A Greek Easter

This weekend, The Saturday Early Show celebrated Greek Easter with a meal created by Mina Newman for our special holiday Chef on a Shoestring challenge - dinner for six for under $60.

Greek Easter does not always fall on the same date as what most of America knows as "Easter" because the Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar when calculating Easter.

Easter is the holiest of Greek holidays, and, as in other Christian traditions, it is also a celebration of spring. During Easter in Greece, people leave the cities in droves to spend the holiday in the countryside, usually in their ancestral villages. Food, of course, is central to the festivities, but not all Greeks eat the same Easter meal. The "traditional" Easter table varies regionally, although all over the country it mirrors the same age-old wisdom that nothing should be wasted.

Regional Greek Easter dishes include fresh herbs and tender young greens -dill, wild fennel, lemon balm, lettuce, sorrel and spinach; for animal protein, lamb is the meat of choice in the mainland and goat is preferred on the islands.

One of the traditions of Greek Easter is to dye hard-boiled eggs red to signify the blood of Christ. Newman explained that on Easter, guests rap their egg against each other's, to see whose egg will survive uncracked. One person says, in Greek, "Christ is risen!" The other person says, "He is truly risen!." This continues around the table and the owner of the last uncracked egg is considered lucky.

Newman is the former executive chef at Tribeca's Layla and Dylan Prime. She left New York City for a restaurant project in Virginia, then returned to become general manager of Thalassa, bringing her knowledge of modern Mediterranean cooking to her new job.

For our special Chef on a Shoestring holiday challenge, Newman created a delicious Greek Easter meal for six for under $60. Her menu: an appetizer of Prasini Salata; an entrée of Ground Lamb and Grilled Vegetable Mousaka; and for dessert, Tseoruki Pudding.

Terminology:

Mousaka (moo-sah-KAH): Originally from Greece, mousaka is a popular casserole dish throughout most of the Near East. Its basic form consists of sliced eggplant and ground lamb or beef that are layered then baked. There are many variations and the dish is often covered with a bechamel, enriched with eggs and/or cheese. Other variations include the addition of onions, tomatoes or potatoes. Newman used onion, tomatoes and potatoes for her recipe.

Metaxa (met-TAHK-suh): This amber-colored Greek brandy is sweeter than traditional brandy. It is made from red grapes and flavored with herbs and spices. It has a wine-like flavor reminiscent of muscat grapes. However, you should not use a muscato wine if you can't find Metaxa, says Newman. You should use traditional brandy.

Recipes:

Prasini Salata
Hearts of Romaine Salad with Feta Dressing
Serves 6

4 hearts of romaine
1/2 cup scallions, chopped thin (green parts included)
1/8 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup high-quality feta cheese, crumbled
salt to taste

Rinse the hearts of romaine without removing leaves. Pat dry, and slice the hearts of romaine crosswise into 1/4 inch slices (stopping at core) to get a shredded effect. Separate pieces, and place in salad bowl. Set aside.

In a glass bowl, mix together remaining ingredients until they are well incorporated. Toss with the romaine and serve immediately with more crumbled feta if you wish.


Ground Lamb and Grilled Vegetable Mousaka
Serves 6

Ingredients:
1 medium eggplant, sliced in 1/2-inch thick rounds
1 medium zucchini, sliced in 1/2-inch thick rounds
1 large potato, sliced in 1/2-inch rounds
2 pounds ground lamb
1/2 cup olive oil
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 onion, diced
4 pieces of whole allspice
1 cup of red wine
salt and pepper to taste
1 quart whole milk
1 stick butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 eggs
white pepper to taste
10" x 16" bake pan

Mousaka:
In a grill pan, grill the sliced eggplant, sliced zucchini and sliced potato. Set aside.
In a sauté pan, brown the lamb in olive oil; add diced onions, tomatoes, whole allspice and the red wine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes over medium heat.

In a 10"x16" pan, place a layer of grilled vegetables, follow with a layer of the meat mixture, and cover with remaining grilled vegetables.

Cream sauce:
Melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat. Add flour and stir until well blended. Remove from heat and gradually stir in milk.

Return to heat and stir until sauce becomes thick. Add Parmesan cheese, nutmeg and white pepper. Combine eggs and hot milk mixture. Cook over very low heat for two minutes, stirring constantly.

Pour cream sauce over mousaka and bake at 350 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes.


Tseoruki Pudding
Serves 6

Ingredients:
1 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup Metaxa brandy
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 large loaf brioche-style bread (day-old, remove crusts and cut into 1-inch cubes)
1 quart heavy cream
6 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
Baking dish 2-inches deep

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine in a small saucepan the dried cherries and brandy. Bring to a simmer on medium heat. Remove from heat, and set aside.

Brush the baking dish with 1 tablespoon softened butter. Reserve the remaining butter.

In a large mixing bowl, pour heavy cream over bread and set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs and sugar until smooth and thick. Add vanilla extract, remaining butter, and the cherry/brandy mixture. Toss the cream-soaked bread with the egg mixture. Pour into baking dish and bake at 350 degrees F until brown and almost set (approximately 45 minutes).

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