Greek food is one that is festive, healthy, simple and delicious, and Greek restaurants are always fun to go to. Greek food is easy to cook at home too, as long as you have the basic staples — none of which are exotic — such as olive oil, tomatoes, oregano, lemon and feta cheese.
When I crave Greek food I don’t bother Googling “Greek restaurants” but simply open the refrigerator. Here are two very simple recipes I make when I think, “How about Greek tonight?” Both use feta cheese, one with meat, one with seafood. I was introduced to both these dishes during my travels in Greece and realized that they are very doable at home.
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The stifado is simple braised beef with lots of garlic, onions and interesting spicing. The baked shrimp with feta is probably even easier to do, and I’ve never made it without people asking for seconds.
This recipe, called stifatho or stifado in Greek, is a braised beef with onions that is simply one recipe among thousands, since every family makes it a little differently and it is so typical of rustic Greek mountain cooking.
The name comes from the Italian stufato, and the Greek version probably results from the influence of Venetian overlordship in the Middle Ages when Venice played such a large role in Greek affairs, especially in the Ionian Sea. On the other hand, the spices, the clove and cinnamon, as well as the walnuts and currants, point to some Turkish or other Levantine influence, too, which is logical when we remember that the Turks controlled most of Greece for 500 years.
These soul-satisfying tastes are perfect once the weather becomes cool. This is a recipe that you can change any way you want, just as a Greek cook would. Maybe you would like to add carrots or potatoes or remove the walnuts — well, go ahead, it’s a free-form Greek stew.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: about 2 3/4 hours
Yield: 4 servings
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 pounds boneless beef stew meat, cut into 1-inch cubes, or 4 pounds beef short ribs
1 medium onion, chopped
10 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
1 cup tomato purée (canned or fresh)
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 pounds small white onions, both ends sliced off and peeled
2 tablespoons currants
1 cup walnut halves
1 cup crumbled imported Greek or Bulgarian feta cheese
1. In a skillet, heat 3 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat, then brown the meat on all sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer the meat to a flameproof casserole. Add the chopped onion and garlic cloves to the skillet with remaining 2 tablespoons butter and cook, stirring, until the onions are translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato purée, wine and wine vinegar to deglaze the skillet. Pour this over the meat in the casserole. Add the bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves and sugar, and season with salt and pepper.
2. Cover the casserole and braise over low heat for 1 hour. Add the small onions and currants and cook until meat falls off the bone (if using short ribs), about 1 hour more. Add the walnuts and cook 20 minutes more. Add the feta cheese and cook 5 minutes then serve.
Baked Shrimp With Feta Cheese
Garides me feta, shrimp with feta, is usually cooked in an earthenware casserole called youvetsi (or giouvetsi), derived from the Turkish, that is like an earthenware Spanish casserole or cazuela. It is a taverna type of dish popular in the islands.
Diane Kochilas, author of “The Food and Wine of Greece,” told me that it is a specialty from Thessaloniki, but it is also well known among the tavernas around Piraeus, the port of Athens. Some people add ouzo or replace the white wine with retsina. This is one of my favorite shrimp dishes, and it is easy to prepare at home.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: about 1 hour
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
2 pounds large shrimp, shelled and deveined if necessary
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion or 3 shallots, finely chopped
5 scallions, white and light green parts only, finely chopped
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 pound Greek or Bulgarian feta cheese, crumbled in large chunks
Fresh parsley leaves for garnish
1. Place the shelled shrimp in a large bowl and pour the lemon juice over. Toss and set aside.
2. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook, stirring occasionally, the onion or shallots and scallions until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes, wine, garlic and parsley, and season with salt and pepper. Stir well, reduce the heat to low and simmer until dense, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
4. Spoon some sauce into a large baking dish. Spread the shrimp around the dish and cover with the remaining sauce. Spread the feta cheese around, pushing the chunks of cheese down into the sauce. Place in the oven and bake until the shrimp are cooked and the cheese melted, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve garnished with parsley leaves.
Main photo: Baked shrimp with feta cheese. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright