The Olympic flame in Athens rekindled a passion for all things Greek

T
When the Olympic flame was lit in Athens at the start of the games it rekindled a passion for all things Greek from Nana Mouskouri to Telly Savalas.

The spectacular opening ceremony drew gasps of admiration from viewers all over the globe as they focused in on Greece – the Olympic Games had come home. 

For me, interested in gastronomy more than sport, memories of my last trip to Greece came flooding back – thick ewe’s milk yogurt, drizzled with local honey for breakfast at the Hotel Maronika in the little fishing village of Epidavros. In Ampeloesa Taverna across the quay I ate Octopus with lemon and rigani, Skordalia, Melanzana Salata, a delicious salad of black-eyed beans with finely sliced scallion and dill, drizzled with Greek Extra Virgin Olive oil and lemon and of course the ubiquitous Taramasalata. After the simple feast, my new Greek friends Georges, Dimitri, Charles and Andreas jumped up and spontaneously started to dance to the CD in the juke box, with their arms linked they stepped lightly and swirled gracefully, they knew all the words of the songs – sad songs, rebel songs, love songs and there was a wonderful easy camaraderie between them. They danced and sang for sheer joy long after I’d headed for my comfy bed overlooking the harbour.

Now that we’re in the Greek spirit, why not recreate the atmosphere of a Greek taverna –think whitewashed walls and blue paintwork, check table cloths- set the table with white utilitarian style plates and glasses, a bowl of fresh lemons as a centrepiece and maybe a few branches of olive or bay leaves. Greek food is all about conviviality and communal pleasure and taverna style dining is marked by its simplicity and generosity, dishes of food on the table for guests to share. Try to find some ouzo and retsina, the Aleppo pine flavoured wine to serve with the mezze.

Its easy to recreate Greek flavours if not the climate, think olives, lemons, feta, lamb, cod’s roe, dried figs, walnuts, pistachios, honey, vine leaves, saffron, yogurt, capers, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, strong coffee ……. Plan your menu, ring up the pals, whip up a Greek Village Salad, snatch a few minutes of the Olympics. Find a CD of Greek music to get you into the spirit. Demis Roussos or the theme music from Zorba the Greek would be terrific– you may want to dance after all that ouzo!.

Aubergine Puree with Olive Oil and Lemon

Serves 6 approx.
This is one of my absolute favourite ways to eat aubergine. It is served all through the southern Mediterranean, there are many delicious variations and it is often included in a plate of Mezze.

4 large aubergines
4-5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
freshly squeezed organic lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, optional
Roast or grill the aubergines depending on the flavour you like.

Prick the aubergines in a few places. Roast whole in a hot oven for about 30 minutes, turning over from time to time – they will collapse and soften. To grill, prick them as for roasting, put on a wire rack under the grill and turn them regularly until the skin is black and charred.

Allow to cool. Peel the aubergines thinly, careful to get every little morsel of flesh. Discard the skin and drain the flesh in a sieve or colander. Transfer to a bowl, mash the puree with a fork or chop with a knife depending on the texture you like. Add extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Variations:
1. Freshly crushed garlic may also be added.
2. In Turkey some thick Greek yoghurt is often added, about 5-6 tablespoons for this quantity of aubergine puree, reduce the olive oil by half.
Mixed with ricotta and freshly chopped herbs eg. marjoram this makes a delicious 'sauce' for pasta.

Squid with Olive Oil, Fresh herbs and Garlic

Serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a main course
2 medium-sized squid
4 tablesp extra virgin olive oil, preferably Greek – Mani would be good
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
1-2 tablesp. parsley, chopped
1 -2 tablesp. oregano or dill, chopped
Garnish
Segments of lemon

First prepare the squid. .
Cut off the tentacles just in front of the eyes and remove the beak. Pull the entrails out of the sac and discard. Catch the tip of the quill and pull it out of the sac. (Now you know why the squid is called the scribe of the sea.) Pull off the wings and scrape the purplish membrane off them and the sac. Wash the sac, wings and tentacles well.

Cut the sac into ¼ inch (5 mm) rings, the tentacles into 2 inch (5 cm) strips and the wings into ¼ inch (5 mm) strips across the grain.

Just before serving, heat 4 plates. Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the garlic, stir, (careful not to burn, toss in the squid (do it in two batches if necessary). Toss around for 30-60 seconds or until the pieces turn from opaque to white. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add the herbs, taste. Serve instantly on hot plates with a segment of lemon on each.

Tzatziki

This Greek speciality is a delicious cucumber and yoghurt mixture. It can be served as an accompanying salad or as a sauce to serve with grilled fish or meat. Greek yoghurt is most often made with sheep's milk and is wonderfully thick and creamy.
1 crisp Irish cucumber, peeled and diced into c-3 inch dice approx.
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 heaped tablesp. of freshly chopped mint
1 pint (450ml) Greek yoghurt or best quality natural yoghurt
4 tablespoons cream

If time allows, put the cucumber dice into a sieve and sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for about 30 minutes. Dry the cucumber on kitchen paper, put into a bowl and mix with garlic, a dash of wine vinegar or lemon juice and the yoghurt and cream. Stir in the mint and taste, it may need a little salt and freshly ground pepper, or even a pinch of sugar.

Baklavas – Honey and Almond Cakes

From ‘Greek Food’ by Rena Salaman
This is a sumptuous cake, suitable for a large gathering and not difficult to make. Left covered at room temperature, it will keep for days even if it does become a little drier. This quantity will make approximately sixteen medium-sized pieces. Allow two per person

Filling
450g (1lb) walnut, coarsely chopped
55g (2oz) sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Syrup
225g (8oz) caster sugar
300ml (½ pint) water
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tablesp. lemon juice
some lemon peel
2 tablesp. Greek honey

Pastry
450g (1lb) fyllo (filo) pastry
170g (6oz) unsalted butter, melted

Mix all the filling ingredients in a bowl.

Liberally butter the base and sides of an elongated or round, as is more familiar in Greece, baking dish. Measure the length of the fyllo against the baking dish roughly and, allowing 2cm (1in) extra approximately for shrinkage, cut to length with a sharp knife.

Brush each layer of fyllo with melted butter and spread over the base of the container as evenly as possible. (A few folds here and there will not mean the end of the world or your cooking career!) Once you have used 5 layers of pastry, sprinkle a thin layer of filling all over the surface and add 3 more layers. Sprinkle a thin layer of filling and place 2 more sheets of fyllo on top. Sprinkle on the remaining filling, spreading it evenly, and cover with 7-8 more layers of fyllo, brushing individually with butter. Fold any excess pastry on either of the sides over the filling and brush it with butter.

(Alternatively, spread 8-9 sheets of pastry on the base and sprinkle all the filling evenly on it. Cover with 7-8 sheets of pastry).

Brush the top layer liberally with butter in order to get it crisp and golden. Trim any excess pastry with a sharp knife, keeping in mind that it will also shrink. Cut the top layers of fyllo carefully, either diagonally into diamond shapes or straight, which will result in square or elongated pieces. Be careful not to cut right down to the base, but only the top layers. This is done in order to make cutting and lifting the pieces out, once it is cooked, much easier and efficient.

Using the tips of your fingers, sprinkle drops of water all over the surface, in order to prevent the pastry from curling up, and cook it in a pre-heated over, gas no. 5 (375F/190C) for 15 minutes; lower the heat to gas no.4 (350F/180C) and cook for a further 20 minutes.

Burgi Blaüel’s Moussaka

Serves about 16
4 tablesp. Mani extra virgin olive oil,
3 large onions, chopped
300-350ml (10-12flozs) red wine – preferably Greek
salt and freshly ground pepper
1-3 teasp. ground cinnamon to taste
3kg (6lb 10oz) aubergines or
1½ kg (3lb 5oz) aubergines and 1½ kg (3lb 5oz) zucchini (courgettes)
3kg (6lb 10z) potatoes, cooked, peeled and sliced
1½ kg (3lb 5oz) beef, lamb or pork, freshly minced
1kg (23 lb) of passata

Béchamel Sauce:
1 litre (1¾ pints) milk
250g (9oz) flour
1 teasp. nutmeg
5 free range eggs, whisked

Parmesan cheese 

2 x 25.5 x 21.5cm (10x 8½ inch) lasagne dishes

Slice the aubergines and zucchini into 1cm (½ inch) slices. Score the flesh with a sharp knife and sprinkle with salt. Leave for half an hour.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over a medium heat, add the chopped onion and sweat for 4-5 minutes, add the mince and wine. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, a little ground cinnamon and the passatta.
Stir and bring to the boil and cook for 10-15 minutes.

Rinse and wipe the aubergines and zucchini dry. Heat a little olive oil in a pan grill until hot. Cook the aubergines on both sides until golden. Brush the zucchini with olive oil, pan grill until light golden on each side. 

Heat the milk, whisk in the flour, add the whisked eggs. Season with salt, freshly ground pepper and nutmeg.

To assemble:
Arrange a layer of sliced aubergine on the base of the dishes, followed by a layer of sliced zucchini and then a layer of potato. Season well between each layer, add a layer of meat sauce. Cover with a layer of Béchamel and sprinkle with Parmesan Cheese.

Bake in a preheated moderate oven 180C/350F/gas 4 for 30-35 minutes or until golden on top and bubbly at the edges. Rest for 10 minutes, serve.

Foolproof food

Traditional Greek Village Salad with Marinated Feta Cheese

This salad is served in virtually every taverna in Greece and is delicious when made with really fresh ingredients and eaten immediately. We use our local Knockalara ewe's milk cheese instead of Feta which is seldom in the condition that the Greeks intended by the time it reaches us!
Serves 6

3 oz (85 g) cubed Knockalara ewe’s milk cheese*or Fresh Feta
1-2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon marjoram
2-1 crisp cucumber
6 very ripe tomatoes
6 scallions or 1-2 red onions
12-18 Kalamati olives
2 tablespoons approx. chopped fresh Annual Marjoram
3 tablespoon Extra virgin olive oil (We use Mani, organic Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt, freshly cracked pepper and sugar

Garnish
Sprigs of flat parsley

Cut the cheese into 1 inch (2 cm) cubes. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and some marjoram.
Just before serving
Halve the cucumber lengthwise and cut into chunks. Slice the red onions or chop coarsely the green and white parts of the scallions. Core the tomatoes and cut into wedges. Mix the tomatoes, cucumber, scallions, olives and marjoram in a bowl. 

Sprinkle with olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Season with salt, freshly cracked pepper and sugar and toss well. Sprinkle with cubes of cheese and sprigs of flat parsley. Serve at once.
Note: Slices of red pepper may be included or cubed avocado or chunks of water melon.

Greek Salad in Pitta Bread
Split a Pitta bread in half across or lengthwise. Fill with drained Greek salad, shredded lettuce and serve immediately.

NB: Filling should be spooned into Pita bread just before it is to be eaten, otherwise it will go soggy.

Greek Salad Kebabs

Another speedy nibble to add to your Greek theme.
Thread a piece of cucumber ,tomato, olive, scallion, and a chunk of feta onto one end of a satay stick. Arrange on a round plate with the salad towards the centre. Just before serving whisk the dressing , sprinkle over each kebab and serve immediately.

Top Tips

Real Greek and Mezedopolio Restaurant in 15 Hoxton Market, London N1, Tel 00 44 207 739 8212 – www.therealgreek.co.uk
If you can’t get to the Real Greek you can recreate the food at home from Chef Theodore Kyriakou’s cookbook ‘Real Greek Food’ published by Harper Collins.

Rupert Hugh Jones sells adorable little olive trees at the Farmers Market in Midleton and Douglas on Saturdays from 9-1. You’re unlikely to produce enough olives for olive oil but they’ll look great on your table surrounded by mezze for a Greek lunch.

Charles Byrne will bring groups to Greece for the Olive Harvest between November and January, this year promises to be a good one. Contact Charles at 087-6482415 charlesmbyrne@eircom.net 

Savour Kerry – a directory of small local producers of good food from all over the Kingdom – this great little guide has been written by Sarah Caridia and produced with the support of the Kerry County Enterprise Board – ‘a reference guide to those who add so much to the flavour that is Kerry’ with particular emphasis on the artisan producers and their speciality foods which thrive outside the mainstream of mass production.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

Letters

Back to List
Latest Letter
All Recipes
Back to Website
All Darinas Letters are published each week in The Examiner

Past Letters

  • Recipes