Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Spanish Tortilla (by a guiri)

Some years back I was invited on a day hike along a canyon cut out by the river Lobos in Spain with my girlfriend's family. As we arrived at the starting point, everyone was given a heavy backpack to carry. I thought it would be water and a maybe a bit of fruit or a sandwich, but as we reached our destination a few hours later, the packs were opened and out they pulled food enough for staying there for a week. The Spanish people are obsessed about food and you will see that if you go to any park, river or beach. People bring an incredible amount of food and set up tables and start eating just about anywhere. Soups, paella, chicken, beans, salads, bread, deserts, the lot. But there is one dish that is almost always the star of the show; The Spanish tortilla. It's a simple peasant dish supposedly invented when a farmers wife didn't have enough eggs and decided to add some fried potatoes as extra filling. But depsite its apparent simplicity, it can be tough to master. As it's one of the most typical dishes found anywhere in Spain, I've had to eat my fair share of bland, under- or overcooked tortillas. But it's well worth learning. I think it's one of the few dishes that everyone likes. So far I still have to see someone turn a tortilla away.
5 potatoes (aprx 750g)
1 onion
6 eggs
1/4 l sunflower oil
salt and pepper.

The ingredients.

Cut the potatoes in equal sized chunks with lots of edges. I like to cut them a bit bigger than some people. Keep reading to find out why. Try and see what your perfect size is.

Heat up a good amount of neutral oil. You'll need a lot as you're basically deepfrying them like chips. Don't worry, you'll discard most of the oil later. Add first one potato to see if it starts sizzling. If the oil is too cold the potatoes will start absorbing the fat. If it's hot enough, add the rest. You want them more or less covered.

Start chopping the onion. The potato needs more cooking time, so how do you know when to add the onion? Well,I've worked out that the time you need to chop the onion (if you are not too fast) is about the right time. Once they are added, move it all around now and then to ensure an even cooking of everything. I sometimes like putting a lid over for some time as it traps heat and steam and cooks the potatoes a bit faster.

When the potatoes are starting to get some colour and get softer it's time to mosh them lightly with the spoon. You want to break them into smaller pieces. This way the absorb a bit more fat and is less healthy but much tastier. Alternatively you can cut the potatoes smaller from the beginning, but I like this method. Keep frying until they are all soft and completely cooked.

Put them in a colander and drain off oil. Let it drip for some time... Don't forget to collect your oil and not let it run down the drain.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs well.

Add the hot potatoes to the beaten eggs.

Mix well, add salt and pepper and taste if it needs more salt. You probably think that it's still raw egg, but the hot potato will start cooking the eggs. So leave it a bit before tasting or simply just spit it out afterwards. This is an essential point as if it has too little salt the tortilla will be 'soso' (bland). Leave 30 minutes for it to mix well.

This is how much oil had dripped off. In the end the tortilla doesn't have too much fat.

Clean the pan off lightly if there are any chunks. The pan needs to be a good non-stick with out any scratches or the potato mixture will catch. Add a few drops of fresh olive oil. Put the heat at medium to low. Add the filling to the pan. Once you see the borders are starting to get done, losen then with a fork (without sratching your pan of course). You are ready to turn it.

Place a plate on top and hold on well to it with one hand while grabbing the handle of the pan with the other. Turn the whole thing over in one quick movement. Slide the tortilla back into the pan to fry it on the other side. Turning th tortilla or 'dando la vuelta a la tortilla' has actually become an expression in Spanish meaning 'to turn the tables'.

Once it's turned give a minute or two on the other side. Then turn it again. And if you dare, try this... Turning the tortilla often prevents it from burning on the outside and slowly heats up the centre.

Once it has some colour outside it's done. It might seem a little raw on the inside, but leaving the hot potato in the egg actually cooks them. If you are still worried, just cook it longer. The result will be a harder tortilla and not as soft centred. Cut it into bite sizes and eat both warm and cold.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Gyro or is it souvlaki (or both)?

The king of Greek fast food - the gyro or souvlkai. It was a bit confusing when we were there to find out what the difference actually was, but I had a feeling gyro (pronounced: 'jeee-ro') had something to do with gyrating and had to be the big vertical, rotating spits similar to the ones found in kebab shops. And later investigation told me that word souvlaki is the diminutive of souvla meaning skewer. Mystery solved. However, as they are served in a similar fashion in a pita bread with tzatziki, tomato and some lettuce they are often just all called suvlaki for the non-caring tourist.
So when I set out to make it, I had no idea what would be better and I couldn't decide which to make, so I made both as you will see. The end result is very similar so it's really up to you what you find easier. Also, I used lamb although the original souvlaki is made with pork. I just had some minced lamb lying around so I went for that and adjusted the spices accordingly. You can find plenty of souvlaki spice mixes with google, so I won't bore you with that.
750g minced lamb
1 medium onion
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp diced rosemary
1 tbsp dried majoram
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tsp salt
Wheat tortillas (or pita, see later in the recipe).

Start by chopping the onion finely.

Add the onion and the rest of the ingredients to the lamb mince. Put it in a blender.

Until it's very finely ground, almost like a paste (be careful not to over heat your blender). Put it on cling film.

For making gyros, shape it like a loaf and roll it up really tight. You don't ant any air in there. Put it in the fridge for a couple of hours or over night.

Alternatively, put the meat on skewers (for making souvlaki) and roll them up in cling film and put in the fridge for a few hours.

Fry the suvlakis at high heat. Time depends on the thickness of the meat and the skewer. Thicker skewers conduct more heat and cook the meat slowly from the inside.

And for making the souvlaki, heat up the wheat tortilla on a dry, hot frying pan for 30 secs on each side. Pita bread is another posibility. However, the Greek souvlaki used a flat bread a bit thicker than the tortillas, but which had been brushed with olive oil and fried lightly. It was delicious, but this will work just as great. Add some lettuce, tomato and a dollop of tzatziki.

Break the meat into smaller pieces and put it with the rest. Fold it and eat.

Alternatively, to make the gyro you need to spit roast the meat. If you have and oven or even better a grill with a spit, that's just perfects. If you haven't, do like me for a reasonable result. Place two skewers through the meat lengthwise. Hang the meat over a bread mold inside a water bath. This will add moisture to the cooking and at the same time let the meat drip off some of it's fat. Put it in a preheated oven at 160ºC.

Turn the meat every 20 minutes. You need to cook the meat for 1-2 hours depending on the thickness of your meat. You want to reach an internal temperature of 75º.

Then simply start shaving off the meat with your sharpest knife.

Add it to the bread like above mentioned.

Fold it and reminisce (or dream up) your holidays in Greece.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Santorini Tomatokeftedes (Tomato balls)

This is a delicious speciality from Santorini where they take great pride in their cherry tomatoes. The soil is volcanic and apparently they don't water the plants; the plants water themselves with the night dew which intensifies the taste of the tomatoes. Anyone who has ever been to Santorini will imediately spot that I'm not using the original tomatoes as they look much redder and are smaller and wrinkled. I did, however, buy a bag of sundried cherry tomatoes from a farmer on the island, which will make up for other "fake" ones. This is another "meze" or starter and it goes excellent with the tzatziki. Try it, I think you will like them.
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup sundried tomatoes
1/2 cup spring onions
1 tablespoon parsley
2 tablespoon fresh spearmint (or a bit less dry)
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 cup plain flour
1/2 cup bread crumbs or more depending on how juicy the mixture will be.
1 teaspoon baking powder
Salt, pepper to taste
Olive oil for frying

Put the cherry tomatoes and the sun dried tomatoes in a blender or food processor.

Add the spices and blend until there are no big lumps. It doesn't need to be completely pureed though as a few chunks will add some texture.

Mix the breadcrumbs, flour and baking powder.

Add the mix bit by bit while constantly stirring so it doesn't create lumps. Don't add it all at once.

When the dough sticks together and you can shape a ball with wet hands, you've added enough flour mix.

Mix some bread crumbs with salt and pepper in a plate.

Turn the tomato balls in the bread crumbs, squeeze them a bit to make them flatter and have them ready for frying.

Put enough oil in a pan for deep frying them for about 5-10 minutes depending on how thick they are. Turn once or twice.

Put them on absorbent paper and let them cool off a bit but serve while still warm with a bit of tzatziki on the side.


Ok, so here comes the first in a series of Greek specialities inspired by our holidays in Santorini at the beginning of the month. It's the classic of classics: Tzatziki, a creamy yoghurt and cucmber dip. I imagine that every family in Greece have their own recipe so I'm not pretending that this is the ultimate version, though it is pretty darn good. Serve it as a starter with some bread for dipping or as a side dish/sauce for meat, chicken or fish.
3 dl natural Greek youghurt
2 dl shredded cucumber
1 tsp salt
1-3 gloves of garlic (depends how strong you want it)
2 tsp fresh, chopped mint or 1 tsp dry mint
1-2 tbsp olive oil
freshly ground pepper to taste

Lots of the yoghurt sold as Greek yoghurt is in fact still very thin. The original Greek yoghurt we had on our trip was rather thick almost like a spread cheese. So you might want to drain out some of that excess liquid by putting the yoghurt in a clean cloth, wrap a rubberband around it and stick a chop stick through it and hang it over a container. Leave it for about 1-2 hours. Then scrape it out into a bowl.

Shred the cucumber. Some people swear that real tzatziki is made with finely cut cucumbers. It's up to you and how much time you have.

Add some salt to the cucumber. Leave it hanging in a cloth for a few minutes for the liquid to drip out.

Chop the garlic very finely. Squeeze it with the side of the knife blade. Chop it again until it's very fine.

Chop or crush the mint if it's dry like mine. Add to yoghurt.

Add the olive oil and some freshly ground pepper.

Squeeze out some more liquid from the cucumber and mix it into the yoghurt.

And it's ready to eat. Well, actually it will get better with time so leave covered it in the fridge. It will last up to a week.

Hello Dolly Bars!

This is a recipe for the whole family. The children will love to make this and if they can make it, I'm sure you can too. There is no mixing, no rising, no precision. The following measures are approximates. If you like other ingredients, feel free to mix. For example, replace walnuts with pecan nuts, half white/half dark chocolate, raisins, etc.
120 g unsalted butter, melted
150 g digestive biscuits (crumbs)
100 g shredded coconut
175 g dark chocolate
100 g chopped walnuts
400 g condensed milk

Get the biscuits out.

Crush them with your hands or put them in a plastic bag and bang them with a heavy pan of rolling pin.

Melt the butter in the microwave, pour it into a paperlined baking tray of 25x25 cm (or equivalent).

Pour the biscuit crumbs over. Don't mix, just make sure they are evenly distributed.

Pour the coco over.

Chop up the chocolate. I did it a bit rough but it's up to you how fine you want it.

Chop the walnuts and pour them over.

Pour over the condensed milk. If anyone is in doubt, condensed milk is milk where the water has been removed and sugar added to a thick syrup.

Bake at 170º until it's golden on top and a tooth pick will come out clean. It takes somewhere between 15 minutes and 30 minutes. It will be soft when you take it out but harden as it cools down.

Cut into squares.

There you are. Delicious, chewy, sweet, crunchy squares that will have you neighbors knocking on the door by coincidence asking to borrow whatever they can think of as an excuse.