Friday, April 25, 2008

Yogurt and Cucumber Sauces: Cacik, Tsadziki, Raita

Yogurt, originally from the herders of Central Asia, who cultured milk to preserve it for later meals before the advent of refrigeration, has an affinity for cucumbers, which also were also grown in Central Asia. In warm weather, which is already with us in Atlanta, cold yogurt sauces with grated cucumber make refreshing condiments.

Extending from the raita of India and Pakistan, to the mastokhiar of Iran, to the cacik (ja 'jeek) of Turkey (with the Helenized version of the name, tsadziki, in Greece and the Balkans), the dish is nearly the same across cultures and cuisines. The fresh herbs vary from place to place, dill, mint, or cilantro, and the amount of garlic varies, but the combination of yogurt and grated, slightly squeezed-out cucumbers is basic to all these dishes. In the Middle East, it can be served as a meze, or snack, garnished with olive oil, sumac, or dill, and accompanied by pita or other flat bread. Or it can dress grilled meats in a gyro or shwarma sandwich, or accompany a rice dish or a meal. In India, it cools hot curries as a condiment.

Here are two versions, cacik/tsadziki, and raita. Both can be made ahead and refrigerated before serving. Both are easy to make. The best yogurt for this available in Atlanta is the whole milk Stonybrook, Fage (from Greece), one from New Jersey with a little cedar tree on it (read "made by Lebanese"), Seven Stars Farm (organic), and Friendship low-fat yogurt. I'd avoid the non-fat, unless there is a health restriction. The flavor is simply not as good.

Yogurt “Sauce” with Cucumber and Dill (Cacik; Tsadziki)

1 medium cucumber
1-1/2 cups yogurt (whole milk or low-fat, rather than non-fat, or add a little sour cream)
1/2 clove garlic (or more, to taste – much more in eastern Turkey)
3/8 teaspoon salt, plus more, to taste
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill,
or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint or 1 teaspoon dry mint leaves

Peel, cut lengthwise, seed, and coarsely grate the cucumber. Then with your hands squeeze out and discard some of its juice. Mix the cucumber with the yogurt. Using the back of a spoon, thoroughly crush the garlic on a saucer with the salt to a pasty consistency. Mix in with the yogurt and cucumber, adding the pepper and dill or mint. Combine well, taste and add salt to taste. Make at least 1/2 hour before serving. This stores several days refrigerated. Stir before serving. Taste and adjust the salt if necessary.

Serve as an appetizer (meze) with pita bread or as accompaniment for a rice pilaf or a meat or fish dish.


Make raita nearly as for cacik, but typically there is a higher proportion of yogurt to cucumber, fresh chopped mint or cilantro would replace the dill, and black pepper would usually not be used. Generally garlic is used sparingly or not at all.

There are versions of raita that have finely diced and drained tomato and a little minced onion added, or even chopped banana or pineapple (leaving out the cucumber in the fruit versions).

Raita is served as a condiment with rice and curry. It can be sprinkled with a tiny bit of cayenne or garam massala for color.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Green Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette

I realize I've been doing a number of main course dishes in the blog, and in them say, hey, this would go well with a simple green salad and warm crusty bread. OK, so here's a simple green salad. With some extras, like sliced regular tomatoes or whole grape tomatoes, paper-thin shreds of red onion, thinly sliced cucumber, chunks of avocado, or some crumbled feta cheese or coarsely grated Parmesan cheese, the same salad can be made more of a centerpiece.

A simple yet elegant salad is typical at the end -- note, the end -- of the meal (not served as an appetizer) in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. The tender lettuce called 'Boston' or 'butterhead' in the United States is the traditional vegetable for the salad, but mixed field greens ('mesclun' in French) are also used. The dressing contains Dijon mustard, which in my experience in Europe is usually the simple smooth mustard. But the 'old fashioned' ('à l’ancienne' -- literally in the old style) version with whole brown and yellow mustard seeds also shows up. Do not use the yellow or the 'spicy' brown American style of mustard, which both contain the spice turmeric and have a heavy flavor more appropriate on a hot dog.

Vinaigrette simply means 'little vinegar' in French, 'vinaigre' (vinegar) meaning sour wine. The classical vinaigrette contains two parts oil and one part vinegar, salt, pepper, and garlic. I make it lighter, with a lower oil to vinegar proportion, and soften the vinegar with some water and a little sugar. The mustard is a frequent addition in French and Swiss vinaigrettes. Mustard seems to me to enhance a simple salad. I would leave it out of a more complicated salad, as it will muddy the flavors.

The recipe serves six. In Europe, wine is not usually served with the salad course. But crusty bread, such as baguette or ciabatta, goes well with it. You can sop up the vinaigrette with the bread.

Green Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette

1 medium-large head of 'Boston' or 'butterhead' lettuce or 4 to 5 cups of mixed greens (mesclun) or cut loose leaf or romaine

Mustard vinaigrette dressing
1 small clove garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil (extra virgin, if possible)
1 tablespoon water
2 teaspoons Dijon (not yellow American) mustard, plain or with whole mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/2 teaspoon oregano, crumbled (optional)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon fresh black pepper, plus more for serving

Prepare the greens: Core the lettuce and rinse well, gently separating the leaves and removing any sand. Rip large leaves into 4 to 5 pieces. Drain well. Or if using field greens, pick them over and discard any spoiled or very wilted leaves. Rinse in plenty of water and drain well. (A salad spinner is useful to get retained water off the greens.) Place the lettuce or greens in the salad bowl. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel until serving time.

Prepare the dressing. (The French often make the dressing fresh in the salad bowl, then add the greens just before serving.) Crush the garlic well and mix well with the remainder of dressing ingredients.

Just before serving, mix the dressing again, and remove the garlic. Toss the greens with the dressing. Taste a leaf, and if salt is needed, sprinkle on a little and toss the leaves once more. Serve on salad plates. A little fresh black pepper can be ground over the salad after it is served.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Paprika Schnitzel: My souvenir from Vienna

When I was a college student (or, more precisely, when I was returning to being a student) I went to Vienna for a month to study German, my first trip outside North America. Staying in a student hostel, a studentenheim, on Pfeilgasse and having a student meal ticket good at a variety of restaurants near the university, I got to taste much of what was Viennese summer fare in those days. The meats that were most wonderful (aside from sausages, but they were for snacks with tap beer and crusty rolls) were the schnitzels, thin, pounded cutlets of veal (typically), which were quickly fried. Weiner Schnitzel (weinerschnitzel) was the tops, a thin cutlet of tender veal breaded and delicately fried and served with a slice of lemon to squeeze on it. But the more unusual, and my favorite, was the elegantly simple paprikaschnitzel, thin cutlets not breaded, but served in a sour cream and paprika sauce.

This is not the same as Veal Paprikas, which is a Hungarian veal stew, a gulyas, which is also served in Austria. Paprika schnitzel, by contrast, is less well known and is truly a Viennese dish, a fusion from before there was 'Fusion' of Austrian and Hungarian cooking from the period when both countries were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with Vienna as its glittering capital. The schnitzel part is very Austrian, the paprika and sour cream are characteristically Hungarian. The version offered here is more modern, made with cutlets of turkey breast rather than the traditional veal, but it works equally well.

The recipe serves six, preferably accompanied by noodles or potatoes. A potato salad of thinly sliced waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, dressed with oil and vinegar with little or no mayonnaise would also have been served where I first had this dish. Beer certainly goes with it, a malty German pilsner style rather than a hoppy beer. Or for wine, a crisp cold white, such as an Austrian Grüner Veltliner or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, would be excellent.

Paprika Schnitzel

1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 pounds skinless, boneless turkey breast (or chicken breast)
2 tablespoons butter (approx.)
2 tablespoons canola oil (approx.)
1 shallot or 1/2 of a small onion, minced
3/4 teaspoon paprika (Hungarian if possible)
1/8 teaspoon marjoram
1/4 cup brandy or white wine
1/4 cup water
3/4 cup sour cream
Salt to taste
Minced parsley for garnish

Mix the flour with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. With a sharp knife slice the turkey or chicken on a diagonal into large flat pieces 1/4-inch thick. With the side of a cleaver or with a flat-bottomed plate or pan, gently pound the meat slices to flatten them further. Dust both sides with the flour mixture. Set aside.

In a large, preferably non-stick, frying pan, heat part of the butter and oil to medium high. Fry part of the meat briefly, in a single layer, turning several times just until slightly browned in spots. Store in a warm (180 degrees) oven while frying the rest of the chicken, adding more butter and oil as needed. When the meat is finished and removed from the pan, add a little more butter and oil and gently fry the minced shallot or onion until softened. Lower the heat and fry in the paprika very gently for 1/2 minute, being careful not to burn it. Add brandy or wine and the marjoram, and let the mixture cook down for a minute or so. Add the water and sour cream and a little salt, bringing it to a boil, stirring. Add the fried turkey or chicken pieces, turning to coat and heat them through. Remove from the heat. Taste the sauce and add a little salt if necessary. Transfer meat pieces to a platter. Spoon any extra sauce over them. Dust with minced parsley to serve.

Accompany with hot, buttered noodles or buttered steamed potatoes, a little minced parsley dusted on either of them.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Fresh Mozzarella Salad: 'Caprese'

It's spring in Atlanta, the most magical time. The daffodils and camelias and Japanese magnolias and helebores are nearly past, the flowering cherries are in full bloom and the dogwoods and azaleas are emerging. Oh yes, and the tree pollens are blowing, giving a vernal gray-green dusting to everything. I have basil plants ready to set out, still in movable pots for another week or two to be sure we don't get one last freeze. But the tender leaves are there for cooking. And the first thing for them is fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and olive oil: Insalata Caprese, salad in the manner of the Isle of Capri.

This delightful, simple 'salad' or appetizer, laid out on a plate and sporting the beautiful colors of the Italian flag, makes a wonderful antipasto course or salad for the buffet table. The ultimate fresh mozzarella ('fior di latte', or flower of milk), is made from buffalo ('bufala') milk, which is produced in Italy. But the more ordinary fresh domestic one, in its ball shape of various sizes, is also luscious.

The tomatoes are important. The Italian original was the San Marzano or plum type, to which our Roma is the closest. But the most important thing is that the tomatoes be ripe. Off season, the tastiest may be grape tomatoes. Good extra virgin olive oil is essential too.

This recipe serves six as an appetizer or side dish. While some, like the French, do not usually serve wine with the salad course, others do. And unlike most actual salads, Caprese does not have vinegar or lemon juice. A cold white wine with a little tartness -- acidity -- like a Sauvignon Blanc or a good Pinot Grigio will hold up nicely with this dish. Warmed crusty bread like ciabatta or baguette goes well with the salad, to mop up the olive oil.

Fresh Mozzarella and Basil Salad Tim

2 ripe large regular tomatoes or 3 large Roma tomatoes or 1-3/4 cups of grape tomatoes
1 container (8 ounces, or more) fresh mozzarella cheese, any size
6-8 fresh basil leaves, more if small
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon capers (optional), drained

Wash the tomatoes and if using regular or Roma tomatoes, slice them 1/4-inch thick. Arrange on a serving plate or platter. If using the larger type of fresh mozzarella (‘ouova’), slice them 1/4-inch thick. For the smaller mozzarellas, leave them whole. Arrange them among the tomatoes. Sprinkle the cheese and tomatoes lightly with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Rinse off the basil leaves. Stack them up on a cutting board and slice them in 1/8-inch slices. (Alternatively, if the leaves are small, they can be used whole.) Distribute the basil over the tomatoes and cheese. Shortly before serving, drizzle lightly with olive oil. If capers are used, drain them well and sprinkle them on the salad.

Serve with warmed Italian or French bread.