Skorthalia and summer nights

July 27th, 2007

When it heats up outside, I hesitate to do much cooking inside. Flames and smoke of grilling outdoors don’t hold much appeal, either. So, I revert to lessons learned in Greece: cook ahead, and keep it simple. Even the most lethargic appetite seems to respond to fresh flavors of basic Greek classics. This year the alarming heat wave across Greece and southern Europe has been major news. But in the cool of the morning, one can make the evening’s meal – and sit under an arbor or pergola somewhere at the end of the day with a glass of retsina or raki. Early in the day, prepare a simple sauce – Skorthalia/ Skordalia - of mashed potatoes, garlic and ground almonds to accent a main dish of sautéed fish with fennel or grilled chicken. In its simplicity, Skorthalia in fact recalls ancient Mediterranean traditions combining ground almonds and garlic. Persia’s legendary, sophisticated cuisine used ground almonds with garlic in sauces similar to Turkish tarator. Today, it seems there is a revival of interest in these combinations that the ancients set before their family and guests. Skorthalia is a actually more of a rich side dish rather than a sauce, though it is usually listed with sauces. In some regions, bread soaked in water is incorporated into the mixture as a thickener instead of almonds – but then it loses the delicate almond flavor. Using new potatoes and fresh garlic, a bit of lemon juice and olive oil, this can be a staple on summer’s al fresco tables. I sometimes thin the mixture a bit with the pan juices from sautéed fish with fennel, and although recipes say: “serve chilled”, I have been known to set a bowl of warm Skorthalia on the supper table and watch it quickly disappear. Combine ingredients using a mortar and pestle, then whisk in the mashed potatoes with a fork, stirring it until all ingredients are smooth, well blended. And add more garlic for a snappier, more authentic version:

2 large cloves of fresh garlic, finely chopped then mashed with 1 tsp. sea salt

2 tablespoons ground almonds, 1 tsp.freshly ground white pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 to 1 +1/2 cups warm mashed potatoes (about 4 potatoes)

1 egg yolk (optional)

1/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

Blend in the order given, stirring the egg into warm potatoes until completely blended (this gives a pleasant color). Using a 2 or 4 cup pyrex measuring cup takes the guesswork out of proportions; this is easily doubled to serve 6. Continue stirring while adding the oil in a thin stream, then blend in the vinegar last. Let cool, cover and chill during the day. Serve with fish, grilled vegetables, or spread a dab of Skorthalia on a slice of toasted baguette and top with a small shrimp or plump mussel as an appetizer. Variations abound.