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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