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Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Pork and celery (Χοιρινό με σέλινο)

In New Zealand, we never ate pork at home. This was probably due to the fact that lamb meat ranked very highly in the Greek esteem, so that we ended up eating it in excess in New Zealand, because it was so plentiful and cheap. In the mid-1970s, half a New Zealand lamb (they were about a metre in length) was selling for 20 dollars. I don't remember eating pork in New Zealand; it must have been Greece where I tasted it the first time. My first Christmas meal in Crete was pork chops cooked on the barbecue. Most traditional Christmastime meals in Crete involve pork. Apart from the pig's environmentally friendly role (it ate all the leftovers of the farming family's meals, therefore it was cheap to maintain), the killing of the pig (most farming families had one) was a grand affair, usually taking place around Christmas. It was at about this time that the pig was ready to be done away with. Lamb and goat are not quite so traditional at this time: young animals are too gaunt at Christmastime to make suitably meaty meals.

pig pork

In the days before refrigeration, once a pig was killed, the meat was shared out among the extended family and the village neighbourhood, while every single part of the pig was cooked in various ways, ranging from soup and sausages to cooking fat and pork preserves (cooked pork sealed in fat, stored in ceramic pots - my father used to talk about this). These delicacies were eaten not just by the household to which the pig belonged, but the whole village. All the villagers who had a pig took their turn in staging the event, which was usually accompanied by singing. This tradition still survives among older residents, but the advent of refrigerators has helped in its demise, an understandable consequence of the conveniences of modern living.

greek celery

One of the most unusual traditional dishes in Crete (and possibly, one of the smelliest) is pork cooked with celery, which is growing quite profusely in our garden. This variety of celery looks a lot like large-leafed parsley: this is dark green Greek celery, not the tall light green stalky variety (called Pascal celery) that one often conjures up in their mind when they hear the word 'celery'. Greek celery has a wilder appearance, a spicier taste, and a more pungent aroma than Pascal celery; you either love it or hate it. When this variety of celery is boiling away in the pot its aroma is as equally unappetising as that of cabbage or cauliflower. Its base consists of a hard thick white root which is edible, even tastier than the stalks and leaves. Greek celery is often added to soups; it's an absolute must in fasolada. It is usually sold in small bunches as a herb, but is also available in the tall shrub-like form. In Crete, the Pascal variety is often sold in the imported produce section of the supermarket (grown in Holland), and is referred to as σέλερι (pronounced 'celery'), but the Greek variety is always called σέλινο (pronounced 'selino').

The coastal resort town of Paleohora is located in the district known as Selino. As it is the main town in the area, it can be called the capital of Selino, prompting a school student to answer 'maintano' (parsley) when he was asked what the capital of Selino was...

pork and celery

This meal was a great success on both Christmas Day and New Year's Day. The meat and celery are cooked separately, eventually being combined in an egg-and-lemon sauce. The meat was very well cooked, the way Cretans usually like their meat, practically falling off the bone. Celery is quite resilient to water and needs a long cooking time to become tender enough to eat without that stalky woody taste that tough vegetables can have. It was boiled until it softened, without losing its crunchiness. The combination of heavy pork meat with the pungent selino herb creates an acquired taste. For this reason, many cooks have replaced the celery with a less pungent sweeter tasting wild green like stamnagathi, while the pork is replaced with lamb or goat. The same techniques apply in the cooking. Pork and celery can also be cooked in tomato instead of the traditional egg and lemon sauce that pork and celery is cooked in, but that's a question of personal taste.

pork and celery pork and celery
Some prefer more horta, others prefer more meat, while some others want a balance...
pork and celery

Pork and celery hotpot constituted our Christmas meal for this year, cooked in my kitchen with the help of Mr Organically Cooked and a friendly neighbour. It gave me a chance to enjoy some peace and quiet on what is usually a busy day for the household cook. And if you're wondering why I'm still harping on about Christmas, in Greece, it hasn't ended: the last day of the Christmas period is Epiphany on the 6th of January, which - to confuse matters even further - is the official Christmas Day of the Eastern Orthodox Church which goes by the Julian calendar, instead of the Georgian calendar which is used to organise the year of the world calendar; the Greek Orthodox church uses the Julian calendar to calculate Easter Day, and the Georgian Calendar for all other festivals.

CIMG6069
(Andreas, the cook, working miracles in my kitchen)
pork and celery pork and celery

You need:
a kilo of celery, washed well and cut into small pieces; leaves, stalks and roots included - you may use other greens instead
a kilo of pork, trimmed of fat, and cut into small chunks - lamb or goat can replace the pork
1/2-1 cup olive oil (depending on how Cretan you feel)
2 large onions chopped small
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced finely (optional)
a glass of wine
salt and pepper
the juice of two large lemons
2 eggs

Boil the celery till it is soft and tender. The stalks may still be crispy, but the celery must be soft enough to be palatably edible - wild celery has a rather strong taste. Celery tends to be bulky, so use a large pot of water to boil it in. While this is happening, in another pot, pour in the oil, cook the onions (and garlic, if using), then add the pork chunks and brown on a high heat. Season with salt and pepper, and add the wine and just enough water to cover the meat. Place the lid on the pot and let the meat simmer away until it is cooked to your liking. We let the pork cook for over 90 minutes, adding water to the pot as it was needed to stop the meat from sticking to the bottom.

When the celery is ready, drain it well and add it to the cooked pork. Combine the celery and pork, and let it stew away for another 15 minutes for the flavours to blend. While this is happening, beat the eggs and lemon juice together in a bowl, to form a frothy yellow well-blended liquid. Turn off the cooker and remove the meat from the heat. Pour a small ladle full of the meat stock into the egg and lemon and stir it in well. You need to be quick in your movements here, because the egg will 'cook' if hot liquid is poured onto it. Continue to do this until enough meat stock has been blended into the egg and lemon mixture to make a well-blended soup-like liquid. Carefully pour this onto the meat and celery, and shake the pot to make sure it distributes evenly. Allow the flavours to blend a little before serving.

pork and celery

Pork and celery in this lemony sauce is one of those stomach-friendly meals that are very beneficial for those who have been fasting, as custom dictates for the forty days before Christmas. A good alternative to egg and lemon sauce in the pork and celery is to serve the sauce as a thick dressing; serve the cooked pork and celery and let your guests decide if they want to dress it with the egg and lemon sauce.

This is my contribution to Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted by Pam from The Backyard Pizzeria.

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