Monday, 3 May 2010

The creative character of Cretan cuisine (Ο δημιουργικός χαρακτήρας της κρητικής κουζίνας)

Here's how one lazy Greek passed her day recently.

It all started with the fish. It was Saturday, the best day for cooking fish in our house, as we are usually all at home without other obligations. I had wanted to cook some salmon with fennel flavoured with an ouzo sauce, a dish I had come across in my blog readings. The combinaton of fennel and salmon was a match made in heaven, one of my friends had told me recently. So off I went to the fish market in search of some salmon.
It was not the best day forbuying fish though. The weather was too rough for fishing, and very little fresh fish had been brought in to the markets. All the fish shops seemed to be selling yesterday's catches, judging from the amounts of each variety found in their display, and it was early morning. The salmon was priced at 14 euro a kilo, but the pieces were not cut evenly. Some slices were from the tail end - thick but small - while others were misshaped into squares; there was no way of knowing how many days they had been in the fridge.

skate salahi

My attention was caught by the skate wings. I had once seen a skate (σαλάχι) being caught at the beach. This was the most plentiful fish at the fishmonger's this morning: 10 euro a kilo. The pieces looked large and filling, with the added bonus of having no sharp bones, just some soft bone cartilage that can easily be removed and doesn't cause pain on biting.

I had plenty of fennel at home; the stalks with their willowing fronds are a common feature of the Cretan countryside. But the bulbs are not grown for retail selling in Greece. All the fennel bulbs I have ever used in my cooking (and always with seafood, especially cuttlefish) have been grown by relatives who have an interest in cultivating foreign vegetables, but only for their own consumption. I would have to buy imported fennel to try this dish, even though I knew that their seasonal quality would be compromised. Another nagging feeling in my mind was the fact that in the same week, I had already bought some celeriac (celery root) to make another foriegn-inspired dish, and I felt that it would weigh down unnecessarily to my carbon footprinting of the world. I decided to make do with what ingredients I had on hand and decide how I could best substitute the various items once I got back home.

aromatic herbs

Apart from the celeriac and some carrots, my fridge was holding a hoard of leafy herbs and greens, that I had forgotten to turn into marathopites (vegetarian fennel pies) during the week. I set aside the fish and made piles of all the greens on the kitchen work top.Then I went down to the herb garden my mother-in-law tends and picked some fresh fennel weed and mint, and chopped off some of the leafy green tops from the onions and garlic that she had also planted. The fish, I decided, needed less preparation time, so I set to work on the greens, cleaning them, drying them well (they shouldn't be too damp when adding to a pie), and chopping them into a bowl. It's hard to keep track of the quantities of each ingredient. Ultimately, it boils down to what you have on hand, and how much you have to use up; your pies will take on the flavour of the most powerful ingredient in the mixture.

I'm not a great fan of making pastry, but since it was Saturday and I didn't manage to buy any from my favorite pastry maker int he town, I had to roll my own. It's a messy job and your hands get very sore when using a rolling pin. It's not a job you can do on a regular basis if you are often away from home. The good thing about home-made pastry is that it keeps in the fridge for two days, and you can break off as much as you need to use on one day, and keep the rest refrigerated if you don't have time to roll and fill pastries on the same day (I find it very tiresome and repetitive work). With a weary heart, as I thought about the time racing away and Saturday's lunch meal that still had not been cooked, I got the pastry going.

You need:
a glass of water
a small wineglass of olive oil
a nip of tsikouthia (Cretan alcoholic drink - ouzo can be used instead)
a pinch of salt
a kilo of flour (I use organic flour, Limnos flour and/or a special blend made by Miloi Kritis for pie-making)

pastry for kalitsounia

Place all the ingredients in a bowl and mix them lightly with a spoon. Then start adding the flour, by pouring three cups in the liquid all at once. Mix well, and keep adding flour, this time at the rate of  1/2 a cup, and mix it in until the mixture stops looking like a batter, and more like dough, which can be kneaded in the bowl without your hands getting bits of it stuck onto your hands. When the dough looks as though it has the right consistency, tip it onto a floured surface and knead it well so that it looks like an evenly shaped ball of dough.  You may not need to use all the flour. This dough will yield 25-30 small rounds of pastry.

At this stage, the dough can placed back in the bowl and covered with a towel until you are ready to use it. It will keep out of the fridge overnight in cool temperatures. At this stage, my dough becomes soft and easy to roll out. If I don't use it immediately, I place it in a plastic bag and put it in the fridge, along with the pie filling - and try to remember that I must use both of them up in the next two days...

*** *** ***

Once some space had been cleared, I looked at the original fish recipe again. It was a very uncomplicated recipe. The butter would have to be omitted, since we only use olive oil in our cooking. Butter gives a different texture to food, but I have long learned to go without it, since we have plentiful supplies of probably the best variety of extra virgin olive oil at our disposal all year round. I say this without any hint of superiority. You need to taste it to understand the difference.


Although I have a bottle of ouzo at home, no one drinks its. It is a remnant left in our drinks cabinet, and I haven't opened the bottle in a long time. Tsikoudia, the Cretan equivalent of fiery-tasting alcoholic clear-coloured spirit (it does not go cloudy when ice is added to it), has a different taste from ouzo, but it has essentially the same kinds of characteristics. Many Cretan housewives use it to flavour their dough when making pastries and pies. I decided to use this more familiar taste (to my family) than introduce too many new ideas in our midday meal.

sauteed aromatic herbs and vegetables seared skate salahi
skate salahi with aromatic herbs and vegetables

Celeriac and fennel bulbs are two comepletely different things. They share one feature which is their subtle aromas. Again, they are different in that respect too, but I had now already devised my own recipe that I felt certain would work with the skate wings. Once I created the recipe - from the fresh ingredients I had available - I realised that I would have to divert from the original cooking style as stated in the recipe. As I was searing the fish fillets in the frying pan, I could tell by the texture of the finished seared fillets that the appearance of this half-cooked fish would not go down well with my family. Seared meat and fish is not common in Greek cooking, where everything must be, in general terms, well cooked. I decided to cook the fish in the oven, like a fish plaki dish.

Here is the dish that I created. It serves 5-6 people.

You need
600g filleted skate wings or other fleshy fish - salmon and galeos (shark) will also work
1 carrot, grated
1/4 of a large celeriac root, grated
1 onion, finely sliced
1 leek, finely chopped 
1-2 fat garlic cloves, finely minced
1 nip of tsikoudia
olive oil
freshly ground sea salt
freshly ground pepper

skate salahi with aromatic herbs and vegetables

Heat some oil and sear the fish fillets on both sides (three minutes cooking time for each side) one-by-one. Place each seared fillet in a deep baking dish.

Heat some more oil and and saute the onion and garlic till translucent. Add the carrot, leek and celeriac, and cook on low heat till the vegetables have softened. Season well and add the tsikoudia. Let simmer for five minutes. Turn off the heat and top the pan over the fish fillets. Add half a small wineglass of water (to stop the fish from sticking to the cooking vessel. Place the baking dish in the oven and cook for twenty minutes or so, until the flavours have blended. This dish keeps well for a day and can be reheated.

fried skate salahi

Skate wings can also be fried, lightly floured on both sides. For a heartier meal, they could be dipped in batter and served like fish and chips.

*** *** ***
Moving on to the pies, I plucked up the courage (after lunch, after I had thrown all the fish-smelling dishes into the dishwasher) to continue with the marathopites. Remembering how ungratefully my previous efforts at making marathopites were received by the children (whose tastes change as they grow older - or is it just that they become fussier?) I decided to add some mizithra (Cretan cottage cheese) to the original greens mixture.

Then I began to roll out the pastry - with my hands. I snapped bits of dough off (the size of golf balls) and rolled them out in the plam of my hand. To enlarge them, I used a rolling pin and sprinkled a little flour over them as I pressed them. Making small rounds of dough is much less tiring than flouring the whole table and cutting rounds off, then reshaping the pastry off-cuts into another ball of dough which again needs to be rolled out.

I filled each pastry round with an amount of filling equal to that of the size of the ball of dough that I cut off and rolled out. They were placed on an oiled baking dish, brushed with beaten egg and sprinkled with sesame seed. At this size, I could fit 12 pastries on one baking sheet. They were cooked on the low shelf in a moderate oven.

I was now getting impatient. I had been in the kitchen for most of the working day, and I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could. There was enough dough and mixture for another tray of marathokalitsounia (as I had now christened them, since they were neither marathopites, nor kalitsounia). I began to work robotically, first breaking off the remaining dough into small balls, then shaping balls of filling in the same size and leaving them on a plate.Then I spread out the dough balls into little rounds and topped them with a ball of filling.


These I sealed like little pouches that had been punched down again, so that when I finished with them, they looked like seamless flat pies that had no opening: marathomizithropites, I named them, from the Cretan technique of making marathopites and mizithropites. These could be baked in the oven on an oiled baking tin, or individually fried in a pan on both sides. As the first lot of pastries were cooking in the oven, I cooked half the pies I made in the pan, each one separately, and placed the other half ready pies in the deep freeze, to use at a later date. 


This is the first time I had skate, and therefore, the first time I cooked it. Two different fish dishes, using whatever was on hand, to cater for the desires of all the family members, and two different kinds of pie, with the same dough and filling mixture, with enough remaining to be cooked for another (busy) days. Not a cookbook in sight with any recipes resembling the ones I made up in one morning, but first an idea (from the other blogger), and then a desire (to rid my fridge of excess produce), making instinctive and creative use of all the seasonal resources found in our surroundings.

This is in fact how many Cretan (and other Greek island) women used to cook in the past, and how some are (obviously) still cooking. Some food resources from the past are now not eaten, because of the changes in the Cretan society and the fast pace of the technological development that has taken the whole world by storm due to globalisation. A woman - she's only 66 years old - recently told me that when she left her village and moved to another due to marriage, she was cooking things like omathies (a kind of sausage made from the pork offal), something which very few people would now do, because they require special skills in making them, sausages are now more readily available everywhere, everyone has a refrigerator, and few people keep a pig on their land as a valuable food resource (more likely they keep a number for commercial purposes). That same woman also told me that she used to harvest fern fronds (also known as fiddleheads) when they had just appeared in spring, a most unlikely ingredient in Cretan cuisine, and a practice that has literally died out in modern times!

This is actually the origin of Cretan cuisine, making use of all edible resources without unnecessary wastage, watching and learning from the older generation, continuing traditions by adding new ideas and resources as they become available (eg refrigeration, imported products, ease of availability of fresh ingredients), using all the senses to create a memorable dining occassion, one that no tourist can find in a Cretan restaurant, because the daily cuisine of the home differs from the commercialised Cretan cuisine, in which tourists expect to see a standard product that has a known label attached to it.

If Cretan cuisine could not develop in this way (among other avenues that it has also taken), it would have become a dead cuisine, stalled in time, and brought alive every now and then by restaurants for the purposes of serving tourists and the younger generations who have no tangible link to their own past. It would resemble a quaint tradition, something that is paired with traditonal heel-slapping dancing and the grating rhythm of the Cretan rizitika music. But Cretan cooking has never been locked in the depths of the past (and neither has Cretan music - thank God that developed in the modern way it did!) and now with the emphasis on organic fresh local seasonal high quality produce, it is constantly evolving and becoming known as one of the healthiest and most varied cuisines in the modern world, with its foundations lying in simple cooking techniques and fresh primary produce.

And then they call the Greeks lazy and unproductive...

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