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.

Youverlakia: Greek meatball soup with avgolemono

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Packs a lot more flavour than appears.

One of the first trips I ever made to Crete I was taken to some church festival one chilly Saturday morning up in a village near Chania. As ever in Greece, the festival involved food and drink. My friends brought me a nice big plastic cup of a hearty Cretan red the colour of old brandy – a deep amber and with a rich heady taste – and, to my horror, a plate of rice, on its own, that looked like prison slop. It was grey, gloopy and very insipid looking. My friends cheerfully informed me that this was the famed wedding pilafi of Chania and I simply had to try it. In those days, I was pretty new to much of the peasant cuisine of Greece and I’d never heard of no wedding pilafi. I looked at their eager expectant faces as they urged me to try the rice and the polite British girl in me knew that there was no way I could cry off trying it and that I’d just have to firm up the backbone and upper lip and swallow some. I took one mouthful expecting tasteless bland slurry but what I got was rich, buttery, tangy, savoury absolutely fucking delicious. Better than any rice I’d ever had. I was gutted when informed there were no seconds.

And that sums up more than one Greek dish I’ve had. Sometimes, the dish doesn’t look terribly appetizing. Its real peasant food made with the ingredients people had and often in one pot or oven dish. And although I agree that the appearance of food is important to its overall enjoyment, it’s also worth remembering that in the past, not everyone would have had the luxury of faffing about with prettifying the food, rather than just making sure bellies were filled. And, like the wedding pilafi, some of these less than gorgeous looking dishes more than make up for their lack of beauty with a lot of taste.

Which brings me to today’s recipe. We’ve had a very tough start to the year weather wise in Greece. It’s frozen in the northern mountainous regions and bloody cold in Athens too. We Athenians are all softy Walters and whinge bitterly when we get a bit of a cold snap. But when it gets really cold there’s nothing like a good bit of soup to warm up those bones and one of my favourites is Youverlakia, a meatball soup with avgolemono, which is both hearty and luscious.

Don’t be afraid to make the avgolemono. It’s a total myth that it’s hard to make. It’s actually dead easy once you remember the golden rules about heat. 1 ) you must bring the sauce up to warm before adding to your soup. 2) Don’t have a heat under the soup when you add the sauce. 3) Never put a lid on a pan with hot soup containing avgolemono or it will curdle. 4) reheat slowly and gently.

That’s it. I’ve never had avgolemono (ftou ftou ftou) curdle on me yet. Just follow my easy instructions. Remember the golden rules and it will never curdle on you either.

One further note on avgolemono. There are some noikokyries who add cornflour to their avgolemono. Sacrilege in my book. It turns a good sauce into something gloopy and starchy. It’s nasty and I won’t countenance it. It is true that on the first day your avgolemono sauce might not thicken much. It will by day two and the whole dish is better on day two anyways. Don’t listen to the cornflour adherents!

Youverlakia

500 g of beef and pork mince

1 small onion finely chopped

1 clove of garlic minced (optional)

½ cup (US measurement) Carolina rice

a good handful of chopped flat leaf parsley

a few spearmint leaves chopped

a bit of chopped dill (optional)

1 small red chilli chopped (optional)

1 egg

salt and pepper to taste

¾ litre of chicken stock

 

Avgolemono

2 eggs

juice of 1 large lemon

 

In a mixing bowl mix your mince, onions, garlic, chilli, herbs, rice, 1 egg and a little salt and pepper. Knead the ingredients well and leave to sit covered in the fridge for at least half an hour. Then roll into walnut sized meatballs and align on a plate. Bring the chicken stock to boil in a smallish sauce pan and drop the meatballs in with a slotted spoon. There should be enough stock to just cover the meatballs. Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer with a lid half on for 30 to 40 minutes until the meatballs and rice are cooked.

Just before the meatballs are done, prepare the avgolemono. Separate the eggs, with the whites in a decent sized bowl and the yolks into a cup. Whisk the whites until they are good and frothy but not meringue stiff. Whisk in the yolks and then the lemon juice a few drops at a time. Then take a ladleful of hot stock and whisk that in slowly a few drops at a time. Repeat with more ladlefuls until the sauce is basically warm. I usually add 3 or 4 ladles of stock to make sure I’ve raised the temperature sufficiently. Turn off the heat under your meatball soup. Grip a pan handle with your right hand and throw in the avgolemono while simultaneously shaking the pan from side to side (to incorporate the sauce) and making kissing noises just above the pan (this dish needs TLC so as not to become embittered and curdle). Shake the pan in swishy movements for a few more seconds and then leave to cool completely with the lid off (this will help the sauce to thicken). When its time to eat, reheat the soup gently. Serve with feta dressed with EVO oil and oregano and a salad of shredded cabbage and grated carrot with a vinaigrette (see an earlier recipe).

 

Cretan Barley Rusks: Paximadia

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Food for walking up mountains in Crete with

Many countries have crispbreads that are meant to be healthier than ordinary bread and Greece is no different. Cretan Paximadia are bread rusks usually made with rye and other cereals. I imagine they originally came about so that Cretan shepherds didn’t have to eat stale bread when up in the mountains chasing sheep.

The classic dish made with paximadi is the Cretan Dakos. This is a big donut shaped rusk, about the size of a side plate that is first dipped in water then drizzled with oil. Then it is topped with things like ksino mizithra cheese, a sour soft fresh goat’s cheese, chopped tomatoes, capers, olives, hunks of cucumber and other summer veg and drizzled with more oil and some good mountain oregano. It’s a great summer lunch: filling but not heavy.

The smaller rusks are great to eat with cheese and olives, or top with peanut butter and honey, or do anything you like with them. I like them crumbled into soup like a crouton. Some of them can be a bit hard so, generally speaking, I will quickly run them under the cold tap before use in order to make them less a danger to teeth but still with some nice crunch.

Perhaps my favourite use for them in summer is making a Cretan salad. By rights, you should use ksino mizithra cheese but crumbled feta works very well too.

Cretan Salad

3 or 4 small Cretan barley rusks briefly run under a cold tap and then broken into pieces into a salad bowl

150 g of ksino mizithra or crumbled feta

2 decent sized tomatoes cut into wedges

1 onion cut into chunky bits

1 green pepper sliced

½ cucumber roughly peeled and cut into half rounds

a handful of good Greek olives (such as Kalamata)

a handful of good Greek capers (such as those from Santorini)

several good glugs of EVO oil

a good sprinkling of oregano

some salt

Mix all the ingredients together in the salad bowl containing the paximadia. Makes a good filling lunch on its own but goes well with lots of foods.

Scandinavian Fish Products

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The king of Swedish creamed cod roe

To continue the theme of obsessions, I thought I’d talk about my love of Scandinavian fish products. A friend of mine came back from a visit to Sweden a couple of years ago with lots of Swedish food things to try, including stuff like moose ham or something. That was ok but a bit meh as far as I was concerned. But he also brought with him pickled herrings in mustard sauce and some in a basil sauce. My first reaction to the idea of pickled fish in a mustard sauce was bemusement. But I’ll try anything once. So, I was delighted to find that the fish was delicious and can only say that if you ever happen to come across the Abba brand of pickled herring in sauces try them out. Ikea do something similar but they just aren’t anywhere near as nice. In fact, the Ikea food department is a severe letdown for anyone fond of the odd Swedish product. If you can get the far superior Abba stuff, I recommend having it on toasted sourdough with strips of cucumber. My idea of breakfast from heaven.

But by far the best thing my friend brought from Sweden was Drott Kaviar, the Scandinavian version of taramasalata. It’s creamed cod roe or, as far as I’m concerned, fish crack. I was instantly addicted to it and really distressed when it ran out, to the point that I was considering going to the Swedish embassy and begging someone to go on a mercy mission for me. I tried the Kalles one from Ikea, which is, apparently, very popular in Sweden but I don’t like it… at all! I was most distraught but I resigned myself to only getting my fish drug of choice once a year if lucky.

Then, to my delight, one day in Alpha Vita supermarket, I was looking at a fridge full of Greek fish products, such as marinated sprats and smoked herring, when I spotted a tube of creamed cod roe made by Primula, of all people. A look at the back confirmed it was made in Norway and so I gave it a go. Verdict: Not quite as good as the drott kaviar but pretty bloody good. Much better than the Kalles rubbish in Ikea. So I now have a constant supply of my favourite Scandi product. I usually have it on freshly baked sourdough with a bit of cucumber. A little of this stuff goes a long way as it packs a lot of flavour and is, unsurprisingly, quite salty (hence the advisability of pairing it with nice watery cucumber).

Come Greek lent, which isn’t far off, I will be giving a recipe for taramasalata, as well as other luscious Lenten dishes. But, if there are any other fish product freaks out there, I highly recommend you try out some Scandinavian stuff. But maybe give the surstromming a miss.

 

Nutmeg: An Empress of the spice world

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Very popular in Greek cooking.

I have a small tendency to get food obsessions that I just can’t get out of. My biggest one is chillies. I find it really hard to not put them in everything. Even if it’s only one or two, just to give a bit of pzaz to a dish. The other thing I get stuck on is cumin. It goes into nearly all my pulse dishes (along with the chillies) and it puts me in a sulk if someone suggests leaving it out of chicken or meatball recipes. I don’t think I’m heavy handed with the spices I use, as I’m definitely in the less is more school of thought as far as seasoning (and make-up) goes. Certain spices just work well with certain ingredients. I’m convinced I’m right.

My latest full blown obsession is nutmeg. And I DO NOT mean ground, which is little better than scurf. You absolutely have to use whole nutmeg and grate it when and as needed. Nutmeg is definitely a spice that you do not want to be heavy handed with because then it dominates the food and can actually be quite unpleasant. But judicious use of it brings out all the other flavours in a dish. I think nutmeg is doing its job best when you can’t actually identify it in the dish but know that the food has something that you can’t put your finger on.

In Greece it’s widely used in the Greek version of bolognese sauce and this is one of my favourite uses for it. It will lift any kind of meat sauce. It’s also indispensable in béchamel and white or cheese sauces, custards, rice pudding or any other milk based food you can think of. I’d even add a tiny sprinkling to porridge or bircher muesli myself.

Another thing it works with fantastically is cauliflower cheese, any cabbage dish and with spinach. I add a little to my Greek risottos – spanokorizo and laxanorizo. Just a little bit grated into the pan makes a massive difference. I would also recommend using it in bubble and squeak. And if you’re frying off some sprouts in butter, sprinkle some into the pan at the last minute just as you’re about to take the pan off the heat and the sprouts are nicely golden.

My first ever real introduction to nutmeg is from how my gran (a doughty Lancashire cook) used it with cabbage. If we were having roast pork, then Savoy cabbage was always on the menu. It was shredded and lightly steamed until just turning tender but with some nice bite to it. Then out in a big bowl to be doused in a good bit of butter, a little salt and some nutmeg. You want a few good pinches worth in there so that you can hear it but not so much that it shouts. For a cracking winter Sunday dinner I think it’s very hard to beat roast pork, apple sauce, mashed potato and buttered Savoy cabbage with nutmeg and lots of good thick rich gravy.

As an alternative to doing Savoy cabbage (not easily found in Greece) and apple sauce, I’m also a massive fan of the German style red cabbage and apple. It’s utterly delicious with pork and you can mess around with the spices you use in it. Nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and even a little of each is great. It’s the kind of dish that makes a cold winter’s day a thing of joy if this is the food you come home too. As well as being a great accompaniment to roast pork, it works a treat with good bangers and mash and wouldn’t disgrace any kind of Veggie Sunday dinner either.

½ a med red cabbage finely shredded

1 or 2 apples (preferably bramleys but any will do)

1 small onion chopped

1tbs of butter

1 star anise

1 1 inch piece of cinnamon

a good grating of nutmeg

a glass of red wine

1 tsp demerara sugar

Put all the ingredients in a sauce pan with a lid and put on a low heat. Stir occasionally. Leave to cook until the cabbage is nice and tender. Don’t worry about how long as it’s impossible to overcook this dish. Just make sure you don’t burn the bottom. It’s also an absolute MUST that you add the wine (or some vinegar) because if you don’t you will end up with alarmingly blue food. You can mess around with the spices but never with the wine.

 

Kotopoulo Yiouvetsi: Greek Chicken with Orzo

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Winter warming comfort food Greek style. 

With much of Greece blanketed in snow since the new year it’s the time for good hearty calorie dense comfort food and nothing fits the bill better than kotopoulo yiouvetsi; a rich pasta dish made with orzo pasta called kritharaki in Greek.

The recipe I’m giving is basically traditional with a few tweaks and additions. In its simplest form you can just add some good chicken stock with some tom puree in to cook the pasta and it’s entirely lovely like that. I used cheddar cheese simply as it’s what I had. The Greek trad way would be some good kefalo graviera but parmesan or grana padano works just as well.

If you have leftovers and want to reheat it the next day, sprinkle a little water over the pasta and cover your oven dish with foil before reheating and then it comes out almost as good as the first time round.

Use whatever chicken pieces you like but preferably with skin on. I go to the butchers and get a chicken cut into 8 pieces. I also used home made chicken stock but a nice wobbly chicken stock pot is just fine in my book. I use them all the time.

Finally, this is one time I take it easy with the EVOO as the chicken will put fat out.

Serves 3 greedies

6 chicken pieces with skin on

1 mug of orzo/kritharaki hondro

500ml chicken stock

125 ml tomato passata or 1 tbs of tomato puree

1 medium onion chopped

2 cloves of garlic minced

a good handful of chopped flat leaf parsley

1 chilli minced (optional)

a little EVOO

salt and pepper

a good handful or so of cheese such as grana padano or kefalo graviera

Place your chicken pieces skin side up in a decent sized oven dish. There should be plenty of room around the chicken pieces for the pasta later. Drizzle with a little oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in a pre-heated medium hot oven for around 30 mins until the chicken is golden brown.

Meanwhile

Saute the onions, garlic and chilli in a little EVOO until the onion is softened. Do not let the garlic brown. Add the flat leaf parsley and saute for a few more minutes. Add the chicken stock and passata or puree, season with salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Put a lid on the pan and simmer on a low light until the chicken is browned.

Once the chicken is nicely browned remove the oven dish from the oven. Pour the pasta around the chicken in the dish. Ladle in enough of the hot tomatoey stock to cover all the pasta well. The pasta should be completely under the liquid with a bit showing over the top. Return the oven dish to the oven and continue to bake for another 20 minutes. Test the pasta. It should be al dente. Add more stock if it looks dry and cover the chicken and pasta with the cheese. Bake for around another ten minutes until the cheese is bubbling. Serve with a green salad. kali oriksee!

Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino Restaurant, Athens

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Night time photo is a bit paler than should be. Sorry.

There’s a little restaurant very close to the New Acropolis museum called Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino that’s one of my favourite eateries in Athens. And not just because the owners, the head chef, Heracles and his wife, Suzanna, who runs the front of house, are old friends of mine. No, I go there because the food is really good. Good ingredients and simple but well executed dishes. It’s only a little place and hidden away down a side street but I would recommend all visitors, and Athenians alike, to search it out.

One of my favourite dishes, though by no means my only favourite, is a dish Heracles (his mother was Italian and his father Greek) calls the Sicilian, or, as we would pronounce it in Greek, tsitsiliano. I’ve no idea if it’s an actual Sicilian dish or something Heracles himself came up with but it’s gorgeous. So, basically, this is his recipe, not mine. Though, I’m sure his is better and has more refinements than mine. I’m just giving a rough (but still delicious) approximation of the dish as learnt by all his friends who enjoy his lovely food. I serve this with spaghetti or tagliatelle. Don’t ask me if that’s right or wrong. I’ve no idea. The recipe serves 2 to 3 people.

Tsitsiliano sauce

350 grams of minced pork

1 or two white parts of leeks, finely sliced

2 cloves of garlic, minced

2 red chillies or more to taste, chopped

200 ml of light cream

a cup of water

100ml of ouzo

salt and pepper

a good pinch of sage

a glug of EVOO

Saute the leek in a saute pan (with a lid) in a little olive oil for a few minutes til beginning to soften. Add the water and the mince. Stir and then simmer with the lid on for about 5 minutes or so. Drain and reserve the liquid. Add more olive oil and continue to saute the mince for a few more minutes on a low medium heat. Add the garlic and chillies and give them a few more minutes until the aromas start to make their presence felt but being careful not to burn or even brown the garlic. Add the ouzo and reserved meat liquid, the salt and pepper to taste and the sage. Reduce by half and add the cream. Gently simmer the cream sauce until the sauce is thick enough to coat the pasta. Boil pasta and when cooked add the cooked pasta to the saute pan. Mix well and then divide the pasta between plates. I serve with grated grana padano