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Friday, 16 July 2010

Eggplant skordostoubi from Zakinthos (Μελιτζάνες σκορδοστούμπι από την Ζάκυνθο)

Greek television is currently serving up 'κονσέρβες', repeats of old programmes and serials that the average Greek will have seen a few thousand times. Most of the programmes are not high quality; this could be said for television in general in any country. Amongst the trash, there are a minor few that stand out for their entertainment or informative value. I'm not a great fan of television, but I don't mind watching 'Εισαι το ταίρι μου' (comedy - entertainment value) every summer, and my whole family never tires of watching Ilias Mamalakis, Greece's favorite all-time cook, whose food shows combine travel all over Greece, where Ilias enters people's kitchens and watches them cook lesser-known Greek regional dishes that never get written into Greek cookbooks. Ilias' food travel shows have done more than educate Greek people about the different kinds food of their compatriots: he has united the Greeks who share a love for the gastronomical culture of their country by introducing them to food and ideas that not even the popular Greek food blogs and Greek cookbooks can do.

Nowadays, sadly, young people are not so involved in the food customs of the family. More and more food is being sold ready-to-eat, and people do not have to go far to find any food product they desire, due to the ease of shopping in supermarkets. The traditional food of every regional pocket of Greece is either mainly seen as an 'old-people' thing because of the newer more globalised food trends taking hold in Greece, or something that is cooked at large gatherings and isn't often made by people in their homes, hence there is a lack of tradition in the passing of knowledge from one generation to another.

cretan cookbooks
Greek souvenir cookbooks tend to be too generic: the full range of Greek cuisine has never really been showcased in such books, since most present an often nationalised segment of regional cooking, containing the odd exceptional dish.

Greek cookbooks tend to be sold in the region where they are produced, and because of low demand, regional cookbooks about Greek cooking, other than those produced in the region where one lives, are difficult to find. In Hania, for example, I can find just about any book my heart desires about Cretan food, but not, say, about the food customs of the island of Zakinthos, to name one example. Such cookbooks will also have a low demand commercially outside their native region, so that they are not widespread, even in large bookshops. I can't browse Greek cookbooks in a bookshop in Hania - I have to go to Athens for that kind of shopping. Thankfully, we have people like Ilias Mamalakis and other Greek chefs who also do gastro-travel programmes and give away recipes on the show. And now, for the first time on the internet, we have a Greek Food Blogs portal, which anyone writing on the web about Greek food can join, showcasing the food that is being prepared by home chefs cooking Greek food from all over the world.

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The other day, a repeat of Ilias' television programme Mπουκιά και Συχώριο was showing at midday while we were having lunch. Ilias was in Zakinthos, an island in the Ionian Sea (Western Greece) which is also known as Zante. Ilias first had a taste of a local sweet called φυτούρα (fitoura - also known as fritoura), a completely unknown traditional delicacy of the island, made primarily in this area and not elsewhere, which is available all year round, and is especially popular during the fasting periods because it does not contain animal products. Fitoura is a dense semolina pudding, which is poured into a tin and allowed to cool. It is then cut up into diamond shapes and the fitoura pieces are fried in oil (not necessarily olive oil). When cool enough to handle, the fitoura is rolled in sugar before it is served. It sounds so simple, but it is never made outside Zakinthos. It is a local treat, made primarily in large quantities and served at festivals, from where it is never missing.

After Ilias ate his fitoura, with the help of a local cook, he made aubergines 'skordostoubi', another specialty of Zakinthos: eggplant cooked in a garlicky vinegar tomato sauce. This seemed like a perfect alternative for us to try now that we have a glut of eggplant in our summer garden. Eggplant grows easily in Crete and it is one of those vegetables that landmarks a Greek summer, including the Cretan kitchen. It is always difficult to keep accurate notes when watching a television cookery show, so I asked my Zakinthian friend Kiki to help me out. This dish requires a lot of olive oil and a lot of frying, neither of which are these days very popular in excess for health reasons. Through Facebook (finally, I found a valid use for it!) Kiki gave me some tips to reduce the excess frying.

eggplant skordostoubi zakinthos

For 3 average servings, you need:
3 large eggplant, cut into thick slices (not small, not cubes)
1 large onion coarsely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic coarsely chopped
half a wineglass of vinegar
2 tomatoes, grated
100-150g feta cheese cut in cubes (in Zakintho, they use a local product called ladotiri, cheese preserved in olive oil, but it is doubtful that you will be able to find an authentic alternative such as this one outside the region - feta is a good substitute)
olive oil
salt and pepper

Heat some olive oil - you will need quite a bit because eggplant soak up a lot of oil - and brown all the fleshy sides of the eggplant pieces. (Alternatively, if you don't like frying, you can brown them in as little oil as you prefer, but they won't have that Mediterranean taste we've come to know well in fried eggplant.) Remove the eggplant from the pan when it is ready and set aside.

In another saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and saute the onions and garlic. When they are transparent, add the grated tomato. Let the sauce cook for a few minutes, then add the vinegar which has had the salt and pepper added to it. Stir the sauce, then add the cooked eggplant.

eggplant skordostoubi zakinthos

Now the cooking can be finished off either in the pot or the oven, whichever you prefer: If cooking in the pot, allow the eggplant to cook till soft (if you didn't fry them, they will need a longer period of cooking time), add the feta cheese cut in cubes, allow the ingredients to blend, and the meal is ready. Alternatively, pour the dish into a baking tin and place in a PRE-WARMED oven. Add the feta cheese chunks on top of the mixture. Again, if the eggplant wasn't fried, then it will need a longer cooking time. When the cheese has softened/melted, the dish is ready (about 20-25 minutes).

This dish makes a very rich sauce - you don't need much to accompany it, except maybe some good quality bread. And if you want to keep it vegan, just omit the feta cheese.

If you are interested in other recipes from Zakinthos, check out Kiki's blog: she has also written a Greek cookbook (in Greek) containing some of the local specialties.

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