OLIVE OIL: the Stuff of our Lives

There used to be a Greek word that characterized spineless young men, particularly the spoiled sons of wealthy families: voutyropaida—butter-boys. Butter-boys are the antithesis of the clever street-wise young men who typify Greek youth. In the past the young were not pampered with expensive butter but fed exclusively on olive oil, like we all were in Greece.

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Calming and Aphrodisiac

A stubborn and rebellious wife, who refused to yield her body to her husband’s carnal desires, was rubbed with olive oil for seven days. On the eighth day — as legend would have it — she became sweet tempered and loving, ready to let her husband make love to her. (If only Petruchio, in the “Taming of the Shrew”, had known of this simple cure…). This is the most exotic of the sixty or so folk remedies in which olive oil plays the leading role. Such remedies, along with other customs related to olives and olive oil, have their roots in antiquity, and are still practiced in rural Greece. To this day, no Greek man would dare relieve himself under an olive tree, fearing supernatural consequences . (more…)

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Blessing the waters

Epiphany (January 6), or Day of the Light –ton Photon in Greek— is an important religious and cultural celebration that marks the end of the holiday season. Up until the 4th century A.D. Epiphany was considered the first day of the year, observed as a three-day commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. People believed that on the eve of the 6th the skies open, granting the prayers of the devout. Nearly 2000 years ago the first Christians celebrated with long street processions, white candles in hand ( a tradition modern Greeks preserve during the Resurection ceremony, on Easter), hence the term Epiphany, the Day of the Light. Jesus intrinsically blessed the water by his immersion in it, and each year Greek Orthodox priests perform a ritual, casting the cross into the water, replenishing Jesus’ blessing in the water and on the community, as well.

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Some anthropologists link Epiphany with the ancient Athenian ceremony of plynterion, the cleansing of the goddess Athena’s statue. During that ceremony, she was taken to the seaside in Faliron to be washed in the sea, thereby renewing her mythical powers. Similarly, as the anthropologists have noted, the church icons are often washed prior to the Epiphany celebration. (more…)

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Making the most of Meat

“Meat every Sunday and ground meat on Thursdays”—this was the rule around which my mother, and most Greek women, planned meals when I was growing up. The rule wasn’t invented for the health-conscious, and certainly wasn’t for those who wished to lose weight—rather, up until the 1960s, hardworking Greek men could barely afford food for their families. Malnutrition, rather than obesity, was the country’s epidemic—and meat was very expensive, as it was never plentiful in Greece, a mountainous country with no plains for raising cattle. Instead, farmers raised mountain goats and sheep, but primarily for milk and cheese. I often wonder if the current Greek obsession with roasted baby lamb, pork and other meats is a result of the fact that, for many years, meat has been a rare luxury—a festive dish enjoyed only on important religious and family occasions.

We know now that today’s over-consumption of meat is unhealthy for our hearts, our waistlines, and our planet. The mass production of meat—meant to satisfy the increasing needs of an expanding population—is unsustainable, and a terrible waste of resources. To add to the problem, pesticides, hormones and methane gas (from livestock manure) have become a significant source of pollution.

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The picture, as all the pictures in the book was done by Anastasios Mentisa very talented Greek photographer who works in New York.

For both environmental and culinary reasons, we look back at the traditional Mediterranean dishes that ingeniously used meat as flavoring—rather than as a primary ingredient—to create healthy, one-pot family meals with vegetables, greens, and beans. The Black-Eyed Pea, Ground Lamb, and Chard Stew is a delicious example: it seems to be tailor-made by a modern nutritionist but is, in fact, adapted from Gaziatep—the part of southern Turkey that borders Syria. This, and many other recipes, may be found in my upcoming book, Mediterranean Hot and Spicy. (more…)

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Almonds Green and Brown

Throughout the Middle East, the green almonds of early spring are nibbled raw, added to salads, or cooked together with lamb in a lemony sauce. In Greece they are preserved in heavy syrup, as yet another spoon-sweet, like karydaki (green unripe walnut), or melitzanaki (tiny eggplants, the most exotic of our spoon-sweets).

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Green almonds are also pickled. Unusually delicious and crunchy, they are served as an appetizer, together with various kinds of olives, pickled cauliflower, peppers and carrots. Their sour taste complements perfectly the sweet and strong anise-flavored ouzo or raki. READ MORE (The Atlantic)

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Spring’s Glorious Feast

Easter is to Greeks what Thanksgiving is to Americans: a glorious family feast with dishes that make the most of the young season’s early produce. Unlike Thanksgiving though, Easter (April 19 this year) is a four-day celebration, the religious reconstitution of ancient pagan rituals that celebrate the return of the spring: the feeling of the sun’s warmth, the renewal of the earth, the blossoming of plants after the dark and cold winter. Like all big Orthodox festivities, a forty-day period of Lent precedes Easter.

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All foods deriving from animals with red blood – meat, dairy, and eggs— are prohibited; during the holy week, especially on Good Friday, even olive oil is banned from the table. Lentil soup, simply dressed with vinegar, was the traditional dish prepared for good Friday, but I propose a warm salad of mixed beans with garlic-lemon-tahini dressing, still within the rules of Lent, and much more interesting. (more…)

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My New Book is Out!

Full of fun, easy, zesty and healthy recipes, my new and very summery book is out at last! You can click here to order it. I am sure you will love this sample recipe. It is a hearty salad that can also be a main dish. It became our standard picnic fare. We always make it the night before our lunch on the beach with friends. Grilled sadines or lamb chops on our portable BBQ is the main dish, but everybody –friend and participants at Kea Artisanal rave about the bulgur salad.

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Photo by ANASTASIOS MENTIS.

The recipe is based on Bazargan, a Syrian-Jewish salad that Claudia Roden included in A Book of Middle Eastern Food. I first tasted it many years ago, during a food conference, and I was immediately fascinated by this earthy, fragrant, and crunchy sweet-and-sour mixture. Claudia whipped it up during a cooking demo, and as she gave us tastings she pointed out that the salad was not ready because it had to sit for a few hours so that the grains could soak up the flavors from the sauce and the spices. Reading the recipe in Claudia’s old book, I wasn’t tempted to try it—one of my very few such misses. I am so glad I had the chance to taste it, so now I am passing the torch.

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We are in Saveur!

In the last newsletter describing our ‘summer highlights’ we had to leave out two very important visitors whom we are now privileged to consider our dear friends: Journalist and Saveur kitchen director Hunter Lewis, and photographer Penny de los Santos.

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They joined us here on Kea in-between our two May programs. Together we cooked and grilled, enjoyed lunches and dinners, while tireless Penny recorded everything in her inspiring photographs. Costas hiked to the ancient temples with Hunter, and we had the most wonderful time with two incredibly warm and talented people! We wouldn’t exaggerate if we said that some of us shed tears the night we parted, as Hunter and Penny boarded the ferry to Lavrion. (more…)

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Slaughtering the Pig

In the dead of winter, when seaside taverns are closed and the cold wind beats mercilessly against the deserted beaches, islanders slaughter their pigs. Pig-slaughtering is still an important annual festival for the locals on Kea, as on all the Cycladic islands.

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In the necessarily frugal old-days, it was an essential undertaking; today it is more of an occasion to gather, eat, and drink homemade wine and raki, the local moonshine… MORE

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Pork Delicacies from the Venetian past

Despite their colonial history, some islands were never occupied by the Ottomans, as the rest of Greece. By the late 15th century Kea was dominated by pirates, almost deserted by its inhabitants.

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It was later repopulated by people who fled from other islands – my maternal grandfather’s family probably came from Patmos, as my mother’s maiden name, Patiniotis, indicates… MORE

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