Learning To Sail & Fish Cooked in Paper with Walnut Pesto

Several years after I arrived in Mykonos, I developed an insane desire to learn how to sail. I would sit on the beach between work shifts and look out to some horizon and see these swan-like white sails being blown along at various distances from the shore. I knew I had to learn this mode of transportation.
In a sailing school in Athens, I did a crash course, condensing two months worth of lessons into one month since traveling back and forth from Athens to Mykonos was both costly and time consuming. The only problem was that during that whole month, not once on a single day, did the wind ever blow hard enough to be able to open a sail while at sea. The instructor did open it once to show us that this, class, was a sail. I got my sailing license without ever seeing a sail being opened for the purpose of sailing.
So of course I still needed to learn how to sail.
I decided that I would need a job on a sailboat (cooking of course) and that way, I was sure to pick up more about the art of opening and closing a sail, etc. I mailed my CV to many Caribbean charter yacht owners, and I landed a job in St. Thomas. I was asked whether I had ever cooked on a boat before, I answered no. I was advised to find a sailboat being delivered from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean for the winter season, apply as crew, and cook non-stop throughout the whole of the Mediterranean and Atlantic delivery until I reached St. Thomas. I would then not only have ample experience cooking on a boat, but I would also have worked for the voyage, lowering my transportation costs.
What a grand idea, I thought.
I remembered that on the same dock that the sailing school boat was tied to, there was also a sign advertising a Sailing Charter Company with Bases in Greece, Turkey, and the Caribbean. Cool. So I walked up and down the dock, asking my routine question; “Anyone bringing a boat over to the Caribbean?” until I finally received a “Yes. Down there.” .
To make a long story shorter, I found the captain and the boat  and became a member of the crew. I eventually also became a member of his family and he of mine, but that’s yet another story. We crossed the Atlantic there and back, the second time I brought back a boat of my own, as captain.
Why am I telling you all this?
Oh yes; Fish in Paper.
So when you cross the Atlantic, you eat a LOT of fish because you catch a lot of fish. Once the refrigerated and frozen (if you’re lucky) meat  has run out, it’s fish, day in day out. Fried fish, baked fish, fish soup, fish salad, fish pie; you try to be as creative as you can, but at some point you are so sick of it that no matter how you prepare it, it will still be fish. Fish baked in paper was an idea I had, but never made, because parchment paper was not on any supply list on any boat I ever cooked on, and using aluminum foil seemed inferior and just reminded me of other culinary techniques. Until I finally made this dish, many years later, I always felt that it must be the ultimate fish recipe because it was The One I couldn’t do out there on the ocean and it would of course have been the best – the one that made fish taste the most delicious way imaginable and make us forget that we also had it for breakfast.

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Fish Cooked in Paper with Walnut Pesto

serves 2

2 pieces of white meat fish filets or steaks (Mai Mai would be perfect – we caught a lot of that)
3 medium sized potatoes, boiled, cut into thick slices
1 large fresh  vine ripened tomato, cut into at least four thick slices
3 tablespoons Walnut Pesto
freshly ground black pepper
a dash of sea salt
2 sheets of parchment paper

Walnut Pesto:
In a food processor, combine:
1 large handful of walnuts
1 clove of garlic
one packed handful of fresh Basil
1/4 cup olive oil
dash of sea salt
Blend/chop until nuts are still grainy and basil is finely chopped.

Preheat oven to 350F (170C)

Spread out the sheet of parchment paper. Place half the potato slices in the center. Sprinkle a little salt. Place the fish filet or steak directly on top of the potatoes. Spread the fish with 11/2  tablespoons of pesto. Place two tomato slices on top of the fish. Drizzle with a little olive oil and add a little more salt and pepper.

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Now you need to fold up the paper into a package. Grab the two ends of the paper, above and below the fish and raise them to the center, directly above the fish, bringing them together. Now start rolling the two ends together downwards towards the fish, stopping just above it, not too tight. Fold the ends of the rolled paper under the fish so that it weighs the ends down. Place the ‘package’ in a baking dish.

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Repeat the process with the remaining pieces of fish and paper.

Bake  for approximately 20 minutes.

Meze, appetizers, and the fine art of social drinking

In this corner of my kitchen, the one with the old scratched table and assorted comfy chairs, I often sit with my friends, getting up now and then to put a new plate on the table. Only a fork and a glass are given to each guest, and of course the basket of fresh crispy bread is in easy reach for everyone to freely tear off a hunk and dip it into whatever plate that suits their fancy, or use it to scoop up some delectable morsel.

My most favorite aspects of Greek and Mediterranean cooking is the meze, or appetizer. In Spain they call them tapas, in Italy they are simply the ‘first plates’, but no matter what they are called, they always perform the same function; they either start the meal, or they accompany social imbibing when done over a period of… a few hours! They are typically small portions of dishes; some very simple, others very elaborate, and sometimes they are too heavy in fats or oils to be eaten on their own in larger amounts. They  perform the role of stomach liners which allow you to keep drinking alcohol without sliding off the chair one hour into the get-together… particularly when more potent spirits like tsipouro, raki, grappa, or ouzo are involved.

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(meze examples clockwise from top left: grilled mushrooms, marinated and grilled chicken breasts, spicy deviled eggs, grilled tomatoes, blanched fresh beans with dill & mustard vinaigrette)

Drinking with friends in these Mediterranean countries like Greece, Italy, or Spain, is a common and simple social event. It can take many hours and sitting at a table like this, with food involved, makes for a very different social interaction than  going to a bar. It is more relaxed, more impromptu, more friendly, and it doesn’t necessarily require an invitation, or a lot of planning. Mezes can be a little of whatever is in the fridge; a few pieces of cheese and cold meats, a fresh vine ripened tomato and cucumber cut into wedges with a little sea salt, a quick omelet, some olives and the oil they were stored in (for dipping!), a last piece of stuffed tomato, or they can be dishes, particularly designated as meze, or appetizer dishes.

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So here I sit and reminisce, and I raise my glass to all my friends and all our much disputed topics over many many glasses of something wonderful, all while eating and eating and eating…

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Γειά μας! Cheers!

Greek Style Stuffed Tomatoes and Peppers

ImageIt all really began in Mykonos, Greece, when I became a partner at the Orpheas Cafe and Wine Bar, in 1989. I had already been working there a few summer seasons and had made my contribution to the business and the island, by bringing American and European style breakfast to the cafe. Before I had arrived, they (everybody who sold breakfast) served a few slices of bread with some small, prepackaged butter and a small assortment of rather flavorless jams with either coffee, or tea, and that was that. Sometimes hardboiled eggs could be gotten or a simple omelet, or thick Greek yogurt with honey but that was not necessarily a breakfast item, since it was always available.

Then along I came and showed them about eggs over easy, or over medium, or not over at all. Cereals piled high with fresh summer fruit. Milk shakes, smoothies, and freshly baked croissants now could accompany the butter and jam. We rocked the casbah and danced while we were squeezing the oranges. Suddenly we were a hit in the mornings and couldn’t churn out those eggs fast enough. We also noticed that we had quite a few bar owners from other parts of the island as our customers. Sure enough, a year later, all those bars whose owners we fed, were serving more fanciful breakfasts, strangely similar to what we were doing.

So it was decided that I needed to officially join the team and we would expand the business to include dinner and a wine bar, with boutique wines from all over Greece. As a twenty-something year old at the time, in the midst of Mykonos’ Golden Years (that’s another story), I had landed in heaven.

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(that was me on the left)

I cooked many things at Orpheas’; an eclectic mix of international cuisine. My earliest challenge was learning how to cook Greek food properly and my sources were any people whose food I liked and who would take the time to show me how it’s done. My second challenge was learning Greek.
Greek Style Stuffed Tomatoes was one of the earliest and probably one of the most classic recipes I learned. Other summer vegetables, like peppers, eggplant, onions, and zucchini, can also be hollowed out and stuffed with the rice mixture. Whatever is ripe in the garden?

This is one of my favorite summer foods and brings back so many memories of life in the Aegean…

Greek Style Stuffed Tomatoes & Peppers

4 large ripe tomatoes
4 large peppers (that can ‘stand’ somewhat easily on their own)
2 medium sized onions
2 tblsp fresh chopped mint
2 tblsp fresh chopped parsley
1/2 cup of olive oil
1 toe of garlic, pressed
8 shot glasses full of round grain rice (the kind used to make risotto)
4 medium sized potatoes
sea salt
freshly ground pepper
oregano
olive oil for baking dish

Preheat oven to 180 C (370 F)

The first thing you need to do is arrange the tomatoes and peppers in a baking dish big enough to allow them to all stand up next to each other, with a little space left in between to allow for potato wedges. These will also help keep peppers that do not have flat enough bottoms from tilting sideways.

One by one, slice the top off each tomato, and hollow out the insides with the help of a short knife and a soup spoon, saving that inside bit in a bowl. Take care not to pierce the skin of the tomatoes. Return each tomato back to the baking pan as you complete hollowing it out, remembering to place each ‘top’ back on its respective ‘bottom’. Do the same with the peppers, only don’t save the inside bit (the seeds) in the bowl with the tomato pulp. Those go straight into the compost.

(If you have other vegetables you would like to stuff, slice off a side –keeping it as your lid, or ‘top’; then carefully gouge out the inside with a paring knife and a spoon, saving the inside bits in the bowl with the tomato pulp. Place in the baking pan when done, together with its lid)

Traditional Greek kitchens didn’t have food processors, but they did have graters. All the inside bits in the bowl, both from the tomatoes as well as from whatever other veggies you’ve got, get grated, so that there are no large chunks of anything left in the bowl.
Now grate the two onions into the mix as well. These will keep the rice filling moist.
Finely chop the mint, parsley, and garlic, and add them to the bowl.
Add the olive oil and the seasonings and blend everything well.

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I think it was my κουμπάρα (“kumbara” is a relative one acquires through a religious ceremony like a wedding, or a baptism – my daughter’s godmother is my “kumbara”; so are the best man, or woman, in a wedding) who once told me that in order to always have the right amount of rice for filling tomatoes (or any other veg you might have) one needs to calculate one (1) shot glass of rice per piece of veg. So since we are filling 4 tomatoes and 4 peppers, we will need 8 shot glasses of rice. Use only round kernel rice , the kind appropriate for making risotto, since only this kind will achieve the correct texture when cooked in the veggies.

So now add the rice, and blend everything well.
With a spoon, fill each piece of veg until just about full, while it is still sitting in the pan. Cover each with its respective lid. This will keep the rice from drying out.

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Cut the potatoes into quarters, and place these pieces in the spaces between the vegetables. Sprinkle everything again with salt, pepper, and oregano, and then drizzle all the vegetables and potatoes with a little olive oil.

Bake for at least 1 hour, then carefully check a small piece of rice with a fork to make sure it is done. If not add another 15 minutes to the baking time.
When done, let everything rest until it has reached almost room temperature.

Serve with feta cheese and some crisp, freshly baked bread, and a chilled dry wine – either a white or a rosé.