In my personal desert island larder (you know, What would you take if you had to choose only a dozen or so dishes or ingredients on a desert island for the rest of your life?) Skordalia with Parsley Salad would surely rate shelf space.* And not because it includes potatoes. But because it includes evoo and vinegar and sometimes walnuts or almonds. And garlic, raw garlic. Call me a brute, but skordalia is about the raw garlic, and a little about the oil. The other stuff runs a distant third. For lovers of garlic, skordalia is ambrosia.
Skordalia in this country is usually made with potatoes so Americans tend to think of it, when they think of it at all, as the Greek version of garlic mashed potatoes. But in Greece skordalia is more often made with stale bread soaked in a little water or fish stock. What makes it skordalia isn’t the potato or the bread, but the evoo and vinegar or lemon, and garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. The etymology of skordalia sums it up neatly: “Garlic-garlicky.”
The garlic-garlicky etymology comes from a theory that identifies skordalia as a pleonastic compound (hey! wake up!). You already know about pleonastic compounds, you just don’t know you know. A pleonasm is a word made out of two words that mean the same thing, or when one of the terms repeats part of the meaning of the other term. ”True fact” is a pleonasm, “tuna fish” is another; “evil Voldemort” is a third (okay, now YOU go). And the words in skordalia? Skordos–Greek for “garlic,” and agliata–Italian for “garlicky.” Hence, garlic-garlicky. Pretty pleonastic, right? In case some smart aleck ever wonders aloud how the Greek skordos and the Italian agliata ever crashed into each other, you might remind him that Venice once ruled much of the Mediterranean, including Cyprus, Crete and much of modern coastal Greece.
Greeks consider skordalia a sauce, perhaps because it is so often served with batter-fried fish, and because sometimes they skip the potatoes or bread entirely, maybe adding just a few pulverized nuts to help bulk up the evoo-garlic combination. I have a tough time wrapping my head around anything so thick it can be plated with an ice-cream scoop as a sauce. But that’s just me, because while we generally make skordalia and some kind of small sharp salad to go with grilled swordfish, we always make enough for leftovers. In the following few days we polish off the leftover skordalia, alone (okay, with a refresher salad), and I have no trouble wrapping my head around that.
*as would roast duck, white truffle risotto, kimchi, shiitake mushrooms, and local seafood; I’m afraid there wouldn’t be room for beef. You: Hey! You’re choosing finished dishes with lots of ingredients! Me: That’s right. My island, my larder, my rules. You want to count parsley as a single choice on YOUR island, be my guest.
**I am indebted to British food writer Alan Davidson and his amazing and entertaining PENGUIN COMPANION TO FOOD (2002, The Penguin Group, New York) for the “garlic-garlicky” story.
Makes 4 side-dish servings
- 2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and cut into large pieces
- Kosher salt
- 3 – 4 garlic cloves, depending on the size, finely grated with a microplane
- ½ cup + 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, use a fruity bold-flavored oil. I prefer Greek for this recipe.
- 2 tablespoons champagne vinegar (or high-quality white wine vinegar)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Put the potatoes in a saucepan, cover with cold water by one inch, season with salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Be careful not to overcook them or they will become waterlogged.
- Drain, return the potatoes to the pan over medium heat and cook, tossing and mashing until the potatoes are dry, about 5 minutes. While the potatoes are still warm, push them through a ricer or large-holed strainer into a large bowl. (Don’t let them cool or they’ll be too gummy to push through the ricer.) Beat in the garlic and the olive oil. Add the vinegar, season with salt and pepper to taste. You may want to add more vinegar or more oil, depending on the intensity of all the ingredients and you personal taste. It should be a bold slightly acidic mixture.
- Serve warm or at room temperature topped with the salad.
Parsley Salad with Olives, Capers, Tomatoes, Cilantro, Mint and Preserved lemon
- 1/2 bunch parsley leaves, all stems removed, about 1 cup, washed and dried
- 1/4 cup each mint and cilantro leaves, washed and dried
- 1 scallion, green and white parts, thinly-sliced into rounds
- 2 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
- 2 teaspoons minced preserved lemon rind
- 1/2 cup pitted small olives (e.g. Nicoise, Taggia, Lucques, Pichioline)
- 1 cup fava beans, blanched and peeled, you should end up with 1/2 cup peeled beans
- 1/2 pint grape tomatoes, cut into ½ inch rounds
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeeze lemon juice
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, add more if you like
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- If the herb leaves are large, tear them up a bit, or chop if you prefer.
- In a large bowl, toss all of the salad ingredients together. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
- This is best if it sits for 15 minutes before serving. It gives the flavors time to meld and the herb leaves to soften.
Is it a sauce? Is it a condiment? In its homeland this Greek dish blurs the distinction between sauce and condiment, between condiment and side dish, between hot and room-temperature food. Whatever skordalia may be, it is much more than mashed potatoes. The dominant flavors are of potato, olive oil, raw garlic and vinegar; the combination is at once sensual and primitive.
Just in case you thought you’d save yourself some time by using a food processor for this recipe—don’t. The potatoes will turn gummy, instead of remaining starchy, and the garlic will taste too strong (yes, Ken, it is possible to have too much garlic).
Regarding the salad, I can already hear the complaints about the favas. They’re hard to find! They’re expensive! They’re labor-intensive!
All true. But I love them to death, I use them every chance I get, and and since fresh favas have a short season I don’t mind all the shelling and peeling. If you don’t share my enthuisaim favas, edamame or thin green beans both make fine substitutions. Or you could skip the bean component altogether and add a handful of chopped walnuts. The salad will still be great.
I spent a fair amount of time fidgeting on the day I made this while Ken figured out how to maximize the watery gray light from the downpour outside. It’s become kind of running joke in our house: Are we blogging today? Yup. Then be sure to take an umbrella.
In any event I decided to take advantage of the idle moments by working a few calisthenics into my culinary efforts. I puffed out 20 push-ups as the favas were blanching, followed by a set each of squat-thrusts and lunges while the potatoes simmered. Then, instead of using a ricer or food mill on the cooked potatoes, I pounded them through a China cap (you can see it in the picture below). I’m sure all of these efforts earned me a skip on the heavy bag during one of my tri-weekly boxing workouts. . . and the right to eat a small bowl of skordalia and parsley salad when I got home from the restaurant late that night.