Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Artichokes in a lemon sauce (Αγκινάρες α λα πολίτα)

Margaret from Bulgaria has been living in Greece for five years now. She decided to leave her native land in search of work elsewhere, as work was (and still is) hard to find in the former communist nation, now one of the latest additions to the European Union. Life was good during the communist regime, she reports; the problems came when it fell. Communism was a kind of insurance against unemployment, illness and famine - everyone had jobs to go to no matter how mundane, doctors attended to all the sick regardless of status, and food was distributed fairly. But when that all ended, goods started disappearing from the shelves in the stores. She remembers not being able to get hold coffee and sugar for a long time. Now she's never without a cup of coffee in her hands; she clutches the mug as if it's one of her most precious possessions, the outcome of the do-without syndrome in her past.

Margaret is my mother-in-law's live-in 24/7 carer. She cooks for her, helps her to eat, changes her clothes, and generally looks after her. On Sundays, she goes to stay with her son who is also working in Hania. When I first met her, I let her know that she could cook separate meals for herself if she didn't like the bland diet my mother-in-law preferred. "Oh no", she said, "I must be an extremely picky eater if I won't have what she's having." After the first three days of orzo rice for lunch and dinner, she asked me if I could just treat her as my third child, because that orzo rice stuff was now giving her diarrhoea. She preferred not to cook meals for herself; "waste of time and money", she said, as if remembering the harder times in her native country. Greeks have a lot to learn about economising from the new immigrants to the country.

Margaret opened up a new avenue for my cooking ventures. She loves vegetable dishes cooked in white sauces, something my very Cretan husband is not at all fond of - it's got to be tomato cerise red for him. She also likes artichokes, which my husband only eats raw in salads, cleared of furry thistles, cut into segments and dipped in lemon. When the artichoke plant is fully mature, it makes an attractive centrepiece in a vase as a flower. This is how my Kiwi friends viewed the artichoke, with its green plumage and purple fur (at which point the artichoke is not edible, so you will never be able to appreciate its beauty at our house, as they are all eaten). They couldn't imagine any other use for it. How human beings conceived the idea that the artichoke, with its thistled flowers, furry centre and thorny leaves, could possibly be an edible plant, I can only imagine - probably by watching animals eat it, or maybe during a famine. Once you try artichoke - either cooked or raw - you will be persuaded into growing it as a hedgerow round your house. Thanks to Margaret, I have the chance to enjoy my favorite Greek vegetable medley: artichokes in a lemon sauce (αγκινάρες α λα πολίτα; αγκινάρα = artichoke in the singular).

This dish has its origins in Constantinople, during the time when people referred to it as the 'Poli', meaning the City, the one and only important city in Byzantine times, inhabited by many people of Greek origin (among other nationalities). It is the most well known dish of the former Greek community whose numbers began to dwindle after the siege of Smyrna in 1922. The culinary flair of the ex-patriates left a legacy that lives on in Greece, and includes other famous dishes like soutzoukakia, with its spicy taste, colourful appearance and piquant flavor. This dish accentuates the arrival of spring with its vibrant colours. It is also often used in advertising campaigns promoting artichokes.

Although most people know what an artichoke looks like, I bet they don't know how to clean one. Where on earth is the edible part of the artichoke hiding? Cleaning artichokes is about as much fun as cleaning aubergines. The thorns prick you, your fingers turn black, and there is much waste. Our garden is bordered by artichokes, but they are not in season yet (they will be ready for picking at the end of March), so I've used frozen artichoke hearts, which are always tender and never stringy and fibrous. Artichokes are not cheap; fresh ones cost almost 1 euro each in the beginning of the season (when they are at their most tender), whereas a 400g packet of frozen artichoke hearts costs 6 euro for 7 large artichoke hearts cleared of all debris. I made a salad out of the fresh ones (to go with the packaged lasagne for my pickier eaters) and used the frozen ones in the stew. To make the dish more substantial, some humble (and cheap) peas are added. They suit the dish well in terms of colours and taste.

Some web pages show the cleaning process for artichokes step-by-step. I've included my own version here. Once the 'heart' is exposed, it must be dipped into lemon juice to stop the artichokes form browning, so you need to have a bowl of squeezed lemon juice handy before you start cleaning them. This is very important to maintain an attractive appearance, but the browning does not detract from their taste. The leaves are pulled away, and any other tough or purple-coloured parts are removed from the crop. If the leaves are tender (they will feel soft and have an open yellow-green colour), they are edible. The fur is cut away (and then scraped) with a knife. I always cut the hearts in half to scrape away the furry centre more easily. Care must be taken not to cut into the heart and waste any precious flesh! And if your fingers do become grubby, don't worry - make sure you have the squeezed lemon juice ready at hand to dip the artichokes in, and then rub your fingers and hands with squeezed lemon halves. Your hands will never have looked cleaner, and your skin shinier!

As you expose the artichoke heart, dip it into the lemon juice. When you have cleaned it completely, leave it in the lemon juice until you are ready to use it raw in a salad or cooked in a stew. Artichoke (like eggplant) flesh browns very fast. And once you've done all that, you will probably understand better why artichokes are not cheap...

This dish uses artichokes and roughly chopped vegetables that keep their shape when cooked. I added peas to the basic recipe; Nancy added chunks of celery to hers. I added leeks.
ou need:
8 artichoke hearts, cut into segments (frozen or fresh; don't even think of using tinned ones)
1 cup of olive oil
4 spring onions, sliced (ordinary onions can be used; a mixture is even better - I added some leftover leeks to use them up, but that is a deviation from the traditional recipe)
5 carrots, sliced into rounds
1/2 kilo potatoes, roughly chopped (preferably baby potatoes that can be cooked whole)
200g peas
a bunch of fresh dill, finely chopped (very commonly found in Greece)
juice from 2-3 lemons
salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the (spring) onions in a saucepan with the oil. Add the carrots and mix till they are coated in oil. Then add the artichokes, potatoes, dill, lemon juice, salt, pepper and enough water to cover them. Allow the vegetables to cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour before adding the peas, which don't need a long cooking time if they are frozen. It's that easy. The sauce can be thickened with a tablespoon of flour, but I prefer my sauces transparent. In any case, the starch from the potato thickens it nicely enough. This meal is so filling, that you only need a glass of wine (and maybe that ubiquitous feta cheese and sourdough bread) to accompany it. Meat will just spoil the taste of the artichokes. This meal can also be cooked in an egg-and-lemon (avgolemono) sauce, instead of just lemon (or flour).

©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.

Poached salt cod
Lemon cake
Potatoes lemonates
Shrimp cooked in lemon
Meat in avgolemono sauce

Sunday 24 February 2008

Pumpkin soup (Κολοκυθόσουπα)

I've been making pumpkin soup since I started living on my own, and started taking charge of my own kitchen, cooking things I never ate at home, mainly due to a lack of interest on the part of the chief (and only) cook in our traditional Greek home. Mother didn't want us meddling in her kitchen. It was her 'myspace'. Now that I'm a mother myself, I understand my own mother better; I hate it when someone takes charge of my kitchen. My husband gets an earful when he chops bread and doesn't clear the crumbs, or when he drags in garden produce and strews soil all over the worktop.

I've always had a love for spicy food, so when I was given a pumpkin recently by my uncles (bachelor experienced farmers), I couldn't wait to turn it into pumpkin soup. My last round of soup-making involved a recipe by a famous chef turning leeks and potatos into something delicious called 'potage', so I was willing to give Gordon Ramsay another chance. I found a Gordon Ramsay recipe on the bfeedme website.

One thing that must be pointed out is that Gordon Ramsay's name has been used by a food blogger, who obviously hasn't tried the recipe themselves. The recipe was actually copied straight from a timesonline food article, which obviously had been misprinted: one of the biggest problems with the recipe (both timesonline and bfeedme) was that it listed apples in the ingredients, but didn't mention what the apples were doing in the recipe. Do they get browned with the onions, or boiled in the stock? Were they not supposed to be there at all? (In any case, I am not a great fan of mixing my sweet with my savoury, so I left them out all together.)

I did a quick check of other pumpkin soup recipes (as I have always called orange squash myself), and found that they were all roughly the same as Gordon Ramsay's poshly named 'lightly spiced butternut squash soup'. PumpkinPatches does a nice job pointing out that it's easy to boil and mash pumpkin rather than buying canned pumpkin mash, elise adds more heat to some mass-produced curry powder, myhouseandgarden adds potato (instead of carrot, as PumpkinPatches did) and so on, and so forth. Gordon's soup is just another variation of the others.

My next quibble is with the callous manner which cooks use the word 'curry', meaning curry powder. For a start, authentic South Asian cooking does not use a ready mix of spices, nor do they use the word 'curry' in the way we have associated the word with any spicy-hot Indian dish. In actual fact, meals are prepared with individual spices, not a general melee of cumin-smelling (as mild curry is usually made of) or chili-tasting (as hot curry is usually made of) powders. And for the real taste of a good 'curry' (pardon my use of the word), it is important for the cook to grind the actual spices into powder before using them. This is the reason why I never have mass-produced curry powder in my kitchen and why I like to have a well-stocked spice cupboard. It sounds so labour-intensive making your own spice mix; I've tried this before, and it really is worth the effort.

Here's a basic recipe for spicy pumpkin soup, without resorting to mass-produced powders or tinned products procedures.

You need:
2 tablespoons of olive oil
15g butter (the mix of oil and butter gives the soup a spicier taste, but you can use oil only for a lenten meal)
2 onions, peeled and chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
2 bay leaves
a small piece of minced fresh ginger (thanks to the influx of economic migrants into Crete, this is available in most supermarkets; you can use powdered ginger if you don't have any fresh stuff)
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric powder (fresh turmeric root is not available in Crete)
1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander seeds
1 teaspoon of ground dried chili peppers
salt and freshly ground black pepper (here's a tip: grind all the spices together in a pestle and mortar; it will save heaps of time)
1 litre hot chicken stock (I use stock cubes because chicken stock in our house is always turned into pilafi)
250g peeled cubed pumpkin, cut into cubes
a handful of parsley leaves, chopped (it would be great to have fresh coriander instead, but this is not readily available in Crete)
Heat the oil and butter, then add the onions, garlic, ginger and ground spices. It is important to sizzle the spices in the oil because it adds more flavour to the dish. Stir well, then cover the pan with a lid and cook over a low heat for a few minutes until the onions begin to soften. Tip in the squash and stir it around, being careful not to let it stick to the bottom of the pot. Cook for about 10-12 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender and lightly caramelised. Pour in just enough hot stock to cover the vegetables and gently simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Fish out and discard the bay leaves. In batches, purée the soup in a food processor or liquidiser until smooth. Return the soup to the pan to reheat. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Ladle the soup into warm bowls and garnish with the parsley.

Pumpkin soup doesn't look like much, just a bowl of orange-coloured goo. That's why the flavour of the spices is so important. Some people also add cream to this soup, but pumpkin is so creamy in itself that it seems like a waste of extra calories to do this! And you know you can also freeze it in small servings, too. This soup goes really well with some roast meat - Gordon apparently serves it with pancetta, a kind of fatty rasher of pork (similar to a bacon slice). In Greece, this is a small fatty pork chop, readily available at the supermarket meat counter.

©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.

Chicken stock
Poached fish soup
Fennel soup
Leek and potato potage
Lentil soup
Bean soup
Black-eyed bean soup
French onion soup
Fish soup

Saturday 16 February 2008

Junk food treat (Φαστφουντάδικο)

The 30th of January is a school holiday, the feast of the three Hierarchs, considered the Fathers of Christian Orthodox education. Anyone remotely involved in education has a day off from work. We woke up with the sun shining, with the feeling of an icy coldness in the air. Even though it was not a school day, the children were up bright and early. Whenever they know that there is no school, they always seem to wake up early without the alarm clock ringing. I asked them if they wanted to attend the optional church service organised by their school in commemoration of the event; I would have been quite comfortable to stay in the warmth of our house out of harm’s way of the cold weather. I wish church services started at comfortable hours, like they did in New Zealand; we'd set off for church at about 10 o'clock (they end here at that time), and the service would finish at midday. Mother had already prepared the midday meal, and when we went home, she'd serve it up. With the frosty morning, staying at home didn't seem to bad an idea.

Children see church as a socialising event, so of course they wanted to go
. So we got dressed, and without having breakfast or even a glass of water, as I instructed them not to in order to receive Holy Communion, we set off for church. I often wonder why I bother to have breakfast when I know I am not hungry in the morning, and the coffee I drink is more out of habit than real thirst. I suppose I have breakfast as a good example of practising what I preach. About half the school's pupils were in attendance at the service, there was a short speech about the lives and works of the Holy Teachers, and the children were all given some sweet bread and orange juice afterwards. It was a fun way of enjoying a rather solemn religious service.

I had some errands to run in town, so I left the children with their 83-year-old grandmother, a very active, albeit matriarchal woman. When there are urgent jobs to be done, her (only) son informs her that his wife must leave the children in her care. This is important because, in her way of thinking, nothing is urgent, except for olive-picking, orange-picking and watering the garden and the fields. As this job had to be done today, I had to succumb to the humiliation of asking her to look after the children; it’s not easy to dump two young ones onto a senior citizen who has always believed that a woman’s place is in the home, and just what is Maria doing by leaving the house anyway. I was to meet up with the representative of a car dealer in the bank. This woman wanted us to pay for our new car in cash. And that’s not all she wanted – she expected us to withdraw 25,000 euro from our bank account, and rush off down the road to deposit it into her account which was at another bank. Imagine walking around with 25,000 euro in cash in your pocket or handbag. The only place for 25,000 euro in cash is in your underpants, and make sure they’ve got no holes. "Can't we just write out a bank cheque?" No,” she said, “that won't do at all.” I didn't ask her why she had to have it in cash; either she was trying to avoid paying cheque charges (could she be that stingy?), or because it was the 30th of January, and the late Archbishop Christodoulos was being buried the next day, rendering the last day of the month a public holiday (ONLY for schools, banks and civil servants of all manners - why a shop assistant or construction site worker isn’t included in this elite list of people deserving a day off, I have no idea), therefore the cheque would not show up the next day as a deposit in her account, and it would have to wait until the first of the following month, thereby ruining their chances of showing a good sales record for the month of January. I refused to be sucked into doing her dirty work for her, so I arranged to meet up with her at the bank so she could take the cash herself and dispense with it in any way she wanted to.

It was a gloriously sunny day, a ‘halcyon’ day, meaning a short spell of good weather in the middle of winter, even though it was cold – ήλιος με δόντια – sun with sharp teeth – as we say in Greece. Hania (or maybe you prefer Chania, or Khania, or Canea, among the various spellings of the town’s name, ascribed to it by the various European travellers from times gone by) always looks beautiful on sunny winter days. They start off icy cold, but by lunchtime, you’re carrying your coat and warming yourself with the sun’s hot rays. The snowy mountains of Lefka Ori are deceptive. What a nice day to take the children out, I thought, even though I knew what Mama and Papa Bear might have to say about that. They belong to the Culto del Sosto, the “We know what’s best” club, the one that believes that when it’s winter, it’s always cold, and children shouldn’t go out at all because they will catch their death of cold. If this were true, then no child would be up at 7 in the morning and going to school in the freezing cold, not even the ones that were well. And children in Alaska would be schooled only during summer, and take their holidays in winter. If I didn’t have that errand to run, I’d take them out window shopping. Young children window-shopping, you say? Yes, why not, we live in the country, and when we go into town, it’s usually by car to predetermined places without any strolls about the town. Our senses are embellished every morning with the sight of green fields, the sounds of farm animals and the smell of manure. The saying ‘Don’t leave town till you see the country’ applies to us vice-versa.

The businesswoman was not in the bank when I arrived. I decided to make the transaction, and asked the bank teller to hold the cash until she came; I felt a little stupid (not to mention self-conscious) taking 25,000 euro and stuffing it into my handy little backpack, the best-hands-free device ever discovered, only to take it out again and give it to the businesswoman. I don’t think I have seen that much money in cash ever in my life, let alone handled it. She finally arrived half an hour late, as she had been delayed in traffic. “I’ve parked the car quite a way from here, and I had a long walk ahead of me,” she explained, maybe trying to make me feel guilty that I had made her leave her office (when I could have run her errands too). I thought she would have taken a cab or be driven into town (don’t rich businesswomen have chauffeurs?), as her firm was located in a busy area just out of town. It would have been unwise to use it to drive into town since she wouldn’t be able to find a place to park last minute (not to mention unnecessarily leaving behind carbon footprints). Parking in the centre of a historic Mediterranean town is a nightmare, with busy narrow roads and more cars than people.

She looked at my backpack. “Is that where you’ve put the money?” Was this woman trying to be funny or what? I directed her to the cashier who had dealt with the transaction, and he brought out the cash for the businesswoman. She picked up the bundles of bills, which looked slightly grubby – talk about dirty money – and started stuffing them into her Gucci handbag, which was the size and shape of a small evening bag. She had to keep pushing them down into her bag because those huge bundles just wouldn’t fit in, together with her mobile phone, wallet, lipstick, sunglasses-cum-case, cigarette, lighter, and goodness knows whatever else she kept there. It was embarrassing to watch her, firstly because she looked tragi-comic, stuffing this money into a dainty handbag which wasn’t big enough, and secondly because I didn’t want to be seen with her; I didn’t want others to associate me with this twit. She had to re-arrange some items in her handbag to make the bundles all fit so that she could zip it up. The whole scenario just didn’t suit the woman’s stylish clothes, accessories to match and businesswoman’s status. It left me wondering what kind of car she would eventually be delivering us. I started wishing we had chosen another model.

The errand over, I returned home, having enjoyed the walkabout in town. All the shops seemed to be busy, with people taking advantage of the school holiday and the good weather. It was too late to prepare or cook anything apart from a fry-up of chips and sausages. There was some leftover chili con carne and fasolada, good home-cooked meals. I was hungry, but I didn’t want to eat before I first let my other half choose which leftovers he wanted. I wanted the chilli, but there was only one portion. Fasolada didn’t appeal to me today. I craved for something different, something prepared by someone else, so that I wouldn’t have to clean up afterwards. My walk into town had whetted my appetite for a bit of an outing. Junk food fit the bill. But where do you find junk food in the middle of a hillside suburban village in the middle of winter? Images of the town sprung to my mind, the junky town that Hania has recently become – glass-and-metal cafes, low-slung jeans with protruding stomachs, overly-pierced teenagers, sandwich bars alternating among Benetton, Burberry and Gant clothing stores, all selling goods in excess of 100 euro apiece to the wealthy Haniotes, who profit from the tourist industry in the summer and the agriculture in the winter, while at the same time working in some other form of paid employment. There’s a lot of money in this area, all being saved away in over 40 banks in a provincial town with a population of just over 150,000 in its greater area: 1 bank per 4000 residents. No wonder Zoniana residents kept their money at home; there were obviously not enough banks in their village to cater for their marijuana proceeds.

The day was just too nice to spend indoors. I wanted to go out for lunch with the children. So I made up an errand: “Mama, I just need to pop out to the SUPERMARKET. Who wants to come for the ride?” Kids love supermarkets; apart from the chocolate biscuits, sugary sweet packets and coloured yoghurts, there’s the toys section, the stationery department and the sliding doors. My children love sliding down the aisles, bumping into other people’s shopping trolleys and changing the price tags on the racks. These are some of the many reasons I avoid taking them with me during the weekly shop.

I needn’t have bothered pretending; while I snuck us all out of the house, yiayia was too busy enthralled in the television reports about the Archbishop’s death to see us running off. I wasn’t hungry for food; I was hungry for an outing. My morning walkabout hadn’t taken me as far as the Old Port of Hania, with its myriads of trendy cafes, snack bars and bistros lining the cobbled harbour which houses a former mosque looking out to a Venetian lighthouse. The best time to enjoy it is in the winter, not when it’s thronging with tourists and all the seats in the eateries are taken. It’s the only place in Hania where you can eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, a snack, and a dessert in different places all less than a few metres from each other. It’s the best place to people-watch, not necessarily the best place to enjoy fine dining, unless you’re into junk food, and that’s what we all wanted: something tasty, something stodgy, something fast.

I don’t know of any children that would prefer to eat ascrolimbi (a kind of horta) with broad beans, or snails in red sauce, no matter how hard you try to convince them that the taverna you have just taken them to is one of the best in town and the food of excellent quality. Junk food is what kids prefer to eat. And we would too, if only we didn’t think about the consequences of eating it. We all crave junk at some time or other. “Where are we going to eat, Mum?” my daughter asked me. “Anywhere you want.”

We walked away from the town centre, leaving behind the morbid architecture of the hasty 1960s building boom and the main square which houses the public toilets. As you walk down Halydon St, glance across the road to Skridlof St with its tacky souvenir shops selling all kinds of trinkets and memorabilia, and you will be reminded of hot summer nights and a lascivious stay in a sexy seaside summer resort. The first time I took my Kiwi friend down this road, she was put off by the hawkers, all trying to get customers into their shops, when she suddenly caught a glimpse of the sea at the end of the road. With the lighthouse bearing tall in the middle of the port, the area takes you by surprise after the seediness of the main drag; suddenly the peasant atmosphere turns into a cosmopolitan one, where everyone is hankering after a seat by the harbour’s edge, the Greeks wearing the latest European fashion, the Northern Europeans in their white sports socks and Birkenstock sandals. Everyone is completely oblivious to the history of the town, which has changed hands from ancient times, being first ruled by the Romans, who were defeated by the Arabs, who were then thrown out of Hania by the Byzantines, who lost power to the Venetians, who were afraid of the Turks invading them, forcing them to build a wall right round the city. The Turks still managed to sneak in, and in their turn, were finally cast out of the town only just over a hundred years ago. The cathedral of the city has been a Roman Catholic church, a mosque and a Christian Orthodox church at one time or other in its long history.

As we passed the fountain in the middle of the piazza, my son, who has now learnt to read, chose the first place that had a sign bearing the name of his favourite food: πίτσα (pizza). My daughter was delighted to hear that the café also served club sandwiches. We chose a seat under the canopy of the outdoor seating, in view of a building used as a mosque in older times, now converted to an exhibition hall. The place was already crowded with young acne-covered faces wearing Gothic black outfits, pierced noses to match. The four chubby girls next to us were playing backgammon. In one hand, they were carrying a cigarette, in the other a glass of cold frothy instant coffee; I can’t drink that stuff in the summer, let alone in the winter. Every two minutes, a mobile phone would go off. If it weren’t for the backgammon or the cigarettes, they would’ve been holding those ringers the whole time.

It was time to deal with Number 2. I decided to phone Papa Bear and let him know I’d be home a little later than usual. “You’re at the port with the kids? It’s freezing!” Years of his mother’s cosseting couldn’t but rub off onto him; I should have guessed his reaction. “Are the children dressed warmly?”, “Are you sitting indoors?”, “Are you facing north or south?” Sometimes he can be worse than his mother. When I finished with the call, I noticed that the fat pimply girls next to us were bundled up in long black woollen coats, over jeans and boots. Maybe they weren’t just following Gothic fashion. Before the waiter came along, I decided to move indoors.

It was certainly a lot warmer in there, but the atmosphere was completely different. The place looked like a dark dungeon, with an arched roof and brick-lined walls. The music was modern – and loud. Men with shaved heads were sitting in groups smoking roll-ups. Skinny girls in hosepipe jeans accompanied them, their heads covered in short spikes; they were all smoking something too. The tables were all tiled with chess-like boards. The whole scene reminded me of a nightclub rather than a Mediterranean seaside café. The last time I had been into one of these places was on the other side of the harbour before I got engaged (not my other half’s cup of tea). The atmosphere was a complete change to the rural environment where we lived. There were quite a few children sitting outdoors on that day, but there were none indoors. I wondered if it was the darker surroundings that put people off from entering. In any case, my children have seen wackier places than this; on a winter’s evening in London we found ourselves at Wong Kei’s, where you sit beside people you don’t know, and the waiters lay the plates on the table as if they’re dealing out a pack of cards. Near St Paul’s Cathedral, we had lunch with some construction site workers and suited businessmen in what looked like a Victorian sewer. Here, we were surrounded by Greek-speaking people, totally different from our neighbours and classmates. This was a good introduction for the children to alternative forms of Greek-dom. They are less sensitised to strange sights, so to speak; this was a form of education. I let them choose a table. We found one next to a wall close to the glazed entrance, perfect for taking in the view both indoors and out.

The walls were decorated (if you could call it that) with ornamental mirrors, along with some abstract art pieces. If you don’t understand a piece of artwork, just ask a child to describe what it sees, and if it answers that it doesn’t know what’s in the pictures, then you’re probably not far wrong yourself. I asked them what they saw in the pictures. It felt a bit like watching the emperor parading naked.

A waiter with one of those nifty ordering machines came smiling past us and dropped a couple of menu cards on the table. I was surprised by the variety. It contained a range of international dishes - Mexican red beans, Chinese noodles, sushi rolls – which weren’t stated in the sandwich board outside the café. I wondered how authentic these dishes would be, or whether they actually served them outside the tourist season (do Greeks eat them?) but I would have to wait for another day to try them. It didn't seem right enjoying international cuisine without another adult. I don't think the children would have appreciated the conversation: "Is it authentic?", The children didn’t even bother to look at the menu: one pizza and a club sandwich, having already decided what they wanted before they even got there. It is a great thrill for a mother to see the smiling faces of her children, and hearing them saying: “Mum, this is the best best best place we’ve ever been to.” I feel sorry for having tortured them at previous times in traditional Cretan tavernas we’ve dragged them, begging them to eat tough pork steak, or chewy chicken souvlaki, when all they really wanted were a few fries and a burger.

I ordered one of those posh flavoured coffees – did I hear myself say I’d have a tiramisu filtered coffee? I decided against ordering anything to eat – junk food tends to be served in huge portions, and my children never seem to finish off all the food on their plate, a fact I take great pride over. I hope they never have to deal with being overweight, the pressure of dieting and not being able to wear the clothes they want. The sight of obese people is not easy to deal with, but when it comes to an obese child, it’s downright gross. It’s so easy for children to become overweight in Greece, as the policy is to over-feed in general. The hostess loves to ply food onto your dinner plate, without asking you, without even waiting for you to finish what’s already on your plate. This is part of the Greek hospitality, and the main reason why we’re a fat race. A wise man (I don’t remember ever being told it was a wise woman) once said: “Eat a third of what’s on your plate, drink the equivalent of a third of what’s on your plate in water, and leave the last third on your plate to keep aside some room in your stomach to digest the third that you ate.” I wish this is what my mother had drummed into me rather than “If you don’t eat all the potatoes (or all the rice, or all the macaroni, for that matter) on your plate, I won’t give you any meat.” To this day, this idea lives on in my subconscious mind, that I must first eat what I don’t want to eat before I eat what I really want to eat. An image of my mother conjures up in my head berating me if I do otherwise.

When the food came, my children started cheering. The waiter laughed. I did too. The pizza was plain cheese and ham, my son’s favourite. The pizza base was slightly undercooked, making the centre of the pizza a little soggy, something my son didn’t notice at all. He’s the kind of eater that is satisfied simply by the sight of a familiar dish that he likes. Pizza is pretty much universal; take it or leave it. My daughter’s club sandwich was well-cooked (as well as you can cook a piece of toast, that is). She likes colourful food; yellow cheese, green lettuce, red tomato, pink mayonnaise. She’s a great eater with a skinny body. She definitely doesn’t take after me. “Where’s your plate, Mum?” “Can I have some of yours?” “Yes, Mum, here, here!” Their way of thanking me for taking them out to a place their dad wouldn’t have suggested going to.

Having filled our stomachs, and having had our fill of the weirdly exotic smoky atmosphere of the café, we asked for the bill, and made our way home. Their father was standing outside in the front yard talking with his mother. “I was wondering where you’d been,” she said. “Not the supermarket, I take it. Very cold day for an outing,” she added, pursing her lips as if scolding me for misbehaving. With the full knowledge that it’s best to ignore such comments, I made my way upstairs, and so did the rest of the family. I took out the leftovers from the fridge to prepare hubby’s lunch. He came up after a few minutes.

”What do you prefer, chilli or beans?” He wanted the beans. I could’ve had that chili after all, but I had already stuffed my gut on fast food. I heated up the beans in the microwave.

“Who’s making that noise, Maria?”

“Your mother’s re-arranging the furniture again.” She often did this, but admittedly the noise wasn’t that bad at other times.

I’ll just go down and check,” he said, having only been down there a quarter of an hour ago. I had just warmed up the beans, and now they would need reheating by the time he got back upstairs again. But I wouldn’t have to bother reheating them, because his mum had just fallen down in her own house, after feeling slightly dizzy, and ended up breaking her leg. Oh dear, how sad. I silently thanked the Lord for giving me one good sunny day in winter, in the company of my greatest fans; what a good day it turned out to be. There won’t be many days like this one for a while

This story is dedicated to LHC.

©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.

Paleohora cuisine
London cuisine

Blue dragon
Cabonara pizza
Chocolate biscuit balls
Chocolate muffins
Potato fritters

Thursday 14 February 2008

Cottage Pie (Η πίτα της εξοχής)

In this house, nothing goes to waste. I won't let it. That's why, with the first sunny day of February, I raced into the garden and salvaged two cauliflowers, a cabbage, a whole lot of of radishes, some spinach, one (albeit scraggy) aubergine, and a few green tomatos. Nothing will go to waste.

Today is going to be leftovers day in our house: two servings of lentil soup, one serving of spag bog mince, one serving of leek potato soup, and one serving of moussaka. There's also an open box of cream which I had used in yesterday's soup, and more pastry leftover from the last round of pie-making. I know who wants the fakes and moussaka; yiayia is coming out of hospital today, so she can have the soup (if she wants it, as she isn't an easy person to please in her situation). That leaves me with the &%($#@ mince. I will not eat spag bog. Give me a carbonara or puttanesca any day, but not mince sauce. I like my meat in chunky bits as in a chinese stir-fry; that's probably why I prefer spag bog with rice instead of spaghetti.

What can you do with a tiny amount of leftover mince? Could a Greek-Italian cooked mince dish score a hat-trick and make an English cottage pie? Having a look at Margaret's version gave me an idea. The base of a cottage pie is cooked mince, with celery and carrots added (although Margaret readily admits that you could add all sorts of things to a cottage pie these days and still call it traditional). The topping is simply some mashed potato, topped with grated cheese. Sounds interesting to me; still very mincey, but at least it's not spag bog. My creative powers will come into play as I assemble this dish; what if it looks so good that someone else in the house might want to try some? After all, I'm only making one serving.

I suddenly realise that what I am about to cook is the kind of nouvelle cuisine that gets rave reviews under the auspices of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. This could lead to a new reality show, one that might be broadcast under the name "Food Scraps" or something similar. The contestants must be slightly eccentric environmentally aware misfits (I fit the bill nicely; my children think I look very much like Prof. Trelawney from the latest Harry Potter film). The heat is on to find a replacement for Delia: must be eco-friendly, with a Gordon Ramsay touch of finesse (OK, Trelawny wouldn't go down to well at the Boxwood...), without leaving behind an excessive number of carbon footprints, must be marketable (admittedly, Trelawney isn't exactly a money spinner). Vote for me! I say to myself in my dreams, while in reality, I invent "Poofter's Pie".

Being the good English teacher that I am, here's a 'recipe' for an interesting English language lesson instead of a cooking recipe, as today's post will be completely pictorial.
1. Give the students a copy of a cottage pie recipe.
2. Make sure they know the words for the ingredients and kitchen utensils needed to make this meal, for example
3. Get them to write the recipe of the new version of cottage pie, as depicted by the photos.

Individual cottage pies, made using leftovers. Very nice. And very British.

©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.

Chili con carne

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Leek and potato potage (Σούπα με πατάτες και πράσα)

My cooking tends somewhat to the traditional side of Cretan cooking, rather than the more modern New Zealand approach to food. I was never this drab; I could never have imagined myself as being this drab. My other half hasn't noticed how I feel; it's all Greek to him. But winter life is getting us both down. He hates being cooped up at home. I hate having to face his morose expression, due in part to his mother's declining health, and to another part, to the heavy winter Crete has been experiencing recently.

My favourite season in New Zealand was actually the winter. It was a time of staying indoors, an activity I indulged in, being cosy and warm, drinking Maggi Cup-A-Soup, and poetry readings. My last Kiwi winter was spent writing a book about immigrant Greeks (it's still in press). In the Med, winter denotes the kind of deadness that is instantly revived the minute the sun's rays come into view. Cretans were not made for bad weather. Their houses are not insulated, their sewers overflow, tomatos stop growing. Life here revolves around the sun and hot weather, whether or not it is a sign of global warming and climate change. We haven't had any sun in Hania for the last eight days, and the temperature has dropped to 6 degrees Celsius. The sky looms above you with a big black cloud, the wind whips through you and freezes your breath; the sun is trying to peek through all of this, without much luck.

Crete has always had a cold winter, in a matter of speaking. This year is no exception; our mountains are all covered in snow, and some people even had to be air-lifted to safety just a few days ago from the Lefka Ori (the White Mountain range of Hania). Admittedly, they were families with young children, who wanted to show the kids the snow - they went on a day-trip with their car, without being prepared for snowy conditions; no chains on the tyres, and the car was probably a sedan. Happy-go-luckies. Despite this, winter is Crete has always been a very mild affair compared to where my fellow bloggers live. Laurie tried to show me the little lake she has in front of her house; all I saw was whitewash. Peter claims he's tired of winter, even though he's a born-and-bred Torontan. Rhona provides revealing photographs of daily life in the snow. It doesn't sound as if climate change has affected areas that were traditionally snowed in. They're still snowed it. So I mustn't complain now that in Hania we haven't seen the sun for so many days; this kind of weather is right up my alley. I thrive on cold weather - it sharpens my mental powers. The baking sun only serves to numb them into a kind of hibernation until the humid autumn passes. No wonder Northern Europeans see us as lazy frappé-go-lucky half-wits who seem to have a bee in their bonnet about the word 'Macedonia'. They spend only two weeks in this climate. I'm sure they'd be just as sunstruck if they had to spend all their lives here. This cold winter provides a glimmer of hope that climate change has not affected us as seriously as the experts would have us believe.

Whoever is really worried about climate change is more than welcome to take steps against it: go ahead and eat locally, I say to the British, whose food supplies need to be air-freighted into the country to meet their stringent quality standards, and extravagant unseasonal fetishes. And since we're talking about eating locally, why not take your holidays locally too, instead of flying out of Heathrow and warming up the London climate? How does Blackpool and Brighton sound to you? I'll bet they both beat Paleohora any day, don't they? Concern over climate change is a way of passing the buck for some people. Maybe Londoners will be able to go swimming in the Thames soon, with all that extra sunshine they've been enjoying recently, from what I've noticed in the webcams. Instead of lowering their house heating, they worry about the plight of turtles and start putting them into the refrigerator to stop them from coming out of hibernation, as if that were a priority in keeping the balance of the ecosystem.

I love other people's food. The trouble is, in this town, other people's food is the same as mine. I recently taught a group of 45-year-old unemployed women basic English for the service sector, and we invariably ended up talking about food. I asked them what each one had cooked for today's meal: I wasn't surprised when they told me that they were having one of the following dishes: horta, biftekia, gigandes, fakes, fasolakia, fasolada, with sausages, omeletta. All these meals are easy to prepare from the evening before or after a busy day (the women were involved in a training program which took place all morning for three consecutive months). What's more, these foods are all a part of the Mediterranean diet that they were themselves brought up on - just look at the preponderance of beans and pulses. I came out feeling very positive, that I was a normal cook churning out the same good food that all good housewives and cooks were making on a daily basis in Hania. No one incidentally cooked meat during the week (apart from the biftekia and sausages which were probably used as an accompaniment to horta or beans); meat is still reserved by traditional cooks for the end of the week, more likely for health reasons these days, rather than the reason given by people in the past, that meat was reserved for special occasions, there wasn't enough available, that there was no means of preserving it (no electricity or modern appliances).

To break the routine, and maybe the ice in the weather, I thought I'd take a creative stance today. Having read about what the young vibrant Ioanna cooks in her kitchen (as opposed to my own perceived staleness), I thought I'd indulge in a Gordon Ramsay creation from the bold UK chef who seems to have a penchant for naming his culinary creations in some European language other than English, and mixing meat and fish in the same dish. Whereas I have stagnated in my cooking ventures, reading Ioanna's webpage has revived my craving for something foreign, from a completely different world to the one I'm living in. I thought I'd try a potage de leeks et potatos. Je ne sais pas what my other half is going to think about this soup; il y a some leftover moussaka for anybody who ne veux pas to try this very un-Grecque concoction. I'm game.

For the
sake of convenience, the recipe is repeated here. The franglais are my own mutations to the original.
500gr leeks, the pale and light green part only, chopped (pas un favourit de mon homme)
500gr potatoes
1 large onion
100ml white wine (j'ai seulement red)
1.5 lt stock (stock a la Knorr)
30gr butter
2 tbsp olive oil
200ml cream or a mixture of milk and cream) (pas something dans la cuisine Cretan)
1 bouquet garni comprising of: celery, thyme, parsley and 2 bay leaves (Je n'ai pas fait this since before I was married)
(Et ou est le salt and pepper??)

In a large pan sweat the leeks, onions and potatoes (I take it they are also chopped small??) together with the butter and oil, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and wait until it evaporates a little bit. Add the stock and boucket garni and simmer until the potato is soft. Remove the bouquet garni and liquify in the blender until smooth. Add the cream and bring to a gentle simmer for a couple of minutes. Serve warm with loads of freshly ground pepper (voila le pepper, mais il n'ya pas de salt) and a nice slice of bread. (Je add le salt).

While I'm cooking the soup, I feel slightly dizzy. I wonder, could it be the wine wafting through my nostrils that has made me drunk enough to feel as though the earth is moving? I look up, and find the lightbulbs moving. No, I was not experiencing a kitchen love affair on St Valentine's Day. I just felt the final tremors of an earthquake which was felt somewhere in the Peloponese. In any case, the smell of the suop is intoxicating, and vigorously refreshing. I loved it. Perfect with a slice of feta and some thick crusty bread. Vive la France! We all loved this soup, and the proof is in the child enjoying it.

This post is dedicated to Christine, my best taster.

©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.

Chicken stock
Poached fish soup
Fennel soup
Lentil soup
Bean soup
Black-eyed bean soup
French onion soup
Fish soup
Pumpkin soup

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Cauliflower braised with XINOHONTRO (Kουνουπίδι γιαχνί με ξυνόχοντρο)

Organically grown crops may be healthy for you, but they don't have a long shelf-life, whether they are products from your own garden, or from recognised organic producers. Those cauliflowers we have growing on our plot won't last long - they've already been invaded by little green caterpillars, big brown slugs and baby snails, all looking for a comfortable place to hibernate, away form the wet damp climate that Hania has been experiencing lately (we have not seen any sun for seven days, despite our prime spot in the middle of the Med). Cauliflower in Crete is traditionally eaten boiled or braised in a red sauce. My cauliflower cheese didn't go down that well with the mister (he is so Cretan), so I've reverted to something more traditional today: cauliflower cooked in red sauce.

Because there is no meat or fish to accompany the vegetable, I'm going to add an old-fashioned locally-made product, something produced through another dying trade: the art of making xinohondros, a kind of dry rusk that is reconstituted in soups and stews to make them more filling when there is no protein added to them. A more commonly known form of xinohondros is trahanas, the mainland-Greece equivalent of xinohondros. Trahanas is pronounced tarhanas in Turkish. Laurie has visually captured the making of trahanas in a small island village. All I can do is recall my late grandmother (by the name of Calliope) making this about 15 years ago. She seemed to boil up a mixture of cracked wheat, milk and salt (the milk coming from her own goats and sheep), and when she deemed it cooked and ready, it was pressed into large baking tins, about 1cm thick. She then left it on the roof to dry in the sun for a few days. When, again, she deemed it sun-dried enough, she broke it up into little rock-shaped biscuits the size of a walnut, and together with the crumbled bits, put it aside for adding into stews and soups in the winter. I don't know how well it kept - this stuff can ferment and grow mould on it if kept in the wrong conditions. These days, I know that xinohondros (a Cretan specialty also found in other islands in Greece) is oven-dried, reducing its moisture even more.

Even my suburban Cretan village supermarket has started to sell organic produce. I have very few tomatos now with the cold weather - everything has automatically stopped growing in the garden - but the other day when I picked up the second-rate filo pastry in the supermarket, I found a new shelf of products which claim to be completely organic, hence their high price. It's worth trying something new, so I bought a tin of tomatos (1 euro per tin, as opposed to 50 cents for non-organic ones), which I thought I'd add to this very organic dish; the organic xinohondros cost 6 euro for a 400-gram packet, bought from GAIA. Another brand is also available at the supermarket at a cheaper price. Eating organically is expensive; even if you don't buy it, you spend a lot of your time growing it.

You need:
1/2 wineglass of olive oil
1 cauliflower head, broken up into
1 large o
nion, minced
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
400g pureed tomatos (canned tomatos do fine)
1 teaspoon of tomato paste
150g xinohondros (add as much as you like; the more, the crunchier)
a fe
w sprigs of parsley, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a saucepan. Stew the onion and garlic in the oil. Add the cauliflower florets into the pan, and stir them about to settle them. Cover the pot, and let them stew for about 10 minutes on medium heat, so that they reduce their bulk. Stir them a couple of times during this time so as not to stick to the pan. Add the tomatos, salt, pepper and a small glass of water; stir this mixture evenly into the cauliflower. Cover the pot, and let the cauliflower simmer over low heat till it has cooked till nearly tender - it will probably need no more than 15 minutes. Now add the xinohondros and stir that into the cauliflower, taking care not to break the florets. Add up to half a glass of water if there is not enough liquid in the pot; the xinohondros will absorb quite a bit of the remaining liquid in the pot. Cover the pot, and let the xinohondros cook with the cauliflower for another 10-15 minutes on low heat. Now add the parsley, mix it in, and switch off the heat. The parsley leaves will wilt in the heat, and the meal is ready to be served.

There isn't anything better than to watch a child fine-dining over a simple peasant dish like this one, with a slice of feta cheese. Cauliflower is not the only vegetable that can be cooked in this way - we have cooked this with potatoes and eggplant, which could still be growing up until the middle of winter in the Med, and I've also seen it added to tomato soup. Xinohondros is an acquired Cretan taste, something I never knew while growing up in New Zealand, but then, so is cauliflower cheese, something a Cretan would put aside for his chickens.

This post is dedicated to my late grandmother.

©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.

Cauliflower cheese