Sunday, 9 March 2008

Clean Monday (Καθαρά Δευτέρα - Κούλουμα)

Clean Monday is my favorite food event in the Greek calendar; no meat is cooked on this day, as it is the start of Great Lent. For the next 50 days, the devout abstain from meat and dairy products, until Easter Day. These days, most people don't actually follow this rule, but most Greeks do feel the need to fast using their own variation of the rules: some people abstain from meat and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays (which have religious significance in the Greek Orthodox Church), others abstain from meat the whole week except for Sunday, while others may give up milk in their coffee, not only in deference to tradition, but also because modern health problems demand a back-to-basics approach to the daily diet. Fasting is a well-known method of cleansing the body of impurities. We will probably use one of these methods in our house, which we do anyway in our regular weekly diet; we don't cook that much meat during the week, but we do allow ourselves dairy products.

We are lucky to be having company on this day. I can cook lots, we will all eat lots, and then we will find a hilly site, hope for wind and fly a kite, as tradition states on this day. I remember doing this many years ago with some New Zealand friends in Athens. Phillopappou Hill was filled with families flying kites to mark this day. None of us had ever experienced this kind of event before; it is an official kite-flying day in the whole of Greece. The relatively new tradition of kite-flying on this day is explained in beautiful Greek prose by Vasilis Malisiovas. He states that kite-flying is a symbol of joy, showing a 'happy countenance', which is part of the Christian element of fasting: you mustn't have that tired I'm-not-eating-enough look on your face when you fast. Growing up as a Greek in New Zealand, I could never full understand the significance of Clean Monday; it is a moveable feast, celebrated on a different day every year. To add to the difficulties, calendar Easter always falls 1-3 weeks before Greek Easter, except when it coincides, but this occurs irregularly and infrequently. Therefore, most Clean Mondays in my 25 years of life in New Zealand were celebrated on a workday.

On this day, most people like to eat shellfish, which, surprisingly, is permissible, as they (shellfish, but not fish) are not considered part of a meat (or blood) diet. Another mainstay on this day is taramasalata (fish roe dip), which has become part of international cuisine and is widely available in supermarkets around the world (as well as the famous Greek yoghurt dip tzatziki). Seaside tavernas (famously called ψαροταβέρνα - psarotaverna - fish tavernas) make a mint out of Clean Monday (and all other fasting holidays, of which there are plenty in Greece). Personally, I don't like paying a high price at an overcrowded taverna all for the sake of eating fried frozen goods which never come in time for lunch. You have to spend the whole day at a restaurant to get fed; your afternoon is wasted there when you should be outdoors flying a kite, before it gets too cold and dark - daylight saving starts around March 25, by which time Clean Monday is over.

My menu could be called a blogging event. I am using my own and other bloggers' recipes for some of the courses. The most important idea for me for a Clean Monday lunch party is to make sure the food looks so colourful, that no one could suspect that there isn't any meat or dairy products in any of the dishes. Because my menu is devised for entertaining guests, it needs to be easily prepared; I don't really want to be stuck in the kitchen when our guests arrive. Fortunately, most dishes (eg all the first courses, as well as the dolmadakia, marathopites - fennel pies - and halva) can all be prepared from the previous day, while the lemons required for the shrimps can be squeezed before needed.

First course
: fasolada accompanied by guacamole dip, taramasalata and traditional Clean Monday bread (lagana), a speciality which is made by bakers especially for this day, and never eaten on any other day, a jolly shame as it is most people's favorite bread. It is a flat bread made without yeast, and is especially tasty in dips and soups. I've chosen Ioanna's taramasalata because it's made according to her mother's recipe (mothers always know best). It has a light fishy flavour; the lemon adds a scent of tangy sea breeze. She uses 200ml of olive oil to 500g of mashed potatoes. All that's added is lemon juice to taste, and 80g of codfish roe; I also included one clove of garlic, mainly because we are used to the garlicky taste of our usual recipe for taramasalata. This dip can be made with bread, but it has a rougher texture; potato gives a smoother appearance.

Main course: stuffed sorrel leaves - dolmadakia, made with the same rice mixture that I use for yemista, accompanied by fried calamari (squid) and shrimps boiled in lemon. I was given the sorrel leaves by an aunt; these leaves - known as lapatha, labatha, lambatha in Greece - grow in the wild. They are not sold in shops, therefore they are a precious gift, and must be used wisely. I chose Peter's calamari recipe, because he says it uses the method used by fish tavernas to cook the calamari, and we all know how delicious fried calamari is (even the frozen type) when eaten at such an establishment. The calamari and shrimps were both bought at the frozen section of the supermarket. They each cost a fraction of the price of their freshly caught counterparts. Fresh shellfish is simply too expensive in Greece for everyone to enjoy liberally. We are cooking them simply to adhere to tradition.

Third course
: New Zealand fish-and-chip shop potato fritters (thick slices of potato) fried using a beer batter for fish fillets, and garden-fresh lettuce salad. Potato fritters are something I haven't eaten since I left New Zealand, and find myself suddenly craving. Now that I have company, I can try out a new recipe; with my own family, I feel vulnerable against rejection. Potato fritters bring back memories of my father whipping up batter with an electric mixer, deep vats filled with animal fat, batter scraps, late night shopping when the fish shop was at its busiest, and everyone's clothes smelling of grease.

Dessert: halva, one of the oldest known sweets, of Indo-European origin, which has many variations all over the world according to the culture it is made in. It will also act as my daughter's birthday cake (she's not fussy as long as she can blow out candles, and get presents) . If anyone is still hungry, there are also some oranges from our village (Fournes). My mother didn't actually know how to make halva when we were living in New Zealand. I came across a recipe by chance in the Wellington evening paper (the Evening Post). It was based on the 1-2-3-4 principle of making halva: 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of semolina, 3 cups of sugar and 4 cups of water. All recipes for halva are based around these ingredients. My mother replaced the butter with oil, and this dish became a firm favorite during Lent in our house. I made it more festive today by adding raisins and roughly chopped almonds to the semolina-and-oil pot (see the basic Greek recipe), while I added orange juice peel and carnation cloves to the syrup (Peter's recipe is similar to mine). After pouring it into the pyrex dish, I dusted it with cinnamon and sprinkled some sesame seed over it. If you are Greek, and you have never made halva, you should do it; there is no sweet more ancient than this one. Its history is just as rich as the varieties of halva that exist.

For a very grand Koulouma feast, check out the array of dishes Kalofagas suggests; you'll be sure to find something from there that will suit everyone's tastes.

The day hasn't started off very promising - it's pouring with rain. This may change by the afternoon. We mustn't eat too much, because we still have to drag ourselves away from the table and fly those kites. In any case, you can never feel too full on vegetarian fare. In fact , you probably need to eat in greater quantities to satisfy your hungry, because these foods contain fewer calories (although I know how much sugar I used to make that halva). Let's hope for a strong wind.

Kathara Deftera 2010 proved more successful - kite flying at Ayious Apostolous, Hania.

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25 March
Red eggs for Greek Easter
New Year's cake
Ash Thursday
Fasting and Great Lent