May it Please the Palate

 Greek Kapama Spice

The 2003 Greek movie A Touch of Spice is about the 1964 expulsion of Turkish-born Greek citizens from Turkey. The young protagonist’s grandfather owns a spice shop, and teaches him about cinnamon. In a sexist statement masquerading as deep thought, Grandfather explains that cinnamon is “Sweet and bitter like all women.” This metaphor could also apply to life itself – as most pseudo-philosophical Greek movies tend to be.

Grandfather also explains that cinnamon is the secret ingredient in flavoring meat. True to form, many regional Greek recipes use cinnamon, often in a tomato-based sauce. One such example is “Kapama,” used in dishes such as lamb, poultry, or vegetable stew. While you may not know the name, if you’ve had a Detroit Coney or Cincinnati chili, you have the basic idea. Cinnamon is an essential ingredient – with perhaps a touch of sweetness - to counter the savory of the meat, garlic, and onion.
 
As with barbeque sauce, there are countless variations of Kapama. Mine uses a dash of cinnamon; others feature it more prominently. I’ve seen recipes with Greek brandy, honey, cold coffee, and even dark chocolate. Like most things I cook, it’s better the next day – after all the guests have gone home, ‘natch. “I swear, it was really amazing when I reheated it in the microwave at the office!”

This recipe is adapted very loosely from my first Greek cookbook, called Classic Greek Cooking, by Daphne Metaxas. It was one of those elongated paperbacks popular in the’70’s, like those cat cartoon books that people gave as gifts, but ended up relegated to bathroom reading. Well, the Greek recipe book wasn’t popular per se … but I still have mine. Torn into pieces and burnt at the edges from sitting too close to the burner, every recipe was tried at least once. (Except for “Grandpa’s Marinated Liver Squares.” I hope Daphne understands.)

One final word: Anyone who reads my recipes understands by now that my proportions are rough estimates. Time was, I measured everything precisely. But then I started asking questions, like rhetorical ones to Daphne Metaxas. “Daphne,” I would say. “Why does your Chicken Kapama have garlic, but not your Lamb Kapama? Why 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg in the lamb, but you omit it in the green beans?”

Daphne just smiled. Women, you know. Sweet and bitter.
 
Chicken Stew Kapama
Ingredients
A chicken cut up into parts. (Dear vegetarians: this is optional. Yes, in a chicken stew. Read on.)
Olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 can tomato paste
1/4 cup red wine
1 tsp. allspice
? tsp. nutmeg
1 cinnamon stick or 1/4-1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 cloves
1 tsp. honey
1 bay leaf
1 large or two small potatoes, cut into 1” dice
1/2 lb. green beans, trimmed
grated graviera or kefolatyri, or parmesan reggiano

Directions

1. Heat about 1/4 cup oil, medium-hot and brown the chicken parts on all sides. Remove the chicken to a plate lined with paper towels. (Remember when I said this step was optional for vegetarians? It is. Skip this step and you will end up with a fine vegetable stew.)

2. Add a bit more oil in the pot (Vegetarians: start at this step). Lower heat. Add diced onions, saute until soft. Add garlic and saute for 30-60 seconds – do not burn!

3. Add red wine and the can of tomato paste, then  more water until you have a thin consistency, about 2 empty tomato paste cans worth. Add flavorings and simmer 15 minutes. Add water as necessary and stir occasionally.

4. Add potatoes and green beans and simmer another 15 minutes. Again, add water as necessary and stir occasionally. Do not let this concoction burn or stick to the bottom of the pan.

5. Leave over extremely low heat another 10 minutes, then shut off heat and stir, let sit for 5 more. Remove cloves and bay leaves.
Serve, top with optional grated cheese – though you don’t really need it – and eat with crusty bread. Enjoy with a glass red wine. Even better the next day, though they may frown on drinking wine at work next to the microwave.
 
Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation.
He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.