Greek Food

by Debby Waldman

I am an impulse cook. What planning I do is generally based on what I feel like eating, or what I’ve seen in the store, read about in a magazine or watched on a cooking show in the hours leading up to mealtime.

Usually this works fairly well. Even though I’m impulsive about throwing everything together, I’m organized about supplies: I always have some kind of protein, and enough staples and spices to make it interesting.

The problem with being impulsive, though, is that sometimes I forget when I’ve actually planned a meal. That’s how a leg of lamb that sat in my refrigerator for three days last fall led to my fi rst-ever attempt at making pita bread. Also my second-ever attempt. I’ve now lost track of how many times I’ve made pita, but one thing I know for certain is that I never would have made it in the first place if I were more organized. And that’s a good thing, because homemade pita tastes better than what you can buy, and it’s easier to make than you might think.

But first, the history of the lamb. I defrosted it on Wednesday intending to roast it Thursday. On Thursday afternoon I started daydreaming about Ukranian food. By the time I remembered the lamb it was too late: I’d already fried up pyrogies, sausages and onions for dinner.

The next day I went exploring and came across a new grocery store in a remote corner of Edmonton. Inside I made an exciting discovery: Opa!, the Greek fast food chain that is becoming ubiquitous at Alberta shopping centres, sells its magically addictive tzatziki in 250-gram tubs in certain select grocery stores.

If you are thinking that I bought the tzatziki to go with the lamb, you are wrong. I am not nearly that organized, or at least, my conscious mind isn’t. On the other hand, my subconscious was apparently in gear, because what goes better with lamb than tzatziki? (My mother-in-law would say, “mint jelly.”) Upon returning home, I realized that not only did I have lamb, I had just about everything for a Greek salad: peppers, red onions, tomatoes, feta cheese and olives. I’d rub the lamb with Greek spices, chop up the salad ingredients, and serve it all with the tzatziki.

There was only one problem: we weren’t eating at home on Friday night. That left Saturday, which happened to be Halloween. Who wants to eat a big meal before trick-or-treating? Or, even worse, after? I had no choice, though: I had to use that lamb. If it meant tying my children and their trick-or-treating partners to the table in their costumes, so be it.

On Saturday morning I stocked up on cucumbers for the salad at the Strathcona Farmer’s Market. Across from the vegetable vendor is the Happy Camel, a purveyor of Middle Eastern delights including baba ganouj, stuffed grape leaves, a soft cheese called labneh, and several types of hummus. The owner, Sarah Larson, also makes a variety of pillowy soft pita breads. Often I buy her products, but I was in a hurry that morning because I’d parked in a five-minute spot. Also, my husband was with me and I wanted to prove that I could get in and out of the market in less time than it would take to get a parking ticket.

Still, I might have done better to have paid attention to my subconscious yet again, which seemed to be telling me I hadn’t forgotten anything, which meant that I most likely had. At about three in the afternoon, when it was too late to return to the farmer’s market, I realized that the voice had been saying, “If you’re making Greek food, you need pita bread.”

I could have driven to the grocery store. I knew that even before my husband pointed out the obvious: the Strathcona Farmer’s Market isn’t Edmonton’s only source of pita bread. But I wanted pillowy soft pita bread, not the hard round discs that had been sitting on the end-caps at the local supermarket bakery for God knows how long. The only way I was going to get pillowy soft pita bread, I decided, was to make it myself.

“Just go to the store,” said my husband, whose idea of a home-cooked meal is anything you can buy in the frozen food section and warm up in the microwave. If I were as insecure about my cooking prowess as I am about how I look in a bathing suit, I’d have to buy a bigger freezer. But I love to cook and I’m good at it, so I compromise by buying certain ready-made items, such as oil, fl our, butter, and milk, and then combining them into something so tasty that David is too busy chewing to complain about the pots, pans, bowls, and measuring cups I’ve dirtied in the process.

While the kids and their friends were putting the final touches on their costumes, I consulted my cookbooks. The only one with a pita recipe was the aptly named How to Cook Everything. Unfortunately, following the recipe would have meant waiting three hours to go from raw ingredients to edible bread. So much for my argument that it would take less time to make pita than to buy it. I trolled Google until I found a recipe that called for yeast and still took less than an hour.

Pita bread is surprisingly simple to make: just dissolve yeast in water and then add flour, salt and a bit of oil. Knead the dough until it’s smooth and slightly sticky and put it in a warm place to rise for a half hour. Then knead it again. My recipe called for me to divide the dough into eight rounds, but I needed more pitas, so I made 12 rounds, then rolled them into circles and let them rise, covered, for 15 minutes.

You have to be very, very careful not to burn or even slightly overcook the bread. I made that mistake with the first batch. My daughter, by then dressed as a Rubix Cube, suggested we brush each fresh-from-the-oven round with butter, which worked wonders: the pitas went from being stiff and hard to soft and pliable. They were so pliable, in fact, that my son’s friend, a Cossack, discovered that we could split them open and fill them with the lamb and tzatziki.

I’d been worried that the kids would protest about having a formal, sit-down meal before trickor- treating. In the past they’ve been so eager to start collecting candy that I never served anything more complicated than frozen pizza or tuna sandwiches. An actual meal with more than a main dish seemed a waste of effort on a night when sugar takes prominence over anything mildly nutritious.

Or at least, it seemed like a waste in the past. There’s something about the smell of fresh-baked bread, especially when it’s coupled with savoury Greek spices, that distracted our costumed kids long enough to enjoy what I now consider one of my most successful impulse meals ever. In fact, it was so successful I’ve expanded on it: a month later we had guests for dinner, and I served the Opa! tzatziki again, along with lamb, salad, and homemade pita, spanakopita, and baklava. But that’s another story.

Pita Bread

2 c flour

21/4 t quick-rising yeast

1/2 t salt

11/4 c hot water

1 to 1/2 c flour

Combine first four ingredients in a bowl and beat about 1 minute.

Mix in remaining flour, using just enough to make a soft dough that is slightly sticky (i.e., don’t overdo it with the flour).

Turn out onto a floured board and continue to knead for 5 minutes.

Let rise for a half hour, then knead a couple of minutes more and divide into eight to 12 balls. Roll out each ball to about 1/4 inch thick. Place on lightly greased cookie sheet sprinkled with corn meal or flour, to prevent sticking. Let rise for 15 to 20 minutes.

You can cook the pitas two ways.

If you bake them in the oven, preheat to 450¬∞C and put them on a cookie sheet sprinkled with either flour or corn meal. Bake them for two minutes per side, or slightly longer if you’re making bigger (fewer) pitas.

My niece prefers to make them on top of the oven in a cast-iron skillet, a trick she learned from Israeli camp counselors one summer. We tried that recently and decided that stove-top pitas taste better. The skillet has to be very, very hot. We sprayed ours with no-stick vegetable spray and turned the pitas after two minutes (or less if it smelled like they were burning).

Debby Waldman is an Edmonton writer who fantasizes about having someone build her a brick oven so she can make perfect bread — pita and otherwise.

Originally published in City Palate Calgary.