This is a guest post by Vera Pantanizopoulos-Broux who loves food of all kinds and has a culinary perspective flavored by living in and visiting regions of North America, Europe and West Africa. Spending lots of time in her Greek grandma’s kitchen didn’t hurt either.
A windy heat swept the towering, billowing black clouds and me toward the New Harvest farmers market on Washington Pike last Thursday. I’m an East Knoxville girl and was determined to check out our late spring offerings in the area. When I arrived, the parking lot was filling quickly, and folks were already lining up at vendor tents and showcases that had already set up for the afternoon. After slithering into a parking space, I jumped out and headed – with a bit of cash in hand – toward the tents fenced in by vendor vehicles. Children played on the other side of the tents at the community center playground, and parents joined the flowing lines, picking over vendor showcases before sales began at 3 pm.
The wind became cooler as I strolled past artisan breads, cookies, homemade salsas, myriad varieties of chicken salad, edible and colorful ornamental plants, birdhouses and wreaths, local fresh meats, indulgent snacks for pets, seasonal fruits and vegetables, local/regional honeys and more. But I had my mind set on one vegetable that I had the luck of discovering at the Oak Ridge farmers market last summer: light green, firm and chubby Mediterranean squash. I found her very kindly at one of the last tables with Shannon of Mountain Meadows Farm, located in Anderson County. I savored placing several squash into my bag, dreaming of the journeys they would make before they slipped into our bellies. Next to the squash, I spotted two bunches of robust red beets with their leaves whispering, almost urgently, in the breeze to me…pantzaria, Vera, we are pantzaria salad! So I granted them the wish to be a delicious manifestation of their true selves and made my way home for the next leg of our adventure.
We arrive in Vera’s kitchen, where the beetroots are gently separated from their leaves, peeled and rinsed. Leaves (with stems!) are carefully washed and placed into the second sink full of ice water while beetroots boil until soft (knife test), about 25-30 minutes on medium-high heat.
In the meantime, I rinse each squash and discard the top and a pinch of the bottom (lengthwise). Taking a serrated thin steak knife, I begin to hull the squash in a growing circular motion to create a generous filling space – much like a cylinder closed at one end, and save the flesh bits and shavings for a later squash risotto. After I’ve set aside the squash ready for stuffing, I create a rice mixture with a special rice, fresh Vidalia onion, tomato, dill, lemon thyme, oregano and chive – salt and pepper to taste. It is imperative to fold ingredients thoroughly and evenly into the rice in order to grace each squash with all participating flavors. This rice is called ‘Rizi Carolinas’ in Greece and is used for stuffing – squash, tomato, peppers, grape leaves. A comparable rice here in the U.S. might be a pearl rice available in the Latin foods section of most supermarkets or Arborio. The herbs are all available in our home garden already, extra fragrant and eagerly waiting to participate! As soon as I revisit the beets, I can stuff the squash snuggly front to back with a small teaspoonful at a time.
Once beetroots are soft, I remove them and run cold water over them while I use the same boiling water to blanch small groupings of the leaves 5-6 minutes. I run them through cold water baths several times and allow all to rest for at least 15 minutes.
Stuffed squash are securely nestled in a dutch oven together, forming up to two layers head-to-butt in a circular or side-to-side pattern. Once they’re comfortable, I cover them with a lid, add 2 cups water and begin cooking at medium heat, turning it down to medium-low once they’re simmering and checking every 30 minutes or so to add water when needed. The seasoned rice needs gentle constant steam and relatively long cooking time to arrive at her full flavor potential!
While the kolokithákia (squash) are simmering, I juice 2-3 lemons, crush 2 large cloves garlic and set aside. Our garden dill joins the mix of sliced beetroot and chopped leaves, and I toss all with the lemon juice, garlic, generous drizzles of olive oil and salt to taste. This salad is an accompaniment that is happy to wait in the refrigerator until dinner time.
After about an hour or more, the squash are soft, and the rice bulges plumply out of each prize piece. I add another cup or two of water and let rest, covered on low heat, while I juice 4 more lemons and crack five eggs into a separate bowl and add a pinch of salt. Once the eggs are whisked, we add very slowly the lemon juice, whisking vigorously! This is the lemon cream sauce that is slowly tempered with broth from the pot and then added to the squash once higher heat is achieved (usually after 5-6 ladles of broth have been whisked in to the egg-lemon mixture). In our family, we make a sweet puckered sucking noise while we whisk in the lemon juice – our yia-yiá reminded us every time that this protects the eggs from curdling during the union!
That evening, we enjoyed our lemon-cream stuffed squash and beet salad alongside oven roasted mackerel stuffed with balsamic-kissed herbs and fresh baby spinach – a delicious dinner ceremony. The dishes melted in our mouths as the kitchen ceiling fan cooled us and the open windows brought in aromatic layers of thick honeysuckle and a sunny-hot Sunday afternoon breeze, a forecast of summer on our skins, in our noses and in our bellies!
Kali óreksi, as we say before every meal in Greece! This Southern girl hollers “dig in, y’all!”
Ingredients for stuffed squash and red beet salad (please see above for cooking directions):
Stuffed Mediterranean Squash
7-8 medium Mediterranean squash, rinsed, trimmed at both ends and hulled
3 cups pearl rice or Arborio (small grain) (note: any remaining rice mixture can be refrigerated at least 3 days for future use)
1 small Vidalia onion, fine dice
1 bunch each fresh dill, lemon thyme and chive – fine chop (also, parsley or any other fresh herb desired!)
2 generous pinches dried Greek oregano, rubbed through fingers!
1 medium ripe tomato, fine dice
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil or more, drizzle for rice mixture and bottom of dutch oven
kosher or sea salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
*for egg-lemon cream – 5 large eggs, juice of 4 large ripe lemons, pinch of kosher or sea salt
Yia-Yiá Vera’s Red Beet Salad
2 bunches fresh red beets, pref. organic (equiv. 6-8 beetroots with stems and leaves)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1 bunch fresh dill (optional), fine chop
juice of two large ripe lemons
generous drizzle extra virgin olive oil
kosher or sea salt to taste