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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Some People Have Kitchen Gardens, Mine Is a “Kitschy” One

Kitschy Garden, May 8, 2010

The saying is, “A watched pot never boils.”  For me, that “watched pot” is my little garden plot, which has become one of the joys of owning my first home.  (It’s hard to believe it, but next Saturday makes six months that I have actually been living here.)

Every morning when I let Annie out, I take a few minutes just savor all of the green plants; some mornings there’s a surprise or two, like the two butter-golden blossoms on one the squash plants.  In the evenings, there’s more time to water and hoe a bit.  The garden is a small one, so almost every plant gets scrutinized quite often; hence, it seems as if nothing is growing very much.  I know it is, and even more proof is in the photos I’ve taken, like the one from my post from April 21st, which I realize wasn’t that long ago.  I had just planted the beans a couple days before that, and now I can see that soon they will have blossoms.  The first tomato plant that I set in now has five little tomatoes!

When there was no more space to plant in the garden, I couldn’t stop with the attention.  First came a painted tin chicken and some found drapery rods, which I’ve stuck in to help prop up the growing tomato plants.  Then I added a rooster hanger for a plant.  Take a close look at the picture, and you’ll find a birdhouse, another chicken, a trellis for the cucumber vine, and, definitely, the over-the-top kitsch de résistance, a whirligig with a cat catching a fish on a line from its tail.  Being protected on three sides by the fence and the garage,  I’m not sure how much whirling is going to happen with that metal gadget.

For sheer beauty, the Christmas cactus can hold its own against any other flower.

Besides all the action in the garden, the plants on the patio are slowly beginning to recover from move from the apartment and the numerous smaller moves into and out of the garage during the colder than normal winter.  The Christmas cactuses had been in house, though, until the cold was for sure over.   Unlike last year, when a few blooms kept coming one at a time long after Christmas was over, this year by mid-January, they all seemed finished with their winter pageantry.  Then after they had been out on the patio for about a month and a half, I noticed three small buds on the plant that gets bright red blooms.  After a run-in with the garden hose, which resulted in a number of broken limbs (Happily, this is a great way to increase the number of Christmas cactus plants.  Someone will be the lucky recipient of the already growing cactus.), there were just two buds.  One opened during one of the 90+ days of this past week.  However, the last one waited until today, a much milder, overcast Saturday, when I could enjoy, what I expect is this plant’s last gasp at blossoming until next winter.

Even if you don’t have a green thumb, you can grow Christmas cactuses.  They don’t expect a lot from you, but when their time comes in the winter, they will more than reward you for the care you’ve given them.

The Plot Thickens, or Why Do My Fingernails Have This Much Dirt Under Them?

Rough little garden plot and tools--a guy can never have too many tools!

I have nothing but good things to say about Daylight Savings Time.  Getting home from work with still more than a good hour of useable light makes the entire evening seem longer.  Having a yard and being able to plant what I wanted was one of the big reasons that getting a home of my own was important to me.

The plants in all the pots that suffered from the move and then the colder than usual winter are now beginning to look like they are enjoying their new place, quickly putting out new shoots and bright blossoms.  I’ve also added  bedding plants in the neglected bed on the sunny side of the house.  It’s amazing after throwing quite a bit of money at Lowe’s for some great looking plants, how sparse the bed still looks, but I’m hoping they’ll grow and spread.

Far in advance, I’d picked up a variety of flower bulbs,  gladiolus and irises, and they are now shooting up green spikes from the pots.  I still haven’t conquered the moles.  So far I’ve gone the repellent route, trying to avoid sinking spikes filled with poison down into the yard where Annie plays and sometimes nibbles at the tender green grass.

Along with the flower bulbs, I found that I had purchased (maybe even back in December or January) some onion sets.  The smallest amount I could get was a plastic bag of 80 of the small starter onions.  I finally decided that maybe I could make a try at a small vegetable plot behind my garage.  There’s a space of about 12 feet by 20 feet that with care and a lot of mulch might finally work.  But I was determined to get the onions put into the ground.  Even though there were roots from a tree that the back neighbor had cut down, digging up the soil wasn’t all that hard.  It’s very sandy, and like much of the Houston area, it’s not very far down until you start hitting clay, about 10 inches down, where I was digging.  I mixed in some rotting leaves and raked over the soil, dug a small trench, and dropped in the onions.  For good measure, I covered most of it up with some more leaves.  Only a few days after I had put in the onions, my co-worker kindly gave me a couple of squash plants.  I’ve put them into the ground too but dug a hole and put in some good shovelsful of potting soil.

Will the trellis be an incentive for this little squash plant?

The little squash plants are growing new leaves, and today when I went out for the obligatory inspection–lo and behold–there were two onions sending up little slivers of green, seeming to say, “Hey, this may not be the best soil, but we’re going to try out best.”  In answer, over to the spigot I went, ready to give these new little green guys and all of their plant amigos a drink.