The food conundrum

'What's for dinner?'
 Providing the answer to this simple question is getting increasingly complicated.  Even a quick glance at the daily news turns every meal into an experience fraught with uncertainty and guilt. Because almost everything turns out to be bad for the health, or the environment, or both.

Meat is high in fats and cholesterol and stuffed with antibiotics and hormones.
– Fish is full of metal deposits and also guilt-inducing due to overfishing. Sushi is particularly to blame for the depletion of the oceans. Another minus is that, according to a recent article, fish are eating minute particles of plastic – it seems that plastic smells good when mixed with seawater – and this ends up in their tissues.
Vegetables and fruit are riddled with pesticides, unless they are organic.
Dairy products are to be totally avoided, being indigestible and artery-clogging. Cheese, in particular, is maligned as being tantamount to poison.
– Sadly, almond milk, which is a good substitute for dairy, is terrible for the environment, since its production uses up huge amounts of water.
– Anything ‘white’ and ‘refined’, such as flour, pasta and rice, should be avoided like the plague. Only the wholemeal varieties will do, if that.

 

 

There is very little one can be sure about:
Wine, in small quantities, appears to be good for you – until you read the next study, which has now discovered it is bad (or is it good again?) The same goes for chocolate (black, of course) and coffee.
Eggs are terrible for cholesterol levels – BUT I just read an article that it is now considered advisable to eat up to ten a week.                                                                                              – Seafood is also high in cholesterol, with the added environmentally-unfriendly aura connected with fish (see depletion of oceans, above).
– We can’t even count on spirits to raise our spirits (pardon the awful pun). A lovely mojito, a vodka tonic, a drop of whisky – out of the question. Not should any morsel of dessert (brownies, ice cream, cake) pass our lips. I did, however, read an article that gin is good for the health.
– And salt? Is salt good or bad? Opinion differs here too.

 

 

There are also practical matters to be considered:
– Should you eat breakfast, or can you skip it? I recently read that it’s okay, even beneficial, to do the latter, although up to now we were taught to ‘breakfast like a king…’ etc. etc.
Juicing helps with getting your five-a-day, but breaks down the fibers in the fruit and veggies. So better not.

And moral ones:
I admit I’m a terrible hypocrite, since I enjoy a lamb chop as much as the next person, but would probably be a total vegetarian if I had to kill the said lamb myself. However, I feel like screaming when I hear vegetarians self-righteously proclaim they still eat butter and cheese, ‘because no animals get killed in the process.’ When I try to explain the basic facts of agriculture, they just don’t seem to get it. I have good friends who keep repeating the same argument every time food is discussed.

So, what the devil are we supposed to eat?

As far as I can see, that leaves seeds (chia, sesame) pulses (chickpeas…) and insects (which are full of protein and totally devoid of fat). The Swiss are about to stack supermarket shelves with food made from mealworms, which are the larval form of the mealworm beetle. We’re talking ‘burgers’, made by a startup called Essento, in which the mealworms are combined with vegetables, herbs and spices. Sound yummy? Their byword is ‘delicious insects.’

Apparently, fried crickets and grasshoppers are also tasty and crunchy, I suppose as a substitute for potato chips, which are notoriously bad for the health. According to the experts, insects have a high culinary potential, their production saves resources and their nutritional profile is high-quality. They are the perfect complement to a modern diet.

 

On the strength of the above, I have compiled a menu for a dinner party:

Drinks: Gin and tonic (gin is good for you, right? Unless a new survey comes out before the evening in question, saying the contrary). Crispy fried locusts and organic carrot sticks.

Starter: Organic quinoa with kale chips and sliced raw radishes. I actually had this made for me by a friend, and it was surprisingly tasty.

Main course: Mealworms ‘burgers’ with raw cauliflower ‘risotto’. The latter is a recipe favored by vegans, but I confess I’ve never had it – I love cauliflower, but eating it raw instead of rice – not so much.

Desert: I need to find a recipe that avoids eggs, sugar and flour – probably something made with oats and fruit and sweetened with stevia. As if life was not complicated enough…

One must not forget to be extra careful because of people’s allergies to nuts, gluten or even strawberries. Thus the planning of a simple dinner has been turned into a major strategic exercise – what with reading up on the latest developments and finding the ingredients (although some might be captured in the garden?)

Perhaps the answer is to eat everything, but stop reading? Because it never ends. Today, I read an article about antibiotics. It seems doctors now are not sure which to prescribe, because of resistance and allergies. Also they disagree about whether you should finish the whole course, or stop taking them as soon as you feel better.

I rest my case.

Bon appetit, everyone!

 

Horiatiko Phyllo

Introducing My Kitchen Witch, the blog of Debi, an American based in Athens. Delicious recipes!

An Evolving Life

The first element to consider in any Greek pie is the pastry – in this case, homemade phyllo pastry. It is often refered to as horiatiko phyllo, village phyllo, and is generally thicker than the machine-made store bought stuff. Pie fillings vary, but a popular one is based on seasonal greens. Here – as an example – I’ve made little pies (pitakia) with tsigarista, a winter dish of sautéed wild greens. It really doesn’t matter what you fill your little pies with, this post is primarily about the homemade phyllo!

Homemade Phyllo
When making Phyllo for a sweet pie, a teaspoon or two of sugar is added with the flour.

  • 1kg flour
  • pinch salt
  • 30ml red wine vinegar
  • 60ml olive oil
  • Up to 500ml water

Place the flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the vinegar and oil…

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Fast(ing) Food

To a lot of people Lent means giving up something they love, such as meat, or chocolate, or cigarettes. It’s all about self-denial. In the Greek Orthodox religion there are strict rules that govern fasting around religious holidays. For example, the week before Clean Monday and the beginning of Lent is called the Cheese-eater (Τυροφάγου – Tyrofagou): in order to start cleansing the body and preparing it for Lent, you give up meat but are still allowed dairy products. Then during the 40 days of Lent there are some days when olive oil is allowed and others not, culminating in Agia Evdomada (Αγία Εβδομάδα – Holy Week) which is the week before Easter and the strictest of all.

 

One of my favourite Lent dishes, artichokes with broad beans
One of my favourite Lent dishes, artichokes with broad beans

 

People follow these rules more or less strictly, depending on their upbringing, personality and circumstances. Some believe in self-denial and make do with a couple of boiled potatoes or lentils boiled in water. But the human spirit tends to find ways to make the best of things; and so a whole cuisine has blossomed around the Lent fast. These foods are called Nistisima (νηστίσιμα) in Greek.

On Clean Monday only, bakers make lagana, a special unleavened flat bread, light and crusty, sprinkled with sesame seeds. The origins of the bread and its name are lost in the depths of time, but it goes great with the ubiquitous taramosalata , a dip made of salted and cured cod’s roe, whipped with breadcrumbs or boiled potato, olive oil and lemon juice.

 

Delicious rice balls wrapped in vine leaves
Dolma – Delicious rice balls wrapped in vine leaves, and a bowl of taramosalata.

The menu also comprises seafood like cuttlefish, octopus, shrimp and mussels, which can be simply grilled and served with oil and lemon, or braised with tomatoes and mixed with rice or pasta. There are black-eyed beans, spicy giant beans baked with tomato, and dolma, rice wrapped in vine leaves; loads of vegetable dishes in various combinations, and lovely fresh salads.

As for dessert, again we have developed many recipes for cakes and cookies that conform to the rules (no dairy). And there is always χαλβάς (halvas) similar to the Arabic “halwa”, which is made of tahini, sesame paste, and sugar, to which are sometimes added pistachio nuts or cocoa. This you buy ready-made at the baker’s or supermarket and it is served sliced thinly, sometimes accompanied by slices of apple sprinkled with cinnamon. It is extremely sweet, and so nourishing it could sustain polar explorers on their journeys!

 

 

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Peppers stuffed with vegetables and rice

 

The monastic life entails many days of fasting (the monks never eat meat), and so it is not surprising that monks are adept at this cuisine. Monks can make as brilliant cooks as anyone, and I’ve heard plenty of stories of memorable meals eaten by people visiting Mount Athos in particular. Mount Athos is an autonomous monastic state within the Hellenic Republic, where 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries are home to over 2,000 monks from Greece and other countries.

They live an ascetic life, isolated from the world, but they get a lot of visitors: some are on a religious pilgrimage, others come because of the extraordinary beauty of the monasteries and the nature surrounding them. Many are interested in the rich collections of well-preserved artifacts, rare books, ancient documents, and artworks of immense historical value. Finally there are people who want to sample what they see as the simple life, even for a short while.
Unfortunately no women are allowed within the borders of Agion Oros (the Holy Mountain), as it is called. But I looked up their fascinating site and found a whole recipe book of Nistisima in both Greek and Englishwith accompanying photographs.

 

This image can be used for personal use only. No commercial use allowed.
Chickpeas with aubergines

 

There is a huge selection and most recipes are quite simple to prepare, although the translation can be slightly excentric (but use your imagination, people!)  I encourage everyone to browse, (click here), but I have copied a couple of the recipes as a sampler.

 

Fava

Fava

Ingredients:

500 gr. of split yellow peas
1/5 litre of water
1 onion
2 potatoes
2 peppers
salt
1 tea cup of olive oil
4-5 fresh chopped onions
1 bunch of chopped dill or oregano
some lemon juice

Put the split peas, the water, the chopped onion, the potatoes, the chopped peppers and half of the oil in a pressure cooker.
When they have softened, blend. Put in a serving plate and sprinkle with the fresh chopped onions and the dill or oregano. Pour over a little oil and lemon. Serve warm or cold, with bread.

 

 

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Semolina Cake
Ingredients: ½ cup tahini –  ¾ cup water – ¼ cup lemon juice – 2 cups sugar – 1 cup orange juice – 1 cup water – 1 teaspoon cinnamon – ½ teaspoon carnation (they mean powdered cloves!) –  3 ½ cups semolina – 1 cup blanched almonds.

For the syrup: 3 cups sugar – 2 ½ cups of water – 1 tablespoon lemon juice – 2 cinnamon sticks.  Preparation: Beat tahini and ¾ cup water with the lemon juice until it turns white. Successively add sugar, orange juice, water, cinnamon, carnation (cloves) and mixing the semolina mixture. Pour into pan (40×35 cm) and sprinkle almonds over the surface. Bake at 180 degrees for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the syrup by boiling all the ingredients together until thickened. Let cool and as soon as the semolina pie comes out of the oven, pour over immediately.

The monks even have an e-shop selling various products. Their recipes are full of good ideas for vegetarians, but also for everyone else. All the photographs are from their site.

A carnivore’s feast day

The word tsikna (τσίκνα) means ‘pungent smoke from grilled meats’ – it’s what your clothes smell like when you return from a taverna or barbecue. Today is Tsiknopempti (Τσικνοπέμπτη) – literally the ‘Thursday of grilled meat smoke’, a Greek tradition beloved by all carnivores, since it entails an orgy of grilled meats.

We are now in the middle of the three weeks of Apokries (Απόκριες – Carnival) preceding Lent and a fast of 40 days before Easter. Little kids in fancy dress can be seen walking in the streets, on their way to various parties. Tonight people will either descend upon tavernas – better reserve, since even your local is bound to be overbooked – or congregate in homes around someone (usually a man) priding himself on his barbecuing skills.
Every full-blooded Greek considers the Tsiknopempti feast his unalienable right, not to be spoilt by any vegetarian, cardiologist or fish-eater.

 

 

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The menu on offer usually comprises the following:

*Burgers, kebabs, sausages, lamb and pork cutlets, and steaks. Maybe chicken pieces.
The meat has to be top class and seasoned with salt, pepper and oregano. It will be accompanied by: Cut lemons to be squeezed over according to taste. Tzatziki – a yogurt and garlic sauce. Mustard, ketchup and mayo.

*Fries. They have to be home cut and cooked in olive oil.

 

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*Salads. A xoriatiki  (Greek salad) with tomato, cucumber, plenty of onions, and tons of feta cheese. A green salad for freshness. A shredded cabbage and carrot salad dressed with olive oil and lemon.

*Bread – pita and slices of country loaf, brushed with olive oil, grilled and sprinkled with oregano.

*Plenty to drink. Beer, of course; wine, red and white (some like retsina, a white whine flavored with pine resin – a strong, old-fashioned, acquired taste); ouzo, raki and other spirits.

*A selection of desserts, the sweeter the better. Baklava full of nuts and drenched in honey syrup, something chocolate.

 

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All of this engenders a lot of discussion and theory:

-I see you didn’t go to the butcher I told you about.
-Do we have enough coal?
-Have you lit the coal? We don’t want to eat at midnight.
-If the meat is good enough, it doesn’t need marinating.
-No, no, pancetta should be marinated in beer.
-Don’t be stingy with the salt and pepper.
-Or with the garlic in the tzatziki.
-The sausages have to be eaten first.
-Someone has to be in charge of the fries.
-Someone has to keep the cook supplied with drink.
-Someone has to praise the cook.

Suggestion: Better lay in a supply of antacids for after dinner and/or plan a week’s detox.

But, meanwhile, Kali Orexi! (Καλή Όρεξη – Bon Appetit)

The images are from the oneman.gr blog which has a very amusing article on Tsiknopempti, for those who speak Greek. 

The trouble with the school canteen

Running a school canteen is not the world’s most profitable business at the best of times. But now it’s slowly becoming a recipe for disaster.

The crisis has affected pocket money – for a lot of kids, the freshly-baked tyropita is now above their means.
Canteen owners are in despair. They say sales have fallen by 70% during the last six years. Meanwhile, they feel obliged to let kids have food on credit, something which had not been the case before. Many run up tabs their parents are unable to pay from one year to the next.
Only about half the students in any school purchase things from the canteen, and they choose the least expensive items, since they only have one euro on average to spend. This is enough for one tyropita (cheese pie) or a koulouri (round bread stick) and a small bottle of water.

 

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Often the canteens, together with the teachers and the parents’ committee, are called upon to subsidize snacks for needy students. A lot of canteens give out leftover food at the end of each day.
But canteen owners are not rich. Many have already closed up shop, and some schools are having problems replacing them. The increase in taxation to 23% is not helping.
In some areas, a lot of kids don’t bring anything to eat from home, even when they have to stay at school until 4.15 pm. In many cases the Church has stepped in, offering a large number of school snacks. Also the  Prolepsis Institute is implementing a program of Food Aid and Promotion of Healthy Nutrition for the 3rd year running, with a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. In  2016 it serves food to 148 schools (11.617 children) in different areas. However, the number of students who have applied to join the program are more than 260.000.
Since 2012 more than 11,5 million meals have been distributed to 480 schools and 80.000 students.

 

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The daily menu includes a breadstick or a sandwich, a piece of fruit, milk and yoghurt with honey. There is an effort to make the meals as healthy as possible, with wholewheat bread, vegetables in the sandwiches, as well as traditional cheese or spinach pies. There is also a program for educating the children in healthy nutrition as Prolepsis feel this is important for the prevention of obesity.
Finally, Prolepsis has set up a campaign to get companies to sponsor individual schools, so that not a single child has to go without a snack.

 

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Greek cuisine

I love food, all kinds of food. Gourmet food, soul food, street food, ethnic food, home cooking. So I thought it would be amusing to do a little research on Greek cuisine, because it’s fun to think we have a lot of the same things on our plate as Plato (forgive the pun!)

Some Greek recipes have existed for thousands of years, especially those including local produce such as oranges and lemons, pomegranates, tomatoes, grapes, figs. And, of course, olive oil – our liquid gold.

Lentil soup flavored with bay leaf
Lentil soup flavored with bay leaf

 

The first cookbook ever to be written is credited to Archestratus, a Greek poet living in Sicily around 350 B. C. It’s a poem called Υδηπάθεια (Life of Luxury) written in hexameters, of which only 62 fragments survive. The poem is in fact a gastronomic guide, where the author tells of his travels around the Mediterranean in search of the best food and wine. Like today’s foodies, Archestratus loved learning the culinary traditions and customs of different places. He believed in the importance of quality ingredients, which had to be fresh and in season, and cooked simply, with little fat, using seasoning lightly in order to enhance and not mask their flavor.
He focused mainly on fish, being a big fan of tuna, but also of mullet, sea bass, swordfish and squid. One of his recipes is for tuna wrapped in fig leaves, cooked under the ashes and flavored with olive oil and oregano.

But even before Archestratus, the Greeks were interested in good food. Aristaios (or Aristaeus) was the god of shepherds and cheese-making, bee-keeping, honey, honey-mead, olive growing and medicinal herbs. His name was derived from the Greek word aristos, “most excellent” or “most useful.” It seems he started life a mortal, but was made a god because of his services to mankind.

Χωριάτικη (Horiatiki) salad with feta and olives
Χωριάτικη (Horiatiki) salad with feta and olives

 

The Greeks invented bread; they made wine which they flavored with thyme, mint, cinnamon or honey and stored in clay pots, amphoras, which they marked with the year and origin. They drank their wine cut with water, to keep their wits about them, and thought drinking undiluted wine a barbarian custom.

They cultivated orchards of fruit and nut trees, and raised swine, goats, sheep
and cows, as well as chickens, ducks, geese and swans. They grew an abundance of vegetables and gathered myriad greens. Fish was essential to their diet but they ate little meat. They enhanced dishes with wild oregano and sage and imported cinnamon and pepper.

Fava with sausages
Fava with sausages

 

The Greek diet has been influenced by both the East and the West. In ancient times, the Persians introduced Middle Eastern foods, such as yogurt, rice, and sweets made from nuts, honey, and sesame seeds. When Rome invaded Greece, the Romans brought with them foods that are typical in Italy, such as pasta and sauces, and the thin phyllo pastry dough used to make sweet and savory pies. Then came the Ottoman conquerors, with assorted Central Asian dishes like rice pilaf and loukoum – Turkish Delight, flavoured with rose water. Arab influences added spices such as cumin, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, and introduced coffee to Greece. Potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes were later brought from the New World.

For Greeks, food and eating did not just satisfy physical needs; it was primarily a social event. Plutarch, a Greek historian, said, “We do not sit at the table to eat… but to eat together”. This idea of conviviality has resulted in the meze tradition of sharing a multitude of small dishes, which has spread throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Pork with celery in an egg-and-lemon sauce
Pork with celery in an egg-and-lemon sauce

 

In Greece today you will still find all the foods that have been eaten through the ages: plates of fava, a puree of yellow split peas topped with wild capers, onions, or marinated sardines; tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and vine leaves stuffed with meat or rice, pine nuts, sultanas, cheese; λαδερά (ladera), vegetables braised in olive oil; meats simply grilled or cooked with tomatoes and wine; fish and seafood of all kinds; meats and greens encased in delicate phyllo pastry. Food is seasoned with sea salt, onion, garlic, oregano, thyme, rosemary and mint, as well as cumin, cinnamon, allspice and chili pepper.

For dessert, the same phyllo pastry enfolds fruit and nuts and is bathed in honey syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon. A simple dish of yogurt is topped with walnuts and drizzled in honey. And there’s always fruit: apples, pears and citrus fruits in winter, cherries, apricots, strawberries in the spring, peaches, watermelons, melons and figs in summer, grapes, quinces and pomegranates in fall. Of course now you can get fruit out of season, as well as exotic fruits like bananas, pineapples and mangoes. But Greeks generally like to buy things in season.

 

Πρασόρυζο - leeks with rice
Πρασόρυζο – leeks with rice

 

Greek chefs today have taken this rich tradition and given it a modern twist. You will find them plying their trade in Athens, but also in other cities, on the islands and on the mountains. The success of the tourist trade, as well as the popularity of tv cooking shows has made the profession lucrative for many young people. They like to use local produce in season, bring a fresh take to old recipes, and also use ideas and influences from other countries.

Greece produces a wide variety of cheeses, from the ubiquitous feta and other soft, fresh cheeses, to hard cheeses such as γραβιέρα (graviera) and κεφαλοτύρι (kefalotyri). Every region also produces their own local cheeses – always ask to sample them when traveling.

 

Shrimp with tomato and feta
Shrimp with tomato and feta

 

The first Greek wine has been dated about 6,500 years ago, and, in recent years, the Greek wine industry has been undergoing a renaissance. Improvements have been made with serious investments in modern wine making technology. The new generation of native winemakers is being trained in the best wine schools around the world and their efforts are paying off as Greek wines continue to receive the highest awards in international competitions. What makes Greek wine so unique are the more than 300 indigenous grape varieties grown here, some of which have been cultivated since ancient times. Many well-known international grape varieties are also used in Greek wine making.

Greeks love to eat outdoors, and will do so all year round, weather permitting.
Following the tradition of hospitality, people will welcome you into their homes with a glass of water and a spoonful of γλυκό (glyko) – preserves made with fruit such as sour cherries or citrus peel, flowers such as rose petals and lemon tree buds, and also fruit and vegetables not yet ripe, such as tiny aubergines, green walnuts, tiny green mandarins and figs.

imageFor those interested in trying their hand at some Greek specialities, there are many good cookbooks in English. For example, the lovely series written by Diane Kochilas;

 

imageor Vefa’s Kitchen, the bible of Greek cuisine by the grande dame of Greek cooking.

 

 

There are also a few great blogs, such as Little Cooking Tips, which features delicious recipes. They kindly allowed me to borrow their lovely photographs of food, all of which could have been in Plato’s plate.

And, by the way, Bon appetit in Greek is Καλή Όρεξη (Kali Orexi)!