Thursday, January 27, 2011

Greek rissoles back in Sydney

When I was a young man in Sydney in the late '50s and early '60s (working with IBM), I often used to eat in a nondescript but charming restaurant called The Greeks, on the first floor of an old building not far from Central Station. Most of the clients were of Greek origins, along with a good smattering of young workers and university students. The atmosphere was unsophisticated and friendly, and the food was simple and excellent. Besides, it wasn't expensive. I always ordered the same dish: rissoles. They were unlike any of the beef rissoles I had ever tasted before then. Since then, I've never forgotten those delicious evening meals at The Greeks in Sydney, and I've often wondered what made their rissoles taste so special, so exotic.

Half a century later, thanks to the Internet, I've finally found several convincing answers to that question. First, I must point out that I'm no longer certain that the meat in those marvelous rissoles was in fact beef. It's quite possible that it was ground lamb, which would have been perfectly feasible in Australia (and in Greece, for that matter). Recently, I thought about testing that speculation, but I was discouraged by the question of purchasing ground lamb at my local supermarket. Most of the time, their mincing machines handle beef. So, if you want some ground lamb, you first have to choose a boneless cut of lamb, which is quite expensive here in France, and then you have to purchase an equivalent quantity of beef to be ground, to "clean" the mincing machine by removing the lamb. That procedure irritated me. So, I decided to postpone my test of lamb.

I believe that the mysterious ingredients that made the Greek rissoles so delicious were simply onions, garlic, thyme, corn starch (to "glue" everything together), olive oil and… chopped Greek olives.

Using low-fat ground beef, I prepared such a mixture in my superb red Magimix food processor (chosen for me by my daughter), dumped it onto a wooden cutting board and sliced it up into square rissoles, each of which I sprinkled with breadcrumbs. I decided—rightly or wrongly, I can't say—to allow the rissoles to settle for a few days in the freezer before taking them out, letting them thaw and then cooking them slowly on my Cuisinart grill.

The result, served up with fried tomatoes and onions, leaves no doubts in my mind. I've rediscovered the exotic flavor of the Greek rissoles of my youth in Sydney.

The simple lesson I've learnt through this interesting cooking experiment is that you can add quite a few ingredients to pure ground beef in order to obtain a tasty dish. I guess I could have found this out years ago, but I'd never bothered to use a food processor to test such ideas. Thinking back to The Greeks, I'm wondering what kind of device they used in their kitchen instead of an electric food processor. Maybe an old-fashioned meat grinder.

Meanwhile, in the ground beef domain, I've been amazed by a current news story on US gastronomy. It would appear that people over there are accustomed to devouring strange fodder hidden behind dubious names. A well-known fast-food chain proposes a Mexican delicacy for tacos: a "meat filling" composed of "seasoned ground beef". [I won't mention the identity of this company, because there's apparently a trial in progress, and I have no right to seek to influence its outcome by suggesting that the restaurants have done anything wrong.] Well, somebody on the Internet has supplied a list of all the stuff in their "seasoned ground beef". It's edifying gastronomical reading. First and foremost, there's less than 35 percent beef. As for the other 65 percent of the meat-like mixture, here's a list of their ingredients:

— water
— isolated oat product
— salt
— chili pepper
— onion powder
— tomato powder
— oats (wheat)
— soy lecithin
— sugar
— spices
— maltodextrin
— soybean oil (anti-dusting agent)
— garlic powder
— autolyzed yeast extract
— citric acid
— caramel color
— cocoa powder (processed with alkali)
— silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent)
— yeast
— corn starch (
sodium phosphate
— less than 2% of beef broth
— potassium phosphate
— potassium lactate
— natural flavors (including smoke)

Now, that list rings a bell, in the sense that I too used dried aromatic spices and a bit of corn starch (unmodified). Is it possible that the above list might have been the true recipe of the delicious rissoles that I used to eat at The Greeks in Sydney? Be that as it may, I prefer to stick to my olive-based discovery. And, to my US friends, let me say: Bon appétit !

POST SCRIPTUM: I'm annoyed because I'm incapable of recalling what they served up at The Greeks to accompany their rissoles. It was something simple and tasty. Mashed potatoes? Some other kind of vegetables? Spaghetti? Rice? If anyone can help me...