More on Greek Cooking
Mezedes means ‘a tableful’ and comes from a Middle Eastern tradition of sharing small portions of savoury foods while relaxing in the evening. However we have noticed that on the island they are often used as a lunch starter, or each will person order one mezes and this is shared, and is the whole meal. Mezes and salads are not limited to raw green vegetables. Many of these dishes are served with olive oil and lemon juice.
A Few Mezedes
Horta (endive or spinach, and can include wild greens like dandelion)
Tzatsiki ( yougurt, cucumber and garlic)
Melitzanosalata also known as Imam Baldi (eggplant and garlic)
Dolmades – stuffed vine leaves
Small fried fish - sardines and whitebait
Saganaki – fried cheese (halloumi)
Gigantes Plaki – baked butter beans
Fava – yellow split pea puree
Kiftedes – fritters, either zucchini or eggplant, or minced beef
Vegetables and Fruits
Fresh vegetables (usually from the home garden) hold centre stage in the Greek kitchen. These are then transformed in cooked dishes by the addition of olive oil and spices into wonderful dishes, or eaten raw with the addition of olive oil and lemon in tasty salads.
Eggplants Melitzanes are very popular cooked in many different ways. Takis is not very fond of them and always tries to get me to only plant a couple of plants. However he does enjoy Moussaka, and a the dip named Imam Baldi (in translation ‘the priest fainted’. Presumably with delight!)
I have described the basic Moussaka (slices of eggplant, potatoes, and mince and tomato, covered with a béchamel sauce. And a meal using similar ingredients in which the eggplants are just cut in half, with a mince and cheese topping (called Papoutsakia (little shoes). These are both main dishes.
Imam Baldi in which the eggplants are roasted and cooked with garlic as a dip is usually served as mezedes.
I also often slice eggplants thinly to make fritters. I first sprinkle salt on the slices to allow them to sweat, rise and dry, then lightly cover them with flour and fry them in a little olive oil. (You need this preparation as without it the eggplants just suck up the oil and end up an oily mash.)
From July on we have so many tomatoes I’m looking for ways to use and to preserve the bowls and bucket loads that come from the garden. I have already written about our tomato sauce and about a salad made with watermelon (for a very hot day!). Another tomato salad is made with slices of a mild cheese (halloumi from Cyprus is a good one to use) and basil leaves.
When the tomatoes are fully ripe, and large, that is the time to make stuffed tomatoes Yemistes, though we rarely just include tomatoes in this dish. It will include stuffed zucchini and stuffed green peppers. This combination not only tasted good but also looks good. The stuffing can be vegetarian with rice and herbs but can also have minced meat added to the rice.
Like tomatoes, when the crop arrives you have so many you can’t give them away, because everyone else has them in bucketfuls. These can be made into fritters like the eggplant, just sliced and dipped lightly into flour and fried with only a little olive oil until crisp. Or when larger cut in half and filled with mince in the Yemistes dish.
The flowers can be treated as a cover for a filling, though I usually use a lighter filling than mince. I just open the petals and spoon in a cottage cheese and egg mix, with the addition of some chopped chives. Then the whole small package is dipped in a batter and fried.
A salad is made with medium sized zucchini, left whole and boiled until soft. Then these are cooled down and, depending on the size, either cut in half or left whole, and covered with olive oil and lemon juice.
It would require a whole book to outline the involvement of this tree with humankind. But quickly I’d like to touch on times when an apple tree has impinged on my development. They do not do as well on the island but now and then I need to make an apple pie, usually with bought apples.
Being English I do have a relationship with this fruit. It started in England with my step-granddad had an apple shed where he carefully stored apples on shelves, to last all winter. Every now and then these were sorted and a few rotten ones were removed. But there were still a few, slightly shriveled but still sweet apples brought into the house around Christmas time.
There were apple trees growing in the allotment next to my boarding school. In late autumn I was sent on cold mornings to gather up fallen apples to grate for our morning muesli, and along with the apples went a few scraps of skin from my cold fingers! I still sometimes vary our breakfasts by making a raw grated apple museli.
Since living in Australia I’ve been aware of a ‘pom’ as slang term for us Anglo’s, and I’ve wondered if this is from a rhyming slang, immigrant, becoming pomegranate, and cut down to ‘pom’? Solomon, in the Song of Songs, described the cheeks of a girl as being like a pomegranate. Maybe that was another reason the red-cheeked arrivals from the land of apples were called ‘poms’.
Homer does not only mention the pomegranate in the Bible but also. Pliny, a Latin poet, called the tree a malum punicum (a Carthaginian apple) but it has long been naturalized in Greece and the Mediterranean.
In Greece it is often called rodia, and thus it is a very important symbol on the island of Rhodes.
We have a pomegranate tree that has now started baring fruit. But we do not have to wait for our own tree’s fruit, as neighbours will bring us loads. I make a drink by cutting the fruit in half, using a lemon juicer then a sieve. We keep the juice in the fridge, and perhaps add some sparkling water when serving.
Again this is a crop that arrives with a vengeance. They arrive late in the season, ripening in September and this fruit will not keep long. We eat a lot fresh figs, but I also make a jam with the less ripe fruit, with the addition of thinly sliced lemon rind. But figs are also dries on the island in early September, while the sun is still hot. I put a table in the sun with the fruit sliced open, seeds up. I’ll cover the table with a net to keep off the flies and wasps. In a few days, when the fruit has begun to dry a little, I turn them over - repeating the turn every so often. When nearly dry they are dipped in salt water (perhaps sea water) and then put in a medium low oven for the final drying off.
Stuffed grape leaves Dolmades are made early in the season when the leave are young and tender. I use a similar mix to that used in Yemistes - rice and minced meat mix with spice added to taste. It takes a long time to roll up each leave but the result is worth the time. The little rolls are placed in a saucepan and covered with water and I add a little salt and lemon juice. A plat is place over the lot to hold them down. They are brought to a simmer, and cooked until the rice and meat are cooked.
These can be served hot or cold, and especially good with a lemon sauce made with any left over juice from the pan.
I have sometimes made grape juice, and have preserved this juice for use another year. Plus, with the help of a neighbour who brings me grapes (all prepared to be dried) I also dry grapes on my table out in the sun, later using these sultanas, currents or raisins in cakes. Such a satisfying feeling to know you is using your own produce!
The main olive tree in our garden is very large and as old as the house, probably just over one hundred years old – though this is still young for an olive tree as they can live as long as 1,000 years. It is tall enough to shade the whole terrace. We do not severely lop it, as most olive baring trees are pruned. We love it for its shade so only cut out the dead branches.
However there was one year that I did try to preserve the drupes. Because we do not spray the tree it rarely has a good crop and insects mark each drupe. This particular year for some reason the tree was full of fruit, all unmarked. So, although I had to leave the island before they were black and ripe, I picked a number of green olives.
As my neighbour had showed me I stored them in plastic drinking bottles, which were then filled with salty water. Returning six months later I emptied out the salty water, rinsed the olives and then placed them into new jars with spicy vinegar. They were still bitter but OK chopped to spice up potato salads or added to a cacciatore. I have since learnt that I should have bashed them to split the skins before putting them in the bottles, as that lets out a little more of the bitterness – next time!
A horticultural note:
In some places these trees are seen as much of a weed as Eucalyptus trees are in California. When I was living in South Australia olive trees on the slopes of the hills were much reviled, especially by fans of native plants. But there were appreciated by new Italian and Greek immigrants who would go in family groups to the slopes and knock them out of the trees each autumn. Now, some year later, olive oil is more appreciated in Australia, and on many farms olive plantations are being grown.