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.

Mac(abee) and Cheese

I am completely at ease with my age. I am not at all embarrassed to admit I just skipped my 15 year high school reunion. ($30 a ticket when Facebook is free? Pfft!) I’ll admit, it’s weird to remember things from 25 years ago so easily, but as Aleza pointed out last week, it’s pretty neat to remember history and be a part of it at the same time.

My body, however, is a different story. Things creak and crack, weight seems extremely easy to gain and much harder to lose. Last week when I bent down to pick up a boot, I pulled something in my back. I spent the work week Googling words like “lumbar support” and “yogic stretches at a desk.” I rode my bike some days, but didn’t want to push it too hard. Thursday night, after I stood by the stove frying celery root and carrot latkes, and stirring my butter and flour to make a roux for my chipotle mac and cheese, I felt it a few hours later when I was whimpering in pain at 1AM. I needed a heating pad after yesterday’s hard wooden pew at Christmas Mass, and I’m writing this not from my usual perch on the red couch, but in a chair with my own personal heating pad.

I honestly didn’t even know if I’d get up a post this week, but someone wrote me saying that she’d never fried a latke before and was surprised I didn’t have a recipe posted on Cheap Beets. Not one to leave anyone in a food-related lurch, I immediately e-mailed her my favorite go-to potato latke recipe. But I’m so mortified I’d let that important food detail slip, that I’m offering up two holiday-related recipes as penitence.

The first, a latke fried in oil, is to remind us of the miracle of the menorah. Briefly, in the 2nd century BCE, the tyrannical Greek King of Syria, Antiochus, outlawed Judaism and took over the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. A Jewish rebellion ensued, led by the Maccabees, and against all odds, the Jews reclaimed the Temple from the Greeks. The Jews had to repair and purify the Temple, but they only had one night’s supply of oil for lighting their holy menorah. Miraculously, that small amount of oil burned for eight consecutive nights, giving them just enough time to replenish their olive oil supply.

For Eastern European Jews, the potato latke is the most common fried recipe. (Israeli Jews eat sufganiyot, fried jelly doughnuts.) Now, the latke I have for you is made not with potato but with celery root and carrot. My friend Russ, who likes to keep it real and old school for the holiday, always goes potato, but hear me out. First, potatoes are a soggy drag. You have to squeeze and squeeze all the excess water out, and you’re always left with a brown puddle at the bottom of your mixing bowl. Second, how old school is it, really? Potatoes are a New World vegetable, so it looks like the potato latke tradition is only a few hundred years old, at best.

I went with carrot and celery root because my co-worker’s wife gave us another of her CSA celery root rejects on Thursday morning and I thought they’d team well with some of the remaining CSA carrots I still had in the crisper. I paired those with a dollop of cilantro and garlic yogurt, because, well, why not?

The second dish I have is to celebrate a lesser-known, but possibly even more awesome Chanukah food: cheese. The custom of cheese for Chanukah dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Book of Judith played an important role in the Chanukah narrative. Judith was a celebrated Jewish heroine who saved her village from an invading Assyrian army. Judith, a beautiful widow, plied the Assyrian army’s general with wine and salty cheese. When the general passed out drunk, Judith beheaded him with his own sword. The Israelites launched a surprise attack on the leaderless Assyrian army and emerged victorious.

Sure, the tale is hidden in the Apocrypha, but I like celebrating a strong female leader – and cheese. I actually was able to use wine in this dish too, from the same small bottle I used for our stuffed pumpkin in the fall. (What can I say, we’re not big wine drinkers.) I add chipotle to mine, riffing off an episode of Gilmore Girls I once saw where Sookie cooked up a pan of jalapeno mac and cheese for a kid’s birthday party. The kids hated it, but I kind of sat up and went “oh?” And thus, chipotle mac and cheese was born.

Celery Root and Carrot Latkes

Ingredients

1 celery root, washed and peeled

2 medium-sized carrots, peeled

½ red onion

3 eggs

1/3 cup flour

¼ teaspoon cumin

Pinch of salt

Oil to fry

Directions

Shred, with a box grater or food processor, first three ingredients. Place into a large mixing bowl, and add the next four. Heat approximately 1/3 cup oil in a large skillet (I prefer a non-stick skillet, and actually have two going at the same time for this step.) Lower the flame and space out as many tablespoons of batter as you can fit without them touching. Fry on one side for approximately four minutes until golden brown. Turn over and fry on other side for three minutes. (Uncharacteristically, I actually employ a timer for this task.)

Remove from pan and place on paper towels to drain excess oil. Continue with remaining batter, adding more oil when necessary.

Serve with the following yogurt.

Cilantro Yogurt

In a small bowl, mix together:

¾ cup Greek yogurt (I used whole-fat, but I know a reduced-fat would work well, considering all the flavor boosters in this sauce.)

½ cup chopped, fresh cilantro

1 small clove garlic, minced

Squeeze of lemon

2 teaspoons olive oil

Pinch of salt

I ended up with leftovers of this dip, and mixed it with some chickpeas I had in the fridge the next day for lunch. It was terrific.

Chipotle Macaroni and Cheese

Ingredients

2 ¼ cups macaroni (really, any small pasta will work well for this)

¼ cup butter

½ cup flour

3 cups milk

½ cup dry white wine

10 oz. (1 ¼ cups) shredded cheddar cheese

1 chipotle in its adobe sauce, chopped

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350F. Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package.

Meanwhile, gently melt the butter in a medium saucepan, add the flour and chipotle and cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes. (This brownish paste is called a roux, by the way.) Add the milk a little at a time, whisking vigorously after each addition. Stir in the white wine. Bring to boil. Cook, stirring continuously, until the sauce thickens, then remove from the heat.

Let's talk about the roux, just for a sec.

Add the ¾ of the cheese to the sauce. Stir well to mix in the cheeses, then taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Add your well-drained pasta into the sauce, then pour everything into a 13”x9” or 2 quart baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until golden brown. Serve hot.