Eating a variety of hot and cold dishes, ensconced in small plates, is a culinary tradition in many countries. Spain has its tapas, Mexico’s Botanas, Philippines’ pica-pica, and the Balkan and Middle East nations have their delicious and healthy mezedes.
These little dishes are usually served with alcoholic drinks. They can be considered as the “appetizers” before the entrée, or they can be the main meal when eaten together, as the Spaniards do in their tapas bars. Greek tavernas also have different kinds of mezedes on their menus, which they serve with ouzo, an anise-flavored aperitif.
Mezedes can be made from meat, seafood, legumes, or vegetables. Nations that used to be under the Ottoman Empire now share many common mezedes such as hummus, a dip made from cooked chickpeas; falafel, fried balls from chickpeas and fava beans; kofte meatballs made with ground lamb or veal; tabbouleh, a bulgur and parsley salad; and fried cheese, using whatever is the best cheese of the region (Kefalograviera for Greece, halloumi for Cyprus).
My favorite little dishes are usually made from shrimps. Whenever I find it in a restaurant here in the Philippines, I order the Spanish tapas Gambas al Ajillo (the best is in Alba’s). In Greece, my preferred meze was Shrimp Saganaki.
There are different types of saganaki. There’s the popular cheese saganaki, which Filipinos are now familiar with owing to Cyma restaurant’s popularization of the flaming saganaki, a flambéed cheese dish that they will bring to you along with a vigorous shout of “Opa!”
Actually, this is not standard practice in Greece. Over there, they cook the cheese saganaki in a very simple manner and serve them without fanfare. After a light dusting of flour, the graviera is fried in olive oil in these little two-handled skillets called sagani or saganaki. Slices of lemon will be served on the side for a sublime hit of citrus with the fried cheese.
Mind you, Cyma didn’t invent this theatrical “Opa” flourish. According to Leah Zeldes of Dining Chicago, it was the American Greeks who first started this flaming saganaki dish, specifically in The Parthenon Restaurant in Greektown, Chicago.
A cheese saganaki is delicious, but unless you can find a good frying cheese like a Graviera, it will be difficult to duplicate it in the Philippines. However, shrimp/prawn saganaki will be easy to do since we have an abundance of these crustaceans in our markets.
To prepare this Greek dish, you need fresh prawns. They should be firm, glossy, and shouldn’t smell offensive (the smell should be of seawater). Frozen shrimps just won’t cut it for this dish; you’ll end up with rubber-textured meat. However, if you want to do a variant—a mussels saganaki—then it is fine to use frozen mussels especially those large ones in boxes from New Zealand.
The most important element in shrimp or mussels saganaki is the sauce: it should be tasty, sweetish-sour, slightly spicy, and creamy in parts where the cheese has melted. Everyone I’ve served this to wanted additional bread, to mop up all that delicious taste of the sea and sun.
1/2 kilo medium size fresh prawns
400 grams can of Italian tomatoes
a handful of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1 small red bell pepper, cut into medium cubes
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white sugar
sea salt and black pepper
a pinch or two of dried oregano
red pepper flakes
parsley, to garnish
1. Wash the prawns very well with water, trim the antenna, and drain in a colander. Slice off the heads and place in a bowl. Add salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and olive oil. Mix well and set aside.
2. Peel and devein the prawn bodies. Take a sharp knife and make a shallow cut along the back of the prawn. Pull out the dark vein and discard. Put the cleaned prawns into a bowl, and as with the heads, add salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and olive oil.
3. Heat up a large sauté pan and drizzle in some olive oil. When hot but not smoking, add the garlic. Cook the garlic only for a minute, or until slightly golden (don’t overcook). Quickly pour into the sauté pan all of the prawn heads. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the insides of the prawn heads appear dryish and cooked.
4. Decant into the sauté pan the Italian tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and the red bell pepper. Toss in some dried oregano, the sugar, some salt and pepper, and mix well. Pour in the white wine and let the mixture simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
5. Add the prawn meat, and gently fold it into the tomato mixture. Let it cook further, about 5 minutes. The shrimps are done when they have changed color. It is very important not to overcook the prawns for they taste best when soft and just cooked. As the cook you are allowed to taste, so take one shrimp to make sure it is cooked just right.
6. Taste the sauce, too, and make the necessary adjustments in the seasoning.
7. Turn off the heat and quickly pour into a deep plate or bowl all of that lovely prawn and tomato goodness. Top it with crumbled feta cheese, and some parsley if you wish, and serve with warm rye or sourdough bread.