Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Fried rabbit (Κουνέλι τηγανιτό)

Tsiknopempti - meaning "burning Thursday" - is the Greek equivalent of Ash Wednesday. In the Greek Orthodox Church, it is traditionally the last day people eat meat (the next ten days being devoted to cheese-fare), before they start the long period of fasting from all meat products and by-products, during "Great Lent". In practical terms, few people do this; who is going to abstain from all meat products for 59 consecutive days, and dairy products, for 49 consecutive days in this day and age? Miss out on Sunday roast? No milk in a cup of coffee? What do you do with eggs - collect them from your hatching chickens and store them for eating in 60 days time? What about milk - throw it away, like the angry farmers on television, protesting about low subsidies and grants that are taken away from them? I really don't know, because in our family, we don't fast in the strictest sense.

What I do know is how cleansing a period of fasting is. Your body feels lighter, your system isn't clogged with animal fat. You don't need to suffer spells of dizziness, as sugar isn't off-limits. There are plenty of cookies and cakes made during this time that don't contain eggs, milk or butter, halva being my absolute favorite. The reason why fasting is still important in our contemporary times does not need any explanation: just look at the rising levels of obesity in Greece and many other nations, specifically ones that are highly developed. In Britain it has even become a national issue discussed in Westminster Palace on the banks of the Thames. The modern way to fast, practiced by many of my friends who also feel the Great Lent is too long a period for complete abstinence from meat products, is to abstain from meat etc on Wednesdays and Fridays, the most solemn days of the week because of their significance during the Holy Week before Easter Day.

Tsiknopempti is celebrated with great frivolity and plenty of meat eating all over Greece. In my first year of living in Greece, I went out on that day for the first (and last) time with some friends, in Plaka at Monastiraki, a suburb overlooking the Parthenon in the Acropolis. We walked around the streets walking alongside the raucous crowds of people wearing scary costumes, with their cans of spray, bags of confetti and spirals of coloured ribbon, carrying plastic batons and clubbing or spraying each other, including strangers. I decided that once was enough of this kind of experience. I know that it's all in good fun, but I don't particularly like to be bothered by other people.

I've never celebrated Tsiknopempti in the traditional Greek manner with my family. It's too much of a bother going out with young children, who get incredibly frightened by the skeleton and ghostly ghoul masks when they are suddenly confronted by them in the middle of the street at night. Maybe when they're older, we might celebrate this occasion altogether, but I doubt it: they'll be going out with their own friends by that time, so we might have to have a little feast on our own, like we usually do.

In any case, Tsiknopempti was never a good day for me. Either I'm very busy at work, or it's very cold, or one (or both) of the children are sick. It always turns out like a Friday the 13th, which doesn't occur every single year, so if you're always out of luck on that day, you might be lucky to have a good year when there is no Friday the 13th, but if you always experience bad luck on Tsiknopempti, you must brace yourself to face up to it every year. This year's Tsiknopempti was no exception for me.

After refusing to get up and exercise her broken leg as the doctor ordered, my aged mother-in-law's neck suddenly stiffened, causing her so much pain, that not even her live-in carer could pacify her. She refused to be moved to the special hospital bed that we had bought for her - it was lying in the middle of the room taking up space and looking quite useless, even though it would later prove to be the answer to her problem - and didn't want to have the bed she was lying on moved to another part of the room, which would have enabled her to watch television without having her head turned sideways all the time, thereby cramping her upper torso; according to the traditions she was raised on, the bed would be in the same position and facing in exactly the same direction as that of a coffin brought into the house of a deceased person, for the next-of-kin to gather round during the wake. She demanded to have a doctor brought in for a house call. The family doctor (ie, the one that will cost the least money) refused to do house calls; "I have 70,000 patients registered under my care through the national health service," he screeched at me through the phone, "the system's not able to cope," and with that last statement he disconnected the line, leaving me with a dead receiver in my hand. If she had simply done what we suggested in the first place, none of this would have been necessary. This mobility problem was more self-created than a true outcome of her condition.

Since I couldn't solve her problem, I called her son to ask him for advice. "Call an ambulance, and see if they'll take her to the hospital," he said. I love the way Greeks treat their own problems as other people's problems. I refused to do this: first of all, how dare anyone use public services wastefully and take up precious doctors' time without reason. Don't get ill on a Friday or Saturday night, because when you turn up at the hospital, the medical staff will all be stitching up drunkards who were involved in a brawl, as if they hadn't anything else to do. I feel that the health system in Greece works perfectly well, as long as you 'know' which system to use. In the end, we called a doctor friend, who was more than happy to come and cheer the old woman up by prescribing some morale-raising drugs, and by the end of the morning, that was my only accomplishment. The dishes were still stacked on the benchtop, I hadn't cooked a meal and the house was a mess.

To top it all off, when I picked up my son from school, I turned up in my usual kitchen-and-garden garb, and to my horror, found the children, teachers and some parents sitting at tables, eating BBQ meat and sausages and listening to traditional Greek songs, while the children were running around in fancy dress costume, all enjoying the revelry. "I don't recall getting a note about this," I said in a meagre attempt to excuse my ignorance of the event to the headmaster. In fact, I do remember seeing a note at one point, but with the health matter consuming our minds the whole of that week, our attention was always being distracted by the hypochondriac and we were missing the point, which is our children's lives. I haven't felt so dejected in a long time.

I finally got round to cooking some fava when I came home, and that was our main meal on Tsiknopempti. No meat, no roasting dish or charcoal grill to celebrate "Ash Thursday", just plain creamy yellow fava, a very soothing dish after a tormenting day. It's not the first time that I have felt that I cannot uphold a tradition as it dictates, but that doesn't stop me from celebrating it at a more appropriate time, in a unique way. It does not have to be Tsiknopempti to celebrate it; I'm going to scorch that frying pan till it's black. We're having stamnagathi salad (spiny chicory, Chicorum spinosa) with fried rabbit, something I'll bet most of you cannot even conceive. Fried chicken comes close, but it's not as sweet or organic - let's face it, I live in a village, and free-range organically fed animals are the norm here. Thanks to Andreas once again for providing us with the delicacy.

It's not a difficult dish to make, but it will create a mess. Oil will spit left, right and centre on your benchtop, and the pan will blacken, but that's what Tsiknopempti is all about: getting your chops stuck into meat in the literal sense. It isn't the healthiest of options to eat fried meat, but everything in measure. Just this once, it won't hurt us.

You need:
some pieces of rabbit meat (chicken makes an excellent substitute), cut into serving-size portions, enough to fit as one layer in a frying pan
some flour, to coat the meat
salt, pepper, oregano to taste
olive oil

Marinate the rabbit meat in some wine. for an hour. This will tenderise the meat, and give it a more pleasant aroma. Place some flour in a bowl, and mix in some salt, freshly ground pepper and oregano. These are the typical Greek spices used for flavoring meat. You can also mix in some cumin, chili, garlic, and any other spices you prefer, but it won't be a Greek dish you're making then. I'm going to keep it Greek here.

Heat up some oil in a shallow frying pan. The oil should coat the pan completely and rise up to at least half a centimetre. Dredge the meat in the flour on both sides, and shake off the excess flour so that it won't clog the oil when it is frying. Cook well on both sides over high heat, which you will need to lower in order to prevent the meat from burning and then raise once again, so that the meat takes on a dark golden colour. This process is called searing, and it involves cooking meat at a high temperature in order to allow it to retain a juicy centre. Turn the pieces over when they are done on each side to your liking; our personal preference is for a very well cooked crusty finger-lickin' good rabbit. When the rabbit is done to your liking, pour a small glass (half a wine glass was ewough for my frying pan) over the meat to seal its flavours. Turn off the heat, and let the rabbit cook in its own juices. Serve hot with a fresh salad and some bread to mop up the juices from the pan.

This post is dedicated to Andreas and his presents of rabbit, eggs, and greens from his garden.

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