Follow up on the Greek Dinner Party...

Did I successfully cook a Greek dinner in under two hours?  Mostly.

Were there 15 guests?  No, only 11.

Given that this was quite the experiment, I am going to explain the order of operations, tips I learned, and a few things I might have done differently.

When I woke up a 6:15 am the day of the party, my first step was to defrost the ground lamb.  As I've mentioned before, I tend to buy a few quality meats when I go to the grocery and then pop them in the freezer right when I get home.  This way I always have some on hand.  For tips on how to defrost meat see my blog entry Summer Meatloaf.  The lamb, a bunch of potatoes, some onions, and some spices were the only items for the meal that I had on hand the morning of the party.  Luckily my roommate was able to go shopping early that day.  Armed with a long and precise grocery list she gracefully executed the hefty job.

When I got home from work at 5:15, my roommate was not home with the groceries, regardless, I immediately got to work.  Fortunately my favorite sous chef, my sister, was able to be there working her magic.  Shortly after, I had some additional help from my roommate and a friend.

We began by preparing the Patatokeftedes (fried potatoes balls).  I had originally planned on having just french fries, but while perusing the Greek cookbook that was a gift from Greece, I stumbled upon this tasty little treat.  I started by peeling and dicing about 10 medium sized potatoes and tossing them in a large pot to boil.  As they cooked, I prepared the rest of the items to mix with the potatoes and my sister began the preparation of the tzatziki sauce.

Tzaztiki is a very simple sauce made with plain yogurt (we used about 20 oz), one finely chopped cucumber, chopped mint (maybe a 1/2 cup), and spices.  I honestly don't know what was in the spice mix, but I do know that it came from Greece and that the label on the package said tzaztiki.  You simply stir all items together in a bowl and place in the fridge so the flavors can meld together.

It was about this time that my roommate returned home with the rest of the groceries and my friend showed up to lend a hand.

The roomie dropped off the groceries and got to work on tidying up the house.  My friend was a good sport and took on the potato balls.  I had the potatoes cooked and drained at that point and the rest of the ingredients in the bowl ready to be mixed.  The other ingredients included 2 eggs, 4 tablespoon of crumbled feta cheese, mint, salt, and pepper.  The boiled potatoes were mashed together with the additional ingredients.  Then, one at a time, formed into small balls, rolled in flour, and then placed in a pan of hot oil, cooking until they were golden brown in both sides.

In the meantime, my sister set up sliced carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes and sliced bread to go with the variety of hummus that we bought for the store.  Yes, we bought it pre-made.  You have to be realistic about some things.

While the other cooks were both hard at work on their items, I began the trickiest items of the night -  the dolmas.  For those of you who don't know what a dolma is, it is a grape leaf stuffed with rice and other tasty items.  The grape leafs come wrapped tightly in bundles of about 15, in a jar full of brine.  I began by boiling a kettle-full of water.  After draining the leafs and delicately unrolling them, I place them in a large pot and covered them in the boiling water.  I let them soak in the water for about 20 minutes.  I'm not sure what this does for the leaves, but that is what the Greek cookbook said, so that is what I did.

Meanwhile, I chopped one large red onion and 4 green onions and put them in a frying pan to sautee with oil.  After the red onion began to become slightly translucent, I added about 1/2 cup of chopped pine nuts and cooked them for about 5 minutes.  Finally, after turning off the heat I added 2 cups of rice and 1 cup of chopped mint, salt and pepper, mixing everything together to make sure it was all coated in oil.

After draining the grape leafs I laid them out flat on a cutting board, filling each with 1-2 tablespoons of the rice mixture and rolling them tightly - ends first, then the sides, like a burrito.  I placed each rolled dolma seem down in the largest, deepest frying pan I own.  When all of the leafs were used up and the pan was packed tightly with dolmas, I again covered them in boiling water and put a snugly-fitting lid on the pan.  The dolmas simmered over medium heat for about an hour.  It was really quite amazing.  When they were finished cooking, the water had all been absorbed, the rice was light and fluffy, and the grape leafs were sealed shut.  I wouldn't have believed it would work, but ta-dah!

As the rest of the guests began to arrive, we had successfully prepared the potato balls, the hummus and veggies, bread, and a lovely Greek salad (prepared by my roommate) consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, olives, feta, and tossed with a simple vinaigrette (olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic).   The dolmas were cooking on the stove, and the wine began to flow.

The final step was the ground lamb and turkey.  I made turkey because some people are weird about lamb.  As the dolmas wrapped up their hour on the stove, I began the lamb and turkey.  I stared with some sauteed onions and garlic.  After a few minutes, I added the lamb and turkey to their respective pans and coated them in the gyro spice mix.  This was also a gift from Greece, and once again I have no idea what was in it.

I served the dolmas, the lamb and the turkey with pita chips, tzatziki, and feta cheese.

Tips and things I would do differently:

I think next time we might try to be a bit ahead of the game and go shopping the day before.

I would use less filling in the grape leafs.  They got huge and were hard to wrap.  I ended up using 2-3 leafs per dolma because with just one the rice was exploding out in all directions.  I also would have used more spices on the rice.  Honestly, in my opinion, the dolmas were a bit bland.

Some people are weird about lamb.  Fortunately, my friends are awesome and all love lamb.  Turkey was totally unnecessary.  The next time, I'm just going with what I feel like cooking.  Chances are everyone will try it.  And those who don't...well, that just too bad for them.

Sorry for writing a short novel, but I figured the most important part to share about this experience is the timing.  Trying to cook new food is scary.  Trying to cook new food for your friends birthday party is even scarier.  But, with some strong support and an inability to bow out of a commitment, anything is possible.  To tell you the truth, it was fun, and for the most part, delicious.


Can I make a dinner party for 15 people in an hour and a half?

Alright.  It is my good friend's birthday tomorrow.  The plan is to make a dinner for 15 people in under two hours between the time I get off work and seven o'clock when the guests are to arrive.  The birthday girl has requested food in a Greek theme.  I've never cooked Greek food before, and honestly it was partially my suggestion.  My roommate brought home spices from her trip to Greece this summer and I have been dying to use them.  So not only is this a time challenge, but it is also a culinary challenge.  Needless to say, I'm a little nervous, a little intimidates, and a lot excited!

The plan is finger foods:

Gyro style ground lamb (turkey for those who are afraid) with tzatziki sauce and pita chips
French fries
Salad with feta, tomatoes, cucumbers, and garlic
Hummus with veggies

And of course dessert, but the birthday girl reads this blog so the desserts will remain a surprise.  The challenge has been set.  I'll let you know how it goes! 


Halloween is just the beginging of too much food!

I had two of my best friends in town this weekend for the beginning of the holiday season.  We had a fantastic time bumming around, chatting, and of course eating! Oh man did we eat!  Our favorite phase of the weekend was, "I feel bloated."  I know, this might be too much information, but it reminded me that the holidays bring gluttony in America to a whole new level.

Every meal we had this weekend was delicious, but mostly we ate out.  The three of us are typically very healthy eaters, one of us even holds a degree in nutrition, so eating outside of our normal routines really took a toll on our bodies (and our pockets).  The saying, "You are what you eat", is no joke.  If you eat healthy food, you feel healthy.  If you eat shit, you feel like shit.  For me this weekend reinforced what this blog is really about - healthy, fresh, home cooking.

I prepare the large majority of my meals at home.  It took a lot of practice (like 7 years) for me to learn how to purchase food properly.  In light of this, I thought I might share with you some of my methods and my shopping list.  My sister and I go to the grocery store and have produce delivered twice a month.  We buy enough to last us two weeks and then eat in a manner that allows us to take advantage of everything we buy.

When thinking about produce, I try to think about having a variety of fruit and enough for us to have at least 1-2 servings a day, which we typically consume at breakfast.  I order things that last for a short time, like strawberries, and things that last a long time, like apples.  This way we eat the more perishable things first and the sturdier things in the second week.  I also try to order lettuce for the two weeks and salad fixings such as carrots and cucumbers.  The final touch on the produce basket is veggies for dinners and, of course, onions and garlic.  Items like broccoli, hearty greens, potatoes, squashes, and the like will last for a while and provide many options for meals.

The grocery store is reserved for everything else.  Our routine is fairly set.  We can typically make it through the store in half an hour.  We start with bread (two loafs), two gallons of milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, orange juice, lunch meat, a block of basic cheese and a few small specialty cheeses, three to four pounds of organic meat options such as chicken and beef, finally we end with pasta, rice, cereal, granola, and beans.  Through trial and error we've been able to figure out how much of each items is the right amount for us.  Occasionally we purchase long lasting items like oil, vinegar, flour, etc.

Having a variety of quality ingredients on hand makes cooking a delicious puzzle, where combining this with that can create almost anything you want to eat.  It's much more cost efficient then eating out and much better for you.

Just something to think about as we enter the foodiest time of the year.