Wednesday, 27 July 2011
Art to eat
My father always said that I should not play with my food. In France they consider bread as holy and you are not supposed to play with it. So I never play with the food on my plate. But I have other ways to play with food.
Here in Greece, I prefer to eat the vegetables of the season (there is hardly any other choice). So when the summer advances and the heat boils parts of your brain and I arrive at the vegetable shop I sometimes get mad about the small choice: tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, paprika, zucchini, onions, potatoes: those are the vegetables of the season.
I have to admit that I have given up Greek cooking. I have never understood how the Greeks know how to turn such simple ingredients into five star dishes. I have decided that in my kitchen it is more fun to play with those local ingredients than to labour to become a Greek cook.
For example, I love an African couscous and the only ingredient not available on the island is the couscous itself (those little wheatflour grains). You can import it from abroad or buy it at the Alpha Vita in Mytilini. But be careful what you buy: the Greeks have now discovered couscous as well, or let’s say they have produced something they call couscous; but it’s very tiny pasta balls that has a totally different property than the real thing – juice-loving little grains made out of wheatflour. Nor can you get merguez sausages on the island; but you can bake the local home made sausages with lots of hot paprika powder, which gives an inkling of the taste of merguez. Other specific ingredients for a couscous dish are tomatoes, chickpeas, mint, lamb meat which are all readily available during a Greek summer.
Another favourite dish is a Spanish paella and all the ingredients, except again for the sausages (a paella has hot chorizo sausage), are available. If you wish to make a paella with shellfish, you have to wait for the winter when they come fresh from the Bay of Kalloni. But with frozen shrimps (the fresh ones also come only during the winter), octopus and other fresh fish you can make a lovely paella. Saffron comes mostly from Kozani, the region in Greece where saffron crocuses are grown on large scale. The Greeks also make rice dishes with shellfish, but they keep it simple: just rice cooked in the cooking juice of the shellfish.
I also experiment with somewhat simpler dishes. For example, when you make a cream out of feta, cheese spread and other local cheeses (like ladotiri or graviera) you get a tasty dip which you serve with slices of cucumber. You can also spread the cream on grilled slices of aubergine. You roll them up, pin them together with a tooth pick and you’ll have a wonderful snack. And have you ever served feta with quince jelly, oriental fig confiture? Or you can serve it, as the French do, with some of their goat’s cheese, — just aroused with some honey and sprinkled with thyme? And then there are those Italian courgette pancakes made with grated courgette, eggs, garlic and basil.
Greeks will not approve when I will tell them about the fish terrine that I made recently with the fish that was supposed to be used for a fish soup. Greeks don’t like to mash their food and so a fish remains whole until it ends up on your plate (except of course for those in the soup). But when there’s a heat wave, like we have at the moment, you don’t fancy soup, so — a fresh fish terrine is a welcome change of food.
And, during this summer heat, how about a delicious icecold Spanish gazpacho (tomato soup)? I was once served a very tasty cold Greek yoghurt-cucumber soup by a friend who got the recipe from his mother who lives in Kozani. So the Greeks know a cold soup. But best cold soup you can get at the moment in Molyvos is the famous and incredible lovely carrot soup from the restaurant Majorani.
But what to do with all those melons? For the honeydew melons there is the old standby recipe of slices of melon with smoked ham. But a good ham (unless imported), is difficult to find here on the island, just like paté. You only get those farmers’ sausages, which are lovely, but why can’t they produce smoked hams, like they do on Cyprus?
A few years ago, I wrote about how, every summer, everybody is confronted with enormous amounts of water melon. You can even grill them: grilled watermelon. A while ago I saw an even better use for a watermelon: water melon art. I was flabbergasted by the beautiful objects they carved out of the fruit. On YouTube you will find plenty of instructive films on how to make them: for example – carving roses. And when you spoil one, you can eat it yourself!
It would be a super attraction for the tourists on Lesvos. The island does not have enough sandy beaches to organize a sandcastle contest. Nor does it have the right climate to build huge palaces out of ice. But Lesvos has mountains of watermelons and with them you can create large fields of flowers. If on Rhodes they can dance the sirtaki with 2000 persons, why can we not change 2000 watermelons into a piece of art?
(with thanks to Mary Staples)
@ Smitaki 2011