Sunday, 30 March 2008

To sin during Lent

Since Lent has started the summer weather has slowly died away. Lower temperatures, some rain and some occassional storms are somewhat more normal for the time of year. Which you cannot say of nature, that did its best to bring plants into flower as quickly as possible and made all the greenery grow to great heights.

Seeing the fields with all the bright flowers you think it's May: besides the proud daffodils there are yellow chrysanthemums, white daisies, blue lupins, purple geraniums, pink carnations and lots of other flowers. Orchids peep out of the earth and thorny brooms colour the mountain slopes with their yellow flowers, as do the white blossom of the wild apple and pear trees.

The leaves of the wild vegetables (chorta) and herbs give the landscape a fresh green colour. It is spring and it is Lent (the Dutch name for spring: lente).

Nowadays there are not so many Greeks that follow all the rules of the 40 days of Lent. Not all of them abstain from meat, milk products, eggs, fish and vegetable oil, like olive oil. So many days of such a meagre diet of only vegetables and seafood would be dull for the modern Greek. Many Greeks nowadays live according to a less strict Lent: they fast just on special days like at the start of Lent on Clean Monday or in the Holy Week, the last week of Lent, one week before Easter. (I suppose that most people know that in Greece Orthodox Easter is celebrated, which this year is on the 27th of April).

Lent or not, the succulent young leaves of chorta ask to be picked. I already mentioned once that I often eat chorta, not because of its taste, but because I know that it's healthy. I now discovered a sweet chorta, the taste of which reminds me of spinach: the Normal sow-thistle (zóchos). When you cook this thistle a little, cut it in small pieces and add some mayonnaise mixed with some yoghurt, you will have a wonderful and healthy dip sauce.

But my favourite free product from nature remains wild asparagus. You can even become obsessed with looking for them. See it as a search for Easter eggs. You have to learn to really look hard for the small stems, which often come out of the earth centimetres away from its thorny bush. And when you get into the game, it will be difficult not to stop at the next bush. When you go for a walk, this way you will never go far. But you will come home with a bunch of asparagus.

Greeks cook them and use them in an omelette. My favorite recipe remains to use them in a béchamel sauce, to accompany gambas, or small shrimps put into the sauce as well, to stir over pasta.

Greeks also use eggs to serve pastourma. It might not be the right subject to write about during Lent, but I rediscovered this dried meat during my recent stay on Rhodes. There a restaurant served a tasty omelette spiced with this meat.

Pastourma is a dish (actually it's a recipe for how to preserve meat), that comes from the Ottoman/Armenian kitchen, but it remained popular amongst the Greeks and is well known in the cuisine of the Middle East. It is said that it was even known in the Byzantine world.

It is also said that pastourma is made from camel meat. I used to wonder where the Greeks got camels from... But pastourma is just the name for air dried meat spiced with amongst other things cumin, spicy paprika, garlic and fenugreek. In Greece it is mostly, but also sheep, goat or pork can be dried this way.

The principle of drying is to remove all the water. First the meat is pressed, then covered with all the spices and dried in wind and air. I read a story about horsemen in Central Europe that used to have pieces of meat hanging in their saddle bags and while they were riding the horses, they pressed the meat with their legs.

However it is made nowadays, pastourma is a spicy piece of meat that you serve in thin slices as mezès, or you use it to spice other dishes. It gives a dish a typical pastourma flavour, like sweet spicy game meat.

Last week I tried two different dishes made with it: fresh beans with pastourma and roasted paprika, and quick fried dried figs, filled with soft white cheese, enveloped in a slice of pastourma and a sage leaf. Especially this last one was like an angel on your tongue: heavenly!

For all people that do not take Lent that seriously here are the recipes:

Fresh beans with roasted paprika and pastourma:
(amounts of ingredients to taste). Cook the beans and peel the roasted paprikas. Fry some thin slices of pastourma in some butter, add the beans and the paprika in pieces and add salt and pepper to taste. A lovely dish to serve with asparagus.

Fried dried figs with pastourma:
For 1 fig: cut the stem with a little sharp knife, make a small cut so that you can make a hollow. Fill this up with 1/3 of a tea spoon soft white cheese. Cover the opening with a slice of pastourma and cover the meat with a sage leaf. Fasten everything with a wooden tooth pick. Fry the fig quickly with the meat under in a little bit of oil until the meat is crispy.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

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