Since You Asked

When people ask me for a restaurant recommendation, my answer is always the same: Esperia Grill. First date? Esperia Grill. Friends in from out of town? Esperia Grill. Family-friendly? Esperia Grill. A place that is suitable for carnivores and vegetarians alike? Esperia Grill.

On the face of things, it’s just a family-run Greek kouzina in the Brighton part of Allston-Brighton, where we live. It used to be a fairly standard Greek House of Pizza (it seems every town in Massachusetts has one), until one day the owners, Tim and Georgia, decided to add their own Greek recipes and start table service. As a former takeout spot, the counter is prominent; the restaurant shares its miniscule parking lot and bathroom with the Dunkin’ Donuts next door.

Lilli at 126

It looks like nothing special, but the food, oh boy, the food. I first discovered it because I’m always on the lookout for Greek restaurants that serve the garlicky potato dip skordalia. It’s my Greek restaurant litmus test. There are just a handful of places in town that do make it, but Esperia tops them all. (Our cat agrees; he jumps up on the table when we have it in the house and licks the lid clean.)

When our friends Russ and Marisa come in from Brooklyn, they now insist on going there. Rich once brought his boss and a pretty famous urban planner from New York City after an interview at WGBH, which is just down the hill. When Sylvie comes in for a visit from DC, the two of us always go there. We don’t even have a visit. We just sit in silence and enjoy each bite. It takes a lot to render the Shaffer sisters speechless, but Esperia does it, every time.

And don’t forget to get a salad. Their dressing is so good that they now bottle the stuff. Rich loves their baked lamb shank special; you can smell the cinnamon and spice as it wafts around the table. I usually stick to the cold appetizer platter which serves at least two people. I always get the skordalia, and I’ll rotate the other three with maybe the tarmasalata, tzatziki, grapes leaves. Even the hummus and falafel is great, which I found surprising in a Greek place.

wide, flat beans

As a family place, they are closed on Sundays, and every July they take off two weeks to visit family in Greece. So last week, when I had a hankering for Esperia but knew they were on vacation, I made do in my own kitchen. It was too hot to make their lemony potatoes (I’ve started to use this recipe as a blueprint), but I had green beans in the house from the CSA so I decided to braise them in tomato sauce like they do for my second-favorite Esperia side.

My beans were a bit tougher and wider than green beans — I think they call them Romano beans — so a little braise to soften them was necessary. I found this recipe in a Marcella Hazan cookbook. I know, I know. She is Italian, as is this recipe, and I wanted Greek, but it’s close enough and definitely worth sharing. In fact, when I was on the phone with Sylvie and said I had to go and braise some green beans in tomato, she said, “Ooh, like at Esperia”. Yes, exactly.

Beans and book

You can serve these beans on their own, but Marcella says they can also be served as a pasta dish; she suggests penne or rigatoni, although I honestly can’t imagine it that way. Her recipe calls for either fresh, ripe tomatoes or canned Italian peeled plum tomatoes, cut up with their juices. The first time I made this, I actually had a very small container of premade Pomi sauce – made with just plain tomatoes – leftover from a summer squash pizza Rich grilled for us. The second night I used all of a 28 oz. can of plum tomatoes and cut them up over the pan with kitchen shears. Be sure to wear an apron because things can get very messy.

Post Script: Boston Magazine just published their Best Of Boston Issue. Esperia Grill was voted Best Greek in Boston

Fagiolini con Pomodoro, Aglio e Basilico – Green Beans with Tomato, Garlic and Basil from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen

Ingredients

1 pound very ripe fresh tomatoes, or 1 cup canned Italian peeled plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice (1 ½ pounds fresh or 1 ½ cups canned if using as a pasta sauce)

1 ½ pounds green beans

½ cup extra virgin olive oil (plus 2 Tablespoons if using as a pasta sauce)

2 teaspoons garlic, chopped not too fine (1 Tablespoon if using as a pasta sauce)

Salt

Black pepper in a grinder

1 cup fresh basil leaves

Directions

If using fresh tomatoes, rinse them in cold running water and drop them into a pot of boiling water. When the water returns to a boil, cook for about a minutes, then drain and allow to cool. When cool enough to handle, peel them and cut them up in large pieces.

Snap off the ends of the green beans and rinse the beans in cold water.

Choose a sauté pan with a lid that can later accommodate all the green beans. Put in the olive oil and garlic. Turn on the heat to medium and sauté the garlic until it becomes colored a pale gold.

Add the tomatoes, turn up the heat, and cook for about 5 to 6 minutes.

Add the green beans, turn down the heat to medium, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the green beans are tender but firm. (It should take less than 30 minutes from start to finish for this dish.) If, when the beans are done, the juices in the pan are watery, remove the beans with a slotted spoon or spatula, turn up the heat, and boil away excess liquid. Then return the beans to the pan, mix in in the basil leaves, and serve.

Note: If using this as a pasta sauce, do not add the basil to the pan. When the pasta is cooked and drained, toss with the beans and all the contents of the pan, add the basil leaves, toss again, sprinkle with the extra 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and serve immediately.

Stew Tube

One of the amazing benefits of working at Boston University — besides getting to ride my bicycle to my office along the Charles River when things aren’t covered in snow — is the tuition remission. For the past several years, I have been working, slowly but surely, on a Master’s in Gastronomy and Food Studies. This isn’t a culinary degree, although the program offers one. This is a liberal arts degree, and I get to study things like the history of food and the meaning of meat. This past fall, I took a class called Food and the Visual Arts, studying the depiction of food in film, television and advertisements. (Netflix cue alert: Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman, Delicatessen, Babette’s Feast, Our Daily Bread, Food Inc. and Mostly Martha)

As often happens in humanities classes, gender emerged as a theme. We read and discussed the differences between chefs and cooks, and why it seems that men tend to be thought of as the former and women the latter. For the television part of the class, we started with the grande dame, Julia Child — ask yourself, is she a chef or just a really good home cook? — then worked our way through to the burgeoning Food Network of the mid-nineties, and finally, to the televised present. We watched Emeril bam his way through the nineties, Jamie Oliver tool around on his Vespa, and read A LOT of Rachael Ray-bashing.

The Food Network, once the ugly stepchild of cable television, is now a $1.5 billion powerhouse. And as the Food Network grew in size and power, a funny thing happened to their hosts: They went from portly male restaurant chefs to attractive women, wearing what seems like an endless supply of tight brightly-colored v-neck sweaters.

I don’t watch a lot of Food Network anymore, especially now that the prime time line up is all reality-inspired competition shows. But the one show of theirs I still watch is Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. It is a traditional how-to cooking show starring Anne Burrell, the titular restaurant chef previously best-known to viewers as Mario Batali’s amazing sous chef on Iron Chef America. Since the show is about using restaurant tricks at home, Anne has traded her kitchen whites for… brightly-colored v-neck sweaters. It’s as if the producers are trying to fit her into the Giada/Nigella mold, but it doesn’t quite take. Anne Burrell looks like she cooks for a living, and her enthusiasm for food is infectious. Most importantly, her food make me want to eat it. And cook it.

When I saw her make this cauliflower stew a few years back, I knew it was a winner. It appeals to me on several levels: It is vegan; it uses a food mill; and it’s a pantry raid: one fresh vegetable and your well-stocked pantry, and you’re good to go. Also, it tastes better the next day; in fact, I don’t even bother eating it the day I make it. The ingredients need some time to get to know each other.

Anne Burrell makes this to be served with grilled striped bass and parsley salad, which I am sure is wonderful, but I eat it as is. Here’s a cauliflower tip: If you see a few brown spots on the white florets, just use your microplane — which you’ll already have out for zesting the lemon — to rub them away. Everything underneath it is perfectly good to eat; waste not, want not. If you don’t have cauliflower, the tomato sauce alone is extremely delicious. You can stop the recipe there, maybe saute a few mushrooms or wilt some spinach, then toss it all together with some pasta and you’re done. So, so good.

Cauliflower Stew

Ingredients

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, finely diced

Kosher salt

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, passed through a food mill (If you don’t have a food mill, use a box of Pomi. Or BUY A FOOD MILL.)

Water

1 large head cauliflower, coarsely chopped

1 lemon, zested

1/4 cup slivered Gaeta or kalamata olives

1/4 cup sliced caperberries, cut into thin rounds (or one tablespoon capers)

Directions

Coat a large saucepan with olive oil. Add the onions and bring to a medium heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and a small pinch of crushed red pepper. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the onions look wilted and cooked but do not have any color. Add the garlic and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and 3/4 of a can of water, and season with salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste; it should taste good.

Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium heat and season generously with salt; it should taste like the ocean. Add the cauliflower, let the water come to a rolling boil and cook for additional 5 to 7 minutes. The cauliflower should be really soft and almost falling apart. Strain the cauliflower and add it to the tomato mixture. Cook the cauliflower in the tomato sauce until the cauliflower has completely broken up and the sauce clings to the cauliflower, about 20 to 30 minutes. Taste to see if the seasoning needs to be adjusted. Stir in the lemon zest, olives and caperberries. If you can, wait until the next day to enjoy.