Friday, May 27, 2011

A Brief History of Kopanisti

(For Craig and Daniel)

Everyone knows that Seattle is the hub of Greek cuisine. The balmy climate, the ocean, the arid mediterranean soil baked under a perfect sun.


I discovered kopanisti on a rare, beautiful sunny day in Seattle. There for business, I got in late, driving into the city through the mystic pale of the gloaming*. While I checked in I asked about nearby eateries. Confronted with a litany of fusion restaurants (a simple bowl of vietnamese bun is my perfect comfort food when I'm on the road) but noticing the lateness of the hour and the mistiness beyond the lobby glass, I inquired into the restaurant nestled into the lobby corner. Mediterranean. A plate of sunshine. I could eat that.

I popped into my room, performed my regular hotel rituals, and then walked down to Lola's with a sheaf of the New York times under my arm.

Sidling up to the hostess I asked if I could order the full menu at the bar, only to discover that I'd crossed the dateline into the late night menu zone. Slightly crestfallen that the tagines I'd spied were not amongst the late night choices I registered my hunger and the warm glow of neon above the bar and grabbed a stool.

Kabob, gyro, a few vegetable things. Lamb burger. Chick pea fries**. A bunch of the descriptors were (sorry!) greek to me, but the tart syllables were compelling: mezedakia, fava cordalia, loukamades.

I contemplated the mini lamb burger and ordered a beer, a local IPA. A series of pita and spread combinations took up a lot of real estate on the menu, but it sounded kind of like chips and guac to me. Then I read:

Kopanisti, pistachio, mavrodaphe. 


I inquired as to what means kopanisti. All I heard was feta and pistachio and then my brain waves scattered. There was kopanisti on the burger. Done.

Kopanisti is traditional Greek cheese made in the Cyclades islands from ewe, cow or goat milk, or a mixture of them. Kopanisti is described as having an intense salty and piquant taste and soft texture and rich flavour which approaches that of Roquefort.


And apparently you will not get real kopanisti in America (think of champage versus sparkling wine but imagine that you can't cork it for export and you get the gist). It is often used in cheese pastries and as a snack with wine and ouzo. Where was that beer I ordered?

Kopanisti also commonly refers to a spread made with feta, herbs, olive oil, peppers and variously garnished with different lovely morsels. That is everything I need on a burger.

Mavrodaphne, the name of my future daughter, is a type of sweet grape, and a garnish on this particular version of kopanisti, along with the pistachios. 

A typical recipe for kopanisti goes something like this:
  • 1/2 lb. Greek feta cheese
  • 3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • mint
  • red pepper flakes, plus more as needed
  • 6 Italian chopped peperoncini (red peppers), 
     chopped, plus more as needed
Here is the sad part: I had a terrible cold that night, and this gorgeous concotion, a lovely orange red from the peppers and the perfect texture for speading, was wasted on me. I begged a dish of house made chermoula instead to spike up the flavor and clear my sinuses.

But the taste of that word will not leave my tongue. Back at home and sans head cold, the hunt for fantastic kopanisti in Los Angeles begins. Though I don't know if we have the climate for it here....

*Gloaming: Scottish for the late twilight common in summer months in very northern latitudes. A lovely and magical time, when you walk out from dinner at 10.30pm into a lingering bright sky.
**Chick pea fries sounded really compelling but I later realized they were sort of like big square falafel sticks. Yummy, but my socks stayed put.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What are you eating?

I often find myself defending eating some of the stuff I eat. "I can't believe you ate that tarantula in Cambodia," or "I can't believe you ate raw water buffalo liver in Thailand?" I say, "Why? It was a beautiful fresh piece of meat, or bug, or whatever. Someone's grandma made it for's the healthiest thing you could eat." And this person is usually eating a hot dog at a sporting even while accosting me.

~Andrew Zimmern

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Who are you eating?

A city dweller all my life, freshness is something I've learned to take on faith, as touted in the produce aisles of my local grocery store. It says right there how farm fresh that stuff really is. Last week, however, my aunt sent me home with a carton of eggs from from her coop, from her own flock of chickens.

Aunt Kathy lives in one of the rare cities outlying Los Angeles that manages to be a city, no really, but that is zoned semi-rural. Her backyard, to my eyes, is a small scale farm. Citrus trees, vegetable plot, herb garden, and two tiers of bee boxes. The whole yard overlooks a tree-filled canyon, and beyond that the western hills. She is about to harvest her first honey, something like fifty pounds!

And her flock has grown from humble beginnings to seven chickens (well, five hens and two chicks to be precise). Their coop recently underwent an expansion, I wouldn't doubt they needed a building permit: it's a veritable palace. 

These were by far the freshest eggs I've ever had. And I didn't have to trust my grocer on that. These are from hens that I know personally, if that's the right word for an avian acquaintance. I've met the ladies that brought these eggs to my table: Aunt Bea, Topaz, Lucy, Grace and Madeline.

In the carton, which is reused so actually might say something about how fresh the eggs are on the top, was a rainbow of pastel colors and pebbly textured shells. Pale celery green, tannish brown, ruddy brown, cream. Which of course got me to wondering, easter festivities aside, what makes colored eggs colored?

As any reputable resource will tell you, you'll know what color your hen will lay by looking at the color of her earlobes. (Earlobes? I haven't seen a chicken's ear, much less her earlobes). Here started my education in the exotic world of chicken breeds.  

The color of the eggs comes from pigment deposited in the shell when it's in the oviduct. Turns out that each breed of chicken reliably produces a particular color of egg. Rather than try to locate their earlobes, I just asked my Aunt Kathy about her parti-colored flock.

Aunt Bea is responsbile for the green eggs, top left in the carton (Seuss step aside), and also for a lovely lunch of egg salad today. She is an Americauna, which produce green, blue, olive or pink eggs (one color per chicken). Aunt Bea's green shells are even richer in color on the inside, which is unique to her breed: the pigmenting process starts earlier on and hence goes all the way through the shell.

Topaz is a Buff Orpington. What a great name, right? She gave me the darker brown eggs, top right for instance. And these are white inside the shell, because the pigmenting process happens differently. My aunt, not to be confused with Aunt Bea the chicken, has another breed who apparently lays chocolate brown eggs when she starts to lay. Mmm, the food analogy to describe, well at least in this context, food, is almost too much to bear.

Lucy, a Red Star, also provided some brown eggs, and Grace gave me the cream egg seen bottom right. She is a Speckled Sussex.

Once shelled, and mixed with anchovy, capers and dijon and slathered on bread, the eggs look like any other egg, regardless of the shell color. Do they taste different? Of course! They're amazingly fresh. And those chickens are LOVED. My cousin collects grubs from the compost to feed them, my nieces pet and hold them, and my aunt is rhapsodic about how beautiful they are, especially Grace, the Speckled Sussex.

I am what I eat, and I had a huge serving of color and a lot of love with lunch. Thanks, ladies. More eggs, please!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What language are you eating?

If you've ordered a beverage that might be referred to as tall, grande or venti lately you've probably stood next to these little snackeroos while you waited for your steaming morning cup.

I preface this comment by saying that one of my comestible particularities is that I don't eat sugar. While this dietary guideline is open to the same kind of gymnastic interpretations as the US Constitution, it generally means I abstain from desserts and refined sugar. It's definitely not a moral thing, and I can't even say it's strictly about health -  a burger, fries and a beer is a square meal in my book. I like to think of it as avoiding sugar where it's not needed. And this brings me to the point.

What is labeled here as "Simply Nuts & Fruit" is simply not that at all. Turn to the label and It is a blend of salted nuts with vegetable oil, and sugar coated dried fruit. Fairly common practices, sure. But when and how does that qualify as simply fruit? Dictionaries explain the word simply with things like merely, just, only; altogether, absolutely; in a plain, unadorned way; in an unambiguous or clear manner. Is this that?

I also asked a barista at another coffee chain if their soymilk was sweetened, and she said "No" while I was reading the words natural cane sweetener on the label. That was a confusing exchange.

Which is all to say it's an odd world we're speaking in. I aim to be present to the joy and wonder of whatever it is I'm eating or drinking. I mean, you really are what you eat, and arguably, you're also how you speak about the experience. I'm just glad that my apple a day provides more sustenance than it does reading material.