Oxymel: Mint and Honey Shrub (Vinegar Syrup)

         This sweet, tangy, and aromatic drink was thought to be not merely refreshing but also restorative and healthful! Long before shrubs became fashionable again, they used to be Ancient Greeks’ favorite refreshments, called oxymeli (vinegar-honey syrup).

 

From my 1994, out of print book Mediterranean Pantry, with photos by the brilliant Martin Brigdale

 

Sugar has replaced honey in most old recipes and people continue to enjoy similar drinks today, especially in the Muslim countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, where alcoholic beverages are prohibited.  

In an old Turkish cookbook compiled by Turabi Efendi in 1862, I found a vinegar-sugar syrup called oxymel that was scented with sweet marjoram. Starting from that basic recipe I experimented with different quantities of sugar and vinegar, using marjoram, mint, and rose geranium as flavorings.

My favorite was this mint-flavored oxymel, but you can try other herbs you like. I use sugar, but you may well substitute honey, choosing a somewhat plain, not too fragrant honey.

TO SERVE place 2-3 tablespoons oxymel in a glass, pour in very cold water and ice cubes, and decorate with a sprig of fresh mint.

 

Makes 1 cup (more…)

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Kolokotes: Squash-raisin-and-bulgur Hand Pies from Cyprus

Kolokotes are the old, delicious vegan pies from Cyprus: only three ingredients for the stuffing, plus an interesting spice combination.  They linger between savory and sweet and are a real treat, unlike any squash or pumpkin pie we bake in Greece.

You can enjoy kolokotes as snack, complemented with yogurt, labne, or fresh cheese; drizzled with honey, date or any fruit molasses they become a lovely dessert. 

Marilena Ioannides’ recipe is by far the best I have tried –and I did try lots over the years. She bakes the pies on camera –speaking Greek with no subtitles, unfortunately; but consulting my recipe below you can easily follow and understand how to make these simple, exquisite pies.

 

 

To collect the old, traditional dishes she included in her book Cyprus Food Treasures, Marilena traveled all over the island, even to the remotest villages, and managed to find some incredible dishes! Often they are the missing link between age-old foods we read about in old manuscripts and the more recent variations we still encounter in parts of Greece or in other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean.

 

NOTE in the video as she prepares the pies leisurely, in real time, she weighs all ingredients –even the olive oil and water– as she adds them, one by one in the bowl of the mixer, zeroing her electronic scale just before adding a new item. This is a wonderful trick that helps cooks use a minimum of  bowls and other measuring utensils. 

My recipe is adapted from Marilena Ioannides’ Kolokotes. I have increased the amount of raisins and doubled the pepper; also substituted fennel seeds for the fresh wild fennel she suggests.

 

 

Makes 6 large pies (more…)

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Ashure: Sweet Grains with Orange, Strawberries and Nuts

This recipe is a variation, inspired by the pudding I once had at Hi Life, a fish restaurant in Faliron, south of Athens.  The orange pieces and the fresh orange juice in the grain mixture make a thick, soupy ashure. We love it on its own, or served together with fresh, creamy or aged cheeses, especially with manouri, or any semi-hard goat cheese from Crete or from the Cyclades.

READ more about this ancient dessert. 

 

 

Serves 12-14

 

1 cup farro (see note) soaked in warm water overnight, and drained.

 

Pinch of salt

 

2 cinnamon sticks

 

1/3 cup cooked chickpeas (optional)

 

2/3 cup bulgur (fine or medium)

 

2/3 – 1 cup sugar, to taste

 

1/2 cup lemon or orange marmalade (optional)

 

2/3 cup almonds or hazelnuts (toasted if you like) coarsely ground

 

2/3 cup walnuts or pecan, coarsely ground

 

1/2 – 1 cup shelled unsalted pistachios, as many as you like

 

8 dried figs, diced with scissors

 

6 dried apricots diced with scissors

 

1-2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

 

1/2 -1 teaspoon ground pepper

 

Zest and juice from 2 oranges, plus 2 more large oranges, one peeled and diced and the other sliced thinly for topping the pudding

 

1/4 cup Grand Marnier or other citrus-flavored liqueur –I use my own Lemon Liqueur

 

1 cup or more strawberries for topping, or about 2/3 cup pomegranate seeds

 

 

3-ashure-nut-mix-half-s
4-ashure-orange-s

 

In a pot bring to boil 2 quarts of water with the drained farro, a pinch of salt and the cinnamon sticks. Lower the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes or more, until the grains are tender; be careful not to overcook them. Drain the farro, keeping the cinnamon sticks and the cooking broth; you need 6 cups of it.

In a mixer or blender process the cooked grains with some of the cooking liquid to get a coarse pulp. Transfer to a saucepan and add the chickpeas, if using, the reserved broth (6 cups minus what you used in the blender), the bulgur, the cinnamon sticks, and 2/3 cup sugar. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes or more, until the bulgur is cooked.

 

5-ashure-mix-pot-s

 

Remove from the heat, discard the cinnamon sticks and stir in the marmalade, if using, the almonds or hazelnuts, the walnuts or pecan, the figs, the apricots and the pistachios, keeping 1-2 tablespoons for topping the pudding. Add the ground cinnamon and pepper, the orange zest, the orange juice, the diced orange and the liqueur. Stir gently to incorporate all the ingredients, taste and if you want, add more sugar, stir again and transfer to a large bowl.

 

6-ashure-bowl-1-s

 

Arrange the orange slices and the strawberries, or pomegranate seed on the surface of ashure and sprinkle with the reserved pistachios. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2-3 hours or overnight before serving.

 

NOTE: I used Anson Mills Slow Roasted Farro in the US, both for my Kollyva and for Ashure. The wheat berries we use in Greece are similar to this particular farro, and very different from the American wheat berries, which I don’t recommend.

 

 

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Our Favorite Ancient Vegan Pudding

Asouré (or aşure) also called ‘Noah’s pudding’ in Istanbul, is an ancient, delicious, sweetened grain risotto with nuts and fruit, both dried and fresh. It is the perfect vegan dessert and we make it often in the spring, especially the days of Lent before Easter.  

 

Read also about kollyva, another version of the ancient sweet. 

 

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Asouré is probably the continuation of polysporia the mixture of grains symbolically offered by ancient Greeks and other Eastern Mediterranean people to their gods, especially Demeter (Ceres), the goddess of agriculture, much like kollyva which in ancient Greek the meant “small coin” or “small golden weight,” as well as “small cakes.” The Turkish and Greek asouré or asourés, also called ‘Noah’s pudding’ in Istanbul, is a similar age-old sweet.

In this the wheat berries are not drained as in kollyva, but simmered with sugar, sometimes, especially in Istanbul  together with beans and/or chickpeas until the cooking liquid thickens.  Nuts and dried fruits are added, and the soupy ashure is served in bowls, traditionally decorated with pomegranate seeds. It solidifies when it cools, like a real pudding.  In Israel and throughout the Middle East I found similar sweets, with the grains cooked in milk and sweetened with honey. Obviously, they all share the same ancient roots. (more…)

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Melomakarona Tart with Fruit or Lemon

The Greek old-fashioned Christmas cookies are vegan because people ate them during the days of Lent that precede Christmas. You can use the dough –an olive-oil-shortcake– as a pie crust, filling it with cooked apples, quince, or other seasonal fruit. I particularly love to make a fragrant Lemon tart, using Lemon Curd, or your favorite lemon cream. 

No specific recipe needed. Use half the Melomakarona dough, and lay it on a parchment-paper- lined 9-inch pan. Bake in the center of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, let cool completely on a rack and then fill with your favorite Lemon Cream or with Lemon Curd and serve sprinkling with coarsely ground walnuts. 

To make a Quince or Apple Tart, fill the crust with poached quince or apples, using as an inspiration the filling from the Quince Rolls. You can also mix the poached fruit with Quince Preserves, and serve sprinkle liberally with walnuts. 

 

 

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