When I think of entertainment in the era of the pandemic, I’m reminded of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” who famously said, “It’s the pictures that got small.”
Theater, movies, concert venues–all were shuttered during the worst of it, and our entertainment was confined to the small screen: televisions, computers and devices. Zoom became our link to the outside world.
Among the things I’ve missed most are the frequent cookbook events held at Melissa’s Produce headquarters in Vernon for food writers and bloggers. Melissa’s, the country’s largest distributor of exotic fruits and vegetables, has for years hosted meet-and-greets with authors of some of my most beloved cookbooks: Faye Levy (“1000 Jewish Recipes”), Steven Raichlen (“Barbecue! Bible”), John Becker and Megan Scott (“Joy of Cooking”), Paula Shoyer (“The Kosher Baker”), Katie Chin (“Everyday Thai Cooking”) and Raghavan Iyer (“660 Curries”), just to name a few.
Melissa’s chefs would whip up a delicious lunch with recipes from the cookbook of the day, using Melissa’s ingredients, and we’d then be treated to a cooking demonstration of some of the recipes. When COVID-19 hit, Robert Schueller, Melissa’s director of public relations, continued presenting authors on Zoom, Facebook and YouTube – fun to watch, but, alas, it was BYOL—bring your own lunch.
Mediterranean is my favorite cuisine, so I was thrilled to meet chef and travel writer Christina Xenos, who with co-author Theo Stephan wrote “Opa! The Healthy Greek Cookbook” (Rockridge Press, $16.99), featuring 90 healthy Greek recipes, handy tips, holiday menu ideas, plus a regional overview of Greek food.
Xenos, a frequent flyer to the Greek islands, wanted to write an approachable cookbook, she told us, “one that people would actually use. Times have changed. We don’t have time anymore to spend three or five hours in the kitchen making one recipe. Take-out’s great, but we wanted to use accessible ingredients and streamline the recipes so people would have time to cook, and we wanted people to cook healthy.”
Xenos’s family is from Crete and Milos in the southern Aegean. “I’ve been cooking all my life,” she reminisced. “My earliest memory is my grandmother teaching me to make dolmades, stuffed grape leaves. Greek people are hyper local eaters. Many of them grow what they eat or shop at their neighborhood village market. When my grandmother emigrated to the States, she had a huge, huge garden in her backyard, and when she taught me to make dolmades, the first thing I had to do was go out to the backyard and pick the grape leaves.
“I became a chef on an online platform called eatwith.com. Chefs all over the world will list whatever events they have going on, and wherever you are, you can look up and see whatever dining experiences are going on in your area, and you can buy tickets.
“When I was in cooking school, my friends told me about them, and I thought that would be a great way to dip my toe in and see if I actually liked it, and I started doing popup dinners, and after about a year, I decided I really liked it and started my personal chef business.”
My favorite on the luncheon buffet was Xenos’ Baked Zucchini Patties, which she demonstrated for us in real time. “In Greece they’re traditionally fried, but it’s easy to bake them,” she noted. “They’re common throughout Greece, mainly the islands.”
These zucchini appetizers are a must on her popup spread, she said. “They are always the first thing to go.” We loved them with her Roasted Red Pepper and Feta Cheese Dip as well as the Avocado Garlic Spread on the buffet.
“They go really well with tzatziki (yogurt sauce), too, and you can change it up and use butternut or yellow summer squash or even carrots. Instead of feta you could use a tangy goat cheese or even vegan cheese, as long as it doesn’t have a higher moisture content. After cooking, freeze them in airtight freezer bags separated by layers, and they’ll last three months. Then you can always heat up as many as you need when company comes.”
“Opa!” is an exclamation that means “Awesome!” Xenos told us, but the term is not confined to throwing plates. The Zucchini Lemon Olive Oil Cake tastes as good as it looks. The authors chose to go modern-style with this one: a triple layered cake with a “naked siding” approach to the frosting.
Zucchini Lemon Olive Oil Cake
You can use orange olive oil, swapping out grated lemon zest and zest slivers for orange. Also you can also use real milk instead of almond milk, but almond milk gives the cake a unique flavor. Last, you may use regular olive oil if you don’t have lemon or orange olive oil, but the character of the cake’s flavor will change.
Yield: 16 servings
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons extra-virgin lemon olive oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
For the cake:
2½ cups sugar
¾ cup extra-virgin lemon olive oil
4 large eggs, beaten
2/3 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups cake flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
2½ cups coarsely shredded zucchini, excess moisture removed by blotting with paper towels
1 tablespoon slivered lemon zest, for garnishing
- Frosting: In large bowl, with electric handheld mixer, beat together cream cheese, butter, olive oil, vanilla, and grated lemon zest until light and fluffy. Add confectioners’ sugar and beat until well combined. You will have about 2 cups frosting.
2. Cake: Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare three (8-inch) round cake pans: trace bottom of pan’s shape on parchment paper, cut out circles and place them on bottoms of pans.
3. In large bowl whisk sugar and olive oil. Add eggs, almond milk, and vanilla and whisk to combine. Add flour, baking powder and salt. Mix thoroughly to make a smooth batter. Stir in zucchini.
4. Pour 2 cups batter into each prepared pan. Bake 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool on wire racks 15 minutes.
Invert pans: Working over wire racks or your prep table, place your thumbs on the bottom of the pan and your fingers over the cake, slipping cake from pan. When completely cooled, placed one cake layer on serving dish; spread lightly with frosting. Repeat with two remaining cake layers. Frost top with ½-inch-thick layer of frosting. Frost sides minimally with remaining frosting, allowing cake to show through. Garnish top of cake with slivered lemon zest.
Source: “Opa! Healthy Greek Cookbook” by Theo Stephen and Christina Xenos
Baked Zucchini Patties
Normally these patties are fried and served as an appetizer or main course. This recipe, a healthier version of the favorite, calls for baking instead of frying. You can find kefalotiri cheese online or in supermarkets with large cheese displays, selected Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s or Mediterranean markets. Or you can substitute with Parmesan or Romano cheese.
Yield: 4 servings
3 zucchini (about 1½ pounds), grated
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
1 garlic clove, grated
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup feta cheese
¼ cup shredded kefalotiri, Parmesan or Romano cheese
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
- Place zucchini in a fine-mesh strainer, sprinkle with salt, mix thoroughly, and let drain in the sink for 30 minutes. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
2. Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
3. In medium bowl combine zucchini, scallion, garlic, breadcrumbs, feta and kefalotiri cheese, eggs, and dill. Form zucchini mixture into one-inch balls. Lightly smash balls into patties and place on prepared baking sheet.
4. Bake for 30 minutes, turning once halfway through cooking. Cover and refrigerate leftovers up to 3 days.
Serving tip: These are perfect served with Not Your Yiayia’s Tzatziki or over pasta with a basic tomato sauce.
Substitution tip: Substitute almond flour for the breadcrumbs to make this recipe gluten-free.
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.