Can’t Get to a Greek Taverna? Get Some Mediterranean Flavor By Making Homemade Tzaziki and Roasted Vegetables

I have fond memories of my Air Force days in Greece (read more here), and especially of going out to local tavernas or finding one near some isolated beach.  Although its cognate in English, tavern, generally conjures up images of a place where men sit around tables with a mugs of beer in hand, sometimes singing chanties, a Greek taverna is the ubiquitous informal restaurant, which almost always has some kind of grill for cooking meat and tables outside, where patron sit under the shade of an arbor or umbrellas.

The typical meal that almost ordered was served in courses.  First came the Greek salad, with chunks of the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten, thickly cut pieces of juicy cucumber, and a slice or two of onion, all topped with a small slab or two of feta, several dark olives, and sometimes a tart pickled pepper.  Oil and vinegar were already on the table ready for drizzling.  Next arrived long stripped of battered and deep-fried zucchini and at about the same time, french fries.  But think big, chunky home fries here, not thin, McDonald’s style.  Along with the zucchini and potatoes appeared a small plate with the filled with a puddle of yummy tzaziki (sometimes spelled “tzatziki”), the slightly tart, yogurt-cucumber accompaniment for the zucchini and potatoes, and the soon-to-arrive, grilled meat.

Tavernas didn’t usually offer desserts, although some might have had some rice pudding, or something similar, for the asking.  Usually the meal ended with a small cup of thick Greek coffee (others call this Turkish coffee), which could be ordered three ways:  bitter, metrio (a Greek word I still remember, because this is what I ordered)–medium sweet, and glykos–very sweet.  Some other ways to end the meal might be a small glass ouzo, the well-known Greek alcohol, something I never acquired a taste for.  Generally, if something tastes like licorice, it should be licorice candy!

If there is one thing that makes me immediately think of Greece, it’s tzaziki.  I never learned to make it when I lived in Greece because if I cooked for myself, I didn’t cook Greek food.  However, when I got out of the Air Force and started living out in the plains of western Kansas, I began to miss the taverna food.  Greek salads were easy enough to replicate, though in those days, and especially living so far from any city, finding feta cheese was difficult.  I also learned to make a great pastitsio, which, for those who don’t know this casserole dish, might be described as Greek lasagna.

Because I like tzaziki so much, I have tried, based on various recipes, to make it,  but I’ve never been completely satisfied with the results.  One reason is because the recipes asked that liquids be drained from the yogurt overnight through a cloth in a colinder.  Even when the other ingredients were added, I never felt like I ended up with very “authentic” tzaziki.

I don’t eat yogurt on a regular basis, so I haven’t paid much attention to it in the super market.  However, in just the last several months, I’ve been hearing Greek yogurt being advertised, so I took a look in the dairy section.  Surprisingly, there were several different brands with quite a few different flavors along with plain.

Most of what's needed to make quick, fresh tzaziki.

Just recently, by trial and error with the Greek-style yogurt, I’ve created my own tzaziki recipe that is quick, and I think compares well with that from the tavernas.  I used my palate to do it without even a glance at my old Greek cookbook.  I have never deep-fried anything, so I wouldn’t even attempt to make the taverna-style zucchini and french fries, but I think this tzaziki goes great with the roasted vegetables and any meat from my outdoor grill.

And now it’s grilling season again.  Last year, I went to Lowe’s (read that post here) and became a first-time gas grill owner.  And I have never looked back.  I love taste and texture of grilled meats done on the grill, not to mention, no extra heat or greasy smoke smell in the house.  But the grill basket I received for Christmas has changed my whole idea about grilling.

These roasted veggies will be even better with some tzaziki slathered on them.

I’ve found that roasting on the grill makes for more delectable vegetables than just about any other way of cooking.  I’ve already tried roasting quite a few different vegetables:  potatoes, carrots, onions, yellow squash, acorn squash, zucchini, okra, bell peppers, and broccoli, and I haven’t been disappointed yet.  Like with grilling meat, it’s important to know your own barbeque grill, especially how to regulate the heat and where the food that you’re cooking needs to be placed on the grill so that it gets cooked like you like it, but doesn’t burn.  Here’s what I do:

Roasted Vegetables on the Grill

Make sure the grill grates are clean.  Then light all the burners on high, close the lid and let the grill get hot.

Prepare the vegetables by washing and cleaning them.  For potatoes, cut off any blemishes or dark spots, but you don’t have to eye or peel them.  Trim and cut carrots.  Cut the stem and bottom ends off of vegetables like zucchini and yellow squash.  Clean out the seeds from any type of peppers.

Cut the vegetables into manageable pieces–about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick works well for most vegetables like potatoes, onions, and squash.  More fragile vegetables such as bell peppers should just be quartered.  Potatoes and hard squash take longer to cook that other vegetables, so if you are cooking these together with other vegetables, zap them in the microwave for a couple minutes to give them a head start; however, you don’t want them fully cooked.

To season, put the vegetable pieces in a big bowl.  Splash on some olive or vegetable oil.  Then sprinkle with seasonings you like, such as black pepper, red pepper, garlic powder, chile powder, ground cumin, and oregano.  I also add Kroger brand salad dressing and Asian black pepper sauce.  Use a couple of spatulas and gently stir to coat the vegetables with the oil and spices.  I don’t use regular salt either before or afterwards, but you can lightly sprinkle on salt after the grilling.

When I’m to grill the vegetables, I turn the burner which I’ll use for them to medium, but leave the others on high.  Burgers and steaks usually cook faster than the vegetables, so I start the veggies first.  Place the grill basket on the grill so that you can put in the vegetables without burning yourself.  You could also put the basket on a tray before you go to the grill and add the vegetables.  Layer the vegetables with those that need more cooking time, like potatoes and carrots on the bottom.  Scrape any remaining seasoning from the bowl onto the vegetables; move the basket to the back and close the lid.  After 6=8 minutes, use a long barbeque, tong-spatula to start checking and turning the vegetables.  Gently turn them 3 or 4 times throughout the cooking process to get them golden brown and done.  Cooking time can vary depending on the amount and type of vegetables. Using cooking mitts, carefully remove the basket from the grill.

Homemade Tzaziki (Trip to the Outhouse Style)

  • 1 small container of Greek-style yogurt (5-6 oz.)
  • 1 very small cucumber or 1/2 of a larger cucumber peeled
  • 1 clove garlic peeled
  • 1 small scallion (green onion) including part of the top, cleaned
  • 2 tablespoons cottage cheese
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar (you might try lemon juice too)
  • black pepper

In a food processor, pulse the garlic and green onion until very fine.  Add the vinegar and pulse in.  Add the cottage cheese and pulse until creamy.  Add the cucumber that you’ve cut up into chunks.  (If the seeds in the cucumber look mature, scoop them out and discard them.  Don’t add them into the mixture.) Pulse until the cucumber is in smaller bits.  Sprinkle on some black pepper and add the yogurt.  Pulse until all the ingredients are just blended.

Make the tzaziki at least a couple of hours before your meal and store in the refrigerator.  It will keep in a covered container for 2-4 days in the refrigerator.  Serve in a bowl or on a plate with a little olive oil drizzled over the top.  If your meal is more formal, serve on small individual plates.

This recipe makes about 2 cups, which should be quite enough for a 1-family meal.  You could increase the amount by doubling the ingredients except for the garlic and green onion.

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You Wanted It–You Got It: More Garden, and How About a Chainsaw?

Garden back of the garage (6-12-10)

A couple of pics I want to get in before it gets too late.  I realize I haven’t put in a picture of my garden for a bit.  These are really more for me just to see how everything is growing because I know I’ve been too impatient.  Now, though, I see I’ve really overplanted my little patch.  The rows really no longer exist because everything has grown together.  I’ve been picking about a tomato a day from my several plants, and a few beans here and there–enough for a couple of delicious meals.

My "Butch" Chainsaw and the Remaining Pieces of the Tree

A week ago Sunday, the dead tree that had been in the back yard decided to come down on it’s own, before I could use my tax refund to get someone to come do it.  Luckily the tree was so dry and rotted that it sort of telescoped down without doing any damage, except for two fence pickets, which g0t the tops broken off when the tree fell.  Part of the upper branches went into the neighbor’s yard, but they had them cleaned up before I could even offer to do anything about it.  Monday, I went out and made my “butch” purchase–a chainsaw.  I don’t suppose the Poulan 14-incher is all that butch, but it worked very well at cutting up the old tree, which took me two evenings after work to finally get all cut up into pieces I could take out for the trash truck to pick up.  The electric chainsaw was $49 at Sears and the pickets were less than $2 each, so for about 55 bucks and a lot of sweat I got rid of the eyesore in the back yard.  Not bad I’d say.

I really don’t know much about chainsaws, so realizing that after cutting up this dead tree,  all I’d probably ever use one for would be to cut smaller branches from my other trees, I decided upon this small electric Poulan.  I like it a lot.  Except for adding oil, it came basically ready to use, is easy to handle, and cut that old tree up with ease.

What the Heck’s Going on at Lowe’s? or, “The Saga of How I Got This Big-ass Grill”

The Grill That I Never Asked For

I had never owned my own barbeque grill, having lived in apartments most of my adult life.  Even though it’s against the law to use grills on balconies or within a certain distance on the ground floor of apartments, a lot of people do it.  And, it’s not unusual for fires to start for that very reason.

Silly as may seem, I have on occasion run an electric cord outside and attached a toaster oven in order to cook a burger or two outside.  I really don’t know how safe that is either.

The alternative is broiling hamburgers or steaks in the oven.  The problem is  because of the high heat and burning grease, there’s a lot of smoke, and the smell remains for at least another day.  I don’t know if that’s because of poor venting, but I always had that happen in the apartments I lived in, and now I’ve found the same thing occurs here in my house.

Thus, I decided to get an outdoor grill.

I wanted something that wouldn’t take a lot of effort to use or clean up.  I saw an electric one that I thought might fit the bill (maybe I was reminiscing for my old toaster oven days).  It was small, and, I thought, would just be the right grill for me on a regular basis, or for a few guests from time to time.  Then I remembered Hurricane Ike.  The majority of the people in the Houston area were without electricity after the hurricane, some for just a day or so, but many for a week or even weeks.  However, those that had gas water heaters and gas stoves could at least have a nice shower and something warm to eat.

My house has a gas water heater, but the cooktop and oven are electric, so in the end, I gave up on my initial choice and decided to look for a gas grill.  Getting charcoal started and going just takes too much time, so that wasn’t an option for me.

After looking around–both online and in various stores–I found one at Lowe’s that I liked.  A 2-burner, in the Char-broil Quantum line, it seemed to be better made than others of similar size that I had looked at.  I read several positive reviews online.  Some recommended having Lowe’s assemble the grill, which they do for free.  I measured the hatchback opening of my car (How many times had I done that before in moving or now that I’m in my house, buying larger items?) and decided I could transport the assembled grill home without problems.

But last Wednesday, I never anticipated the problems I would have getting that grill after I went over to Lowe’s, made the purchase, and happily was told that they would assemble the grill and it would be ready in two days–on Friday afternoon.

Until I bought my house, I was a very infrequent customer of the mega hardware stores.   My previous idea was that Lowe’s was more expensive than Home Depot, and perhaps the merchandise more of the high end type.  Now that I have the two just down the road next to each other, it’s really good to shop and compare both quality and price because Home Depot is not necessarily less expensive, nor are Lowe’s products that much different.  In fact, sometimes, I find exactly what I want, by turning the corner and driving a mile further to Sears Hardware.  However, most of the time, I head for Lowe’s because it’s the quickest to get to.

One thing I’ve noticed though is that my neighborhood Lowe’s seems very loosely managed.  The staff are nice enough, but they also seem to be having a good time amongst themselves, rather than being focused on their jobs.  This is just a generalization, and not something that I see from all of the employees, nor all of the time.  There are also quite a few people who are called managers, but from my viewpoint as a customer, how managers are different from the rest of the employees is unclear.

All this “lack of a system” came into play when I went back Friday evening to pick up my grill.  When I went with my receipt in hand, the customer service person made a call to the outdoor department and then, looking a bit perplexed, told me to wait.  After some time, she got a call back from the department, and then told me one guy couldn’t find it, but another one had.

After more waiting, a “manager” came and told me that my grill hadn’t been assembled, gave me no explanation why it hadn’t been, took some time entering information into a computer behind the Customer Service Desk, and then assured me that the grill would be ready if I came back the next afternoon (Saturday).  I told him that I wasn’t in a hurry to get the grill, but that I just wanted to know when to come back to pick it up.  Putting his hand on my shoulder (as a gesture of honesty?), he said again that it would be ready the next day.

On Saturday, I decided to call before I went back.  After playing “forward you to that department” for a bit, the guy who answered in the outdoor department told me, “Oh, I looked for that grill yesterday” and said he would check.  When he came back on the line, he said, “I can’t see it.  Let me check with the manager, and I’ll call you back in 2 minutes.”  Two minutes ran into 2 and a half hours, so I decided to get in the car for the 3-minute jaunt to Lowe’s.

When I returned this time to Customer Service, the representative looked at my receipt and saw that I was supposed to have gotten the grill on Friday.  Right behind her was the “manager” who had told me to come back on Saturday.

(Oh, god, this narrative is getting too long.  I think I’m even boring myself.)

Anyway, they told me to come back on Monday, and they would discount the price.  I went back on Monday, and it still wasn’t ready, but they wanted to upgrade the grill and went and got a floor model.  I didn’t mind that, but the upgraded model was too big for my car, so they said they would deliver it for free, which they did at a little before 9 AM today.

First Steak on the Grill

It’s a nice grill–a big ass grill, at least for me–with 3 burners on the grill and a side burner to boot (in the same Char-Broil Quantum line).

I read all the instructions, got the gas tank hooked up, did all the first-time tasks, including seasoning the grill, and finally this evening slapped on a very nice steak that I had bought just for the initiation.

I have to say it was a delicious–very delicious really–steak, all seared on the outside and juicy inside, just like the promotional information says.

I guess I’ll never know why Lowe’s was unable to get the original grill assembled, and this grill makes a bigger statement on my patio than I was planning.  But, hey, now I can cook hamburgers and steaks without smoking up the house, and I’m definitely ready to cook if a big storm knocks out the electricity.