Tag Archives: Garlic

Pasta with mizithra and garlic

This is the story of the oddest pasta dish I’ve ever made.

Over the summer, Sam and I took a trip up to Portland and Seattle. While we were in Seattle, we went out to dinner with some friends at a Greek restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood, called Plaka Estiatorio. It was a stunning meal–perfectly plump dolmas, crisp and sprightly Greek salad, crunchy fried smelts with their fishy little heads still on, fat orange mussels as big as my thumb. But the dish that really blew us all away was something the menu called Yannis Makaronia.

It arrived piled high in a bowl, with little fuss and less explanation: a tangled mass of spaghetti, each strand lightly coated with crisp brown flecks. The flavors were quite subtle–it was as if the pasta itself were somehow caramelized–but whatever was clinging to the pasta gave it texture, a kind of prickly resistance that felt wonderful on the tongue. It was, as Sam said, “dusted” instead of sauced. We ate and ate until the bowl was empty, and then chattered at each other, trying to figure out exactly we’d just eaten.

As we finished eating, the owner–a twinkly-eyed, gray-haired fellow named Yannis–came over to our table. He sat with us, told jokes, explained where the ingredients in our meal had come from, gave us straws and passed around the mussel bowl so we could drink the aromatic broth. Finally one of us–I think it was our friend Hilary–got up the nerve to ask just what was in that extraordinary pasta. He grinned proudly, sat down, and told us a story.

mizithra pasta 2

He’d first eaten this pasta, he told us, at a restaurant in Athens. He was so impressed that he walked straight into the kitchen and persuaded the chef to show him how to make it. Once he returned to Seattle, he began making it for himself, for lunch, to eat while he was working. One day he brought his lunch out into the dining area and sat down at the bar to eat. A customer asked him about it, and then another, and then another, and before long he was offering tastes to all and sundry. It was a huge hit, and that day he added it to the menu as a special. He had no idea what to call it, so he immodestly named it after himself: Yannis Makaronia. Before long, it became so popular that he promoted it to the regular dinner menu.

Wow, we said. That’s amazing. But how on earth do you make it? He sighed indulgently, leaned forward in his chair as if preparing to give a lesson, and explained:

“You take olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, and burn it. Then you take mizithra–you know mizithra? It is a cheese, a Greek cheese. You take it, and you grate it very small. You put that in the pan, with garlic, and you cook it until it turns brown. Then you mix with pasta. That’s it.”

We hung on his every word. Somewhere in that beautifully odd description was the secret to Yannis Makaronia. It seemed to violate every basic cooking principle I knew–burn olive oil? brown garlic? cook grated cheese directly in a hot pan?–and yet he explained it so matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. I had no idea how I might replicate his signature dish at home, but I suspected that it all hinged on the cheese: mizithra. And, as it turns out, I was right.

mizithra

As soon as I got home, I started researching. Mizithra (sometimes spelled myzithra) is an unpasteurized goat or sheep cheese. It’s made from whey and then aged with salt, becoming hard, white, and nearly as solid as styrofoam. The flavor is very similar to feta, sharp and salty and animal-funky. And mizithra also shares another quality with feta, a quality that makes Yannis Makaronia possible: it doesn’t melt. It browns. It caramelizes.

After a little searching, I found mizithra at Whole Foods, and also at a local specialty cheese shop. I brought home a hunk of cheese, and set about making the pasta just the way Yannis explained. I minced the garlic and grated the cheese, boiled water and cooked the spaghetti. I heated the oil just until the faintest plumes of smoke came off the surface, then dumped in the garlic and cheese and stirred like crazy. It felt so wrong. So weird. So completely counterintuitive. But it worked. It browned like he said it would. It coated the pasta like he said it would. The whole thing came together in less time than it took to grate the cheese. Doggone it, it worked.

In fact, that first time, I was too timid. I didn’t scorch the cheese enough, and the flavor was anemic. The next time I tried it, I made sure to cook the cheese to an even caramel-brown before adding the spaghetti. In less than 15 minutes, I had a bowl of glistening dark-flecked pasta, eerily reminiscent of the one we demolished in Seattle.

Sam says he could eat nothing but this pasta, all day long. I actually like it better as a side dish, served with an assortment of brightly-flavored Greek dishes, the way we ate it in Seattle. And here’s another unexpected and un-pasta-like thing about it: it tastes better at room temperature than it does warm. Every time I make it, I taste it straight from the pan, and am underwhelmed; but after 5 or 10 minutes on a plate, it’s difficult to stop eating it.

So if you’re in Seattle, go visit Yannis and eat his Makaronia. If you’re not, get some mizithra and make it at home. Either way, you’ll never look at a bag of spaghetti the same way again.

mizithra pasta

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Pea and green garlic soup

My dad came home from the hospital today. He’s in terrific spirits and already well on the mend, though there are lingering effects from the surgery. For one thing, his voice has been temporarily pushed into falsetto, making him sound a bit like Hyacinth Bucket; for another, he’s preferring soft-to-swallow foods, to save his poor cut-up throat some effort. I wanted to treat him to a nice light-but-special lunch when he came home; my farmer’s market trip yesterday yielded, among other things, a bag of English peas and a purple-tinged bunch of green garlic. So I made soup.

This is, more or less, early spring in a bowl. Fresh peas are at their sugary plump best now, with a crisp starchiness that frozen peas just can’t match. I’m lazy and buy my peas shelled–for a premium–but supposedly, shelling the peas is the kind of meditative kitchen task people wait all year for. As for the green garlic, it’s not an ingredient I often use, since it only appears at farmer’s markets and must be used quickly. It’s also sometimes hard to spot, since in its smallest and sweetest form it looks like a bulbous scallion. As it grows, the bulb becomes more pronounced, and the flavor intensifies. The garlic I bought was more or less fully grown, but not yet cured and concentrated the way our more familiar garlic is. Either way, it’s a great find for delicate dishes, with all the sweetness and roundness of older garlic and none of the spicy aggression.

young garlic

I’m not usually one for minimalism and refinement in the kitchen. But today I wanted simple. Clean. Peas and green garlic at the front. I sauteed the garlic quickly in oil, then added peas, water, and a few featherweight flavorings–lemon juice, chili flakes, a mint sprig. The peas got cooked gently, just until they lost their last hint of chalkiness and became soft enough to puree. Then I stuck an immersion blender in the pot and whirred away, watching the soup get slowly thicker and minty-greener. A couple slices of bread, a tangerine for each of us, and voila–lunch in 20 minutes.

We had our soup in mugs, which I highly recommend. There’s a comfort factor to this soup–as airy as it is–that makes it perfect for sipping over a newspaper. It also stayed wonderful as it cooled to room temperature, which makes me think it would work just as well served cold. I suppose you could add a drizzle of cream or a swirl of yogurt, if you wanted, but I wouldn’t recommend it. With something this delicate, let the vegetables do the talking.

pea green garlic soup

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Clams with baby artichokes

Every once in a while, I’ll order something at a restaurant that’s so wildly delicious, yet apparently so simple, that I’m immediately determined to recreate it at home. This dish is one of those.

Like many of my favorite food travel memories, this one happened in Barcelona. Towards the end of our stay, Sam and I decided to visit the Mercat del Born, only to discover when we got there that it was closed for renovations. Suddenly loose in an unfamiliar neighborhood, with lunchtime looming, we ducked into an upscale-looking place with the auspicious name Cafe Kafka. It was dim and calculatedly deco inside, with a floor-to-ceiling bar and a dining room outfitted in black and grey. Three words jumped off the appetizers list at me: almejas con alcachofas. Clams with artichokes. Two of my favorite foods. I couldn’t resist.

It arrived in a teeny-tiny cast iron pot: a cluster of yawning clam shells, perched on a pile of baby artichokes. The clams were chewy and lovely, as usual, but the artichokes were the real revelation–tooth-tender and almost buttery, drenched in the seawater-sweet liquor from the clams. The combination of lightly vegetal artichoke tang and garlicky salty broth made for even better bread-dunking than usual. I knew immediately I had to recreate it at home.

Unfortunately, I’m dating a bivalve-hater, so my clam experiment had to wait. But a couple weeks ago, when Sam was busy and I was tapped to make an early birthday dinner for my mom, I saw my chance. It turns out that making clams with artichokes is a little more complex than just steaming clams on top of artichokes, but not by much. It’s quick, deceptively simple, and special enough for an Occasion. Good crusty bread is absolutely not negotiable here–every drop of that sweet-salty-tangy potion at the bottom of the bowl should be savored. This may require picking up the bowl and sipping the dregs.

clams and baby artichokes

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Roasted garlic, cauliflower, and red lentil soup

Summer is in its last flush here in California. The days are warm and clear and oh-so-slightly breezy. The farmer’s markets are still overflowing with stone fruit and tomatoes. The figs on my landlord’s trees are stubbornly waiting to ripen until the temperature really drops. But night is falling earlier now; the equinox glided by this weekend, and it’s time to face facts. Fall is creeping in.

As always, I’m half-sheepishly mourning the long hours of daylight. But I’m also excited, because fall weather means fall food. And right now, as the nights get chillier, fall food means soup. My little Ikea soup pot has been sitting on the stove all summer, quietly gathering grease spatters whenever I got up the gumption to stir-fry something. Last week I brought that poor patient soup pot back into commission, with my first soup of the season. And it’s a good one: a smooth, lightly spiced puree of cauliflower, red lentils, and roasted garlic.

This is a light-yet-lush soup, built on layers of sweetness: sharp-sweet onion, sugary-sweet apple, cabbagey-sweet cauliflower, and syrupy-sweet roasted garlic. The red lentils give a hint of body and an appealing earthiness, and a hint of cumin makes the whole thing smoky and slightly exotic. I decided at the last minute to add a big dash of turmeric–cauliflower and turmeric are great friends, and the spice played up the color of the lentils, taking the soup from muted gold to dandelion-yellow. It’s not absolutely necessary, but I thought it was a nice touch.

I especially like that there’s no dairy or starch in this soup, because the whole thing is at once comforting and nearly weightless. For a pureed soup, it’s a little on the thin-and-fuzzy side, which I happen to like. You could certainly add a small peeled and diced potato along with the lentils, or finish the soup with a drizzle of cream. I tried a dollop of yogurt in the picture below, but didn’t end up loving it–the richness of the yogurt masked the subtle sweetness of the vegetables, and blunted the spices. Call me a purist, but I prefer my soup as-is.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the lovely crispy-looking garnish on top …tune in next time for that story.

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White bean and roasted garlic hummus

Sometimes reinventing the wheel is fun. But when the wheel is just too good to need reinventing, there’s no need to fuss.

I made white bean hummus this weekend. No innovations, no frills, no extra-special secret ingredients–just beans, tahini, oil, a few seasonings and a finger-sticking boatload of roasted garlic. Especially this time of year, especially in northern California, when the slowly intensifying sun and bottomless blue sky start seducing people outside to eat finger foods and play guitar on the grass, there’s a lot to be said for going back to the tried-and-true.

Roasted garlic elevates just about anything it touches, but it especially loves hummus. The combination of sweetness, creaminess and nuttiness is one of the surest crowd-pleasers I’ve ever encountered. When it’s homemade, it’s even better–the garlic is sticky and caramel-like, the beans are silky and flavorful on their own, and using fresh lemon juice cuts the creaminess with bite.

Chickpeas are traditional, of course, but white beans make for a milder hummus and let the garlic star. I like a simple mix of smoky-fragrant seasonings in my hummus–thyme, cumin, coriander, and a shiver of smoked paprika on top. I can think of no better way to kick-start the sunshine season than with a bowl of this stuff and a plate of dippable crunchy snacks.

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Soy-poached fish

I’ve used soy sauce about a thousand and one different ways, but until recently I’d never thought to try poaching things in it. As it turns out, soy sauce mixed with an equal amount of water and spiked with the usual-suspect ingredients–honey, ginger, garlic, chili and scallions–makes a terrific cooking medium for a good piece of fish. Or, in my case, a mushy hunk of frozen salmon that had reached the use-or-toss point.

This might have been one of the best-smelling dishes I’ve ever made.

I kept leaning my head over the pan to get whiffs of soy and spice and ginger and garlic. As the fish poached, the liquid took on some of its meatiness; as a sensory bonus, it also tinted the fish a a soft wood-toned brown. Once the fish was cooked, I was surprised at how subtle the flavors were; the flesh of the fish came through loud and clear, with the poaching liquid lingering quietly in the background. Sam and I ate the salmon on its own, with some of the liquid spooned over the top, but I wished the entire time for a fluffy pile of brown rice to drink up more of the spicy-salty-sweet sauce.

As I said, I used salmon here, but this would be a terrific cooking technique for almost any fish. Mark Bittman recommends a firm-fleshed white fish: you could use striped bass, snapper, halibut, mahi mahi, or tilapia. If you prefer a richer-flavored fish, try catfish, mackerel, swordfish, trout or sablefish (aka black cod).

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Chili-roasted broccoli

I went hiking yesterday.  Today, I HURT.

I didn’t realize it was possible to be this sore after wandering in the woods for a couple hours.  Everything from my waist down hurts.  My stomach and my thighs and my bottom and my calves are whining at me every time I move.  I’m one blog post away from collapsing into bed and sleeping the deep sleep of the overexerted.  Clearly, I overestimated myself in just about every way.

Except one.  I’m not letting myself get discouraged this time.

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