"WE HAVE fast foods. We have convenience foods. What my generation lacks is the kind of food that is physically nourishing and yet has another dimension of nourishment--family tradition." So laments Linda Fotis, my 29-year-old piano teacher and friend.
"In the old days, mothers gave daughters recipes and, along with the recipes, stories about the family," Fotis continues. "Those stories are nourishment in themselves."
The "traditional" dishes of many cultures, especially old cultures, seem more than simply sustaining in a physical sense. When you know that a recipe is a legacy, a link to forebears, something deeply emotional is touched.
Mothers still hand down recipes to daughters. Kitchen tradition lives--though not everywhere. Here are examples from four of the world's great cultures. All of them are adaptable to any American kitchen.
Food for Freedom Fighters
Marika Charin is 30 years old and works for a travel agency. When she and her husband entertain in their Alexandria apartment, Charin often serves a casserole that is a culinary legacy. The dish is called Kastri Kreatopita, and here is its story:
"My father's family is from Kastri, a small town in the Peloponnesus region of Greece. It's a remote, rocky, dry, barren region. Lambs, pigs and goats are the only animals that survive there. The Peloponnesian people are the poorest of all Greeks.
"In 1815, my great-great-great-great-grandfather built an inn on the only road directly linking the east and west coasts of Peloponnesus. During the War of Greek Independence in 1821, there was fierce fighting along that road. Greek guerrillas battled invading Turks. When the guerrillas came to the inn for food, my family served them Kastri Kreatopita. 'Kastri' is the family's town; 'Kreatopita' means meat pie or bread. Here is the family recipe. I have added my own touches. Feel free to add yours. And even though you'll be handling very thin sheets of dough, relax. It's that kind of a casserole."
KASTRI KREATOPITA (8 to 12 servings) 3 pounds lean lamb, diced into 1-inch cubes 1/2 cup butter Salt and pepper, to taste 2 cups uncooked potatoes, peeled and diced 1 1/2 cups onions (a mix of yellow onions and green scallions), finely chopped 1 cup celery, finely chopped 1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped 2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped 1 teaspoon cinnamon (or to taste) 1/2 teaspoon crushed mint, fresh or dried (dried preferred) 4 hard-cooked eggs, diced 1/2 cup white rice (uncooked) 1/2 cup olive oil 1 pound phyllo pastry leaves 1 cup melted butter for spreading on pastry leaves 1 cup cheese (use two kinds: crumbled feta and kefelotiri* or grated parmesan)
Saute diced lamb in butter until browned on all sides. Season with salt and pepper. In a mixing bowl, combine the cooked lamb and all other ingredients except the phyllo leaves, melted butter and cheese. Mix well. Adjust seasoning. Prepare this mixture before opening the box of phyllo leaves.
When making the pastry, don't worry about perfection or neat assembly. For this informal meat pie, keeping a sense of humor and the courage of Greek guerillas about you is more important than artistry. Your aim is simply to surround the lamb mixture with thin, buttered sheets of dough.
Here's all you need to know: (1) Phyllo dries quickly; to avoid drying, be sure to unfold the phyllo leaves all the way when you open the box and cover about half of them with a damp towel. (2) Work quickly. A few of the phyllo leaves, especially if you're handling them for the first time, may tear; or they may not go into the baking pan smoothly. Keep going. The casserole will taste great anyway.
To layer, grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Brush one phyllo leaf with melted butter and lay in in the pan; then butter another leaf and place it on top of the first. Repeat, until you have stacked about half the phyllo sheets and have covered the entire surface of the pan. Tuck edges in the pan.
Spread the lamb mixture over the dough. Sprinkle the cheese over the lamb. Cover with the rest of the phyllo sheets, individually buttered, and tuck in edges.
With a sharp knife, cut the pie into serving squares. Cut all the way through; it will then be easier to serve after cooking.
Bake 60 minutes. The dough should be a light golden color. Cool slightly. Decorate the pie with parsley. Serve with a white or red Greek wine.
*Note: Available in Greek specialty stores.
A Chicken in the Family Pot
The traditional Sunday treat in Angela Traettino's family was "Polastro en Teccia." Seated in the second Bethesda restaurant she and her husband, Luigi, have operated (both named Positano), Traettino recalls her childhood:
"During World War II, my family did not have much money. But thank God, we had a lot of food. We lived on a farm. Altogether--with aunts and uncles and cousins--there were 47 of us. You went out to the garden and picked vegetables. Three times a day, we ate polenta; it was like our bread. But the wonderful meal of the week was chicken in casserole--Polastro en Teccia. We had a five-foot octagonal fireplace, and on Sunday the children sat around that fireplace watching the chicken bake in a large terra cotta pot."
POLASTRO EN TECCIA (6 to 8 servings) 4- or 5-pound chicken 4 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons cooking oil 1/2 cup celery, diced 1 large onion, chopped 1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste) 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (or to taste) 1/4 teaspoon rosemary 1/4 teaspoon sage 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped 1/2 cup dry white wine
Cut chicken into small serving pieces. Melt butter and oil in a terra cotta pot large enough to hold a 5-pound chicken. (A flame-proof covered casserole dish can also be used.) Add the chicken. Put chopped vegetables and seasonings on top of the poultry. Cover. Cook slowly over medium low heat for 45 minutes, either on the stove or in a 325-degree oven. If the chicken cooks too fast it will burn, so be sure to keep the heat turned to medium-low at all times. Stir gently with a wooden spatula about every 10 minutes, being careful not to break up the pieces of chicken. After 45 minutes, add the wine and cook uncovered for an additional 45 minutes. Stir from time to time. Turn pieces with the spatula. Scrape up thickenings from the pan bottom; they are delicious. This dish is not supposed to be soupy. It should be sticky, a thin gold. If the chicken gets dry, add a little chicken broth--just enough to keep it moist.
Fine Kettle of Shabbos Fish
"Fishless Fish Soup" has been Friday night (Shabbos) fare for generations in Frieda Mariamova's family. Mariamova was born and brought up in the Soviet Union. She was a professional actress, a member of the Russian Yiddish Theater. Now a resident of Rockville, she is widely admired for her cooking talent and likes to tell this story:
"For a long time, many Jews in Russia have been poor. Still, there is a tradition--an old, old custom--that no matter how badly off a Jewish husband and wife may be the rest of the week, on Friday night, Shabbos, they live like a king and queen. This, of course, is to help preserve self-respect. Well, in Russia, the food of royalty is fresh fish. But fish is very expensive, especially inland. So how could Jews--menschen vos hoben nisht kein gelt (men without money)--afford the food of kings? They did not lose heart. They simply created a soup that had no fish but tasted as if it did. They called it Fishless Fish Soup. And do you know? On Friday nights, it tastes like fish soup."
FISHLESS FISH SOUP (4 servings) 2 tablespoons butter 2 large onions, chopped 4 potatoes (white, medium to large) peeled and cubed 1 1/4 teaspoons salt (or to taste) 1/4 teaspoon black pepper (more, if desired) 4 1/2 to 5 cups water, depending on thickness preferred
Melt butter in a pot. Add the remaining ingredients and cook for 40 minutes. Put the mixture through a ricer or food mill. Taste for seasoning. Serve hot with black bread and butter.
Playing Her Curds Right
Victoria Chen of Wheaton, formerly of Shanghai and Taiwan, teaches Chinese cooking in Montgomery County's adult education program. When Chen told her husband she was going to teach her students to make Ma-Po Tofu, he winced. "Oh, don't do that," he warned. "It has the black fermented beans. Your students will be put off by those beans; they are smelly."
So far not one of Chen's students has been put off--the bean smell disappears during cooking--and she entertains her class with this story of Ma-Po Tofu (bean curd):
"A scarred woman inspired this dish. 'Ma' means smallpox scar; 'Po' is woman. It seems the brother of the scarred woman died, leaving a widow and two children. The family land was too small; they could not make a living from it. To help the family, the scarred woman tried to find a husband, but she could not.
"So the sisters-in-law did the only thing they could: They went on the highway by their farm and sold quick meals to passersby. What the scarred woman cooked was simple and very successful."
MA-PO TOFU (4 to 5 servings) 1 pound bean curd 4 tablespoons corn oil 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced 2 cloves garlic, minced 4 ounces ground pork 1 tablespoon black fermented beans, chopped 1/2 cup chicken stock 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon hot doe-ban paste (or hot bean sauce)* 1 teaspoon dried red Chinese pepper, chopped 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water 1 teaspoon sesame oil Dash of ground Szechuan peppercorn (brown)
Cut tofu into 1-by-1-by- 1/2-inch cubes. Heat a wok. Add corn oil. Saute' ginger and garlic in the oil a few minutes. Stir-fry ground pork in the oil. When the pork is brown, push it to one side. In the center of the wok, saute' the black beans a few minutes.
Add the tofu cubes, stock, soy sauce and salt. Cover the wok and cook 10 minutes.
Add doe-ban paste and red pepper. Mix gently with tofu, taking care not to break up the bean curd. Add cornstarch mixture and cook until sauce thickens slightly. Just before serving, stir in sesame oil and ground brown peppercorn. Serve with hot fluffy rice.
Note: Doe-ban paste (hot bean sauce) is available in Asian specialty stores.