Time to make the pastries

finikia for the greek festival

The goal for the day: 1,300 finikia – each shortbread-like cookie hand shaped, filled with walnuts and dates, dipped in syrup, topped with more walnuts and baked in the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church’s kitchen. But that’s nothing to the cooks who have been preparing food for the annual Greek Festival at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. They’ve made as many as 3,000 of the more popular pastries in one day. Ten pastries will be sold at this year’s festival, Sept. 14-16.

So what if it takes some time? That gives the group – mostly women with long cooking experience – a chance to catch up on each other’s grandchildren and talk about new church members. One of the few men in the kitchen, drafted to wash the huge pots and mixer bowls, says, “I hear all the good gossip this way.”

minodora stahl fills finikia

As you might expect after 31 years of the festival, the pastry-making process is highly organized: One group measures ingredients and mixes the dough, another weighs the dough for each individual cookie so that they’re all the same size, others add the filling and pass them on to another, who dips them in the honey-sugar-cinnamon syrup (made by the vat-full; it’s used on just about every sweet) and places them on cookie sheets for baking.

Members also make the main dishes and salads on the dinner menu. For the lamb shank dinner, the dinner menu’s most popular item, they’ll cook about 1,500 shanks.”I worked the register last year, and people would come through the line and ask me what restaurant all this food came from,” says Penny Gallins, one of the organizers. “It didn’t come from a restaurant. It’s home cooking.”

Cooks on daytime and evening shifts start in May preparing the items to be sold at the festival that can be made ahead and frozen. Here’s a hint for home cooks who are pressed for time:  baklava and spanakopita can be assembled and prepared up to the point of baking, then frozen; thaw when you’re ready to cook them. Those would be some great secret weapons to have in the freezer.

The schedule works its way up to the items that must be prepared close to festival time. (The kitchen adheres to all health laws and is inspected.)

For more information on the Greek Festival, visit here.



Wok heartbreak

I remember the days of Wok Wednesdays, when I cooked blithely in my wok and dreamed of a stir-fry future. Oh, what halcyon days those were. But those dreams were crushed a few weeks ago when I pulled the wok from my pantry. What happens to me and woks had happened again: It rusted.

In several photo exchanges, the kind and helpful Grace Young , author of “Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge” (the Wok Wednesdays bible), tried to allay my fears. It looked like the darkening from seasoning to her. But she didn’t have the benefit of the metallic aroma and brownish residue left when I ran a finger across. She also was unaware of my previous disappointing relationships with woks.

I am baffled about what causes the problem – it’s not like I’m using the wok to store goldfish, or something. But I pulled it out today and went through the seasoning process again, after first scrubbing it with soap then hot oil and salt.

How long will the relationship last this time? I have no way of knowing. But I will try to enjoy it while I can.

Nice place to be in a jam…or pickle

selections at the triangle canning swap

The first thing I noticed that was different about this year’s Triangle Canning Swap was the spread of jars and bottles on the table – it must have been twice as big as in 2011. (Thanks to greeneatsblog for organizing.)

Canning has become hip, hot and happening. I’m not sure what my canning-crazy grandmother would have said about coconut-banana jam, but it looked really good. As did brandied cherries, peach-bourbon butter, lavender-mint-raspberry jam, dilly beans, homemade ginger beer, salsas, tomato chutneys and the other goodies.

You can even subscribe to a jam-of-the-month club through This & That Jam of Durham. Read more about that here.

I’ve canned pickles, jams and jellies for years, and I’m glad so many people are discovering what fun it is – and how excited others are to get a little jar of something homemade as a gift. Really, people kind of freak out about it. Some friends and I will be spending a big chunk of this weekend making our famous relish. The favored few who have received it before say it should be classified as a controlled substance.

I took my blackberry-Earl Grey jelly, classic bread-and-butter pickles, and lavender-lemon jelly to the swap. I came home with balsamic-bell pepper jelly, green fig-apple-Calvados jam, and heirloom tomato-basil jam.

Smile: It’s roast chicken

The Hub walked into the kitchen with a big smile already on his face. He took a deep breath. “Roast chicken is so wonderful,” he said.

And it is. Simple, no fussing, fragrant, pleases everyone but vegetarians. I stuff mine with fresh herbs from the backyard, a few garlic cloves and the halves of the lemon that I first squeeze on the outside of the bird. Rub on some olive oil, salt and pepper.

Roast chicken is such a great thing to have around, too. I usually cook two at a time, because with the wave of a knife they can turn into enchiladas, salad or, my recent choice, chicken pie. I was feeling like a crankypants, and figured comfort food and a beer would do the trick. They, plus The Hub’s smile, did.

I used refrigerated pie crusts. Shreds of chicken in the bottom crust, some black pepper and a small, finely minced onion after that. Then chicken broth, about a cup’s worth. I sprinkle on a tablespoon of flour to thicken. Then, the top crust (remember to vent), 30 to 40 minutes in the oven and even more nice aromas.

Beer Run: Bull City Burger & Brewery

beers at bull city burger&brewery in durham

I’ve never been to a brewpub where I could get fries cooked in duck fat to snack on while sipping a beer flight, but this is possible at Bull City Burger & Brewery in downtown Durham, N.C. While crunching away on the shoestring fries, the Hub and I sampled eight of the nine beers currently offered (remember, y’all, we don’t do IPAs).

I was first struck by how little aroma there was to the beers – except for the Capt. Hee-Haw American Style Peach Wheat Beer, which smacked me in the face with peaches. Unlike some beer fans, I don’t issue blanket condemnations of brews with fruit flavors, but after a few sips of this one, I felt like I was drinking potpourri.

Others were Bryant Bridge Gateway Golden Ale, Dr. Bartlett’s Ordinary Bitter, Parrish Street Pale Ale, Liberty Summer Amber Ale, Rogers Lager and Pro Bono Publico Porter, plus hsaWaknoW Ale that included cacao nibs from Elemental Chocolate in Raleigh, N.C. (The name is Wonka Wash spelled backwards.) Bull City provides an excellent sheet of information on their beers which includes the types of hops used in each. And I learned how the city of Durham got its name, so it was an educational day all around.  On the back are beer-related witticisms.

My favorites were the bitter, porter and chocolate ale. I liked the amber ale more as it got a little warm. The mild chocolate flavor of the chocolate ale would likely accent the chocolate in cakes or frosting, if used in baking. The porter had a nice coffee flavor and it would make a good ingredient in a meat marinade. The bitter would play well with most foods.

Overall, The Hub and I thought these beers were not as complex and interesting as some we’ve tasted, but pleasant enough – except for that peach wheat beer. Although the golden ale was forgettable; it might as well have been Bud. We bumped the glass of it as we were reaching for the fries, and when the bartender came over with a rag he saw which beer we’d spilled and said, “If I was going to knock one over, it’d be that one.”


Lily’s Salsa

At the recent Tomatopalooza (see the post from a couple of days ago for details and juicy photos), there was also a small salsa competition. One intrigued me because it combined sweet fruit with the tomatoes.

I’m a fan of fruit salsas, but not as a dip with chips. I use fruit salsa as a bright addition to simple grilled chicken or fish – and your guests will think you’ve gone upscale. I often make one using fresh peaches, but the one at Tomatopalooza had a different fruit involved, along with tomatoes.

When I found the salsa’s creator, Jodi Grubbs, she gave me the instructions and revealed the secret fruit: Pear.

To achieve the balance of flavors in this salsa, the type of tomatoes used are important. Grubbs used a combination of yellow, orange and red tomatoes along with the pears. Yellow and orange tomatoes have a less acid, more sweet flavor. Replace them all with tart-tasting reds, and you will lose the nice flavor mix in the salsa. So take the time to search out good heirloom tomatoes in the right colors.

Here are Grubbs’ instructions for Lily’s Salsa, which she named after her daughter: Finely chop 1/4 of a red onion, 1 medium pear (peeled) and 2 habaneros. Stir it all together and refrigerate for 2 days. Then chop 2 orange tomatoes, 2 small red low-acid-flavor tomatoes, 1 medium pear (peeled), 1 medium yellow tomato (she used a Lillian’s Yellow) and 6 leaves of fresh lemon verbena. Stir that into the mixture. Taste, add sea salt as needed and serve.