I often get asked where I get the inspiration for the meals I cook and the blogs I write. To be completely honest, inspiration can come from just about anywhere...a dish I've tried at a restaurant somewhere, a spectacular piece of fruit, vegetable or meat that has 'beckoned' to me in the market or grocery store, something I've seen on tv or read about in a magazine, an occasion that's current, or perhaps my mood influences the direction I take. Either which way, as is in keeping with my philosophy on life in general, inspriation can be found anywhere...you just have to be open to seeing it.
Yesterday I had no clear direction or plan with respect to what I was going to make for dinner. I had pork chops in the refrigerator thawing, in the veg drawer were eggplant, zucchini, red pepper, red onion, and mushrooms, and on the shelf, garlic, feta, cherry tomatoes, and fresh Italian Parsley. I knew it was going to be Mediterranean, but 25 different countries make up the Mediterranean, from France to Egypt, Spain to Turkey, and everything in between. Going over in my mind again what I had on-hand, the feta cheese seemed to stand out. I just love the briny taste of feta, it always elevates food to a completely different level and for me, feta equals Greek so Greek it was!
Knowing that my youngest daughter absolutely LOVES my Roasted Veggie Ratatouille, I figured that was a good choice for all those vegetables. The only problem was, it seemed, I don't know, wrong, to put ratatouille and Greek in the same sentence. That's when I began to think what would the Greek variation of ratatouille be? Well, briami of course!
For whatever reason, ratatouille is a term most of us are familiar with when referring to a dish of oven roasted vegetables, but were I to simply say 'briami', or 'ciambotta', for the Italian version, no doubt people would be scratching their heads wondering what in the heck I was talking about!
No matter what you call it - briami, ratatouille, ciambotta, pisto (Spain), caponata (Sicily), saksuka (Turkey) or pinakbet (Philippines), very basically this dish is an oven baked vegetable stew. The base components might differ slightly by region, as would the seasoning, but the basics are the same - chopped vegetables, mixed together, seasoned and baked in the oven to serve as either a vegetarian main dish, or as a side with meat, fish or poultry.
Ratatouille is a traditional French Provencal dish that has tomatoes as its key ingredient, with garlic, onions, courgette (aka zucchini), aubergine (aka. eggplant), bell peppers, marjoram and basil, or bay leaf and thyme, or a mix of herbs like 'herbes de Provence', a mixture of dry herbs that typically contains savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano and, for the American market, lavender leaves. Ciambotta, sometimes also called Giambotta, is a typical dish of southern Italian cuisine based on vegetables but it also may contain meat or fish. The vegetable choices are usually potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, chilli, onion and herbs such as oregano, basil and parsley.
Briami is based on potatoes and zucchini in olive oil and it usually includes eggplant, tomatoes, onions and ample aromatic herbs like parsley, oregano and rosemary. Feta cheese is also typically crumbled on top of the roasted veggies before serving.
This Roasted Veggie Briami is hearty enough to be served alone as a main course, or in smaller portions as a side dish. It's so jam packed with antioxidants and fiber, not to mention all of those good fats from the olive oil, that it's a vegetarian's, (and healthy-eating obsessed foodie mamma's), dream! There are a lot of children who reject vegetables en mass out of hand, in particular eggplant, but roast the veggies with potatoes and onion in olive oil and crumble feta cheese on top and they'll have a hard time resisting!
Given that the bar was being set so high by the briami, I figured I had better do something mighty impressive to my pork chops or else they'd be like shrinking violets on the plate. Obviously Greek briami meant Greek pork chops of some sort...but what exactly should I do with them?
I mixed up a marinade of extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, dry oregano, minced garlic and feta cheese, and added it to a large zipper lock baggie with my pork chops and placed them in the refrigerator for approximately 2 hours so that they would absorb all of those wonderful flavours before grilling my chops on my stove top using my non-stick grill pan. Grilled Greek Pork Chops was definitely a good choice.
Veggie dish?Check. Pork Chops? Check. But it was only 4 o'clock...and I was anxious to cook! Dinner wouldn't be until 6:30 so starting that early just wasn't an option. What to do, what to do? Looking around my cupboards and in the refrigerator yet again I found a box of phyllo pastry, already thawed, a bag of mixed dried fruit and some chopped walnuts. Ah-ha!! A Greek-ish dessert! The first, and if I'm to be honest, only, Greek dessert that came to mind was Baklava. Althought Baklava's origins are actually rooted in Turkey, it's been a favorite dessert in Greece for centuries...another one of those 'regional variation' things. Traditionally, Greek Baklava is made with 33 layers of phyllo dough pastry, with reference to the years of Christ' life, having an extremely sweet walnut filling.
I'm more of a savoury person than a sweets person and Baklava typically is much too sweet for my taste. So instead of a traditional Baklava, I laid out my phyllo, one sheet at a time, brushing melted butter on each sheet before layering with another, and after 10 sheets of phyllo, I spread out my mixture of dried blueberries, cranberries, apricots, golden raisins and sultanas. I then topped the dried fruit with chopped walnuts and sprinkled the works with about 1/4 cup of brown sugar, adding 1/2 tsp. dollups of butter about every three inches or so. I rolled up the dough, tucking the ends in and sealing the closure with a little water. I brushed the top of the roll with melted butter, sprinkled on a little more brown sugar, and made some slits in the top to let the steam escape. I placed the roll on parchment paper on a baking sheet and baked it in a 350F oven for about 23 minutes until golden brown.
After it cooled for 10 minutes or so, that yummy looking Dried Fruit Phyllo Roll sat on my counter, looking all warm and inviting. I looked over my left shoulder. I looked over my right shoulder. I glanced down the hall. No one was in sight so I decided to cut off the tiniest of slicest to sample my creation. Wouldn't you know it, I got caught red-handed by both my daughter and my husband, both of them light-heartedly reprimanding me for 'spoiling my dinner' by eating dessert first. I told them it was my 'cook's prerogative', (I amaze myself sometimes at how fast I can think on my feet!). I quickly whipped up a small dish of ricotta cheese with confesctioner's sugar and put a spoonful on top of my teeny tiny slice, which really wasn't much more than a mouthful. (Ok....it was a full-on slice of roll...but I digress!). This Dried Fruit Phyllo Roll has just the right amount of sweet for my liking and given the guilt they had inflicted on me, I encouraged my husband and daughter to give it a taste as well and they concurred, although my daughter actually likes it more without the sweetened ricotta topping.
If only I could adequately describe the fantastic symphony of aromas that filled our home last night with this meal. Roasted vegetables with garlic, onion, oregano and Italian parsley all simmering in olive oil with a tomato base composing Roasted Veggie Briami, Greek Grilled Pork Chops that had been marinated in olive oil, red wine vinegar, minced garlic, oregano and feta cheese, and the lingering scent of the Dried Fruit Phyllo Roll woud have you think you had walked into a Greek Estiatorio as opposed to my humble suburban Newfoundland home. Taking dinner to the Greekth Degree...easy, healthied-up, inexpensive AND delicious!