Saturday, 1 March 2008

Goat and cooked lettuce in egg-and-lemon sauce (Κατσίκι φρικασέ - αυγολέμονο)

Spring is so much in the air these days in Hania. I just spent the whole morning in town and the whole afternoon in Platanias, a seaside village, at a hotel which was hosting the regional inter-school chess competition for Western Crete. A splendid time was had by all, despite the fact that the children and their parents spent five hours in an exposed section of a summer resort hotel, with long wait times in the strong cold wind that prevailed. These hotels abound in Hania, but remain closed during the off-season, when there are no European chartered flights available, and hence no tourism. Living in Hania, I don't get the chance to view these buildings from the inside; I only see their façade as I drive past. Therefore, it was a bit of an eye-opener entering this marvellous edifice which simply screamed summer everywhere you looked, with its bamboo deckchairs, mosaic-tile swimming pools (not in operation at this time of year) and umbrella light fixtures. The apartments looked like miniature villas with marble staircases and terracotta pottery gracing the gardens which were full of expensive greenery. The hotel must have been specially opened for the weekend's event, but all hotels will gradually start getting ready to greet this year's tourists when the season opens up at the end of the month. Seeing the hotel from up close, I felt very thankful to have a home in Hania close by to the places where people spend a few weeks of their annual pay to stay at for a couple of weeks a year.

The event was free, but not without its problems. It ran over the time expected, and no food or drinks were provided. 400 schoolchildren had registered for the event. I learnt my lesson: tomorrow morning (the second half of the event), I shall make sure to bring along some water and a few edibles, because I don't want to pay a euro per half litre of water and 2 euro per toasted ham and cheese sandwich; a right rip-off. There were also some pricey but filling brown bread rolls (the one I ate contained lettuce, feta cheese and olive paste), and the usual refreshments. But the rest of the food available was clearly junk - chips, chocolates and sweets.

There will be no time to cook tomorrow's Sunday lunch, the only time we eat meat in our house. Not that I don't like meat, but there's just so much healthier food available, so why overdose on cholesterol? We are getting ready to plough up the garden to make it ready for the coming spring months. Time to find a way to eat up the Cos lettuce my mother-in-law planted in winter. Cos lettuce is the main lettuce variety grown in Hania. It's something I couldn't get used to when I first came to Greece, as I could only dream of the curly iceberg lettuce we used to eat in New Zealand. But I slowly learnt to like coarser stiffer Cos (sometimes called Romaine) lettuce, and I have to laugh at the sign above the iceberg lettuce sold in the foreign produce section of the supermarket: it's often named 'salata'. Aren't all salads called 'salata'?

After arriving home at 8pm, we ate our evening meal as a family (spanakorizo) which I had managed to cook in between the trip to Hania and the chess competition (tired and hungry children will eat anything, even if it does look very green). When everyone had had their fill, they went off to doze in front of the television while I cleared away the kitchen table and started cooking tomorrow's Sunday lunch: φρικασέ (fricasse). This is not a difficult dish to cook, as long as you have prepared the meat and vegetables. Lettuce is an unusual ingredient in a stew; the lettuce is cooked with the meat. Other leafy greens can also be used in the same dish - spinach, stamnagathi (spiny chicory) and swiss chard, among others - with an alteration in the flavour. My mum used to cook this meal for the midnight feast after the first Easter Sunday service (ie the one that starts on Saturday night and finishes in the wee small hours of Sunday morning). She'd cook the meat with the vegetables, and when she came home from church, she'd make and add the egg-and-lemon sauce. In this way, I'll be able to enjoy another day at the posh hotel, and still get a decent meal on the table in a reasonable amount of time.

Fricasee in Greece basically means meat cooked in a white sauce, which isn't necessarily creamy. Egg-and-lemon sauce is the classic Greek white sauce, also used to make chicken soup. It is a perfect sauce for spring dishes; its creamy yellow colour goes well with green vegetables. Lamb or goat meat is the meat commonly used in fricasse dishes in Hania, and today I've preferred kid meat, because it is very tender and less fatty than spring lamb.

For the stew, you need
1.5 kg of tender goat meat, preferably kid (or spring lamb), chopped into large chunks
a dozen spring onions, chopped small - I prefer a mixture of red onions, leeks and spring onions
2 large heads of Cos lettuce (but any lettuce will do, and many cooks in Hania use different kinds of horta, stamnagathi - spiny chicory - being the most popular), torn into large pieces
1 cup of olive oil
a few sprigs of dill, chopped finely
1/2 glass of wine
salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the meat by boiling it to skim off any impurities. If the animal was very young, you don't need to do this. Drain it well if you do. Heat the oil in a pot and brown the meat all over. When it is done, add the onions and let them wilt in the juices of the meat. Add the salt, pepper and wine. Cover the pot and let the stew simmer for half an hour. When you take off the lid, if you used a mixture of onions, your nose will be smitten with the most wonderful springtime aroma, reminiscent of green hills covered with wild flowers, with frolicking young animals (like the one you're cooking) gamboling over them.

Now add the dill and lettuce, and mix them in well. The stiff leaves of Cos lettuce need to wilt before they will fit snugly into the pot, so let the stew cook over a high heat and turn the ingredients over in the pot so that they will cook more quickly. Once the lettuce has reduced, reduce the heat to simmering point, cover the pot and cook for at least an hour, or longer, until the meat is practically falling off the bone, and the cooked lettuce melts in your mouth. There is no set time for this; it all depends on the meat. Now you can switch off the heat, and either continue on to making the egg-and-lemon sauce, or wait till you are ready to serve the dish and prepare the sauce later. And if you really like your food light, skip the sauce altogether, add some lemon juice, stir it around, and enjoy this meal as it is (my personal preference). If you do decide to postpone the addition of the sauce, you need to heat up the stew so that the liquid is warm enough to cook the egg-based sauce; adding cold stewing liquid to an egg sauce means that the egg won't cook.

For the egg and lemon sauce, you need:
2-3 eggs, separated
juice of 2-3 lemons
If you prefer a thicker sauce, add more eggs. I add more lemon than eggs, for a lighter, tangier taste. Whisk the egg whites until they are frothy (not stiff). Now add the yolks and lemon juice. Add large spoons of liquid (at least two soup ladles full) from the stew into the egg mixture, and stir vigorously to blend the liquids. This is not a tricky sauce to make if the liquid from the stew has cooled down, but it can be quite a challenge if the liquid has not cooled down enough. Raw egg will cook in hot liquid, so beware when mixing the raw egg sauce into the stew's hot liquid. The sauce should not have cooked egg bits in it!

Once the egg and stew liquids have been blended, slowly pour it into the pot, over all the meat. Stir it in very gently, shaking the pot form side to side to distribute it. Let it set a few minutes before serving. This dish does not need many accompaniments. It contains everything required for a balanced meal. A few fried potatoes go well with it. For the healthiest option, just have some village bread handy for mopping up the juices.

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