Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Tuesday 29 January 2008

Chili con carne (Κιμά με τσίλι και κόκκινα φασόλια)

I recently held a small party to celebrate our son's birthday. We invited only one other family who also have children our son's age, and I cooked only the bare minimum needed for a dinner party: chicken roast, lemon potatoes, pilafi rice, hare stew (the specialty of the evening), lettuce salad, cabbage salad and a saucy chocolate cake for Aristotle to blow out the candles. The party went well, although I must admit not all the menu did. Here are my salad blunders, in order of magnitude:

Lettuce salad: I decided to prepare all the salads on the night before the party, so that I could have the next morning to myself: the children would need to be dropped off and picked up at their Saturday morning activities, and I could do a little vacuuming before the guests came. In Greece, we never shred lettuce, we cut it with a knife. BIG mistake. The next evening, the lettuce had clearly oxidised after being cut with a steel knife, so it was tinged with a slightly red rusty look on the white stalky parts; it looked unappetising, even though its taste was not altered. That was one salad no one really wanted to try, and I can’t blame them.

Cabbage salad: My absolute favourite autumn salad is this one. I like to add grated carrot and slivered red pepper, which is still in season in autumn. Given that I am a fanatic of eating food in season, what on earth was I thinking of when I bought some red peppers in the winter? BIG mistake. The salad looked luscious, the red and orange of the pepper and carrot mixing in with the greenish-tinged cabbage. On tasting it, I realised that the (enormous) pepper had a chemical taste, which clearly points to where it was raised, and what nutrition it had received (greenhouse, chemical fertilisation, of course). It tasted awful; anyway, what did I expect of out-of-season food?

What to say? We all learn from our mistakes. Now I have to find a way to use up (or throw out) the red peppers I bought. Eating them raw is out of the question; they need to be cooked in a casserole.

It’s been raining on and off today, with some hail in between. Our hills are covered in patches of snow, while the White Mountains in Hania have been covered in it for a couple of months now. That makes me feel great – all this talk of climate change, the destructive forest fires of the past summer, and how we’ll never have a winter in the Mediterranean worried me slightly, but to tell you the truth, we’ve had a cold winter this year, and we’ve even had to dig out our heavy coats to brace ourselves for the bad weather. Hania has seen snow before - just four years ago, the south of Greece, including all the islands were covered in snow. From the aeroplane I was travelling in, on Febraury 15, 2004, all the islands looked like a icebergs. Our house was covered in snow which had melted just before we arrived back home.

When the alarm clock rang this morning, I decided not to wake the children up to take them to school. Why travel in this weather when Greek roads (and the Greek mentality) are not made for these kinds of conditions? I cancelled my bank appointment and stayed indoors. Does that make me a bad mother? Not when I would have returned to the comfort of my heated home while they would’ve been cooped up in freezing classrooms. And if it had snowed after all, I might not have been able to take them back home, so that would have been another disaster. My colleagues spent the night at the school on the day that snow covered the whole of Hania, and didn't get back to their homes until the next morning. I took the place of their teacher, while they continued on to the next lesson from their set coursebooks. Then they had the day free, and no one (except poor Dad) had to brave the weather.

Today’s weather is a perfect excuse to cook something hot and spicy, but we can only use what we’ve got in the house, no shopping expeditions allowed. I’ve found a way to get rid of those peppers: chilli con carne, a truly international dish, that has its origins, not in the country that it is associated with, but in the Western New World, in the same way that chow mein was invented in the USA, and not China. There's even a spare tin of red beans in the larder, which we use only to make this dish. It's now or never. Here’s a recipe from the BBC Good Food site that uses red peppers (although I suppose you could use green or yellow peppers equally successfully), and if I make it not too hot, then three out of four of us will eat (Christine’s tastes are more mature than Aristotle’s); and that’s just what we did, with a cabbage salad (no red pepper this time) and plain boiled rice – divine. I suppose you think I’m not a good mother again, because I didn’t make anything for Aristotle. But I did in actual fact. He loves plain rice served with Greek strained yoghurt. And there was leftover chicken from a previous meal, which he also ate. So there, we were all happy!

For the sake of convenience, the recipe is reprinted here (with my alterations in italics). The instructions are so detailed that I didn’t make many changes to them, either. There are also six good shots of this dish which closely resemble the meal I cooked, so my photos are more a guide as to what my version looked like.

You need:
1 tbsp oil (if you’re Greek, use half a cup of olive oil)
1 large onion minced
1 red pepper chopped into matchstick slivers
2 garlic cloves , peeled and minced
1 heaped tsp hot chilli powder (I used less)
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
500g lean minced beef
1 beef stock cube (I used a glass of red wine instead)
400g can chopped tomatoes
½ tsp dried marjoram (I didn’t have any)
1 tsp sugar (a tip in the recipe says to use a small piece of dark chocolate instead, which I did, but I didn’t bother to tell my husband)
2 tbsp tomato purée
410g can red kidney beans
salt and freshly ground pepper

Over medium heat, add the oil to the pan and leave it for 1-2 minutes until hot. Add the onions and garlic, stirring frequently, until the onions become translucent. Tip in the red pepper, chilli, paprika and cumin. Leave it to cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat up a bit, add the meat to the pan and brown it. Keep stirring until all the mince is in uniform-sized lumps and there are no more pink bits. Make sure you keep the heat hot enough for the meat to fry and become brown, rather than just stew.

Add the wine into the mixture, then add the tomatos and chocolate. Season with salt and pepper, and stir the sauce well. Bring the whole thing to the boil, give it a good stir and put a lid on the pan. Turn down the heat until it is gently bubbling and leave it for 30 minutes. You should check on the pan occasionally to stir it and make sure the sauce doesn't catch on the bottom of the pan or isn't drying out. If it is, add a couple of tablespoons of water and make sure that the heat is very low. After simmering gently, the saucy mince mixture should look thick, moist and juicy.

Drain and rinse the beans in a sieve and stir them into the chilli pot. Bring to the boil again, and gently bubble without the lid for another 10 minutes, adding a little more water if it looks too dry. Taste a bit of the chilli and season. It will probably take a lot more seasoning than you think. Now replace the lid, turn off the heat and leave your chilli to stand for 10 minutes before serving; this is really important as it allows the flavours to mingle with the meat. Serve on a bed of rice with Greek strained yoghurt or grated cheese as a topping. And if there's any left over, you can freeze it in single servings to be enjoyed during another cold blustery hailstorm.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Cottage pie

Summer horta
Winter horta
Cabbage salad
Lettuce salad
Greek village salad
Cretan salad

Beetroot salad

Monday 28 January 2008

Perfect chocolate cake (Βραστό κέικ σοκολάτας)

The first time I had this perfectly moist chocolate cake was in my perfect colleague's perfect house. We were both teachers of English working for a private language school. Language schools always work in the afternoon and evening; as soon as children finish state school, they come home, have lunch, then start doing their homework for afternoon classes. Then they attend all those afternoon tutorial-style schools and clases and lessons (sometimes in a classroom setting, other times with a private tutor in their own home), one of these lessons being English. We often had to get together to discuss the progress of the ctudents, coursebooks and teaching methodology. Sometimes we would meet up at the school itself: a ground-floor apartment, the former home of the owner. But since my colleague had just got married, it was the perfect chance to open her perfect home for a perfect afternoon tea on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Having arrived at the apartment building where her home was located, I was not prepared for the stark contrast between the indoor and outdoor settings. The apartment block looked as awful as any other built in the times when space was limited and money was stretched a long way. The whole block was square and white; the window shutters were made of a common substitute for wood: dirty-brown coloured aluminium. Once I entered, I realised how seriously wrong I was in my judgement: I did feel a little underdressed, having come in jeans, woolly pullover and sneakers. I didn’t know where (or how) to sit. The living room looked like the perfect Home and Garden photo shoot, with its appropriately placed heavy furnishings in the classic ‘Look at me, I’m rich’ style: Viennese chairs with studded padding and thick velvety fabric, wall units displaying a collection of crystal ornaments, curtains fanning out onto the floor. I could just imagine a young child crawling along the floor, grabbing the curtains with oil-stained hands, while the wall unit was covered in fingerprints. I'm sure her cleaning lady would be very understanding.

It is a custom here in Crete, for those whose parents can afford it, to create a perfect environment for the newlywed couple before they get married, so that when they do get married, they can live happily ever after, if such a thing exists. The sham of the perfect marriage is still being continued, despite the constantly rising number of perfect marriages that have ended up in a perfect divorce settlement, which usually goes along the lines of "if your parents gave it to you, then you can keep it." Crete is a wealthy area of Greece; new economic migrants as well as Greeks from other parts of the country are quite happy to move here because of the better employment opportunities for those who want to live away from large urban areas. The shops are geared towards rich people: there’s a bridal shop (or more than one) in every main shopping street, and I swear I saw Burberry trousers for children being sold in a posh baby’s clothes shop, with a price tag of 100 euro (and a coat to match for 200 euro). The stuck up rich are everywhere here. They work in their hotels in the summer, and go to Thailand in the winter. They drive their jeeps on our narrow roads, and use their cellphones indiscriminately. They keep company with their own kind, and you can only join it if you ‘are’ something (ie a lawyer, or a doctor, or a public servant), or you ‘have’ something (ie money).

The house reminded me of my mother’s aspirations for the perfect home in Wellington. When we had originally bought the house, it had bay windows, as all the 100-year-old-plus Victorian wooden houses of Mt Victoria had in the mid-70s. But when my parents bought it, they tore them down with a vengeance and replaced them with ugly silver aluminium window frames, as large as shop windows. Why on earth did they do that? To save on building over the gaping holes they left behind with wood, because it was cheaper to cover a large area with glass and aluminium than it was to cover the same surface with wood. The end result was that we lived in the ugliest house on the street – that is, if you looked at it from the outside only. Inside, the whole place resembled a Minoan palace, with arches in the hallway and a huge double lounge-cum-dining-room, separated by concertina glass doors decorated with ballerinas and a map of Crete with a Cretan man in traditional dress leading looking out over the island. The television was in the less formal sitting room adjoining the kitchen, rendering the formal lounge a dust-gathering white elephant most of the year round. We used this room just three times a year: at my father’s nameday at Christmas, on Easter Day and at my sister’s girly birthday parties.When my sister and I left for Europe, the house must have become dull and lifeless. Life is more simple these days: I vowed never to live like my parents, ever. I now live in a comfortable home where every single room is used on a daily basis. It follows the Goldilocks law of ‘just right’: not too big, not too small, not too cold and not too hot.

My perfectly dressed, perfectly coiffed colleague (with a perfect body) served us coffee in cups with saucers and tiny silver spoons to stir our sugar with. I had almost forgotten what it was like to drink coffee using anything other than a large thick mug. She brought out the velvety-smooth chocolate cake, along with some melt-in-the-mouth biscuits and syrupy apple pie, all home-made by herself. She served us a piece of each sweet, and then sat back cross-legged in her classic high-backed upholstered armchair sipping her coffee. ‘Aren’t you having any cake yourself?’ I asked her. ‘Oh no, I don’t really feel like any right now.’ Cakes are never part of a daily-weigh-in calorie-counting-fanatic’s diet.

I liked this cake so much that I asked her for the recipe. She gladly passed it on to me. I also realised that this is the cake that is often served at cafes and trendy coffee shops in Hania.In fact, I've seen it included in some Greek recipe websites, all under the general label of boiled cake (βραστό κέικ), which shows how widely its fame has spread. The texture, taste and appearance are all the same, with the exception of the extra sauce that is poured over each huge individual slice, which I found out how to copy (see the instructions that follow). Although I have inherited my mother’s Royal Albert cup-and-saucer collection, I cannot imagine I will ever use it when serving this cake. My children are too young to ask me yet what it’s used for, but maybe one day when I make this cake again for their birthday (as they always ask me to do), I might get it out and read this story to them to help them understand a little more about where it came from and the grandmother that owned it, who they have never met.

To make this perfect chocolate cake, you need:
6 eggs, separated
12 tablespoons
of water
5 tablespoons of cocoa powder
2 tablespoon
s of lemon juice
2 tablespoons of cognac (brandy)
2 vials of vanilla powder
300g margarine
2 cups of sugar
1 3/4 cups of self-raising flour AND
2 teaspoons of baking powder
Boil everything together EXCEPT t
he eggs, flour and baking powder. Beat the egg yolks and add them slowly to the cooled chocolate mixture, taking care that the eggs do not ‘cook’ in the warm chocolate mix. This is not really a disaster, but it will have an effect on the final appearance of the cake. Then pour out one large glass of mixture and set it aside, in the freezer. It will not freeze, but it does need to be quite cold for the recipe to work.

Now add the flour and baking powder to the remaining mixture, then beat the egg whites till stiff, and fold them into the batter. Pour it out into a greased pyrex dish. Bake for 25 minutes at 200C. The cake will be ready when you insert a knife into it and it comes out clean. Cut the hot cake into squares but don't lift the pieces out of the pyrex dish. Pour the freezer mixture over all the cake, ensuring that it goes into the cracks. This cake can be served at room temperature, but don't put it into the fridge, because it shrivels and hardens.

To make a more spectacular dessert, bake the cake as instructed, and make up another batch (or half, if you don’t want to be too wasteful concerning egg whites) of the sauce mixture: use all the ingredients, EXCEPT the egg whites, flour and baking powder, as described above. Put the mixture in the fridge and when it is time to serve the cake, pour the extra sauce (slightly warmed to a pouring consistency in the microwave) over each individual piece served, so that it spreads over the cake and around the plate. Served in this way, the cake will remind of something you have eaten at a trendy upmarket café. It is divine when served with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream or some whipped cream.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Simple cake
Chocolate muffins
Choclate balls
Chocolate pancakes

Sunday 27 January 2008

Lagos Stifado (Λαγός στιφάδο - hare stew)

Hare in Crete has always been considered a delicacy, because it isn't in plentiful supply, poachers are always hunting them illegally, and small-fry village folks basically enjoy bragging about how many they caught or ate (or both) in a year. A big deal is also made about how to cook hare. It is said that only a traditional cook can know how to do this, and who, may I ask, cooks traditionally in this day and age when most hunters are young souvlaki-eating peasants, while their mothers have abandoned the upkeep of hearth and home in search of paid employment to pay off the modern tradition of building and furnishing homes for their children before they get married? The idea of a Mediterranean diet holds true only in certain classes of people in Crete; most have moved far away from the regime of very little meat and a lot of fresh green vegetables and pulses (beans). You need only look around Hania and the villages which make up its environs and you will discover that there are as many souvlaki diners and cake shops as there are bakeries and corner stores (selling chocolates and cigarettes, as well as newspapers and magazines) in each village or neighbourhood. And if you take a look at the people, you'll notice that they are stout (stout being the euphemism for 'fat').

Hare (as opposed to rabbit) is considered a luxury, true decadence. It is served only in private homes; especially in Crete, there are more hunters than there are hares. Hare is served as a calebratory meal. I cooked this one as part of a children's birthday party where adults were invited. We only cook hare in the company of close friends. You can tell whether the cook has substituted rabbit for hare by the colour of the meat; rabbit is white, whereas hare is bloody brown when cooked. Even though my husband is a hunting fanatic, I generally cook kouneli stifado rather than lagos, as there just isn't enough lago to go round; my husband usually catches birds no bigger than partridges most of the time, as there isn't really much in the way of game in Crete, apart from wild goat, which is forbidden due to its being an endangered species, and hare, which is permitted only during certain periods of the year, and never at night with large flashlights. He always gave them to his mother to cook, because, as he says, his wife "doesn't know" how to cook hare. "But I cook rabbit all the time," I'd complain. "Ah," spoke the wise man, "it's not the same."

One year, when his 80-year-old mother admitted that she wasn't up to cooking game any longer, he gave the hare to a neighbour - another old lady - to cook, and we ate the hare at her place. Wonderful, I said to my co-vivant, when your mother passes away, and the neighbour has other things to do (or she passes away too), there'll be no one to cook the hare for you, and since your wife was never given a chance to learn to cook hare, then the tradition will die out in your house, and what do I care, as that'll be one less job for us to deal with.

He took the point. The first time he asked me to cook hare, he told me to consult his mother, which I duly did, although I knew that there would be no recipe involved: it would all just be hints (cook the hare in its own juices), and tips (cut the hare into small pieces because its meat is tough and won't cook easily), and secrets (you should never add any water while cooking hare), and advice (cook the hare in plenty of wine). I went back upstairs, and told the mister that his mother told me just what to do, so will he let me get on with it. I consulted my recipe book by a well-known husband-and-wife team of Cretan cooks (Psilakis), and found out that there were just as many ways to cook hare as there are cooks. I picked one, and cooked the hare accordingly. The recipe is very similar to one that I found on the web for stifado rabbit, except that you will need more cooking time in the second phase, due to the nature of meat that has been reared in the wild: rabbit needs less time than hare to cook, and it tastes lighter.

Because the average hare is usually too small to make decent servings for a meal for many people at a dinner party, baby onions are added to make the dish more substantial. In this way, each person attending the dinner party can take one piece of meat, along with 2-3 onions and some sauce onto their plate without feeling coy about eating this rarity. If you want to omit this step, it is perfectly possible to simply add the salt and all the liquids just before the first time you seal the pot. I always add the onions because I love onions (and garlic); I add more than is necessary in any dish. And because this is a rather heavy meal on the stomach, I would never cook it in summer. If you are manage to catch a hare in the summer months, skin it and freeze it for later. Believe me, it'll be worth it.

For the marinade: you need:

1 hare (or rabbit)
1 litre of wine
2 medium onions
6 cloves of garlic cloves
5 bay leaves
a teaspoon of carnation cloves
a tablespoon of peppercorns
Marinate the hare overnight in enough wine to cover it, along with the chopped onions, sliced cloves of garlic, and the spices. This is important because hare tends to be heavy on the nose and the gut, so it needs to be tenderised as much as possible in order to make it more palatable and digestable.

For the stew, you need:
1/2 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
5 bayleaves
1 teaspoon of carnation cloves
1 tablespoon of peppercorns
1 small glass of wine
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
20-24 small firm onions
ssalt (cumin may be added, but NOT chili - hare is a Mediterannean delicacy, not an Asian takeaway)

The next day, you can choose to discard the marinade OR set aside the spices and onion to re-use them in the stew. I prefer to use a new set. It sounds wasteful, but this is just a matter of psychology; the wine takes on a floury appearance as the meat sits in it, and it puts me off. Suit yourself.

Place the hare, chopped into small pieces in the same way that you would chop chicken or rabbit, in a large pot with the olive oil and roughly chopped onion. Over medium heat, brown all the pieces of hare. When the meat has lost its raw look, pour a small glass of wine over the hare, along with the bay leaves, peppercorns and carnation cloves. Place a lid on the pot, and turn down the heat to its lowest point. Forget about the hare for the next hour. Don't even think of opening the pot.

After the hour is up, open the lid. The kitchen will now take on the most alluring aroma; think open fields, country cottages, autumn weather and fireplaces. Now add two dozen small onions (peeled with a cross cut carved into the pointed - top - part of each onion) into the pot. Pour in the tomato paste melted into a small glass of wine and add the salt. Give the whole thing a stir, and place the lid on the pot once again. Let the hare cook for another hour on low heat. When the cooking time is over, the hare will have turned dark brown in colour.

Hare is served classically with fried potatoes - I can't think of a better way to ruin the wholesome flavour. Try this meal with rice - the sauce from the stew is a perfect dressing for it. I have used exactly the same recipe to cook rabbit, and it worked well for it, too, although it needed much less cooking time - the stage of overnight soaking in wine is optional.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Rabbit on a crockpot
Fried rabbit

Thursday 24 January 2008

Lemon rabbit in a crockpot (Κουνέλι λεμονάτο στο φούρνο)

Recently our neighbour Andreas, who keeps rabbits and hens, gave my husband a skinned rabbit. I say skinned because if it still had its fur, I wouldn't have wanted it. I can handle cooking meat in my small conventional modern kitchen, but dead animals require a different setup. Some people may not like to see a rabbit - or a chicken or a lamb or any other conventional edible animal - in its whole skinned form, but I don't have any qualms about it. Either you know what you're eating, or you don't want to know it - take it or leave it. I quite like rabbit meat - it tastes a little like chicken meat, only with a more game-like taste. We also used to eat rabbit on a fairly regular basis in New Zealand, because they were considered a pest, and farmers were more than happy for gun-happy hunters to come onto their properties and kill off as many as possible. They were never sold in the butcher's in those years. Pests are like rodents; we don't eat mice, rats and opposums, so who would expect us to eat rabbits? On my last visit to the land of the long white cloud, I was tol dmy aunt that rabbit meat is now available in some luxury food suppliers like Moore Wilson, who used to deal in wholesale imported food products, before opening up to the personal shopper trade. My mother would always turn the rabbits my hunting fanatci cousin brought her into a stew, cooked in a similar way as for hare. I asked Papa Bear when he would like me to cook up a stifado - rabbit stew with baby onions. He was not very enthusiastic; 'maybe next week', he said, again and again. So the rabbit went into the freezer, and this has been been going on for about two months now.

Andreas popped in to see us the other day. He brought us three firm red ripe tomatos from his garden and one sole egg. He explained to us that since there are only two people in his household - he lives with his wife and his children are grown up and have moved away - food doesn't get eaten up very quickly in his house. But farming is his hobby, he can't do away with the chickens and the rabbits and the vegetable garden and the fruit trees. Since he retired, he has also taken up cooking as a hobby, among his other interests like fishing. Take it from me, he's really quite an amazing cook. The first thing I ever tried that he had made was eggplant pickle. He had made a large slit in the eggplant, and boiled it till it was tender. Then he stuffed it with grated carrot, parsley, onion and garlic. He tied up each and every aubergine he had stuffed in this way with some sewing thread, then he put the lot in a pickling liquid consisting of vinegar, oil and salt. It was a brilliant accompaniment to a bean dish. Another day he bought us a shrimp rosotto; he had fished the shrimps himself, and the rice he chose to cook with was the jasmine-scented type from the supermarket. OK, Andreas is not your average Cretan, but aren't we lucky to have someone interesting in Hokeypokeyville? Sometimes, living on an island town in the Mediterranean can drive you bonkers...

Anyway, Andreas, came round last night with - you guessed it - another rabbit. So I guess we're gonna have that rabbit stew after all. But not quite. He said he'd come and cook it up for us the way he likes it. His wife often suffers from depression, and now with the cold weather, I can understand why he needs to get out of the house more often. He obviously wants the company, and we didn't mind either. My daily whadamigonnacooktoday problem has just been solved. But I didn't know how I would react having an older man cooking in my kitchen. I decided I would just snap a few photos.

Andreas brought with him a ceramic oven pot with a lid - we call it a 'gastra'. I don't own one myself, but after today, I'm definitely going to be buying one in the sales. We set the oven to warm up. All Andreas did was cut the rabbit into pieces, place it in the crockpot, pour the juice of two lemons over it, and season it with salt, pepper and oregano. As there was some space left in the pot, he asked us to peel a few potatoes and add them to the pot, which he dotted with butter. No added lipids, and absolutely no water. This went into the oven, which was now set at 180C. and didn't come out for two hours. The times and temperature of course must be taken only as a gauge; rabbit meat comes in different degrees of tenderness, while different ovens cook in different ways.

When the cooking time was over, we opened the oven, which didn't seem to be cooking much, because the crockpot was sealed well enough to keep its content well concealed. We took the crockpot carefully out of the oven; these things get very hot, and they're also extremely fragile - nothing like a metal tin you can bang around wherever! The lid came off, and our noses filled with the aroma of the stewed meat. The rabbit was browned, while the potatoes were tender and puffy. There was plenty of liquid in the pot - more than we needed really. We left the lid off and returned the crockpot into the oven, to allow the potatoes to develop a crunchy skin. Not that they weren't cooked, but it's a matter of taste. What I especially liked about this dish was that it contained no oil, and no added lipids (apart from the potatoes that were just dotted with butter). We had rabbit and roast potatoes with a cabbage salad and some feta cheese. Bread was unnecessary - there were no oily tomato sauces to mop up!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Fried rabbit
Hare/rabbit stew

Wednesday 23 January 2008

Chocolate muffins (Κεκάκια σοκολάτας)

I almost forgot my son's birthday tomorrow (what kind of a mother am I?) whichmeans he's going to need to take some sweets with him to school. As we are a small family with few close relatives and next-of-kin living close by to us, we usually hold small celebrations. But there is a nice Greek custom of sharing out cakes and sweets on your nameday or birthday (or both) at your workplace, and this extends to schoolchildren, among their classmates. This custom suits us to a tee: Aristotle will be surrounded by his friends, there'll be no mess to clean up afterwards, and he'll hear a chorus of well-wishers singing the Greek 'Happy Birthday' song to him:

"Αριστοτέλη, να ζήσεις και χρόνια πολλά, (To Aristotle, a good life and many years,)
μεγάλος να γίνεις με άσπρα μαλλιά, (may you grow old with white hair,)
παντού να σκορπίσεις τις νιότης το φώς, (wherever you go, spread the light of youth)
και όλοι να λένε "Να ένας σοφός"! (and everyone will say 'Now there's a wise man'!)

The custom is to buy some ready-made individually wrapped cream cakes or chocolates, or to send off a big cream cake with candles on it. These cakes are always bought from a local confectioner's or patisserie. The packaging is always luxurious, and of course, unnecessary. It is true that you need the time and inclination to make something home-made. I decided to make some luxurious-looking, scrumptious muffins, which took only 10 minutes to make, and another 20-25 minutes to cook. They look spectacular, and they remind me of my husband's introduction to this very non-Greek dessert.

It was cold, damp and drizzly Friday in London as we were walking around near the Bank of England. At one point, it started pissing with rain, so we decided that we would have to take shelter somehow. We ended up eating a rather early lunch close to St Pauls' in the City at a cafe which served lots of ploughman's lunches for burly construction site workers, as well as more refined meals like chili con carne and curried chicken. We each had one of those, while the children ate a tomato-sacue peene pasta dish. Quite a few businessmen were also haveing lunch or coffee there, while they were constantly on their cellphones. The food was very hearty, and I liked its light taste. It filled you up and it wasn't too oily. The dining room area was the most intriguing part of the visit. It reminded me of Charles Dickens' Christmas story; with its red brick-built walls, it looked like an underground sewer that had been drained and turned into a dining room. The roof was covered in brick arches, and in one corner, there was a disused fireplace. All that was missing was a poor Victorian family huddling around it. I could imagine a family of wretches living there in the 1850s; either that, or it could have been the kitchen area where the cook would prepare meals downstairs, then put it in the hatch (there was one above the fireplace) and ring the bell for the servants to pick up upstairs and serve it to the lady and the lord who lived there. There were no windows, so whoever lived or worked there could never see the sun, or get any fresh air. Spooky if you have never seen this sort of place before. The waitress, interestingly enough, was Portuguese.

Being a bold traveller, I asked her about how she ended up in London, and what her future plans were. She opened her heart out to us; I suppose she didn't often see families coming in to this diner and she could relate to us as fellow Mediterraneans. She had left Portugal with her husband because of the high unemployment they both faced there. They were both working in various jobs, trying to save as much money as they could in order to go back home for good one day. She had gotten very depressed lately, because of the high cost of living in an overcrowded city with a bad housing situation - she and her husband lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, which cost them most of her own pay from working at the diner. She couldn't even think of having children becuase of the expenses and the lost income. She also complained about the food; Portuguese specialties were not easy to obtain of course, and when they were available, they were quite costly. She told me she didn't know how long she would be able to endure London life, and being away from her family. I felt sorry for her.

The waitress reminded me of my parents who left their villages in Crete because they were poor and knew that they had no prospects of self-improvement in their own homeland. I wondered what my life would be like now if they hadn't done that. I wondered if I might have been this young lady, leaving my poor origins behind in search of better prospects. My own success in this globalised world is due in part to their sacrifices. I ended up leaving my own homeland and making my new home in another part of the world, but for completely different reasons from my own parents - I felt like a change, it wasn't a situation forced on me for economic reasons.

'Anyone for sweets?' I knew that only the children would say yes, only to be cut down by a no from their father, but the muffins did look tempting in the shop. 'It's a traditional kind of English sweet'. (All a lie, of course; the original muffin was the English 'crumpet'. It was America that gave us these moist little cakey beauties.) I shouldn't use the word 'English' when I mention food to him. He's never tempted by anything British. It's all Greek to him, or should I say, for him. 'Shall we buy some for later?' 'Oh, we'll find another place to eat by then.' With a full stomach, he didn't feel like anything just then. He was right - we would find something else later, but waht annoyed me was his disinterested attitude toards foreign food. Travelling for me is a taste sensation; even if I have never heard of something before, I would be willing to eat it if only to try it out. I would feel a failure if I didn't try a local delicacy while I was travelling in a foreign place. Food is undoubetdly part of the sholw cultural experience when you are a tourist. I'm not talking about package tourists who come to Greece for the three three-letter S-words (sea, sun, and I think the last one is sex). They are not coming to Greece for the cultural experience; they are coming to get what they can't enjoy in their own country.

I was rather annoyed with my husband at that point. I had tired of his thinking that I am an unsatiable piglet who'll eat anything put before her, in any quantity, becasue she keeps no law and order in her daily diet. Aren't I the one who introduced him to chili con carne, chicken curry and guacomole? Wasn't I the one who preserved the fruits of his gardening labours and turned them into traditional Greek concoctions such as boureki, moussaka and yemista? I now know I should not have heeded his advice. He made exactly the same comment when we passed a window full of traditional English sweets while we were in Greenwich (where we vistied the the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory - very informative places set in the most beautiful - for me - suburb of London); whereas I was able to name every single item in the shop window, he was stared at it with that "It's all Greek to me" look (pardon the pun), and wondered if his wife had simply turned gluttonous. It had been a long long time since I had seen jam pie, custard squares, currant buns, chocolate muffins, blueberry muffins, gingerbread men, Danish pastries, fudge bars, carrot cake, strawberry tarts and fresh croissants all in one place. As I looked at each one from the street, I could taste it in my mind, just like Peter Pan and Captain Hook's lost boys, who never saw the food they ate, and had to use their imagination to believe that they were actually eating food.

When we left the cafe, it was still raining. London is a fantastic city for all kinds of weather: if it's sunny, the parks are a delight for all ages. When it's wet, you can take shelter in the nearest museum. We took the tube to Russell Square and visited the British Museum, a building that looks like the Greek Parthenon, and houses - well, the Greek Parthenon. After admiring the various works on display, all of which were not British (which begs the question that the museum should be renamed), and which unfortunately were not as many as the museum holds due to continued staff shortages, I decided it was time for a coffee break. We had been walking around for three hours (with children) by then. I bought a couple of hot chocolates for the children some coffee for me and my husband. Then I saw them - enormous, velvety, chocolate muffins. In fact, they sold the whole gamma of muffins - classic blueberry, plain and chocolate muffins. I bought one of each. As usual, I contented myself with pecking a bit off everyone else's food. It was my husband's first chocolate muffin ever. He fell in love with them, and who wouldn't? These muffins were huge, sticky and firm on the outside, and moist on the inside. The chocolate that was used in them virtually melted in your mouth.

When we left the British museum (which wasn't quite as British as it makes out to be), on our way to the hotel, we passed the grocery shop which sold milk, bread, fresh fruit, some packaged vegetables and a range of newspapers and magazines, along with a wide variety of sweets to satisfy the British sweet tooth. I always bought myself a tub of (imported Dutch) raspberries from there, which my other half would scoff at (he couldn't understand why I would want to eat berry fruit in the cold weather); as he waited for me to buy the raspberries, he spotted some packaged muffins. Sweets and desserts are also his downfall, so he bought a couple of each type that they sold in the shop. When we got to the hotel, and had had our showers and settled down in our pyjamas, he tried the chocolate muffin. It was a little stale; the chocolate used to make it can't have been good quality and it was not moist and chewy. In fact, it resembled a bread-like cake. What a diappointment. Well, what did he expect from a corner store?

Here is the best and simplest recipe (from I have ever tried for muffins. They come out puffy, firm and moist on the inside. I omitted the chocolate chips (I had none in the house). This recipe makes 12 medium-sized muffins. I have made these muffins before, and I prefer to keep them on the small side so that my children learn to limit themselves to the right kind of serving. One large muffin is equivalent to 2 small muffins, but when you tell a child to eat one, it won't differentiate between size differences!

For the sake of convenience, the recipe is repeated here:
2 eggs
1 cup (200 g) sugar
1 cup (130 g) all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
2/3 cup (160 ml) milk
2/3 cup (160 g) butter
4 oz (120 g) semisweet chocolate chips (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 deg F (Gas mark 4 or 180 deg C). Grease 6 large (or 12 small) muffin tins or cups (paper muffin bake cups are recommended). Beat the eggs with sugar, mix with flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, vanilla and milk. Fold in the melted butter. Add chocolate chips (the recipe states that these might end up in the bottom of the muffin - that's why I won't bother using them inthe future). Pour the mixture into the prepared muffin cups; the higher you fill them, the puffier they will come out, the more cooking time they need. Bake at 350 degrees until a until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, approximately 20-30 minutes, depending on the size.

These muffins must have been delicious - I am afraid I didn't get a chance to try one out, because the pieces were measured out one per child - because when I went to the school to pick him up, some children in Aristotle's class told me they really liked them. Aristotle also told me that I had never made a better cake. Oh dear, maybe I'm just being too cruel to be kind when I overdo it with the banana cake and carrot cake muffins. They're all freezable, defrosting nicely in a child's lunchbox, in time for the morning break at school.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Simple cake
Choclate balls
Chocolate pancakes

Chocolate cake

Gigandes (Γίγαντες - baked butter beans)

This post is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for Gigandes

The main white beans used in Greek cooking are haricot beans (navy beans - for bean soup) and huge white beans that are often referred to as butter beans or lima beans (for baked beans). Butter beans are giant white beans, hence their name gigandes" (giants); the beans produced in Greece now have protected name status: they are called "Macedonian Elephants" (Ελέφαντες Μακεδονίας). They are not easy to work with: they require soaking overnight as well as copious amounts of cooking to become tender enough to eat - but the end result is really worth it. Gigandes are often served as an appetiser in Greek restaurants, and they render the British version of baked beans a cheap and nasty alternative. This dish freezes well, and if you aren't fasting, you can make a real feast of it by adding sausages. It is absolutely divine. It takes a long time to prepare and cook, so it's not one of our regular weekly bean meals. It's best eaten in the winter, like a hearty casserole hotpot - when you eat this meal, you'll need to have a little rest afterwards, as these beans sit rather heavily on your stomach! When thawing it from the deep-freeze, you may need to add some more liquid when heating it up.

Soak a 500g packet of butter beans overnight in a big pot of water. The next day, drain the water away and refill the pot with fresh water. Boil them for at least an hour in plain water. Don't add salt to the water - this will only serve to toughen them. Don't worry about the white froth that builds up on the surface of the water while the beans are cooking. You will be draining the water off, and nothing will remain. When the beans are done (and they will still be tough), turn on the oven to start warming up, drain off the water from the beans, and rinse them in fresh water. Pour them in an oven dish, and now start preparing the sauce (which you could have also prepared while the beans were being boiled). Don't put the beans into the oven just yet!

For the sauce, you need:
1 onion, minced finely
1 onion cut into thin slices
3-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 wineglass of olive oil
500g pulped tomatoes (or 1 can or pureed tomatos)
1 teaspoon of tomato paste
2 small carrots cut into thin rounds (if you prefer the vegan version - sometimes I add sausage, again cut into rounds)
a bunch of parsley, chopped small
salt, pepper and oregano
2-4 sausages of your choice (optional)

In a saucepan, pour in the oil, and add the onions and garlic. Let them stew a little over low heat till they become transparent, then add the tomatos. Mix them in well, then add the carrot and parsley. Let the sauce simmer for 5-10 minutes before pouring it over the beans. Add enough water to completely cover the beans in the oven dish. You will need to add more water during cooking time as the beans are baking in the oven. Finally (and here is the bit that you can omit if you are a cholesterol watcher, you're fasting, or you're a vegetarian) add the sausages, as they are or sliced in rounds, into the oven dish. Sprinkle the seasonings over the baking dish.

Now the dish is ready to be put into the oven; let it cook for at least three hours in a hot oven, always ensuring that there is enough liquid in the dish to stop it from burning. As the beans (and sausages) cook, turn them over with a ladle every half hour to ensure that they will all take on a crunchy, cooked look. The beans will be ready (ie soft but not mushy) when you see them popping out of their skin, and splitting into two. The oven will have been working for so long, that you will not need to turn on the heating for a while (a trick to save on energy fuel). Be prepared for the whole house to take on a saucy aroma - and defend yourself against gas production! To serve the beans, bring on the feta cheese and crusty bread, and don't forget the wine!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.MORE BEAN RECIPES:
Chili con carne
Lentil stew
Bean soup
String bean stew
Split yellow peas
Black-eyed beans

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Yemista (Γεμιστά κι'αγέμιστα)

I thought I wasn't going to post today - I've already posted before about yemista. But today, when I informed my other half what was on the menu (I think I don't know anyone else who doesn't like yemista), and there were no leftovers from yesterday's lentils, he asked me (as if it was his one last wish) to cook the yemista in the pot instead of the oven. My yemista blog is for oven-cooked yemista. But there is another way to make them, which I do actually use when I'm running out of time, or I've just cleaned the oven (and can't be bothered getting it dirty again). This is perfect for the winter, when I use up frozen shelled vegetables from our deep-freeze to make yemista, or when I don't want to make too many - it seems a waste to heat the oven up for only four small servings of yemista; usually, an oven pan fits enough for 8 servings (ie 2 meals for a family of 4 members). And it was another simple meal; it took me an hour from start to finish.

I'm really against buying non-seasonal hothouse products when I know I can buy winter-season fresh produce grown in the field. But I still have some summer season harvests in my deep-freeze, so I was easily able to make this meal in winter. In fact, when hubby came home for lunch, he asked me where the aubergine and green peppers came form to make this meal. "Why, you planted them in the summer, don't you remember?" "Oh, is that why they taste so good?" The summer flavour was trapped in the frozen vegetables, as they had been picked and frozen on the same day. And the eggplant had retained its texture and colour.

I used a large pot to make sure that the vegetable shells (aubergine, green bell pepper and tomato) would all get a place on the bottom of the saucepan. I didn't want to stack them on top of one another, because of course, they won't cook so evenly, and I'd need to add a lot of liquid in the pot; the bottom layer will become soggy, while the upper layer will be too dry, or not as well oiled. I took the shells out of the freezer - they do NOT need defrosting - and placed them in the pot. If you defrost the shells, they go limp and become utterly unappealing. Once they are filled, they retain their shape when cooked.

After I had worked out how many shells were going to fit into the pot, I counted out the rice that I would need to fill them with. In this way, you can make sure not to waste any unwanted rice mixture. However, thanks to my friend Hrysa, whose mother made ayemista, I know what to do with any excess rice mixture. If any rice mixture is left over, you don't have to throw it away. You can cook it up as a rissotto with a little water in a pot: use 2 cups of water per 1 cup of leftover rice mixture. Remember that it will already contain tomato and oil, so it doesn't need the standard three cups of liquid per cup of rice to cook in. Yemista = stuffed, ayemista = unstuffed, hence the pun. Hrysa's mother made it up. Don't get it? Lost in translation... If you're feeling very energetic, you can boil up some whole cabbage leaves (to soften them), and roll up some rice mixture to make cabbage rolls.

Once you get the shells sorted out, make up the rice mixture. Whatever the amount of rice you use, you will still need the standard ingredients for yemista: a large onion chopped small, salt, pepper and oregano. Place that in a bowl, and add 1 tablespoon of rice for every vegetable shell you are using. I had 14 shells, so I needed 14 tablespoons of rice. Can't get it wrong this way. Add 1/2-1 cup of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of tomato paste and 1 cup of water to the rice, and mix everything well. We always use some fresh green herbs in yemista, so I went down to the garden and brought back a bunch of parsley which I chopped up into the bowl. The fresh mint that usually runs rampant in our garden has died out; I wouldn't even think of going to the supermarket just for that, so we did without.

I filled each shell with 2 tablsepoons of mixture. There was just enough mixture for all 14 (but I cheated a little by adding some plain rice to the last shell I filled, because I didn't have quite enough), so, no ayemista today. The pot was ready. You might wonder how the rice is going to stay in the shells once I pour water and oil over the yemista. Normally, we put the caps of the vegetables back on the shells to keep them closed, but since I didn't have them, I used another favorite vegetable for filling with rice: cabbage. Cabbage rolls (lahanodolmades) are made in the winter with the same rice mixture as for yemista, they are also cooked in a pot, and they are dressed in an egg-and-lemon sauce. Place a few large cabbage leaves on top of the stuffed vegetables. Then pour a cup of water and half a cup of olive oil over the cabbage leaves. To press all this down, place a large dinner plate (that will fit into the pot) over the cabbage leaves. The cabbage leaves and rice won't be going anywhere now. And do check out that plate: it's Crown Lynn, made in new Zealand!

Let the yemista cook for 40 minutes or so, on a low heat with the lid on the pot. After 30 minutes, check that there are enough liquids in the pot, as the yemista will stick to the bottom of the pan if there isn't enough liquid. To check this, tilt the pot to see how much liquid there is. Add some water little by little to ensure that you don't overdo it. Soggy rice is never desirable. When the yemista are done, remove the plate. Don't forget that it's now very hot! Have a pair of tongs and a kitchen glove to help you do this. Use a large spoon to ladle the yemista out of the pot. Place 1 eggplant, 1 tomato and 1 bell pepper on each plate. Don't the colours dazzle your socks off? Doesn't it look divine? We always have these with some Greek strained yoghurt (many people in the West use sour cream) and a salad. And I never throw away the cooked cabbage - when you taste it, you'll see why.

If you don't want to stuff vegetables, but prefer cabbage (or sorrel or silverbeet - Swiss chard - rolls instead), you can do this with the same mixture, but you won't call them yemista - you'll call them dolmades or dolmadakia, instead, depending on the size of the rolled up parcels.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Simple pilafi rice for children

Dolmadakia - dolmades