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Thursday, 30 October 2008

The yo-yo (Το γιογιό)

Last Sunday, on St Demetrius Day, it was open house at our place. We clean up the house, we prepare a lot of food, and we wait for our guests to come. St Demetrius Day is my husband's saint's day, the day he celebrates his name. We never invite people to our house, but they never forget to come, either; friends' and family namedays are much easier to remember than birthdays, and for this reason, it is seen as an obligation of the guests to either visit or phone the celebrant and pass on their good wishes to his/her family.

So what does Organically Cooked prepare for her husband's nameday? You can imagine the fuss in my kitchen, the mayhem that must be taking place, as everything must be in order and only the best will do for this day. You must be envisioning mezedakia of all shapes and colours and main courses to explode your mind being prepared frantically all the week, in preparation for their final bake-off. And being the venerable cook that I am on such an auspicious occasion, there is no leeway for erroneous actions. Hence your bewilderment at the sight of the boxed frozen food: pizza, kalitsounia, crepes and meatballs, along with some store-bought cakes and sweets. Allow me to explain myself.

frozen pastries from crete

A typical week in the life of Organically Cooked starts off with Monday morning: that's when the mayhem starts, without needing to prolong or re-create it in the kitchen at the weekend. On Monday morning (one of my two no-office-work days), I have to prepare Tuesday's meal (or both Monday and Tuesday's meal, if I hadn't prepared that the night before). After getting the kids up, preparing their breakfast and dropping them off at school (primary schools in Greece start by law at 8:10am), I buy our daily bread and milk needs. Our favorite bakery supplies the INKA supermarket chain in Hania with the full range of white and brown bread, rolls, burger buns, baguettes, olive bread, cheese bread, bacon bread, you name it, so it only follows that I go to the supermarket and not the local bakery to buy a 3-day supply of bread and milk. This allows me to pick up any other bits and pieces that we may have run out of: ham and cheese for the children's sandwiches, stamnagathi horta now that we have no more vlita in our garden, maybe a pot of yogurt, the odd paper napkin, whatever I remembered to write down on my list.



After unloading the shopping, I need to start cooking. Whatever is on the menu for that day, I need to make enough to last two days so that there will be some leftovers for another day later in the week when I'm working again. Let's not forget the evening meal: if it isn't dakos or bread, oil and tomato, then I need to prepare it: pancakes, kalitsounia, a pizza; there's a cyclical choice of something different every night, all of which does the rounds every week.

Any errands to run in town? Maybe some irrigation or olive-harvesting in the village, the main job at this time of year in the fields. We like to harvest our own table olives; they need to be cured using various treatments. And did my uncles promise me a pumpkin, or some farm-fresh eggs? I need to go pick those up too, otherwise I won't get asked if I need anything again. What about a washload of clothes? "You've got a washing machine for that," I hear someone say. Yes, I do, but we don't have a drier, and neither do we need one with all that Mediterranean sunshine we get. Any dishes to clean? We only use the dishwasher when the kitchen bench top gets out of control; perhaps this is what forces everyone to clean up after themselves...

washing with a view of souda bay autumn produce hania chania
(the washing has a view right up to Souda Bay; fresh village produce)

Time to pick up the children, after half-past three. Since I've had the day 'free', you may be wondering where the mayhem is. Six and seven year olds have no sense of responsibility concerning possessions: "Where did you leave your jacket?", "Did you forget your pencil case under your desk?", "What happened to your lunch bag?" By the time we get home, the countdown begins: we have approximately 70 minutes to have the main meal of the day and finish off any homework that wasn't completed at the afternoon session of the all-day school program (working parents use this state-provided service) before...

tennis lessons at palia ilektriki hania chania fencing club hania chania

...Number 1 joins his fencing club, while Number 2 plays tennis. Fencing starts at 5pm near the old town gymnasium close to our house. Number 2 has a tennis lesson for one hour in the middle of town; her club starts at 6pm. While I drop off Number 1, I go back home to Number 2. We leave the house at 5.45pm and weave through the inner city traffic to go to the town's stadium for the tennis lesson. Meanwhile, Number 1 finishes fencing at 6.30pm; I go back to pick him up, only to go back into town to pick up Number 2 at 7pm. We find a parking spot and Number 1 gets fertilised and irrigated with some water and a home-made snack. If I didn't bring food from home, I'd have to buy some puff pastry crap to feed them with. I drop him off at the chess club for a one-hour lesson at 7pm. In the meantime, I dash back to the stadium (chess and tennis are located in the same area) to pick up Number 2, who also has her snack in the car. As a way to pass the time before Number 1 finishes from chess club, we do some shopping together: there are two good fresh produce shops in the area, as well as a (not-so-good) supermarket, and the best organic supplies shop in Hania.

By the end of the after-school activities session, I've been walking and driving up and down town like a yo-yo. But it's not only me: every night of the week during the school year, the roads of Hania (and every other town in Greece) fill up with yo-yo-ing mother taxi drivers. Practically every single mother in this town (and every other town in Greece) has become a yo-yo at some point in her life, ferrying children from one activity to the other. In my house where there already is one taxi driver, it seems as though we are doubling up on energy, but there's a saying in Greece that should explain why this is happening: "the shoemaker's children are never shod".

chess club hania chania school bags

Some time after 8 o'clock, we're all in the car, on our way home. Then it's dinner, bathtime and the preparation of the next day's school meals: a packed lunch in a bento box.

lunch box
(After the nameday party, we were left with quite a few boxed sweets, a very popular 'present' to bring to a nameday, hence their inclusion in the children's lunch the next day: baby bananas, a mini-roll sandwich, dakos and chocolate eclair)

Then a quick ckeck of the contents of the children's school bags. The evening is almost over; there's not much energy or time left to do much else anyway. The next day, I'm on a 9 to 5 basis at work. I really only have time to prepare a meal and check the children's homework and bags. The next three days are either like a Monday or a Tuesday. That leaves the weekend to do whatever wasn't done during the week: mending my daughter's trousers which she tears at the knees on the basis of one per week, tidying up the house, ironing, gardening. Let's not forget that we like to eat a decent meat-based meal on Sunday, and we also had to cure the olives we picked from the village. Don't we all need some time to relax, too?

curing green olives for brine
(A telling photo: my kitchen balcony - the children use the orange table for activity work on sunny days. I was cracking green olives here all morning Saturday. The plastic sheeting and newspapers were stuck on the wall to prevent the oil stains from the crushed olives splattering the walls. The gas bottle connects with our kitchen through a hole in the wall; mainland Greece has gas pipes, but not insular Greece. The crockery - the two large tubs, the tray and the overturned pot under the tray - are all from New Zealand, remnants from my mother's kitchen. The mallet belongs to my mother-in-law, but it looks as though I have already inherited it.)

It wasn't my intention to put store-bought snacks on the dining table on my husband's nameday, but that's all I felt I could cope with, given the daily routine we now follow with the children's schedules. St Demetrius fell on a Sunday this year, which means that the next day is also the start of new mayhem. Life is too short to worry about minor matters. At least tomorrow, there'll be a home-cooked meal, with the start of another round of the weekly mayhem.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Summer garden, autumn hotpot (Καλοκαιρινός κήπος, φθινοπωρινό τσικάλι)

Our summer garden is supposed to be coming to an end, but it doesn't seem to be turning out that way. The aubergine plants never seem to stop producing - I have a large supermarket carrier bag full of them, apart from the bag I gave to my aunt in Athens and another one to the cleaning lady who helped me spruce up my home after the dust bomb it had become over the summer. Aubergines have always been my favorite summer vegetable. In my opinion, they have a sweet taste when cooked in olive oil, and I eat them in the same way that I eat meat. When they are cut in thick slices, they are no less hefty than a grilled steak, but so much better for you. No matter how much olive oil you cook them in, it could never feel as stodgy as animal fat.

autumn garden
(part of our autumn garden - the pepper and eggplant trees should keep producing until Christmas, while the cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage have just started)

The garden is mainly producing aubergine at the moment, apart from the nettles, which are starting to come in handy for pie-fillings. Then there are the red Florinis pepper, the green bell peppers, the zucchini (probably the very last ones for the season), and the few surviving tomato plants. All these vegetables can be combined into one hotpot, baked either in the oven or in a pot on the stove.

ratatouille

This dish is cooked all over Europe under different names: ratatouille (France), briam (Greece), also called tourlou tourlou (Cyprus, Turkey), pisto (Spain), tiella (Italy). I use exactly the same combination of vegetables to make pasta sauce (with the addition of mince), vegetarian lasagne, and moussaka (with the addition of mince and potatoes). The recipe for each individual dish differs only slightly, mainly in terms of preference of cooking style and the herbs and spices added to it. The general idea is the same.

The recipe I chose to make is based on the French ratatouille. We recently saw the DVD with the same name, which inspired me to make it. I was impressed with the topic chosen for a children's film, and the children fell in love with Remy, the ratty chef. Remy's haute cuisine version of ratatouille was reviewed by Ego, a gastronome, who felt it compared equally to his mother's peasant cooking in a French village - the freshest ingredients, cooked ot perfection. Remy sheds some light on the difference between cooking for the family and being a chef; I'm definitely in the former category.

You need:
1 cup of olive oil (aubergine soaks up a lot of oil, hence the large quantity needed)
2 large aubergines, cut into small cubes
1 large courgette, thinly sliced (in half moons if it is very large)
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1-2 red peppers, cut into slivers
1-2 green peppers, cut into slivers
2-3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 large tomatoes, cut into small cubes
1 large tomato, pureed
salt, pepper, oregano
chopped parsley to garnish

ratatouille

Add half the oil into a pot and brown the aubergines in it. Take care that the eggplant does not stick onto the pan, as it will soak up the oil very fast. Add more oil if necessary. When the aubergine is all coated in the oil and has taken on a darker colour, add the remaining vegetables. Mix them well in the pot, until everything is coated in oil. Then add the tomatoes and seasoning. Place a lid on the pot and leave the ratatouille to simmer on the lowest heat for about an hour. Don't mix it too much, because the vegetables will break up. They are more attractive and less soupy when they are intact.

ratatouille

Serve the ratatouille warm with (or without) some roast meat. My personal favorite is to accompany it with some good cheese. It can also be slow-cooked in the oven in a sealed tin instead of a pot. It is delicious at room temperature, and even better when served the day after it was cooked. If you've overcooked it or stirred it too much (so that it looks like a sauce instead of a stew), boil up some spaghettini, drain it well, and serve this over it. Don't forget the cheese!

ratatouille pasta

This is my entry for Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging, appropriately hosted on its third anniversary by her very self.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Youvarlakia (Γιουβαρλάκια)

Dear Ms Verivaki,

I must congratulate you on your magnificent prose and excellent cooking skills. I am a regular follower of your Hania blogs (I read them both every day), and there has never been a moment that I have been disappointed by the food you present and the stories you write. I have fond memories of spending summers in my youth in Crete, and I feel as though I am right there with you when you describe village life, the beach, the weather, and daily life in that splendid Mediterranean town where you live.

Over the past year that I have been following your blog, I notice you have been cooking everything the way my dearly departed grandmother cooked (she was from Kambi); the same meals, the same ingredients, the same method. Your family must revere you for the feasts you conjure up in your kitchen. The photos seem to jump out of the screen, screaming "That's my grandmama!" to me.

There is one recipe that I haven't yet seen on your blog, and that's youvarlakia. It's my favorite Greek dish, the one that my mother makes for me and sends it from California via courier to my apartment in Connecticut where I'm studying IT, in a tupperware container which she has frozen. When I receive it, I simply warm it up in the microwave and eat it on the same night that I received the packet, saving one serving for the next day. It tastes so good, and it always makes me feel homesick.

Here is my mom's yourvalakia recipe. It took me a few times making it before I turned out a batch that I was even satisfied with. In my mind, my mom's yourvalakia are always smaller and lighter than mine, and the avgolemono is always fluffier and more nicely balanced in flavor, but I continue to practice, and some day I hope that it'll be good enough that I can serve it to my mom and she'll be proud of it.

I thought that it would eventually turn up in your recipe list, but it's been over a year, and I understand that you cook according to a strict cyclical repertoire of recipes. Maybe your family doesn't like youvarlakia? Well, all people are different, aren't they?

I have never felt closer to my second home than through your stories. I'm looking forward to being comforted by more of them this winter.

Your loyal reader...
*** *** ***


Kambi, 1919
Nikolas had heard the word 'Ameriki' mentioned many times in the village. Ameriki was the land of a poor man's wildest dream, something akin to utopia, where everyone is happy, employed and rich, like his brother, who sent one single postcard to his family since he left Kambi.
When Nikolas' older brother Grigori returned to the village from Ameriki, he had enough money on him to buy 90 acres of land in the village, and live happily ever after. After working in the restaurant trade for five years in New York, being the patriot that he was, Grigori decided to return to the mother country to buy the land his family could not afford to give him and to complete his Greek military service, at a time when Greece was under attack from an enemy.
"In Ameriki, people are prepared to fight for their freedom. How can I stand and watch when my country is in danger?" he replied to his family when they pleaded with him not to leave so soon after his arrival. His betrothal to a blooming village girl arranged (as befitted his financial position), he had no sooner invested his money in buying land than he left again, this time to Thesaloniki where his knowledge of English earned him the rank of officer. He managed to survive the Battle of Skra, only to die from malaria two months before the end of the campaign, having never set foot on the land that he had worked five years on foreign soil to buy. It was shared unevenly among his siblings: his four sisters received a large share each as a dowry, making them attractively eligible for marriage, while Grigori's brother ended up with the remainder, a mere pittance of the original amount.
Nikolas received 10 acres of the land that had been bought with his brother's money from Ameriki, along with the beautiful bride his brother never married. He married her out of pity; even though her engagement did not constitute a marriage (there was no marriage to consummate in the first place), she would have a hard time finding another husband after being betrothed once already. Word would have spread that she was engaged to be married; her fate had already been decided. Who knows when the next offer would come? Nikolas also felt that she had partly inherited his brother's fortune, so that she deserved to be in on his good fortune.
Aggeliki, for all her outward qualities, was not the most useful woman around the house. She had been raised in the 'mimou aptou' way, as if her beauty did not permit her to cook, wash and clean the way a less attractive woman might conduct herself with respect to these duties, lest by applying herself to such tasks, her beauty may deteriorate, fade away, disappear, as if age could never play a part in this demeaning process, and it was all to do with how often one's hands touched the soil on the ground or how much sunlight shone on a woman's face.
Nikolas' land was fruitful, especially once he had cleared most of it from the thyme and dictamo bushes, after which he set about planting it with olive trees. He hunted hares and wild birds, plentiful in his own fields, but the cook was wonting in culinary skills; the rumour spread all over the village, with its population of 500, that Aggeliki was a hopeless cook. Nikolas didn't know who to feel sorry for more: himself for earning such fate, or the oven-charred or water-sodden carcasses that came out of the kitchen, sometimes sporting their fur or plumage. When he sat at the kafeneio with other men from the village, and listened to their chatter about how their own wives conducted themselves at home, his gut tightened.
"Give her time, Nikola, you're not even into a year of married life," the others would comfort him. But he neglected to tell them that Aggeliki entered the marriage in this way right from the start, and that his clothing was now almost ragged and Aggeliki showed no sign of replacing them for him before they had become tatters. He felt that the land - and possibly Angela's inviting appearance - had cursed him into the misfortune of a loveless marriage.
*** *** ***
When Aggeliki became engaged to Grigori, she had hopes of leaving the village for good. She knew that Grigori had made a lot of money, but she didn't realise that he had invested it in the mountainous territory that made up the village of Kambi. She expected that, once he had finished his military duty, he would move to lower ground - as most villagers who prospered did - and build a suitable dwelling for them to live in. After all, this is what he must have been accustomed to living in in Ameriki; everyone there apparently lived in fully furnished houses and had their clothes made for them by tailors and seamstresses. They did not need to shear sheep, spin yarn, or weave cloth on the argalio, which would eventually be turned into bedsheets and men's shirts; like cooking, sewing was not Aggeliki's forte. So it was to her greatest disappointment that Grigori did not return from Thesaloniki. She knew what fate had in store for her.
family 1960 village 1960 woman rolling stone on roof young woman 1960
(Crete in the 1960s, four decades after Aggeliki and Nikolas emigrated; the photos come from CRETE 1960, by John Donat, Crete University Press)


Aggeliki had not wanted to marry her fiance's brother, but there was no question of that now that Grigori was dead. Had she been married to Grigori before he had left for Thesaloniki, she would have inherited his land, a mixed blessing if ever there was one. She would have become a rich woman, highly ineligible for marriage; what man in the village would have been able to match her wealth? As it was, she suffered the cruel fate of being labelled a widow after Grigori's death anyway, even though she had never married; such was the nature of life in the impenetrable snow-capped mountains of Kambi, at the foothills of the Lefka Ori.
She looked around the house Grigori had built in roughshod style a short while before they were married: two simple stone-built rooms with openings for windows, blocked by wooden shutters to stop the winter cold from entering. There was an outhouse a little way from the house and an earth oven built next to one of them rooms. This was not the Ameriki she had dreamed of, nor was it the town of Hania that she had hoped to move to after her marriage. It was true that she had never known better than the village life she was born into, but no one could stop her from dreaming, which is what she did most of the day when Nikolas was away, clearing scrubland, planting olive trees, hunting hares and grazing sheep.
*** *** ***
Kambi, 1921
Nikolas was sitting at the kafeneio. He usually sat on his own these days, as he had little to share with the locals. It was almost three years since he married Aggeliki and still no children. He had by now grown accustomed to the way the kafeneio chatter died down when he entered the shop, and the compassionate smiles of the other men sitting in groups around the tables. He picked up one of the newspapers that had been left on the fireplace, to be used for kindling a flame. Although he had not finished primary school, his reading was at a reasonable level. He did not write anything apart from his name; there was no one to write to, in any case, and no one interested in reading anything that he wrote.
He had not grown tired of working the village land. What tired him most of all - and he seemed to have aged a decade since his wedding day - was that he was working with no future in mind. So what if he had thousands of olive trees; so what if his coffers were filled with olive oil. There was no one to eat it, and no one to sell it to; people were too poor in the village to buy more as their own stocks ran out, so they simply used it more sparingly. The economy of the country was still engaged in a new war effort; there was no interest in trading olive oil. So much effort for very little reward; produce-rich but lacking currency.
Every morning started off the same, as every evening finished. Routine after routine, with very little variation. Nikolas saddled the donkey, which lived in a makeshift shelter next to the main house, along with a group of six goats and sheep which Aggeliki milked each morning, and left for the hills. The land he had inherited had never before been touched by human hands. He worked most of the day with some paid labourers clearing the land of the scrub wood and rocks, digging it up, tilling it, and planting it with olive trees. Aggeliki had filled a woven bag with bread, some olives, a chunk of graviera and a carafe of wine for Nikolas to curb his hunger, before he came back home at midday. It was usually too hot to work after that; the sun did not rest even in winter. The midday meal was a very silent affair, one that always heightened the void between the couple. They could not fill the space between them with their presence. They had little to say to each other; their world had become static.

Without offspring, there was no one to work for but himself, and his wife, of course, who, at times, seemed to live in her own reticent world. Apart from his requests for better food and clean clothes to wear, he had very little to say to her. Yesterday, she had cooked youvarlakia in a tomato sauce, using the anidres tomatoes he had hung on the rafters of the house to dry for the winter, while the lemon tree was bulging from its own weight, laden with fruit. Hadn't she ever had youvarlakia? Didn't she know how to make an avgolemono sauce?
"What were you thinking, using the tomatoes I was saving for the winter? Where are we going to find them when we need them, woman!" He could hear the rumble in his own voice as he shouted at her. Usually the house was so quiet. He wasn't used to hearing himself speak like this. He left the house feeling more angry with himself than his wife.
kambous 1974
(Kambi village, 1974)
Things were not looking good in Smyrna: according to the front page, war was imminent. His mind immediately conjured up the image of his brother leaving the village to fight against the Bulgarians. What was it that his brother had said? "In Ameriki, people are prepared to fight for their freedom. How can I stand and watch when my country is in danger?" Did he understand what he was fighting for? Had he thought about whether the cause was worth fighting for? Did he know how close the war was to the end when he lay sick and dying? Nikolas did not share his brother's patriotism. He did not want to fight a war that he hadn't started. He did not wish to be one of the victims of war like his brother. Now seemed a good time to leave the village, maybe even the island, and why not the country if it got to that stage. The shame of childlessness could be avoided if he simply lived elsewhere, far away from anyone who knew him. Nikolas put it in his mind to seek a passage to Ameriki.
old woman and rooster george meis riding a donkey george meis old kitchen george meis baking bread george meis
(The kind of Crete Nikolas and Aggeliki left when they decided to emigrate to Ameriki
; these photos are more recent than the first set above. The photographs are works by George Meis, taken from a souvenir calendar of Crete)

(END OF PART ONE)

*** *** ***


Aggeliki may not have been too far wrong when she made youvarlakia with a tomato-based sauce. (In any case, her cooking improved once she went to Ameriki.) Youvarlakia is a meatball dish, in which the meatballs are made with rice, and cooked in an egg-and-lemon sauce, which turns them into a light main meal. My aunt in New Zealand used to make them, but not my mum; they simply didn't become a favorite in our house, along with, funnily enough, pastitsio, an all-time favorite Greek pasta dish.

youvarlakia youvarlakia cooking

The next time I had youvarlakia was in a hospital in Iraklio where my new-born son was under observation for an extremely rare blood disorder: at the age of two months, we discovered that he wasn't producing enough blood to supply his body with, which did thankfully clear up on its own when he was ten months old. He had six blood tranfusions in between this period. The hospital youvarlakia were cooked in the tradtional egg-and-lemon sauce, which my husband was never a great fan of. I enjoyed them, despite the hospital atmosphere.

My husband laughed them off : "They forgot the tomato," he said.

"But youvarlakia aren't cooked in tomato," I replied.

youvarlakia cooked in tomato
(My mother-in-law still cooks youvarlakia in tomato sauce.)

"Yes, they are," he said as we looked at each other wondering whether we were from different planets.

youvarlakia cookingyouvarlakia in avgolemono sauce

When life became a little more normal in our house after the hospital episodes, I cooked youvarlakia with the tomato sauce my husband liked, which, of course, was the way he had been brought up to eat them. I didn't really like them, but then I've never been a fan of tomato-based sauces. I'd rather eat garbanzo beans (chickpeas) than fasolada; I prefer a carbonara to a makaronada; give me a lettuce salad rather than the traditional Greek horiatiki. This is the reason why I prefer an avgolemono meat dish to my regular tomato-stew meat dishes, and believe me, youvarlakia in avgolemono are delicious. I have found one recipe (in Chrissa Paradissis' Greek Cookery, 1983 edition) that insists on using tomato AND egg-and-lemon sauce together to make youvarlakia, but mixing tomato and lemon is a rarity.

Aggeliki's cooking probably got better once she went to Ameriki, because life simply became less mundane and the tasks she performed in Crete on a daily basis probably became automated in Ameriki. Her kitchen would have been more well-fitted, her food did not have to be sourced straight from the fields, her house probably never resembled a mud-hut. And Nikolas was probably a happier man once he moved to Ameriki, because he would have found better working conditions and an appropriate salary. But the food they ate together wherever they set up home would still have been traditional Greek food, even if the ingredients weren't easily available.


(The video shows how Cretan families from Kambi were living in California in 1948; Crete at that time was extremely poor, while Greece was in the midst of a civil war. To the average Cretan, this picture would have seemed like a scene from paradise; poverty remains the main reason why, up to the late 1970s, Greek people emigrated to the New Worlds.)

Galatia in California makes her youvarlakia in the traditional Greek way. I got the recipe straight from her son Nick, who could well have been Nikolas' grandson. The recipe is exactly as he related it to me, with a couple of exceptions. I added a large onion (I am a great fan of all Allium species: onion, garlic, and leek), I used only two eggs, and I added olive oil to the pot after cooking the recipe according to Nick's instructions. The reason why is a simple Cretan one: we cannot do without our olive oil. It may add to the calories, but it will also add to the flavour; it also removes the eggy taste that my family isn't used to in their sauces. The original recipe before adding the olive oil - Galatia's youvarlakia are just so good with that extra dose of garlic - reminded me of the way my mother cooked Greek food in New Zealand. When you don't have access to cheap, high-quality olive oil (as we do in Crete), you go without. Tough luck.

youvarlakia and fried potatoes

Since we don't eat youvarlakia often, you may be wondering if my fussy eaters actually ate this. As it was the first time I made this meal, I decided to soften it a little with a side dish of fried potatoes. I called the youvarlakia by another familiar name for mince balls, biftekia, which use the same ingredients, except that the rice is replaced with breadcrumbs. Next time I serve it, it won't be with potatoes, but with extra sauce to mop up with bread. After that, I might even call them by their real name, youvarlakia, and turn the sauce into a soup like Peter's. Evelyn also added a few chunky vegetables to it and turned it into a hearty meal for a cold day.

I know that, like leek and potato potage, first introduced to me by Ioanna, youvarlakia are going to become a firm family favorite. When I served up the youvarlakia for lunch, I had left the pot on the table. My husband asked me to take it away because "I could eat right out of it and not stop till I get to the bottom of the pan."
For the meatballs, you need:
1 pound of ground beef (about 450-500 grams)
1/2 onion, grated
4 to 5 garlic cloves (minced or grated)
1/2 cup rice (we use "Barba Ben's" long-grain)
1 egg
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
salt & pepper to taste
a little olive oil

For the sauce, you need: some butter, 3 eggs and 1/2 cup lemon juice

Mix the meatballs ingredients together well, and then make into small balls (about the size of walnuts). The one thing I always keep in mind is to keep the meatballs themselves small, more of a walnut size than a golfball. It took me a while to remember that the rice will cook and puff up in size.
Melt the butter in a large pot and place the meatballs in a single layer on the bottom (if you've made more meatballs than can fit in your pot, you can stack up a second layer). Cover the meatballs with water, going about 1/2 inch above the top layer of meatballs. Bring to a boil and let them cook at a low boil/high simmer for 20 to 25 minutes (until the rice has cooked, but keeping careful not to let all the water evaporate - you need the cooking liquid for the avgolemono).
Mix the eggs with 1/2 cup lemon juice and beat until frothy. Slowly add in the liquid from the meatballs and continue beating. Pour the avgolemono mixture back on top of the meatballs. If the avgolemono is too runny, or if the meatballs have sat around for a while (which is fine, and I should add that the meatballs, even without the avgolemono, are delicious) you can heat the whole mixture back on the stovetop, either to thicken the avgolemono, or to bring it back to a warm temperature, or both.

youvarlakia in avgolemono sauce

This post is dedicated to all the Cretans from Kambi, my mother's village, living in Modesto and Manteca, California, where very many of them congregated. It doesn't matter where they were born, whether it was in Crete or America, or whether they continue to speak Greek or not; they are still Greek at heart, and they know it. Thanks are due to Galatia Aretakis and her son Nick, because without their participation in this post, I would never have made youvarlakia.

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Friday, 24 October 2008

Amaranth (Βλήτα)

vlita amaranth going to seed in october

The amaranth plants which provided me throughout the summer with my wild greens, are now in full flower, waiting for a sharp wind to shake off their seeds, which will hibernate in the soil until mid-spring, when they start sprouting without any help at all, to give us our summer vlita.

vlita amaranth

A slightly more spectacular vlita is found in my neighbour's garden, with a red ferny frond instead of the common light green. Both varieties are edible.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Nettles (Τσουκνίδες)

Yesterday I did something that I wouldn't recommend anyone do without thinking of the risks involved first: I added an unidentified plant from the garden to my cooking.

nettles
(a patch of nettles, among other weeds, growing around the celery)

Spurred on by the economic crisis and the fact that only about a fraction of the plant species in the world have been used as food, I decided that there can't be any harm in trying a new one, or at least one which is not commonly used in our cooking, but is prevalent in all the fields and gardens of the province, and is also known to be an edible plant species: nettles.

nettles

Nettles are those nasty stinging plants which cause an itchy sensation wherever they touch human skin. Most people would probably not know that they are edible, although I remember once my father bringing them home in our apartment in Hania, telling me that they are good for lowering blood pressure which he suffered from. (Pity he didn't just stick to eating this instead of getting involved with other blood-pressure lowering activities.) His sister had boiled them, so they resembled green mush. They looked very off-putting, but are apparently very nutritious: "Stinging nettle has a flavor similar to spinach when cooked, and is rich in vitamins A, C, D, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium."

nettles
(one stings, the other doesn't; they look similar, despite the age difference - the stinging plant looks younger than the non-stinging one)

I knew that they would feel prickly, so I came prepared with some protective gloves to harvest them from the garden. But I was surprised when I couldn't see many thistles on them as I was picking them. I realised that there were two weeds growing side by side that looked exactly the same: one had stinging hairs on the stems and leaves,while the other was completely bald, but the shape of leaves and the general form of the weed seemed no different to each other. I decided to check out all the information available on nettles over the internet.

Wikipedia, usually our first choice for encyclopaedia-style information, tells us that most nettle species "share the property of having stinging hairs, and can be expected to have very similar medicinal uses to the stinging nettle." Possibly, the hairless species I found was also a nettle but not a stinging one. But the question is, are they edible too?

I finally found a reference for this non-stinging variety, but not before I added them to my latest kalitsounia and "spinach" pie making stint. I chopped the nettles in the same way that I would chop spinach and add it to a pie filling. I also tried the pie filling before cooking it, as well as after it came out of the oven. There was no discernible flavour that made the kalitsounia or pie taste different from what my family would normally eat as I cook it. The nettles - with and without sting - did not have any particular flavour in the first place, which makes me wonder whether makers of mass-produced spanakopita, my favorite takeaway, use nettles in their pie-fillings: they are much cheaper than spinach, although they may be harder to work with. But do not despair: blanching nettles removes their sting.

My non-stinging species was probably the wood nettle. Here's what WildManSteveBrill says about them:

stinging nettle; wood nettle
(the wood nettle, top, and the stinging nettle, bottom, against a backdrop of autumn garden )

"Other true nettle species are also edible. You'd think the stinging hairs would make nettle identification easy. Nevertheless, I once ran into some people in the woods who insisted that clearweed (Pilea pumila), a similar-looking, nonpoisonous plant with a translucent stem and no stinging hairs, was stinging nettles. They had been eating this unpalatably inedible nontoxic plant, which I had always rejected as unpalatable, all summer."

Photobucket

The kalitsounia were a complete success with the whole family - the contents of the tin disappeared as soon as I brought it out of the oven (hence no photos!), with no adverse side-effects. I had some remaining mixture which I made into a small pie for the deep freeze, using Laurie's ladenia pizza dough as a base. The family was informed about the nettles after they had eaten. The question is whether I would use nettles again in a meal, to compensate for a lack of organic leafy greens, and the answer is, yes, I would. Nettles don't seem to taste too different from any other grassy leaves; some people claim that they taste like spinach when cooked. When they are mixed into other ingredients such as soft cheese and other herbs (for a hortopita pie filling), they will go by completely unnoticed. However, I don't think I would use them on their own; they are simply too unpalatable-looking...

This is my entry for Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Laurie from Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska, who's tasted far less conventional greenery than the mere nettle: you should see what she did with spruce and pine tips.

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Monday, 20 October 2008

The real Greek lives in London (Ο γνήσιος 'Ελληνας ζει στο Λονδίνο)

Stavros recently posted some photographs of a Greek festival that took place in his part of the world, Maine, USA, where people living far away from Greece are maintaining customs and traditions that their parents passed on to them when they first emigrated from poverty-stricken Greece. Hermes from Australia thought the whole idea of staging a Greek festival in Maine was more like an American's nostalgisised attempt to hold on to an ancient culture whose language he can't speak.

Up until I was five years old, I didn't know I was a Greek. I thought I was just a diminutive form of the people who I was surrounded by: my parents, aunts and uncles, neighbours, the landlord, our friends. Everyone spoke the same language, went to the same church, had similar names (Kosta, Nikos, Yiannis, George for men and Maria, Toula, Soula, Voula for women), and ate roughly the same kind of food. All this was taking place in 1960s Wellington, in the suburb of Mount Victoria where many of those people lived at the time. This was the only world I knew up until 1970.

clyde quay school 1978
(7 of the 12 12-years-olds in this photo are of Greek origin;
Clyde Quay School, 1978, Wellington, NZ)


Then I started school, and that's when I realised that there were people who spoke my home language, and people who didn't. The people who spoke Greek were usually the same people as the ones I came across at church, while everyone else was some kind of 'inglezos' - English - or 'xenos' - foreigner. Greeks never considered themselves to be part of the 'xenos' category. I only realised I was the xenos when I was first labeled 'Greek', in the same way that I (and others) labelled people form other cultures, for example, Chinese or Indian. The only exception to this category was 'Maori'; they weren't 'inglezos', and they couldn't be 'xenos' because they were the indigenous people of New Zealand. They were 'maouri', as my parents' dialect called them.

My MA thesis (1991) centred around Greek language use in the Greek community of Wellington. One of the conclusions was that the Greek language was being maintained in the home, mainly by people who had direct contact with immigrant Greeks. When there are no immigrants in the home environment, maintaining the language through the generations becomes very difficult. This happens across all immigrant communities whose direct contact with the country the language is spoken in has been lost, due to permanent settlement away from the lingusitic environment. The Greek communities should be one of the first to suffer, in any case; only Cyprus uses Greek as a main language. In contrast, the Chinese language will continue to spread, because there is a constant influx of Chinese immigrants to countries all over the world. Greek migration has pretty much stopped; Greece is no longer a country of fleeing emigres.

So what happens to those people who called themselves Greek, then lost their language through the generations? Do they stop calling themselves Greek? During the course of my interviewing Greek people from all walk of life (I had to interview at least 100 people, and ensure that I had a good range of ages and generaitons), I also came across people who didn't speak the language very well, or whose children did not speak it at all. They still called themselves Greek, and they insisted that that's what they told people who asked them about their strange-sounding names: "I'm Greek," they all insisted.

The feeling a person has of his/her Greekness has never centred around the Greek language. There are many other factors involved. If the Greek language was one of the main defining factors in "engagement with Hellenism" as Hermes insists, surely the Greek communities of the disapora would have died out one by one, instead of flourishing, as they are still doing, judging by Stavros' and Laurie's reports of Greek festivals in Maine and Alaska, respectively. Clearly, religious choice is a more defining factor in the expression of Greekness than language - and if there were no Greek Orthodox church organising a Greek festival, there would be no festival.

Hermes, when your veins run Greek blood through your body, you cannot but be a Greek. Eventually it will become evident somewhere somehow, evn if you have tried to ignore it in your life, and that's when you will be caught by surprise, when you realise that you are a Greek and can no longer hide it.

I will never forget a visit by a Greek politician to New Zealand in 1990, because he made one of the most condescending remarks I had ever heard made towards a Greek born outside Greece (up until then, that is, as I heard many more after I came to live permanently in Greece). He had just been given a guided tour round the Greek community halls of Wellington when he chanced upon a meeting being held by the young people of the Greek community. "Κοίτα να δεις, μιλάνε Ελληνικά", he said, ("oh, look, they're speaking Greek") gawking at us like we were aliens. It was one of my closest encounters with a Greek politician. Once I came to Greece, I realised that there were also many other people like him who did not regard us as Greeks equal to himself. Maybe we weren't Greeks just like him, because we had better manners, in any case.

Every non-Greece-born Greek will probably have asked themselves this question at some time in their life: what is it that makes them say they are Greek, when in fact that they were born in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or any other place in the world, except Greece? I think I just answered the $64,000,000 question (which has drastically depreciated in value just recently) of who is the real Greek:

the real greek
(Souvlaki chain restaurant found in the UK; this branch is located across the river Thames, on Southwark Bridge Road, London).

Who would have thought that a souvlatzidiko in the 'xeniteia' (the word Greeks use to mean a place away from their own homeland) would have provided the answer? What an elitist group we are.

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Saturday, 18 October 2008

Double identity (Διπλή ταυτότητα)

Recently, I had the odd task of having to prepare my children's school meals 160 nautical miles away from home. Really weird, but that was the agreement between me and my husband if I wanted to go to the big smoke and meet up with a friend. The food had to be able to remain relatively fresh; all I'd have to do when I came back home would be to put it into my children's schoolbags within the same hour that I arrived back home. What kind of healthy prepared street-cafe food can you buy for your children's Monday lunchboxes on a Sunday, when you're flying back home 160 nautical miles away at 5.30 the next morning?

sintagma athens
(Sintagma Square in the distance)

I had arranged to meet up with my friend in the middle of Athens. Σύνταγμα - Sintagma (Constitution Square) - was teeming with people that day, even though it was a Sunday and all the commercial shops on Ermou St were closed. Despite the recent economic crisis, Athens looked like a city in love. The day was sunny, warm and breezy, perfect for a Sunday βόλτα (volta - stroll), which most of the town's residents were doing. Even the pigeons looked happy. People were taking photos of the parliamentary guards in their sentry boxes, the McDonalds on the corner was full of youthful faces enjoying their happy meals and a whole range of foreign languages could be heard all over the place, interrupted occasionally by the Greek language. I had some time to spare before the appointed meeting to search for what I could buy from around the area that could travel safely, not go off or become stale, stay intact without getting mushy in my backpack, and more importantly, resemble a nutritiously rich meal that could constitute a child's school meal.

plaka athens
(laidback atmosphere in Plaka)

The side streets of Sintagma Square leading to the Acropolis abound with mini-markets, cafes and παντοπολεία - pantopolia - literally a 'sell-everything' shop. In terms of edibles, the one I chanced on sold croissants, potato chips, sweets, sodas, fragile φρυγανιές (crumbly rusks that look like miniature toasts) as well as tinned goods. About the only healthy item in it was fruit, which was out of the question: bananas will go black with the merest touch, while the other all-time classic morning-break fruit, the apple, bruises easily, and may need peeling if you don't know what its pesticide content is.

CIMG5026
(the bagel stand at Sintagma)

I was beginning to feel I had lost the battle for a healthy mid-morning school snack when I spotted a lady selling the classic Greek bagel - κουλούρι, koulouri - at a stand on the corner of the road on Μητροπόλεως (mitropoleos - Cathedral) and Φιλελλήνων (filelinon - Philhellenic) Streets. Bagels are quite durable; in any case, they don't lose their taste, nor do they become stale in 24 hours. A perfect choice; I bought two plain soft bagels, two hand-shaped hard ones and a tomato-and-feta filled soft bagel, ditching plans to buy the full range, which also included chocolate-filled ones. Koulouria are usually eaten on their own, but if you manage to avoid the temptation of munching into them on the street, they go great with a piece of cheese, a few olives and a glass of wine, which I didn't have handy on me at the time, the reason why I didn't deal with my own bagel choice (the filled one, naturally) till I got back to Hania.

Monday's school lunch wasn't tricky at all. The cafes in the area served luscious looking sandwiches and πίτες (pites - pies) of all types: cheese, sausage, sweet cream, spinach, hotdog, mince, you name it. My only caveat was that they would be subjected to all sorts of bruising, temperatures and humidity levels in my bag, so I decided not to buy anything from the road, except for my own lunch (before I was treated to a sumptuous dinner by my friend. I could easily buy my children something similar for their lunch from the airport cafeterias, which served this kind of food.

I had almost forgotten to have lunch that day (such a rare occurrence in my life), I was so excited, not just about meeting my friend, but because I had managed to achieve so much in one day. I had seen a few relatives in Aspropirgos (a dingy Western suburb in the Greater Athens area), walked through the neighbourhood I had lived in for two years before settling in Hania permanently (Egaleo, another neighbourhood of Western Athens), and enjoyed the luxury of the organised Athenian mass transportation system, via the suburban blue buses and the Athenian underground.

athens underground athens underground
(pottery shards and the ground layers found when the underground was being constructed)

It is a fact that Athens has not improved its dreary image since I was last living there, but that is simply not true about the means of transport: the underground in Athens is clean, modern, awesome, even beautiful. Walking into the underground world of Athens is like entering a museum full of ancient antiquities: in some parts of it, when the lighting is set in such a way that it highlights a particular monument on display in the foyers, you might even get the feeling that Hades is lurking somewhere in the twilight, ready to turn you into a pillar of salt if you dare to turn around and look, like he did to Eurydice when Orpheus wanted to check that Hades had kept his word about his lover's return. Most of the treasures found in the foundations of the underground during its construction were eventually turned into a museum display piece.

athens underground
(some of the Parthenon marbles Elgin didn't manage to steal, on display at the Acropolis metro station)

A long time had passed since I last went to see the Acropolis. Of course, the whole area has changed since I was last there, but my instinct led me in the right direction during my short interlude in the area. I got out of the metro at the Acropolis stop, located right next to the brand new Acropolis Museum, a strategic environmentally-friendly station, enabling people to have more efficient access to an important landmark, without the need to bring their own car to an already over-congested area (top marks to the town planners). The hot autumn sun made up my mind for me: the Acropolis also looks good at lower ground level, and I don't need to work up a sweat by walking up the hill to get to see it close up. (Believe me, I've been much closer to it than anyone can get to it in modern times.) It was at this point that I remembered I was feeling hungry and thirsty. Right across the Acropolis metro station were a few strategically positioned cafes and snack bars. Everest was located on a highly visible corner near a row of crafts and souvenir shops.

acropolis athens
(above - the Acropolis of Athens; below - the foundations of the Acropolis museum among excavated ruins; a view of the apartment blocks facing the Acropolis - dingy as they look, they enjoy one of the most amazing views in the world )
acropolis museum acropolis museum

Everest is a chain store selling snack food and refreshments right throughout the country. Its food is prepared in the way most chain stores run; it is very centralised. At one of a few places in some industrial areas of the country (like Aspropirgos in Athens, where I overnighted with relatives before my Sunday adventure in the centre of Athens), people are busy preparing food in different ways for different businesses, most likely using processed ingredients: a fast-food chain may sell profiterole desserts in octagonal plastic tubs (like Everest), while another fast food chain might want chocolate mousse served in smooth round plastic bowls (like Goody's). Another chain may order spinach pie made with thick pastry (like Everest), while another chain may prefer to serve a spiral spinach pie made with thin filo pastry (like Gregory's). The food is prepared according to each customer's specifications, after which it is stored appropriately, and flown, trucked or shipped to the branches of these fast food outlets, be they close to the production plant or a remote island.

The advertising of each company may claim that their food is 'fresh', but this is all relative. A product that is stored under artificially controlled conditions to keep its appearance, shape and smell 'fresh' cannot be compared to the same product that was made and eaten on the same day in someone's kitchen, which will not be subjected to any kind of unnatural treatment in order to prevent it from spoilage. My Everest spanakopita cost me 1.95 euro and it was very satisfying; having said that, I must admit that I am a spanakopita fanatic, and it is usually the only thing I buy from a snack food outlet when I need to have a meal on the run. I ignore the ringing bells in my head sounding out warnings against fast food; we do this irregularly, and only when we need to. I even went into a McDonalds while I was at Sintagma; the coffee was OK, the toilets excellent.

Spanakopita was the kind of thing I had in mind for my children's school lunch. I decided to buy them each a piece of Everest spanakopita at the airport, another place where you can find 24/7 fast food chains en masse, each one claiming to serve you the healthiest food made with the freshest ingredients possible, served warm after a short zap in a microwave oven.

CIMG5060

When I arrived at Athens airport, I checked out each food outlet and wondered what kind of money people make in Athens in order to be able to afford to eat here: hot drinks cost well over 2 euro a cup, while sandwiches and pastry-encased cheese, spinach, sausage, chocolate or cream cost at least 3 euro a piece. A family of four with a delay between flights would need to spend at least 20 euro to eat here. In Hania, we spend about 40 euro for a modest but well-cooked fresh taverna family meal. I was in shock, and it was not just the cost of living that knocked me out: the Everest airport outlet was selling exactly the same spanakopita that I ate in central Athens for 3 euro and 30 cents at the airport; that's 1 euro and 35 cents more than in the other branch.

I was in two minds about what to do. In any case, there is an Everest outlet at Hania airport (which I was hoping would be open), so I decided to buy my children's meals when I arrived there instead, hoping also that I may find lower prices there. That way they would also be 'fresher'. I hopped off the aeroplane at 6.30am and walked through to the arrivals foyer. Everest was open there too: same spanakopita, same price as at Athens airport. It was too early in the morning to argue, but I've kept the receipts: one price at one outlet, a different one at another. Where I was born, we would call this a bloody rip-off. I bought two pieces of Everest spanakopita ("individually wrapped, thank you"), and took a cab, which, coincidentally, cost me twice as much as what it cost me in Athens to be driven the same number of kilometres. Where is the country heading to? I ask myself.

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