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...
(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
Optional: 1 x 200g pack feta – for crumbling on top
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.
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.
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.