Saturday, January 2, 2010

greek food night:: chicken pitas, tzatziki, baklava

one of the best meals i ate when i studied abroad was in athens, greece. it was basically a round table of goodness. my fellow travelers and i had been looking for a place to eat (as usual) for a long time and finally came across this cool restaurant, Exapinis. the plate you see below was heaven on earth!

since i try to host dinners from my study abroad friends every so often, one of the first meals we decided to share was a feast of grecian delight, modeled after our experiences in athens and santorini. a basic kebap or souvlaki meal consists of a meat (pork, chicken) marinated with 4 basic ingredients: olive oil, garlic, lemon, and oregano. olive oil, or "liquid gold," as homer called it, is one of THE food items of the mediterranean.

happily, the 4-ingredient combination is pretty much foolproof no matter the ratio! all of those ingredients have been around as staples in the greek diet since, well, ancient times. the seasoned meat goes well with some toasted pita bread and veggies like lettuce, onions, olives, tomatoes, and carrots. it's topped with a wonderful cucumber and yogurt sauce that's called tzatziki. tzatziki sauce is usually served as a side dish with a meal (or sometimes as an appetizer) with pita bread, or inside a kebap. kebaps are usually made with pork meat, but here is a chicken version!

greek chicken marinade
6 tbsp lemon juice (i squeezed real lemons, much better)
2 tsp oregano
7 tsp olive oil
2 tsp salt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp pepper

mix all ingredients and marinate boneless, skinless chicken breasts for at least an hour (half a day if you want to really bring out the flavors) in the fridge. i usually put it in a large plastic baggie and stop by the fridge every once in a while to shake the bag around.

when ready to cook, heat oven to 350 and slice up an onion and some bell pepper and mix with the chicken and leftover marinade in a baking pan. bake for about 30 minutes (or until fully cooked). you can also cut the chicken into cubes, and alternate onion and bell pepper with chicken on wooden skewers and cook in a grill! this marinade is good for enough chicken for 4 people.

tzatziki sauce
--> you can buy tzatziki at the grocery store, but it is so much better and more rewarding when you make it yourself!

1 cucumber, peeled and seeded
8 oz greek plain yogurt
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
2 garlic cloves, minced
pinch pepper
1 tsp dill (if you have some, if not it will still be tasty!)
olive oil (up to you how much, just don't let the sauce get runny)

dice or shred the cucumber (so that it is in small, small pieces). squeeze excess juice out of the cucumber (i set it in paper towels and let the towel soak up the moisture. you don't want the cucumber to be juicy because you are already adding juices to the yogurt and you want the sauce to be kind of thick).

combine the cucumber and rest of the ingredients in a bowl, adding the olive oil last (just add a teaspoon, stir and taste-- keep adding until you like the taste and before it gets runny). stir well and set in fridge for at least an hour until you want to use it, this lets the flavors really come out. (one time it was too runny for me so i tried to set it in the freezer for a little while...i don't recommend that haha, but it works if you don't have the right kind of yogurt!)

--> feasting facts - GREEK YOGURT:
greek yogurt is basically an unflavored, thicker version of plain regular yogurt. if you only have regular you can run it through a cheesecloth over a bowl to thicken it, but it will take a while (hours). you can usually find greek yogurt in the specialty or international food areas at the grocery store. or, one brand i have used is "oikos," which has about 3 products at my local walmart at the top of the yogurt section. as a side note, greek yogurt is also good mixed with honey and walnuts for a dessert! mmmmm. :)

if you're serving this all together, try toasting some pita bread (just enough to make it crispy) and using tzatziki as a dip. you can also make it into a kepab/kebob/kebab and wrap some chicken, veggies, and tzatziki into a pita wrap. i was surprised to note that fries are often served with this, either actually inside the pita or outside as a side dish. but it's not the same kind of fries you usually find at mcdonalds...they're healthier somehow! i've got to get the recipe for that! :)

to top this all off, a bottle of red wine (opa) and a delicious greek dessert are the perfect companions. baklava seems complicated but actually i have a few tricks to make it easy! i love to wow people with this dessert because it tastes amazing and really doesn't require too much effort!

--> feasting facts - PHYLLO DOUGH:
phyllo dough is an extremely thin pastry. it should be in frozen foods section: the dessert or frozen pastry section of your grocery. the kind i've bought comes with two packages- you should only need one package for this recipe. set the dough out on the counter and let it thaw for a few minutes before you try to unwrap it (you don't want it to be hard. i made this mistake and it all crumbled apart!). however, it's just as bad to let it dry out. so you have to work kind of quickly, because you'll notice after thawing it starts to feel more and more like paper. you can cover the dough with a damp cloth to keep moisture in if this happens.


9x9 deep baking pan
1 pound chopped nuts (you can use any kind you like. i usually get a package of mixed nuts that includes peanuts and walnuts)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 package (16 oz) phyllo dough
a can of spray butter (this is the "cheat" for this recipe! traditionally, you would spread the butter but this is faster AND easier)
1 c. water
1 c. granulated white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 c. honey

preheat oven to 350.

PART 1: nuts
put the nuts in a plastic bag and crush them with a hammer or other sufficient crushing device if they aren't chopped enough. mix in the cinnamon and shake.

PART 2: the base
spray the pan with butter and then use this. baklava follows a pattern:
2 sheets of dough
a layer of butter spray
2 sheets of dough (now you have 4)
2 sheets of dough (now you have 6)
2 sheets of dough (now you have 8)
3 tbsp of the crushed, spiced nuts

repeat as many times as will fill your pan or you have ingredients for! i think i had about 3 repeats.

cut the base into diamonds and bake for 50 minutes.

PART 3: the sauce
about 20 minutes in to the baking, boil the sugar and water until the sugar has melted and the liquid is clear again. add vanilla and honey.

simmer on extra low for 20 minutes.

hopefully you will be able to time this so that the baklava is done when the sauce has simmered for long enough. immediately after you take the pan out of the oven, pour the sauce in the pan, covering all of the baklava. it should sizzle, steam, and! leave it out for a while and it will harden and smell deeeelicious. when it's cooled down enough, serve and enjoy!

*both the greek chicken marinade and the tzatziki are a combination of several recipes i found, but i changed up the ratios. like i said, it's pretty much the same basic ingredients, just depends on personal preference how much of each you would like. the baklava recipe is from one of my favorite websites.

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