Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Friday 27 June 2008

Sheep's head with orzo rice (Κεφαλάκι γιουβέτσι)

What's the most disgusting thing you've ever eaten? For me, it's Thai salted plums. I was 22 at the time, and my teaching career had landed me a position holding conversational classes with a group of six horny Chilean youths and three Thai teenagers including one girl in the whole group. It was the weirdest class I ever had to take, because I was practically a teenager myself. The Chileans were loud and raucous, and poked fun at the facial features of the Asians, while the Thais themselves maintained their silent smiles and servile postures. The young Thai girl in the group offered me something that looked like a caramel. I thanked her and popped it into my mouth without even conceiving the idea that it may be something I didn't like the taste of. I remember keeping it in my mouth long enough for the girl not to see me discarding it hastily in the bin, and rushing off to rinse my mouth.

When my mother cooked, I remember only one time when my father ever complained about a meal (the horta weren't well cleaned). All other times, he ate whatever came out of the pot as my mother cooked it. He himself never cooked, and I don't think my mother would have allowed him to do so, anyway, being the veritable Cretan woman that she was, despite living so far away from the island. When I first got married, I suddenly became aware that my life had taken a 180-degree turn on the aspect of food. I discovered that some people won't eat anything that's put in front of them, so I had to cook in such a way that what I cooked would be eaten, because I can't stand wasted effort.

I am fully sympathetic to anyone who doesn't want to eat something because they don't like it (even though not everyone is sympathetic to my desire to try everything), but I'm not too happy with my children when they are put off by sight rather than taste. I always ask them to taste something first before saying they don't like it, but it isn't always easy to get them to eat something that they dislike the appearance of in the first place. As it is not easy to cook for a family all with different tastes, I try to to cook meals that will have something in the saucepan or baking tray that everyone will eat from, usually in the form of pasta, potatoes, rice or beans, while always endeavouring to 'hide' vegetables in the sauces. It is simply not practical or ethical to have family members eating different food (unless there are leftovers), especially when one person is expected to cook for everyone. This is in line with the general idea that we should all respect other people's efforts.

There are other reasons why we 'have to' eat certain meals in this house:
  • they are good for your health
  • they are made with fresh garden produce
  • life is expensive and we can't afford to buy prepared meals or luxury food items
  • food should not be wasted
  • we can only have what we like when we are in a restaurant
And there are times for treats:
  • we try to go out about once a month for a meal as a family
  • when we eat out, the children are allowed to order whatever they like
  • we let our kids eat ice-cream in the summer, but not every day
  • occasionally eating junk food as a family every now and then provides memorable occasions and always brings on happy faces
Satisfying all the eaters in my house is not easy, but after nearly nine years of marriage and continually improving my techniques in the kitchen, I am overcoming this daily issue with which I am faced, and will be faced until the children are old enough to prepare a meal of their own or they leave the family home (for military duty and/or college).

Sheep's head is not something we have on an everyday basis, and it will send more intense shockwaves than my recent snail stew (which my daughter thought was finger-lickin' good - my son only ate the potatoes). In fact, sheep's head is only ever found in our deep freeze when we buy lamb (even though there were a pile of them in the supermarket where I bought some milk and fruit today). We buy our meat from the local butcher, but there are also times we buy straight from the farmer. In Cretan cuisine, the whole animal is eaten, each cut of meat cooked in a different way. The origins of this practice are easy to guess: economy, nothing goes to waste. Some people say that in Crete, we are leaders, not followers. Despite the peasant conditions prevailing outside the few urban centres of the island, the local people possessed the knowledge to ensure that they could hygienically cook all parts of an animal in a tasty way. A free-flowing supply of clean water is the key to hygiene; in Crete, we are blessed with it. This is a luxury in some parts of the world, and not just developing countries: in Iowa, it is unsafe to drink tap water on 'blue baby alert' days because of fertliser excess run-offs contaminating the water supply on particularly rainy days, as Michael Pollan explains in The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The sheep's head has been in the deep freeze since Greek Easter, much less time than most frozen supermarket food. It's time to use it. I'm cooking sheep's head for my son today. My son adores orzo rice pasta, called kritharaki (because it has a barley-grain shape) in Crete, or manestra in other parts of Greece. We never cooked this sort of thing in New Zealand; I'm afraid the societal norms prevalent in my country of birth just did not provide the setting for the sale of such cuts of meat; dead animals were treated euphemistically, as if they were not really animals but some kind of edible red plant, neatly packaged in cellophane wrappers with due-by, use-by and eat-by dates clearly labelled, particularly after the demise of the butchery and the takeover of this sector by the supermarket (as Joanna Blythman points out in Shopped).

One way of cooking sheep's head is as yiouvetsi - roasted in tomato sauce, with orzo rice pasta added towards the end of the cooking time. Some of us will eat the orzo, while others will lick the sheep's head dry. As long as everyone finds something to eat, I'm happy.

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  1. Your son is a lucky little boy

  2. Using the head is perfectly fine with me, good for you for using the whole animal. Our heads got used up in Easter for the magheritsa and a spankorizo.

    Your children will thank you later for feeding them well.

  3. Does the head have the brains in it? How long does it take the head to roast approximately)? I assume it should be basted with the tomato sauce while it's roasting?

    Enquiring barbarians want to know! :-)

  4. I'm a big fan of nose to tail eating and your narrative is a good reminder. This is actually something I would (and can) make. There are always lamb heads at the local butcher shop.

  5. In Norway we eat lambs heads, salted smoked and dried and then cooked for three hours, served with potatoes and mashed rutebeger.In the western part, in winter. With beer and aquavit.

  6. mmmm very yummy

  7. When I was a kid in the 1930's my father, an Italian born American, sat me on his knee at a round table full of other Italian men, and in walked a delivery person, like a pizza delivery except in deep boxes giving off an aroma Ihat made me salivate: They were roasted sheeps heads. I was too young to know what capuzelle really was and when it was placed before us. I started eating, the brains, the slivers of meat here and there. I remember doing this casually with no hesitation and I loved it. Now, so many decades later, I wonder how I would feel looking down at one these heads in my dish.