Monday, 3 March 2014

Cooking for love - Clean Monday 2014 (Σαρακοστιανά)

In Greece, the start of Great Lent - known as Kathara Deftera (Clean Monday) - is one of those times when feasting is all about being a shellfish-eating vegan. It's a great time for me to cook because I don't cook meat on a day like this, and I've never really enjoyed cooking meat. I especially like to cook using frugal as well as colourful ingredients, which inevitably means using vegetables. Today gave me a chance to cook in my favorite way, with the added bonus that I was cooking for others, as we were hosting the Kathara Deftera meal (it's a public holiday today in Greece).

Shellfish is generally considered an expensive commodity, but there are always specials going at this time of year, just before Great Lent starts, and I found I was able to pick up quite a bit of seafood at very good prices. Food that you can cook with (ie not highly processed) is still cheap and has in fact gone down in price, at least in the last 2-3 years, a crisis-related consequence:
Greece in comparison with the United Kingdom, France and Spain, ... is the cheapest among the four countries in terms of the prices of commonly purchased supermarket goods. The contents of the average shopping basket in Greece add up to €38.93 with value-added tax included and €33.54 without. In Spain the same basket costs 0.26% more with VAT and 5.84% more without. In France it is 24.95% and 32.36% more expensive, while in the UK the same two figures are 30.45% and 40.37% higher respectively.
I've often shown through my blog and facebook page that prices have in fact dropped during the crisis - finally the media is admitting this. The same article mentions that 'households are still struggling', but I think that's just a way to keep the whingers and whiners happy, by saying something anti-establishmentarian. It's not the good life in Greece, but it never was anyway: it has always been a struggle to keep your head above water financially, since even before the crisis, and it remains so in our times. That won't change in the future. What's more, prices of milk, bread, books and over-the-counter medication are set to go down following deregulation. The "closed shops" of the past will no longer be.

My Clean Monday 2014 menu was planned in such as way as to include Greek lenten traditional favorites, as well as to excite my guests' tastes. They have never left Greece, they have not travelled abroad, and their connection with non-Greeks is very limited. You could say I was educating them in global food trends by the menu I created:
  • fasolada - some kind of legumes are usually served on this day, often in dry form (eg lupins, broad beans), as some people abstain from olive oil on this day. I chose Greek bean soup because my fasolada is one of the most popular fasolada recipes on the internet - it's been in the google top 10 for the search string 'fasolada' since I posted it. (I think everyone needs to try my fasolada. Even better with my home-made tomato sauce). 
  • calamari stir fry in green curry sauce - calamari is a Greek summer favorite, served crisply fried. To avoid the mess and the extra calories, I decided to introduce my Greek guests to an exotic Thai flavour which they would never find in any local eaterie in our town. 
  • octopus stifado - spicy stew in red sauce is a Greek favorite for cooking rabbit, hare, chicken and beef, which of course are not permitted during Lent. Octopus is a meaty kind of seafood which con be cooked in similar ways to the above-mentioned meats.
  • mussel pilaf - this is a traditional Greek island dish and a favorite at fish tavernas. It's partr of the traditional Lent menu. 
  • shrimp sushi - I've never seen sushi in Hania. My guests do not even know of its existence. They are that untravelled...
  • leafy garden greens salad - no meal is complete in our house without a salad.
  • taramosalata - this very Greek and very well-known fish roe dip is a firm staple for any Clean Monday feast.
  • lagana (flat bread) - just like taramosalata, lagana bread is a staple part of the Clean Monday menu. My friend Constantinos Iliakis gives a nice explanation for the meaning of the word: "On Clean Monday people look far more relaxed probably in the absence of meat. Dr. Babiniotis said that 'lagana', the special bread for the day, shares the same root as the word 'lagnos' which means relaxed and not suppressed. For this reason, I suppose on this day children share a kite-flying experience. I remember a few priceless attempts to construct our own rocket-like kite that would reach the deep space or the neighbors' mystery backyard! Still I praise this holiday for its simple, cheap, healthy menu variety and activities that even those with difficulties can follow up."
  • shrimp cooked in lemon juice - shrimp was not initially on my menu plan, but my husband insisted: this is one of his unbroken traditions every Clean Monday. Shrimp is not cheap, not usually Greek, and definitely not frugal. I am living in a rapidly changing Greece where people are still fighting the urge to let go of traditions... hence, the bank had to break a little, and we added shrimp to the menu.
  • wine - I dislike the mystification and scientification of wine, which is why I like to buy wine from the supermarket. It's convenient and democratic, there is a lot of choice, I have the feeling of freedom knowing that I can buy whatever suits my taste and pocket withoutbeing judged, or stressing about my lack of connoisseur's knowledge on a subject that is often treated as elitist. My local supermarket was offering a 30% discount on all wines, so I was able to pick up very good wine made by small producers at very low prices. I also picked up an expensive bottle of locally produced export-quality wine from another supermarket which was not discounting its wines - I had been invited to a wine tasting session where I had had some of this wine, and I wanted to treat my husband to the same taste. It was my way of sharing the experience with my family - I may have tried it for free, but they should also be given the chance to share the experience in some way. Our guests don't buy bottled wine themselves - again, I see myself as educating them...
My menu will look impressive to many of you, and you will wonder how I managed to pull it off on my own. Firstly, there was no frying or oven-cooking. Secondly, most of the dishes could be prepared and/or cooked the day before. Finally, nothing goes well unless you have a plan. And last but not least: if you cook for its loving value, you will probably cook well.

For more information on the photographs, click on the individual photos in this link

If no recipe has been given in the link for each individual photograph, I'll try to write it up soon. We have plenty of time to Easter...

My guests were astounded by the range of tastes. Their palate was tantalised.  I also noticed how willing they - and their children - were to try new tastes, and even more importantly, to savour them. Before the crisis, I don't think that they would have felt this way. This is the real outcome of the crisis: Greeks are rethinking their identity, and perhaps finding a way to embed a foreign (to them) way of thinking into their own, without actively seeking to aspire to it, because: "... that is what truly messed us up: seeking a culture which, because it was not ours, we will never be able to assimilate nor perform adequately within it." This comment appeared in Stefanos Livos' blogpost (which went viral in the Greek cybersphere) about the first three years of his life as a "neo-immigrant", meaning someone who left Greece during the financial crisis, in the UK.
If I could add my own bit to the discussion which ensued, I'd say that instead of trying to escape the crisis in your country by migrating to another one where you believe you are treated better, and cursing your homeland for not giving you what you believe you deserve, try instead to understand why (to quote another commentator in Stefanos' post) "Greece doesn't love her children". Maybe it's because her children didn't love her in the first place. 

Kali Sarakosti to all. 

©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.