Wild Fennel: Greece’s Mythic Ingredient

An earlier version of this piece appeared in  The Atlantic website.

 

Wild fennel: Greeks call it maratho; Italians refer to it as finocchio selvatico; and it grows all over the Greek islands and the mainland. Marathon, the area south of Athens where in 490 BC Greeks won the famous, decisive battle against the invading Persian army, probably acquired its name because of its abundant fennel fields. A young soldier, Pheidippides, ran the 42 kilometers from Marathon to Athens to announce the triumphant victory, thus inspiring the eponymous run.

 

The 19th-century British poet Robert Browning tapped the myth and, of course, its fennel fields, in his ode to the young runner: “Fight I shall, with our foremost, wherever this fennel may grow,” Pheidippides proclaimed. Little did he know the run from Marathon to Athens would be his last, as “Like wine thro’ clay, / Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died, the bliss!” Wild fennel is mostly used as an herb to add aroma to all sorts of vegetable, meat, and fish dishes, and it is essential in marathopites–the small, phylo-wrapped turnovers made in Crete. (more…)

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A fig’s ‘decisive moment’

Despite the fact that we have old, semi-wild fig trees in our garden, it does not guarantee that we will savor wonderfully ripe fruit come August. We need to be on the alert, prudently waiting for the ‘decisive moment’ when the fig bows ever so slightly, where its stem bends from the bough of the bole.

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Only then, and not before, is the tree ready to give its blossom over to the harvest. If you mistime the picking , even by half a day, the blazing August sun starts to dry-out the fruit’s succulent interior. In our stony and arid island, it is almost a miracle that these contorted, frail looking trees, with trunks infested by colonies of ant, manage to give such small, sweet, delectable fruits. Harvesting figs before the stem-curve moment results in unripe produce, good for the grill or salads, but certainly bearing no resemblance to the honey-sweet, wonderfully juicy taste we adore, the figs we long for the rest of the year.

(more…)

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Mastic Became the Talk of the World!

“We discover references to mastic in such diverse places as the logbooks of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, and in the account and recipe books of the Sultans of Topkapi and the Seraglio.  We read in the history books that the allure of mastic drew emperors, monarchs, and princes into battles for control of the mastic lands and villages of Chios,” wrote the late Dun Gifford in his introduction to the 1999 Oldways Symposium about the “Healthy Mediterranean Diets and Traditions of Chios and Lesbos islands.”

Last week, some twenty years later, mastic became the talk of the world!

 

“Over my 54 years, I’ve pinned my hopes on my parents, my teachers, my romantic partners, God.

I’m pinning them now on a shrub.

It’s called mastic, it grows in particular abundance on the Greek island of Chios and its resin — the goo exuded when its bark is gashed — has been reputed for millenniums to have powerful curative properties,” wrote Frank Bruni in the New York Times. (more…)

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The Power of Frugal Greek Cookery

For this year’s Oxford Food Symposium I undertook the huge responsibility to cook the final, Saturday dinner for the 280 participants. Among them were some of the most well-known British and American authors, journalists, historians, scientists, and chefs.

Santorini fava (yellow split peas) topped with capers and herbs.
 David Tanis and Claudia Roden enjoyed the braised snails, which had previously created quite a sensation in St Catz’ kitchen as chef Michael Costa was washing them, trying to prevent them from escaping…

Greek frugal cooking –the simply braised snails in onion-tomato sauce, or the slow-cooked lamb with lemon and oregano– can show its real power in an intimate, family environment. Only when chef Michael Costa, my talented, tireless friend, accepted to leave his very busy kitchen in Washington DC and come to cook at St Catherine’s college did I decide to undertake the difficult exercise of presenting in volume, for 280 people, dishes meant for a small circle of friends and family. (more…)

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Fassolakia (green beans) from my Mother’s Kitchen to José Andrés’ Book!

We take for granted some of our most favorite summer vegetable dishes, like this one that I learned from my mother and I cook often, as Costas is particularly fond of it too.

But it took me some time to decide and include it in the foods we prepare with the guests who take part in our Cooking Vacation classes. I considered it too simple and kind of self- evident. I was even more surprised when I saw that JoséAndres, the renown chef and humanitarian, included my recipe in his wonderful new book!

He mentions Kea and writes that his mother’s version of braised green beans was almost identical, minus the potatoes. He concludes his head-note saying “…play around and put your own stamp on this lovely Mediterranean dish.” (more…)

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