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!
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)
salt and pepper to taste
¾ litre of chicken stock
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).