The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.
So sang the bard Byron in his multi-layered poem within the greater poem, Don Juan; lines my father was wont to quote. As an attempt to tap into that Romantic spirit, and also to celebrate the Mediterranean diet and a new study of its many benefits, we turn this week to those isles of Greece. Three Greek cookbooks in my possession purport to concentrate on the islands (although a lot of Greece is island), so I pulled them off the shelf, grabbed a bottle of olive oil, and started cooking.
Greek Island Cookery is a British import by Rena Salaman, the author of numerous Greek cookbooks. The book is illustrated with watercolors by Linda Smith. Although I am not particularly awed by these pictures, and they have little to do with the recipes, I find myself uncharacteristically liking them, as their soft colors evoke timeless summers on Greek islands (an experience I have yet to have). The book is divided into chapters on specific islands and groups of islands. Each chapter begins with an essay with a bit of history and travel notes, and is followed by the recipes. I get the impression that the recipes are genuine, at least up to substitutions for ingredients not to be found in less sunny climes such as Rena’s London or Ann Arbor. As such, the recipes are not that glitzy, but simple. True, some recipes may be time intensive (such as the stuffed grape leaves), but no complicated techniques or equipment are needed.
“Fasolatha” (page 105), a bean soup, was a bit of a problem. The recipe instructs us to soak cannellini beans overnight, then to drain and boil briefly. After that, we are just to toss in all the rest of the ingredients, except for the parsley garnish, and cook until the beans are done. The problem is that beans do not soften up that easily in the presence of other ingredients such as salt or acidic tomatoes. I followed the recipe directions, although I did hold off on the salt, and cooked and cooked and cooked the beans. Eventually, after three or four hours, the beans seemed almost done, but even then were not as soft as I like my beans. This might make a good slow cooker recipe, but it would still probably be a good idea to at least partially precook the beans. After all that cooking, I had beans with sauce rather than bean soup (although of course I could have added more water). Leftovers were good with a fried egg and cheese on top.
The “Dolmathakia” (page 59) from this book are the last batch of stuffed grape leaves I ever intend to cook. It is an incredible pain not only to roll each individual leaf, but also to separate them and cut off the knotty base of the leaf veins. These particular grape leaves were good enough, but not the tastiest that I have made. The filling consists of rice, pine nuts, onions, and dill, mint, and parsley. I would have preferred the filling with some sweet component: raisins or currants. The stuffed leaves are cooked on the stove in a bath of olive oil, lemon juice, and water. They were good, but even if I had added currants, not worth the effort. John Thorne, however, likes Rena’s grape leaves and it is her recipe that he offers up in Simple Cooking.
I almost did not make “Tonnos Plaki” (page 52), baked tuna. I already had lots of food, and tuna is quite expensive, but I ended up getting about half a pound of tuna just for Danny and me. This was a good decision: fresh tuna is a great fish to eat, and this is a good way to prepare it. Rena instructs us to top tuna fillets with a chunky sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and parsley, and then stick in a 350º oven for 40 minutes. This seemed to me like a very long time to cook fish, so I put the fish in a cold oven, turned the temperatuire to 350º, and left it in for half an hour. The fish then spend some time on a warming plate, which probably cooked it a little more. When we got around to eating it, the tuna was quite moist, and, at least by my standards, not at all overcooked. [Go to the recipe.]
“Kremythopitta” (page 33), or “Cheese and Onion Pie”, was a big nothing. This is a double crusted tart with a filling of onion, dill, and ricotta, firmed up with a couple of eggs. The crust is only flour mixed with egg, lemon, juice, and water. I couldn’t countenance a crust with no fat, so I added some olive oil, but the crust still had the taste and texture of cardboard. The filling was equally tasteless. Surprisingly, though, my guests ate this quite willingly.
Recipes from a Greek Island by Susie Jacobs is one of a series of slim books on cooking in various locales of southern Europe. In addition to a Greek island, this series has books on a French herb garden, an Italian farmhouse, and a Spanish village. The author is a Californian who, at the time of writing this book, had been living on the Greek island of Hydra for 15 years. The book is illustrated with some very nice color photographs. A few of the dishes are pictured, but most of the pictures are familiar Mediterranean scenes: ancient olive groves, colorful doors with flowers nearby, peasant women in the fields, old guys sitting outside at a table under a tree. One of my favorite pictures is of a herd of goats who have climbed on top of some sort of stone ruin. There is plenty for the vegetarian in this book; lots of salads and other vegetables, all with copious amounts of olive oil.
The potato salad, or “Potatosaláta me Throúbes” (page 75), consists of potatoes, onions slightly cooked in vinegar, capers, garlic, parsley, and olives, all dosed with lots of olive oil. This is a fine example of a non-mayonaisse based potato salad, and could easily be made in any quantity.
It is hard to get excited by the braised leeks, “Prássa tou Tapsioú” (page 63). Leeks and herbs (dill, mint, and parsley) are cooked in the oven with lots of olive oil and water. The herbs turned a muddy green after this treatment, and the leeks were slimy and oily. It did not taste at all bad, but I liked these leeks more with other food than on their own. This dish was not very popular with my guests, perhaps because of the way it looked.
My favorite dish from this cookbook was green beans in tomato sauce: “Fasolâkia Fréska Láthera” (page 69). Lathera is a classic Greek vegetable treatment that involves cooking vegetables in lots of olive oil, usually with tomatoes and garlic. In this recipe, the tomato sauce is flavored with cloves and allspice. The beans are traditionally cooked to death; Susie suggests cooking them just until tender. I used the dainty French green beans, and cooked them somewhat past tender, but not all the way to death. [Go to the recipe.]
Of the three books discussed in this post, I most like The Foods of the Greek Islands: Cooking and Culture at the Crossroads of the Mediterranean by Aglaia Kremezi. Although the book is illustrated with color photographs by the author, the focus in this book is on the recipes, not on art, not on lush National Geographic style photos, and not on travel prose. There are some interesting recipes in this book; I was tempted to try “Mastic Ice Cream” (page 263), but was put off by the 15 egg yolks needed. Aglaia’s rendition of cheese and onion pie looks more appetizing than Rena Salaman’s; the crust appears to be more edible, and her cheeses have more character than Rena’s ricotta. The recipes that I did try I liked very much, and I do not think that I am through with this cookbook yet.
One of my standard salads is a simple white bean salad, with the beans adorned only with onion, garlic, parsley, and hot pepper flakes, and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. Aglaia’s white bean salad, “Fassolia Salata, me Mayonesa me Kapari” (page 183) is quite similar, but with the addition of mayonnaise and capers and without the hot pepper flakes. Aglaia gives a recipe for mayonnaise, but I just went searching in the refrigerator. I had no open jar of mayonnaise, but I did have some salad cream, and so I squirted some of that into the bean salad. Real mayonnaise probably would have been better, since I decided that I preferred my old white bean salad recipe to this one.
“Alvaniko Briami” (page 161), an Albanian rice dish, makes its way into this book of Greek island food by way of Albanian workers on the island of Kea. Arborio rice is cooked in milk with green peppers, onion, feta cheese, and lots of dill. There is also a fair amount of olive oil in this dish. I found this rice to be especially delicious in combination with the following vegetable dish. [Go to the recipe.]
“Briami me Maratho” (p[age 198) is a sort of Greek ratatouille. This is made by combining all the usual ratatouille vegetables, as well as fennel, with a cup of olive oil, and then baking in a hot oven. Aglaia says to put everything in a 400º oven for 40 minutes. After 40 minutes I checked, and nothing was cooked. I went about my other cooking, occasionally checking the vegetables, but not much progress was being made. I even turned up the oven to 450º for a while. After the vegetables had been in the oven for two hours, and were still not done, I took a grocery store break. I came back an hour later, and finally, on opening the oven, found a glistening and unctuous mound of soft vegetables.
Greek Tuna with Tomatoes
Adapted from Rena Salaman, Greek Island Cookery
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 15-ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes
1 pound tuna
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
Cook the onion and garlic in a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Add the tomatoes, and cook for a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Lightly oil a baking dish into which the tuna fits, then fit the tuna into it. Spread the tomato sauce over the tuna, sprinkle with the parsley, and drizzle a little more olive oil on top. Put the tuna in a cold oven, and turn the temperature to 350º. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes.
Green Beans in Tomato Sauce
Adapted from Susie Jacobs, Recipes from a Greek Island
¼ cup olive oil
1 onion, finely sliced
½ teaspoon sugar
1 15-ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes
4 sun-dried tomatoes, minced
3 cloves garlic
3 celery stalks with leaves, peeled and diced
1 bay leaf
Pinch ground cloves
1 pound green beans
Heat the oil in a large skillet, and add the onion and cook until soft. Add all the rest of the ingredients, using salt and pepper to taste, and simmer until the beans have reached your desired degree of doneness. I like the beans very soft.
Adapted from Aglaia Kremezi, The Foods of the Greek Islands
¼ cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
1½ cups Arborio rice
1 pound feta cheese, crumbled
1 large bunch of dill, chopped
4½ cups milk
Preheat the oven to 400º. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and peppers and cook until soft. Stir in the rice and cook for a few more minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, and let the mixture cool slightly. Stir in the feta and dill. Transfer the rice mixture to a large baking dish, and pour the milk over it. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the rice has absorbed the milk and is completely cooked.