Greek Cookie Love

Queens, NYC is known for it’s diversity. According to Wikipedia, no one ethnic group holds a majority — I love that! Not only because I like to live in a melting pot, but also because I have access to tons of different authentic ethnic cuisines. We don’t eat out often, but when we do, we explore these unique enclaves. We enjoy Bukharian (Uzbek) kebobs in Forest Hills, vegetarian Bombay street-food in Floral Park, and a Hunanese outpost in Flushing. One of the best known ethnic areas in Queens is Greek Astoria. I have spent fair amount of time in Astoria over the past few months, and much of that time has been spent in Artopolis, an incredible Greek pastry shop. Anytime I’m remotely in the neighborhood (read: I drive out of my way), I swing by to get a handful (read: bagful) of these delicious honey-dipped biscuits. Since I was developing quite a melamakarona habit, I decided it was high time I learned how to make them at home. So I turned to my trusty copy of Vefa’s Kitchen (which also inspired this Gigante Bean post), and started baking.

Making the cookie is the same as making any other biscuit: mix dry ingredients, mix wet ingredients, mix wet and dry ingredients… But the fun part comes after the cookies are baked. You pour beautiful amber syrup over the just-out-of-the-oven cookies! It’s incredible how much of the syrup gets absorbed by the cookies. The cookies themselves only have 1/2 cup of sugar in them, so they’re mild (and firm) enough to withstand the onslaught of sweet syrup. Once the cookies cool and soak up the syrup, it’s time to top with a fragrant chopped walnut garnish.

I tweaked the Vefa’s Kitchen recipe slightly.  Vefa’s version used both olive oil and butter in the biscuit recipe, and I used only olive oil. I also modified the shape of the cookie to emulate the one from Artopolis, and added some spices to the dough recipe. The cookie that I fell in love with at Artopolis has a sign that specifies the cookie is vegan (although it is doused in honey, which means that to 95% of vegans it’s not), so I knew that it was possible to use olive oil instead of butter. For vegans out there that don’t eat honey though, I’m not that well-versed in the particulars of alternative honey to recommend a substitution; I am conflicted about agave nectar, since it is a highly processed high-fructose syrup, so does anyone have any suggestions?

Melamakarona: Honey-Dipped Biscuits

Modified from Vefa’s Kitchen

For the biscuit:
  • 4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons brandy or Cointreau or triple sec
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
For the syrup:
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
For the topping:
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  1. Preheat oven to 350F
  2. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cloves and cinnamon and make a well in the center
  3. Blend the oil, sugar, OJ, liquor and zest with a food processor (I used an immersion blender and it worked well)
  4. Pour the blended wet ingredients into the well, and slowly incorporate into the dry, without over-blending
  5. Make 1T round balls and place a few inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. I use this OXO mini-scooper to make the biscuits – it’s one of my favorite baking tools.
  6. Bake cookies for about 30 minutes until golden brown, but start checking at 25 minutes, as they tend to get dark very quickly.
  7. Meanwhile, make syrup: Mix honey, sugar and water in a small sauce-pan. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is disolved, skimming any white foam that appears. Turn off heat.
  8. Mix the topping ingredients together.
  9. Transfer baked biscuits to a pyrex or other baking dish immediately when they’re out of the oven, and pour over the syrup. You may notice the syrup coming up the sides of the biscuits – but they will soak all the syrup up eventually. Top with walnuts. Cover with wrap and store at room temperature for 3-5 days.

Above is the Artopolis version (left), and my version (right).

Cool Down Cucumber Seaweed Salad

I’ve been making this salad since I fell in love with a similar one at Souen, a macrobiotic restaurant in Greenwich village during college. Now, 13 (gasp!) years later, knowing more about Chinese medicine and the 5-elements, this salad remains one of my top go-to summer dishes. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, the summer season corresponds to the fire element – no surprise there – and fire’s flavor is bitterness. The fire element is balanced by the water element – again, no surprise there – and water’s flavor is saltiness. So this cold sea salty salad is the perfect antidote to the blistering days of summer.  The crispness of the raw cucumbers together with the salty seaweed will cool you down and fast!

Seaweed is a great vegetable source of omega-3 fatty acids and calcium. Fish actually get their omegas from eating seaweed, so why not go straight to the source?! Today I used two kinds of seaweeds: hijiki and wakame. I tend to buy “cut” or “flaked” wakame since it’s already de-stemmed, which cuts down preparation time.  Dried seaweed will keep in your pantry for about a year. It’s important to note: seaweed expands A TON when soaked. Depending on the ratio you’re after, keep that in mind. I used about 1.5 cucumbers today, and about 3 Tablespoons of each seaweed, which was plenty. Mix the seaweed and cover with ample water; soak for 15 minutes and drain.

Meanwhile, cut the cukes. I got a number of cucumbers from our CSA last week, so I decided just to scrub them, although if I bought them in the store, I would have peeled them. I scraped out the seeds and cut thinly into half-moon shapes.

Once the seaweed is reconstituted and drained, toss the cucumber slices with the seaweed and dress with rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, a squirt of sriracha, and freshly grated ginger. If you have black sesame seeds, throw them in there, too. Sometimes I need a bit more salt, and I put a dash of tamari, but it depends on what I’m craving. Speaking of, sometimes I make it very spicy – which is great with the coolness of the cucumbers. In other words, please experiment – this is a framework to make your version of the salad. Who knows, maybe it’ll turn into a summer classic that helps you stay cool for the next 13 years.

Taste of Queens 2012

Blanca Lilia Narváez from Tropisec accepting the award for Best Dessert at Queens Taste 2012 (Photo: P. Conti)

I would not hesitate to say that Queens is the best borough to have dinner in. Or lunch. Or breakfast for that matter. Whether it’s Chinese food in Flushing, Mexican in Corona, Korean in Douglaston, Indian in Floral Park, or the lesser known Bukharian restaurants of Forest Hills, it’s no secret that the streets of Queens are teeming with authentic ethnic eateries. In addition to brick-and-mortar restaurants however, Queens is churning out exciting high-quality artisanal food from passionate entrepreneurs cooking out of a 5,000 square foot kitchen in Long Island City.

The Entrepreneur Space (referred to as the “E-Space” by those in the know) is a joint venture between the Queens Economic Development Corporation and Mi Kitchen es su Kitchen. This past Tuesday night, I had the privilege of attending the QEDC’s 10th Annual Queens Taste 2012, an incredible evening where over 1,000 people celebrated the food of Queens at Caesar’s Club at Citi Field. The 47 vendors included many businesses from the E-Space, and I was thrilled to be able to talk to the chefs and visionaries behind the ventures.

Beyond Kombucha: Astoria, NY

It doesn’t get more sustainable and local than the Astoria-based company Beyond Kombucha. Started by Astoria-native and self-proclaimed “Tea Snob” Spiro Theofilatos, the kombucha churned out by this company is powered by the 3rd largest private solar field in NYC! Kombucha is an effervescent fermented tea beverage made with tea leaves and herbs. While most comercial kombucha is formulated to remove the alcoholic byproduct of the fermentation process, Spiro being the purist that he is refused to compromise the integrity of this ancient beverage, and instead went through the process of becoming the first NY State and federally-licensed kombucha brewery on the East Coast. Now the very slightly alcoholic (1.5%) drink can be sold legally with it’s authentic flavor intact…And that flavor is delicious! Tuesday night, he and his team were offering 2 of their spring 2012 flavors to taste including Yerba Mate and Vanilla Rooibos. While both were refreshing, I preferred the Yerba Mate’s herbaceous and appley profile, but I can imagine sipping on the Vanilla Rooibos with dessert. Kombucha is a naturally fermented and “live” product, and all the good bacteria (probiotics) inherent to the fermentation process are wonderful for your digestion. I often suggest incorporating fermented foods to my patients struggling with digestive issues, and I will definitely include Beyond Kombucha in my recommendations moving forward.

Josephine’s Feast: Long Island City and East End of Long Island

Josephine’s Feast is a small-batch jam and preserve maker. I had heard about the company a few years ago, when Food Curated made a 6-minute video about the founder Laura O’Brien’s thoughtful and artisinal approach to preserving seasonal fruit. I had the chance to speak with Laura’s husband, Sean, and was thrilled to hear how the company has expanded in the past few years. They still have the sweet jams, but have branched out into a variety of marmalades and mustards. While they source as much fruit as possible from farms near their home on the East End of Long Island and in upstate New York, they were tasting 4 marmalades made from seasonal winter citrus form California. Of the four marmalades that Sean was sampling, I enjoyed the Thick Cut Blood Orange Marmalade the best. The marmalade was a beautiful, rich and vibrant scarlet color which would pair wonderfully well with a sweet butter or soft cheese. Of the mustards, I loved the whole grain mustard with lemon, sage and chablis. Throw a bit of that in a vinaigrette, and you’ll immediately be transported to Provence!

Tropisec: Long Island City

If being transported to a tropical paradise sounds more like what you’re after, I recommend snacking on the dried fruit creations of Blanca Lilia Narváez’s Tropisec. Based out of Long Island City’s E-Space, Blanca was inspired to start Tropisec when she missed the natural, sun-sweetened dried fruits of her native Columbia. She sources her raw ingredients from a Columbian co-op that supplies her with all organic, dried fruit, which she artistically arranges into edible sculptures. She employs women in Columbia, many of whom were displaced by domestic violence, to make her natural banana-leaf packaging. Once you’ve tasted these sweets, you will understand why the Queens Taste 2012 jury awarded Tropisec the best dessert. I tried a sundried banana bite dusted with cocao powder which packed real intense banana flavor, and a whimsical papaya flower. Both were unique and delightful.  If you are looking for something unique for the moms in your life, you can order Tropisec’s fruit creations on their website.

Overall it was a fantastic event, and it was inspiring to see the many diverse food pioneers right here in my back yard, as they work to uphold Queens’ reputation as the BEST food borough.

Garam Masala Almonds

So there I was, standing in front of my open freezer trying to think about how I could free up some space (freezer space is a very high commodity in my apartment), when I saw a bag of blanched almonds. My mind started racing – Immediately the Union Square Cafe bar nuts came to mind, which I make quite often, and I started to ponder what other flavor combinations I could throw together using the same technique. I walked over to my spices and started pulling from the shelves. I grabbed cumin seed, fennel seed, and coriander seed, and then the idea hit me: garam masala roasted nuts!

Garam masala is a Indian spice blend which is an essential flavoring in many North Indian dishes. Garam means “hot”, yet traditionally there is no chili in the blend, the heat instead coming from warming spices like cumin, cinnamon and clove. “Masala” just means blend, and technically, even a blend of 2 spices can be characterized as a “masala”. With these kind of spice blends, everyone claims the authentic recipe, yet in reality there are endless variations of spice combinations.

When I looked down at what I had pulled off the shelf I saw coriander, cinnamon, clove, cumin, fennel, cardamom, star anise and black pepper, a realized that most of them are used in Chinese herbal formulas to treat a variety digestive issues. In Chinese medicine, the digestive process requires an activating, warming force since it’s the combustion engine of the whole body – turning the food that we eat into essential substances like Energy and Blood. When our digestion slows down, or we feel sluggish, weak or cold, all it may take to get us back on track is a little activating, fragrant nudge, accomplished in traditional Chinese herbal formulas with herbs like cardamom, fennel, cinnamon and star anise. The remaining ingredients, brown sugar, salt and the almonds themselves, have their own medicinal properties. The sweetness of brown sugar strengthens the function of the digestion, and salt and almonds promote bowel function. Annndddrecent research suggests that using spices like these cut fat levels in your blood after a heavy meal…All in all, pretty impressive for “bar nuts”, huh?!

Garam Masala Bar Nuts

  • 1 cup blanched almonds
  • 1/2 teaspoon each: cloves, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, black peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon stick
  • 2 pods from star anise
  • 1 cardamon pod, crushed to remove the 3 inner black seed clusters
  • 1 teaspoon butter (melted) or olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
  • Salt

  1. Toast spices: In a hot dry skillet, add cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, black peppercorns, star anise, and cardamom and toast, stirring constantly for about 5 minutes, until spices are fragrant
  2. Grind spices: Transfer toasted spices to a clean, dry coffee/spice grinder – grind until fine powder. Transfer to a small bowl, and add cinnamon. Mix.
  3. Roasted almonds: Wipe out skillet, and add almonds. Toast while tossing constantly, until browned slightly. Remove to a plate.
  4. Toss nuts: Mix butter or olive oil, brown sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of garam masala until a paste is formed. Add roasted almonds and toss until well coated. Once coated evenly, add 1/4 teaspoon more garam masala and 1 hefty pinch of salt; toss again. Turn nuts out onto parchment to cool completely.

Eat immediately, keep at room temperature in a mason jar for up to a week, or store in freezer (bringing to room temperature or warming before enjoying). Note: Feel free to modify the amounts or omit a particular spice if you have an aversion to it or it’s out of stock in your pantry. 



Spicy Collard Green Salad

Did you notice the tasty-looking side-dish I paired with the previous post? I first tasted this salad at a cooking demonstration last fall, given by my good friend and talented chef Hilla Abel. I was immediately hooked. So I started making it – a lot – and I haven’t stopped. It has everything you can ask for: it’s a cinch to make, has a little spice, a little sweet, it’s healthy, it’s filling…and it’s DELICIOUS! While you can use any hearty green, I’m partial to collards. Collard greens are a little over-looked these days, with all the incredible press kale seems to be getting, but I would advise you to try them for this dish. Once the leaves are washed and de-stemmed (see the brilliant “quick and dirty method” Hilla demonstrates herechiffonade into wide ribbons.


Toast a handful of nuts in a dry skillet. I’ve used all different nuts, depending on what I have in the freezer at the time. In an ideal world, I would use sliced almonds or pine nuts, but walnuts or pecans work as well.


In the mean time, make the dressing by mixing together 1 minced garlic clove, and 2-3 T each of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and honey. Add a hefty pinch of red pepper flakes (of course you can use less if you’re sensitive to heat). Toss the greens with the dressing and a handful of raisins.


When the nuts are fragrant, golden brown and hot, toss into the bowl. I like how the hot nuts wilt the greens. On one hand, it’s best if the salad marinates for a bit before serving, but on the other hand, I like when the greens are a bit tough. Either way, the salad keeps wonderfully, and can be made ahead of time. Thanks Hilla for a great recipe that is now part of my rotation!