Wednesday, 11 January 2012
Winter Vegetables Blues
Sometimes I think: I wish it would always be winter. It is the refreshing quietness on the island, the winter sun that’s warm but not hot, nature that is saturated with rain and is shining green, beautiful skies, that for change are not just bright blue but populated with stout clouds. And, yes, whenever there is a storm flying over the island - like last week, when there was a southern storm that blew everything away from our garden, ripped thick branches from the trees and who knows what damage elsewhere - for a change it is nice to sit cozy, dry and warm at the fireplace.
And what is also nice about the winter is the food. Except for some nutritious soups the Greek kitchen (or island kitchen) does not have real winterfood like the stews we know in the north. Just as in summer you order several dishes, only the vegetables are different: cabbages and beans, green salads (marouli), leek, beetroots, celery and spinach. There is a bigger choice of fresh fish (weather permitting) and you can be sure that the calamaria and shrimps are fresh, just like the shellfish. There are huge radishes, there are wild vegetables (horta) and lovely goat or lamb in the oven. And another benefit: no watermelon as a desert, but pieces of cake or halva, fresh oranges or apples.
The vegetables are served very simply: cauliflower, cabbage leaves, broccoli just cooked and seasoned with a little olive oil and some drops of lemon juice. And they taste super, because they are fresh from the fields.
You could say that in the winter you eat the real authentic Greek food. Because whilst tomatoes reign over the Greek kitchen in the summer, the tomato is in fact an intruder. It was only around the Sixteenth century that tomatoes were brought from South-America to Europe by the Spanish conquerors. First the plants were just for decorations, because it was believed that the tomatoes were poisonous, and only about one and a half century later, tomatoes were accepted as an edible vegetable. Aubergines that originate from Asia came also to Europe around the Sixteenth century. A century earlier it was Christopher Colombus who brought seeds of the courgette to Europe, but the courgette that we eat now was only cultivated in Italy in the last century. The cucumbers were a little earlier: Pliny the Elder, a Roman military, writer, naturalist and philosopher, who lived in the first century AD, wrote that the ancient Greeks already grew cucumbers. But the cucumber originally comes from India. It might have been Alexander the Great, who was not only a big conqueror but introduced lots of new products (like the chestnut) to Greece, who brought the cucumber to Europe.
But cabbage is said to come from the Mediterranean. Green cabbage, red cabbage, white cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower ¬— they all came from a wild cabbage plant that loved salted coasts and poor grounds. Did you know that broccoli and cauliflower are the flower buds of the plant? If you don’t harvest these vegetables you’ll see the stems growing and the flowers appearing from their buds.
Beetroots also come from the Mediterranean countries. They come from wild spinach (originally called Sea Beet), a horta you can still find nowadays. The Greeks not only eat the root, but also the leaves. And yes, you guessed it: the leaves have a spinach-like taste. The roots and leaves all served together with a garlic sauce (skordalia) are a delicious Greek dish and if you run out of spinach one day, the leaves of the beetroot is a good replacement.
Celery leaves have been found in the grave of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamon (he died around 1323 BC). The ancient Greeks believed that celery came from the blood of Kadmilos, who was the father of the non-Hellenistic gods the Cabeiri who were originally worshipped in the islands of the North Aegean (Lemnos, Imbros, and Samothrace [and possibly Lesvos]). This cult later spread further afield to the island of Delos and according to Pausiana as far as Thebes on the mainland. The Cabeiri were an odd kind of gods, sometimes father and son, or mother and son, but their lives remain a mystery. According to one of the many Greek myths they may also have been the grandchildren of Hephaestus, a son of Zeus who was worshipped on Lemnos and was the god of technology, blacksmiths, craftsmen, fire and vulcanoes (his Roman name was indeed Vulcan).
So, if I may believe the ancient Greeks I do live in the home of the celery (Lemnos is the neighbouring island of Lesvos) and in the home area of beetroots and cabbages.
I like to experiment with food. I am even writing a cookbook with recipes that are Not Quite Greek, but are made from Greek ingredients (I also count the summer vegetables as Greek). Celery can be more than just a soup ingredient and can accompany more than just pork, cauliflowers and broccoli sometimes require some decoration, and beetroots sometimes can get fed up with just the garlic sauce.
Here is a foretaste for a dish from Just Not Greek:
Beet salad with marinated anchovy (gavros)
(side dish for 4 persons)
500 g beetroot
1 bay leaf
1 tsp sugar
a dash of vinegar
100 g marinated anchovy (or salted herring)
For the seasoning:
1 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp Greek yoghurt
1 tsp mustard
½ tsp dill weed
½ tsp thyme
Wash the beetroots, remove the leaves (leaving 1 cm of the stem) but do not remove the root. Put them in a pan with the bay leaf, salt, sugar and vinegar and add water until everything is covered. Cook for about 1/2 hour. When they are soft, cut the small root and peel them. Dice them into small pieces (about 1 – 1.5 cm). Put 4 of the anchovies aside and add the rest to the beetroots. Mix all ingredients for the sauce and add to the beetroot. Serve on a green salad and garnish each portion with an anchovy.
(with thanks to Mary Staples)
@ Smitaki 2012