It’s rare for us to encounter something completely new and utterly delicious. Such is trahana, a traditional Greek starch somewhere between a grain and a straight ahead pasta. I’ll let Jody tell its story.
Trahana is a small pasta found in the cuisines of Greece, Turkey (where it’s called tarhana) and various other places throughout Southeast Europe and the Middle East. It’s made by mixing (pick one) white wheat, whole wheat, semolina flour or cracked bulgar with (pick one more) goat or sheep’s milk yogurt or soured milk, and sometimes (pick a third) vegetables and herbs, into a paste. The paste is allowed to ferment, then it’s dried. The dried paste is then ground to a coarse crumb texture, and often sieved to separate the crumbs from the powder. An herb called trahana, which gives the pasta its name, is traditionally added at the fermentation stage. While it contributes a thyme-like flavor it also inhibits bacterial growth that would interfere with fermentation.
I first discovered trahana in the months before we opened Saloniki, when we were tasting and testing ingredients and dishes from Weymouth, Massachusetts, where my Greek-american partner’s family lives, to Thessaloniki, in Greece, their place of emigration. At a Greek market in Belmont I found bags of trahana, both “sweet-milk” and “sour-yogurt.” Some looked like Panko crumbs, others like bulgar. Of course I had to buy it. All of it. I took 4 versions home and played around. I started by making a “sweet”, panko-like version, simply with olive oil and herbs, and topped it with yogurt and more olive oil. It was like a comforting porridge. I made a “sour” bulgar one into the stuffing of green peppers with feta, olives and capers that was filling and again, comforting. And in the cold weather, I discovered the either bulgar version was a great quick hearty starchy side dish for roast chicken and lamb.
A couple of things to note, trahana was probably developed as a convenience food. It travels well since it is light, doesn’t spoil, and is packed full of nutrients and flavor; you just add water for a flavorful filling dish. It would have been used by shepherds and travelers.
My business partner, Eric Papachristos, brought me a bag of fine trahana from Ioanna, his fiance, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Coincidentally Ken and I were on a Zoom call shortly thereafter with our friends Anne and Lex Alexander, and we talked about Black Lives Matter, golfing in a pandemic, and making sourdough bread. At the end of our call, Lex brought up a dish that had been recently described to him and wanted to know if I’d heard of it: trahana cooked with cherry tomatoes, onions and garlic. This blog post idea was handed to me like a gift. [Ken: Who doesn’t believe in synchronicity?]
This makes an amazingly comforting and compelling dish. The base is rich and full of umami and balanced with the acidic and sweet qualities of the tomatoes; the trahana becomes creamy, like a risotto; and the little crunchy chopped salad interrupts the danger of all of that becoming too much.
Trahana made with flour cooks quickly, from 3 to 5 minutes. Trahana made with bulgar can take up to 20 minutes. You may have to simply taste while you cook it to tell when it is done.
It’s best served warm or at room temperature, but I also stuck a spoon in the storage container straight from the fridge and was super happy.
Everytime I cook trahana it becomes less mysterious. I get more comfortable with the certainty of uncertainty in the knowledge that each bag is different. Just go for it.
Trahana with Tomatoes, Feta and a Little Spice
- 1½ pounds large tomatoes
- ½ pint cherry tomatoes
- 1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
- ½ serrano pepper, thinly sliced
- 1 scallion or other onion top, thinly sliced
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil + additional for drizzling over the plate
- 1 cup minced onion, about 1 large
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic, about 1 large clove
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper + additional for finishing
- 1 cup trahana (available in Greek, Turkish and some Middle Eastern markets and all over the place online – just Google it – or use bulgur instead)
- 4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
- 1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves or other fresh herb
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare an ice bath. Score the large tomatoes. Put the tomatoes into the boiling water for 10 seconds. Transfer immediately to an ice bath.
- Peel the tomatoes, core and cut into ½ inch pieces. You should have about 3 cups of chopped tomatoes.
- Prepare the salad; cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters. Put into a bowl with the celery, serrano pepper, scallion and season with salt. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil. Put in the fridge until ready to serve.
- Heat the remaining oil in a deep sided saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until tender, 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute. Season with salt.
- Add the tomato paste, sugar and 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper and cook for 2 minutes.
- Add the chopped tomato, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until the tomatoes are starting to fall apart, about 10 minutes. If you like, mash them up a little with a potato masher.
- Add 1 cup water and the trahana. Stir. Cover and cook until the trahana is tender and has absorbed most of the juices. It should be a little soupy. This will take from 3 to 20 minutes, depending on what kind of trahana you are using and how dry it is. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Serve the trahana in a shallow bowl, crumble some feta over the top.
- Add the oregano leaves to the salad, toss and spoon it over the feta.
- Sprinkle with Aleppo pepper and drizzle with more olive oil if you like.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.
As it happened Jody was wearing an apron from one of her favorite organizations as she cooked this week, Share Our Strength which, among their many worthy endeavors, is the No Kid Hungry program. As you might imagine, Covid-19 has only increased food insecurity among the most vulnerable in an already vulnerable population. We need to feed kids!
Also, in the middle of shooting the mail arrived, including the inspiration package from this year’s cancer-fighting PanMass Challenge. Despite the pandemic forcing the cancellation of bicycle rides that are at the heart of the ride raising money for the Dana Farber’s Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund, some riders will still be doing rides which will be zoomed in real time, or recorded, or simulcast. Covid-19 may have curtailed many activities, but not the research into cures for cancer. If you’d like to support Jody’s ride this year, go here.
When you’re a chef you get asked to contribute. A lot. Covid-19 has had an enormous impact on how much and even whether we can give. When 4 of the 5 restaurants Jody is involved with closed, she repurposed one of them as a soup kitchen. She continues to focus on things that were meaningful to her, and as local as possible. But now even that ability is threatened. She’s currently spending much of her time lobbying for the the RESTAURANTS ACT, legislation that would authorize $120B to establish the Independent Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Independent restaurants play a vital role in the economy – not only are they a major employer, but on average they return ninety-five cents of every dollar to local economies, much of which flows downstream to farmers, fisherman, wholesale grocers and suppliers. The IRRF would help sustain restaurants and their employees for the next year when, hopefully (yes, we are still full of hope), the world returns to normal. Without it, a year from now, the majority of independent restaurants will not only not be contributing to the causes that mean most to them, they’ll be gone. I am not exaggerating.
The pandemic has compromised the ability for many of us to give dollars, but something you can do that costs only a minute or two of your time is to urge your Representative to support the RESTAURANTS ACT. If you like eating in restaurants, if you like reading our blog, please go to the @indprestaurants website where you can ask your Representatives to take action today: www.saverestaurants.com/take-action. All of us would like to be here tomorrow.
Thank you. Stay safe.