Sometimes I rack my brain trying to come up with something new and interesting for dinner .Be it a dinner party or just cooking for the family, I get stuck. Like writers with writers block, artists who can’t paint the next great piece, chefs and home cooks alike get into ruts. Getting in is easy but how to get out is the real deal. When I get stuck like most I look to others to help me out. This can take the form of people, countries and cultures. Sometimes it is leaving through food magazines or cookbooks. The TV doesn’t often help as there is such garbage but inspiration is everywhere if you look.
One of my funny inspirations was quite recent. My very old and dear friend Chef Sam Glass is a head professor at Centennial College’s International Chef programme. I sit on the advisory board of this awesome programme and also help out from time to time. On this occasion Sam had me come and taste-judge-test one of the final cooking exams at Centennial. My day was Mediterranean food. There were approximately 30 students and we had to taste, grade and comment on each component of a dish. The first dish up was Spanakopita with Tzatziki. I have never had this combination together but there is always a first time. Some were very good with the right balance of filling, the Tzatziki was well shredded cucumber, minced garlic and a bit of dill others had me thinking a would not have to worry about vampires for a very long time. Next up was Grilled Chicken in a Pita with more Tzatziki, Babaganoush and Hummus. Again, some pita was perfect, some chicken juicy, but it was about process and how well they had thought things through.
When we finished we chatted with the students. Chef Sam had a great point that less is more. The chicken in pita was laden often with so much saucy things it became super mush. My point was to look at the ingredients and think out side of the box. For example, they were given parsley to work with in the Chicken Pita so why not turn it into a salad to top the chicken with lemon and olive oil instead of chopping it so very fine it had no texture at all? This is a lesson I want all of you to think about. Do you have a fresh element, a bright element, a mellow element? These are the basis of any great dish. Believe it or not this is the basis for a plain old roast beef dinner. Picture this plate, rare roast beef=rich, mashed potatoes=soft, green beans with almonds=crunch, gravy=soothing. See what I mean?
So, back to the kids; they tried, I hope they learned from what we said but me, I had a dinner party 2 nights later and found my inspiration. I was going Greek. Another friend Chef Chris Kalisperas of the ultra cool Mamakas Restaurant of Ossington Ave. also helped me think outside of the typical Greek box and elevate this fabulous cuisine. They menu sounds basic but then I will tell you how I made it cool. We began with sparkling wine and Spanakopita at the living area. We moved to the table and dinner was rack of lamb with Tzatziki, roasted potatoes and salad. Dessert was a cheese plate.
Now lets go back. I went to an incredible bakery on Pape St. called Select Bakery that makes their own homemade filo. None of that frozen store bought, even though in a pinch this too works. I bought Macedonian feta, which is a little creamier than Greek and way better than the cheap Ontario, one that is so salty and crumbly. I took baby spinach and sautéed it with just a wee bit of olive oil, well chopped garlic and lemon zest. I dumped this mixture on a whole bunch of freshly washed and chopped dill just to wilt the dill without cooking it. I let this mixture cool. I put mounds in my hands and wrung out every bit of moisture I could. I then added the feta, an egg, a hint of nutmeg, sea salt and pepper.
Filo is very forgiving and easy to work with. Don’t stress if you can’t make triangles. I usually glue 3 sheets together by brushing the individual sheets with olive oil and adding the next layer. Cut out squares, about palm size, put a dollop of filling. Brush with olive oil and then gather into a bundle. Just make sure to brush olive oil on every exposed bit. Keep these in the fridge and then 20 minutes before serving preheat your oven to 375F and bake for 10 minutes of until golden brown. You can also roll them taco or spring roll style.
The lamb was divine for a few reasons. 1. I brined it in Greek oregano, garlic, lemon zest, tons of salt and Greek honey. It sat in the brine for 4 hours. Before serving a made a paste of Grainy Mustard, I use my Mom’s; Sable and Rosenfeld but buy what you can. This was mixed with fresh oregano, lemon juice and zest, mashed garlic, sea salt, pepper and EVOO. I pat dry the racks, smear this on and bake at the same 375F for about half an hour. I let the meat rest for 10 minutes before cutting into it.
Smashed potatoes are killer. For these I used baby fingerlings. Boil them for 15 minutes in salted water until fork tender. Line a baking sheet with foil and parchment and add EVOO, sea salt, pepper, more lemon juice and zest and loads of fresh oregano and a hit of dill. Push the potatoes gently until they crack but still retain their shape; roll them over so the potatoes are coated in this lovely mix and roast with the lamb. They will be gloriously crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. I wonder if you think this sounds like a lot of lemon and oregano, it isn’t. It really is in the 2 dishes that will be eaten together and in harmony. Tzatziki is so easy and good. Use full fat Greek yogurt, you only need a bit with the lamb but it makes it rich and delicious. To the yogurt I add grated English cucumber, please note I grate only the dark green, well-washed outside until I hit the seedy middle, which I discard, a smashed garlic clove, lemon zest and finely julienned freshly washed mint. Why mint not dill? A few thoughts; mint loves lamb and Greeks love mint so it is different but also being respectful of the ingredients of the cuisine. The salad was a simple mix of baby arugula for its pepperiness, Belgian endive for crunch and a slight bitterness and Boston for its lovely buttery delicate quality. I added toasted pinenuts and made a simple vinaigrette but added some lovely wild Greek honey to it.
To turn my cheese plate Greek I did not use Greek cheese but a sexy triple cream, a lovely non-salty bleu like Stilton and a robust aged Welsh cheddar. What I did add was one of the best foods ever; Spoon fruits. Greek spoon fruits are often used by spooning a spoonful of these wonderful preserved fruits like sour cherries in a heavy simple syrup into a glass of water or just into your mouth. To me they are simply to die for with cheese.
As you can see, this was how I came to make a really terrific meal and I have the chef students to thank for this.
Just look around you. If you are not of Italian descent try a rustic Italian meal, or Use all the flavours of Vietnam with loads of chili, coriander, basil and mint. What season is it? What veggie needs to be added? Can we do it in a cool way? Maybe a goat cheese and asparagus tarte with store bought puff pastry. I love making fresh salsa’s to go with my frittatas to add a bang of cool. Look to other cultures, be inspired by books but then make it your own.
Until next time I hope you enjoy the read. Opinions are gratefully accepted and questions are fab.