Leaving the city: A brief history…

Our property, slightly larger than an acre, is not far from the sea, but has no sea view. It came with fifty olive trees and about twenty aged and neglected almond trees. We are in a little valley, which is cool in the summer and somewhat-protected from the winter winds. But ‘protected’ is a relative word when it refers to the fickle winds of the Aegean. The noisy storms seem to roll down the hills, and we can hardly distinguish between the dry, cold northern gusts, or the humid southern winds as they surround us from all directions. Winters are very loud, compared to the absolute stillness of the hot July afternoons. Fortunately, even the worst winter storms have caused only minor damage to our garden. But we live with constant fear of drought, a threat that this year seems even more ominous than those of years past.

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“How lucky you are, to be able to leave the hectic life behind and spend your days by the sea,” friends often tell us. It doesn’t occur to them that, especially during the summer, Costas and I are constantly juggling gardening, work around the house, and writing. We rarely have time for a quick swim. Things were much simpler in Athens. No planting, weeding, irrigating, or pruning, and somewhat limited cooking in my tiny kitchen. I had plenty of time to surf the web, exchange e-mails, and polish my columns. In contrast, life in the country is very demanding. The day is not long enough for all that needs to be done. But then nothing beats standing between almond trees in bloom on a crisp winter morning, inhaling their sweet aroma as the bees begin to buzz, gathering bitter and sweet wild greens from under the olive trees, or picking fragrant lemons from our aesthetically lacking but prolific lemon trees… (more…)

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HORTA, the Edible Wild Greens

We keep an overused, slightly rusted, wood-handled Opinel knife in the glove compartment of our car. It is there because we never know if and when we will spot some gorgeous edible greens during our rides around the island. Greeks probably foraged for horta —wild leafy greens— because they had little else to eat. We continue to gather and eat them today because we love them.

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During the rainy winter months, and as late as early spring, there are plenty of wild greens in the hills and mountains that surround the villages and the big cities. Middle-aged women and men gather them on special excursions. Armed with a knife and a plastic bag or a basket, the horta-gatherers can be spotted from a distance on a steep hill, but also next to a busy highway. A friend once told me that he has seen Greek-Americans gather greens on a sidewalk in New Jersey. These days, though, most city people buy horta from the weekly farmers’s markets; and they have become quite expensive, a real delicacy. (more…)

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How the Aubergine (Eggplant) became Aborigin

For me and, I guess, for people like me who use quite a few foreign words in their texts, it was immediately obvious that the US English spellchecker transformed the ‘aubergine’ -the British word for eggplant— into ‘aborigin’.

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But the linguists never thought it was that simple, so they created a whole elaborate theory trying to explain why Greeks, Turks, Chinese, and many more people around the world confuse these two words… MORE

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Christmas in Greece

Historically, Christmas was never a major celebration in Greece. Easter is our biggest feast, and besides parading form house to house on Christmas and New Year’s Eve to sing kalanda – the Greek version of carols — collecting money or sweets, there was little else traditionally observed. So when we came out of the hardships of the Second World War and the Civil war that followed, we happily adopted the German and northern European Christmas customs of decorating the tree, stuffing and baking the turkey, and of course exchanging gifts. Going through some of our childhood pictures the other day, Costas pointed out a particularly common shot, where he was made to stand on a chair, next to this pathetic little Christmas tree made from colored chicken feathers, decorated with oversized ornaments and grotesque pieces of cotton-wool snow.

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I, like most Greeks of my generation, and even younger, have similar pictures. Now of course there is a whole industry around the holiday, from growing or importing the Christmas trees, to the more and more elaborate lights and decorations, and many people spend a fortune keeping pace with international trends. (more…)

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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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