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Milk Street: Greek Mezze (Ep 602)

Greek Meatballs with Tomato Sauce (Soutzoukakia)
Start to finish: 1 hour 20 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6

Known as soutzoukakia, these cigar-shaped meatballs are seasoned with cumin and
garlic, then simmered in tomato sauce. The dish has origins in Smyrna, a former Greek
settlement and now the Turkish city of Izmir on the Aegean coast. Our recipe is based on
the soutzoukakia we learned from Alexandra Manousakis and Afshin Molavi of Manousakis Winery on the Greek island of Crete. Made with a combination of ground lamb and beef, the meatballs have a deep, rich flavor perfectly matched by the tangy-sweet tomato sauce. If you prefer, you can use 1 pound of either type of meat. An instant thermometer is the best way to check the meatballs for doneness; alternatively, cut one open—when done, the center should not be pink. The meatballs are browned on the stovetop, then finish cooking in the same pan in the oven, so you will need a 12-inch oven-safe skillet for this recipe. Soutzoukakia typically are offered as part of a meze spread, but served with rice, they’re a terrific main.

Don’t use tongs to turn the meatballs in the skillet. Until they’re browned on all sides, the
soutzoukakia are quite delicate and easily marred by tongs. A thin metal spatula is better for rotating them.

2 medium yellow onions, peeled
3 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
11⁄2 pounds ripe tomatoes, halved
8 ounces 80 percent lean ground beef (see headnote)
8 ounces ground lamb
4 medium garlic cloves, finely grated
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, divided
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint, divided
3 teaspoons dried oregano, divided
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 large egg, beaten
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons tomato paste

Set a box grater in a medium bowl. Grate the onions on the large holes down to the root ends; reserve the box grater. Transfer half of the grated onion to a small bowl and set aside for the sauce. To the grated onion in the medium bowl, add the panko and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt; stir, then let stand until the panko is softened, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, grate the tomato halves (start with the cut sides against the grater) into another medium bowl; stop when you reach the skin and discard it. Cover and set aside for making the sauce.

To the onion-panko mixture, add the beef, lamb, half of the garlic, 2 tablespoons each of parsley and mint, 2 teaspoons of the oregano, the cumin, paprika, egg and 1⁄2 teaspoon pepper. Mix with your hands until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes or up to 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 375°F with a rack in the middle position. Divide the chilled meat mixture into 12 evenly sized balls (a scant 1⁄4 cup each). With wet hands, shape each one into an oblong about 3 inches long.

In a 12-inch oven-safe skillet over medium, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil until shimmering. Add the meatballs and cook, using a thin metal spatula or 2 spoons to gently and occasionally turn them, until lightly browned all over, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a large plate and set aside. Pour off and discard the fat in the skillet.

In the same skillet over medium-high, combine the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, reserved grated onion, remaining garlic, 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and 1⁄4 teaspoon pepper. Cook, scraping up any browned bits, until the moisture from the onion has evaporated and the onion and drippings are well browned, about 5 minutes; reduce the heat as needed if browning goes too quickly. Stir in the tomato paste and remaining 1 teaspoon oregano, then add the grated tomatoes; scrape up any browned bits. Bring to a simmer over medium-high and cook, stirring often, until the mixture is slightly thickened, 4 to 5 minutes.

Off heat, nestle the meatballs in the sauce and add the accumulated juices. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook until the center of the meatballs registers 160°F and the sauce is brown at the edges, 13 to 18 minutes.

Remove the skillet from the oven (the handle will be hot). Serve sprinkled with the remaining 2 tablespoons each parsley and mint.

Greek-Style Baked White Beans in Tomato Sauce
Start to finish: 13⁄4 hours (30 minutes active), plus soaking and cooling
Servings: 6

Gigantes plaki, or gigante beans baked in tomato sauce, is a Greek classic. The delicious version we tasted at Manousakis Winery on the island of Crete had us eager to re-create the dish ourselves. But we quickly learned that dried gigante beans, a type of large, white runner bean—they are not lima beans, contrary to what some sources say— are not widely available in the U.S. We discovered that great northern beans, though smaller, are an excellent alternative. (We prefer them over cannellini beans, which are slightly larger but have a tendency to cook unevenly and break down even if just slightly overdone.) If you are able to source dried gigante beans, they will require at least 50 minutes of covered cooking in the Dutch oven to become tender, and even when fully cooked, will have a firmer texture than great northerns. This is a multi-step recipe but requires minimal hands-on time. First, the soaked beans are simmered in a pot in the oven until tender; meanwhile, a rich tomato sauce is cooked on the stovetop. The two then are combined and finished in the oven, where the flavors deepen and concentrate.

Don’t try to take a shortcut by quick-soaking the beans. For even cooking and the best
texture, the beans need to soak for at least 12 hours at room temperature prior to cooking. Don’t forget to add the salt to the soaking water, which helps produce more tender beans.

1 pound dried great northern beans
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 medium yellow onion, peeled
2 medium celery stalks
1 medium zucchini
1 medium carrot, peeled
11⁄4 to 11⁄2 pounds ripe tomatoes, halved
3 medium garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to serve
6-ounce can tomato paste (2⁄3 cup)
11⁄2 teaspoons dried oregano

First, soak the beans. In a large bowl, stir together the beans, 3 quarts water and 2 teaspoons salt. Soak at room temperature for at least 12 hours or up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse the beans.

Heat the oven to 325°F with a rack in the lower-middle position. In a large Dutch oven, combine the beans, bay, pepper flakes and 51⁄2 cups water; bring to a boil over medium-high. Cover the pot, transfer to the oven and bake until tender, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, set a box grater in a medium bowl. Grate the onion on the large holes down to the root end. Next, grate the celery into the bowl; discard the strings that remain. Grate the zucchini and carrot down to the stems; discard the stems. Set the mixture aside. Into another medium bowl, grate the tomato halves (start with the cut
sides against the grater); stop when you reach the skin and discard it. Set the tomatoes aside. Finally, grate the garlic cloves on the small holes of the box grater; set aside.

When the beans are tender, remove the pot from the oven. Increase the oven to 375°F. Transfer the beans with their liquid to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish; wipe out and reserve the pot. Remove and discard the bay; set the beans aside.

In the same pot over medium, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the grated vegetable mixture (but not the tomatoes or garlic) and 11⁄2 teaspoons salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to release some moisture, 2 to 3 minutes. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is softened but not browned, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until it starts to brown and sticks to the bottom of the pot, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the grated tomatoes, oregano and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick and a few shades darker, 3 to 4 minutes.

Spoon the tomato sauce into the beans, then stir to combine. Taste and season with salt and black pepper. Bake, uncovered, until bubbling at the edges and the surface is
lightly browned, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes. Serve drizzled with additional oil.

Greek Baked Vegetables (Briam)
Start to finish: 50 minutes
Servings: 6

The Greek baked vegetable dish known as briam is an example of lathera (also spelled ladera)—vegetable-centric dishes that feature a generous amount of olive oil (lathi in Greek). In briam, potatoes give the dish weight and substance, but it’s the summer produce—such as zucchini, tomatoes, garlic and herbs—that are the main attraction.
Because potatoes take longer to cook than juicier, less starchy vegetables, we give them
a head start by parcooking them in the microwave. Crumbled feta cheese scattered on after baking provides salty, briny notes that play off the sweetness of the tender, sweet vegetables. Briam is excellent warm but also delicious at room temperature.

Don’t use round tomatoes for this recipe. Because plum tomatoes are relatively dry, their juices won’t turn the dish watery as they soften during baking. Also, don’t use a glass baking dish or a baking dish that’s not broiler-safe. The vegetables are finished under the broiler to caramelize the surface, so it’s essential to use a baking vessel that can withstand the heat.

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled, sliced 1⁄4 inch thick
2 medium zucchini (about 8 ounces each), sliced into 1⁄2-inch-thick rounds
1 medium red onion, halved and thinly sliced
4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
6 ripe plum tomatoes, 4 cored and chopped, 2 cored and sliced
crosswise into 1⁄4-inch-thick rounds
1 tablespoon plus 1⁄2 teaspoon dried oregano
1⁄4 cup plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to serve
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (1⁄2 cup)
1⁄4 cup lightly packed fresh basil, torn, or 3 tablespoons chopped
fresh flat-leaf parsley or dill (or a combination)

Heat the oven to 475°F with a rack in the middle position. In a large microwave-safe bowl, combine the potatoes and 1⁄4 cup water. Cover and microwave on high until the potatoes are just shy of tender, about 10 minutes, stirring once halfway through.

Pour off and discard any liquid in the bottom of the bowl. Add the zucchini, onion, garlic, the chopped tomatoes, the 1 tablespoon oregano, the 1⁄4 cup oil, 11⁄2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Toss well, then distribute evenly in a 9-by-13-inch broiler-safe baking pan. Lay the tomato slices on top, spacing them evenly. Drizzle with the remaining 2 teaspoons oil, then sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon oregano and 1⁄4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Bake until a skewer inserted into the vegetables meets no
resistance, about 25 minutes.

Turn the oven to broil and broil until well browned, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the feta. Let rest for about 10 minutes, then sprinkle with the basil and drizzle with additional oil.

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