Ask Chef Phyllis:
I’m a friend of your niece Michelle, who lives in Brooklyn. I was so glad to hear that you have a Q&A blog about food. So here goes…two other ladies and I are going to host a neighborhood bridal shower soon. We want to do a Greek theme since the bride will marry into that heritage. It must be buffet style foods that keep without refrigeration for a few hours. I’ve looked at Greek food on the Internet…there were hundreds of recipes to choose from, and I don’t have the time to test a lot of the recipes to find the good ones.
We’re working moms so we need easy but authentic recipes to prepare when we can. With the idea that many hands will make lighter work—what can you suggest? It should be a little festive and the mother-in-law to be wants to provide the Greek Honey Walnut cake for dessert. Any good suggestions?
—Christina Otto, Brooklyn, NY
Theme bridal showers are great fun! With a little planning, a buffet style service is your best bet. I’m going to suggest a recipe for moussaka, a timeless Greek casserole with eggplant, lamb, and beef. You also can’t go wrong with spanakopita, a spinach cheese pie in a flaky filo pastry. Since cold salads are also ideal for a buffet party, I’m suggesting a simple feta cheese and olive salad. You’ll have three festive and easy to serve dishes once they’re prepared.
The moussaka and the spanakopita can be served either hot or cold and will keep well without refrigeration for a few hours. I’ve also included two time-saving tips that won’t compromise the quality of the food at all. These recipes serve 12 and can be easily doubled if needed.
Time-saving tip: If you don’t have time to prepare the fresh eggplant, I suggest buying prepared roasted eggplant. Not only is it very good, but the work is already done.
1 large eggplant, washed and partially peeled, or 1 (14-oz.) jar or can of roasted eggplants (I used Marinella Homestyle Organic Italian Eggplant in Olive Oil)
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil for frying the eggplant, plus more as necessary
2 pounds ground beef or ground lamb, or any combination of the two
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (15-oz.) can organic petite diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1 (6-oz.) can organic tomato paste
¾ cup red wine or beef broth
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, snipped
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon each of black pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon
1 cup Parmesan cheese
⅔ cup dry bread crumbs or ground nuts
For the White Sauce:
⅓ cup butter or olive oil
⅓ cup arrowroot or unbleached flour (I prefer the arrowroot)
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups whole milk
½ cup half and half
2 eggs, slightly beaten
- Slice the eggplant into 10 rounds, about ½-inch each, and arrange on a large plate. Sprinkle ½ teaspoon of salt over all 10 slices. Layer a paper towel over the eggplant, and then set a heavy pot on top (I use my 12-inch cast iron skillet). Let them rest for 1 hour.
- Heat the butter or oil in a large frying pan. Sauté the eggplant for about 4 minutes on each side, or until lightly browned. Set on a paper-towel lined plate to absorb some of the oil.
- If necessary, add more oil to the skillet. Add beef and/or lamb, onion, and garlic, and then cook until the meat has lightly browned. Stir in diced tomatoes, tomato paste, wine or beef broth, parsley, basil, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat until half the liquid is absorbed and the mixture is thick, about 20 minutes.
- Stir ⅔ cup of the Parmesan, ⅓ cup bread crumbs or nuts, and eggs into the meat mixture, blending well. Cool for 10 minutes.
- Butter a 9×13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining bread crumbs or nuts evenly on the bottom. Arrange half of the eggplant slices in the baking dish; cover with a meat layer, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the remaining cheese. Top with the rest of the eggplant, so the meat is sandwiched between 2 layers of eggplant. Set aside the casserole while you prepare the White Sauce.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a medium saucepan, melt butter or olive oil over low heat. Blend in the arrowroot or flour, salt, and nutmeg. Cook on low until smooth, then add milk and half and half. Stir well and continue to cook until just under boiling. Gradually stir ½ cup of the hot mixture into a small bowl containing the beaten eggs, slowly blending them together (this is called tempering) so the eggs don’t scramble. Pour the tempered eggs back into the pan. Turn off heat, and stir well.
- Pour the prepared White Sauce over the casserole all at once, spreading to the ends of the pan.
- Bake for 45 minutes, until the top has puffed. Remove from oven and cool, then cut into 12 sections. Cover and store in the refrigerator until needed.
- If desired, reheat at 350°F for 20 minutes at the party sight.
Time-saving tip: If you’re in a crunch, use a box of frozen organic chopped spinach rather than fresh spinach. This will still produce excellent results.
10 oz. fresh spinach (about 6 cups), or 1 box frozen organic chopped spinach, defrosted and well-drained
1 cup feta cheese
1¼ cups ricotta cheese
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons dried dill weed
½ teaspoon salt
3 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoon butter, softened, plus ½ cup or more melted butter for brushing the pastry
1 package frozen filo leaves, thawed and kept under a damp tea towel
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. If using fresh spinach, steam it for 4 minutes, drain it well using paper towels, then chop it. Alternatively, drain the defrosted frozen spinach.
- In a large bowl, mix the spinach, feta, ricotta, onion, parsley, dill weed, and salt. Stir the beaten eggs into the mixture.
- Brush softened butter on the sides and bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish.
- Unfold the filo leaves. Remove 10 sheets and cover the rest with the damp tea towel. Cut the sheets in half. Gently separate 1 leaf, place it in the baking dish, and fold the edges over to fit the bottom of the dish if necessary. Brush lightly with the melted butter. Repeat with the 9 remaining filo sheets, brushing each layer with butter.
- Spread the spinach-egg mixture over the filo. Layer 10 more leaves over the filling, spreading each sheet with melted butter as before.
- Last important step: Use a long, thin, sharp knife to slice 12 deep, even cuts over the top layer of filo dough. This is difficult to do once the flaky dough has cooked and puffed.
- Bake 35 to 40 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before slicing through the scored cuts. Serve this authentically delightful dish hot or cold.
Greek Salad with Feta and Olives
8 cups romaine lettuce, torn but not cut
2 cups escarole, torn
1 cup red onion, cut into rings
1 cup each red and green pepper slices
4 Roma tomatoes, cut into wedges
½ cup pitted kalamata olives
½ cup green olives stuffed with pimentos, sliced
½ cup red radishes, sliced (optional)
1 cup feta cheese crumbles
Oregano Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
1. In a large salad bowl, toss romaine, escarole, red onion, red and green peppers, tomatoes, kalamata olives, and green olives.
2. Top with red radishes (if desired) and crumbled feta cheese.
3. Serve with Oregano Vinaigrette.
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup Greek olive oil
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, minced, or 1½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, minced or chopped
1 teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon each salt and black pepper, or to taste
In a quart jar, add the ingredients in the order given and shake well. This recipe can be doubled.
Creative Commons photo by John Ong