Thursday, 22 March 2012

Almost Greek

Last week the weather was so cold that Lepetimnos was again dusted with a snowcoat; while this week mother nature organized another spring attack, with temperatures going above 20˚C. As much as I like to see a white Lepetimnos, I do hope that this time spring will win because - like many others - I’ve had enough of the cold.

While the weather is messing around, I rattle with pans and ladles behind the stove and the computer. As I have already mentioned, I am writing a cookbook. Well, writing is not the correct word, because it is already written. I am now to finalize it.

I am a cook who opens her refrigerator, sees what’s there and starts cooking. Cookbooks do give me ideas, but it’s my provisions that determine what and how things will be served on a plate. And I am in the luxurious position of not only having to check my cupboards for stock, but also of being able to see what the fields surrounding my house have to offer.

My favourite kitchen accessories are the wok and a wooden ladle: which can be a problem, as last winter my wok needed to be thrown away and I couldn’t find a new one on the island. Someone brought me a cheap one from IKEA near Athens, but already, after just a few weeks, the inside has started to flake. The wok now waits outside for a new home somewhere in the garden.

There is a cooking shop in Mytilini and another in Kalloni, but neither had a big wok in stock (I have to wait until the end of March), so now I am making do with a small one; and although its of very good quality, the spinach does not fit in it . I will manage as always and I am now cooking mostly with conventional pans, which is in a way better, because my cookbook is not about wok cooking.

I had originally thought of making it a crisis cookbook. You can turn lots of simple ingredients into lovely dishes and Greek nature is full of free ingredients. I am not a person who runs immediately to the shop, when missing an ingredient mentioned in a recipe: I prefer to replace that ingredient. But I do sometimes like to add a dash of cream or cognac and those are not exactly crisis ingredients.

This winter I discovered the woodstove and its oven. Since the stove has been burning, my electric oven is not used anymore. Baking, making stews, warming up — it all happens on the wood stove, that’s a considerable economy.

But it’s not good for the cookbook, because the woodstove does not work the same as an electric oven in which you can regulate the temperature and time exactly. I did find an alarm clock that helps me to take the bread out on time from the oven, but it does not tell me the temperatures.

So what I did last month was check all the recipes for amounts, cooking and frying temperatures and times. I am a cook who never checks amounts and just splashes some oil in a pan nor sprinkle salt and herbs over a dish with a spoon. I cut from the vegetables what I need and cook what I gathered on the fields without having it weighed.

I have already written that I have given up cooking Greek dishes. That is the same as making a French vinaigrette, which demands a certain flourish, and that I still cannot master. Greeks have a kind of Greek flourish of cooking: even though lots of recipes are very simple, I don’t get the same results, even when it’s the simple preparation of a white cabbage that simply boiled and served with some olive oil and lemon. So I am not going to pretend that I know how to cook Greek.

I cook ‘Almost Greek’, which will be the title of the book, make with Greek ingredients I make my own recipes. Well, that’s not the right word, because until last summer I was never into making recipes, just having fun with cooking. So it was quite some work to get all those dishes, which were never the same, written out into recipes.

This work is now done and I have a colourful range of recipes that can be made with all those delicious Greek ingredients — like orange mousse, feta cream, squid salad, sauce of wild asparagus and shrimps, fig fingers, tomato sorbet, Aegean rice, sardine salad, watermelon cocktail, almond cake, quince liqueur, spicy mushrooms and olive bread — only some of the 92 recipes.

I do know that most ingredients are not typically Greek, but more South European or even global, like most vegetables. But by combining them with Greek yoghurt, feta or Metaxa: that does give the recipe something Greek. And truth is that it’s this country (and especially Lesvos) that has inspired me to create these dishes.

I do hope that this cookbook will be an inspiration for all ex-pats living in Greece (or elsewhere in the South of Europe), for the tourists who love Greece, for the people who have never been to Greece but who like the Mediterranean kitchen and for Greeks who just want to eat something different. The book will be published in three languages: Dutch, English and German.

I’m not good at making dishes look like they come out of a magazine –which is a whole artform in itself – so I have chosen to have the book illustrated with drawings. A friend and well-known Dutch illustrator Sylvia Weve (who worked amongst others for the Volkskrant) made the drawings, and was constantly hungry while doing them. I hope to present the book sometime in May.

Because of all the cooking I’ve been unable to regularly write a weekly column. My thoughts were only about food. I do hope that at the beginning of the summer I can write again on a regular basis about things other than cooking.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

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