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.

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Cottage pie

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

Beetroot salad