Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Sunday 30 June 2013

Caper capers (Κάπαρι)

The fire in our neighbourhood left its mark in the open fields close to the houses. Luckily for all of us, our houses were not affected (some suffered very minor damage, eg sooty walls). Although the fire caused widespread damage, it was fortunate that the natural landscape did not burn right down to its roots.
The fire started behind the buildings, from a short-circuit during high winds, which helped it spread from one side of the road, jumping over the buildings to the other side f the road (not visible) and up the hill to where we live.
I recently took a little walk in our neighbourhood to see the aftermath. The main damage occurred in the olive trees, which are laden with an oil content that makes them sizzle like a frying pan before they go 'whoosh' and burn in a matter of seconds.
This poor tree caught fire in its trunk, making one part of it fall down as it gave way to the flames. 
The few citrus trees in the area were less affected, as they have a greater water content.
The lemon tree has survived despite its burnt leaves. The fruit will all still be edible.
The woodier trees like the decorative palms were not so lucky - neither were the snails that were enjoying their shade on the bark.
This palm is located in the garden of a private home - the blackened shells of the snails can be seen.
The odorous burnt smell in the area will not go away until the winter when the rains fall. Until then, the wind will make the smell travel whichever way it blows.
A neighbour's house - the fire came that close.
Although the earth where the fire touched now has an orange-brown hue, the greenery that was growing on it  before the fire has shown great resilience. The caper bushes continue to grow as if they were never affected by fire. I found a caper bush by a church which the fire surrounded but did not burn, not even singe the walls; that could be some kind of sign, but I put it down to the concrete and stucco walls playing the rols of firebreaks. This caper bush is special in another way: it is completely removed from pollution, as no vehicles, no animals and no people come near it, except for once a year during the chirch's feast day.

The caper plant is very beautiful with its fushcia-shaped pink and purple blooms. These flowers come from the edible buds of the plant, which is fully edible but very thorny, so it's a bit of a pain to harvest the tenderest shoots for pickling. It also produces a downy fur on the leaves and buds, but this just natural and does not need any special removal technique.

This caper bush was full of small buds and tender shoots. I chopped the shoots as far as the most edible part, placed them in a bag and took them home. Then I picked all the buds and leaves (and a few of the berries from the flowers that had lost their petals - they are edible too!), and the shoot tips to 1-2cm. The stems were discarded.

The parts for pickling were rinsed mainly to get rid of ants and any other potential contaminants. Capers can be pickled in just plain vinegar with a bit of salt, but a few spices do not go amiss here. I added some bay leaves, some peppercorns, and some Pimenta dioica known in Greece as μπαχάρι (ba-HA-ri), for a bit of aroma.

The jar can be placed in a dark corner of your kitchen, and you can start using the capers a month later. Capers are excellent natural taste additives in tomato sauce for pizza or spaghetti, tomato salad and potato salad. They look very pretty sprinkled over red and white food.

©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.

Saturday 29 June 2013

Doors and windows (Πορτοπαράθυρα)

 Despite Greece's modernisation over the years, the doors and windows of old houses, particularly those at street level in the older parts of town, exhibit the lack of privacy that cannot be avoided in urban living. The classic style of house in the old town is made up of one door and one window on the ground floor, with a balcony for the top floor. These openings often compose the only sources of light for these houses, as many of them are terraced properties, standing side by side with others, often with their back to a windowless wall.

Graffiti is an unavoidable curse on these houses. It seems that you must be on your guard 110% of the time to ensure that none gets to you, otherwise you need to fill up all the empty space with so much junk that there is not enough space for even the graffiti artist to stand up while performing his craft. Another undesirable solution is to allow the crumbled walls to remain so, as a deterrent. It seems that the middle solution is to allow a little scrawl on your wall, as long as it is not too offending, so thate there is less space for the next artisan to come along and place his logotype on your wall. Either way, a little leniency is a pre-requisite for your peace of mind.

Greek doors and windows are still an intriguing sight for many of our tourists. As I pass by these tiny colourful houses, I always wonder what is going on behind them, and how different these activities would be from the people of the past century a hundred years ago. The houses have changed over the years, with rooms added on top, some rooms split into two rooms and mauch refurbishing. Whatever the decoration and the material these doors are now made of, the style remains the same: one door and one window, the house owner's view onto the outside world.

All the photos were taken this morning from the road behind the cross-shaped market in Hania, which leads out to the street market (laiki).

©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.

Friday 28 June 2013

Watermelon (Καρπούζα)

Watermelons weigh a ton. If you decide to buy a watermelon, you have to think carefully about how you will transport it back to your home. Another consideration is how to buy a good watermelon. If you don't see it open... you have absolutely no indication that it will be good.
In Greece's relatively recent pre-crisis past, watermelon was rarely sold in halves. It was always sold whole. Since watermelons are sold by the kilo and they are relatively heavy, you were really wasting your money if you bought a whole watermelon that turned out to be not so tasty, which basically means that it was underripe, the flesh is soft rather than firm and it tastes rather like a sweet cucumber than a juicy watermelon.
Nowadays, it is practically unheard of to buy a whole watermelon. Even the supermarket sells halves (but not slices, as I recall seeing abroad). If you don't see it from the inside, you won't believe iwhat any seller tells you. Not everyone can afford to buy a large whole watermelon these days - they can be as heavy as 20kg each. 

We buy watermelon from one seller, a husband and wife team who open their little shop as soon as the watermelon season starts in Hania. They originally started up business about three years ago, and have now become a permanent fixture in the same spot every summer. They stock watermelon from only one producer, a relative who grows them in an area of Akrotiri, well known for its watermelon cultivation. This year the watermelon season started very early due to the hot weather: the couple opened their store - a corner yard on a main street, with some storage facilities behind another business - on May 8. They sell watermelons, and very little else. So all summer long, they sit in this shaded yard, slicing open large oval watermelons (that's very important to know - this is the classic shape of the Akrotiri watermelon, which is said to be the best due to the soil in the location where it is grown), which they cover with plastic wrap, then they place them in the fridge or sell them directly to the customer.
The couple have established a name for themselves in Kissamou St because they were one of the first watermelon sellers to sell icy-cold refrigerated watermelon halves. It may sound boring to do just this job for five consecutive months of the year ('we never stay open in October', the woman told me, 'because watermelons start to lose their flavour after that'), but they told me that they were happy because they weren't unemployed, and business is brisk at this time, because everyone needs to buy some watermelon on a regular basis during the summer.

Watermelon is now selling at about 0.65 eurocents a kilo. I bought a watermelon half weighing in at over 8kgs yesterday. 

©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.

Thursday 27 June 2013

Koum Kapi

Koum Kapi stands like a sparkling jewel amidst the crumbling ruins of the old tightly packed houses of Minoos St and the newly-built box-style apartment blocks that have sprouted up beside the decay. The sea has been left in its original state, as it remains unable to be built on. The cafes lining the street are some of the most popular in summer, due to the breezy atmosphere created by the sea mist. Foreign tourists rarely venture to this part of town, as it's partly obscured by the commercial centre. A walk towards the east will take you to another side of Hania that doesn't include the view of the lighthouse from the Venetian harbour.

If you want the right atmosphere to observe the locals, Koum Kapi is the place to be, not the old harbour. Swimmers, drinkers, bar staff, dog walkers, strollers, fishermen, tourists, locals and immigrants, of all age groups can be seen in the area, enjoying pretty much the same things.

Koum Kapi was once regarded as the seediest part of town. It was home to the poorest and the most down and out of Hania. Brawls were common, and so was crime. About 25 years ago, Koum Kapi was cleaned up of a good deal of its slum/ghetto appearance, making way for outdoor cafes of all classes. It is now the coolest place to be seen, not just status-wise, but also because of the shady afternoon atmosphere.

But you can still see the poverty of its origins - it remains in full view, often sharing space side by side with the plush cafes; despite Koum Kapi being located close to Hania's red light district (the infamous Minoos St), its mix of locals, immigrants and (well-informed) tourists is a sort of proof that different people can live together harmoniously. Immigrants wash ther underwear on the street hwere they hand their laundry to dry, as tourists stroll through the narrow lanes behind the seafront where the locals are sipping their frappe.

One thing that surprises people about Koum Kapi's beach is that it is very clean. While flotsam and jetsam were commonly seen bobbing up and down in the water, Koum Kapi's waters are now considered some of the cleanest in Hania, due partly to the biological treatment facilities further east, as well as Greeks' greater grasp of social responsibility. As you look out onto the horizon, you catch a glimpse of Zorba's hill in Stavros, which looks so close you can swim out to it.

Koum Kapi is the best place to enjoy an afternoon drink outdoors, as it also tends to be quieter than the Venetia harbour, but beware of the evenings - each cafe is equipped with outdoor loudspeakers, which means that you will be surrounded by a variety of different musical tastes all at once, making it difficult to comprehend what is being said around you. This is nothing new to Koum Kapi, where Hania's African community used to live in the 1800s, economic migrants from a different era. They were named the Halikoutes by the locals precisely because they didn't know what they were talking about when they spoke among each other - all they could hear was 'ha', 'li', 'kou' and 'ti'.

©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.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Vlita - Amaranth (Βλήτα)

A non-Greek friend of mine living in Crete recently found a bag of greens - amaranth leaves on their stalks, a Greek summertime favorite known as vlita (βλήτα - VLI-ta) - hanging off her door handle, left there by some kindly Cretan neighbour who was looking for a way to get rid of her excess harvest.

She asked me what she could do with them. Here is the advice I gave her.

  • Maria's friend: Maria Verivaki........this is my kitchen sink full of vlita... I'm desperate - on the one hand, I don't want to throw away good food, on the other, I don't know what to do with them!
    about an hour ago · Unlike · 1
  • Maria Verivaki OK, the easiest thing to do with them is to boil them as a warm green salad (always served with boiled potatoes and boiled zucchini, and always dressed with olive oil, salt and lemon juice) and served with, say, a boiled egg (not usually a fried one), or some cheese or maybe some leftover meat or fried little fish (marida, sardela, gavros). They also go really well with some sivrasi over the top, or some freshly grated tomato and finely chopped garlic (both raw), as I had them recently at a local mayirio, and always with some bread on the side to mop up the olive oil
    about an hour ago · Like
  • Maria Verivaki Here is something more creative: when we didn't grow enough spinach, i used to make them into 'vlita pita' - clean and chop the very lightly blanched vlita as you would spinach. Add some grated zucchini, finely chopped onion, the usual Greek herbs and spices (mint, parsley, maybe also dill, season with salt and pepper, maybe some oregano if you don't have too many herbs available), and some mizithra (Cretan soft white cheese), or crumbled feta, or blue vein cheese (I was told what a good addition this makes by a Greek village friend of mine - I have never used it myself). Because vlita can be a little bitter, you should blanch them before using (even when you boil them for a warm salad, change the water once or twice)
    vlita amaranth pie
    about an hour ago · Like
  • Maria's friend: How long does it keep when vlita is boiled, obviously not freezable...there's tons!!! And only 2 of us (I know, it's neighbours trying to get rid of their I can't say no!). OK, I'll make spanakopita
    about an hour ago · Like
  • Maria Verivaki Cook until the stems are soft, which means about 20-30 minutes in a rolling boil. You CAN freeze them if you are really really keen to do this (I don't do this because it is futile: Crete is covered in greens most year round). My US friend who used to run a Greek restaurant in NY told me that she froze them because they weren't that easy to find there; you can partly boil them, place them in a plastic freezeable container with some water, so they are swimming in it, and freeze them. They defrost nicely in the water, and should be reheated and/or cooked longer with new water
    about an hour ago · Like
  • Maria's friend: Oh, OK, will try that... as it's so hot today, I really don't want to spend it in the kitchen cooking...
    about an hour ago · Like 
  • Maria Verivaki There are also more creative ways to cook vlita (but I am not really keen on such ideas - they don't really fit in with the Greek way of doing things, if you know what I mean). Some things are just too not-Greek (reminds me of feta mousse, olive ice-cream and mastich-flavoured everything)
    about an hour ago · Like 
  • Maria's friend: No, doesn't sound right... Cretans don't use basil much either, do they? 
    about an hour ago · Unlike · 1
  • Maria Verivaki No, despite its abundance, and their craze for it on their windowsills, it rarely gets into their traditional food, although you see it more often in restaurant menus these days.
    Boiled vlita lasts for about 4 days without a problem, in its water, in the fridge - so if you cook them today, you can continue to eat them throughout the week (they won't go off, neither will the potaotes and zucchini, but cook each one separately, because if you cook everything together, the potatoes tend to discolour which may be off-putting)
    about an hour ago · Like
    • Maria Verivaki If you look at what the Chinese do with vlita, it's not far from the basic Greek recipe: they stir fry it, with onions and garlic, and they add dressings like soy sauce. It's very similar to horta vrasta (boiled greens) with the typical dressing of their region (I wonder if the Chinese would stick their stir-fry vlita over a plate of noodles???)

      While we're talking about the Chinese, don't forget that vlita are always cooked, never raw (don't ask me why, but that's how the Greeks and the Chinese eat them, never raw - so there must be a 'right' way to eat them)
      about an hour ago · Like
    Maria's friend: Yes, I notice that with the locals - they don't stray too far from the tried and tested
    about an hour ago · Unlike · 1
  • Maria Verivaki Some modernisms in Greek cooking take away not just the authenticity of the Greek dish, but add a dash of the 'liquorice allsorts' touch to dishes that were quite happy to be left alone just as they have been eaten for a long time. I really cannot appreciate these modernisms to this day, despite my desire to aspire to modern culinary trends - I think it's got to do with my aversion to the idea of deep frying a battered oreo biscuit...
    about an hour ago · Like
  • Maria's friend:  No, keep cooking fresh and as simple as possible, as far as I'm concerned.
    about an hour ago · Like· 1
  • Maria Verivaki Some combinations of Greek food are very very ancient - they worked well in those days, and they continue to work well in our days. But in creative cuisine, we might mess up the tried and true combinations, to the point that if we have lost touch with the reference point (eg Cretan cooking for example), we lose out on the real taste of a particular meal, and we can only eat it if we douse it in modern food combos
    about an hour ago · Like
  • Maria's friend: Very true.
    about an hour ago · Like

It is not open-minded to think of modern food combinations, where almost anything goes, as 'wrong', but it is equally narrow-minded to view more traditional culinary practices as old-fashioned or bizarre. Some things are meant to be. This is why I stick to lemon juice in my lentil stew and not grape must, I would never 'cook' my taramosalata and I certainly don't use chili in any dishes, unless I am cooking a foreign meal. It just ain't Greek, and my family knows this well.

©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.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Lentil stew (Φακές)

If you read Joanna Kakissis' recent views of Greece, you will find that Greece is on the brink of collapse:
"The postcard image of modern Greek pride is a rich, full table of grilled lamb, sharp cheeses, eggplant casseroles, olive oil-drenched tomato salads, and honeyed desserts -- of happy families toasting each other. It's not people fighting over free cabbage, staring into bare refrigerators, or gathering throwaway oranges at open-air produce markets. It's not free lentil stew. The future, all of a sudden, has started to look a lot like the past."
old soup plate

But cabbages are now out of season now, and you will be hard pressed to find them in your local λαϊκή (street market), as I discovered when I took a friend to the Saturday market in Hania recently. The article continues with some tired old cliches of Greek life in recession and there are also some other inconsistencies in this article, which are annoying to read, from the well-informed Greek food blogger's point of view:
"Those who still have their jobs, even if they've seen their incomes plunge by a third or more, consider themselves lucky. But they no longer stock up on pork chops and imported Gouda cheese, as they did in better times. They eat out less too... There's also a bestselling cookbook, Starvation Recipes, based on tips from Greeks who survived the famine of World War II. (Sample: Save bread crumbs from the table in a jar to eat later.)"
Stocking up on pork chops was never really the norm in Greece. Most Greeks have never needed to do this because few own freezers large enough to do it. Besides, fresh meat, heads, tails, gizzards and all, is always readily available in the fresh meat counter of almost all supermarkets. Greeks are generally not the stock-it-in-the-freezer-and-cook-with-it-for-the-next-month-or-so kind of race.

And what about this 'imported Gouda cheese' business? Forgive me for my mean thoughts right this minute, but does Ms Kakissis realise that 'imported Gouda cheese' is actually the cheapest cheese on the market? It's HALF THE PRICE of the well-known Cretan graviera (for example), which is made locally in my case! I actually buy it for kids' sandwiches and pizzas - it costs LESS than the most common cheese in our house, which is mizithra!

Kakissis mentions that Greeks eat out less now. Isn't that what happens in most other places when a crisis hits home? It's nothing new, nor is it a very Greek-crisis concept. Even our summer tourists are doing this at their hotels, or on the beach: they buy so much sliced bread, ham and cheese (the imported stuff, of course) at the supermarket, that the shelves need to be restocked constantly. The book she mentions made a bit of noise when it first came out, but few would believe it was being used, as might be insinuated by Kakissis' article, as a base for Greek home cooking. It's just an interesting book, as are Jamie's and Nigella's - they make great coffee table books.

nothing less will do

The opening discussion of Kakissis' article serves to remind me that there is a crisis in Greece which I can't see because I don't live in Athens. The only thing that Kakissis' article deals with properly (which is actually the main theme of her article) is lentil stew (φακές). They are a Greek favorite, eaten all year round, very simple and cheap to make, and always enjoyed by both Greeks and non-Greeks who try them at a Greek's home. And this is generally the only place where you will find them, because few tourists know about φακές. It is rarely available at restaurants because, as Kakissis writes in the title of her article, lentils are associated with austerity, aka poverty.

I made lentil stew yesterday, on request. My husband was tired of eating his garden-grown goodies: zucchini, eggplant and peppers. "Too much fresh food, Maria" he complained, "my stomach is growing stems". So I made φακές which we had with some mizithra cheese, raw onion, some left over kolokithokeftedes (zucchini patties) and the ubiquitous fresh bakery bread, without which my husband cannot sit down at any meal time.

Now that is a sure sign of hard times: when there was not enough to eat, and bread acted as the main part of a meal, which was served with a meagre portion of a saucy dish. The bread soaked up literally everything on the dish to the point that the dish was wiped so clean that it was hard to tell if it had been used. Not that my husband is poor, but he knows what it feels like to have just bread and oil to eat.

My version of lentil stew uses just salt, pepper and oregano to flavour it: this is because we make it with my home-made tomato sauce, which gives it a very strong flavour. This is quite different to my mother's φακές which contained bay leaf and dried orange peel, possibly because tomato was less easy to procure - she came from a mountain village, 500m above sea level. I once made this kind of φακές for the family, but I got a good telling off. I don't mix and match too many flavours or change the combination of my family's meals because I know they will notice: some things are meant to be (more on that in another post). And as I mentioned in another recent post:
When you watch the news abroad you get the impression that a revolution could break out at any minute... But when you come to Greece you see that it is all happening in one small part of Athens. We know that the crisis is real and that people are suffering, but this is not a country on the brink of collapse.”
©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.