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.
Mainstream America does not emphasize food as a key to a quality life and source of longevity. Food is mostly used as a sensual sideshow and necessary evil. One the big challenges we face, especially in dire times, is to reconnect with the earth’s culinary heritage. Not only the exclusive diets of the privileged, but those of common people. These are diets that nourish body and soul, which utilize the senses instead of merely placating them. Such foods help define who we are and keep us in touch with the ever present organic cycles of the earth.
I first discovered the significance of food as a young child from my Greek grandmother, who tirelessly went out of her way to both nourish and nurture her family through the medium of lovingly prepared traditional dishes. Memories in my Yia Yia and Papou’s house invariably are associated the times when our family gathered around the dining table, situated just outside of Yia Yia’s kitchen. There I sampled exquisite hand made, tender dolamdakia, irresistible spanikopita, perfectly balanced moussaka and pastitsio to die for. The memories were augmented with intense and creamy skordalia, almost sinfully sweet baklava and the melt-in-the mouth amigdalota cookies made from almonds and orange blossom water. The food sparked conversation and familial bonding.
Eating this way, we knew what it was to be Greek. The food was historically intertwined with cultural identity. What, how and when it was (or is) consumed was a major portion of the Hellenic psyche. Greece is a land that has witnessed the ravages of changing civilizations, occupations and political turmoil. Often it was recognized as the center of the civilized world and the source of our modern political structures. The unique and flavorful cuisine has been a consistent reminder of the greatness that Greece was…and still is. Much of this glory was achieved over millennia at tables in homes and villages with foodstuffs foraged in the mountains, harvested from the land and caught in the sea. The plant based food was so significant that the famous Greek Key pattern, found over millennia as a theme on temples, homes, fabrics and ornaments, was derived from the field plowing pattern used by farmers. Ancient Greeks would also pour a small libation of wine on the earth before drinking, much in the way we toast today. The Greeks have learned to live with the earth in a respectful partnership, where harmonizing with the energies of the cosmos became a goal in life. Anyone who has spent time in Greece can still feel this incredible energy integrated into every aspect. Often this translates into the Greek spirit of life. Along with the Mediterranean sunshine, the sea breezes and the stark raw beauty of the land, it is unique and unlike any other place on earth. No wonder so many Greeks return to their mother land.
It all happens so quickly–rain, sun and warmth spawning explosions of green in the garden. Finnochio begins to form tender bulbs as the deep green fronds of fennel weed thicken-up. Swiss chard leaves seem to double in size after one good rain and young leeks become perfectly tender. A Midwestern garden in June can be a treasure trove of delicacies–one of the late spring joys which makes winter seem long ago.
This recipe is inspired by Michigan and San Diego gardens–not to mention my Cretan grandmother (Yia Yia). Kypo (kee-poh) is the Greek word for garden. I have fond memories of Yia Yia picking fennel and other herbs, which she used liberally. She made several dishes using phyllo, often rolled by hand and devoid of the buttery residue, commonly found with most phyllo recipes. My Kypo-pita follows this tradition–there is no butter and the phyllo is lightly oiled–the secret to our delicious phyllo dishes at Inn Season Cafe.
Recently, I was asked to demonstrate a Greek-style dish at the Opa Fest in Troy, Michigan. It was exciting for me to share my language of food with my fellow Greeks and discuss its history and my Cretan roots. Particularly gratifying was to reminisce about my father, Spyros, and his passion for our Greek heritage.
When making this recipe, keep in mind that other leafy vegetables from the garden, such as spinach, beet greens, purslane and sorrel, can be incorporated or substituted.
Once you try this technique with phyllo, you will say, as the Greeks do, “Bravo!”
1 1/2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup leeks, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups fennel root (finocchio), thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup blanched almond flour
3/4 cup fresh fennel weed, stemmed and finely chopped
In a small saucepan on medium heat, cook the oil, leeks and garlic until the leeks begin to turn clear on the edges. Add the fennel root, lemon and water, cover and simmer until the fennel root is soft. Stir-in the sea salt, almond flour and fennel weed and turn off the heat. Reserve.
6 cups Swiss chard leaves, stemmed and chopped (2 cups cooked)
4 cups Lacinato kale, stemmed and chopped (1 cup cooked)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, preferably Cretan
Steam Swiss chard and kale for 2 to 3 minutes until well wilted. In a medium size bowl, mix together all ingredients. Reserve.
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
2 cups sweet onions (Vidalia-style), thinly sliced
1/2 cup water
Simmer all ingredients at low heat in a covered sauce pan until the onions caramelize in their own juices. Reserve.
1 cup organic expeller-pressed canola oil
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably Cretan
3/4 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Mix together all ingredients, reserve.
1 package organic phyllo dough (preferably whole wheat)
1 cup roasted red bell peppers, sliced into thin strips
Create a clear workspace for working with the phyllo dough. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Set up a parchment lined baking sheet. Stir the oil mixture well and, using a pastry brush, lightly brush oil mixture on the parchment, add one sheet of phyllo and lightly brush the phyllo, continually stirring the oil mixture. Repeat until 6 layers have been laid out.
Place a string of red pepper strips along the edge of the long side of the phyllo. Place a ½ inch wide strip of caramelized onion next to the red peppers. Then, lay a 2 inch wide strip of the cooked greens evenly next to the caramelized onion. Lastly, spread a 3 inch wide strip of the fennel-almond mixture evenly next to the greens. Roll the phyllo roulade-style and, with a serrated knife, slice the top half of the roulade every inch or so. Repeat to make a second roulade. Arrange them both on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes until lightly browned on the edges. Remove from the oven, let cool for 10 minutes and slice into individual pieces. Serve warm. If refrigerated, they should be re-baked at 300 degrees for 15 minutes before serving to bring back the crispness of the phyllo.
I got to work creating what I do best, delicious plant-based dishes, with a goal of showing vegans and non-vegans alike that a dairy free mac ‘n cheese can be as satisfying as its counterpart. My entry was not only 100% plant-based, but also gluten-free–emulating the classic American macaroni and cheese many of us grew up on. I drew inspiration from my grandmother’s Greek pastitsio, a noodle and cheese dish, which I frequently enjoyed during childhood visits to her home.
The recipe includes some ancient whole grains (quinoa, teff and amaranth), cashews, almonds and extra virgin olive oil–all healthy and energizing ingredients. This dish feels and tastes like the traditional mac ‘n cheese, without the simple carbohydrates or cholesterol laden fats. It thrives on the synergy between flavor, texture, healthy ingredients and comfort. The coup d’etat is my chive and extra virgin olive oil puree, which adds a zesty “zing”–mostly appreciated by us grown up kids.
Although my entry did not win the competition, it was the surprise of the event. After the blind tasting, many were asked if they knew one of the dishes was vegan and gluten-free. Most tasters had no idea and were pleasantly surprised! Proving that this dish can stand on its own in flavor and texture no matter what one’s dietary preference is.
The Macdown was a huge success. Not only was it a great time with music and song–but it sold-out! Justin’s Vision not only gained a lot of recognition and press through this fundraiser, but it raised enough funds to send a family to the Give Kids The World Village and helped to pave the way for the next exciting fundraiser!
Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large saucepan, bring water, ½ teaspoon sea salt and 1 teaspoon olive oil to a boil. Add macaroni and stir to remove clumping. Cook until the pasta is tender around the edges, but firmer than Al Dente. Strain, rinse with cool water, drain well and place in a bowl with ½ teaspoon salt and 2 teaspoons olive oil. Mix well and reserve.
½ cup raw cashews
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
1 ½ cups soy milk or other non-dairy milk
Puree all ingredients in a blender until very smooth and transfer to a bowl. Reserve.
Lightly oil a 6×9 baking dish, set aside. In a medium saucepan on medium-low heat, slowly cook the onions until clear around the edges, then add the garlic, teff and amaranth. After 1 minute, add the almond flour, black pepper, smoked paprika, sea salt and turmeric. After another minute, stir in soy milk and the remaining Blend A. Simmer and stir until a thick gravy consistency, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in water, lemon juice and Blend B. Transfer to baking dish and fold in the noodles and ½ cup Daiya. Spread out evenly.
“June Gloom” in San Diego is defined by days of sea mist, refreshing glimpses of the sun and mild summer weather. In the garden and at the markets, it is easy to imagine this area as a land of abundance and endless repasts. Soon enough the illusions come to an end as the sun peaks around the clouds with greater frequency until the long stretch of hot summer is here. Then it is hot and dry with endless blue skies, only relieved by cool coastal salted breezes that lightly caress the sweat of the day.
Sara and I are in the middle of renovating a house and my cooking has reverted to the “food and shelter” mode that has been a way of life over the last seven years of historic restorations and renovations. Instead of daily culinary rhythms, my cooking requires greater planning. One cooking event will create two to three meals and we consume more ready to eat foods including avocados from our tree, salads with arugula, baby kale, lettuce and herbs from the garden. Journeys to the market also bring more fresh fruit, salad greens and cooking greens such as amaranth, lamb’s quarter, chards and rapini.
We enjoy creating restorative spaces for people. Through both aesthetic and practical design, a home can be a lifestyle facilitator as well as an integral source of happiness. Nesting tendencies are natural and inherent, but a home can be much more than that. When designing a living space, the approach is two-pronged.
First, we find nourishment and revitalization through food and social interaction as results of making the kitchen as the center of a household. Good food and how it is shared is fundamental to every cultural tradition and a primary marker for discovering quality in life. Ancillary facilities such as dining areas and kitchen gardens play supportive roles. Altogether, the kitchen, dining areas (indoor and outdoor) and culinary gardens can facilitate health and well being. Not only by making food preparation and serving it easier, but also by inspiring one to cook and entertain. Home cooking was a victim of a modernized of society. For a number of reasons, which we will not delve into presently, it was left out of the mix, thus opening the doors to replacements such as fast food and similar culinary atrocities. The current movement to re-introduce cooking into every home is a symptom of advancement in society with increasing awareness of the importance role food plays in physical, mental and spiritual well being.
My Greek grandparents used to tell stories of Nastradin Hotsas, the Turkish fool who cleverly tried to take the easy road in life. One such story, which parallels modern food issues, had Mr. Hotsas training his donkey not to eat, so he could save money. One day, just as they reached the top of the hill, the donkey dropped dead. Mr. Hotsas exclaimed with exasperation: “Just when he was successfully trained to not eat, he dies!”
The second focus is on rejuvenation. These areas of the house are bedroom suites, entertainment and exercise rooms. Fueled by restorative food and sharing with friends, these spaces help to recharge and tone daily life.
Addressing the overt and subtle functionality of these areas is 90 % of the design. Most of what remains are storage and infrastructure. Lately, even once utilitarian rooms have become rejuvenating areas. Basements have workout rooms, family rooms, play rooms and home theater. Even the garage has become an entertainment area utilized for hobbies and toys, for both man and child. Every part of a house plays a role in cycles of nourishment and regeneration. When exiting to the outside would, one should feel satiated, refreshed and ready to take on what the world has to dish out.