The pursuit of imperfection

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On a recent trip to Greece it suddenly dawned on me that I’ve never seen a chopping board in my yaya’s house. How is this possible? And then I remembered, she cuts everything in her hand. Holding the vegetable—say, a potato—like a cricket ball towards the body, and deftly cutting wedges. I went on to think about other vegetables, and they’re all done in the hand: grated, sliced or trimmed.

It’s such a unique thing that it made me question where this came from, and why.

It seems to me to reflect a connection with the origins of the cuisine in the home cook, rather than the professional chef. Rustic and imperfect.

But back to the chopping board. Historically there has been a dominance of French food on what is considered conventional and even good food. I think this goes back to the legendary Georges Auguste Escoffier, a French-born chef, restaurateur and food writer who popularised the cuisine nearly 100 years ago (who in turn was influenced by Marie-Antoine Carême, a Royal chef in France and chef de cuisine for the flamboyant Prince Regent in the 1860s). It is Escoffier who introduced à la carte, as well as the now common military-style set up of the professional kitchen. His influence on the palate of the public still resonates loudly today, even with the changing tides of nouvelle cuisine or street food and sharing plates.

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Escoffier-led French cuisine lends itself to beautifully ornate and extravagantly designed plates of food. It’s professional food, elevated to the heavens. Greek food is simple—maybe slow cooked—and not often that visually attractive. Which perhaps explains some of the resistance to it (and let’s not forget that stodgy moussaka from the 70s—oh the damage that moussaka has done). French cuisine also professionalised and standardised cooking techniques. The food might not completely dominate anymore, but certain habits and techniques do—in the professional kitchen or at home. If you’re to make a meal at home, you get the chopping board out, a knife, and dice the onion, finely chop the garlic, slice the carrots etc etc.

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In Greece vegetables are treated differently, using texture to create flavour. Let’s start with onion. You should grate onion, not chop. Diced onion creates a completely different flavour-base to grated onion. Grated onion lends itself to slow cooking, melting away in a pan with olive oil. You can squeeze out a lot of the liquid (and a lot is produced if you grate an onion!), and some of the sharpness goes. I remember my Great Aunt Sofia—famously one of the best cooks in our family—would even grate the onion into a bowl of water and then squeeze it out before adding to a pan. I wonder if this eccentric or quirky preparation of vegetables is connected to the fact that many people in that area of Greece grew (and still grow) their own vegetables. Everyone has a ‘katanomi’, or an allotment. Being a poor country meant being self-reliant. Vegetables grown in the garden can be tough, bitter, sour, and you need to be able to respond to what nature gives you. Take a cucumber for example. In the UK you buy a cucumber and just eat it as is. In Greece, you might peel alternating strips of the skin as it can be quite tough. This connection to the land affects the cuisine.

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This is even demonstrated in the names you might give the different cutting styles. If you are cutting potatoes into wedges, you cut them ‘kidonates’ or cut like a quince. It’s important that they’re a bit wonky—the thin bits get crispy in the oven while the thicker bits soak up the oil and lemon that they’re inevitably roasted in. To do this it’s important to use a small paring knife, and definitely no chopping board.

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Tomatoes won’t be chopped for a sauce, but grated. When you have the amazing tomatoes available in Greece why do anything else? It’s an easy way to get rid of the skin, and leaves you with as much of the juicy pulp as possible to make into one of the many unctuous tomato sauces used in Greek cuisine (for papoutsaki, imam bayildi, youvetsi, gemista, I could go on…). My yaya would also sieve this pulp to make her famous concentrated tomato puree. Making tzatziki? Don’t mince or chop the garlic, always grate it.

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You wouldn’t grate tomatoes for the famous Greek salad of course—but notice that your tomato pieces will always be wonky when you eat a salad in a local taverna in Greece. The difference in texture and the lack of symmetry gives the dish a different rhythm.

To me, this technique of clutching your vegetables close to you and deftly hand-cutting vegetables demonstrates the prominence of home-style cooking in Greek cuisine. It’s about using intuition and using your ‘mati’ or eye rather than a fixed recipe. It is not haute cuisine. It comes from the field, the farm, the sea, the home.

And it is in the imperfections that you get the tastiest morsels. Who needs perfection when you’ve got the slightly burnt crunch of a thin piece of roasted potato stuck to the pan, a mouthful of chunky tomato and unevenly sliced green peppers with hand-crumbled feta, or an oozy aubergine bursting at the seams with rich tomato sauce. Achieving great flavour and taste can be mysterious, and not easily classified. Embrace the wonky.

Further reading

I struggled to find much written on the subject (maybe a sign that I shouldn’t have embarked on this ha!). But I did very much enjoy this piece by NPR about the affect the cut has on flavour, perhaps you might too: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/07/11/485235765/slice-dice-chop-or-julienne-does-the-cut-change-the-flavor

yaya's yoghurt

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Greek yoghurt takes many forms, from sheeps yoghurt, to yoghurt so thick it has a skin and texture like clotted cream. I remember eating a lot of homemade yoghurt and I knew I had to get my yaya’s recipe. To do this, we had to travel to the village.

We arrive at 9pm, and see a smattering of people (mostly portly men) in the square chatting and watching the England vs Russia match. There’s a strange atmosphere in the village this time  lonely, nostalgic, isolated. We’re told the village square now has free wifi (incredible to believe!) but that they turn it off evenings and weekends...

Throughout the evening we talk a lot of ghosts and dead relatives. We bump into the local drunk, who’s nickname is 'Phantagma', a play on the word 'phantasma', which means ghost. We call to an old lady on the street, ‘Thea!’ (which means 'aunt' – a word you use for any older lady you address), who hobbles past us and tells us his sad tale of alcoholism, how he became a shell of a man and ghost in the village.

That night I think I see someone walk past my bedroom door.

The next morning we sit with my aunt and uncle drinking greek coffee, eating 'bougatsa' (bougatsta is a kind of custard filo pie with cinnamon, but deserves a post of its own), and continue our discussion about the ghosts in the house. We all agree that the female ghosts stay upstairs where the bedrooms are, whereas the male ghosts congregate in the small living room at the front of the house. The house is heavy with the past. Generations have lived and died there, most recently my grandfather.

In the midst of this, my yaya gives me her yoghurt recipe…

ingredients...

Full fat milk
A tablespoon of live, raw yoghurt – kefir or rennet might do
Muslin

method...

  • Fill a medium pan three quarters full with the milk.
     
  • Slowly bring it to the boil, stirring well and making sure it doesn't burn. Then cool until it’s lukewarm.
     
  • Add 1 tablespoon of the live yoghurt and stir well.
     
  • Cover with a lid and lots of blankets to keep it warm.
     
  • Leave it for at least four hours, or until it has a skin – yaya starts the process in the morning and it's usually ready by the afternoon. But Greece is a warm country so this may take longer in the UK...
     
  • Remove the blankets and leave it to go cold – do not any this point cut up the yoghurt/skin.
     
  • At this point, you can put it in the fridge to cool and set further. If you’d like to make strained yoghurt, i.e. Greek yoghurt, strain it through some very fine muslin until it drips no more before you put it in the fridge.
     
  • Once it has gone cold, it's ready to eat.

On the way to our next destination (the seaside town Kavala), we buy sour cherries from the side of the road near a village called Gazoros – where they hold an annual cherry festival in celebration of their prized produce. My mum tells me that the village was originally called Porna and its where Darius stayed on his way to Athens from Iran. It was given the name Porna as it was the place to get prostitutes – also the origins of the word ‘porn’.

We buy the cherries from a woman selling them next to an abandoned petrol station, which feels lonely and bleak. She’s there for three months of the year, day in day out, selling produce to passing traffic.

In the car we look out to the valley while listening to Pondiaki music – the Pontos people coming from the Black Sea and speaking a unique dialect none of us can understand; a mix of languages from ancient Greek and modern Greek to Turkish, Russian and Persian.

I feel ready for the fresh air of the sea.

Part of a series of blogs I'll be writing about my visits to the family home in Greece.

A lathera recipe

image: Lisa Jane Photography

image: Lisa Jane Photography

Greek eating habits are informed by religion. The Greek Orthodox church has been integral in shaping the political, economic and social life of Greece for many centuries, influencing not only the traditions, rituals and special occasions, but even everyday eating. I remember my yaya would fast three days a week, and would eat certain dishes according to the religious calendar. Even non-religious Greeks are led by these routines. Lent is particularly important to Greeks – Easter is more important than Christmas – and many Greeks will eat only vegetables, and sometimes even avoiding dairy during this time.

A key ingredient in all Greek cooking, but especially when cooking with vegetables is olive oil. Oil is treated as an ingredient in-and-of itself, and is considered as important as anything else in the dish. This type of cooking is called 'lathera', based on the Greek word for oil – 'lathi'. The building blocks of this cooking is fresh, seasonal vegetables, herbs, tomato and of course olive oil.

There are many variations of lathera dishes, we’ve included a lathera dish of 'spanakorizo' (spinach and rice) on our menu a number of times, but my favourite is fasolakia (green bean stew). Although it might seem like the dish is too simple, or might be too oily, instead the food is slow cooked and taste like a stew – rich, comforting and aromatic. Olive oil is both used as a base, when sautéing the onions and garlic, and then again at the end. The balance of cooked and uncooked oil creates the layers of flavour.

Mostly, this dish reminds me of wintery days in the UK – I would come home from school and I could smell that my mum had put together a delicious dish of fasolakia. I could eat the whole pot. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have. We recently made it for our yoga lunch, here's the recipe we use...

image: Lisa Jane Photography

image: Lisa Jane Photography

ingredients...

(It's difficult to say how many this makes – in Greece you always just make a pot of food and see how long it lasts. I’d say this will feed four people)

½ cup olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 x onion, finely chopped
1 x can tinned tomato
1 x tbsp tomato puree
3 x medium potatoes, I used red roosters
1 kilo frozen green beans
Healthy splash of red wine vinegar
Pinch of sugar
1 x small bunch of parsley
Salt
Pepper
Optional: 1 x 200g pack feta – for crumbling on top

method...

Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Once it’s hot, sauté the onion in the oil until it’s soft, which should take around 10 minutes.

Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes more.

Add the frozen green beans (no need to defrost in advance), and then the tablespoon of tomato puree and mix together. Cook for a few more minutes.

Add the tinned tomato, the splash of red wine vinegar, pinch of sugar, and salt and pepper. This balances the flavours of the tomato, and brings out the sweetness.

image: Lisa Jane Photography

image: Lisa Jane Photography

Cook for 30 minutes.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into large chunks. Once the beans have cooked for 30 minutes, add the potato. If you put these in any sooner they will overcook and fall apart.

Finely chop the parsley and add it to the pot, then cook for a further 20 minutes.

image: Lisa Jane Photography

image: Lisa Jane Photography

It’s important to let the dish cool so you can serve it at room temperature, with good quality olive oil drizzled on top. A lot of Greek food like this isn’t served piping hot but cooled slightly to bring out the flavours. I like it best with the feta crumbled on top and a hunk of bread on the side, and it’s particularly good the next day.

image: Lisa Jane Photography

image: Lisa Jane Photography

Soma, Psyche and Pneuma

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

When you think of Greek food, what comes to mind? Is it souvlaki, or perhaps moussaka? Although you can get excellent grilled meats in Greece, this isn't everyday eating for most people. Vegetarian and even vegan food is regularly eaten, but isn't labelled as such. Rather it is just something delicious to eat. The history of poverty in the country, plus the influence of religious holidays and fasting, means vegetable based dishes using olive oil ('lathera' dishes, 'lathi' being the word for oil) is prevalent. My Greek Orthodox yaya still fasts to this day, and mostly eats a diet of olive oil and fresh vegetables. 

Balance between body and soul...

What is the relationship between food and our bodies? For Greek people, eating is both nourishing for the body and the mind. In Ancient Greece they believed in the the balance between 'soma' (body), 'psyche' (spirit, or soul) and 'pneuma' (literally meaning breath, and related to your physiological spirit). Earlier this month we teamed up with yoga teacher Sophia Pym (a fellow half-Greek!) to explore that relationship, and give people an opportunity to feed your body and soul – bringing together the ethos of eating simple, vegetarian food while also engaging with your body.

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The yoga lunch was held at Greenhouse on Green Lanes, and started with a flow and restore yoga class, balancing movement and rest for the guests.

Following the class came the lunch. The idea behind the menu wasn't deprivation, or providing low calorie food, but excellent produce and tasty, simple food. We put the menu together and realised that it was unintentionally vegetarian – proving how much variation there is in Greek cuisine.  

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Simplicity and mountain tea...

One thing we really wanted to serve our yogis was some Greek mountain tea as it has a unique taste and some great health properties.

Greek mountain tea, or shepherd's tea, comes from the Sideritis plant and has an earthy herbal taste. It's full of antioxidents and is said to have a range of health benefits, from easing digestive problems to helping inflammation issues. My yaya would give it to me for any illness, especially colds, and it is particularly good in the morning with a little thyme honey (luckily raw honey is easy to get in Greece!). It is possible to find in the UK and if you do come across it, make sure you boil it down with the stem, leaves and flowers. My grandparents lived on the foothills of a small mountain range so we always had this in the house.

The great thing about Greek food is that it's meant for lunch. Things are rapidly changing in the country, especially in the cities, but in my yaya's sleepy village you still have a large lunch at around 2pm and then a siesta. At the weekends, the siesta is followed by dressing up in smart clothes and walking around the square for a 'volta' to catch up on the village gossip (while also parading around in your best outfits) as the sun goes down.

For this menu, we kept the idea of sharing plates to present a range of flavours and textures. Although Greek cuisine uses a small repertoire of ingredients, the way they're cooked opens up a huge language available to the cook.

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Pita and dips...

Instead of our usual koulouri, we decided to go with traganisti araviki pita, or pita crisps. We handmade the pitas and then roasted them with olive oil and lemon thyme to make the prefect receptacle for dips. Greeks love dips, and we made my godmother's ('nona') tztaztiki, and a smokey aubergine dip ('melintzanosalata'), very similar to baba ganoush. I love melintzanosalata because it has such few ingredients – aubergine, garlic, parsley, olive oil, lemon and salt – and yet has such a complex flavour profile. 

To accompany the dips and pita we served two large salads – our tomato, red wine vinegar, greek basil and Cretan barley rusk salad; and our raw carrot and cabbage salad, lightly pickled in vinegar and salt. 

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

And then we thought, what goes well with salad? Fried cheese of course! This is a classic on a greek table, and you can use a few different types of cheese for it, as long as it's fairly hard and melts well. We went with kefalotyri (literally translating as 'head cheese'), which is made from sheep's milk and has great salty and sour taste while melting really well. This dish is part of the 'saganaki' type, which is named after the small frying pan it's cooked in. Other saganaki dishes include one with prawns, tomato and feta, or mussels and tomatoes. Our fried cheese saganaki is best served with a drizzle of thyme honey and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds. 

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Spinach and green beans (with lots of feta of course)

For the main event, we wanted to offer a 'lathera' dish, and a classic that is well known to people in the UK. So we went with fasolakia and spanakopita. 

Fasolakia is the kind of dish people will eat in the lent period before Easter, and has incredibly simple ingredients based around tomato, green beans and good olive oil. It's perfect served at room temperature with some crumbled feta and a hunk of bread.

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

I'm sure you all know spanakopita, and although it's a simple spinach pie it can be tricky to make because of the delicate flavours involved. We decided to add feta (so actually a 'spanakopityropita' – not the easiest thing to say with a mouthful of pie), and then stuck to my great aunt Sophia's recipe which includes dill, spring onions and parsley. It was really easy for us to make a vegan option without feta. 

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Apricot and pistachios...

After so much food we wanted to keep the dessert light. We didn't go with a traditional greek dish but rather something that uses classic Greek flavours but in a modern way. We found some excellent Greek yoghurt from my family hometown of Serres, so we served this with our apricot glyko koutalio which translates as apricot spoon sweet, preserved in syrup. This was topped with chopped pistaschio nuts and the option to drizzle some thyme honey, also from the Serres region.

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Greek coffee, Turkish coffee, Israeli coffee...

We finished the lunch in our usual way, with a small cup of bitter, chocolatey Greek coffee. Greek coffee is the same kind of coffee drunk across Greece, Turkey and the Middle East. It's boiled gently in a 'briki' pot, and although it looks like an espresso it's not meant to be drunk quickly while standing up but instead sipped over time and conversation. It comes either plain or with a little sugar, and is always drunk black. Honestly, the smell of Greek coffee might be one of the best smells there is...

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Thanks to all our guests for coming, we had a fantastic time sharing our concept and we hope everyone enjoyed the class and our special yoga menu. Hopefully we proved that Greek food can be healthy and delicious! Watch this space for another yoga lunch in 2017...

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography

Credit: Lisa Jane Photography