Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Eggplant cheese rolls at Aithrion (Μελιτζανομπουρεκάκια στο Αίθριον)

This year has been annus horribilis for most people right around the world. It is no different for us either. The economic crisis meant we could not stray too far away from our home for a summer holiday break.. I am left with memories of last year's summer holiday, and the wonderful meals we savoured in Northern Greece. 

Summer was never my favorite season. I always liked the rain. Good thing, as I lived in New Zealand for a long time, and had to put up with it on most days. Since living in Greece, I've spent every single summer in Hania, and hardly ever saw a drop of rain throughout the summer months. Last year was the first time I saw a really rainy summer, when I visited Halkidiki. It felt strange walking on the beach in our swimwear, watching the rain falling down. It first started to spit before heavy raindrops began to splatter onto the sand. The beach-goers were all scrambling to get their gear packed and they were gone in seconds.

haystack cassandra halkidiki cassandra halkidiki cassandra halkidiki
rainy day cassandra halkidiki rainy day cassandra halkidiki
We made it back to the car just in time before the rainfall turned into a heavy downpour with thunder and lightning, the likes of which I had never seen. We were driving in the rain in a place unknown to us. We had been harbouring dreams of driving up and down the first two legs of Halkidiki (the third one isn't open to females) to look at the scenery. We were already impressed by the unusual scenery (to us Cretans) that we had come across: mechanically-rolled haystacks, patchwork quilt fields and forest-lined coastlines. Now all we wanted was to find a safe place away from the storm to get some lunch.

 aithrion cassandra halkidiki

On our holiday up to that point, we had been dining out on a lot of barbecued meat, and we were all tired of this, craving, instead, for something cooked in a pot with an oily sauce.We passed quite a few fast food places before we came across Aithrion. Even in the driving rain, it looked very, very pretty - the overgrown greenery made us feel closer to nature.

We parked the car across the road from the restaurant and waited for the rain to retreat a little. It didn't. It just got harder and harder. It's really frightening trying to cross a busy road in the rain with two children in tow!

aithrion cassandra halkidiki

The atmosphere at Aithrion may be described by some people as rather kitsch: old-time trinkets from yesteryear hanging on the walls, traditional handcrafts, odd one-of-a-kind furniture with no set pattern. We liked it a lot. I guess we're a bit old-fashioned! The owner was also a musician (he told us he often came to Hania and played music in the taverna of a friend!), so there were a lot of music memorabilia such as photographs of songers and song verses pasted around the restaurant.

It wasn't just the atmosphere, but the food was also fanstastic: home-made bread, soutzoukakia, makaronada, gigandes, rabbit stifado, and the specialty of the house: deep-fried cheese-filled aubergine rolls. At the end of the meal, we were treated to donuts in chocolate syrup and sweet wine. What a way to finish our stay in Northern Greece.
aithrion cassandra halkidiki dessert aithrion cassandra halkidiki 
aithrion cassandra halkidiki
aithrion cassandra halkidiki aithrion cassandra halkidiki

This year, I decided to try making my own version of melitzanobourekakia at home; here's what I came up with.

You need
1 large eggplant, sliced thinly (I used a white eggplant which yielded 8 large slices - white eggplant is sweeter and is ideal for frying)
creamy soft white curd cheese (I used Cretan mizithra)
some Greek strained yoghurt
a sprig of fresh mint, chopped finely
salt and pepper
thick runny batter made with a simple flour-water mixture
oil for frying

white eggplant white eggplant slices
This eggplant looks shrivelled. It had been lying in the shade for a few days after it was picked. It's actually perfect for frying because it is less juicy. The texture of the uncooked product doesn't affect the taste of the cooked dish. The slices, in retrospect, should have been thinner. To make them more pliable, maybe they need to be boiled slightly, and left to cool before using them.

You may want to prepare the eggplant slices by salting them and letting them run their excess juices out of the flesh. I don't do this because home-grown Cretan garden eggplant is generally very tasty rather than bitter. Season the eggplant slices with salt and pepper. Allow the eggplant to drain away its excess juices. Mix the curd cheese (I used about a fistful of mizithra) with the yoghurt (I used about 100g), and add the salt (if you did not use it in the eggplant preparation), pepper and mint.

filling for melitzanobourekakia melitzanobourekakia
Take a slice of eggplant, and place a tablespoon of mixture at one end. Roll up the eggplant slice, trying to cover the filling as well as possible. Secure it with a toothpick, or a long souvlaki skewer (kebab), which will make frying them easier.

melitzanobourekakia melitzanobourekakia

When you are ready to cook the eggplant rolls, heat a large amount of oil in a small deep saucepan. (A friteusse works even better in this case, as it is less messy, but it uses a lot of oil.) Then dip the roll into the flour-and-water batter, covering all parts well. The batter acts as a seal. Deep fry until the rolls are well browned all over. Remove from the oil and drain on absorbent paper. Take out the toothpick or skewer.

I couldn't achieve the runny texture of Aithrion's melitzanobourekakia filling; I suspect that if more yoghurt is added, the the filling will be runnier.

Serve these rolls as an appetiser, or as a main meal with a green salad. They are very filling!

new use for a plastic lined tablecloth

It was still raining when we left the restaurant. The staff taught us a new use for the traditional Greek plastic-lined paper tablecloth: it could also become a raincoat! The rain did not stop us from venturing further into Halkidiki, where Cheryl warmed us up with coffee, cake and chocolate chip biscuits.

If you are in the area of Halkidiki, you might like to try Aithrion on the Cassandra leg; the total cost of our meal (including drinks) was 43 euro (at last year's prices).

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