Making Feta Cheese at Home

February 28, 2011
By Holly Jennings

Back in January, when DCCC was deep into Greek cooking, my boyfriend, Mike, who is always challenging me to think outside the box, and to take things one step further, suggested I make homemade feta cheese. Because of my zeal for exhaustive research, I sometimes wonder if he later regrets these, at the time, casually made suggestions. After having made four test batches, the refrigerator is full of multiple containers of feta marked “Test 1,” “Test 2,” and so on. If it weren’t for the fact that feta keeps a very long time in brine—up to a year—I would worry how just the two of us would be able consume so much of it. Now, after allowing all the batches of homemade feta cheese a full four weeks to cure in brine, I’m ready to report my findings to you.

"Creamy," an Alpine-Saanen mix, owned by goat herder Martha Haffner. I love the quizzical look that goat's have.

Living in rural Vermont—a state known for cheese and dairy production—we have fairly easy access to farm fresh goat’s milk, so I made three batches with goat’s milk and one with cow’s milk. Sheep’s milk, the most traditional milk for making feta, is much harder to find where I live.

In addition to using two different milks, I tried two different cultures (sometimes called “starters”)—a basic mesophilic and a feta culture; lipase powder, a water-soluble enzyme added to milk to create stronger flavor in some cheeses; and calcium chloride, used to create a firmer curd.

All of the versions turned out—meaning, they all turned into cheese that looked, tasted, and behaved like feta, though some more than others. Ultimately, the decision of what culture to use, what milk, and whether to use lipase is one of personal taste. I’ll try to objectively describe my own preferences so that you can decide which version you might like to try first.

Like all types of agricultural products, cheesemaking is affected by the seasons. Though there are other variables, the single biggest impact on the flavor of cheese is the feed the animals are on, which is, in turn related to the time of year (dried grains in winter; fresh pasture in summer). According to Mary Jane Toth, author of Goats Produce Too!, lipase is more noticeable in milk during the winter months when goats stock are (more…)

The Simple Pleasures of Greek Cooking

February 23, 2011
By Holly Jennings

More than 300 Classic and Modern Dishes from the Mainland and Islands of Greece
By Diane Kochilas
St. Martin’s Press
354 pp. $21.95

After preparing some lesser-known Greek dishes from the DCCC pick The Food and Wine of Greece, like Faki (Hearty Lentil Soup), Soutzoukakia Smyrneika (Meatball Sausages, Smyrna Style) and Sfoungato (Baked Omelet), my boyfriend, half-joking, half-not, said, “Greek food doesn’t taste like Greek food.” And he’s right, if you base your understanding of what Greek food is on the handful of iconic dishes and associative ingredients that have become familiar to Americans: Greek salad, Greek omelet, gyro, souvlaki, spanakopitta, stuffed grape leaves, tzatziki (the creamy yogurt and cucumber dip), rice pudding, baklava, Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, olive oil, and oregano. (more…)

A Greek Potluck for Three and Solving a Spoon Sweet Mystery

February 15, 2011
By Holly Jennings

Stuffed grape leaves—vegetarian and meat-filled—and homemade feta, prepared by me, and Kalamata olives

Last week, Georgia, Judy, and I gathered for the second DCCC potluck, a delicious smorgasbord of Greek foods, all prepared from the DCCC pick The Food and Wine of Greeceby Diane Kochilas. Though we were only three—damn that Superbowl and winter colds—we had all of the major parts of a Greek meal covered—from meze to main course and dessert, including libations. (Greeks tend to enjoy foods we associate with dessert, like cakes and pastries, on their own, in the afternoon, rather than directly after a meal; but since we’re Americans, we had not one but three dessert options.) We enjoyed Metaxa brandy neat and as the star ingredient in a Metaxa Sour cocktail, very smooth ouzo from the Greek island of Lesbos, also called Mytilene, an island famed for the quality of its ouzo, and a refreshing, dry white wine from Spata, a town nearby Athens.

Fava, a dip made with yellow split peas, chips for dipping, and sautéed Greek sausage, prepared by Georgia

Rich Walnut Torte, prepared by Judy

Everything was delicious, but the highlight for me were the stuffed grape leaves—the meat-filled version served hot with Greek-style plain yogurt and the vegetarian ones (Rice-Stuffed Grape Leaves) served cold—and the Rich Walnut Cake and Fig Spoon Sweet made by Judy.


Braised Rabbit with Olives, Homemade Egg Noodles, and Kitchen Psychology

February 10, 2011
By Holly Jennings

You’ve never made homemade noodles before, and you forgot to pick up dried egg noodles at the store as a back-up. You’re intuitive about all things savory, and the cooking techniques associated with them—braising, sautéing, stewing, roasting, poaching. When it comes to baking and dough in general, you’re less certain. So in your nervousness, coupled with a tendency toward perfectionism (bad combination), you follow the noodle directions to the letter, leaving your commonsense at the kitchen door. After rolling out the dough until it is paper-thin, you roll it up into a scroll, cut it into ¼-inch sections, and then place the pinwheels on a cornmeal-dusted tray as directed, where they are to dry for at least one half-hour before boiling. Then, three hours later, when it’s close to dinner time, you begin to unroll the noodles. You discover that the dough has become quite comfortable as a wheel and doesn’t want to budge. With patience you get most of them unrolled, though you do end up with some broken or double lengths and a few wheels.

This is what I found myself doing one Saturday last month, just as our guests Melanie and Matt were to arrive. If only the cookbook author had said to unroll the pinwheels of dough before placing them on the tray to dry. But, after all, it’s impossible to account for the strengths and weaknesses of every home cook. And this is how you learn, I thought, and become familiar with and eventually intuitive about a new cooking terrain. (The whole episode reminded me, appropriately enough, of a book my mother used to read to me when I was small called The Noodle-head Epaminondas. It is about a boy who followed directions to the letter, but didn’t have commonsense to apply them to the right context.)

No matter. The egg noodles—hilopittes in Greek—and the rest of the dishes I made from the DCCC pick, The Food and Wine of Greece by Diane Kochilas, including several meze options and the main course, Braised Rabbit with Olives, were delicious and, even with the small hiccup with the noodles, came together effortlessly and quickly. And who cares if some noodles are shorter or thicker than others when you’re among friends? We served one of the best red wines I’ve had in a long time: a wonderfully dry and full-bodied yet smooth red wine from Nemea in the Peloponnese. While it’s not the wine the author recommends for the rabbit dish—she recommends a red from Náoussa, a region in Macedonia—it is the only Greek red wine that my local wine shop was able to procure. As an introduction to the wine of Greece, it made a very good impression, and we enjoyed it with the rabbit. Dessert was my boyfriend’s tarte tatin served à la mode Greek-style—with a dollop of thick Greek yogurt.


Meatballs, Smyrna Style

February 08, 2011
By Holly Jennings


When I asked Georgia Cone, a Greek-American and member of the Dowdy Corners Cookbook Club, which of the recipes in The Food and Wine of Greece she recommended I try, Soutzoukakia Smyrneika, or Meatballs, Smyrna Style, was at the top of the list. Now that I’ve made them, I can understand why this dish is so popular among Greeks, despite the generous use of cumin—a spice that is lesser used or, in many regions in Greece, nonexistent.


After mixing ground beef with fresh parsley, cumin, garlic, onion, salt and pepper, and two tenderizing acids—bread soaked in red wine and red wine vinegar—the meatballs are formed into small oval nuggets and set in the fridge to rest for an hour. They are lightly browned in olive oil and simmered for an hour or so in a rich, roux-thickened sauce made with fresh tomatoes, red wine, and a very small amount of sugar.


The resulting meatballs are very tender and flavorful, and the naturally sweet and tangy tomato sauce, enriched with beef drippings, is addictive.


Diane Kochilas, the author of The Food and Wine of Greece, suggests serving the meatballs with rice or mashed potatoes. Trolling around the Internet for more information about these delicious meatballs, I found a reference to serving the meatballs with french fries on Peter Minakis’s blog Kalofagas: Greek Food and Beyond. He writes, “Think of the sauce as sweet, aromatic Greek ketchup . . . yummy sauce to mop up with the fries.” (This isn’t far off. I found a recipe for Greek ketchup on that is thickened with a roux and includes beef broth.)


The combination of french fries and luxuriously thick tomato “gravy” got me to thinking. Why not create a Greek spin on poutine—the popular Québécois dish of french fries, beef or chicken gravy, and cheese curds—swapping out the curds for feta? The photograph below this invention: oven-roasted fries topped with Smyrna-style meatballs and tomato sauce, feta, and some fresh chopped parsley for color.



Whereas we enjoyed the meatballs served as a main course with mashed potatoes, and untraditionally as Greek poutine, our favorite way to eat them is the simplest: on their own as a meze offering with some good crusty bread to sop up the sauce. (Think of them as an alternative to the small Swedish meatballs popular as noshing or appetizer fare throughout America.)


You can find a recipe for Soutzoukakia Smyrneika on Diane Kochilas’s website.

Greek Drinking Chocolate

February 05, 2011
By Holly Jennings

Greeks love honey, and are famous for the variety and quality their bees produce, chief among being wild thyme honey. I’m intrigued with honeys that capture the flavor of specific regional herbs, flowers or trees, and, though I’ve never tried thyme honey, I like to imagine how it might taste. With this special Greek honey in mind, this drinking chocolate is sweetened with honey and infused with the flavor of fresh thyme and orange zest—the latter, a common ingredient in Greek pastries, cakes, biscuits, and breads. While I’m not sure how Greek this drinking chocolate tastes, it does taste good. I enjoyed it with Olive Oil Biscuits with Cumin and Sesame, a common breakfast food in Greece, from the DCCC pick The Food and Wine of Greece.* (For lots more information on the basics of making and serving drinking chocolate, read My Favorite Drinking Chocolate.)

Makes four 6-ounce servings

4 cups whole milk
1 heaping tablespoon grated orange zest (from about 1large orange)
4 to 6 sprigs fresh thyme
4 tablespoons Dutch-processed (alkalinized) cocoa powder
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (52 to 55% cacao), chopped (see note)
2 tablespoons honey
Small pinch of sea salt

  1. Combine the milk, orange zest and thyme in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. (If your saucepan has a thin bottom, heat the milk over medium-low heat.) Immediately reduce the heat to low and simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. (If you think you may have scorched the milk, do not scrape the bottom of the pan when stirring.) Strain the milk and discard the zest and thyme. The milk will have reduced by about 1 cup.
  2. Place the cocoa powder in a small, heavy saucepan. While stirring vigorously, over medium-low heat, gradually add ¼ cup of the heated milk, a tablespoon at a time. Continue stirring until all lumps of cocoa are incorporated and the mixture is smooth.
  3. Add the chocolate and reduce the heat to low. Gradually add another ¼ cup of the milk, while stirring. Heat until the chocolate is melted, stirring often. Add the remaining milk in a steady stream, while stirring. Bring to the gentlest simmer. Add the honey and salt. Stir until the honey is dissolved and serve.

 Note: Better quality chocolate with higher amounts of cacao solids tends to be available in block form, necessitating chopping. To make sure the chocolate melts at an even rate, chop the block into small, similar-size pieces. I like chopping chocolate; however, if you can find what you want in pistoles or chips, this will eliminate a step.

*Though the English recipe title for these delicious biscuits in The Food and Wine of Greece is “Olive Oil Biscuits with Cumin and Sesame,” no sesame seeds are included in the recipe. Finding this confusing, I wrote to Diane Kochilas, the author of The Food and Wine of Greece, about the use of sesame seeds. She said they are optional, and if used, would be sprinkled on the outside of the biscuit after the egg wash is applied.

Lunch with Lynne: Savory Squash Pie

February 04, 2011
By Holly Jennings

Before cooking from The Food and Wine of Greece by Diane Kochilas, I had no idea how diverse the savory pitta options are in Greek cooking—pitta is the Greek word for “pie.” Like many Americans, I’ve eaten and enjoyed Spanakopitta, the popular Greek pie made with spinach (spanaki) and cheese and layers of super thin phyllo dough. But there are many more savory pies: lamb, zucchini and cornmeal, ground beef with a rich béchamel sauce, leeks, wild greens, artichokes, rabbit. During the several weeks the club has been cooking from The Food and Wine of Greece, I made Hirinopitta (Ground Pork Pie) (see photo), Kotopitta me Feta (Chicken and Feta Pie), and, for lunch with Lynne, Kolokithopitta (Savory Squash Pie), shown above. (A slightly different version of the recipe for the squash filling and pie dough can be found on Diane Kochilas’s website.)

Phyllo means “leaf” in Greek, describing the very thin sheets the dough is sometimes (more…)

Discussion Questions for The Food and Wine of Greece

February 03, 2011
By Holly Jennings

Hirinopitta (Ground Pork Pie) and Spanakorizo (Rice and Spinch Pilaf) from THE FOOD AND WINE OF GREECE

How would you describe Diane Kochilas’s writing style? Do you like her tone? Did you enjoy the introductory sections of her book, where she describes the characteristics of Greek cooking, the importance of wine in the culture—as well as the wines themselves—and the basic ingredients? Did you enjoy her introductions to the recipes?

What skill level do you think this cookbook is geared toward? Does it assume a basic cooking knowledge? Did you find her recipe steps and explanations of cooking techniques clear and complete? Is there anything in the recipe instructions that you think could be clearer?

Was cooking from The Food and Wine of Greece your foray into Greek cooking? If so, would you say it is a good introduction for someone new to cooking Greek food?

What did you learn about Greek cooking that you didn’t know before using this book? Were there any surprises? Did you know, for example, that dill is such a commonly used herb in Greek cooking?

In general, what do you think of the food? Did you enjoy it? How does it compare to other Greek food you’ve eaten, either prepared by you using another Greek cookbook, prepared by other home cooks, or that you’ve eaten in restaurants?

What do you think of Greek cooking compared to Indian cooking, which we just explored? Do you prefer one to the other—whether for flavor, the ease of preparation methods, or time necessary to prepare the food?

Of all the recipes you tried, including those prepared by others at the potluck, do you have a favorite (or favorites)?

Have you been to Greece? If so, how does the food in The Food and Wine of Greece compare to the food you ate while there?

Do you think you will cook recipes from this book again? If not, why not?

If the club were to do another Greek cookbook one day, is there a particular aspect or regional style of Greek cooking that you’ve like to delve into in more detail?

Music to Listen to While Making or Eating Greek Food

February 02, 2011
By Holly Jennings

[audio:|titles=Introduction to the jazz hit “Time Out”]

"Take Five" might be a good accompaniment for this Roasted Chicken and Potatoes with Lemon and Herbs from THE FOOD AND WINE OF GREECE

If the soundtrack to My Big Fat Greek Wedding isn’t your thing, there are other options. The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s hit “Take Five,” the third cut on the 1959 album Time Out, uses syncopated 5/4 time of traditional Greek folk dances.* Time Out, the first jazz album to use non-4/4 meter, was nearly rejected by Columbia Records for its nonconventional use of unusual meters. They would have regretted that decision: “Take Five” became the first jazz single to sell one million copies. Brubeck must have slowed the tempo way down in his relaxed, laid-back, and über cool “Time Out”; I can’t imagine myself or Greeks dancing to it. But that makes it perfect dining music.

*I owe this tidbit of meter knowledge to an audio course called “Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion,” given by Professor Bill Messenger and published by The Great Courses company.

Spinach and Rice Pilaf with Shrimp and Feta

January 26, 2011
By Holly Jennings

This is Georgia Cone’s family recipe for Spanakorizo, but with a twist. In this version, the classic spinach and rice pilaf is topped with cooked shrimp and feta cheese and baked until bubbling, to make a nourishing and very flavorful one-pot rice dish.

Georgia’s family likes to use converted rice for pilafs; she says that it holds up better after longer cooking times. For many years I’d thought converted rice was some sort of instant rice. Far from it. Converted rice has been parboiled and then toasted, which, despite it being partially precooked, makes it very hard—making it take longer to cook than regular rice, and hold its shape. (more…)