So where did this love of Mediterranean ingredients come from? I have to give the credit to my ex husband's parents...specifically to his German-born mother. That woman could just flat out THROW DOWN on some chow! She spoke 7 languages and had at one time in her young life been sent to the palace (when Yugoslavia still had a king in the time before Marshall Tito) to be the tudor of the the king's children and the children of "the court". She cooked across ethnic lines often preparing Hungarian dishes, Slavic, German, Greek, Chezk, Polish and Russian (to name a few).
Downtown Chicago has (or had 25 years ago..haven't been there since) an incredible market on Randolf street. There were little ethnic shops that sold everything from pastries to cured meats, cheeses...BREADS (don't get me started...I'm drooling). We took the "L" downtown on Saturday mornings and hit all her favorite spots; the Serbian bakery where we bought Kolachy and Roasted leg of lamb or piping hot Cevapcici right off the grill. We'd work our way down the street stopping for great mounds of crusty fresh baked bread, sardines (which were for my father in law and kinda made me want to gag), a bottle of pure, cold pressed (stil cloudy) olive oil here, some fresh produce there. The last stop was always the best. The Greek shop. There were huge oak barrels filled with olives from which you ladled your own into containers. The feta cheese was in the cold case in gingantic 20lb blocks that the clerk fished out of huge vats of brine and would cut you off a big chunk. The yogrut was homemade, the tzitzki too. We went home loaded down for the week ahead.
At home, my father in law grew the most amazing tomatoes and row after row of shining bell peppers in all colors. We roasted our peppers on the grill and then placed them in paper bags to steam the skins off, packed them in mason jars with salted water and preserved them for winter. The tomatoes you ate off the vines, still warm from the sun. The pears we preserved in sweetened syrup and sometimes my father in law would make pear brandy. But there was one place in the yard that I loved the most. That was the picnic table underneath the cherry tree. The blossoms rained down on your head like fragrant confetti. I remember always picking cherry blossoms out of my oldest daughter's little curls.
In the afternoon we sometimes made up a plate of feta cheese, kalamata olives, sliced tomatoes and onions and some of our roasted peppers. We'd slice thick slabs of crusty bread and pile it in a basket. There was olive oil to dip your bread in. We sat at the picnic table under the cherry tree and ate while my daughter ran barefoot through her grandfather's perfectly manicured lawn. Afterwards was steaming hot Turkish coffee, fruit from our own trees and a plate of Kolachy or slices of homemade strudel. How can you NOT enjoy food like that?
My own grandfather is about to roll over in his grave when I say this BUT...I can't imagine cooking with bacon grease! First of all we rarely eat bacon and when we do it's always organic, uncured bacon (usually Turkey bacon) which doesn't render any fat anyway. Still in all...I'm scarred for life thinking about that mason jar on the back of the counter beside the stove where bacon drippings were poured (new on top of old) and kept handy for EVERY meal. Saints preserve us...no wonder old fashioned southern cooking has such a reputation for being unhealthy! It was good...becuase they were awesome cooks but I really never understood that you could cook collard greens or green beans any other way other than boiled to death and drowned in pork fat.
Today in my kitchen, my "go to" ingredients are almost always Mediterranean. I use a lot of citrus, herbs, capers, sundried tomatoes, olives and olive oil, roasted red bell peppers, yogurt, and Lord knows I can go through some feta cheese! I swear I think I could eat it three times a day if it wasn't for watching my sodium. Note to self: I just had an idea to make a goat milk feta FUDGE...I feel an experiment coming on!
I've rambled enough...time to cook! I hope you enjoy my Fried Feta Appetizer with it's lovely Mediterranean Relish. The Citrus Rosemary Grilled Chicken is easy, delicious and done in a flash. Herbed roasted potatoes are browned and crispy on the outside, creamy and tender on the inside. It's a simple meal that anyone can prepare and everyone will enjoy!
Pan Fried Feta Cheese with Mediterranean Relish
-8oz. block of feta cheese, sliced 1/4" thick
-olive oil for frying
-1 egg slightly beaten
-2 tablespoons whole wheat flour
-1/4 cup unseasoned dry bread crumbs
-1/4 teaspoon black pepper
-2 large roma tomatoes, seeded and minced
-1/4 cup roasted red bell pepper, drained and finely chopped
-1/4 cup pitted kalamata olive, finely chopped
-1 large clove garlic, grated or pressed
-1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
-1 tablespoon each minced fresh parsley and mint
-lemon wedges (optional)
1- Place egg in a small bowl and beat ligtly with a teaspoon of water. Combine flour, bread crumbs and pepper in another dish and mix well.
2- Dip feta slices into egg wash and then drege in flour mixture. Set aside on a plate. You make make ahead to this point and chill until you are ready to fry. I recomment breading the feta at least an hour ahead and chilling; it makes the coating stick better.
3- Heat 1/2 inch olive oil in a small heavy skillet. Add feta 3 or 4 slices at a time. Do not crowd the skillet. Oil should be hot but not smoking. Fry feta slices 2 minutes or until light golden brown. Turn and brown second side. Carefully remove to a platter lined with paper towels. The slices will be very soft when they are hot but will firm up as they cool.
4- Prepare relish: Combine all remaining ingredients in a small bowl; stir to combine. If desired you can add a teaspoon of greek dry seasoning blend. Relish is best at room temperature.
5. Serve with fried feta. Squirt fresh lemon juice on the cheese if desired.
close up of fried feta
delicious Mediterranean Relish
Citrus Rosemary Grilled Chicke and Herb Roasted Potatoes
-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
-1 cup orange juice
-1 Tablespoon olive oil
-2 cloves garlic, rougly chopped
-3 or 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
-1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
-1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1-Prepare marinade: Place orange juice in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer until juice is reduced by 75%. You should have about 1/4 cup of reduced orange juice.
2-Place chicken pieces in a zip top bag. Add cooled orange juice reduction and remaining ingredients. Seal bag and toss to coat pieces. Store in fridge for at least one hour.
3- Grill over medium coals until chicken juices run clear when pierced with a fork.
*You may make a sauce if desired by sauteeing a minced shallot in some olive oil. Add 1/2 cup of fresh (not the chicken marinade) orange juice and reduce until thickened.
Herb Roasted Potatoes
-4 large starch white potatoes such as Idaho, cubed *peelings are optional
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
-1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
-1/4 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
-1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
-1 tablespoon each fresh minced rosemary and thyme
1-Preheat oven to 450F. Scrub and cube potatoes (about 1" size). Place in a large bowl and add olive oil, kosher salt, pepper, paprika and garlic powder. Toss until all potatoes are well coated and seasoning is evenly distributed.
2-Spread potatoes out in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast until fork tender, turning occasionally to brown on all sides.
3-Remove from oven and sprinkle with herbs; mix well. Return potatoes to oven for 10 minutes to crisp up and release the flavors of the herbs. Serve with chicken.
*I used some of the left over relish on our chicken but you can prepare the easy orange sauce if you prefer.
(c) Jill Anderson
The Homegrown Gourmet