Greek food for an Indian summer

September 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve always been a bit lukewarm about Greek food – until recently my memories were of greasy moussaka washed down with cheap retsina sampled on an Interrail trip to Athens back in the 1980s. I followed this up with lurid pink taramasalata and overcooked lamb in the Oasis Kebab house catering principally for Cambridge’s student population.

After a week on the Ionian coast of Greece this summer, I’ve changed my mind. There’s nothing glitzy or overtly spectacular about the little seaside town of Paleros, but very soon, enjoying breakfast or a drink on the terrace looking out onto the rugged hills of the island of Lefkas becomes a daily pleasure:

And it’s rather delightful to see olives this way rather than in a bulk white plastic container on a deli counter:

While my thoughts are still on the cocktail hour, here are lemons growing on the tree just moments before they’re sliced into your gin and tonic:

There seems to be an inviting-looking taverna terrace on every street corner like this one belonging to the New Mill Tavern in Paleros:

A glance at the guestbook shows you that the New Mill is no run-of-the-mill (sorry!) taverna. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Rick Stein and Delia Smith have all eaten here enthusiastically and and here’s what a certain Gordon Ramsay had to say:

And after a memorable evening meal there, I’d have to concur.

It isn’t the usual restaurant experience as there’s no menu, no prices on display (though don’t worry, the final bill won’t be unreasonable), no chef, no professional kitchen at all in fact. Proprietor Cathy who is both head chef and runs front-of-house (though it does seem a little disrespectful to refer to this august Greek matriarch in such familiar terms) welcomes you with chilled Greek rosé and a selection of dips.

Clockwise from the right we have a beetroot dip, a garlicky skordalia made with mashed potato, the classic tzatziki, and finally a soft mild cheese dip.

Cathy’s daughter charmingly suggests that you don’t overdo it on the dips and bread and, boy, is she right as the courses keep on coming! The dips were followed by the lightest grated courgette tart flavoured with a touch of cinnamon; next deeply savoury prawns baked with wine and garlic. Two more classic Greek dishes came next, an exemplary moussaka and a stifado. Groaning, we found room for the lightest baklava and a thimbleful of Greek coffee before the moonlight stroll back to our hotel.

Cathy cooks everything herself right there in her own home kitchen with just a little help from her extended family. She prepares what’s fresh and in season that day, no choice, no fads or foibles and in my opinion you can’t fail to enjoy whatever she serves up.

The food really was wonderful and definitely my kind of cooking – simple, fresh, carefully seasoned – beating any overworked restaurant dish hands down. I couldn’t wait to recreate some of Cathy’s food back home and although I didn’t find the right opportunity to ask for any of her recipes that evening, I’ve recently bought the excellent “Traditional Greek Cooking’ by George Moudiotis and have been trying out a few dishes back home.

So far, I’ve found his instructions clear and simple to follow and the end results very successful with an authentic Greek flavour. Here are my versions of tzatziki and skordalia, perfect for eating outdoors to accompany barbecued meat, fish or vegetables during out last few days of precious Indian summer…

Recipe for Tzatziki

Adapted from a recipe in George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”.

Serves 8 as part of a mezze selection. The inclusion of dill gives the dish authenticity but you can use mint if you prefer.

Ingredients

1 large cucumber
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh dill or mint
salt and freshly ground black pepper
500g tub of full fat Greek yoghurt – I like Total, imported from Greece

Extra chopped herbs, a drizzle of olive oil and a few shiny black Kalamata olives to garnish

Peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut the cucumber into small dice (3-4mm) and place them in a sieve. Leave them to drain over a small bowl for 30 minutes.

Mix the drained cucumber with the garlic, oil, vinegar, chopped dill or mint and salt and pepper. Mix in the tub of Greek yoghurt, cover and chill in the fridge for an hour or so to allow the flavours to meld.

Spoon into a serving dish, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with extra chopped herbs and scatter over the olives.

Recipe for Skordalia

Adapted from a recipe in George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”. This is the Greek island variant which adds mashed potatoes to the basic bread, garlic and oil mixture.

Makes 1/2 pint so serves 8 as part of a meze selection, or add a little stock and use as a thick sauce to accompany grilled fish, meat or vegetables.

Ingredients

3 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar for soaking the garlic
a further tablespoon white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
3 thickish slices day-old white bread, crusts removed
3 medium waxy potatoes, boiled in their skins and left to cool then peeled and put through a food mill or potato ricer

Soak the peeled garlic cloves in the wine vinegar overnight. Reserve the wine vinegar for another salad dressing or discard. Roughl crush the garlic with the salt in a pestle and mortar then tip the crushed garlic into the bowl of a food processor.

Soak the bread in water briefly, then squeeze dry with your hands and add to the processor bowl. Pulse quickly to mix then add the vinegar, salt and pepper and a little of the olive oil. Pulse again. Add the mashed potato and a little more olive oil. Pulse again. Continue adding the olive oil little by little, pulsing as you go, until it is all incorporated. Be careful not to overblend otherwise the texture of the Skordalia will be too sticky and gloopy.

Taste and adjust seasoning adding more salt, pepper, vinegar and oil as required.

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Breakfast from Benin

September 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

The latest in our Breakfasts of the World Project series.

This post could more properly be titled “Petit dejeuner Béninois” as this relatively small West African country is a former French colony. Its national tagline is not the highminded Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité of the mother country but the rather more down-to-earth “Fraternité, Justice, Travail”. Perhaps this is a nod to the country’s history of slavery as the former Kingdom of Dahomey used to be known as the Slave Coast from the king’s unedifying habit of selling his war captives into slavery.

Benin lies adjacent to its larger and better known neighbour Nigeria and most of its population lives close to the coast on the Gulf of Benin. Within this coastal strip lies the country’s capital, Porto Novo and its largest city, Cotonou.

Perhaps because of its ability to trade from coastal ports, and perhaps because of the historical importance of the former Kingdom of Dahomey, or maybe it’s the French legacy, the country’s cuisine is known for its exotic ingredients and well-flavoured dishes.

I began with a little research and found Kathy Curnow’s 5 page summary of the food of Benin succinctly useful http://www.conceptvessel.net/iyare/downloads/Iyare_Food_and_Cooking_in_Benin.pdf
along with an authentic and comprehensive recipe for the classic West African dish akara (black-eyed bean fritters) from http://www.congocookbook.com/snack_recipes/akara.html

I decided that akara would be the star of our breakfast show but also included baked yams as I felt something plain and starchy was required which could be smothered with the tomato and peanut sauces I planned to make. Another breakfast speciality was to be an omelette stuffed with plantain, and finally, sliced tropical fruit (mango and papaya) enlivened with a squeeze of lime.

Here’s how it all looked:

The akara were crisply moreish but took an absolute age to prepare. You need to get going 48 hours before you plan to eat them. After soaking the beans overnight in cold water, the next labour-intensive step is to rub-off the skins from the beans with your bare hands.

I sat outside in the sunshine to do this trying to get into the West African mood. This is one of those slow, gentle chores which might be soothing or even fun if there were a whole bunch of you rubbing away at your beans but as I was toute seule it soon became rather tedious.

The next step was to pulverise the soaked raw beans and combine them with flavouring ingredients. I’m sure that traditionally this would be done in a pestle and mortar but in my case this was a job for my trusty Magimix. I soon had the beans pulverised into submission.

The bean paste rests overnight to develop the flavour fully before frying off for breakfast the following morning.

I love this intense description of frying akara from Nigerian author Wolé Soyinka’s memoir “Aké: the years of childhood”

“In the market we stood and gazed on the deftly cupped fingers of the old women and their trainee wards scooping out the white bean-paste from a mortar in carefully gauged quantities, into the wide-rimmed, shallow pots of frying oil. The lump sank immediately in the oil but no deeper than an inch or two, bobbed instantly to the surface and turned pinkish in the oil. It spurted fat globules upwards and sometimes beyond the rim of the pot if the mix had too much water. Then, slowly forming, the outer crust of crisp, gritty light brownness which masked the inner core of baked bean paste, filled with green and red peppers, ground crayfish or chopped.”

Pretty accurate I would say though I used my thermostat controlled deep-fat fryer which made the process a doddle. I kept the fat temperature at a medium heat – 150 degrees C which meant that the akara were ready in about 8 to 10 minutes and were thoroughly cooked in the middle. The resulting crispy fritter was similar to falafel and was just perfect smothered with sauce – my preference was for the densely calorific peanut sauce though the fresh tomato sauce was pretty good too.

The other dishes (baked yam, plantain omelette and sliced tropical fruit) were straightforward in terms of preparation. The only potential difficulty was in sourcing the raw ingredients. My regular supplier for tropical fruit and veg is the Strawberry Garden stall, a little gem in Manchester’s claustrophobic and unappealing indoor Arndale market. Here are my prized purchases ready to be prepped:

All in all, a cheerful-looking and flavoursome breakfast on the strength of which I’d definitely put Benin on any West African trip itinerary.

Recipe for akara – black-eyed bean fritters

Adapted from a recipe on the http://www.congocookbook.com site.

Ingredients

250g dried black-eyed beans
one small onion, finely chopped
pinch of salt
one finely chopped deseeded fresh chilli pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated peeled ginger root
vegetable oil for deep frying (ideally peanut oil)

Soak the black eyed beans in cold water in the fridge overnight. The next day, rub them together between your hands to remove the skins. This is a time consuming process and you will need to rinse the beans frequently to wash away the skins.

Drain the water off the beans then whizz them in a food processor to form a thick, coarse paste. Add the onion, ginger and salt and sufficient water to form a thick paste of a batter that will drop stiffly from a spoon.

Allow the batter to stand for a few hours or even overnight in the fridge. When you’re ready to cook, heat the oil in your pan or deep fat fryer. While the oil is heating, beat the batter with a wire whisk or wooden spoon for a few minutes.

Drop big spoonfuls of batter formed into a rough quenelle shape into the hot oil and deep fry the until they are golden brown. Turn them frequently while frying.

Mine took 10-12 minutes at 160-170 degrees C to cook.

Serve with a sauce (such as spicy tomato or peanut) or simply sprinkled with salt, as a snack, starter or accompaniment.

Week in Wales: the forager’s holy trinity completed

September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve already written about blackberries during our summer holiday on the North Wales coast. It’s the more unusual samphire and chanterelles that completed my foraging threesome.

I was a samphire virgin before setting out on my coastal trek, scissors and waterproof sandals at the ready. I’d wondered about gathering samphire for years but had been thwarted as the plant didn’t seem to appear in my trusty field guide, Marjorie Blamey and Richard and Alastair Fitter’s classic “The wild flowers of Britain and Northern Europe”. You’ll find rock samphire and golden samphire pictured in loving detail but nothing that looks like the samphire we can buy from up-market fishmongers and fashionable restaurants.

A copy of the River Cottage handbook “Edible Seashore” found on the bookshelves of our holiday house solved the mystery. Expert forager and now author John Wright clearly explains that Marsh samphire Salicornia europaea is a species distinct from Rock samphire Crithmum maritimum although both grow on the coast and both are edible. Crucially, the alternative common name for the marsh samphire is glasswort, the common name used in my wildflower field guide.

Enchantingly, it seems that the name glasswort was given to the plant by itinerant glassmakers from Venice who arrived in Britain in the sixteenth century. The ashes of Salicornia europaea can be used for making crystal clear soda based glass as opposed to the greenish glass based on easier to obtain potash. Who’d have thought it? And it seems a waste to burn it when it is so hard to gather and equally good to eat.

I’d identified the tidal salt marshes between Portmadoc and Portmeirion as likely samphire territory but had never seen the plant actually growing there. Up for a challenge, the hunt started at mid-tide on a glorious beach during a rare spell of afternoon sunshine:

Golden sand is all very well but estuarine mud and the resulting sheltered salt marsh are where you’ll find samphire growing. So, it was a long trudge to the rocky point at the end of the beach with the only navigable way round into the next bay being a clamber up and over this rocky slot:

On the other side, the territory looked much more promising:

And sure enough, I soon found the prize I was after. The field guides will all tell you to pick samphire that’s been washed by every tide. There’s no way to be more certain of this than by picking a plant with its roots lapped by avelets of incoming seawater:

And after a whole afternoon enjoying the thrill of the chase, this was what we ended up with for supper that evening:

This would have been just right for a dainty starter for two served asparagus-style (steamed, with plenty of melted butter). However, we were 6 for supper that evening so I served the samphire as a vegetable accompaniment intermingled with squeaky French beans. The two are quite similar in texture with the samphire providing an interesting salty flavour burst every few mouthfuls.

And if all this sounds like too much trouble, you can always pop into Waitrose, £1.99 for 90g of the stuff although airfreighting it in from Israel is hardly an authentic taste of the British seaside.

On to the chanterelles. I was delighted to find this little clutch of sunshine yellow mushrooms brightening up a woodland walk in the rain on the penultimate day f our holiday.

They were nestling in a mossy bank beneath an ancient oak tree, absolutely classic territory for chanterelles. I picked up a useful new tip for identifying chanterelles and distinguishing between the real thing and the disappointing false chanterelle which is that they should have a mild yet distinct smell of apricots.

I know of no better treatment for chanterelles than to fry them briskly in butter, season with salt and pepper and serve them with softly scrambled egg. I’m not sure if it’s complementary tastes or some sort of egg yolk yellow colour association but either way it’s a great partnership and made a suitably celebratory breakfast for our final morning:

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