At the same time Easter leaves me on a high note of optimism. Yes you heard right optimism! The window has been open at work all morning, the breeze caressing my cheeks. It is bloom time and greens are filling my cooking basket.
Greek Easter is the biggest celebration of the calendar year, and YES it IS bigger than Christmas. I think its importance goes further back than the times of Christianity. Easter is after all is a moving celebration defined by lunar cycles, which often means that the Greek one falls at a different time from the rest of the world (apart from this year!). And Easter could be any time in spring but is always around or after the spring equinox (in March), when in ancient Greek times we celebrated the return of Persephone, the goddess of vegetation and bloom, to earth from the underworld (Hades). In our part of the world it seems it was always a time to be happy.
I love Easter time… and that love is contradictory, fuelled by nostalgia of early youth and my birth land, fed by new memories of celebrating at my new home with friends, and it is deeply entrenched in my heart. I don’t know whether I love Easter because of all the beautiful memories of gatherings and celebration at my Thracian or Evritanian villages, with my Greek families. Or because it was the time we were allowed to stay up well past midnight on Greek Big Saturday after we literally played with fire, holding beautifully adorned white candles, chanting out of tune under starry skies at midnight. Maybe it is because of all the ceremonial preparations and the thoughtful selection of the red Easter eggs to withstand the ferocious, conkers-like collisions of our traditional Easter egg game (and always chasing that cheeky, fraudulent cousin that brought along a fake, wooden egg in the hope to win – you know who you are!). Maybe it is all that festivity and happiness we were ‘allowed’ after the gloomy, strict religious week of the Great Passions of Christ, when no TV or happy music were allowed (there was a period of my childhood that from Big Thursday there was no music radio broadcast on any Greek radio station!). I used to hate that week and its gloomy tone but in a non-religious way I now see it as a good opportunity to reflect on the yin and yang of my life, the trials and tribulations of our world and the suffering experienced by people around it, humbly and modestly.
My ‘church’ is out in the fresh air and in my heart. I cannot pretend I am a religious Greek but I love our traditions and ceremonies from the red eggs, to the meditative Orthodox church ceremonies and spiritual chanting in candle-lit churches infused with incense (not far from some of the yoga and meditative chanting that is so widespread now). And that amazing Byzantine hymn – the ‘Sweet Spring’ – which I secretly hummed to on the Big Thursday even when I rebelled against going to church (I just love the poetry and the music of it – it is all about love and life). And the red Easter eggs, the dishes loaded with fresh greens and herbs, foraged and grown in ‘mpaxtsedes’ (backyard allotments) – mageiritsa, kourbani (which I think is an Arab word for sacrificial lamb). And the return to cheese after fasting and going vegan for Lent. And the soft brioche breads with toasted almonds, which are a tradition mixed with that of our Hebrew communities and Armenian neighbours. And the tender lamb, which was eaten once a year at Easter only because people would not sacrifice their animals often in mass production, commercial practices. And the land’s rebirth, the rebirth of the year, which the Greeks in ancient and moderns times, share with their Iranian neighbours who celebrate Nowruz with similar ingredients and lasting festivities.
But mostly I love Easter because of what it signifies to me – hope, rebirth and a beginning. And I wish you all the happiest of seasons, feeding on the greens that thrive around you in tune with nature’s cycles. And I also wish you resilience and defiance of the darkness of times and politics. Shine a light in your own heart and the hearts of others.
To find out more about my Greece and my Greek flavours join me at Lia’s Kitchen cooking class on 5 May 2017.
In April return to Greece for culinary inspiration. This month’s recipe is a risotto dish much loved in my homeland and to make it I am using seasonal organic Greens from Blaencamel Farm in West Wales. The key difference of this Greek risotto, called ‘Spanako-rizo’ or ‘Spanakoprasó-rizo’ is that it is less complicated in its cooking process (when compared to its Italian cousin) and it uses a lot of greens as the star ingredient rather than focussing on making a creamy rice. Whilst the rice is also added before the water it does not follow the Italian risotto method and you add all the water at once simmering the rice slowly to complete the dish.
Traditionally this dish is made with a rice called Karolina. In the UK, you can find this in Greek specialty shops, but also on the shelves of many of the Middle Eastern shops where you should seek it as Egyptian Rice. It is a short grain variety which keeps its bite when compared to Arborio. If you cannot find Karolina/Egyptian rice why not try Thai Jasmin rice which I find is a great replacement for many Greek recipes. In fact, as I am not a purist, I recommend that you try this dish with all rice varieties to find your preferred version.
Chard is regarded a wild green in Greece and has traditionally been foraged. Now cultivated widely in farms such as Blaencamel it has become a staple of our diet in the UK. Which is why I am using it together with spinach. Its meatier leaves, organic spinach, delicious Welsh leeks, foraged wild garlic and wonderful onions complete this version of the dish. In fact, Blaencamel farm’s April box will include all the ingredients you need to make your Greek Risotto. A perfect gift of the emerging Spring time and a great dish to help your body detox the heavy flavours of winter!
Ingredients (4 portions)
- 300g Blaencamel leeks (1 bunch), sliced
- 450g spinach (1 bag), roughly chopped
- 450g chard (1 bag), roughly chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 bunch wild garlic
- ¾ cup of rice
- Juice of one small lemon
- 1 tsp. tomato paste
- Up to 2 tsp. sea salt
- ½ tsp. black ground pepper
- 1 tbsp. sea buckthorn berries (optional)
- 1 finely chopped bunch of dill or 1 tbsp tried dill
- Extra virgin olive oil
Preparation (30 minutes)
1. Coat the base of a 20cm pot with olive oil and sauté the onion and leeks with one tsp of salt until soft and translucent.
2. Add the tomato paste and stir well.
3. Gradually add the chopped greens (spinach, chard, wild garlic) so that wilt slightly.
4. Add the raw rice and mix well.
5. If using chop the sea buckthorn berries roughly or crush and add to the rice and green.
6. Add the lemon juice, around two cups of boiling water, dill (if adding), another teaspoon of sea salt and the pepper.
7. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the water is absorbed.
8. Serve with more crushed sea buckthorn, some feta cheese and drizzle with raw olive oil.
A recipe inspired by the way Iranians make their open omelette or frittata, known as Kuku. It uses March’s seasonal vegetable like carrots and spinach still abundant at Blaencamel farm and in their weekly organic vegetable boxes. This type of frittata uses a generous quantity of ingredients so don’t be surprised when you see how much vegetable goes in it – it is what sets it apart from other open omelettes.
You can find Blaencamel farm vegetables at both Farmers’ markets in Cardiff, Roath and Riverside, on Saturday and Sunday respectively, but also in Aberystwyth and their own farm shop. Order their boxes here.
Ingredients (4 portions)
- 250g (3 medium) carrots, coarsely grated
- 150g spinach, finely chopped
- 15g (half a small bunch) parsley, finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 50g sundried tomatoes or mixed antipasti e.g. peppers and artichokes, finely chopped
- 30g cashews, chopped
- 3 Tbsp. Goji berries (optional)
- Fresh mandarin or orange juice
- 100g (half a pack) feta cheese, crumbled
- ½ tsp. ground cumin
- A generous pinch of smoked or regular sweet paprika
- ½ tsp oregano
- 1 generous pinch of saffron strands
- 2 Tbsp. flour
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 6 eggs
- 2 generous pinches of salt
- ½ tsp. sugar
- Olive oil
Preparation (30 minutes)
- Add enough fresh mandarin or orange juice to cover the goji berries in a small bowl or mug. Infuse whilst prepping.
- Add a tablespoon (or two) of olive oil to a 20 to 25cm non-stick pan, and sauté the onion on low heat with a pinch of salt and the sugar until it caramelises (5-10 min).
- Pound the saffron in a bowl with a rolling pin, beat in the eggs and allow time for the saffron to infuse in them.
- Remove the onions from the pan, add another tablespoon of oil, add the carrots and cumin. Sauté until soft (5 min).
- Return the onions to the frying pan, add the goji berries, cashews, sundried tomatoes and antipasti. Mix well.
- Add the spinach and parsley little by little so that it slightly wilts. You don’t need to cook your spinach much or at all but you might choose to wilt it a bit of you are using a smaller pan.
- Add the flour, pinch of salt, baking powder, paprika and oregano to the eggs and beat until the flour is mixed well and to give the eggs some volume and softness.
- Mix into the pan gradually and carefully making sure the beaten egg goes to the bottom of the pan and mixes in well between the abundant ingredients to hold them together. The pan should remain on low heat all this time.
- Make sure that the ingredients are spread evenly on the pan and sprinkle the feta cheese on top.
- After firming up the frittata on the hob for a couple of minutes, you can cook the frittata in two ways: a) If your pan is heat resistant place it in a preheated oven for about 10-15 minutes at 180-200 degrees –cover with a lid or aluminium foil for half the time, or b) Cover the pan with a lid or plate. Continue cooking on the hob on low heat for 8 to 10 minutes. Then place under a preheated grill for a couple of minutes or until golden and risen.
- If using a 20cm pan it should be at least 5cm dip to make a cake like frittata that will rise.
- You can choose to omit or include ingredients on this list. It is also very easy to replace them. For example goji berries can be replaced with cranberries or even barberries if you prefer an authentic Iranian taste.
Most of the people I know in Britain talk about how much they love Greek spanakopita (spinach pie) but my all-time favourite is actually Greek leek pie (prasópita). What best way to bring together my two homes other than in this wholesome, winter recipe?
Leeks are currently in season and Blaencamel Farm’s boxes and market stalls showcase this wonderful Welsh ingredient. You can make this pie using a couple of organic bunches of leek and one onion. And you will thank me for it as the flavour of Blaencamel’s leeks is special. Every bite will make you feel nourished and shun away the winter blues. Happy pie eating!
Join Lia’s Kitchen cooking classes on 3 and 10 February to find out more and savour Greek cuisine. Book here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/lias-kitchen-7901836356
Ingredients (4-6 portions or 12 pieces)
- 2 bunches Blaencamel Farm leeks (around 700g)
- 1 onion
- 200g Feta cheese
- 2 organic eggs
- 15g fresh dill (optional)
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. sugar
- ½ tsp. ground black pepper
- 250g filo pastry (packs available at most supermarkets)
- Olive oil for cooking and pastry basting
For the glazing
- 1 espresso cup milk
- 1 tsp. butter
- 1 tbsp. sesame seeds
Preparation (up to an hour)
- Peel, halve and slice the onion finely.
- Rub the salt and sugar in the onion slices with your finger until they are well separated.
- Let the onions sweat for ten minutes.
- Meanwhile trim the leeks and halve lengthwise. Place in a basin filled with water and rinse well to remove all dirt from between the layers. Repeat at least twice.
- Coat the base of a wide pan or pot with enough olive oil and preheat. The pot or pan should have a lid.
- Add the onions and slowly fry, covered until they caramelise.
- While the onions caramelise slice the leeks finely or roughly.
- When the onion is ready add the leeks and stir fry for ten minutes on medium heat until softened.
- Remove from heat (and pan if possible) and cool down.
- In a big bowl beat the eggs lightly and crumble the feta cheese.
- Add the leeks and onion mix to the eggs and feta. Add the pepper and mix well.
- Pick a baking tray (around 36cmx40 but can be a bit bigger) and using a brush or your hands oil its base and sides well.
- Layer half the filo pastry sheets one by one (6-8 depending on the pack), lightly oiling each sheet with olive oil using a brush or your clean fingers.
- Don’t oil the last sheet and pour the leek pie filling spreading it evenly across the tray with the back of a spoon.
- Repeat the layering process over the filling.
- Heat up the milk and butter in a small pot until the butter melts.
- Pour on top of the pie, starting from its edges but making sure that the full surface of the top sheet is also moistened. Tuck the corners in to seal the pie.
- Using a sharp knife slice the pie into twelve portions.
- Sprinkle the sesame seeds and bake in a medium oven (180 Celsius) for 30-45 minutes until golden.
Last week the amazing We Are Cardiff blog asked me to develop a recipe for them! And here it is together with the full blog.
Remember to find out more about Greek food join one of Lia’s Kitchen intimate cooking classes on 3 and 10 February. I will be introducing participants to Greek Kitchen basics but will also be sharing Greek flavours and recipes that are not yet widely known in the UK. You can book online here www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/lias-kitchen-7901836356.
Or contact Lia for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cima di rapa is a star ingredient grown organically in our very own patch by the fantastic Blaencamel Farm this January. It is a broccoli sprouting (Broccoli raab/Rapini) loved in Southern Italian/Puglian cooking, typically in anchovy and butter sauce combinations and served with orecchiette pasta. Together with the other greens offered in Blaencamel vegetable boxes and at farmers’ markets this January, Cima di Rapa has inspired a Lia’s Kitchen dish that takes me back to my Greek – greens – loving roots but also uses coconut milk, an ingredient I have come to love through my travels in India and Cambodia. Good and ample sea salt is essential for your recipe, as Cima di rapa loves a salty kick.
Ingredients (4 portions)
- 700g mixed Blaencamel farm greens, such as 2 bunches of Cima di Rapa, half a bag of spinach and half a bag of winter sproutings
- 5-10g peeled ginger (size of the top of your thumb)
- 1 big peeled garlic clove
- 1.5 cups of coconut milk for drinks OR 1 tin of coconut milk for cooking (400ml)
- 4 tbsp. coconut oil, if using coconut milk for drinks OR 1 tbsp. coconut oil, if using tinned coconut milk for cooking
- 1 heaped tsp. Oliveology’s truffle salt or Pembrokeshire Beach company Seaweed Salt
- 1 heaped tsp sea salt
- A pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
- 1 tsp Pembrokeshire Beach Company Kelp Seaweed (optional)
* You can source Pembrokeshire Beach Company products at Penylan Pantry.
Preparation (20 minutes)
- Wash all the greens really well. To ensure all dirt is removed leave the greens in a bowl or basin for around 10 minutes after the first wash.
- In a big pot add enough boiling water to cover the greens (stalks included) and boil for around 10-15 minutes on low heat, or until the stalks are cooked.
- Whilst the greens are cooking, heat the coconut oil and fry the ginger and garlic for a few minutes (roughly chopped in 2-3 three chunks each).
- Then add the coconut milk of your choice, the specialty salt and the kelp seaweed salt and chilli flakes if you are using.
- Lower the heat and simmer the coconut sauce for 5-10 minutes or until the greens are cooked.
- When the greens are ready, drain them keeping the liquid from the boiling process. You can use the liquid to boil pasta or noodles in it (if that’s a serving preference) and you might need a little bit of the liquid to thin the sauce of the dish, particularly if you are using tinned coconut milk.
- Return the greens in your big pot and pour the thin coconut sauce over them, simmering for another couple of minutes.
- If the coconut sauce has thickened use some of the liquid (kept after draining) to thin it. This is a dish for which you should have a runny, thin sauce to serve the greens in. The end result should be something between a thin soup and a stir fry.
- Cool down for 5 minutes and serve with bread or noodles to enjoy the flavoursome and nourishing sauce.
Rosemary Baron is keeping me company with her book about Greece and its food. I love reading others’ take on Greek food and this lady being an archaeologist is a very credible, unbiased source of information. She says, ‘the ancient Greeks regarded cooking as both an art and a science and throughput the ancient world Greek chefs were accorded the status and reputation that French chefs now enjoy. The principles and practice of fine cooking and gastronomy as we know it today were first established in the abundantly stocked and highly creative kitchens of Ancient Greece, and modern Greeks still enjoy the foods and tastes that inspired the chefs of antiquity’.
Rosemary Baron goes on to talk about the height of the Minoan civilization and trade with North Africa, which helped create a small garden of Eden in Crete that influenced Hellenistic cooking. At the height of the Roman civilization Greek chefs and teachers were sought after and employed in the Roman homes and kitchens, and according to Baron it seems under their tutelage the amazing, distinct Italian cuisine developed. Then the Byzantine empire helped the influence of Greek cooking influence travel further. And then during the occupation of the Franks, Venetians, Ottomans eastern and other influences arrived, and tribes like the Vlachs brought spices like my beloved paprika.
I am certain Greek chefs embraced new ingredients and influences from other cultures. The early Greek diet of olives, wheat, figs, grapes, wild greens, fish and a little meat was enriched with ingredients such as lemons, potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes, spinach, okra introduced by trade, but also war and occupation.
The silver lining is that even dark times of occupation were still characterized by culinary and cultural diversity. In her book Baron clearly asserts that the hybridity between Greek, eastern and even Balkan cuisine was mostly nurtured during the more peaceful Byzantine times rather than the Ottoman Empire. But I am sure that the Ottomans have helped many dishes travel through Greek chefs to new parts of their Empire where other cultures also embraced and adapted them.
What fascinates me is Baron’s explanation that during Ottoman times Greeks, who were forbidden to speak their own language, were forced to use Turkish names for dishes such as the now famous moussaka, boureki, dolmades, losing the connection of the dishes to their origins. As children we were taught about secret Greek schools during the Ottoman occupation. They were the underground hubs of language that kept Greek alive but I didn’t know that Greek chefs also took refuge in monasteries for their safety and to safeguard centuries of culinary knowledge!!! Apparently there they wore tall white toques which distinguished them from the monks – the toque is now the chef hat and symbol throughout the world.
Food and its love travel well even at the worse of times. It is a beacon of hope and should connect rather than divide. What I know as traditional and modern Greek cuisine is a real testament to that, and it is a lot more diverse than just the delicious feta and tzatziki.
You can now join my 2017 cooking classes telling you the story of my Greek kitchen. Classes include an Introduction to Greek Kitchen Basics; The Greek Flavours no one is telling you about; The Art of Greek Pie; The Magical Art of spice mixing.
Watch Rick Stein’s programme about Thessaloniki, Greece and its food to find out more about my city of birth and what you might get during our courses: http://bbc.in/2gnRaMQ.