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Friday, 11 July 2008

Green beans and chicken in wine sauce (Κοτόπουλο κρασσάτο με φασολάκια)

Any devoted fan of Cretan cuisine will know how much the Cretans love to use green vegetables in their cooking. Meat is eaten now more often than it used to be, but the idea of cooking plain meat without the addition of wild greens or vegetables is not in vogue here. The abundance of tasty greens grown on the island will perpetuate this fashion of ours to eat green. At my wedding (conducted in the traditional Cretan style), the main dish served was stewed pork with celery, a very old-fashioned, but also very traditional meal. This dish has evolved into a number of modern variants: leafy stamnagathi greens instead of celery and lamb instead of pork, but the basic cooking style remains the same; meat is cooked in a wine sauce, with boiled (or raw) greens added towards the end of cooking time.

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Because we have been enjoying a successful garden this year, we have been 'forgetting' to cook meat, which we ate in large quantities at Easter (my posts around this time prove this point). 'forget' to cook meat, as there so much fresh produce to cook, store, freeze or get rid of straight from the earth. Most of all, I pity the people I see shopping for vlita greens and courgettes from the supermarket. I feel like taking them home with me for lunch, or giving them my address so they can come and pick their own fresh greens. BBQ is usually on the menu on Sunday, but as we have been eating out at friends' houses or restaurants (as in typical Greek summer fashion), we haven't actually cooked much meat in our home. I suddenly realised why I was running out of space in the deep freeze: if I can get rid of some meat, I can store more summer food for my lazy winter cooking days.

Today we're having fresh string beans. These were grown by my uncles in their garden, and the variety is what is known as ambelofasola (αμπελοφάσολα) in Crete - they grow long and thin on a vine (hence, part of their name - ambelo- which means 'growing like a vine'), with a thick dark green pod which requires extra-long cooking time. They are cooked in the same way as fasolakia yiahni. I'm teaming them up with free-range chicken, an all time favorite meat for children (that's why I worry I don't cook enough meat; kids need some form of protein to grow strong and healthy). Chicken goes very well with string beans and both meals can be cooked in exactly the same kind of sauce in the same pot, making a good combination.

There is only one problem: leftover casserole chicken goes gooey - the sauce gels up with an off-putting appearance. This of course is rectified once yo warm it up, but if a child gets wind of what the food looked like before you heated it in the microwave, it may decide to go on a hinger strike. So I've cooked the meal in two separate pots - but it really can be cooked together. Just make sure on the required cooking times for the beans and meat you choose - it's not a simple case of throwing everything together in a pot and cooking according to a recipe (written by someone who may have simply edited another cook's recipes, and didn't cook the meal themselves, for crying out loud): is the chicken organic? free-range? frozen? What variety are the beans? Were they frozen? How much fertiliser was used in their growth?

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The beans and chicken in my recipe call for a long slow cooking time; free-range meat is always tougher and more fibrous than battery hen fattened chicken (more runing around means more muscles), and the beans, as said before, have a thick pod which is sweet when cooked appropriately, but a little too fibrous if it isn't.

For the stewing sauce, the same for the chicken and beans, for each saucepan, you need:
1 large onion, chopped small
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tomatoes, pureed
salt, pepper
oregano (optional)

You also need:
700g of fresh string beans, topped and tailed, fibrous strings removed from pod sides
5-6 small zucchini, topped and tailed
about 8 large pieces of free-range chicken
1/4 cup red wine (only for the chicken)
The sauce for both meals is made in the same way; the beans can also be added to the same pot as the chicken if this is more desirable - it saves on cleaning time and is more energy efficient, but you need to make sure that both ingredients need approximately the same amount of cooking time.

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To each pot, add the olive oil and heat it. Saute the onion and garlic till slightly transparent, and add the chicken to one saucepan and the green beans to the other. Mix the beans until everything is covered in oil, then add the tomato and seasonings and simmer with the lid closed until the beans are done. Add the zucchini half an hour before the beans are ready, because they will need less cooking time.

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Brown the chicken on both sides, then pour the wine over it. Finally, add the tomato and seasonings and simmer till the chicken is tender.

Serve the beans and chicken together on one plate. Feta is a nice accompaniment, although the protein from the chicken is more than adequate. Sourdough bread is a must for mopping up the sauces. And of course, you can make all this in the winter using canned tomatoes, but don't blame me if it isn't the same as when using fresh stuff. Check out Lulu's recipe using beef instead of chicken.

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