Inspiration from Anthe

A recipe for Pumpkin Walnut Baklava

Baklava is one of the hallmark dishes of Cretan heritage.

Originating in Ionian kitchens, it was adopted in every region of Ottoman rule and incorporated into each culture’s national cuisine because of its heavenly flavors and flaky, yet juicy, textures.  

I cannot recall any family gathering without Yia Yia’s, Anthe (Stratigakis) Vutetakis, deliciously sweet and delectable baklava. She crafted her recipe while growing up in the village of Plakoures in western Crete and passed it onto her children and grandchildren. My aunt Irene Laggeris inherited her mother’s culinary aptitude and, as most talented cooks will do, added her own memorable touches to the original recipe. 

My recipe takes inspiration from the original while using local ingredients and seasonal tastes. The authenticity is rooted in Greek tradition while paying homage to how so much in America is built upon, or influenced by, Greek foundations. 

This dessert was first introduced to the public in 1997 when I was chef and owner of Inn Season Cafe in Royal Oak, Michigan. It quickly became a favorite, especially in the Autumn when Michiganders share a collective passion for all desserts crafted with pumpkin, sweet spices and maple syrup. 

Recipe for Pumpkin Walnut Baklava takes inspiration from the original while using local ingredients and seasonal tastes.
KPHTH magazine, October 2018

Sweet Tomato Chutney

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The art of making chutney is a passion in India.  Cooks developed local reputations for their intense combinations of sweet, salty and hot.  Over the years I have heard a number of people mention the East Indian saying “too sweet to resist and too hot to eat.”  This recipe follows that model and is ideal for the end-of-summer plethora of ripe tomatoes.  Not only is it an excellent condiment for an Indian meal, but it can work as a ketchup, as a dip for crudites or a base for sweet and sour dishes.  

Serves 4

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds

2 tablespoons finger hot green chiles, minced

1/4 cup sweet onion, minced

1/4 teaspoon garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon ginger root, minced

1 1/2 cups tomatoes, diced

1 tablespoon molasses

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 cup water

In a medium saucepan in medium-high heat, cook canola oil, mustard seeds and green chiles.  When the mustard seeds pop, add onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, molasses, cane juice, sea salt and water.  Turn down to a simmer and cook 10 minutes or until tomatoes are well cooked and thickened.  Serve room temperature or hot.  

 

Pepita and Fire Roasted Poblano Pesto

My first experience with a pesto-style dish was in my Greek grandmother’s house.  Yia Yia prepared every family member’s favorite dish and my father’s was skordalia, the traditional Greek garlic sauce.  As a child in Crete, where almonds are plentiful and full of flavor, her mother taught her the art of the dish; she learned to prepare the skordalia by pounding garlic, almonds and olive oil with a mortar and pestle.  We always knew when we walked into her home that she had prepared the skordalia because of the heavy garlic smell in the air. It seemed to stay in our mouths for days and even crept out of our pores as garlic-tinged sweat.  Over the years, my dad was the only one adventurous enough to indulge, which he would do on a Friday so he could return to work on Monday with minimal effect.

The Italian word pesto is often used to describe a combination of ground garlic, basil and pine nuts, although the preparation method of grinding ingredients into a paste is universal and cross-cultural.  Ever since man discovered how to grind and pound food products with stone and wood, this method has been employed in traditional cuisines around the world to create sauces, condiments, bases and pastes which enhance flavor profiles. Every culture put their stamp on the method with the common denominator being a mortar and pestle or grinding stone and it is a superb way to add a savory and flavorful edge to a dish without frying or grilling.

A Sicilian version is pesto rosso which substitutes almonds for pine nuts and adds tomatoes with less basil.  In Mediterranean France, a cold sauce made from garlic, basil and olive oil is the base for the much-acclaimed pistou soup in Provence.

In India, I watched cooks deftly handle a flat grindstone with a rectangular pestle to create intensely flavored mint chutneys, robust masala pastes and pesto-like fillings for a variety of breads and savories.  The grinding stones would absorb the right amount of moisture and unique flavors would be developed by the grinding action.  I was so enamored by the amazing quality of these preparations that I carried two of these heavy stones home on a flight.

Central and South American cuisines have a long history of grinding spices, pastes and mole bases using a metate or mealing stone. Chimichurri sauce is one of the well known sauces to use this method.  One can imagine my pesto recipe being made on a metate grindstone in an adobe kitchen a hundred years ago.  Nutty toasted pepitas with crushed garlic, freshly squeezed lime juice, brightly flavored cilantro and smokey fire-roasted poblano chiles provocatively meld together to create an explosion of flavor in any dish that it is served with.  I particularly like it as a foil to corn dishes and often pair it with Quinoa-Corn Arepas and Chocolate Cherry Salsa from my cookbook Vegetarian Traditions.  The bright flavor of the pesto is the perfect companion to the natural sweetness of the corn and deep, dark anti-oxidant-rich salsa.

Today, I often make pesto with a food processor, which is a compromise for the sake of modern efficiency.  However, if you have a metate, or mortar & pestle and a little extra time, I encourage you to use it–not just for the earthly connection and romance of hand-working one’s food, but also for the flavor.

This easy-to-prepare recipe works well in sandwiches, as a mezzes-style dip, a quesadilla filling or a layer in a tortilla casserole.

Pepita & Fire Roasted Poblano Pesto

1/2 cup pepitas, toasted
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 poblano chile, fire roasted, stemmed and seeded

In a food processor, grind pepitas to a meal, add all pesto ingredients and pulse to a coarse consistency.  Store in an air-tight container and keep refrigerated.

Roasted Spring Onions

 

After the winter freeze, one of the first signs of  life in the Midwest Farmers Markets are spring onions which are full flavor, extra sweet young shoots that only vaguely resemble a mature onion.  At this stage, even the sharpest tasting onion will easily compete with sweet varieties such as Vidalia, Maui and Walla Walla.  At this time of year I use them generously, raw in salads and roasted, as in this recipe.  This is an excellent easy to make side dish cum condiment that adds zest to a variety of dishes.  Make it ahead and use it as an impromptu garnish or a sandwich ingredient as well.  Enjoy!

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Serves 6

6 spring onion shoots cut in half lengthwise and trimmed to four inches long

½ cup seedless raisins

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

¼ cup diced Roma tomatoes

½ teaspoon coriander seeds

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

3 whole cloves

½ teaspoon whole peppercorns

½ teaspoon sea salt

Bake in a covered dish at 400º F  for 1 hour.  Serve as a side or garnish.

Tofu Joe

 

 

A different version of Sloppy Joe which uses easily aquired ingredients.  Simple to create and ideal for making ahead, it is a good stand by when time is short.

 

Tofu Joe

Base
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 cup yellow onion, diced

1 cup celery, diced

¾ cup red bell pepper, diced

1 small clove garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

¼ cup cider vinegar

1 ½ cups tomatoes, diced

1 cup tomato salsa

½ cup organic ketchup

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon basil

In a saute pan at medium heat, cook the oil, onion, celery and red pepper until the onion starts to become clear around the edges.  Add remaining ingredients and simmer until tomatoes are cooked.  Transfer and reserve.

Tofu
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons fresh ground fennel seed

1 heaping teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon chipotle powder

¼ cup tamari

1 block firm tofu, mashed

½ teaspoon sea salt

Rinse the saute pan and reuse.  Heat with olive oil at medium heat.  Add the fennel seed, paprika, chipotle and tamari.  Mix together and add the tofu right away.  Let simmer until the liquid is gone, add 1 cup of the base with the sea salt and simmer for 5 minutes.  Add remaining base and cook again for another 10 minutes on a low simmer.  Serve over toasted buns, or bread.

 

 

Maple Carrot Halava

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Outside of carrot cake and muffins, carrots are rarely used for desserts here in North America. Traditional Indian carrot halava is prepared using two different methods. The first is to cook the carrots in clarified butter (ghee) and sugar until only the sweetness of the carrot remains and the sugar slightly caramelizes. The second is to reduce the carrots with milk to a light burfi or fudge consistency. Our method combined the two because maple syrup starts as a liquid and becomes solid with cooking, giving a similar texture to the candied sugar in the first variation. This recipe also retains the richness that ghee or milk would add without the fats and is a very satisfying dessert. Brightened with cardamom, it can be made 3 to 4 days ahead of time if kept refrigerated. It also freezes well.

Maple Carrot Halava
Serves: 8 Preparation Time: 30 minutes

6 cups carrots, peeled and grated
1 teaspoon decorticated or ground cardamom
1 cup whole cashew nuts (optional)
2 cups maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom garnish

In a large skillet on medium low, while stirring frequently, slowly cook the oil, carrots, cardamom and cashews until the carrots start to break down. Add the maple syrup and vanilla, turn the heat up to medium and cook until the maple syrup is absorbed and starts to caramelize. Serve warm or cool in a fruit compote dish with a dusting of cardamom.

In Food We Trust

“Trust,” as it pertains to the food system, has become an increasing concern for all of us.  As part of the ongoing research and planning for the James Beard Foundation’s annual conference over the last few years, a series of regional salons were conducted around the country on the subject of Trust.  A small group of diverse stakeholders in the local food system—including chefs, farmers, food producers, distributors, policy makers, urban planners, academics, and others—attended a salon at Color’s Restaurant in Detroit.  It was exciting for me to be a part of this and inspired me to revisit some principles I hold near and dear.

-Healthy food is the primary source of nourishment and a primary nurturer–the ultimate in holistic health and the key to longevity and quality of life.

-Creating and presenting food is an art form which can inspire us and awaken all our senses in the creative process.

-Food is a language.  Our personal tastes defining which dialect we speak.  It is  an important method of expression and reciprocal exchange between people.

-We feel better about ourselves when we’re cognizant of what we eat.  Whenever possible, eat plant based whole foods which are organic, unadulterated and unprocessed.

-Food connects us with others and cultivates natural satisfaction.

-Know where your food comes from and support local farmers.

-Discover local sources and how the food we eat is a direct connection to the earth we walk on.

-Be honest with your food

Trust is an expansive subject and individually intimate at the same time.  As a plant-based chef, every aspect of the ingredients I use are as important as the final dish.  Each one is chosen for its culinary contribution as well as healthful properties. The following recipe is one you can trust!

For this recipe, I used fresh cranberry beans at Food Field Farm’s stall in Detroit’s Eastern Market. Similar to pintos, they cook to a tender creamy texture.  This recipe is a simple medley of vegetables and beans.  If you can’t find fresh beans, cooked from dry or canned may be substituted.

Cranberry Bean Ragout

 

2 teaspoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/4 cup red onions, diced

1/2 cup Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers, diced (or red bell peppers)

1 cup yellow squash, large dice

1 1/2 cups cooked fresh podded cranberry beans* (dry beans**)

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon cumin powder

1/2 teaspoon mild chile powder

In a twelve inch skillet on medium-high heat, cook oil, garlic and crushed red pepper until it begins to sizzle.  Add onions, sweet peppers and yellow squash.  Cook until the edges of the vegetables are seared.  Add cranberry beans and all remaining ingredients.  Turn down, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.  Serve hot.

Serve with rice or quinoa.

*To cook 1 ½ cups fresh cranberry beans, simmer for 30 minutes in 4 cups of water in a covered saucepan.

**With dry beans, soak in 4 cups water for 4 to 6 hours. Rinse well.  Simmer for 30 minutes in 4 cups of water in a covered saucepan.

Artisanal Fermentation

Each day, 30 to 40 minutes is usually spent cooking. Fast traditional cooking is wonderful, but the traditional slow and carefully prepared dishes add depth, perspective and an understanding of the true meaning of the food. I like to use traditionally prepared condiments, such as tamari, ume plum vinegar, unpasteurized miso, cured olives, salted capers and well aged balsamic vinegar to compliment my quickly prepared meals. Often these dishes are rooted in the climate and politics of the era they originated from, adding romanticized imagery of the times of yore. Many well crafted preparations depend on fermentation, something we are rarely exposed to since refrigeration came into the kitchen. These dishes often define flavors of a cuisine with the unique flavors of enzymatic growth. Often they were used in winter to add flavor and vital nutrients when the fresh harvest was not available. Along with preserving and salt curing, fermentation was used to keep perishable ingredients edible.
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Sauerkraut is one of those dishes. In Michigan, every Autumn during the abundant cabbage harvest, housewives and farmers would grate large amounts of the cruciferous vegetable on everything from hand graters to handyman crafted grating boxes which could shred an entire giant head at a time. The freshly shredded cabbage was placed with salt in crocks, barrels or bin, then pressed and covered to encapsulate the fermentation process. After a couple of weeks or so, the cabbage turned into sauerkraut and continued to ferment until canning. Today, a good amount of Michigan’s bountiful cabbage crop is turned into nutritious sauerkraut and donated to food banks.

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In India, nation culinary treasures such as Idli, Dosa, Jallebi and Dahi (yogurt) all depend on fermentation for unique flavors and health giving enzymes. Dosa has very ancient roots in South Indian Tamil culture that are at least 6,000 years old. This original “crepe” has maintained popularity and is one of the most recognized and cherished dishes in greater Indian cuisine. Thirty years ago, Indian dahi-walla shops were frequently a stove, a pot and a cook (sometimes with a couple of cows out back) who worked among clay vessels of all shapes and sizes made to hold yogurt as it cultured. Down the street, one would usually find a potter sitting on the ground with a throwing wheel, a pile of clay vessels and a pit for firing. For yogurt, the clay would insulate as well as remove whey from the yogurt as it turned to curd over a four to five hour period. Turning milk into yogurt, butter and sweets were a method of preservation before refrigeration and was practiced wherever cows, sheep, goats and buffalo were kept. I remember my Yia Yia (Greek grandmother) making her own yogurt, keeping a string of cultures from one batch to the next. She would culture the yogurt on top of her refrigerator wrapped in towels where it would stay warm enough to transform the milk into a very tangy yogurt.

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India also has a long history of pickle making, using sea salt, mustard, fenugreek, chillies and oils. I learned the craft from a Gujarati family and, over the years would make salty, hot, sour and often sweet pickles during the growing season. Pickles from eggplant, green beans, green mangos, lemons, limes and chillies accompanied the regional Indian cuisine we were preparing daily at the time.

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Garum, a fermented fish sauce, was used throughout the ancient Roman Empire, much the same way fish sauces are used in Korean, Thai, Cambodian, Fillipino and Vietnamese cuisines. Soy sauce, shoyu and tamari in Chinese and Japanese cuisines are rooted in similar traditions. Asian cuisines are full of fermented products, like Tempeh, Natto and Kimchee.

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Commonly acknowledged, products with long traditions of fermentation are beer and wine. The ancients became masters of wine and beer making, not just for the pleasing effects, but also because water could not be trusted. The armies of Alexander the Great marched to India using beer and wine instead of water. Bread baking as we have come to know it also started from the process of making beer and wine. The white coatings we sometimes see on grapes are a yeast that is also used for sourdough bread. Brewers yeast, the by-product of beer making, is also an old source of traditional bread yeast. Beer making is perhaps one of the oldest known fermenting traditions with archeological evidence from 9,000 years ago. Since it is made with grains, beer has kept a close relationship with bread. Ancient Egyptians had massive bakeries at the base of the Great Pyramid, capable of providing up to 30,000 loaves of bread a day and were conveniently located next to breweries. Up until the last 60 years, many people kept crocks with yeast starters in their kitchens to make bread with. With the exception of Prohibition, yeast was readily available from breweries throughout America. Packaged, and especially, active dry yeast are relatively new in the world of food.

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With the arrival of dependable refrigeration, many of these foodstuffs were relegated to the realm of cultural identity as they were no longer were necessary. Commercial manufacturers took over more difficult tasks such as bread baking, wine and beer making, yogurt and butter as well as anything else they could sell back to the public in order for to time to be saved in the kitchen. 19th and 20th century kitchens evolved so fast that many of the time honored culinary traditions have become very rare or even lost.

Growing up with my Greek Yia Yia’s cooking helped me to appreciate the deep connections between food, culture and environment. For this reason when the current culinary revolution recognized these same connections, I found a natural kinship with those who embraced it. Over the years, I have also discovered the remarkable role vegetarianism has played in human history. Often, it is associated with the visionary brilliance, notably such souls as Gandhi and Einstein. Every cuisine has some form of plant based food in it and I promote that every culture has vegetarian traditions. Commonly, fermented dishes and condiments are prominent in such repertoires.

Beyond obvious refrigeration issues, both ancient and modern medicinal wisdom recognize the potent nutrition and life giving value in fermented foods. Modern science has also recognized the hazards of improperly fermenting, requiring sterile environments and standardized cultures. While this has undoubtedly increased food safety, we have also lost many organic hand-crafted traditions. Often, much of the health benefit is diminished as well. I include as many of these dishes as possible in my culinary stable and even find that once a cultured product is made, it facilitates quick and easy meals while, at the same time, adding the depth of slowly developed flavors.

Black Pepper Tofu

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For many people tofu is a bland experience, turning off the most adventurous of palates.  This recipe helps to counteract that falacy with the assistance of the treasured spice of Asia, black pepper.  It makes for a flavorful side dish with a simple meal as well as a provocative appetizer.  The key to good sautéed tofu is to cook it hot at first, then turn down the heat and finish it off slowly allowing the flavors to absorb.

Makes 12 pieces

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 (14 ounce) block firm tofu, drained and cut into twelve ¼ inch thick triangles
2 tablespoons tamari
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper

Heat a 10 to 12 inch saute pan on medium heat.  Add oil and tofu.  Cook one side until slightly browned and then carefully turn each piece.  Add tamari and turn heat down to a simmer, then grind half the fresh pepper onto the tofu.  After a minute, turn the tofu again and grind the rest of the pepper.  Continue to cook until the tofu is firm and the pepper is cooked in.  Serve hot or at room temperature.