It’s time for culinary comfort — and pampering by Italian and Greek chefs.
Two late summer traditions that feature dishes such as spanakopita and sausage and peppers will take place in Schenectady this weekend.
The 38th annual Greek Festival at St. George Greek Orthodox Church will begin Friday and run through Sunday. Dancing and dining will enliven the Hellenic Center at 510 Liberty St.
A few blocks away, the eighth annual Little Italy StreetFest will be held on Saturday. Food, wine and music will all be served on North Jay Street from noon until 9 p.m.
People had better bring two appetites. Roasted chicken, gyros, lamb shanks and baklava will be on the menu inspired by Greece. Gelato, calamari, minestra and ziti and meatballs will be among representatives from Italy.
Chris Euripidou, executive chef at the Farmer Boy restaurant in Albany and the kitchen supervisor for the St. George festival, uses ingredients such as lemon, garlic and honey when he braises lamb shanks. But two other components are also in the mix.
“Time and love,” he said. “All these dishes require planning and preparation, and they also take a little longer than the average dish to make, but if you have that patience with it, it comes out phenomenal,” Euripidou said.
Moussaka, layers of eggplant, potato and sautéed ground beef topped with a white sauce, will be served at the Hellenic Center. So will pastitsio, seasoned ground beef with pasta and grated cheese, topped with a Bechamel sauce.
Euripidou can’t pick a favorite Greek dish.
“In Greece, you’re talking a lot more seafood because they’re mostly on water,” he said. “When I think of the epitome of Greek food, I think about sitting on the beach and having some of these dishes, but complemented with the fresh seafood you can get there.”
Food — plus the music and dance that will be part of the festival — is ultimately about tradition.
“Keeping the Greek tradition alive is really what this is all about,” Euripidou said. “Between the religion and the community, this is how we keep our Greek roots.”
At the Little Italy StreetFest, foods will come from North Jay Street restaurants such as Civitello’s, Cornell’s and More Perreca’s. Maria Perreca Papa hopes people will try the arancini: rice balls with centers made of ground beef, sausage and onion.
“We literally cannot make enough of them,” Perreca Papa said, adding that the recipe came from her grandmother, the late Carmella Perreca.
“She would cook our family meals in a tiny little kitchen just out of eyesight in back of Perreca’s bakery storefront,” Perreca Papa said.
“It’s something you’re not going to make at home,” she said about arancini. “It’s not so much complicated as it is time-consuming, unless you’ve got one of those Italian grandmothers who cooks for the family as a full-time job, which they all used to do. You’re not going to find this; you’re not going to find authentic rice balls in restaurants.”
The interiors and exteriors pack a lot of flavors.
“They’re like souped-up meatballs in the center, and then on the outside is a nice comforting layer of rice with egg and cheese,” Perreca Papa said.
Cavatelli and meatballs, calzones, pizza, eggplant sandwiches, peaches and wine and beans and greens all will be served.
“People love Italian food because it’s comfort food,” Perreca Papa said. “Not only is it comfort food for their bodies, it comforts their souls and minds. Oftentimes, Italian foods bring up memories — whether it’s a trip to Italy that one has taken maybe 25 years ago or just memories of Grandma’s kitchen. I have often referred to myself as everybody’s Italian grandmother.”
Braised Lamb Shanks
Courtesy of Chris Euripidou, executive chef, Farmer Boy restaurant
For meat and marinade:
6 lamb foreshanks, 10 to 14 ounces each, or cut into 3-inch segments
2 lemons, sliced thin, skins on
1⁄2 cup garlic, peeled and chopped fine
1⁄2 cup salt, kosher
1⁄2 cup oregano, dried
1 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon black pepper, ground
2 cups Spanish onion, medium dice
2 cups carrots, medium dice
2 cups celery, medium dice
2 cups dry red wine, burgundy or Cabernet Sauvignon
2 cups chopped tomato
1 cup crushed tomato
2 cups chicken broth
1 cinnamon stick
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon honey, preferably Cretan
1 pound orzo pasta
1⁄4 cup grated cheese
For marinade, combine the lamb, lemon, 1⁄4 cup of garlic, 1⁄4 cup of salt, 1⁄4 cup of oregano and oil. Mix well to coat the lamb evenly. Cover tightly with plastic or a lid and refrigerate for at least six hours or up to 1 day.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat a large pot with enough oil to cover the bottom on the stove. While pot is heating up, remove the shanks from the marinade and scrape off the marinade. Place in a clean bowl (marinade can be reused for other meats if desired).
Season the meat with the remaining 1⁄4 cup of salt and the black pepper.
Carefully place shanks into the pot and hot oil, leaving space between them. Sear all sides of all the shanks evenly, turning as needed. When pieces are ready, move them into a roasting pan large enough to hold them and the sauce that will cover them.
In the same pot used for searing, add the remaining garlic, onion, carrot and celery and sauté until softened, stirring occasionally.
Add the remaining oregano, wine, chopped tomato, crushed tomato, chicken broth, cinnamon stick, bay leaves and honey. Bring the sauce to a simmer, stirring often, and then ladle the sauce into the roasting pan with the shanks.
Cover the pan with foil or an oven-safe lid and place carefully in the oven. Braising will take about 2 hours, at which point, check the meat with a fork for tenderness. An extra 30 minutes may be needed if the meat is not pulled back from the bone and tender.
While the shanks are braising, heat a pot of water with a splash of oil and salt. Cook the orzo in boiling water, stirring often, until al dente. Drain and cool pasta; set aside.
When ready to serve, heat the orzo in a sauce pot with the braising sauce as needed, pour the hot orzo into a serving dish, place hot shanks over the orzo and garnish with grated cheese.
Serves 6. Prep time is one day.
(Rice balls with meaty center)
For the center:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄2 cup finely chopped onion
3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1⁄2 pound lean ground beef
1⁄2 pound Italian sausage
1⁄2 small can tomato paste
1⁄4 cup water
1⁄2 cup Parmesan cheese
3⁄4 cup green peas
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the outer rice layer:
2 cups cooked rice
1⁄2 cup Parmesan cheese
4 large eggs, beaten
4 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
11⁄2 cup Perreca’s bread crumbs
Vegetable oil, for frying
For the center portions, heat olive oil in a pan and add onion and garlic until translucent — do not brown. Add ground beef and Italian sausage (break up loosely if in links) and cook through. Drain off most of the oil.
Dissolve 1⁄2 small can of tomato paste in 1⁄4 cup of water and add to meat mixture, stirring thoroughly. Add Parmesan cheese, peas and salt and pepper to taste. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring occasionally until mixture sets (about 7 to 10 minutes). Set aside.
For the outer rice layers, use a large bowl. Mix cooked rice, Parmesan cheese, 2 beaten eggs and mozzarella thoroughly. Place in refrigerator until mixture is cool (can be made a day ahead of time, but cover mixture with food wrap if you are going to leave it overnight).
For assembly, use an ice cream scoop to form a ball with the rice and cup it in your hands, forming a hollow center. Fill center with meat mixture and cover top with more rice, forming a ball — or arancini — with your hands. At this point, the process is like packing the perfect snowball.
Roll arancini in a bowl containing the other 2 beaten eggs, then roll in a separate bowl containing Italian bread crumbs.
Have vegetable oil already heated and ready at this point (about 1 to 11⁄2 inches thick in the pan) and gently drop in the arancini to fry. Fry arancini evenly on all sides until golden brown, about 6 to 7 minutes each. Arancini can be fried in batches.
Place on paper towels to absorb excess oil.
Arancini can be served topped with marinara sauce immediately before serving. Sauce can also be served on the side.
Recipe note: For the cooked rice, use either Italian arborio or short-grain white rice and cook according to package directions. At More Perreca’s, chefs use chicken stock and a splash of white wine instead of water when cooking the rice.