Go Big, Go Greek: Classic Greek Salad

Greek salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Michael, my youngest brother, has this fraternity shirt that reads “Go Big, Go Greek” in giant letters across the chest. He wore it all over Greece, which was rather amusing. Can you go any bigger than by going to Greece?

Everywhere we went in Greece, bouzouki players plucked out the same song, which my grandfather identified as the theme to Never on Sunday, a black and white 1960’s comedy flick starring Melina Mercouri as a free-spirited Greek prostitute. And everywhere we went in Greece, we found ourselves la-la-la-ing along. It’s a catchy song.

And everywhere we went, we were entertained by traditional Greek dancing. It’s an interesting kind of dance to be entertained with. It’s not particularly fast, and not particularly athletic, but it’s mesmerizing in its own way with its slowly repetitive steps that sometimes build and sometimes don’t. And sometimes there’s some quite athletic kicking, and sometimes everyone joins in the circle for a little swing step.

Ingredients for Greek salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Chopped veggies for Greek salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Greek salad dressing (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Red wine vinegar, lemon, oregano, olives (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

But best of all, everywhere we went, there was Greek salad. I wasn’t always impressed with the food in Greece, but the salads were consistently good. Big, ripe hunks of tomato and cucumber, salty olives, sweet red onion, crisp green bell pepper and a feta quite unlike the kind we buy in Berlin. It was creamier – and later, I found out, made with part goat’s milk (I found this out by trying to feed it to David, who hates the taste of goat cheese. Now I have a brick-sized chunk of Greek feta I’m slowly trying to make disappear.).

Greek salad recipe (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Tomatoes, green pepper, feta, cucumber, red onion (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I loved the simplicity of the dressing – a little more acidic than oily, a perfect fit for the ripe vegetables’ natural sweetness – and rife with dried oregano. It was so uncomplicated and so eminently eatable.

So when I think back on how to “go Greek,” I think of those three things: bouzouki music, dancing, and big plates of salad. » Continue reading this post…

Coming to Terms with History: A Trip to Greece

A view from Poros (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Your humble author, with ruins (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
A boat on the Greek islands (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Family, sightseeing in Greece (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Growing up in the US, you have no real concept of history. Old is Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and ancient is the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. In Greece, old is the founding of Western civilization and ancient is a Neolithic human making pottery some 8,000 years ago on a rocky outcrop by the sea. Take that, George.

At the site of ancient Corinth, a city famous for getting some letters, you see the layers of history. You can walk along the centuries-old road, slick with pinkish rocks from 2,000 years of sandaled feet scraping it smooth. There’s a Bronze Age grave and over that the Greek marketplace. The Romans built a fountain, and as BC chanced to AD, a little Byzantine church appeared. The city was razed a few times, and each time built back up again, always a little bit higher, the new burying the old.

Temple of Apollo in Corinth (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The ruins of Greece (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Sightseeing in Greece (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Iced lemonade for hot days (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Today, the materials we use for construction are too lasting for this archaeological strata effect. Our new cities aren’t built on top of old ones, but integrated into them. Concrete has leveled out history. In Greece, too, it seems like history stops in ancient days. Unlike in Berlin, where the story starts with WWII and pummels into the East-West German divide, in Greece, the thread goes dark with the Byzantines. Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, modern Athens was born, as if a tired Zeus had spilled a shimmering pile of white Legos inside a ring of dusty green mountains.

Temple ruins in Athens (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Brother at the Acropolis (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
An ionic column (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
The Greek flag (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Modern-day Greece is not without its real problems. On the way home from our tour to Delphi, the bus driver asked us if we could skip the bathroom break and just head straight to Athens. There was a demonstration planned, and she wanted to get us back before the roads closed. » Continue reading this post…

Saving Grace

Bulgur salad with tomatoes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

It’s been a while. I dove right into crazy town and am just now coming up for air. In the past three weeks, some things happened: Like fine balsamic, I aged another year. My mother, grandfather, and littlest brother came to visit Berlin for a time, and we smashed the town – boating down the Spree, petting the goats in the zoo, touring the hidden depths of the Bundestag, and eating and eating and eating. Of course I was deathly ill for a time, during which there were massive deadlines at work. And on the other hand, we finally got chairs for the apartment. They’re blue and beautiful and I love them. I went to Greece, I rode a donkey, I came home from Greece, and now I’m here at my desk, watching a quickly fading dusk shutter the daytime sky.

It’s both a blessing and a curse to be back in routine – well, ish, since the work week hasn’t really started yet, and I came home to David’s visiting friends on the couch and a spontaneous trip to Mauerpark to grill, which was rained out by thunderstorms, and today we had lunch in the TV tower like tourists in our own city. So there’s that. And then there’s the specter of responsibility that hovers here – I left my calendar and its to-do lists sitting on my desk, and they’ve greeted my homecoming with reproach for having neglected them for so long.

Chopped dill (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Quick bulgur salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Today, the only reasonable thing to do has been to keep ignoring them. Instead, I swept the floor a few times, which always just seems to shift the dust from one room to another. I lay in bed with an icepack on my head and moaned about my humidity headache, trying to nap and restlessly jumping up from bed again. » Continue reading this post…

Sanity Measures: Brownie Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Frosting

brownie cupcakes with salted caramel frosting (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The insanity is about to begin.

Not long ago, like yesterday, I was looking through my calendar and realized that I don’t have a single second of down time until August. In case you do not have a calendar or are living with cave trolls somewhere in the mountains of Norway, it is currently May. Granted, the end of May, but that means there are still two solid, chunky months packed full of stuff.

All of it is good stuff. I’m taking a family trip to Greece, spending a whirlwind week shuttling between Chicago and Ann Arbor, whisking up to Norway for a weekend to tell the cave trolls what month it is, visiting family in the south of Germany, hosting visitors here. In fact, my first two visitors will be landing in Tegel in just two days (hi, Mom! Hi, Grandpa!).

chopped baker's chocolate (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

brownie cupcake batter (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
cupcake therapy (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

a pan of brownie cupcakes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

But even though it’s all good stuff coming up, it can be a little overwhelming for a workaholic like me to wonder when I’m going to be able to get some work done. It’s a little bit sad, isn’t it? That my biggest worry is not finding the time to check things off of my to-do list. Clearly I haven’t been doing a good job of keeping my New Year’s resolution to turn my computer off in the evenings, stepping away from work and being kind to myself.

I really should spend more time nurturing my sanity. I can always tell when I’m getting too stressed, because the number of to-do lists I have multiply. Sometimes, the lists start saying things like “spend one hour working on to-do list.” I’m not sure whether that’s meta or pathetic. Metathetic?

frosting cupcakes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

salted caramel frosting (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

But I also start cooking more complicated things. It’s odd, I suppose, that the less time I feel like I have, the more time I spend in the kitchen throwing around mountains of puff pastry, teaching myself how to do things like poach eggs or make hollandaise, or pick the longest recipe with the most ingredients in whatever cookbook I happen to be obsessing over at the time. » Continue reading this post…

Spargel Fever: White Asparagus and Pancetta Pizza

white asparagus (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

When spring finally hits Berlin, what people here are most excited for isn’t lush grass tickling along the banks of the Canal or bright bouquets of flowers filling every market stall, but the piles of white asparagus cropping up on grocery store shelves around the country. Spargelzeit is here.

I must admit, I’m not immune to the fever. Unlike the brisk, verdant crunch of green asparagus, white asparagus is surprisingly sweet and just this side of mellow – a perfect template for its traditional accompaniments of hollandaise or browned butter, salty prosciutto and creamy boiled new potatoes with parsley.

yeast (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

pancetta and green onion (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

shaved asparagus peel (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Last weekend, I took a stroll through our neighborhood Spargel Festival. It wasn’t much – just a few small stands set up around the fountain in the Rathaus Park. There were a few odd participants – a political cluster with competing parties and pamphlets, the boy scouts with their tipi set up on the lawn – but for the most part, it was full of typical German street festival fare: Thüringer Bratwurst and Knackerwurst, Flammkuchen (wood-fired flatbreads typically topped with crème fraîche, onions, and lardons), grilled pork steaks stuffed inside crusty bread rolls… and at the asparagus festival, of course, asparagus.

flour for pizza dough (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

salt (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Pizza dough (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

There’s something provincial about these neighborhood street fairs, even in a big city like Berlin. They’re different from the citywide festivals, like May 1st or the upcoming Carnival of Cultures, where there are rows upon rows of carts, stands, and foldable tables set up selling edibles of every kind on disposable plates. There might be a euro deposit on that caipirinha everyone seems to be carting around, but what’s one euro lost on a plastic cup when the crowd has carried you down the long, muggy line of revelry from one end to the other?

peeled white asparagus (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Spargel (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

At the Asparagus Festival, the asparagus tent served classically-prepared asparagus with accoutrements on real plates with real silverware. » Continue reading this post…

Going Local: Königsberger Klopse

Königsberger Klopse (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I remember the first time I went to a bakery in Berlin and asked for three “Weckle.” The woman behind the counter looked at me blankly, and then slowly, contemptuously, following my line of sight, said, “Don’t you mean three Schrippen?” I nodded, slightly confused at her huff – because even in the States, where we have few regional dialect differences, when someone asks for a “pop,” we just laugh and ask what rock they grew up under (it’s Ohio).

But not in Berlin. Here, Berlinerisch is spoken with pride – and a certain amount of sass, which even has a name. “Berliner Schnauze” literally translates as “Berlin snout,” but is more closely captured by the phrase “smart-ass sassafras pants.” The Berliner Schnauze is a trifecta of “snappy attitude, dry wit and downright rudeness” (a lovely description from Ian Farrell’s article on Berlinerisch in Slow Travel Berlin). Everyone’s a comedian. But a kind of scary one you can’t understand.

Kittys Berlin-Kochbuch (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

My childhood experience of Germany was almost solely limited to the south, where they speak their own brand of incomprehensible dialect, Schwäbisch. But since I grew up hearing it, I can understand it – most of it.

But one of the interesting things about growing up in the US speaking a German heavily influenced by a particular dialect, is that when you move to a different region in Germany, you’re not ever totally sure if a word you use is real German (aka Hochdeutsch) or if someone is going to laugh at you for saying “Weckle.”

Anchovies (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Beets in apple cider vinegar (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Meatballs (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Capers (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Technically, Berlinerisch isn’t actually a dialect (or an accent), but a metrolect, “a mixture of different dialects all piled together in one big urban area, usually due to a long history of immigration into the city, from both elsewhere in the country and further afield. » Continue reading this post…

Everything Old is New Again: Cheater’s Chicken Mole

Chicken mole with pickled onions (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

For most of my life, I thought Mexican food was a can of Old El Paso refried beans covered with iceberg lettuce, sloppy tomatoes, and shredded cheddar cheese. What a surprise, then, when I bit into my first real taco from the truck in the gas station parking lot off Exit 33 and discovered that real Mexican food has very little in common with that. The flavors were fresh and incredibly present – aggressively green cilantro, tangy lime and such tender meat it felt ready to fall apart before I even took a bite. And the tortillas were a far cry from the brittle taco shells of my childhood. You could taste the corn with its gritty, dense texture scarred by the bitter burn of an open flame.

This was back at Davidson, and I don’t remember who it was who discovered the taco truck, but after we found it, we were always there – on lazy weekend mornings, on trips home from the Lake Campus, any time we could convince someone with a car to drive us.

Lime-pickled onions (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Browning chicken (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Chopped onions and garlic (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Rehydrating ancho chiles (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

In Brooklyn, I lived down the street from a tortilleria, and many of my favorite evenings began at those dim and sticky tables, ladling plastic spoonfuls of spicy green salsa and pickled jalapeños on tacos and washing it down with garish pink Jarritos.

It was in Brooklyn, too, that I expanded what I knew about Mexican food beyond tacos. I lived in a neighborhood where every bodega sold giant fresh bunches of cilantro and bulk bags of masa harina and dried ancho chiles. My grocery store had an entire aisle dedicated to the Goya line of products. If ever there were the right time to experiment with the flavors of Latin cooking it was there, surrounded by easily-accessible ingredients and inspiration. » Continue reading this post…

That’s All, Yolks!: Leche Flan

Leche flan (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

When life hands you a dozen egg yolks, you make flan, as the famous saying goes.

It’s a beautiful, lazy afternoon. The sun has decided to play along, and it flits in an out behind soft white clouds. The courtyard is looking particularly peach these days, instead of its ashen winter hue – the pinkish-gray of an undercooked shrimp

I’m in the mood for baking, a rarity as these things go, and I magically, miraculously have all the ingredients to make leche flan, a dense, rich and creamy take on flan made only with egg yolks and other ingredients to make your arteries groan in sadomasochistic delight.

Egg yolks and milk (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The garish sounds of some awful Colombian cartoon are playing in the background, and yet it feels strangely appropriate today. The sun, the oven set to preheat, the laugh track in another language – it feels like a charmed life. Except, of course, that I can’t get David to stop eating spoonfuls of sweetened condensed milk as I caramelize the sugar and simmer whole milk down to make evaporated milk.

Egg yolks (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Caramelized sugar (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Leche flan (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
In the kitchen (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

With the weather finally warming up and the sun showing up for whole hours at a time, I’m realizing what a huge impact this dull, gray winter has had on me. All winter, I’ve felt dull and gray myself, wanting so hard to be productive and relaxed in appropriate measures, but simply feeling sluggish and beat – always – and always feeling like I wasn’t doing enough.

Leche flan recipe (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The sunshine is like a balm. I’m making flan, and there’s nothing else I should be, or want to be doing.

Leche flan with caramel (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Egg yolk-only flan (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

By the time the flan is out of the oven, the apartment smells heavenly and rich. There’s a bit of tension for the flip, but the flan drops gracefully down on the plate as silky caramel puddles around the creamy line of flan. » Continue reading this post…