-2 weeks behind Roman Easter, which reminds us that Jesus was, in fact, a socialist and that he ascribed to the more relaxed lifestyle of the Southern Mediterranean and took his sweet time rising from the dead (I mean, wouldn’t you?). The second (and more legit) reason I so look forward to Greek Easter is that it brings back all the Keftastic memories of the times my family was less scattered across this green earth.

As a kid, we would squeeze into the Camry (JetSet Kef on the driver’s side with his GameBoy, BabyKef in the middle annoying the living bejesus out of her siblings, and yours truly trying desperately not to get car sick on the passenger’s side) and drive to New Jersey.  There, we would find a diner that had been transformed from a bustling business to an inviting living room–the tables were rearranged to accommodate what seemed like every Greek in New Jersey, and for that one day, traditional Greek music played louder than the Whitney Houston coming from the juke boxes.  It was always nice to see my grandfather’s friends and eat something other than the diner’s famous “Chicken in a Basket”–but what I REALLY looked forward to was what we called “the red egg game.”

You can read more about the game here— I gotta go get the spanakopita out of the oven.  I leave you with a picture of my grandfather on one of his happiest days, when my brother convened the first KefiFamily Greek Easter in years.  We’ll miss my grandfather this year, but I know he is watching with approval and ranting about Barack Obama the Communist from Heaven. Σας αγαπάμε, παππού!

A Man, a Dream, A Legacy of Kefi

1 Sep

Once upon a time in a small village outside Sparta, Greece, a family gathered to bid adieu to one of their own.  Turned off by the politics du jour (or, as it were, du decades), Lakis decided to leave behind his family, the olive oil factory they had operated for years, and the small-town life of Sparta in the hopes of hitting it big in the bustling metropolis of…. Wilkes-Barre, PA.   More than half a century later, when I would meet for the first time the family my Pappous left behind, my mother’s cousin would tell me that although she had been devastated by her favorite uncle’s departure, she was heartened by the belief that American baby dolls could walk and talk and that, one day, Lakis might return with one of these magical dolls for her.

 I can’t imagine what my Pappous must have thought when he arrived in north-eastern Pennsylvania to find that the streets were paved in coal, not gold.  There’s a lot I don’t know about this particular coming-to-America story, and it’s hard to tell the chicken from the egg here.  Maybe my Pappous was the kind of kid who ran the Greek-equivalent of lemonade stands and bubble gum hustles as soon as he was old enough to count drachmas, or maybe he was transformed by the Holy Spirits of mid-century America: opportunity and entrepreneurship.  What I do know is that my grandfather immediately got to work, joining a network of established Greek business owners already beloved by the community, and it wasn’t long before he owned his own diner in New Jersey.

 Now, before you get all “oh–this girl’s grandfather came over here from Greece and opened a diner in New Jersey…tell me a story I haven’t heard 10,092 times” let me qualify this by saying Lakis’ diner was more than just a diner: it was a Kefi center.  For most of my life I thought my fond memories of the diner were a function of having known its owner–for me and my siblings, the kitchen was always open, the diplas were always fresh and the sizzler steak was always free.  My first Greek lessons came from a server named Donna who taught me everything she knew–the extent of which, sadly, did not go past kalimera, kalispera, and kalinihta–and I saw first hand the kind of work it took to run a small business in America.  While most of my friends and their families rarely enjoyed the luxury of eating out in those days, my family and I enjoyed some of our favorite memories while squeezed into the vinyl booths of the diner: my sister losing her front tooth in a basket of fried chicken, my brother surviving his first day of employment as a bus boy, even performing the impossible–surprising Pappou in his own diner for his 65th birthday party.

 But it turns out that this kind of kefi was not reserved just for my family and me.  When my Pappou passed away (may his memory be eternal), his viewing and funeral were full of former customers, business partners, and employees who remembered the diner as a place where people came together and neighbors helped each other out.  Servers who had worked for Lakis for 25 and 30 years came, telling us he had been the “best boss” they ever had.  People told stories of his kindness–opening the diner to the hungry for a free Thanksgiving meal, cashing a check in the middle of the night for long-time customers in a bind–and his playfulness: he had locked a server in the freezer as a first-day prank, only to be locked in the same freezer by the same server days later.  It was overwhelming to see the way that one little dream–to come to America and create something–had turned into something far beyond my grandfather, my family, or my memory.

 This post is conspicuously replete of recipes or drool-worthy food photos. It’s just a little homage to the kind of person who has informed my thoughts of kefi–someone who organized a community just by being there, and who brought people together for purpose, not profit.  The diner is long gone now–in fact, it’s now a White Castle–but it’s clear that people never forget kefi or the people who create it.

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