For quite a long time I had a very small-minded opinion of Greek cuisine, not having a clue about how much that region had to offer. Back in my early twenties, I thought Jeffrey Steingarten said it best when he quipped in The Man Who Ate Everything:
Typical of modern-day Greek cuisine are feta cheese and retsina wine. Any country that pickles its national cheese in brine and adulterates its national wine with pine pitch should order dinner at the local Chinese place and save its energies for other things.
With great relief, I can say that my beliefs have evolved over the last fifteen or so years.
Although it's probably a little early for me to have a definitive opinion on the 700-plus page Greek Joy of Cooking, Vefa's Kitchen, I think it's safe to say that it will dramatically help me continue to expand my knowledge and appreciation of Greek food.
Vefa's Kitchen has put something of a spell on me. Every time I open the book randomly, I find something new I want to whip up. It's as if I've been granted entry into a foreign land. The recipes are for dishes that I've never prepared before, that I haven't conceived of at all. And thankfully, so many of them seem completely realistic for my life at this time. The glossy pages feel good to my fingertips. The photographs are gorgeous and there are lots of them, which I really appreciate in a cookbook.
Fish was what I had in mind, and while I was tempted by many of the salt cod preparations, I didn't want to wait the extra day or two (required for soaking) for dinner. I selected a recipe, Sole Fillet Rolls Stuffed with Herbs, that was perfectly suited to satisfy two of my strong desires -- one for fish, the other for greens.
This sole recipe is an elegant preparation. Rolling up sole around a savory herb and onion mixture makes so much sense. I can't believe that I've never rolled sole before! It's so easy to manipulate before it is cooked. The contrast of colors between the white flesh, emerald green spinach (or sorrel) and brilliant red tomatoes is stunning.
Onion (try finely chopping, instead of grating), garlic and scallions are cooked until translucent in olive oil. The half cup of parsley and half cup of mint that are then added give the dish a remarkably fresh and healthy flavor. A good portion of this mix is used to stuff the sole. The rest is folded into the blanched spinach.
I opted for spinach because it was the easiest to come buy in great quantity, but the recipe first suggests sorrel. The sorrel would probably have lent the lemony note that I felt the dish was missing. If you use spinach, my recommendation would be to add lemon at some point, either during the cooking process or at least at the end, to finish the dish. You'll want a little brightness and acid.
I dig the hint of spice that comes from the nutmeg that is sprinkled on the fish. The recipe calls for ground, but I preferred grating my own.
Rolling up the fish is a cinch. The rolls are placed on the bed of greens and topped with a slice of tomato. Those red slices bathe each roll in sweet juices during the cooking -- another very good idea.
The remaining olive oil is then drizzled over the fish. Here, I might suggest one other small change. You're asked to pour a half cup, minus two tablespoons, over the dish. That seems excessive to me. I'd go just shy of a third of a cup or perhaps even a little less.
Psst. I also didn't brush my baking dish with oil. Depending on your ovenware, you probably can skip this step.
The sole cooks for approximately twenty minutes in a 400 degree oven. You could serve it alone, but I opted for a little mound of basmati rice to soak up the herbaceous juices. Delicious! I felt quite proud to be serving such a beautiful meal.
If you're not going to eat it all in one sitting, I'd recommend halving the recipe. The sole does not reheat well, which I knew would be the case and foolishly ignored. While I loved the meal the first night, I did not at all the second time around.
Sole Fillet Rolls Stuffed With Herbs
1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra for brushing
8 sole fillets, 3 1/4 lb total weight, skinned
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 onion grated
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 pound 2 ounces sorrel leaves or spinach, coarse stalks removed
2 small tomatoes, sliced
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and brush an ovenproof dish with oil. Season the fish fillets with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the nutmeg. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a pan. Add the onion, garlic, and scallions and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until softened. Stir in the mint and parsley, season with salt and pepper, and remove from the heat. Briefly blanch the sorrel or spinach in boiling water and drain. Spread 1-2 tablespoons of the onion and herb mixture over each fish fillet and roll it up. Mix the remaining onion and herb mixture with the sorrel and spread out over the base of the prepared dish. Put the sole rolls on top. Place a tomato slice on top of each roll. Season with a little salt and pepper and drizzle the remaining oil all over the fish. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the vegetables and fish are tender.