Garides Saganaki: Shrimp with Tomato and Feta
When I think of ‘saganaki’, I think of salty flaming cheese with ouzo and crusty bread…..and then I sigh, smile, and daydream about gooey cheese until someone comes along to trip over me and break the reverie. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I learned what ‘saganaki’ really meant. Hey guys, it’s not always about cheese. Huh. The word ‘saganaki’ actually refers to the cooking vessel, a flat little metal frying pan with squat handles on both sides. It looks like a Turkish sagani, which is likely the origin of the name, but it is also similar to a cross between a tawa and karahi which are the equivalents from East Asia.
The thing is, now that we understand what saganaki means and how there’s more to saganaki than just cheese, the problem is that to me it IS still all about cheese. In fact, the better part of my life is all about cheese. If I’m not eating cheese then I’m certainly thinking about eating cheese, or watching somebody else eat cheese and wishing that it were me. Good news though, because many saganki menu items include a healthy dose of cheese to keep the those bones strong and that stomach padded. Greek shrimp saganaki varies regionally but almost always involves some form of cheese, from a creamy but salty feta to a firmly grated graviera, or a combination of cheeses somewhere in between.
I love the robust and honest flavors of Greek food, and this is no exception. Garides Saganaki is a fairly light but still soulful dish, where you first taste the sweet tomato and onions in contrast to the salty cheese, but vibrant dill and earthy oregano come following hot on those flavor heels with just the merest whiff of ouzo. This is a perfect dish to share among friends as part of a meze or appetizer table, but I speak from experience when I say that one dish, two spoons, and a pile of crusty bread is also the makings of an amazing date night dinner.
Garides Saganaki: Shrimp with Tomato and Feta
Serves 6 as an appetizer, 2-3 as an entree with bread and salad
- 1 lb large or extra large (21/26) uncooked shrimp *
- 1 lemon
- 2 lb ripe tomato (about 6 large Roma or hot house tomatoes) **
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 3 large cloves garlic
- 4-5 sprigs fresh oregano (1.5 tbsp finely chopped)
- 2-3 tall sprigs fresh dill (1.5 tbsp finely chopped + 1 tbsp garnish)
- pinch (1/8 tsp) red pepper flakes
- 1.5 oz ouzo
- 2 oz (60 g) Greek kefalotyri cheese ***
- 8 oz (225 g) feta cheese
- salt and pepper to taste
* Traditional garides saganaki often uses whole shrimp in the shell, complete with tail, legs, antennae and eyeballs. I think that’s just great, because so much flavor is housed in those shells and then you get to suck them dry. However, I’m the only one in this house who feels that way, so peeled and de-veined shrimp it is.
** April is still far from tomato season and most of the tomatoes that you can buy in the market or grocery store are still pale, tasteless and bland. Really, they’re no more than a cardboard copy of what a good tomato SHOULD be. That said, I can’t go all fall, winter and spring without fresh tomatoes, so if there are good looking and smelling organic/local hot house tomatoes I’m often willing to give them a shot. Sometimes they’re duds, but other times (like this time, thankfully), they have enough juicy flavor to satisfy. If you don’t want to take the chance, feel free to use a 28 ounce can of good quality chopped or whole tomatoes with their juices.
*** Kefalotyri is one of my favorite Greek cheeses, with it’s pungent salty flavor and firm body. Usually made from sheep or goat’s milk, the color can range from creamy ivory to a pale yellow color. Personally I find Cypriot kefalotyri to be of the most reliably good quality (a thin, salty slice with ouzo on the rocks makes for an excellent afternoon snack) but it can sometimes be hard to distinguish from others if it isn’t labeled as Cypriot in the store. If you wanted to substitute another Greek cheese, graviera is milder but still quite nice. No Greek cheeses in your area? You can try Parmiggiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano for the same salty and deep kick.
Preheat your oven to 425ºF.
Remove the membrane from your shrimp and peel them, leaving just the tail intact if you wish. I like to leave the tail on because it makes for such a pretty presentation, but there are some people (*cough*Mike*cough*) who are less than impressed with having to fish through succulent tomato sauce to remove the tails before plating up their snack. If you wish, take them off. The choice is yours.
Rinse the shrimp under cold running water and pat them dry. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over top and toss the shrimp around so that they’re nicely dressed.
Finely chop the onions and mince the garlic. Drizzle the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the onions and garlic into the cold pan, and set this over medium heat. Sauté the onions and garlic for 5-8 minutes or until the onions are soft and golden.
While the onions cook, core the tomatoes and chop into a 1/4″ dice. When the onions and garlic are ready, add the tomatoes to the pan.
Cook the tomatoes, stirring every so often, until they have soften and completely broken down into the sauce (about 10 minutes). Continue cooking down the sauce until it has thickened and looks almost dry. This will take about 20 minutes in total.
In the mean time, strip the dill and oregano leaves off the stems, which can be discarded, with the exception of 1-2 sprigs of dill that can be put aside for garnish. There should be about equal amounts of dill and oregano going into the sauce. Give the herbs a nice fine chop.
When the sauce has thickened enough you will be able to draw a line down the center of the pan with your spoon, and it will take about 10 seconds to fill back in.
Stir in the finely chopped herbs, red pepper flakes and ouzo. Let this cook together for 1-2 minutes before taking it off the heat. Season the mixture with plenty of freshly ground pepper but have a light hand with the salt because your briny feta and kefalotyri will more than make up for any seasoning which may lack.
If you don’t have a saganaki style pan (and I don’t), spread half of the tomato mixture into a fairly large (about 9×13″) shallow casserole dish. Nestle the shrimp evenly in one layer on top.
Smother the shrimp with the rest of the tomato mixture and crumble the feta evenly over top. With moistened hands try to press the feta gently into the rest of the mix.
Grate the kefalotyri (or parmesan) cheese and sprinkle it over top.
Tuck the dish into the center of your hot oven for 15 minutes, or until the tomatoes are bubbling up and the top of the cheese is melted and just starting to turn golden around the edges.
Finely chop the remaining dill and sprinkle it on top before serving your gorgeous, flavorful shrimp saganki to drooling guests who have been anticipating this dish by smell alone for 15 minutes or so
Have plenty of crusty bread on hand to sop up all of those fabulous juices.
If you were looking for a more elegant appetizer you could always bias cut a baguette and pile the shrimp saganaki onto the bread before serving it to guests, or you can do it “family style” and leave the dish in the center of the table. The latter will, of course, allow you to play a game of “Five, four, three, two….AND that’s it for the shrimp saganki.”
With sweet tomatoes and onions, salty-soft feta, and just a whiff of lusty herbal liquor from the ouzo, this dish is sure to satisfy. And don’t worry, there’s really no need to wait until guests are coming over to make this luscious little repast. If you find that it’s a Sunday night and you’re curled up with your lover on the couch, there’s nothing like a steaming hot dish of shrimp saganaki and a basket of crusty bread on the coffee table to get more than just the tomato juices flowing.