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.

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Cauliflower cheese