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Thursday, 25 February 2010

Ginger crunch (Mπισκότο με γεύση πιπερόριζα)

This is not a sign of homesickness - if you like ginger crunch as much as I do, you have to make it yourself if you live in Crete in order to eat it, because you won't find it anywhere else. It's delicious during cooler weather. My husband likens it to a chewier version of the traditional Greek melomakarono (a spicy Christmas syrup-steeped biscuit).

ginger crunch ginger slice
Ginger crunch hardens as it cools, which is why you have to cut it into slices when it is still warm. When cool, it tastes like a crisp spicy biscuit with a chewy topping.

Ginger was once an unknown quantity in Crete. The powdered form is still not always available in the spice racks on supermarket shelves, despite the abundance of something labelled "Madras curry powder", something I find disconcerting; if curry powder mix is so popular in a place like Crete, it's a pity that people don't know that they can buy each spice separately and mix their own curry, creating the taste and heat they specifically like. All the spices needed to make a curry spice blend are available at the Agora.

ginger

Fresh ginger has become a more standard product since the influx of economic migrants to Crete. Now that people are travelling more, even the locals are buying it, but I still don't know what they are cooking with it: I only use it when I make curries and stir-fries, as it hasn't yet permeated the Greek taste spectrum. Having said that, ginger is well known on the island of Kerkira, which is the only place in Greece where ginger beer is made, a tradition adopted during the 19th century British rule of the island.

The Chelsea Sugar site where I got my recipe for ginger crunch* also has lots of other recipes for favorite kiwi tea-time treats, biscuits and 'slice' cakes, including afghans, gingernuts and Anzac biscuits, all of which I need to remind myself to cook up at least once more before the end of the colder weather.

* This dessert can be made lenten by replacing the butter with margarine.

©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, 21 February 2010

War (Πόλεμος)

I'm looking forward to visiting London's Imperial War Museum to see the Ministry of Food exhibition about food rationing and 'digging for victory' in Britain during the Second World War; here's a brief account of my mother-in-law's experiences in Crete of food shortages at that time. She turns 86 this year.

"Food coupons? No, we didn't have any of those where we were. I have heard something about them being used in Athens where they had no food, but in the villages where we could grow or raise something of our own, we never had such coupons. When the Germans came, they took all our food away from us. From one day to the next, we were thrown into the depths of poverty. Our food supplies were confiscated for the use of the German army*, we were told, and there was a war on, so we had no say in the business. In those days, you did as you were told, there was no discussion or thought about the matter, you just did as you were told and that was that. They took away all our animals, so we had no milk, no eggs, no meat, for a long time. We could go and pick the fruits off our trees in our orchards, but if the Germans saw us on the road carrying them back to our house, they'd confiscate them. We used to buy our grain, rice, sugar and other staples that we didn't grow ourselves from Hania, by trading our orchard produce, but when the Germans came, if they saw us riding our donkeys loaded with oranges in the koffinia**, they'd stop us on the road and take it. Our food was now the property of the German Army. So we couldn't bake bread; all the grain was confiscated, so we had no flour. We couldn't even make a pita. Every now and then, when my brother received a work order from the Germans, he was given a loaf of bread as payment. He would be asked to help carry something or build something or clear road, anything the soldiers told him to do. That's when we saw any bread in our house...

grandmother
When she isn't gardening, she does crosswords or rolls her own filo pastry for kalitsounia.

"Hunger was very real in those days. We ate what we could forage, which was mainly snails and horta, whatever was seasonal at the time. The Germans never stopped us from foraging for greens. We'd walk in small groups, all girls, from our village (Fournes) to the neighbouring village of Ayia, where there were many open fields, and fill up the sacks we were carrying with us with snails and horta, nettles, wild artichokes, amaranth, nightshade, sowthistle, dock, dandelion, stuff like that. We picked whatever we could carry, and then walk back to the village carrying a huge sack on our back. Then we'd sit for hours cleaning the horta. If we were allowed to grow our own crops on our land, we wouldn't have had to do this so often.


"We could also pick seasonal fruit when we could get it, like wild pears and koumara. For sweets, we'd munch on carob pods. If my brother could trap a hare or bird, we would have some meat. We had to be creative in our use of food to make it last longer or to stop us from getting bored of eating the same things over and over again. I remember we often ate orange salad - orange segments dressed in olive oil and sprinkled with salt. I think that oranges with olive oil would sound very strange to most people these days.

pensioners
I spotted this group of five old-age pensioners sitting in a modern takeaway bar in the town centre and surreptitiously took a photograph of them by looking at the mirror. They all look old enough to remember the war years. Each one will have their own story of the hunger they endured in their food-rich homeland.
"On one of those days after we'd been foraging and were walking back to the village, I saw a man's foot on the road, he seemed to have fallen over into the ditch. I was the only one to have noticed, so I went to investigate. I found two brothers, my neighbours, lying dead, killed by gunshots. Then I had to tell everyone else what I saw and it was a very sad time. My father had already been killed by firing squad in front of my mother, and one of my brothers was shot in the back when he was sitting in the kafeneion, in civilian clothing. There was no inquiry into their deaths, they were killed and that was that, because there was a war on, and we couldn't ask for any further clarification. My father had seen death so many times by then anyway. he'd spent 12 years as a soldier in Constantinople, coming back home every two years. I was born after his release in 1922, when the Greeks left the city forever. He'd tell us stories of his time there. During the fighting, when night fell, he and other soldiers would carry the dead and lay them in rows, and lie them on them, to get some rest before the next day's fighting began. And they never had enough water to drink. They'd lay rags in the corners of the shacks where they lived in the city - I have a photograph of him standing outside Ayia Sofia - and gather any moisture that dripped onto them from the rain, and they'd suck on the rags to keep themselves from dehydrating. He came back home after fighting a war, and died again in a war. I hardly had the chance to get to know him...
"I had hurt my leg, I can't remember how it had happened, I must have fallen and the wound never healed. It got bigger and bigger, and my leg began to hurt me. I thought I had gangrene. A German soldier saw my leg, and before I knew it, a whole lot of them were coming towards me. They had to hold me down because I was frightened, I didn't know what they were going to do to me. They cleaned the wound and applied some medication to it, and eventually I got better. They never bothered me again...

yiayia
"Eventually we were allowed to go back to tending our fields and could keep a few chickens which gave us a fresh egg here and there and a bit of meat on special days. But it was very very hard work looking after the land, what with our menfolk gone or dead, the physical labour required to carry out the work on the fields made a man out of a woman.

"I suppose a food rationing system would have been useful, to make sure everyone had something to eat, because we really didn't have a lot to eat in those days, apart from horta, but where was the food going to come from if we didn't have any to start with? People were starving, they had little food to feed their children with, and they were starving too. Even if people had money, they couldn't buy anything with it because there was nothing available to buy. Money was worthless paper to all of us at the time, because what we wanted to buy was food, and there simply wasn't any food...

"When the confiscations stopped and we were able to start buying, growing and eating whatever we wanted, there was a shortage of flour since there had been no wheat planted. Some flour was brought into the villages from the food distribution schemes that began to operate after the Germans left. The grain was packed in large sacks with the letters:

Η.Π.Α.
(which stands for: Ηνωμένες Πολιτείες Αμερικής - U.S.A)

written on it. We didn't know what the letters stood for, and when we asked some of the village officials to explain it to us, they were dumbfounded too. So we just made up a phrase for it:


'Ηρθε Πάλι Αλεύρι
(literal meaning: came-again-flour: "Flour has returned")

because we had to make sense of it in some way, and this sounded logical to us.

One would think that she was dead tired of eating snails and horta after those hard years when that was all they had to eat. "No," she shakes her head, "we may have eaten a lot of them back then, but we always ate a lot of them anyway. We always liked our horta. The difference was that we had other foods to accompany them whereas during the war, horta was all we had. I don't know if it would have been better if we could just have been confined in our houses and had some bread and oil. That would sustain you for a long time and keep your stomach full, but horta, well, no matter how much you ate, you still felt hungry."

snail feeding maich greens

She still potters around in the garden as often as the weather and her old-age mobility problems let her. "I've always enjoyed gardening, and I've always liked vegetables in my meals, it depends on what you're used to eating, how you've been raised, your financial situation. Salads and greens are always tasty, especially if you know that the place where they were grown is free of pesticides and chemicals, but that's the thing these days: you want to eat something healthy, but you don't know who or what's been at it before you. Nothing grows these days without pesticides..."

*** *** ***

During World War II, the whole world was thrown into a real food crisis - there was a shortage of food everywhere, though at different rates and for different commodities, depending on where a person resided. Many people died during the Second World War as a result of hunger, especially those who lived in urban centres, since they relied mainly on food sources that were transported into their regions. People living in rural regions (like my mother-in-law) fared better because they were able to forage for food. The villages in the mountain areas of Crete (such as my mother's) were less affected, since the Nazis could not penetrate every nook and cranny of the rugged countryside, so that mountain residents would still be able to grow some grain, keep animals and produce cheese.

In Greece, the worst hit famine area was, naturally, Athens, mainly due to the imposition of a blockade of food distribution by Britain (who feared that the Nazis would view such movements as a military advantage), which was eventually lifted after pressure from the United States:

"Shortly after the Nazi invasion, the Greek nation began to live in difficult times due to lack of food. The food was all confiscated by the German occupiers and the entire rail network of Greece was destroyed so that food could not be transported. The people of Athens began to receive food with food coupons, while the black market "flourished". In the autumn of 1941 the first deaths from starvation were recorded in some poor neighborhoods of Athens."


(Photo included in: Hionidou, Violeta (2006) Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1944 Cambridge University Press)
Initially, food coupons (δελτία τροφίμων - this is the only Greek phrase for the concept of 'food rationing') were issued to family groups in order for food to be distributed as fairly as possible. In 1941, they were changed to individual food coupons for each citizen, while only children and the invalid were entitled to milk rations; but when there was no food available, coupons were useless and so was money. At one point, people were not just hungry; they were starving, a situation which forces the victim to turn his back on civilised behaviour and resort to any means just to stay alive:
"Neither national nor local statistics on mortality are very reliable. The numbers reported by the neighborhood councils were more dutifully collected than that those for the whole country, but all statistics tend to understate - it is unknown to what extent - the actual mortality rate, since many deaths were not announced to the authorities. The relatives of the dead hid their bodies in public cemeteries at night, in order to maintain their food rations. Sometimes they buried them in hastily dug unmarked graves. Eventually the municipal services collected hundreds of anonymous corpses, so that these do not appear in official data."
People dropped dead in the street. Their corpses were shovelled onto trucks and buried in unmarked graves. Families did not report their dead, not even of their children, who were dying at the rate of up to 500 a day - if they did so, they would have had to hand in their ration books. If they died at the hospital, they did not go to pick up their bodies for the same reason - they needed to hang on to their ration books in order that they themselves may have a better chance to survive:
"The Hospital has a problem with the burial of the dead children. Initially, the dead children are transported from the Penteli Hospital in Athens. The parents, although informed by the Police Department, find a variety of ways to avoid their release, apparently because the ration books of the deceased child are vital for other family members. Thus, the dead children remain for some time unburied. Later in the summer of 1941, when there was no petrol for the hearse, the problem worsened. It was decided, therefore, to bury them in Penteli, after advising the father of the day and time of burial, unless the father wanted to receive and bury his deceased offspring himself. The risk, however, of the fallen angels being dug out by the hungry stray dogs was very real. To the staff of the hospital is added a new job, that of the cemetery shift, for those deceased young patients."
Greece suffered hunger and starvation during WWII because her food supplies were cut off. Hionidou (2006) argues that the lifting of the blockade was the most decisive step away from the famine. To die of starvation in Greece is almost impossible in a food-rich society, unless someone is taking your food away from you deliberately. Before World War II, Greece was producing two thirds of the food supply needed to support the population, which is quite a feat (while Britain was only producing a third of its food supply at the same period), considering that the population had doubled in less than two decades before the Greek famine struck, due to the arrival of the Asia minor refugees after their forced expulsion from Turkey.

Famine caused by deliberate withholding of food resources did not occur only in Greece during WWII. Northern continental Europe was also severely affected in a similar way, especially during the cold heavy winters when the land was covered with snow and no foraging was possible. The Dutch Famine resulted in long-term health problems of not just those affected by hunger, but even of their descendants, proving that hunger can have permanent effects that may be evidenced in future generations who did not suffer hunger.

Notes:
1. It would be a lie to tell you that I asked my mother-in-law to tell me about her life during the second world war; this is not the kind of conversation that she enjoys having. The above account is what I have gleaned from the few times that the topic of war arises in our house; there are some things that cannot be talked about easily. The story about the flour was told to me by my late father, who was five years old when his father (my grandfather) was killed on the second day of the Battle of Crete in 1941.
2. The word 'Germans' has been used to denote the Nazi soldiers, not the German people. This is the word that is used by the older population of Crete in reference to the period of time in question.
3. Because of Greece's (former??) peculiar state handout system, civil servants were (but I don't know if they still are) entitled to food coupons in modern times, because their permanent, you-can-never-fire-me, stable-hours, high-pension, full-health-care monthly-salary, five-days-a-week, holiday-and sick-leave-taken-care-of and overtime-well-paid jobs are (or should that be 'were'??) regarded by the government as lowly paid...


*The Germans confiscated everything, even the supply of the food necessary for survival such as bread, oil, flour, etc. The situation became desperate. Inflation annihilated everything, hunger plagued and decimated the skeletal people of all ages who died from starvation and malnutrition. The distribution of food was handled through coupons, and the shortages resulted in the black market, ie the prices of all food were so high, to the point that the people were forced to to exist by selling all their belongings, even items of large value, for just a few grams of bread or flour. Most of the starved dead lay on the roads and were transferred to cemeteries in carriages, but their relatives did not declare their death to the registrar so as not to have their rations cut. To survive, many people stole food from the Germans at the risk of arrest and execution.
** koffinia κοφίνια (plural of koffini κοφίνι): traditional large baskets that were loaded onto donkeys, one on each side, used to transport food products from the village to sell in the town.

Useful references:
Grace, Patricia (2009) Ned & Katina Penguin Publishers, Auckland (thanks to John Petris for this gift)
Hionidou, Violeta (2006) Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1944 Cambridge University Press
League of Nations (1946) Food, Famine and Relief, 1940-1946 Series of League Of Nations Publications, Geneva
Mazower, Mark (2001) Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944 Yale University Press
Norman, Jill (2007) Eating for Victory Michael O'Mara Books Ltd, London
The Imperial War Museum, London (for answering all my queries and providing me with extra information)


©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, 18 February 2010

Calamari with wild greens (Θράψαλα με άγρια χόρτα)

Today I am cooking with two ingredients that I use no more than twice a year - and always in combination. When I am given one, I buy the other, and cook this wonderful stew.

Fennel bulbs are hardly ever produced locally for commercial sale. I have never bought them myself, because I am very lucky that my uncles give me a few fennel bulbs every year from their garden - to date, they are the only people that I know in Crete who grow finnochio (as these are called in the trade). Finnochio is tender enough to be eaten raw, sliced into a salad, but I prefer its very subtle aroma and taste in a stew - and if you have never tried calamari and finnochio together, it's time you did.

thrapsala calamari

I recently bought some calamari from the supermarket. What caught my eye was the label - it came from New Zealand. New Zealand food items make a surprising appearance in Cretan supermarkets: lamb, seafood and kiwifruit are all very common. The mileage they have covered - needing to cross at least three continents before they arrive in Crete - sounds highly polluting, but I comfort myself in the thought that to get to Crete, this calamari was probably part of a large shipment of produce, loaded onto a cargo ship which called in at many ports along the way, being unloaded here and there, while more products from elsewhere were loaded onto the same ship, thereby offsetting most of the carbon footprints it left behind as it was making its journey across the world.

Fried calamari is very popular at tavernas all over Greece. This is what my kids usually order when we go out, which is why I didn't want to fry this calamari at home. I think it is a terrible shame that many Greek people go out to eat food that they often cook at home, especially since Greeks are nowadays more open to foreign tastes and new meal ideas, judging by the abundance of imported food items readily available in the supermarkets on a daily basis.

calamari and fennel bulb stew

Since I knew my calamari stew wouldn't be very popular with everyone in the house, I used only 2 of the 4 pieces that I bought (they were cellophaned-wrapped in two packets, each containing two calamari). Coincidentally, the whole dish consisted of leftover ingredients from other dishes, and it's probably the most complicated midday meal I've ever made, in terms of the number of ingredients it contains. I also cooked it the night before, so the flavours were enhanced by the next day when we ate it for the midday meal.

You need:
a few tablespoons of olive oil
an onion
1-2 cloves of garlic
2 medium-sized fresh (or defrosted) calamari, cut into large chunks (the calamari may be substituted with octopus or cuttlefish΄I used a kind of calamari known in Greece as 'thrapsala')
1 large finnochio (fennel bulb), chopped into thick slices (fennel is like an onion; they slices will disintegrate like pieces of onion)
1-2 cups of leftover spanakopita mixture (mine contained some finely chopped wild greens, spinach, fennel herb fronds, parsley, mint and cottage cheese)
a cup of shredded cabbage (this was actually leftover salad)
a glass of wine
a few tablespoons of tomato sauce (I used my own home-made bottled sauce)
a handful of small cured green olives (optional)
salt and pepper

Saute the chopped onion and garlic in the olive oil, then add the calamari and fennel pieces and let them take on a golden colour. Add the wine and let simmer for a few minutes, then add the tomato. When the liquids come to boiling point, turn down the heat and add the remaining ingredients. Cover the pot with a lid and simmer at the lowest heat point until the calamari is done to your likeness (and we like it pretty soft).

If your spanakopita greens mixture did not contain any cheeses, this meal becomes lenten, perfect for the pre-Easter period coming up. Braised calamari goes really well with another of those taverna favorites - fried potatoes. Make sure you have it with some white wine too.

©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, 15 February 2010

Lagana (Λαγάνα)


lagana bread for the start of great lent

... but not today with your lagana!

The start of Great Lent is the only day in the year that lagana (flat bread) is sold in bakeries. Unfortunately, it goes stale quite quickly, so it's best eaten within two, maximum three, days.

Happy Sarakosti everyone!

Here's a picture of Mrs Sarakosti with her seven legs, each one representing one week of the fast. As each week (ie Sunday) passes, one leg is chopped off. This was one of the earliest forms of a calendar used in Greek homes. When only one leg remains, then it's Easter Day.

©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, 14 February 2010

Red Cheese (Κόκκινο τυρί)

Apart from St Valentine's Day, it's also Cheesefare Sunday today, and the last day of pre-lenten carnival silliness, known as Apokries in Greece. I'm joining in the fun with this silly post.

We find ourselves in Athens, in 1966. The poet, Mr Timoleon Famfara, of low acclaim, is publishing a new collection of verse. He's speaking with his publisher's assistant, Vasili Vasilaki, who works for pittance, but believes, above all, in loyalty to the company.


(Segment from the film "Wake up, Vasili!" Ξύπνα, Βασίλη!)

Poet: Did you read it?


Vasili: Did I read it? Did I ever! I read it, I ate it, I gobbled it all up, I learnt it off by heart!

Poet: And which one did you like?

Vasili: Which one did I like? Which-- Which-- Which one should I choose first? ... 'Good morning Yiani', 'Broad bean seed'...

Poet: So, you like broad beans?!

Vasili: What's that you say, Mr Famfara? You've cooked them so-- I mean, you've composed them in a-- a-- ...

Poet: ... a sarcastic tone, yes, yes! I'm so funny and satirical when I want to be! Do you recall the poem 'Red Cheese'?


Vasili: Oh, Mr Famfara, if I don't know the poem 'Red Cheese', then what do I know?!

Poet: Of course, you would know it! Recite it to me.

Vasili: Recite it to you?! Oh, let me think, now, let me think... er, er... Just give me the opening word.

Poet: Red--?

Vasili: Red--? Red--? Ah, yes!
"Red cheese
we were offered
at the table
where we feasted.

Red cheese,
we gaze at
and deliberate;
but such a cheese--"
Poet: "We don't partake!"

Both: Ha ha ha!
Poet: "Its colour fine
aroma sweet,
but from inside--
"


Vasili: "Repugnant sleaze!"

Poet: Yes, yes! Wonderful! Ha ha ha! It has such a profound meaning, that poem, doesn't it?!

Vasili: Oh yes, of course, the entire satire of the communist ideology, it's embodied in there, inside that very cheese!

Poet: Wonderful, wonderful! You really do understand my poetry!

©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, 10 February 2010

Chili con carne (Tσίλι με κρέας και κόκκινα φασόλια)

Whenever I can, I cook the midday meal (which could be eaten any time from 1pm to 4:30pm, depending on work and school committments) the evening before. I really hate my daylight hours stuck at home cooking a meal. It's not the preparation time, which, for Greek food, is usually a brief but busy period cleaning and chopping; it's the waiting time for the pot to boil, and the meal to cook through. You can't leave the house, and there is always work to be done. That's why I usually cook in the evenings. This kind of cooking routine is well suited to cooking on the stove top rather than the oven; some oven-baked meals may dry out, but this is not a problem with saucepan-based food - they just get better the next day. Pastitsio is an exception - that too just gets better as it ages.

chili con carne

I made this chili just recently on a Friday night, to have the first day of the weekend free to go shopping. Here's an easy chili recipe for a cold day's meal. When I served it up the next day, the flavours of the chili had blended well and it was an unforgettable meal.

You need:
a piece of beef about the size of a big palm, partially frozen
an onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
a few tablespoons of olive oil
1 small glass of wine
1 teaspoon of chili pepper (I only had the powdered form)
1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper (ditto as for chili pepper)
1 teaspoon of oregano
1 teaspoon of cumin
1-2 tomatoes, pureed (I used my home-made tomato sauce)
salt (and black pepper, if you wish)
2-3 cups of shredded cabbage
1 can of red kidney beans

When beef is partially frozen, it cuts more easily into thin slices or small cubes. I cubed the meat into dice-sized portions. Saute the chopped onion and garlic in the oil, then add the meat bits and let them brown well. When the meat is done, add the wine and mix well. Let the liquids come to boiling point, then add the tomatoes and spices, including the salt. Place a lid on the pot and let the meat simmer away at the lowest heat point until it is almost done - we like the meat to be very tender in this stew, which means I cook it for at least 80-90 minutes.

Check the pot occasionally to see if the liquid needs to be topped up until the meat is done to the preferred texture (I added up to a wineglass to get the right consistency). Just before the meat is cooked, add the cabbage and drained red beans. Let the stew cook till the meat is done, and the meal is ready.

I've made a similar chili meal using minced meat instead of meat cubes. Funnily enough, I made it at the same time as I am cooking it now - the seasons play a big role in our daily meals. Serve the hot chili served on top of a plate of plain rice, with chilled yoghurt or guacomole dip to cool things down. Make sure you have some cold beer available too!

©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, 7 February 2010

The five-minute interview with a celebrity chef (Ένα πεντάλεπτο με μιά διάσημη σεφ)

On the occasion of my birthday, I proudly present you with a personalised version of the 'five-minute interview', based on the same questions asked to Nigella Lawson in a BBC interview with her, which, sadly, I can't embed here for your amusement, because the beeb is quite particular about who copies what from them, and I wonder what they'll have to say about seeing me copy most of their interviewer's questions. The funny thing is that 90% of the time, I'm giving the same answers as Nigella, which may be taken as firm evidence that celebrity chefs are no different to ordinary people. For maximum enjoyment, open Nigella's interview in another window, and listen to it, then read my one. Some questions have had to be modified appropriately.

Matthew: (being led by me into my kitchen) What an honour! So this is where all the action takes place!
Mrs Organically Cooked: Hmm... my kitchen is practically my office.

kitchen
The kitchen

Matthew: I thought it would be a bigger kitchen, actually.
Mrs Organically Cooked: Well, I'm not a big person myself, am I, but I'm certainly not a 'small woman', either, so this space is just right for me. At least that's what I understand when I'm in the classroom which is my normal work environment, I make my presence known there; my English students know just where to locate me, if you know what I mean.

Matthew: So, do people judge you a lot before they meet you, do you think?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Well, the ones that have been talking to my husband before they see me always say, "Oh, you're not as fat as I thought you'd be," which makes me wonder just how fat he makes out that I am when he talks about me.


Mr OC, cooking his favorite meal (BBQ)

Matthew: OK, Maria, I've been thinking about setting you a challenge. I want you to name one favorite dish per minute.
Mrs Organically Cooked: (staring at the cameraman) Oh, er, starting now?

Matthew: No, we haven't started yet, and you're already flirting with the camera, aren't you?
Mrs Organically Cooked: No, I'm just checking to see if the record button is working.

Matthew: OK, let's start then, so, Maria, what is your favorite dish?
Mrs Organically Cooked: My favorite dish - pad thai, made with organic Chinese rice noodles, and whatever's in my storage cupboards and fridge.

pad thai singlina
If you can't get it made for you, you have to cook it up yourself - pad thai, a la moi.

Matthew: And what is your naughtiest kitchen secret?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Don't have one, sorry. There aren't any secrets in this house.

Matthew: (in an insistent tone) You must have one.
Mrs Organically Cooked: Well, let me think, I suppose the only thing that I'm ashamed to admit is that I don't cook every day, which is something that most people assume I do, and since we eat takeaways only every now and then, I suppose that means that I'm always serving up meals cooked from earlier in the week, or that I've made from scratch and frozen to be used on a day when I can't be bothered cooking, which is like every second day, at this rate.

Matthew: Do you yourself ever eat takeaways?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Oh yes, 'course I do. I grew up on the stuff, remember? And who doesn't love a really good souvlaki every now and then? If good cheap Asian takeaways were available in my neck of the woods, I'd have those too, so maybe I wouldn't make pad thai from scratch so often.


Matthew: Do you ever eat in bed?
Mrs Organically Cooked: No, never, it's not a Cretan thing, if you get my gist. Cretans don't eat in bed, the dust in our lives is bad enough without the olive oil stains in every room of the house... and anyway, most people don't have a sit-down breakfast, which is the classic in-bed meal according to you Brits, isn't it? No, breakfast in bed is out of the question. Breakfast is always a sit-down meal in our kitchen, and you'll only ever find me in bed when no one's wanting me to prepare any food for them.

Matthew: Now, we all know your husband's a keen hunter, and...
Mrs Organically Cooked: Mmm.

Matthew: So, do you have--
Mrs Organically Cooked: No, before you start I'm gonna say--

Matthew: -- a favorite game meat, a favorite hunting ground, ...
Mrs Organically Cooked: Hare.

trigoni game hunting
Mr OC indulges in a bit of this every now and then - trigonia caught in Paleohora.

Matthew: -- a passion for hunting?
Mrs Organically Cooked: (deep breath) It's interesting to enter a different world, but I don't really like to get led down commenting-type paths on the moral rights of hunting or environmental issues.

Matthew: We're well into the second half of the interview, so...
Mrs Organically Cooked: Yes, I know, you've just wasted a part of the interview talking about my husband, haven't you?

Matthew: (laughing) Yes, I know, I'm sorry.
Mrs Organically Cooked: That's OK.

Matthew: Another favorite dish?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Tandoori chicken with curried rice and vegetables.

Matthew: (looking perplexed) Do you eat that a lot?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Only when I go to London. I don't have a tandoori oven in my house.


When I first went to this restaurant, I wasn't food blogging. How nice it feels to be able to replace this internet shot with one from our upcoming trip to London - Lahore Kebab House in Whitechapel, London.

Matthew: Do you read a lot?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Yes, I do, naturally, I've always read a lot, and the whole family complains that when they beg me to come and sit in the living room and watch a movie altogether as a family, they say I'm only pretending to do this, because I always come with reading material in my hands.


A very small section of my cookbook library - my general library is overflowing...

Matthew: And you write of course, but you started off having a very different career, a very serious career, ...
Mrs Organically Cooked: Hmm, ...

Matthew: ... a fairly serious career, an English teacher, ...
Mrs Organically Cooked: ... mm, yes, ...

Matthew: ... well, quite a serious career.
Mrs Organically Cooked: Well, food is also serious too, isn't it, but, OK, I take your point entirely.

Matthew: Are you very organised?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Well, I'm not as organised as I used to be when I was an English teacher, because, admittedly, I was paid to be organised, but I know I'm now discussing subjects like the ones I used to discuss in my evening classes with children, teenagers and young adults, but I just can't remember which view I took back then (Matthew chuckles), and these days, anyway, the members of my family interrupt my organised schedule with coughs and colds, emergencies, after-school activities, tasks, chores, and of course, meal requirements, and the older I get, the harder it is to be organised, so I just try to attain a level of organisation just before the highest Richter scale chaos level, and I can keep on top of things.

Matthew: OK, this is probably a difficult question, but is there anything tongue-in-cheek about the way you write about certain topics or present various characters in your stories?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Well, I don't think so, because I believe that my regular readers are intelligent people who know that many times they have to read between the lines in what I write. I don't mean to be tongue-in-cheek, maybe ironic sometimes, I know that sounds odd, but at least I'm openly ironic, I'm not trying to be coy and I'd never want anyone to think I was being offensive on purpose in any way.

Matthew: When you're in the kitchen, you're very flirtatious, coquettish, aren't you?*
Mrs Organically Cooked: Thank you. And attractive, right?

Matthew: (laughing) Oh, I forgot to add that!
Mrs Organically Cooked: Well, most Greek women, in any case, are very flirtatious, sexy and coquettish, and it's never been easier to do that than in our times, so I think it's just a matter of how much money each one of us devotes to such matters. All women know when the moment calls for any of these qualities, and it really doesn't take much to win a man's heart when he watches a woman cooking. My husband loves to do this, and he especially gets worked up when I try to shoo him out of the kitchen. In Greek, we have a saying: love passes through a man's stomach.

Matthew: I'm not sure if we've had another favorite dish...
Mrs Organically Cooked: Fava, the Greek yellow split-pea dip, with lots of thinly sliced raw onions, finely chopped parsley and shrimps cooked in lemon juice.


Greek fava and shrimps

Matthew: Do you have any food hates?
Mrs Organically Cooked: No, unfortunately, and sometimes I wish I did, so that I could stop myself from eating whatever is offered to me. Tofu, perhaps, but that's not available where I live, so it doesn't really count as food, does it?

Matthew: I won't be the judge of that!
Mrs Organically Cooked: I don't like tofu. And soy meat. And soy mince. But I'd still eat them if I was offered them.

Matthew: Do you... eat a lot of fruit?
Mrs Organically Cooked: I eat a lot of everything, I'm afraid. It shows, doesn't it?

apple varieties in a fruit bowl
There's always some fresh seasonal fruit to be found in our house.

Matthew: There are a lot of noises in the background, aren't there?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Well, when you have children in the house, there are always a lot of noises in a house.

ancient statues
Where there are kids, there is noise; on a recent trip to the Acropolis.

Matthew: You're a very attractive woman, and you're a very real woman...
Mrs Organically Cooked: (looking down her blouse) Oh yes, my watermelons are definitely real.**

Matthew: ... and you send out signals to society that you don't have to be skinny to be attractive.
Mrs Organically Cooked: That's a difficult thing to comment on. All women worry about their weight, but it's wrong to assume that the thinner you are, the more attractive you are. That's really all about fashion codes, which differ across time periods, cultures and races. If I were desperate to look like a fashion model, I could take up the 'free' Bodyline offers that I regularly get called for via telemarketing, but if I do that, then I would have to give up time from doing other things that I enjoy doing, like writing, and eventually the free offers would become paid offers, because there really is no such thing as a free lunch, and since I've been used to stretching an already tight budget, I wouldn't be able to indulge in what I call 'luxuries', like buying books and DVDs online, or setting aside some money for a domestic or overseas holiday for all the family. I know I can't have everything, so I just settle for some things.

Matthew: So you're not a slave to fashion?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I don't even know what the word 'fashion' means! Never was and never will be. Food and knowledge have always been more important in my life, and I can see they always will be.

Matthew: Are you sporty?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Tremendously. And if you had watermelons growing on your chest, you'd be totally supportive of me. (Matthew laughs) I'll never forget the one and only time when I was chosen as captain of the softball team at primary school, just because the teacher wanted to instil some confidence in me, and I had to choose my team from among my classmates, and everyone just let out a groan every time I picked them. The signal was loud and clear: butterfingers.


A halved version of my current self being honoured for our win in the Sister Cities Dragonboat Race in Wellington some time at the end of the 1980s.

Matthew: You had--
Mrs Organically Cooked: I have acted in the past as manager of the Wellington Greek Community Dragonboat racing team in the Sister Cities Dragonboat Race, but I never had to get into the boat myself, I just had to make sure our team won, and I did manage to succeed in doing that the couple of times I was manager. I used to lie to the team and tell them we had practice at 6.30am, even though I knew it was 7.00am, so I'd turn up at 6.50am, and they'd ask me why I told them to come so early, even though they had probably come at 6.45am and I'd tell them that if I had said to turn up at 7.00, they'd all be getting up at that time instead, because they were always running on Greek time.

Matthew: What was it like being the daughter of Greek immigrants who owned a fish shop in New Zealand?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Well, sometimes we were called 'greasy Greeks' by other children in playground taunts, and some kids would call me 'Maria Veryfarty' as a play on my name, but that was about all, because as a Greek girl, I didn't stand out in society. People couldn't guess my nationality if I were walking on the street, like they do with Asians, and sadly, nowadays, Asian immigrants are targeted constantly in New Zealand, with racist comments and actions directed against them, and it's clearly obvious that skin colour is behind this, as might be the wearing of a hijab or a burkha, because you stand out against mainstream society, which upsets me a bit about New Zealand these days, because I never felt racially targeted against while I was growing up there, but when I went back only six years ago, even public figures like bus drivers were making blatantly racist comments in full public hearing against other drivers on the road about their driving habits, or even the passengers, like when they didn't have the right change for a ticket, or something trivial like that, and all just because they would pick up on their looks - they looked different - in other words, they were being judged by their skin colour, so I was quite shocked, to be honest. Racism is something I encountered more blatantly when I arrived in Greece, but what I hear here seems benign compared to what I was exposed to on NZ buses.

yiayia maria
Yiayia Maria

Matthew: So why do you think people read your blog?
Mrs Organically Cooked: Well, most people who land on my blog are looking for a specific Greek recipe, or a quintessential New Zealand one like afghans or pavlova, but my regular readers are probably more interested in the combination I present of Greek food and Greek life. I think the women come in for the recipes, while the men come in for the food, if you get what I mean...

Matthew: (laughs) Well, the five minutes are almost up. So, tell me the secrets of your name, because I know it was your grandmother's name.
Mrs Organically Cooked: My paternal grandmother's name, yes, and since I was the first-born, traditionally, if you're a boy, you get your father's father's name, and if you're a girl, you get your father's mother's name, so I was called Maria. But my father could've given me his father's name if he wanted to, which was John, so I'd have been called Joanna, in the feminine, but he decided to honour his mother instead, which I'm glad about, because none of his brothers and sisters called any of their daughters Maria, and I remember it made my grandmother very happy. I suppose he thought the next one might have been a boy, so he'd still have a chance to give one of his children his father's name, but it didn't actually work out that way.

Matthew: Favorite dish, quick, time's almost up, another one!
Mrs Organically Cooked
: Oh, aahhh, sausages and chips. And paua fritters with oysters, if I could ever get them here, but I can't.

Matthew: Well, it was lovely talking with you.
Mrs Organically Cooked: Nice to meet you, too.

* If I were really being interviewed, I suppose the interviewer would have said that anyway.
** Nigella didn't say this - but then her watermelons are considerably smaller than mine.

You can say a lot in five minutes, can't you?

©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, 3 February 2010

Chocolate beetroot muffins (Κεκάκια με μπατζάρι)

In the summer, I don't mind making as much chocolate cake as my kids can get enough of, because I always add grated zucchini and mashed banana into the mixture. It's like they are getting their fruit and vegetable 5-a-day intake all in one. The kids have no idea what they are eating - it looks and tastes like chocolate cake. In the winter, I can't do this because, for a start, the zucchini season is over, and secondly, because I don't freeze any zucchini - my deep freeze can't handle any more bric-a-brac, what with one compartment completely filled with kalitsounia, another two compartments jammed with tins of ready-to-cook moussaka, boureki and papoutsakia, and the usual deep-freeze staples. My kids often wonder why I stop making chocolate cake; they think it's a seasonal food product.

Now I needn't worry, since I discovered beetroot and chocolate cake, via two other bloggers, Jo and Nic. Beetroot is available all year round, like other tuber vegetables, carrots, potatoes, and so on. But they are not commonly made into anything more interesting in Crete than a boiled salad. Recently, beetroot mixed with yoghurt (similar to tzatziki dip) has been seen being used here and there around the town, but that's about it.

The purple tinge of the processed beetroot adds another dimension to these muffins, which do not taste of beetroot at all. The purple colour in the batter fades away when the muffins are cooked - no one will now how these chocolate muffins retained their moisture! Just make them when no one is looking - and get rid of all the evidence, like purple stains on your benchtop, knife and fingers.

chocolate beetroot muffins

For a dozen good-sized muffins, you need only a few simple ingredients. I adapted the recipes from the other bloggers' links (above) and came to the following ingredients list:
a glass of oil (we only use olive oil in our house)
a cup of sugar
2 vials of vanilla sugar
5 small beetroot bulbs, boiled and pureed in a blender
half a cup of walnuts processed in the blender (this is optional: you can substitute this with chocolate drops, raisins or other dried or fresh berry fruit like blueberries and cranberries, or even walnut chunks)
100g cooking chocolate, melted (I also added 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder in order to ensure that the chocolate flavour would emanate from the muffins and no one would be able to guess the vegetable addition)
2 eggs
300g self-raising flour
Place the oil, sugar, vanilla sugar and pureed beetroot (and walnuts, if using) in a bowl, and mix well. Add the melted chocolate and mix again. Beat in each egg with a wooden spoon. Add the flour and beat into the batter, making sure that the batter remains smooth. I preferred to add the flour in slowly, stopping when the batter resembled porridge. If the mixture feels too dry, add some a few drops of milk to smooth it out. Pour into a prepared muffin tin (or into cupcake casings) and cook for 25-30 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean when inserted into one of the muffins.


Making beetroot and chocolate muffins is like getting two meals out of one cooking process. Beetroot in Greece is sold with the lovely green frond on the top of the head, and these are actually eaten too, something that surprises a lot of people who are used to seeing beetroot being sold only as a bulb. It is turned into the most delicious horta dish, dressed in olive oil and vinegar. So when you boil your beetroot for the muffins, use the tubers for your muffins and set aside the red stalks and green leaves for a salad.

A word of warning: beetroot juice doesn't create a red, crimson or even pink dye for Easter eggs - they go brown, as I discovered when I tried an experiment a few Easters ago!

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