In just over a week, I will be in Greece. That is why we are sharing a recipe from the land of extensive history, beautiful landscapes and dishes that make the cuisine a favorite amongst many. Amir will not be there during the trip, so I’ve taken it upon myself to lead the course for us both. Perhaps I’ll eat for two. And not because I am pregnant! Greek food has long been high on my list as a ‘favorite’, even though the Libra in me has a hard time signifying anything as a favorite. The Greek won me over with their passion for life and food with everyone around them, related or not. The idea that anyone in the house is family is one that rings true for me and those around me. We When there is a sizzling plate before you and your loved ones, all you want to do is share. This month’s Ethnic Exploration features a dish that is perfect for doing just that.
I am quite familiar with Greek food. Mostly everything I learned came from an intense love and appreciation for the food, but also due to the fact that I spent several months teaching a Greek class at a local cooking school. Three hours of instruction later, we had a feast before us, and it was the kind of meal that came together–almost by magic–in front of everyone’s eyes. One of my favorite dishes is the ‘saganaki’. A long time ago, I thought saganaki was specific to the salty, slightly rubbery halloumi cheese, but I learned that the word is just a term for the two-handled pan in which the dish is prepared. The idea is similar to Moroccan tagines, wherein the word refers to the dish but also the beautiful pot used to make a tagine.
In theory, many ingredients can find themselves in the saganaki position. A number of Greek restaurants offer halloumi saganaki, and the first time you order it, no doubt there will be gasps as a flaming little slab of cheese finds its way on your table. Peter of Kalofagas will tell you that the fire display is all a production put on for foreign audiences. While dining in tavernas in Greece, you will not be treated to the same show. Instead, the cheese shows up seared, hot, crispy and ready to eat. Enough about cheese! What about the rest of the saganaki family? Shrimp saganaki is a big one, as well as mussels, scallops and chicken. I poked around for vegetarian versions and spotted spinach saganaki and tofu saganaki too. If all you need is a pan, saganaki whatever you like.
The key ingredients in this dish were few, but they are indispensable. First, you will need Greek feta. Hands down. There is no substitute. Do not use pre-crumbled feta if at all possible. Please visit your grocer’s cheese section or stroll down to a local Eastern European or Greek market. You will find creamy, salty feta cheese–hopefully Greek feta–in brine. If you cannot find Greek feta, go for whatever variety is packed in liquid. You want that liquid to keep the cheese flavorful and moist. Secondly, you will need a little ouzo. This is the Greek drink of choice! The anise-flavored liqueur is normally an aperitif, but you may find people sipping it all day long. The liquid is clear in the bottle, but pour it over an ice cube, and everything goes cloudy. Including your vision after a few shots. A dash of ouzo in the mix adds authentic flavor to your saganaki. You can find ouzo at liquor stores, as well as ethnic grocery stores and markets.
Now, let’s talk about the saganaki dish itself. Neither one of us owns anything with two handles, but that’s just fine if you have an oven safe frying pan. Everything starts on the stove, and when the time comes, slide the entire pan into the oven. It’s a one dish kind of meal. This meal, shrimp saganaki, is as easy as they come. Once the fragrant onion and fennel slices are soft, and the fresh tomatoes have melted to form a rough sauce of sorts, it’s just a matter of minutes before you eat. The shrimp cooks in no time, and the final step is a blast in a hot oven just to melt the feta cheese. Before you can say ‘Opa!’, dinner is served.
I’m looking forward to eating my way through Athens and Santorini, and of course, I’ll bring back some sort of edible goodies for Amir. If only I could ship some of that cheese! He may have to settle for ouzo and olive oil, which is not too bad if I say so myself. In the meantime, we can all enjoy saganaki at home. We can also learn even more about Greek cuisine from the numerous websites and books that share recipe and recipe. The newest cookbook brought to our attention is called The Country Cooking of Greece by cooking school owner and chef Diane Kochilas. It is packed with more than 250 recipes! If you live here in L.A., pay a visit to Traveler’s Bookcase and grab a copy. Look out for travel-inspired collaborations with Traveler’s Bookcase owner, Natalie Compagno, in the very near future. In the meantime, saganaki your way to a culinary experience of Greece.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small bulb fennel, trimmed, halved and thinly sliced
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons ouzo
- 1 pound vine tomatoes, seeded and sliced
- 1 tablespoon fresh chopped oregano
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 – 1/2 small yellow chile pepper, thinly sliced, to taste
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1/2 pound large shrimp, cleaned and peeled
- 3 tablespoons pitted and chopped Kalamata olives
- 1/4 cup crumbled Greek feta cheese
- Fresh chopped parsley, optional
- Warm pita bread, optional
- Preheat oven to 500 degrees.
- Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the fennel, onions and ouzo. Toss to coat with the oil and cook for 5-7 minutes or until translucent and softened.
- Add the tomatoes, oregano, garlic and salt. Stir well, reduce heat to medium and cook for another 8-10 minutes, allowing the tomatoes to soften and break down.
- Stir in the chile pepper, lemon zest and shrimp. Cook for approximately 30 seconds. Just as all of the shrimp begin to turn pink, sprinkle the olives and feta cheese on top. Slide into the oven, and bake for 5-7 minutes, or just until the cheese softens and the shrimp are cooked through.
- Remove from the oven, and serve immediately. Garnish with parsley, and serve with warm pita bread, if desired.