Apokreas: Greek Carnival

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Of course I’m a witch. No need to dress up!

So it’s back to that time of year again. Carnival time in Greece. The little festival where for 3 whole weeks we get to go completely pagan. Greece has a longer history with Christianity than pretty much any other area in the world but it has also never entirely forgotten its ancient pagan roots and the rituals pop up in various guises in a lot of Greek culture.

We are right at the beginning of Carnival or Apokreas, as it’s called in Greece, and today is Tsixno Pempti. I wrote a little about this food festival last year, too. It’s meant to be the time that people use up the last of their fresh meat supplies before the Lenten fast but it also has a touch of the ancient rituals of offering a sacrifice to the Gods, when the Greeks burned entrails in their honour. Nowadays, it’s mainly tavernas or home barbecues. Home barbies are much more popular these days. as people don’t have the money to eat out like they used to. So it will be mainly the still-monied filling up the grill rooms of Athens, while the rest of us go to barbecues or a Souvladzidhiko to get our fill of nice charred meat.

It’s still very chilly here in Athens but I’ll be going out to a bar in Exarchia tonite. Mylos on Zoodoxou Pigis. There will be a barbecue and music and as it’s carnival everyone is expected to at least wear a mask, hat, wig or funny glasses, if not full fancy dress costume. I’ll be wearing goth clothing to fit in with my witches hat because it would be rude not to.

Over the coming weeks leading up to the grand finale of Apokreas on Kathara Deutera, I’ll try to fill you in on the customs, rituals and foods that go with various parts of the festival leading up to lent. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but there’s no harm in repeating it, I’m not a religious person but I love Apokreas and Lent because the food is fantastic. I will be sort of fasting, mainly to take advantage of the opportunity to work my way through all my favourite Lenten dishes. Woo! Happy Tsixno Pempti, Paidia!

Pasta Surprise with Orzo

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The surprise was how tasty this turned out to be!

I was brought up with a lot of aphorisms from my strict Irish Catholic Lancashire Grandmother. Among them was ‘You know what thought did? Followed a dust cart and thought it was a wedding.’ Uttered whenever I said ‘But I thought…’ But the chief one was always ‘Waste not. Want not’. Throwing food out was a major sin, crime, disgrace, completely fucking stupid thing to do. Consequently, I can’t bear to do it unless I think it’s gone off. This means that I’m often trying to come up with tasty ways of combining god knows what bibs and bobs are slowly curling in my fridge. I called this pasta surprise because the surprise is that it was really bloody good. I had imagined it would be edible but it was better than that and I ended up wishing there had been more bits in the fridge and cupboard to make a bigger batch. It’s also dead easy and quick.

Of course, you may not have the same bits and pieces floating around your fridge, so this is just a rough guide. Adapt to your circumstances and fridge bits, but as usual I’m giving the recipe just as I made it.

1 cup of orzo (kritharaki)

200 ml of light cream

1 tbs gorgonzola dolce latte

5 or 6 thin slices of chorizo roughly chopped

1 small tin of sweetcorn

a few porcini mushrooms broken into very small pieces

1 small onion finely chopped

½ romano pepper finely chopped

1 clove of garlic minced

a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley

a few small fresh red chillies roughly chopped

a little EVOO

Put a pan of salted water on to boil and when boiling add the orzo. Cook til al dente. Drain and reserve a little cooking water. Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, heat a little evoo over a low heat and add your onions, garlic and chillies and saute gently for a few minutes till the onions start to soften. Do not brown or burn the garlic! Add the red pepper and flat leaf parsley and cook for a few more minutes and then add the chorizo and continue sauteeing for a few more minutes. Add the cream, porcini pieces and sweetcorn and bring to a simmer. When gently simmering add the gorgonzola and stir until melted. Then stir in the orzo and, if the sauce is too thick, thin with a little reserved cooking water. Serve in bowls with more cheese. I used cheddar*. Use what you like or have.

*Bazzar supermarket has a ‘strong’ cheddar for 7.90 euro. It’s not really that strong but its ok and dirt cheap. If you want a decent cheddar, a real one, then the only place I’ve found one is the Alpha Vita delicatessen on Stadiou, which is also where I buy porcini mushrooms and things like rillettes… god help me!

 

Oraia Ellas: Kafeneio in Monastiraki

Oraia Ellas translates as Beautiful Greece.

I don’t normally recommend places in tourist traps, especially not Monastiraki or Plaka, as they can be absolute rip off merchants and the food is likely to poison you more than anything else. But I will make one small exception for Oraia Ellas a sort of Kafeneio come mezedhopoleio on Pandrossou street and also accessible from Mitropoleos street, but a hop and a skip from Monastiraki station.

It’s not very cheap but then it is smack in the middle of tourist land but as it does cater to locals as well as tourists, its not utterly ridiculous. The service is good and friendly and you can go just for a coffee or sit and drink wine and eat food or just have a whiskey or G&T if you like. They will cater to everybody.

I like to sit inside with all its posters and pictures of old Greek adverts and popular art (Laiko Texni) or, if its warm, to sit on the balcony – if you’re lucky enough to find a table. But best of all, when it’s open, is the roof terrace. They haven’t done much to make it very salubrious. Plain long wooden tables and big metal candle holders is as far as decor goes up there. But it doesn’t matter, as it’s got a totally fantastic view of the Parthenon and the Erechtheio. I think it must be the best in Athens. It’s fantastic. I especially love it up there late at night in late summer, when things are quiet, and you can have a drink and a chat with that awesome view.

Elsa – from Frozen

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She wasn’t so fluffy and glossy when I rescued her, I can assure you. She stank to high heaven!

This is Elsa, the snow Queen. I acquired her during the recent blizzard in Athens when, plagued by images of finding one small frozen kitten amongst the big fat chubbies I feed in a colony close to my house, I went out drunk at one AM in the morning, armed with a towel, a torch and some cat food.

She was duly kidnapped and returned to my coven under much protest. Since then she has lived mainly in the hidey hole made by the arm of my sofa and the wall. She does come out when I’m not there and is slowly braving it when I am. The two large prowling jealous beasts aren’t helping. But the day of a peaceful coven once again will dawn, I’m sure.

 

Asian style stir fried cabbage

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I needed a change from laxanoriso and something with a good kick

Ok. This is just a ridiculously simple dish, it’s almost not a recipe. Its dead easy and pretty standard for anyone liking Asian kinds of foods. But it’s also bloody delicious. Even this very simple version packs tons of flavour and punch. You can also tart it up very easily from a side dish into a main. For meat eaters, I would say just fry off thin slices of pork or chicken to add to the dish and have with noodles. For vegetarians or vegans, you could add some home toasted peanuts (not salted!) or some bamboo shoots with some chopped fresh coriander as a garnish.

The main trick with this meal is to have everything ready to hand before cooking. So have a bowl with the garlic, chillies, ginger and star anise, another bowl with the soya sauce and the veg ready on a board. I shred some of the cabbage finely and some a bit thickly to get different textures in the food. It’s nice to have some cabbage a bit browned and soft and other bits all crunchy.

I’m sure many of you would like to add other ingredients to tart it up, such as some other spices, or some sesame oil or a bit of sherry. Feel free. Don’t let me stop you. Recipes are for messing with and I’m simply giving you the recipe as I made it and as I know it works. It’s this basic because I was using stuff I had in my house already. I didn’t buy anything in to make it last night for today’s lunch.

I also don’t have a wok, so I used a large cast iron skillet. I would use groundnut oil normally but I didn’t have any so EVO oil it was, which was fine. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have liked to make it with groundnut oil and a dash of sesame oil.

Final note: I’m a chilli fiend so my five small chillies packed a bit of punch, reduce to your personal taste level or increase if you’re a chilli devil!

 

Stir fried Cabbage

Half a head of white cabbage shredded both finely and a bit thicker

1 medium carrot batoned

2 cloves of garlic minced

5 small red chillies finely chopped

a big thumb size of ginger grated

1 star anise

2 or 3 tbs of good soya sauce

a little oil

 

Have the garlic, chillies, ginger and star anise in a bowl ready, the soya sauce in another and the veg piled on a board. Heat a small amount of oil in a large skillet or wok until it’s good and hot but not smoking. You don’t want to burn the garlic – it ruins it. Once the pan is hot but not burning hot, tip in the chillies, garlic, ginger and star anise and swish around the pan with a wooden spoon or spatula for a few seconds until fragrant, then tip the veg in, stir in with the spices and put a lid on the pan for a minute or two to start wilting the veg. Remove lid and give the veg a good stir again and tip in the soya sauce. Stir well and put the lid back on for a couple more minutes. Remove lid, stir again and taste for readiness. You want the carrots to have a good crunch but not be raw and the same for the cabbage with some of the more finely shredded cabbage quite soft.

Serves as a side dish for pork or chicken dishes or with noodles.

Athenaikon: Old Style Athens eatery

The decor and artwork in this old style Athenian eatery.

The crisis in Greece has had a devastating effect on much of the catering industry. Pre-crisis, it was normal for people to eat out in a taverna or mezodhopoleio at least once a week. But as the crisis bit into incomes and the rise in taxes made the prices in eateries unaffordable, many of the old style tavernas shut their doors forever. Instead, people turned to street food, such as burger joints, souvlaki and falafel places, to grab a quick bite while they were out.

The truly sad thing is that much of that old taverna culture has now died out or is dying because of the crisis. The new restaurants that are opening may make a hat tip to the old traditional food culture of Greece, but most are aiming for a modern, trendy, more youthful version of Greek cuisine. Sometimes that’s great too. I’ve mentioned Filema here on my blog, an eatery close to Syntagma, which more than bows at traditional cuisine, while still being a bit more upmarket trendy but without robbing its customers blind. However, there are a lot of up and coming new places that seem to rely on remaking good Greek peasant food into something nouvelle cuisine smeared across your plate alla Mosimann, in order to part you with at least one limb. Tsitsigas kai Mermigas is one of these, as far as I’m concerned, and I wouldn’t be seen dead in any of their restaurants. I went once, never again.

So, Athinaikon at Themistokles 2, just off Panepistimiou street (shown as Eleftherios Venizelos on maps but never called that by Athenians) is a veritable oasis of old fashioned Greek food and service. It’s only a stone’s throw from Omonia Square, on a little side street. Like all good eateries, it has both young and old customers wanting decent food at a decent price.

The restaurant has been in operation since 1932 and I don’t think much has changed about its style of food, service or interior decoration since then. It’s all dark wood and white shirted waiters. The food is absolutely traditional but of a really good standard. And their house wine is perfectly good. Best of all, it’s affordable even for us crisis crushed Athenians. For tourists it will seem ridiculously cheap.

If you happen to visit Athens, it’s well worth a visit but you may need to book if it’s a visit on a weekend. If you’re an Athenian and you don’t know about it, ntropi sou! It’s fantastic.

 

Marinated mushrooms

Nice warm or cold.

This is a very nice and dead easy way to prepare mushrooms. Hot out of the oven they are great served as a side or even over a bed of greens with some halved cherry tomatoes and grilled smoked mozzarella or haloumi (to grill: oil some foil and place under a hot grill with slices of cheese drizzled in EVO oil) slid over the top hot from the grill. You can use the mushrooms in pizza or do what I do for a work breakfast. Work breakfast: Put a thick slice of sourdough on a plate and arrange over the top finely sliced peppers, onions, marinated mushrooms, cheese (gorgonzola dolce or lidl’s mature cheddar)and top everything with a sliced tomato, a sprinkle of oregano and a drizzle of EVO. Then whack it in the microwave for a couple of minutes until the veg soften and the cheese melts. It sure sets me up for the day.

The mushrooms are also nice cold as part of a salad or even as part of a plate of meze for wine or raki drinking purposes. If I’m making a quick meze to go with my wine, I’ll arrange on a plate some cubes of cheese, some salami, some olives, a tomato in wedges, some marinated mushrooms and a couple of paximadia dipped in water and drizzled with oil. It’s also when I’ll use up any left over bits of hummus or tzatziki. It makes drinking wine a bit more of a treat and you feel virtuous for eating while drinking, which is the Greek way and why you’ll find most places give free bar snacks with drinks.

Anyways, this is fuss free, easy and delicious. I often buy big packs of mushrooms from Lidl when they are on offer. I got these oyster mushrooms for about 1.60 euro. A bargain!

Marinated mushrooms

400g of oyster mushrooms with the tough ends trimmed

2 whole unpeeled cloves of garlic

3 or 4 small red chillies (optional but nice)

a little salt and pepper

EVO oil for drizzling

2 tbs of balsamic vinegar.

Pre-heat the oven to a medium hot (180 deg or a bit less). Put your trimmed mushrooms, whole cloves of garlic and chillies in an oven dish, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and drizzle over a generous glug of EVO oil. Toss the ingredients in the oil to make sure everything is coated and bung in the oven, uncovered. After half an hour give everything a turn and a stir in the dish. Roast for another half hour or so. Remove from the oven. Squeeze the soft garlic out from their skins. Pour over the balsamic (don’t overdo it – 2 tbs is enough) and toss the ingredients again. Either serve warm as per above suggestions or let cool and then cover the dish with clingfilm and chill in the fridge until needed. Will keep for 3 days easily.