Friday, 4 January 2008

Soutzoukakia (Σουτζουκάκια Σμυρνέικα)

One of my husband's all-time favorite meals is a spicy homemade meatball shaped into a sausage and cooked in a spicy red sauce. My mother-in-law would make it often for her favorite child (she has no other). Soutzoukakia have their origins in Smyrna, a predomninantly Greek-inhabited city in Asia Minor, now called Izmir and part of modern-day Turkey. They have now become a staple part of the Greek menu, but they are still considered a taste sensation, because of their infamous historical link with the old city whose food art has been immortalised as the "cuisine of the City" (meaning the former Constantinople). I decided to make them today because they are a 'fussy' dish - these rissoles need frying, then they need stewing, and finally they need fried potatoes as an accompaniment - and I now have the time to make them as I am still on holiday break from school.

Therefore, I have had enough time to do some research on them, and compare cooking techniques from various sources. I have many recipe books which I usually browse through for ingredients rather than cooking instructions, but invariably, I turn to the web for all my recipes these days. Why do I do this? Because it's convenient, and maybe because it shows how truly contemporary I am. Maybe I should be more interested in my past, and before presenting the recipe for Smyrna sausages, I should go into a detailed account of the plight of the Smyrnaen people (as some fellow food bloggers have done) who fled their burning city in 1922, ending up in various parts of the world, and shaping the history of modern Greece; my mother-in-law obtained her recipe from one of those immigrants. I'd rather not make Smyrna a discussion point on my blog, but NOT because I want to forget the past. As a linguist, I cannot do that; I know that the word for 'soutzoukakia' is derived from the Turkish 'soutzouk'; the Greeks and Turks are connected with each other in a way that is too close for comfort.

What I'd rather do instead is to discuss the modern Greek psyche in terms of our latest political scandal: why did a good-looking, highly-educated 35-year-old female employee in the Ministry of Culture, who came from a poor background, was first in class in her high school years, earned a university scholarship and spoke four languages, have an affair with the Undersecretary to the Minister, her boss (currently in the intensive care ward after a suicide attempt), end up in jail after being accused of blackmailing him with a video recording of their illicit affair, thereby forcing him into resigning from his post (bestowed to him by the Prime Minister himself, a personal friend of the poor man), and is now cawaiting trial under the charge of being an accessory to his suicide, all for the sake of securing a permanent high-flying post in the said Ministry? This shows the values upheld dearly by modern Greeks: the class struggle (I may be poor, but I can improve myself), educational achievement (I want a university degree because I want a good job), the desire for a permanent appointment in a government position (I want a financially secure job, with full health and pension benefits, from which I can never be fired). Somewhere down the line, though, the mysterious young lady went to unacceptable lengths to secure the great Greek dream; it drove her to the point that she ruined her reputation and destroyed all her chances of achieving success in modern Greek terms, a modern Christine Keeler. What drove this woman to have sex with a dirty old man 20 years her senior? What was she expecting to procure from such a relationship? while the government is embroiled in this scandal, at the same time, it poses questions concerning the Greek personality. A minority (only, I believe) do not share these same ideals for themselves or their children. Does that make those of us who deviate from this line as exceptions to the rule? Are we less Greek than those who adhere to these priniciples? Now that could be a good lesson in modern Greek history - the story of a typical Greek who could be the key to bringing down the government.

From the Spicy Saucy Steamy political Scandal, let's get back to the Spicy Saucy Steamy Smyrnean Sausages. I chose Evelyn's recipe for soutzoukakia because of the richly spiced sauce she describes, using fresh, as opposed to tinned, tomato; this recipe uses more herbs and spices than the other recipes I looked at. The skinless sausages are made with wine, garlic, onion, parsley, cheese, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper, while the sauce contains vinegar, garlic, bay leaf, sugar, cinnamon and cloves. Not for the faint-hearted! I doubled the recipe, because, as this is a fiddly dish, it is worth making it with fresh ingredients, and then freezing half of it for a meal another day. But I didn't follow her cooking technique to the letter. I can't imagine frying 20 rissoles in 2 tablespoons of oil, let alone straining the same said amount after use and using it to make a sauce!

For the meatballs, you need:
2 slices thick dense bread (crusts removed)
1/2 cup dry wine
Soak the bread in the wine for about 5 minutes, or until thoroughly softened. Then, squeeze out excess wine. In a large bowl, add:
1 lb ground lean meat (beef or veal)
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 egg
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons grated spicy cheese like the Greek kefalograviera (parmesan makes an excellent substitute)
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
salt and pepper

Combine the ingredients until thoroughly blended. Cover and chill for 1 to 2 hours. Dampen your hands, pinch off small portions of meat mixture and shape into approximately oval rolls (looks more like a short fat sausage than a meatball or meat pattie). At this stage, you can freeze them for later use. If you are going to cook them, dredge them in flour and fry them in a little olive oil until they are well browned and cooked all over.

For the sauce, you need:
some of the oil you fried the meatballs with
2 lbs fresh tomatoes (we still have some growing in the garden - in January, you exclaim? the last of summer's crops) - add a teaspoon of tomato puree if you haven't got enough fresh tomato
2 tablespoons of dry wine
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 bay leaf
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Strain the oil you fried the meatballs in through a fine sieve and pour some of it into a shallow frying pan. I didn't add too much oil, because the meatballs had enough in them. Add all the sauce ingredients, bring to the boil and simmer until the sauce is thick. Drop in the meatballs, stir to cover all over with the sauce, and simmer covered for 15 minutes.

When you've done all this, treat yourself to a glass of wine - you must be pooped! I'm just about to make myself a cup of coffee and help myslef to some melomakarona. I noticed that the Christmas tree is being taken down in Trafalgar Square, but here in Greece, Christmas holidays aren't over until after St John's (7th January).

Serve the soutzoukakia hot with rice, french fries, or mashed potatoes, a mixed salad and some peasant sourdough bread to mop up the juices. If you want to use the frozen soutzoukakia, you need to defrost them thoroughly before dredging them in flour, because they won't cook properly otherwise. Then you proceed with the frying and sauce as the recipe states.

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