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TAXI SERVICE, for all your holiday needs while you are travelling in Hania. If you're coming to Hania and you need a taxi, maybe we can help you out. For quotes and prompt service, drop me a line at: mverivaki hotmail com

Friday, 27 February 2009

Cabbage rolls - lahanodolmades (Λαχανοντολμάδες)

This year's cabbage harvest was quite a good one. With very little effort, we produced ten organic cabbage heads. The rain provided all the irrigation, and we simply waited till they grew to a suitable size before cutting them. Today, a very wet cold wintery day in Hania, with Alaska making her appearance in the mountainous areas of Crete and right around the country, I used two of those cabbage heads to make one of my favorite winter recipes, Greek cabbage rolls, lahanodolmades, a meal I almost forgot to make until Tangled Noodle featured her version on her post.

lahanodolmades lahanodolmades
Two different mixtures: mince and herbed rice (left) or simply herbed rice. They can be cooked int he same pot or kept separate (I cooked them in two pots).

My mother always made lahanodolmades with the same stuffing that she used to make regular dolmades, dolmadakia and yemista; they were always vegan, and I still prefer them that way. Not so my husband. His mother added mince to her version, and being the gourmet eater that Mr OC is, I decided to make two different pots to suit my eaters' tastes. I am the only one whose tastes will not be completely satisfied today: the third variation of lahanodolmades is another vegan version using pinenuts and currants, with the addition of cinammon, tending towards a Middle Eastern influence. Cabbage rolls can be cooked both in the oven and on the stove top; I find the stove top more efficient, while the oven version is tastier. Mince-based lahanodolmades are usually cooked on the stove top and served in an avgolemono sauce, while the vegan varieties are served in a lemon sauce (to keep them vegan during fasting periods). For a vegetarian twist to the vegan versions, they are often accompanied by thick Greek strained yoghurt (my children love rice and yoghurt). The variations of Greek-style lahanodolmades are so many that there is something to suit everyone's tastes.

To make cabbage rolls, you need to boil the whole head of cabbage intact. Only then will it soften enough so that the leaves can be separated easily. The best way is to remove the root carefully before placing the cabbage in a pot of boiling water.

lahanodolmades lahanodolmades

The cabbage leaves are not as fragile as they appear; once filled with the stuffing of your choice, they will hold their shape well. At this stage, I would place a few of them in a small plastic bowl and put them in the freezer; lahanodolmades are a fiddly dish and you'll be able to have a meal ready to cook on a busier day.

Whether you cook them in a saucepan or the oven, to avoid the rolls sticking to the base of the pan, cover the base with some cabbage leaves. Place the cabbage rolls on top of these leaves, then top the pan (or tin) with more cabbage leaves to keep the rolls moist throughout the cooking period. If you cook them on the stove top, you need to weigh them down (with a plate) for the first 15 minutes of cooking time, enough time for the rice to expand and stick to the cabbage leaves.

lahanodolmades lahanodolmades
Vegetarian (top left saucepan and the top part of the plate) and mince-rice lahanodolmades. The mince rolls have been dressed in and egg and lemon sauce. No, the foam appearing in the meal wasn't produced for effect; the molecular gastronomy of the dish simply worked out that way.
lahanodolmades
This is yiayia's portion. At 85, she eats little. She'll make two meals out of this.

All the pot needs is to a mixture of olive oil and water poured over them, just enough to cover the rolls. Then let them cook away slowly, with a lid on the pot; they won't need much time on the stove top, just enough for the rice to cook. If you want to serve them with an egg and lemon sauce (as I did the mince version), make and add it according to this recipe.

Once cooked, they can be easily picked out of the pan without breaking up. They make a very filling meal, and they are great comfort food on a cold winter's day. They are also a very versatile meal that can be made to suit vegans, vegetarians and carnivores at the same time without draining the energy away to the cook.

This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Laurie from Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska.

©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, 25 February 2009

Land of plenty (Και του πουλιού το γάλα)

A growing sector of Greek society is facing poverty. The poorest people in Greece are believed to be young people and farmers (ie people who make less than 500 euro a month). These figures usually don't include statistics for economic migrants, because of the difficulty of tracking them. Young people are more likely to continue to live at home rather than try to survive independently on such a low income; even if they did live away from home and took on a second job to supplement their income, it is highly unlikely that they will be living in the countryside or occupying themselves with growing their own food. If they have to buy all their food needs, they'll easily get into trouble financially. As it is, the younger working citizens of Greece are victims of their own fate: a combination of high unemployment rates and low salaries for young people entering the workforce means that they will spend a good proportion of their (or others') income on food, and they will need to rely on others (the most common ones being their parents and village produce from their area) to provide them with food. It is not at all uncommon for mothers and grandmothers to cook meals and courier them to their offspring who are studying or working far away from home. If this sounds kind of strange to you, just remember the two factors of Greek life that I have already mentioned: unemployment and extremely low starting salaries (for a European Union country who was part of the original EU-15).

Poverty doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with starvation and hunger. Farmers may be short of cash, but they are rich in produce, especially those living in Crete. In fact, I think it is very difficult to starve in Crete. We are surrounded by food, and we love to cook it and share it, as there is always plenty to go round. No wonder we are an island full of rotund inhabitants. Maybe this is linked to our past; there were times when people found it very difficult to find enough food to feed their family, mainly because there were too many mouths to feed in the first place and not enough hands to do the work required to keep them fed.

When dining with Cretans (and most other non-urban Greeks), if your plate is ever empty, your hosts will magically fill it up for you without asking you first if you want any seconds. If you insist that you don't want any more, it might be regarded as a way of saying that you didn't like the food. There is a simple remedy to that: just keep your plate full so that no one can pile any more food onto it. And if you're a meat-eater, make sure to pick cuts of meat with lots of bones in them so that your hosts can see the remnants, otherwise they'll start complaining: "Ma den eheis faei TIPOTA!" (but you haven't eaten ANYTHING!).

As a young child growing up in the 1970s in Wellington, I remember being specifically told by my Cretan immigrant mother that if I didn't eat ALL the potatoes (or rice or pasta) on my plate, I wouldn't be given any of the meat that was cooked with the meal. Not that I was such a great carnivore, but I did want to eat my share of that roast chicken or T-bone steak or tasty sausage. So I dutifully ate ALL the potatoes (or rice or pasta) on my plate so that I would rightfully year my share of the best bit. Of course, by the time I had eaten ALL those potatoes (or rice or pasta), I was probably stuffed and had eaten more food than I should have eaten, so that the meat I ate was not a necessary part of my diet after all. It took me a long time to get over the idea that I didn't actually have to eat everything on my plate.

Overfeeding is still an issue in Crete. Unfortunately, the repercussions of this can be seen in the rising obesity levels. This is the personal responsibility of the individual - but not in the case of children. Obesity levels in children can be blamed on their parents and guardians just as much as the fast-food no-exercise culture they are surrounded by. At the same time, I am intrigued with just how much bad food surrounds highly developed societies. The less developed world seems to have a highly developed sense of what is edible, while people in the most highly developed countries of the world are content to serve children highly processed food with chemical additives, overloaded with calories, and then blame obesity levels in their children on low levels of exercise.

My children are now exhibiting signs of fussy eating habits. Although there is no question of short order cooking in my house, there have recently been tantrum eruptions at the table. My daughter has started going off milk, no matter how much I plead with her to finish her morning glass before she goes to school. My son still won't touch anything that looks like a plant (which is why I grate a lot of vegetables into bean or mince dishes), but he'll lick his plate clean if you place a bowl of potatoes (or rice or pasta - high energy food) before him. Bean dishes were once very popular with my children; now they are being increasingly seen as old-fashioned and boring meals.

I don't want to be responsible for creating obese children. Some people say that the obesity issue in the Western world is simply a way to propagate discrimination against fat people. What a load of crap. It is not a very pretty sight to see a ballooned stomach hanging over a child's elastic waistline. Neither is it a pretty sight to see this kind of child running around the school playground with a packet of crisps in his hand. And I'll say it again, I don't want fat children. Admittedly, my children were never gluttons, they have never looked overweight, and they generally don't consume huge quantities at each meal time. But they are still too young to make informed food choices, and if presented with a packet of potato crisps, pizza and other high-carb (ie high-energy) food, they will over-indulge in it, and put aside the healthier options. I still cook, and they still eat my food, but I have had to make some changes in the way I serve the meals to reduce the general moaning and groaning.

Every morning, the children have a glass of milk in their favorite milk cup. This was a way of enticing them to drink it all; after all, it was their favorite cup. Now they are complaining that it is too much milk, and they refuse to drink it all ("I think I'm going to throw up, Mum"), so i've downsized the cup, showing them the difference in the capacities of each:

old milk cup new milk cup
At 1 euro a litre, milk is too expensive to simply chuck down the drain...

I used to serve bean stews in a soup plate which the children now complain holds too much for their stomachs ("Come and feel my tummy, Mum, it's like a balloon"). Knowing when to stop is a good thing, but I don't want to encourage them to leave a lot of food on their plate; it is wasteful, it won't go back into the pot, and the dog will end up eating it. Now I let them choose for themselves the size of their plate. They usually go for a breakfast bowl full of bean stew.

old soup plate new soup plate
One of my favourite aunts once said to me that a few tablespoons of a loving mother's home-cooked food containing high quality ingredients will do the same amount of good to a growing child as a huge plateful.

And finally, the last problem: Mr Organically Cooked. He likes to see a growing apetite in his children, and will often coax them to eat as much as they can. Thankfully, my sharp tongue severely reprimands him when he overdoes it; it is an aspect I can control concerning his table manners. The real problem is that he is a gourmet eater. Every meal for him is like a feast. He never eats his meal quickly (like his wife), and he has never, ever had a weight problem (ditto). When he sits down to eat, the table is laden with the typical Greek meal accompaniments, besides the main meal for the day. A couple of days ago, I had made lentil stew. I brought out the standard bowl of olives, some feta cheese in olive oil and a couple of slices of graviera cheese (my son refuses to eat feta). I also produced a bowl of guacomole (we had recently been given some avocados by relatives) which is a good side dish for bean stews. There was also the ubiquitous sourdough bread, thick toasted slices. His last act horrified me: he cut some thick fat slices of Italian salami (which only made its way into our fridge after I fell ill; Mr OC went shopping).

nothing less will do
Nothing less will do for the oldest child in the family...

You can easily predict what happened on that day. My son ate lots of salami and cheese and bread, complaining soon after that his stomach was full. My daughter went for the avocado dip, the olives and the feta cheese, dipping her bread in the olive oil on the plate of feta. She didn't want her lentils either. In other words, the children ate everything BUT the lentils. My husband was the only one who ate his portion of lentils, while indulging in everything else on the table (if I ate like him, I wouldn't just be overweight, I'd be obese). I had cooked a healthy meal, and it was not eaten simply because of bad food habits. I had every right to be angry. You can imagine my admonitions at the lunch table that day. When presented with a buffet (which is what most Cretan meals are usually like), we will choose only the tasty bits.

There's a simple solution to this problem: reduce the choice available, not for puritanical reasons, but simply to help educate the younger eaters about good food habits which they can hopefully continue with during their more independent lives. And don't forget to maintain a balanced diet as stipulated by food charts, the Mediterranean diet pyramid being appropriate in my case.

©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.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Recipe guardians (Οι φυλακες των συνταγων)

The latest food advertisement to hit Greek television:



Kikitsa, Pagona, Efterpi and Marigo (old-fashioned women's village names) are dressed in the typical middle-aged style of rural peasants. They are not as innocent as they look; they are the recipe guardians, keepers of the most well-guarded secret recipes of the Greek countryside. "And now here's the new series of traditional Greek salads by Hellmann, a taste of mama's taramosalata (from Macedonia), red pepper spread (Prespes), fava (Santorini), and melitzanosalata (I couldn't read the placename)."

Phoneys, beware...

This ad follows a series of older commercials where the same lovely lasses in the new advertisement are shown in their village kitchens making sushi ("the young ones are coming up for the weekend, so I thought I'd cook something for them") and chili con carne (a Greek mama runs to catch the long distance bus, shouting out to the driver: "Wait for me please! I want the children to eat it as fresh as possible"), sushi and chili con carne being the most unlikely candidates in a Greek mama's kitchen.

If you think Greece is all about sun, sea and sand, look carefully at the commercial; the women's appearance and clothing is very typical of Greek rural life in 2009. It may be an aspect you don't often see as a tourist coming to Crete or any other part of Greece on a summer holiday. Women that look and dress just like them are a part of my daily life. Kikitsa looks very much like my mother-in-law, Pagona resembles one of my neighbours, Efterpi looks a little like the old ladies that have moved away from the village and into the town to be close to their offspring, while Marigo, the one that impresses me most, reminds me of all the women I see on an everyday basis on the street just outside my house, carrying buckets, a hoe, maybe a chicken that they'd killed, some horta, weedy greens for the rabbits, a few as they make their way from their home to the field, maybe to milk the sheep or collect the eggs from the chicken coop, tending the flora and fauna on their patch of earth.

©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, 22 February 2009

Friends (Φίλοι)

Living in the Mediterranean on an island endowed with a great abundance of natural locally grown products is a blessing that many people envy. This does not mean we have access to everything. True, it is much easier in Crete to rely on one's own garden or locally grown produce than elsewhere, but we still rely on many products brought over from the mainland, eg rice, grain (ie bread), apples and potatoes, among others.

There are some products that never see the light of day in Hania. Raspberries and blueberries are two products that I would be happy to pay a dear price for every now and then, even though I know that this is not a sustainable way of feeding myself or my family. I have NEVER seen fresh raspberries or blueberries being sold in Hania; MAICh once grew them for experimental purposes, which said project is now, alas, over, but the Botanical Park Restaurant is making headway here by growing them successfully as part of their commitment to the sustainable growth of non-endemic plants in Crete. I love these berries, and I must admit to over-indulging in them during my last two trips to London, even though the fruits I bought there were actually produced in Holland!!! Just imagine never being able to make blueberry muffins (these fruits aren't available in frozen or tinned form either) or cranberry sauce, something I have often read about in American recipes, but can only imagine its taste.

The isolated image of Crete that I have protrayed is totally reversed in the mainland. In Athens, such exotic items are sold in even mainstream supermarkets. With the spread of gloablisation, the recent influx of Northern Europeans buying retirement properties in Crete and the rise in travel-for-pleasure to foreign countries among the Cretan people, I suspect that very soon, we will be able to get them here too, once the gourmet supermarket AB Vasilopoulos opens its doors for business close to my workplace. Already, cheddar cheese, coppa, prosciutto and chorizo sausage are now being sold in most deli counters of most supermarkets in Hania, all of which were once considered 'exotic'.

Wild rose berries are something I had never heard of myself...

alaska

... until I received an Alaskan tea sampler containing these organically grown fruits, along with some tinned Alaskan salmon. This little gift has added an exotic element to my very basic and highly localised pantry.

Thank you very much, Laurie!


©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.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Partridge (Πέρδικα)

Many moons ago, I came across PETA. This organisation claims that "Each (British) meat, egg and dairy consumer can claim responsibility for the abuse and deaths of 1000 animals. Each British meat, egg and dairy consumer also consumes antibiotics, saturated fat and cholestoerol, shit and filth, torture and misery, with each mouthful." I found this very blasphemous and untrue, so I wrote an email to PETA (on 27 October 2007 to be precise):

Dear PETA,
All the meat I eat with my family is reared in domestic environments (ie small family-run farms, or one-shepherd businesses), so that the cruelty that you depict in your FREE VEG STARTER KIT could not possibly be taking place; only the salughtering is 'cruel' simply because slaughtering is cruel in any way that it takes place. What do you think of people raising a few chickens in their back yard and using the eggs in their daily diet and the meat on a less frequent basis? Sounds to me that they're doing what people have been doing for many centuries since prehistoric (hu)man became less nomadic (ie feeding themselves sustaibably).
Here is the reply I got:
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with PETA.

We appreciate the opportunity to respond. While PETA is willing to applaud any steps that farmers and ranchers take to improve the welfare of the animals for whom they are responsible, we also know that there is no truly humane way to "harvest" food from animals. The sheer number of animals required to feed (America's) current meat habit, for example, make individual attention to their wants and needs impossible. For us to promote the purchase of
any kind of meat would imply that we endorse the use of animals for food 'production', instead of recognizing that animals deserve consideration of their own best interests - regardless of whether they are useful to humans. Like us, animals are capable of suffering and have interests in leading their own lives (?@#^&$^!@ - I added this); therefore, they are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or for any other reason...

Ultimately, there is the simple moral principle that we do not have the right to manipulate and kill animals for our own purposes. Animals do not belong to us, and their lives are just as precious to them as yours is to you or me. A society that eats animals will always view them as possessions, products, and commodities, as opposed to individuals with feelings, families, and friendships. And as long as people view animals as objects, widespread institutionalised abuse is destined to continue.

The best thing anyone can do to help animals is to not eat them. We have so many choices as consumers today that there's simply no reason to continue to rasie and slaughter animals for food. I hope this helps explain our 'radical' position - to compromise it would be a betrayal of both the animals and our members. Thanks again for writing and for your concern for animals.

What I do know is that rabbits kill their young and chickens clumsily break their eggs - is this how animals keep their numbers in check??? What do cows do if they never get milked? Advertise as nurses for orphaned calves? Just wondering...

Strictly vegan eaters have serious problems keeping their hair on their head (poysanal comoonicayshin), as well as having it discolour and lose its shine. Is it possible to be strictly vegan from birth (apart from mother's milk)??? I'm completely and utterly doubtful. Try reconciling this with the fact that no traditional society is strictly vegan. 'Nuff said.

*** *** ***
My typical understanding of a partridge was the familiar one, that they all appeared in pear trees at Christmas. Little did I know that one day, I would end up cooking partridges that my husband had hunted on the very island we live.

partridge kapama

In Crete, hunting in the wild (as opposed to organised game parks) involves hare and various species of migrating and resident birds. The earlier you hunt, the more you are likely to catch. At this point in the winter, most birds will have settled in warmer areas, and won't be passing through Crete so readily as it is quite cold and wet. Each season is very short so hunters have to be on the ready when it starts. This year, my husband, an avid hunter, caught three partridges during our mini-break in Paleohora. After removing the feathers and innards, they were placed in the freezer, where we almost forgot about them, until now when I was doing a fridge clearance.

In its unfeathered form, partridge looks like a miniature sized chicken. It also tastes like chicken, but has a very different smell, something like a woody forest. The breast meat is very tender compared to the wings which are full of tendons. The three partridges, halved and quartered, were cooked in a kapama sauce with green olives, served with fried potatoes and a garden fresh cabbage salad. They can also be cooked with orzo rice, similar to Maria's oven-baked kritharaki, or made into a tomato-based pilafi.

Cooking these partridges gave me the opportunity to cook, as Michael Pollan stated, "the perfect meal", where he challenges himself to cook something that he himself had hunted, gathered and/or grown. In this spirit, I can claim that everything (except the salt and pepper - naughty me, I could have used local sea salt given to me by a friend, and locally grown herbs) in the recipe was seasonally and locally hunted, and gathered or grown by my family, representing both the animal and vegetable (but not the fungus (kingdoms), costing me only the gas I used to cook it with, eaten by my family, and cooked by my very self. Perfect. And delicious.

Happy Tsiknopempti to everyone who celebrates it!

©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.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Mediterrasian kalitsounia (Καλιτσούνια ασιάτικα)

Last count, there were half a dozen cabbage heads in the garden. In Greece, we often use cabbage raw in salad, but cabbage is also very tasty cooked. There were no takers for another round of lahanorizo, so I turned to fusion cuisine to help me use up our environmentally-friendly garden-grown cabbage. Asian cuisine uses a lot of cabbage (and many other Brassica varieites), in stir-fries, soups and one of my favorite snacks, something I haven't had in ages, spring rolls, which I'd say is the Asian version of kalitsounia. Now is my chance to use the spring roll wrappers I had bought a little while ago from the meagre foreign produce section in my local supermarket (I don't need to tell you which brand they were).

broken spring roll wrappers

Sadly, after being moved and shuffled about for the last month, they were rendered unusable the day I got round to wanting to use them (the dog got them instead). I always have filo pastry in the house, the kind made by my local pastry maker, so I decided to use that instead.

I made vegetarian spring rolls, but the ingredients can easily be changed around according to what is available in your pantry, freezer or vegetable bin in the fridge. I love being able to alter recipes using seasonal ingredients, even though my family isn't very appreciative of this. They complain that the same recipe never tastes the same when I make it a second time, and they are probably saying the truth. I tried to present these spring rolls as another form of kalitsounia, but the children weren't impressed. As their father says, 'they don't know hunger' and 'they haven't been to the army yet'.

spring roll filling

My spring rolls were very spartan: carrots, cabbage, onions and mushrooms. Canned mushrooms. I can imagine a friend's face as he reads this: "Oh my God, canned mushrooms!" he exclaims. "There are so many fresh ones available, why can't you use those instead, and you had to buy canned mushrooms?"

Canned mushrooms are just like anything canned - they are picked in their best form and preserved in a way that makes it easy for someone to store them for use when they want. They are environmentally friendly in that they don't require power to be stored (in the way that frozen goods do). If canned mushrooms sound perturbing to you, just think of fresh mushrooms grown hydroponically (tasteless), or maybe fresh mushrooms grown in a field sprayed with a lot of chemical fertilisers (toxic), or - the most perturbing of all to most of us - fresh mushrooms whose DNA has been changed (Genetically Modified Organisms). The mushrooms I used were canned by KYKNOS, a Greek canning company mainly known for their tinned tomato products, which has now expanded to preserving fruit, beans and okra, one of their more exotic preserves. So canned mushrooms it is. Just pretend the mushrooms were fish and you lived in the mountains: you'd be stocking up your pantry with salt cod and tinned mackerel.

filo pastry wrapper for spring roll
Spring rolls made with three kinds of pastry: paper-thin filo pastry (top), thick filo pastry (bottom centre) and some salvaged mass-produced rice-based pastry (bottom left).kalitsounia spring rolls

These spring rolls were very good; I made them a second time and served them at the cutting of the Vasilopita at my workplace. Needless to say, they were a hit.

For the filling (this made about 25 pieces), you need:
half a head of a small cabbage, shredded as finely as possible
a carrot, finely grated
an onion, thinly sliced
125g finely chopped mushrooms
2-3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
a knob of fresh ginger, finely grated
1/4 cup soya sauce
a few drops (or tablespoons) of olive oil

Mix all the ingredients and let the flavours blend by setting aside for ten minutes before using.

Use squares (or rounds) of filo pastry and roll up the spring rolls just as you would do with spring roll wrappers. Fry in very hot oil in batches, so that the oil doesn't cool down too much while you are cooking them. Turn them over to cook on both sides. Drain on absorbent paper.

These spring rolls need a saucy dip to accompany them, along with a cold beer. I used a Thai hot chili sauce and soya sauce. They make great snacks, but are preferably served warm.

This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Susan from The Well-Seasoned Cook.

©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.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

St Valentine's Day Pastitsio (Παστίτσιο του Αγίου Βαλεντίνου)

Pastitsio is one of my favorite pasta dishes, and it’s probably one of the most kid-friendly meals in the Greek repertoire. I don't remember my mother making it often, but maybe that's because her sister, my aunt, made it, and she lived across the road, so we ate it at her house. Pastitsio is one of those meals you can make and freeze for later use, so a little extra effort in making it (it requires at least three pots AND a baking tin!) can go a long way; it's saved me often from having to cook from scratch when I'm busy.

Pastitsio is pastitsio, or so I thought, until Peter wrote: "The Pastitsio canvas is wide open. Do you have a desire for the classic Pastitsio with ground meat, pasta and Bechamel? ... A vegetarian … seafood …lenten Pastitsio or one with legumes? ... Ever thought of a Dessert Pastitsio? The possibilities are endless." It didn't enter his mind that anybody can put a silk hat on a pig, but does that make it a prince? Possibly the pig didn’t care whether it became a prince or not, just as long the nosh was good, but it should still be wary of PAShOK (Police for the Authentication of Specific Hellenic-Originating Kuisine).

Although the purpose of this post is a lesson in creativity and tolerance of other people's cuisine, the idea of 'pastitsio' (despite being a word derived from Italian) does still manage to conjure up a particularly homogeneous image in Greek people's minds. There are no golden rules that must be followed, but the general idea of a pastitsio is that there are three parts to it: the pasta, the meat filling and the white sauce. On occasion, when I want to avoid meat (but not dairy), I make a vegetarian pastitsio with soy mince, which is pretty tasteless, so it needs to be flavoured, in which case I add a range of vegetables to it (usually whatever is in the fridge), as long the colours fit in (eg carrot, aubergine) and they can be turned into a crumbly texture (ie not cabbage or cucumber) so that the colour of the sauce resembles the original pastitsio. My eaters aren’t that easy to fool; a seafood version would be out of the question in my house for this reason. I don’t rule out the lenten version though; it’s the kind I usually make, again with soy mince, but without cheese or white sauce, a bit like a vegetarian oven-baked makaronada. This is a nice way to serve up spag bog the next day as leftovers, if you want to serve something ‘different’ (if you cover it while it’s cooking, it won’t burn).

Ever thought of a dessert pastitsio? No, never, I hear you say, even though our Bulgarian neighbours have been eating dessert pasta for a long time now. Remember Rachel in Friends, who (accidentally) made a savoury trifle, which not even Joey would eat? The idea of eating sweet pastitsio sounds completely paradoxical. But that didn't stop one of the finest eateries in London, The Fat Duck, from reneging on its Egg and Bacon ice-cream, which gives desert pastitsio great potential to become a conceivable culinary creation. My inspiration for this came from that last suggestion of Peter's: dessert pastitsio, something that would sound so ludicrous in the realm of Greek cuisine that the two words could not be collocated in the traditional sense. I also realised that this was the missing link to my latest piece of cuisine fiction: dessert pastitsio, the creation of something so contrary to the normal use of the word that it could add the final twist to a story whose ending I could not figure out. The idea of a dessert pastitsio fitted in perfectly with the global celebration of St Valentine’s Day, a particular festival that has no international borders and, in my humble opinion, should be celebrated with humour rather than in earnest.

A word of warning: this pasitsio is made from scratch, meaning that all ingredients used to make it were in their least processed form. I had a picture in my mind of what I wanted to create, but no recipe, so at EVERY stage, I tested and tasted. Regular pastitsio is served as a slice, rather like a pie, not like a makaronada, so the choice of tin, the layering factor and the stability of the final servable product, combined with the use of Mediterranean ingredients and the blending of suitable flavours all have to be accounted for, in keeping with the tradition of pastitsio making. Moreover, St. Valentine’s Pastitsio would have been beyond my expertise, had I not been informed about molecular gastronomy. These points will be elaborated on as I explain the recipe.

For the pasta, you need:

chocolate pasta chocolate pasta chocolate pasta chocolate pasta dough chocolate pasta

1 cup flour (the 'extra strong' variety)
1 egg
½ cup cocoa
30ml cream
Mix the flour, egg and cocoa to form a pliable dough. Add cream slowly until you get the right texture of the dough, so that it will spread easily without breaking apart. Let the dough stand for about half an hour, then roll it out as finely as you want your pasta. This can be done with a pasta maker, but as I had just made ravioli and cleaned up my workbench, I decided to use a rolling pin, and cut the pasta into fettuccine. Leave it to dry a little, then boil it as you would regular pasta (without salt!), draining it in a colander (I cooked mine for about 15 minutes).

chocolate pasta

Chocolate pasta has never really gone down well, according to what I have read on the internet, so at this point, even though I could smell the aroma of the cocoa, I still needed to taste the pasta to ensure it was going to be consumable. This test revealed that the pasta needed to be sweetened, so I tossed a knob of butter into the hot drained pasta with a large tablespoon of brown sugar (similar to the olive oil and cheese we add to hot drained pasta in a regular pastitsio) in the pastitsio tin. Now my chocolate pasta was more palatable, making it more suitable for the purpose which I had set out to use it. What did it taste like? Chocolate pastry bread.

For the filling, you need:

kiwifruit grown in Macedonia Greece pomegranate grown in Hania Crete chocolate pasta st valentines pastitsio st valentines pastitsio
2/3 cup of mizithra (my local curd cheese, similar to ricotta cheese)
½ cup sugar
2 kiwifruit, sliced thinly
the seeds of one pomegranate
Arrange the kiwi slices on the top of the pasta. Mix the sugar into the cheese so that it is well blended. Spread it onto the pasta. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds on top. Berry fruit pairs well with chocolate, and most chocolate pasta sauces do contain berries. If I had strawberries at hand, I would have used them. As it was, I had locally grown pomegranate and Macedonian kiwifruit (apart from this Greek variety, NZ grown kiwifruit is also available). The mizithra mixture can also be mixed into the pasta, and the fruit piled on top of this, but I preferred the transparency of the layers, plus the fact that I hoped (and was proven right) that it would give an ice-cream terrine look to the finished product.

st valentines pastitsio

Apart from its use in salads, mizithra, the local curd cheese in Crete with a PDO, is widespread in local recipes, used in both sweet and savoury dishes. In Hania, it is used as a filling in all manner of pies and pasties. It is never missing in our house. It is the cheese used in the famous Bougatsa Iordanis. In Western Crete, mizithra pasties do not use sugar in the mixture, as they are usually sprinkled with honey after they are cooked, but in Eastern Crete (Heraklion province eastwards), sugar is mixed into mizithra for their pastries. The basic combinations of 'pastry + mizithra', 'pastry + dough' and 'pasta + cheese' gave me the idea to use it in my pastitsio.

For the creamy sauce, based on a BBC recipe for 'real proper custard', you need:

custard custard ribbed bundt tin st valentines pastitsio st valentines pastitsio
3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons of sugar
1 tablespoon of cornflour
a shot of brandy
1 vial vanilla sugar
Whisk the yolks, sugar and cornflour until well blended. Mix the remaining ingredients together in a saucepan and heat until just warmed up. Add the egg mixture into the milk, all the while whisking constantly. Keep stirring until the custard has thickened to a consistency that will make it set. This is important because it is this custard that will provide stability to the pastitsio. Pour the custard over the pastitsio, taking care to let it seep into the pasta so that when it cools and sets, it will help the pastitsio to keep its shape.

The pastitsio is now ready and needs to be 'cooked' by being left in the fridge to set completely before it is sliced, lifted out onto a plate and served (with a traditional knife and fork). This part gave me the most worry: will it be sliceable? It was also the reaosn why I chose the baking tin, an old-fashioned loaf tin, a little like a bundt pan, with a ribbed shape. I was hoping that the pastitsio slices could be shaped into a heart by using a rounded tin like this one. In the event that it did not slice well, I thought I could turn it into an upside-down pudding, and slice it like a cake. I needn't have worried, as the chemistry of the final dish kept its promise and didn't break apart when I served it (but I didn't get the heart shaped I desired).

st valentines pastitsio st valentines pastitsio
The second day (right) was firmer than the first day.
st valentines pastitsio

Of course, I couldn't wait to try this dessert as soon as was reasonably possible, given the time it needed to set. And just like a regular pastitsio, it was even better the next day: the flavours of the fruit had blended into the chocolate of the pasta, the layers were firmer, and it had an excellenbt 'sliceability' factor. I served it in small slices (it's a dessert, not a main!), on a classic 'Hearts and Flowers' plate, an appropriate style for St Valentine's Day.

Some points to consider:
1. Who would eat this? The adventurous, a customer in a posh restaurant, generally someone not bound by cultural culinary limits.
2. Where would it most likely be served? At a restaurant recipes are based not only on regional cuisine, but also on knowledge of molecular gastronomy; as part of a three-course meal, something that we in Greece are not accustomed to.
3. Would you make it again? YES, but I would omit the mizithra to make it lighter, as it was a very rich dessert; and NO, it was not to everyone's liking, mainly because it was a little too radical in concept.
4. Could it be served in a Greek restaurant? Yes. Dessert is always served at the end of a meal in Greece, it is an 'offering' from the restaurant (ie free), and since last year, I've seen anything from grated carrot preserve to panacotta cream to syrup-flavoured granita being served. This part of the meal is usually the one that does not stick to any rules, and flavours, aromas and combinations can be played out on unsuspecting customers.
5. Did you really eat this? See for yourself...


This one eats snails too.
This is my contribution to Antonio's "A Taste of the Mediterreanean". The Greek aspect of this blog event puts pastitsio in perspective and is being co-hosted by Peter from Kalofagas. Check out the rules for entering here. And a big thanks to the co-host who gave me that 0.01% of inspiration needed to get me working out a 99.99% perspiration on this project, which combined my love for writing, my need to feed and my desire to reach new heights by working some molecular gastronomy into what I came up with - it's been a while since I was that creative in the kitchen!

Happy Valentine's Day!

PS: NigellaL, GordonR, JamieO, IliasM, VefaA, eat your hearts out. And no copying, OK?

©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.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Ravioli with simple parsley pesto (Ραβιόλι με γρήγορο πέστο μαϊντανό)

The day I cooked Diana Abu-Jaber's fried chicken livers, my children also asked me to make them some home-made fettuccine. They are wonderful eaters when they see me preparing the food, so I thought I'd turn the pasta into ravioli this time, as the inspiration had come to me from Food Junkie, who was also my inspiration for making my own pasta.

pureed fried chicken liver ravioli pureed fried chicken liver ravioli
Follow cupcake's instructions to make the ravioli shapes.

My meat stuffing was some of the fried chicken liver, mashed up in a blender. The children also helped me to make these (hence the reason why some of them opened), which is probably why they enjoyed eating them.

pureed fried chicken liver ravioli pureed fried chicken liver ravioli

When I served them up, my son asked me if I "had any of that green stuff they put on macaroni at MAICh". He had tried pesto for the first time at my workplace. As he is a terrible greens eater, I thought this was my chance to get him to eat this colour without it being hidden, so I speedily produced a parsley-garlic-olive oil pesto. I don't think I've ever produced a pasta sauce so quickly: I did it for health reasons. If you want to see your kids eating healthy food, you have to put them in the picture!

chicken liver ravioli with parsley garlic pesto

You need:
a few sprigs of parsley
1 clove of garlic (I use our own garden-grown garlic, which grows smaller and spicier than what I can buy from stores, which, would you believe it, is imported from China!!!)
4 tablespoons of olive oil (remember, this is going to make a single-serve sauce which doesn't have many other liquids in it)
salt to taste

Put all the ingredients in a blender and puree them. If they don't puree easily, add some water. hey presto, you've got your pesto!

Pour your pesto over a plate of hot pasta of your choice - you don't need to make it yourself!

©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.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Birthday girl (Γενέθλια)

For her birthday, she wanted to cook something special. Not a madeira cake with a lemon icing (too boring), not one of those cakes that requires special baking tins and strange ingredients, usually needing more effort than the time needed to scoff it down once it was cut and served (a waste of time), just something that would wow those around her and make them think that she was an amazing cook, even though she knew deep down that she hated being in the kitchen, because that's where she always seemed to be most of the time. If she wasn't cooking in it, she was cleaning vegetables, preparing school lunches, setting the table, clearing the table, sweeping the floor, cleaning out the deep freeze, wiping down the worktop.

She wished she could spend more time outdoors walking by the sea, with no particular destination in mind, just walking aimlessly for the sake of walking. It suited her to pretend that this was a good form of exercise, as it was the only exercise she took, and only occasionally, when there were leftovers and there wasn't any shopping to be done, and she had a day off from work and the children had no after-hours activities, and she couldn't be bothered doing the ironing because no one seemed to notice anyway. She loved walking in the rain most of all, as long as her hands were free and she could tuck them into her pockets. All her clothes had at least one pocket to keep her housekey safe. But she didn't like the wind; it was too disrupting, and didn't let her think, which she did a lot of when she walking. And she didn't like the waves crashing over the barrier on a windy day - she had a phobia of being swept into the sea, and she couldn't swim.

As she drove her children to their after-school activities, she thought about who would be present at her birthday, and what she would cook for them on that day. Driving soothed her soul and, more importantly, it cleared her mind. Every day, she drove the same distances, to the same places, on the same roads. Her driving skills were routine: avoid this road during morning peak hour, that road's got a hole in it at exactly the point where the road narrows, drive slowly past the olive field where the gypsies park their vans and do their washing; behind the wheel, she was on automatic pilot, and could mull over to herself about the decisions she needed to make for that day while she was in the driver's seat.

Mush as she despised the kitchen, she didn't hate cooking. She just hated cooking the same food over and over again - bean soup Monday, mince on Tuesday, rice on Wednesday, leftovers Thursday, pasta Friday, what-the-heck Saturday, Sunday roast - and hearing the usual complaints - stew's too watery, soup's too stewy, not enough salt, what's that green thing, you know I hate coriander. A colleague at work claimed she often cooked sushi, while another insisted that everyone loved whatever she cooked and no one complained. She reasoned that once the children grew up a little, they might be willing to try out new tastes, but every once in a while when she didn't use the mouli and chopped the onions with a knife instead, and added them to the fakes, no matter how thinly she sliced them, her son would refuse to begin eating until he had picked them all out of his bowl.

Still, she could manage to cook up a feast when she needed to. Every year, at Christmas and Easter, the extended family got together at her house. In a sense, they had to because they would all come over from Athens, and they were staying either in underfurnished village houses that they used as summer cottages or at hotels. On the feast day itself, they had to go to someone's house; eating out at a restaurant on a feast day would make them feel like orphans. So she started cooking two days before the big day, preparing and freezing kalitsounia, baking sweets, shopping for the best quality. On the day itself, she would get up early and start cooking everything, according to the master plan, which she had magnetted onto the fridge door, and ticked off the items on the list as she finished each task. By the time the guests arrived, everything was ready. Her sister-in-law was always surprised that the table had already been set by the time she arrived.

She wished she could take out a group of friends to a restaurant on her birthday. It wasn't a question of money; she could easily afford it. The trouble was she didn't have anyone to take out to a restaurant except her family, and for many reasons (the most important one for her being having to dress up the children), it was much easier to stay at home and cook a meal rather than go out. It was also healthier, and everyone could curl up onto a sofa afterwards and watch TV, doze off, or, in her case, read a good book, which she could only do while lying down, and there was little chance of that during the day. She knew many people from work, but very few knew her. Her colleagues always asked her how her family was; they would never ask her about her friends, because she didn't seem to have any. It isn't possible not to have any friends at all. She just didn't seem to have any that were visible to anyone. She had been raised in Athens, so when she announced to all her close friends and family that she was getting married and would be moving to an island village after the wedding, that was end of girlfriends as she had known them up till then. Everyone thought she was crazy to do it - you'll never get used to the village lifestyle, you've lived all your life among cement to feel comfortable in the soil - but here she was, ten years down the track, and there was never a single day she missed the concrete jungle. In fact, she had forgotten even what the last apartment she had lived in in Athens looked like. And her friends had forgotten her.

Being so family-oriented basically meant that she would not have many chances to make many friends outside of the circle of the extended family, which in her husband's case was large. She was popular among them, and they never viewed her as an outsider, even though she had never met any of these people before she got married. They never forgot to include her in any of the get-togethers, like the trigo, the making of raki, or a round of xerotigana if there was a baptism or a wedding coming up. They treated her like an able-bodied equal like herself, although she herself generally felt that she didn't contribute as much as they did, possibly because she still felt herself to be the outsider, even though she was never treated as such. She was a little shy and introverted, but once the ice was broken, she was just as matriarchal and opinionated as the other women in the parea.

The few people she was close to were all busy women like herself, looking after family, working inside and outside of the home, people who didn't have time to sit at cafes wearing high fashion and carrying brand-name accessories. They would catch up with each other when one needed to call another one over something or other - and then they'd talk and talk and talk, a snatched moment, a departure from their daily chores. Then they'd promise each other that they'll remember to call each other up again and have a 'proper conversation next time'. Few people knew her so well as those people, even though she had only known them in the decade that she had been living among them. And she knew so many people.

Her thoughts had to be halted for a few minutes as she drove into the street where the chess club was located; two blocks later, she dropped off her daughter at the tennis club. Then she found a place to park and thought about what she could do for the next hour before she had to pick the children up again. She hadn't had a coffee that afternoon; too many errands to run, too much homework to go over with the children. She didn't want to go to a cafe at that moment, despite their abundance in the area. She didn't want to sit, she didn't want to be indoors, and most of all, she didn't want to imbibe second-hand smoke. She always thought of herself as a coffee addict, but knew that she could wait to have the coffee she wanted - very hot, milky, no sugar - until the moment she found herself in the right circumstances to enjoy it - nearly always in her own home. And today, she probably wouldn't have one, because by the time they all got home after club activities, it would be evening, her husband would have come home from work, and she would be preparing dinner.

She had no urgent shopping to do. Shopping was like driving to her; it was mindless. She never enjoyed shopping, it was simply something she had to do. Milk, bread, sugar, flour, sliced cheese and ham, mizithra and graviera, bananas and apples, yoghurt and pomegranates, the latter being one luxury she allowed herself as she passed by the fresh produce section. No one else in the house ate them, which gave her the feeling of being overly decadent, but reminded herself that they were good for her and she was supporting her local producers. And she didn't need anything today, not even pomegranates, because there were still two in the fruit bowl.

Window shopping was never a hobby of hers. She hated shopping in that 'me' way. If she saw something she needed, she would go out and buy it without procrastinating about the price and quality. But she never needed anything, because she had everything, and she never bought on impulse. She felt sorry for her colleagues when she heard them talk about the sales, and what they planned to buy during the sales, because they usually wanted to buy things they already had. What a waste. She knew everyone was different, and she was being judgemental, but she didn't believe she was narrow minded; she thought of herself as sensible, and hoped that those around her would always see the logic that prevailed in her.

It was getting dark, and she knew she had not been very productive today in her one hands-free, kid-less hour. She was a day person, night time being reserved for rest and sleep. Even her thinking, which she did a lot of all day, slowed down considerably at night. She tried not to think so much at night, because it always led her to confusion, and she needed to wait till the next day to clear her mind and start thinking again, when she opened all the shutters of all the rooms to let the sunlight enter the house. Her thinking improved in the light of day, probably all that Vitamin D. She put her low productivity down to her indecision about what to serve on her birthday, which fell on the same day as the work function for the cutting of the Vasilopita. Not that she had told anyone that it was her birthday on that day, but she knew, and her colleagues would all be there, and because the invitation was extended to include their family, so would their spouses and children.

birthday meal

Children. Chocolate of course. Squidgy chocolate cake, her family's favorite cake, the only recipe they claim always tastes the same every time she makes it, unlike most other recipes she uses, even though she swears she didn't make any changes to any of them, which was probably untrue because she was always willing to try out a new twist to a recipe. She dashed into a nearby supermarket to buy come cocoa powder.



She couldn't remember if she had enough; all the other ingredients were household staples. Squidgy chocolate cake is enjoyed by all, squidgy chocolate cake is hard to beat, squidgy chocolate cake never fails to please. She imagined her colleagues' husbands saying "Can you make that too?", "Get the recipe from her" (so she may as well have it ready for photocopying), and their children licking their fingers and plates, saying "This one's better than yours, Mum." Squidgy chocolate cake was special; one small bite out of it, and everyone fell in love with it. Or the cook. Or both.
*** *** ***

I never celebrated my 100th post, nor did I celebrate my first blogoversary. I don't celebrate much in a conspicuous manner. It's not always easy to celebrate in the way you want at the very moment you want. My birthday is remembered by people who grew up with me, people who I don't live near to any longer, so it is a quiet time in my life. That's why I took my squidgy chocolate cake to last night's work function, the cutting of the Vasilopita, where anyone who wanted to could contribute something foodwise, and being who I am, I just couldn't resist. And even though no one knew it was my birthday, I knew I was celebrating.

I still manage to get presents at the most convenient moment. Laurie just sent out some books to me, while Ioanna has promised me some kind of surprise. Just a few days ago, I won a prize; Meg sent me a book all about greens. At the same time, I wanted to thank Louise from the Potted Frog, for a most creative present she sent me a little while ago, featuring a form of art I was unfamiliar with until now, stamping. And today, I found I was voted into the top 10 Cretan blogs! Another present right on time!

My daughter was surprised to hear that I could have a birthday at my age, and she insisted on giving me a present: a Winnie the Pooh purse I had bought her from Greenwich Market in London, which I had probably bought because I liked it and thought I was too old to buy it for myself at the time. She also gave me a castanette (which I had also bought her, for similar reasons as the purse), and told me to use it every time I wanted her attention, like a bell. And finally, she gave me a pretty windmill. I suppose she wanted to get rid of that too (the children know why I have a "poor-children's" collection bag in the house), but liked it enough to give it to me so she could still see it and at the same time make space for more of her little-girl's possessions. My son, being slightly older, knew that birthday presents are usually bought so he asked me to give him some money so he could buy me something. Very clever. And they both asked me to take them to Goody's - for my birthday. How inspiring.

presentslouise's present
A few of the birthday girl's prezzies

And now, I must get back to ENJOYing these gifts over the weekend and see how I'm going to make use of them.

And I have to thank Susan for this story; she knows why.

©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.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Bootcamp lahanorizo (Λαχανόριζο του στρατού)

Ever had to give up three years of your life to serve your country? No? Don't worry, you're not the only one; neither have I.

It wasn't a difficult choice to make, not at all. Upon finishing high school, I went straight into the army to complete my compulsory military duty. I had no idea what I wanted to do after leaving school. I was quite happy helping out my family on the farm, and had never thought that I had to think about doing something else. After all, both my parents had lived all their lives in the village doing pretty much the same things that they were doing now. The need for change hadn't made its impact during my school years.

I wasn't a very good student at school; not that I wasn't interested in learning anything, but I hated learning it all off by heart like a parrot. Whenever I offered my opinion on a topic, I always received a lower mark than when I simply quoted word for word what was written in the standard-issue Ministry of Education textbook on the same subject. For instance, when we were learning about the history of the union of Crete with the Hellenic state, I knew that the textbook read:

"It was on a Sunday, the 1st of December, 1913 that the Greek flag was raised on top of the fortress of Firka, on the western side of the harbour of Chania, in front of the King of the Hellenes, Constantine, the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, and a tearful, emotional and enthusiastic crowd of proud Cretans. The struggle to reach that moment had been a bloody and very long one. The Turkish Occupation of Crete, 1669-1913, was one of 267 years, 7 months and 7 days of agony."

But on the day of the test for that unit, I couldn't help myself adding:

"Despite the union, the Cretan people as a race had never shared the notion of Romiosini that dominated the rest of Greece. Given its agricultural and economic importance to the rest of the country, had Crete decided not to join the newly-formed Hellenic state, and remain an independent nation, the long-term outcome of Crete's fate might have resulted in the formation of an autonomous orderly independent Republic, operating on similar terms to that of other Mediterranean states such as Malta and Cyprus. The Union of Crete with Greece will be debated once again in the early 21st century when the 100-year tenure of the island expires and her contract with the rest of the country will need to be renewed."

In my thinking, it was a way of showing to the teacher that I wasn't simply learning everything papagalia, but making a genuine attempt to apply my basic knowledge of a historical event to a modern way of thinking. Stella who sat next to me in class and passed off her copied answers as her own 'original' work got a perfect score of 20 by writing just the first paragraph of my answer; I got 15, considered at the time to be a borderline pass.

The only thing I excelled at was English. It was also the only subject that seemed to have any real value in my own world. Tourists flocked by our village every summer on their way to the Samaria Gorge. They'd stop at the cafe in the village square for a refreshment and admire the view. Then they'd ask us questions: what kind of trees are these? are green and black olives grown on different trees? how can you distinguish goat meat from sheep meat? what are vlita called in English? why can't toilet paper be thrown into the WC?

As a youngster, I was drawn to their pale skins and blond hair, their orderly manners and polite voices, their willingness to learn something new at the cost of sounding ignorant. When I was hanging out at the square with the other village children, it was always me that the cafe owners called to speak with the tourists. It took me a while to work out where they were each from - in the beginning, I kept thinking they were all English because they spoke English. I enjoyed answering all their questions, and they always thanked me and praised my linguistic skills.

*** *** ***

When I left the family hearth to enter the army, it was the first time I had been away from home, as was the case for most of the eighteen-year-old boys who were at the camp with me. They came from all over Greece. I was one of twelve cadets from the greater region of Hania, but there were also a few others from other parts of Crete. Admittedly, they were my closest army buddies; homeland ties have a very strong effect on a person when they leave their topo. But the whole group of newly arrived cadets were all alike in so many ways: we were like a bunch of kids waiting to become men. The weather was still warm in September, so that the whole army business sounded like a holiday, an extended summer camp, only that we didn't sleep in tents and didn't build fires to cook our food on, which was unfortunate, because it would have tasted much better than the food we were served up there.


I was sent to the Tripoli air force bootcamp where I was given the basic army training of a cadet. Having been raised in a Cretan mountain village, Tripolis felt very different. It was very much a busy town. Every second person walking on the street wore a soldier's uniform. But the mountainous countryside of the Peloponnese and the surrounding fields reminded me very much of home. It was this sight that made me think I was still close to my own village. The boys who cried at night in the sleeping quarters were the ones that had lived their whole life in Athens. I wondered how they would last the whole three years of military duty in the air force, because that's what it was in 1975. Nothing like today, where as soon as you enter the army, it's time to leave. Those townies were the ones that had a hard time of it, especially in the beginning, until they got used to the stagnant routine, or they found a way, usually through meson, to get transferred to the Tatoy base, closer to Athens, hence closer to home.

I had already had some idea of army life from my older brother who had come back home two years before I left to do my duty, so I knew what to expect. He had been sent to Avlona as part of the ground crew, but the rigour of army life was much the same. Early morning rise, run around the camp, in our underwear, rain or shine. Breakfast, morning tasks, more drills, lunch, more assigned tasks, more drills, dinner, clean-up, lights out. What astounded me was how structured everything was in the army; while the rest of Greece carried on in its random chaotic rhythms, we lived in such law and order that it lent a whole new meaning to what my uncle in the village believed about laws: they are only followed by the ignorant.

bootcamp in Katerini early 50s
My dad - always the centre of attention - doing his army stint

The food in the Tripolis camp was utter crap. I think they made it like that on purpose. I was never a fussy eater; I ate everything my mother cooked, including food I didn't particularly want to eat, like hilopites and trahana soup. But hilopites and trahana soup are edible and nourishing, which I can't say about lahanorizo. Twice a week for crying out loud, we were fed this gas-inducing respiratory nightmare. Even if we didn't like the frigging stuff, even if we knew we would simply bin the whole tray, we were obliged to go to the dining room, pass by the serving area, and take the blimmin tray. We could do what the hell we liked with it after that, but we had to pick it up in the first place. If you didn't want to eat it, you'd go without food the rest of the day until the evening meal - which was more of the same. I'd eat the feta and bread that was served with the lahanorizo, and chuck out the rest. To this day, I cannot stand the smell of cooked cabbage and the sight of plain boiled rice. The only time our mother cooked plain boiled rice for us to eat was when we were ill. The Chinese must be suffering perpetually from illnesses, given the amounts of plain boiled rice that they consume; now I know why they are thin. Boiled rice, coupled with bike-riding.

lahanorizo lahanorizo
Λαχανόρυζο - Lahanorizο; cooked with TLC, I must admit I found lahanorizo to be a comforting kind of winter meal, but then I didn't have to eat it twice a week - here's a good reason why women should also be enlisted. I used the recipe as it appears in the link given. If I were to make it again, I'd add a few spices like saffron and cumin, and some currants.

The fasolada at the camp was quite tasty. The boys on kitchen duty were only too happy to give me a second serving when I asked for it. I stopped eating it only after I found out towards the end of my stay in the army that sometimes they'd stick someone's old boots in the vat while the bean soup was cooking and stir it all around. Meat was served on Sundays, usually a lamb or chicken meal. It always had a leathery taste; I don't know what that could be attributed to: the cooking method or the expiry date of the frozen carcass. The beef was good, probably because it was given adequate cooking time. I once had to help out in cutting it up. When it came out of the freezer, it was nearly impossible to tell where the head used to be attached. The creature lay like a frozen clump of brown earth on the kitchen floor with all its limbs severed. I sat on what seemed to me like the tail end, while another boy sat on the other end. Two boys stood in the middle, each one hammering away with a butcher's knife. It took us all morning to cut it in two pieces. If it had been left to defrost, it probably would have stunk. Higher ranking officers passed us without batting an eyelid; we were being kept occupied.

Of the few times I was rostered for kitchen duty, it was omelette day. The omelettes were cooked up in huge casseroles, turning out more like scrambled eggs rather than a pancake flip. As I cracked the eggs and poured the contents into the pots, I sometimes noticed chicks coming out of them instead of yolks. I asked the head chef what I should do if I found one of them. "Not to worry," he replied half-jokingly. "Extra protein."

Despite the bad vibrations going around the camp concerning the food, no one ever got sick. No one was sent to hospital for stomach cramps, gastro-enteritis, food poisoning and other related ailments. That all happened to the intake a few years before mine, and such a fuss was made about it, that officials made it their responsibility never to allow it to happen again.

Every time I received leave to go back to the island and see my parents, my mother constantly fretted about the weight I'd lost. It's true that I did lose weight while I was in the camp, but that wasn't just due to the self-inflicted diet I had forced on myself. We were kept busy throughout every waking hour of the day. Time went by so fast. My brother and father knew all this, but how can you explain it to a woman? Despite her own busy life as a farmer's wife, she could work at her own pace and she had no one to fear as she executed her daily chores. She also had better access to good food than I did. Every time I returned home on leave, she'd ply me with food, which I would not refuse. Every bite I took was like ambrosia. I could distinguish every ingredient, taste every herb, feel the texture of the meal as it melted in my mouth. When I was ready to return to the camp (having gained all the weight I lost while I was back home), she'd fill up my bags with cheesy kalitsounia, weedy marathopites and smoky singlina for the long journey back to Tripoli, which consisted of an overnight boat trip to Athens, and a long tiring bus trip to the camp, which took at least four hours because it was a free service for soldiers, stopping at every single neighbourhood and village along the route to give everyone the chance to ride free of charge, with the opportunity for the cadets to slowly acclimatize themselves to the routine they were returning to.

In the army cadets don't have a moment to spare. They do all the hardest dirtiest work. It is said (and I believe it) that a boy can't become a man unless he's completed his time in the army. First there was the job that you're assigned to. At some random unpredictable moment, an officer would come into our rooms or work place and do a spot check. Everything had to be in order, otherwise we would be reassigned tasks, usually the less desirable ones, like a rendezvous with Calliope. Orders were strictly obeyed, and the disobedient were swiftly punished with an extension to their tour of duty. I managed to be a good boy, a very hard thing to do for three consecutive years. The thought of spending a day longer than I needed to here was more than enough to keep me squeaky clean throughout my stay.

*** *** ***

After three years of rigorous, structured tasks, I finally came back home, back to the farmer's slow-paced no-hurry routine I had been used to before I left my family. It felt good to be able to wake up any time I liked, help out my parents and brother on the farm, wash in a clean bathroom without the wimpy city boys' clothes lying around the shower box (as if they expected a maid to come and pick up after them), eat my mother's sumptuous meals and sleep in my own warm bed with clean white sheets, my days of smelly grey bedspreads being well and truly over. It felt good, all right, but it did not pay. After spending three years becoming an andra, I had also lost three years of my working life. As a high school graduate with no specific skills, I was unemployed and unemployable. A year after returning home, I decided to further my knowledge by studying tourism management - in London.

The photos are of my dad's time in the army (in Katerini, early 1950s), while the food memories are all Mr OC's. Now you know why I'm obliged to cook the way I do; I didn't have to eat the way he did. As for the ending, it's just a story...

This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Dee from The Daily Tiffin.


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