Lemons in Greece

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A lemon tree growing on an Athens street. A nice picture of a sunny Greek morning for everyone.

I’m a bit busy to give a proper recipe today so I thought a little chat about lemons in Greek cuisine wouldn’t go amiss. They are used in a wide variety of ways and used in almost every kind of food.

The simplest thing is just having halves of lemon on the table to douse meat. Fish and seafood. Sometimes I look at the complex recipes and sauces that people make for meat and seafood and I can feel my Greek prole lip curling as I think ‘Pah! It would be better with just a bit of lemon squeezed over it’ Of course, that’s not always true or fair, but it remains that simple is often much better than faffy cheffy.

Greece is lucky in that it has an abundance of lemon trees everywhere and they are very cheap, in the winter at least. I also love Greek lemons because they are never waxed. Waxing lemons is bloody criminal.

The greatest sauce in Greek cuisine is avgolemono. Many people think it’s difficult to make but it’s actually very easy if you stick to the rules. The main rule is that this is a sauce that wants a gentle heat source. That’s all you really need to remember.

Avgolemono is used to thicken soups like youverlakia  (see previous recipes), chicken and fish soup, or as a sauce for dolmades or dishes like lamb frikase. You will find instructions for this marvel in the youverlakia recipe. Do try it. It’s easy and sumptuous.

Supper Snacks and Midnight Munchies

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Mushrooms prepared for a nice bruschetta.

I tend to eat my main meal of the day around 2 pm at work and by the time I’ve finished work, done one of my evening classes (pilates or salsa! woo!) and maybe picked up some shopping, I’m lucky to get in the door home before 8 pm. I really don’t want to be making anything major at that time, as I basically want to do the couch potato with a glass of wine thing while watching dumb TV. But neither do I want to go the fast food or crap packaged food route. So here are some ideas for quick but filling and healthy snacks. Don’t let anyone tell you that a bit of fat in your diet is unhealthy or that just because we need a wide variety of plants in our diet that we need to be bugs bunny surviving off a nibbled carrot and a few lettuce leaves. Get those veg inside you but enliven them with some nice dressings (eg. yoghurt with mint and coriander and some chopped green chillies for instance) and a bit of protein, such as a bit of cheese or some fish or chicken. Anyways these are just ideas for things to eat that will give some satisfaction but are in no way bad. You can adapt to taste or what you have at home.

 

Bruscheta

NB: By bruschetta we mean a slice of wholemeal or wholemeal sourdough bread grilled or toasted and drizzled with a little EVOO and then topped with a nice Italian topping.

Toppings for Bruschetta

  • sliced mushrooms, preferably a mix of varieties, sautéed with minced onions and garlic with lots of chopped flat leaf parsley. Can also add a dash of white wine and a little cream if desired.
  • sliced mozzarella topped with thinly sliced fresh tomato and torn basil
  • 1 slice of proscuitto or salami, chopped sundried toms and shavings of parmesan and basil

Arabic pitta

NB: These are just a few ideas of what you can stuff into a nice warmed Arabic pitta pocket. Make up your own with the emphasis on some fat and protein and a wide variety of veg and salad

 

Fillings for Arabic pitta

  • humous and a ton of salad such as finely shredded cabbage, lettuce and carrot with a chilli dressing and loads of parsley, mint and coriander
  • falafel, salad and yoghurt dressing
  • tabbouleh, olives and feta
  • onion bhajis or other pakora with salad and yoghurt dressing with mint and coriander
  • greek salad with feta and olives
  • some shredded chicken with salad, some salsa and some yoghurt
  • piperade* and some torn green salad leaves

Baked potatoes

NB: 1 medium sized potato. They don’t count towards your 10 a day. They count as carbs.

Toppings for Baked potato

  • mix lots of fresh herbs into some yoghurt, mash into the potato and top with some cheese. No more than 20 g
  • Mix tuna, sweetcorn, lots of chopped flat leaf parsley and a little finely chopped onion with 1 tbs of mayo.
  • scoop out most of the insides of potato leaving some round the top of the shell so it holds its shape. Mix the potato with some bacon bits, grated cheese, finely chopped red and green pepper, a little parsley and seasoning. Scoop back into the half shells and bake for another 10 mins or so in a hot oven till golden on top
  • have with herb butter and sour cream or greek yoghurt and a side salad
  • top with the mushrooms for bruschetta topping and a side of green leaves.
  • mash together feta, finely chopped onions, finely chopped peppers, and some chilli flakes with a little oil and use to top potatoes or spread on bruschetta

Some Random ideas

Make a small home made pizza with the emphasis on the veg side of the toppings.

Spread a Greek souvlaki pitta with a little tom paste that has been mixed with a little water, some fresh minced garlic or garlic powder, salt and pepper and a drop or two of evo oil.

top with a variety of very finely sliced veg such as onions, peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes and then top with no more than 20 g of cheese (about two handfuls of grated) and a little oregano. Bake in a preheated oven on a preheated, lightly greased baking sheet for about 15 – 20 mins. Have with a salad of green leaves.

 

A quick kinda Korean Ramen

Make a commercial package of instant noodles but don’t make them too sloppy. Add a salad of shredded cabbage and carrot that’s been tossed in soya sauce, some pickles of your liking and top with a fried egg

 

Guacamole

Make some home made guacamole and either have on a bruschetta or serve with a small bowl of taco chips and lots of veg sticks such as carrot and celery.

Baked feta

Take one small slice of feta (50 g) and place in the middle of a square of foil twice the size of the cheese slice. Top with some finely sliced onion, peppers and toms, a sprinkling of chilli flakes and oregano. Drizzle with EVO oil and twist the ends of the foil together at both ends to make a parcel that is open at the top to allow steam to escape. Bake in a hot oven for about 10 to 15 minutes. Have with crusty bread and a green salad.

 

*Piperade

Piperade is posh French scrambled eggs (see: Keith Floyd and the miserable French housewife for the funniest foodie chef clip ever). Nice as a breakfast but good at any time.

1/2 a small onion finely sliced

1/2 a green bell pepper finely sliced

½ a red pepper finely sliced

a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley

1 clove of garlic minced

2 eggs beaten with a tbs of cold water

salt and pepper

a knob of butter and a tiny drizzle of olive oil (the olive oil stops the butter burning)

 

Over a medium heat melt the oil and butter and add the onions and garlic. Saute gently til the onions are pale and see through. Add the peppers and continue to saute until they just start to become a bit flexible and have lost their crispness but not totally. Add the eggs and stir into the veg for a minute until the eggs are scrambled and almost set (don’t overdo it). Turn off heat. Add some salt and pepper and the parsley and stuff a warm pitta with the mixture.

 

The Greeks do a version of piperade that’s called strapatsada. But it’s a bit sloppier, though no less tasty. I like it in a bowl with some toast to scoop it up.

Strapatsada

fry half a finely sliced onion in a little evo oil. Then add some sliced pale green peppers and saute til starting to soften. Add a finely chopped tomato and cook into a sauce consistency, then add a few cubes of yellow cheese such as cheddar or kasseri. Once the cheese starts to melt add two beaten eggs. Stir the mixture for a couple of minutes to cook the egg and pour into a bowl and season to taste.

 

Go to BBC food and have a look at their supper dishes and salads sections to get some ideas. You want to look at stuff that’s full of veg, so it might be an idea to look at veggie stuff. It’s often more inventive than meat eaters stuff. Just to get ideas!

Eat more fruit instead of having a second helping of evening snack.

Marinate carrot and cucumber sticks in lemon juice to have as a nibble with wine

Olives count to your ten a day, so do nuts. Nibble them.

Pera – For Athens street food

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My kinda fast food. Yum!

As a result of the crisis, many of the old style tavernas and mezedhopoleios closed down in Athens as families tightened economic belts. Eating out became a luxury, something for special occasions and, more and more, the preserve of the middle classes. Once it was something that almost everyone but the very poorest did on a fairly regular basis.

But as the tavern culture began to wither, the street food culture began to flourish. While many businesses have found it difficult to survive the collapse of the economy, most souvlaki shops have done relatively well. Souvlaki is the great home grown street food culture, strongly related to Turkish and middle eastern street food traditions but with its own Greek twist of lemon. Everyone in Greece loves souvlaki. It’s a part of the culture of this land. MY favourite souvlaki in Greece, though, is in Corfu, not Athens. There they have a sort of meat and tomato gravy they put over their souvlaki that really reminds me of Northern chips and gravy.

Here in Athens, the crisis has brought out, apart from the souvlaki shops, a proliferation of burger joints, falafel bars and other ‘hipster on the hoof’ eateries. The area between Syntagma square and the Old Vouli are full of them. But many of these trendy food shops are pretty typical of the ‘New Kolonaki’ feel of this slowly gentrifying area, ie: not much substance and rather expensive. So they’re mostly not for me.

I do occasionally grab a falafel from the very popular shop on Aiolou Street. They’re cheap and tasty. I’m sure the residents of Tel Aviv, or other parts of the Middle East, would scoff disdainfully, but I know no better and find them edible and affordable, at around 3 euros for a big pitta filled with felafel, salad and yoghurt sauce.

But my favourite street food is two doors away from the felafel shop. It’s called Pera. And its speciality is the Turkish pizza – laxmatzoun. This is a thin bread base topped with a spicy beef mince sauce. It’s then spread with salad, herbs, yoghurt sauce, as much cayenne as you like, and rolled up into a package. The best way to have it is with a cup of Pera’s home made ariani/aryan, – a middle eastern, chilled, salted, yoghurt drink that is delicious and perfectly compliments the hot spicy laxmatzoun. As far as I’m concerned, this is the best fast food in central Athens. I grab one when I’m heading for the shopping streets in the centre or before hitting bars on a night out. It’s big, filling, cheap and absolutely delicious.

Pera is on Aiolou street, not far from Kotzias Square, as you walk down towards Ermou street. If you’re an Athenian and you haven’t tried it – You must. If you’re a visitor – Seek it out. It’s very easy to find as its close both to Omonia and Monastiraki stations.

Thank me later.

Stop fixating on ‘Ten’ and have some lentils

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Photography much improved by daylight!

Ten schmen! Yes, I’m sure getting ten different fruit and veg inside you every day is going to be good for you. But don’t set yourself impossible goals that mean you feel a failure if you don’t reach them. I pretty much live by the dictum: Eat food. Mainly plants. Not too much. I don’t eat things out of bottles, jars or packets much and tins are few (corn I prefer out of a tin). But I eat what I want and I enjoy making food.

Does it mean giving up a lot of leisure time? No. Some days I don’t cook at all because I don’t have the time or energy and I’ve always got a few spare meals in the freezer. And if I cook in the week it’s usually something very easy. And even though I can legitimately be miss smug on my eating habits, I’m sure there are plenty of days I don’t get ten different veg. But who cares? Some days I might only make 4 or 5 and other days hit fifteen.

I think it’s a good idea to get into eating a wide variety of different veg but it doesn’t mean you have to turn into Ottolenghi or Anna Jones and cook with eleventy million different ingredients every meal. Maybe, at the weekends, it might be nice to try something complex and different but during a busy working week few people can be bothered with faffy and fussy. But you can still hit a high number of different fruit and veg with easy meals. Bunging a tray of veg in the oven to roast is one very easy way because once you’ve washed the veg and cut it into big chunks and banged the tray in the oven you can sit back and just leave it to fix itself.

And even if you want to just stick to classic British grub you can easily get 8 to 10 every day. A classic full English breakfast has three (beans, mushrooms and toms) or how about a dinner of chicken and mushroom pie with carrots and peas? That’s 3 right there. And don’t forget that tinned pulses and frozen veg are your friend if you’re time poor.

I think a lot of the criticism leveled at Anna Jones in her piece yesterday was unfair. They were just ideas. Here’s a take on a lentil salad a friend made for me recently. I cooked the lentils last night but you could use tinned. I chopped the veg in ten minutes max this morning, so total prep and cooking was half an hour. Adapt to suit your needs and tastes. There’s no need to be a slave to recipes.

 

Lentil salad

150g of large lentils (flat ones) cooked

1 medium onion in finely sliced half moons

1 carrot grated

1 handful of chopped flat leaf parsley

1 handful of chopped fresh coriander

1 small piece of ginger grated

½ tsp of curry powder

½ tsp of chilli flakes

¼ tsp of cumin

¼ tsp smoked paprika

2 tbs of apple cider vinegar

a good glug of evo oil

a little salt to taste.

 

To cook the lentils: bring to the boil in plenty of water then simmer for around 20 minutes until they have just started to become soft but have not turned mushy. Drain and rinse in lots of cold water. Leave to sit in a sieve until well drained. Put in a food box (with a lid) with the oil, salt, spices and vinegar. Mix well and leave to marinate overnight in the fridge. The next morning add the sliced onions, grated carrot and herbs. Serve with some good oily fish such as smoked trout or mackerel.

Putting a Spring in your running step!

The first blossoms are out and the caterpillars are in marathon training too, running across pavements.

Spring has arrived here in Athens, tentatively, at least. For many runners around the world spring isn’t just the blessed relief of running when it’s not flipping freezing but also the time of year when they take part in lots of races. The London Marathon is coming up and I’ve got my Athens Half Marathon in under two weeks. Anyone doing any training will know that one major issue for distance running is fuel and nutrition.

You can only store about 90 minutes of glycogen in your muscles so any run that takes an hour or so, or longer, then you are likely going to need to take some kind of fast carb to keep your muscles working. It’s no fun hitting a wall and running out of energy. Good amateurs and elite athletes can run a marathon in 3 hours or under so don’t need to carry too much fuel with them because the race is over before they need to take too many. But us old and slow folk will need to keep ourselves fueled for 4, 5 or even more hours.

The most basic way to fuel is sugar. Lots of runners just use jelly babies for instance. Or there are the commercial gels that contain sugar, salts and other supplements. My problem is that after a few hours of running, I’m sick to death of sugar alone. I don’t like the commercial gels, as more than a couple of them and I feel sick and they’re ridiculously expensive.

I managed to come up with a really nice isotonic drink, so I reckoned I could do the same with a homemade gel recipe. I wanted something with slow release carbs, some sugars and salt but without being sickly sweet or heavy on the stomach. The recipe below is what I came up with and I’ve road tested it twice up to an 11 mile run. I really like them. They’re actively quite nice. I don’t know how I’d feel on it after running 20 miles though. I will let you know when I do a biggie again after the HM.

 

Home Made Running Gel (makes 8 Gels)

1/2 cup of rolled oats

2 tbs crushed flax seed

handful of sultanas or any dried fruit you like

2 tsp maple syrup

1/2 a banana

a good pinch of cinnamon

2 pinches of salt

1/3rd a teaspoon of instant coffee

2/3rd cup of coconut water

 

Put all the ingredients in a blender or multi chopper and blend till smooth. Pour into a food box with a lid and allow to chill overnight. As the oats and flax will expand a little overnight you may need to add a bit more coconut water if you think it’s too thick. The mixture should be a bit runny. Spoon 1 tbs of mixture into the corner of a food bag, then tie the bag off to make a small sack. Repeat until the mixture is used up. Freeze any you don’t need immediately. To use: Tear off the corner with your teeth and suck out contents.