Pros: Great recipes, easy read.
Cons: Could use more personalization.
written by Brook Elliott
It started with a simple announcement, posted by Nicko on the Food & Cooking Questions and Discussion forum.
“Three Sisters Around the Greek Table won Best in World status at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in France”
Very intriguing to say the least. I was unfamiliar with the Gourmand cookbook contest, at the time. But I figured any book winning “best in world” status was one we’d want to look at. So I requested a review copy from the authors. While waiting, I did some research into the Gourmand contest.
For something as big as it is, it’s a wonder so few of us have heard of it. There’s a complex set of regulations, but, in a nutshell, cookbooks are broken down into categories. Judging starts at the country level, and “best in the world” status is won first in the specific category within the country of origin. All those winners are then entered into the global competition, and, eventually, one is selected as the actual best in the world. Three Sisters Around the Greek Table was the winner in its category in Canada.
Not a bad accolade for three women who are not writers. Betty, Eleni, and Samantha Bakopoulos are the daughters of Greek émigrés who grew up steeped in the traditions of Greek cuisine. Many of the dishes they prepare were learned at their mother’s knee, along with influences from aunts and cousins and their extended family met on frequent trips back to the homeland.
In short, the food they cook, and the recipes they share, isn’t the Greek-diner sort of stuff we find throughout North America. These are all authentic dishes, with only the family-to-family variations one expects in any folk-based cuisine.
Consider their take on Moussaka, for instance. Along with the iconic dessert, Baklava, this eggplant-based casserole is probably the most well known Greek main meal among non-Greeks. It’s a classic dish, with innumerable variations. In this case, the vegetables are broiled, instead of fried as is traditional, an approach that produces a dish which is hearty enough for winter fare, but lighter than the more common versions.
It is, without question, the best Moussaka we’ve ever sampled. To be sure, given the quantity of vegetables involved, a little more meat sauce wouldn’t have hurt. But it’s not as if the meat is actually missed in the final plating.
But to truly sample their food we turned to some less known Greek dishes.
Few non-Greeks associate that country with pork, for instance. Say “Greek,” and most of us immediately think “lamb.” Thus, I was immediately intrigued by their recipe for Pork Medallions Stuffed with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Goat Cheese. This starts by opening a pork tenderloin with a technique I usually call double butterflying. The tenderloin loin is cut, lengthwise, almost all the way through and opened like a book. Each of the two “pages” then gets the same treatment. The whole thing is then pounded to make a single sheet of pork about a half inch thick.
A stuffing composed of sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, herbs and spices is spread over the meat, which is then rolled up, jelly roll fashion. The sisters have a unique method of sealing the role, using two-inch pieces of uncooked spaghetti as mini-skewers. After searing and finishing in the oven, the roll is sliced into medallions for serving.
I couldn’t get the spaghetti-skewer thing to work. But, frankly, I have difficulty trying the same thing with toothpicks, so wound up tying the roll instead. This, of course, had no effect on the final product, which is superb; the meat is moist and flavorful, and the stuffing a perfect balance to the pork. Their suggested variation, using rosemary, cranberries, and feta cheese was equally good.
Along with the pork I made their Black-Eyed Peas with Kale & Lemon, which was a perfect accompaniment. Here, again, I don’t associate cowpeas with Greek cooking, so the recipe was a pleasant surprise that’s become a regular on our table.
For our final recipe test we made their Octopus Salad, in which the octopus is simmered until tender, then combined with carrots, celery, onion and cherry tomatoes, and dressed with a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, herbs and spices. A bit of feta is crumbled in at the end.
Octopus is something you either like or you don’t. In this household it falls on the like-it side of the ledger, and we found this salad to be a great starter to any meal.
So, in terms of the recipes, this is a wonderful book for anyone looking to expand their ethnic-food experience. But I wish I knew what the judging criteria are for the Gourmand contest, because it’s a long way, in my opinion, from being the best in the world.
For starters, because the recipes are essentially classic dishes, I would have liked to hear more about the background of both the food and authors; more of the cultural context of the food. In their introduction they say, “The recipes we have compiled in this book carry with them memories of travels to our parents’ homeland, the nostalgia of growing up, and of talking and laughing around the security of our parents’ kitchen table.” Unfortunately, few of those memories are shared, and the sense of nostalgia is all but missing in the book’s pages. Yet, those are the very things that make these otherwise everyday dishes special.
Photographically, the book suffers from the same problem. To be sure, the actual food pictures are spectacular. Taken by the authors, they show the food exactly as it looks, rather than the more typical styled photos found in cookbooks. Every recipe is accompanied by one of those photos, and if you follow the recipe your dish should turn out looking just like the picture.
The problem is with the family photos. There’s a scant handful of them, sort of stuck in the middle. But this is a book about a family’s love affair with its native food. As such, I’d have preferred fewer food-porn shots, and many more pictures of the family indulging that passion, both at home and on visits to their homeland.
There is, too, a serious problem with the book’s graphics. Much of the text is done in a pastel blue, which is, in turn, printed on a different shade of the same color. Maybe it’s just my tired old eyes, but this makes the text all but illegible.
The bottom line: As a book, per se, Three Sisters Around the Greek Table is far from being the best cookbook in the world. But, as a valuable addition to your ethnic cooking library, it ranks well above many others. If you have any interest in Greek cooking at all, this one belongs on your book shelf.
Pork Medallions Stuffed with Sun-Dried Tomatoes & Goat Cheese
1 pork tenderloin 1 ½ lb (750g)
¼ tsp each salt & pepper
1 tsp oregano, dried
1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbls each fresh basil & fresh parsley, minced
1/3 cup goat cheese, crumbled
3 uncooked spaghetti noodles
2 tbls olive oil
Trim away the excess fat and silver skin from the tenderloin. Prepare the tenderloin for stuffing by slicing the tenderloin lengthwise almost all the way through. Open it like a book. Cut through each half almost all the way through again and pound to flatten, ½-inch (12 mm) thick. Season the inside of the pork with salt, pepper and oregano.
Prepare the stuffing ingredients by combining the sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, herbs and cheese in a small bowl. Spread the stuffing on the entire surface of the flattened tenderloin. Tightly roll up the pork so that it is shaped like a tenderloin once again and resembles a spiral.
Break p the uncooked spaghetti noodles into 2-inch (5cm) pieces and pierce them through the tenderloin to hold it together and keep the stuffing inside.
Heat the oil in an ovenproof skillet over high heat. Use tongs to place the tenderloin in the heated skillet. Ensure that the skillet is large enough to hold the tenderloin securely as the oil will splatter if the skillet is too big. Sear the pork tenderloin until it is lightly browned on all sides, about 2 minutes per side.
Remove the skillet from the stove-top and place directly in the upper third of the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Ensure that the pork is seam upright.
Transfer the pork to a cutting board and cover with foil for 5 minutes. Slice the pork into medallions. Remove any bits of pasta that are noticeable before serving.