My mum’s Giouvetsi (Γιουβέτσι)

This is one of Greece’s most popular ‘Sunday roast’ and restaurant lamb dishes and yet many tourists that visit Greece each year don’t even know about it.  It is often on the menu in truly authentic Greek tavernas, but with the coming of mass tourism in Greece in the 1960’s, it’s now by passed by dishes such as Stifado and Kleftiko.  The dish is called Giouvetsi (Γιουβέτσι) and it conjures to me fond and cherished memories, as with most Greeks, of my mother doing it for the Sunday table.  Incidentally, I had this dish on our hotel menu for 2 years but sadly it was not moving, so I decided to take it off.

Giouvetsi (Γιουβέτσι) with shaved cheese - nothing better!

Giouvetsi (Γιουβέτσι) with shaved Kefalograviera cheese and orzo pasta (kritharaki) – one of last summer’s special dishes!

This dish is traditionally cooked in a clay earthenware casserole pot, a γάστρα (gastra) in Greek, which creates the distinct taste and nutritional value of food cooked in them.  For generations mothers used to wake up early on Sunday, the day of rest for most, to prepare this dish and take it to the baker where they would give him their ‘gastra’ to bake after he finished baking the bread, using the remains of their hot wood-burning brick oven.  In my mothers island of Ereikousa, they did not have a baker but each household had a brick oven in which they would take turns to bake the bread for that day.  In this way, the women would not need to heat their oven every day but only when it was their turn so that on each designated day the women would take their bread to the oven that was working.  After the bread was baked, they would put the ‘gastra’ in the oven and leave it cooking slowly until it was ready to have their lunchtime meal.

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Simmer the lamb shanks until they are tender in stainless steel pot, then bake them in a clay pot.

There is normally one pasta used for this dish,  it is orzo pasta (or in Greek ‘κριθαράκι – kritharaki’).  This rice shape pasta is traditional for Giouvetsi and many a people have confused it for rice but this time my mother used another Greek pasta called ‘κοφτό – kofto’ which is similar to the Italian pasta Ditalini.  She prefers this pasta since you use less of it and it absorbs more of the luscious sauce.  Most people can name quite a few Italian types of pasta but the Greeks have their own types which they use for their dishes and few people realize how many different Greek dishes are made with pasta. On the island of Corfu since it was under Venetian rule rather than under the Ottomans, pasta was often used, which is why we have many pasta dishes.  No one really knows where pasta originates but I would not be too surprised if the ancient Greeks had something to do with it!

After baking in the clay pot (gastra) for 40 minutes!

After baking in the clay pot (gastra) for 40 minutes!

Even though there are many British people who love pasta, I don’t think it is as popular as the mighty potato! This past summer, a person who stayed with us and loved the hotel, on a Tripadvisor review he wrote, ‘only complaint… there was quite a lot of pasta dishes’!   Which reminds me of the Spaghetti Harvest – April Fool’s Day Hoax in 1957 which generated an enormous response. Hundreds of people phoned the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree!

Giouvetsi (Γιουβέτσι)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3  lamb shanks
  • Extra Virgin Greek olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 glass of white wine
  • 1 kg  chopped (puree) tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon of tomato paste
  • 1 cup chicken stock (optional)
  • 3 cups of water
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4-5 whole cloves
  • 4-5 whole allspice
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
  • 500 grams of Ditalini (κοφτό) or orzo pasta (κριθαράκι)

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. Warm the olive oil in a deep casserole and brown the lamb shanks on all sides.
  2. Add the onion, garlic and leave until they are translucent.
  3. Pour the wine in and wait for 5 to 10 minutes with lid on.
  4. Add the chopped tomatoes which my mother has blended in a food processor, tomato paste, stock and the water (until it covers the lamb).
  5. Add cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, whole cloves, whole allspice, freshly ground pepper and sweet paprika.
  6. Put the lid on and let simmer for 1h to 1 1/2h until the lamb shanks becomes tender. Replenish with water if it needs it.  Season with salt towards the end.
  7. Boil pasta for 2 minutes, drain and get it coated with a little olive oil. This is for it not to stick to each other.
  8. Add the cooked lamb shanks in the clay pot.
  9. Add pasta and pour the sauce over lamb and pasta.  This should cover the pasta, add water if not.
  10. Bake in preheated oven at 170ºC for 40 minutes until the pasta is cooked and there’s still some liquid sauce.
  11. Add plenty of cheese and serve.
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Greek Lentil Soup (Fakes)

Theodora's Greek Lentil Soup, called Fakes in Greece!

Theodora’s Greek Lentil Soup, called Fakes in Greece!

Lentils have been eaten by mankind (women more than likely planted them, gathered them and cooked them in those early days) for over 10,000 years.  It was a very easy dish to prepare with very few ingredients and of course, it is loaded with protein and iron, so if the men came back from the hunt empty-handed at least they had a warm lentil soup waiting for them that was totally nutritious!  Another very Greek and traditional soup made from legumes is Fasoulada, Greek Bean Soup.

I owe this recipe to my friend Paul!  A very long time ago,  I made him a gift of a few bags of Greek lentils and promised to show how to cook them so it is about time I honored this vow! Greek Lentil Soup is called ‘Fakes’ in Greece, and is a very simple dish to make.  You may see it in other blogs as Faki but that is just one lentil which would make a very watery soup.

Some of the ingredients for Greek Lentil Soup

Some of the ingredients for Greek Lentil Soup

Traditionally this soup does not contain tomatoes as they were brought over to Europe at the time of Columbus, nor were the carrots and celery added, which is more than likely the reason why I did not eat it when I was young however much my mother tried to force it on me and my sister, she did not like them when she was young, as well.  In my village, most people still eat lentils this way! and some children will still say no to them.

Add the first ingredients and bring to boil.

Add the first ingredients and bring to boil.

The recipe below is a fairly modern version of the Greek traditional dish but I adore it non-the-less and I’m happy to say most of my hotel guests adore it as well regardless of whether or not they have tried the soup before.  It’s the kind of soup that you can add things to it and it will still work.  I know some people to have add bacon, chicken or just the broth, or many other types of vegetables and yet the soup is always delicious.

Most Greeks would add a few drops of red wine vinegar when they eat it and eat it with Kalamata Greek olives (Greek olives is a must!) and some fresh onions.  I prefer to add a few drops of Tabasco sauce which is mainly vinegar, plus I love the added kick that it gives to the soup.

Theodora’s Greek Lentil Soup (Fakes)

Ingredients:

1 bag of Greek brown lentils
1 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
1 large celery stick, diced
2 bay leaves
2 pinches of Greek oregano
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup chopped tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

  1. Prepare the lentils: Lentils may contain small rocks and irregular looking beans that you do not want in your soup. To check the lentils, pour them in small batches onto a plate so they are able to spread out. Once you checked all the lentils rinse your lentils to remove any dirt. Throw the lentils into a big soup pot with enough water to cover them over.
  2.  Add the chopped onion & garlic. Dice your carrots and celery and throw them into the pot as well. Add 2 bay leaves and 2 pinches of Greek oregano.  Bring to boil.
  3. Stir in tomato paste and the chopped tomatoes, reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add additional water if the soup becomes too thick.
  4. Add olive oil, simmer for 15 minutes or more, until lentils are done.
  5. Serve with some red wine vinegar or Tabasco, fresh onions and black Greek olives.

Braised Quails with Mushrooms

I am always looking at finding new dishes to serve at the Nafsika Taverna. Often the ideas of new dishes come to me when I find new products in shops and I try to create new ways of cooking them and presenting them to my guests. One ingredient that I use are oyster mushrooms which are a fairly new product. Of course most of my ideas go to the sidelines as my guests find them a bit too adventurous.

During the winter some Greek men go hunting for birds as Corfu is a natural stop over for them when birds fly to the warmer climates of Africa. When I was growing up as a kid, my friends would try to catch them using various means such as traps with strings, slingshots (which we would make ourselves). If we could afford them we would use BB guns since normal guns were forbidden to us. In those days before the world of video games we had to amuse ourselves with far healthier pursuits than today. I’m not advocating hunting as most of the time we did not catch anything or at least I did not, but we all had fun in trying.

I was never a very avid bird hunter as it would mean getting up early and as most people know, I am not an early riser but more of a night-bird. I also had a bad experience when I shot a bird with a BB gun when I was young. I shot a bird with a BB gun and it distressed me so much to see it die that I never shot another bird again… ever! But luckily for me all sorts of game birds are sold in shops and thankfully all of them are farmed raised.

Most people here would cook quail by roasting or by barbecuing them. I barbecued them the first time in a teriyaki marinade but found them slightly tough, although I enjoyed them none the less. Last winter I decided to braise them and as I had loads of oyster mushrooms on hand so I combined the two. The results were more than favorable which made me decide to blog the recipe. Last year I had flavored them with some bacon bits but this time I had none so I left them out. I also decided to kick it up a notch by adding the Cajun spices and the hot pepper but not to make the dish hot.

Braised Quails with Mushrooms

Ingredients

4 quails, cleaned and halved
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons butter, plus more if needed
Splash olive oil
1 onion, chopped
10-15 baby (shallots) onions
1 teaspoon green peppercorns
2 red peppers of Florina
2 green peppers
1 spicy hot red pepper (optional)

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup white wine
1 cup Chicken stock
1 teaspoon Cajun spices
3/4 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (1/2 button mushrooms, and 1/2 oyster mushroom)
Handful chopped fresh parsley leaves

Directions

Season the quails with salt and pepper. In a heavy casserole, add butter with olive oil , and brown the quails on all sides over medium-high heat.

Quails with mushrooms and vegetables

Clean your Quails, Mushrooms and Vegetables

Add the onions, baby onions, garlic and green peppercorns along with the quails and fry until golden. Stir the flour into the onions, and cook 1 minute. De-glaze the pan with the wine, stirring up the good bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Pour the chicken stock and season with the Cajun spices, cover, and simmer until the quails are just cooked through, about 20 minutes. Add water, if needed so it will not burn.

Sauté quails with onions, garlic and peppercorns.

Sauté the Quails with the Onions, Garlic and Peppercorns.

Simmer slightly with oyster and button mushrooms

Slightly simmer the Oyster & Button mushrooms and Quails

Add red and green peppers plus spicy red pepper. (By adding the spicy red pepper and Cajun spices I want depth to the dish but it should not be a hot dish by any means). Simmer until peppers are soft. When the quails are done, add oyster mushrooms and once they are done, add the button mushrooms along with the parsley leaves. I turn off the heat and let the button mushrooms cook by heat of the pot.

Braised Quails with Wild Mushrooms

Braised Quails with Wild Mushrooms

Enjoy it with a glass of Moschofilero wine and some country crusty bread for sopping up the awesome sauce!

Mediterranean Diet

Much ado has been made about the Mediterranean Diet, but is the hype all that true?

It is generally accepted that folks that live around the Mediterranean Sea live longer.  They suffer less than most Northern Europeans and Americans from Cardiovascular diseases which seems to account for about 53% of the worlds deaths.  The populations of the Greece, Italy, France and Spain traditionally follow a balanced and nutritious diet based on fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and flavorsome herbs and spices; also eating fish and seafood at least a couple of times a week; enjoying poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt in moderation; and saving sweets and red meat for special occasions.  Top it off with loads of flavorsome olive oil and splashes of the occasional glass of red wine while remaining physically active, and you’re on your way.

Mediterranean diet pyramid

The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, introduced in 1993 by the Harvard School of Public Health, visually portrays the daily food intake to implement healthier eating habits.  It was based on the dietary habits of the island of Crete, Greece and southern Italy circa 1960.  Which at the time chronic diseases in their populations were among the lowest in the world while their adult life expectancy was one of the highest in the world even though they had limited medical services.  This Mediterranean Diet is not a diet as ‘to go on a diet’ but a way of life.  Even though it improves your health and it helps you lose weight, it’s more a style of living which includes foods, activities, dining with family and friends, and drinking wine in moderation.  It does not mean that the different cultures around the Mediterranean Sea all eat the same foods but share a common philosophy.

At the Hotel Nafsika we have always tried to follow the Mediterranean diet principles, although I have to admit with some reservations. This is mainly due to our clients being foreign and not Greek.  Obviously we cannot serve meat dishes only once a month as the diet suggests, people would think we are trying to diddle them.  I could remember my grandfather eating a stewed pork dish during a lunch meal.  Normally my grandparents had their main meal in the afternoon while eating a light meal at night. Once seeing that the pork still had a couple of inches of fat on it, I foolishly told him off saying that it was unhealthy for him, he just laughed at me and continued on eating.  Only now, do I realize that he only ate meat occasionally and to top it off most of the meat he ate was locally and organically raised and freshly consumed.

Olive oil and Olives

We do try to keep the menu as Greek as possible but again I have to confess we tone down the ‘Greekness’ somewhat as some of my clients, as Jack Nicholson said, “can’t handle the truth!”  The truth of the matter is that Greeks when cooking traditional peasant-style home cooked meals principally use a lot of olive oil.  As most people produce their own supply of it, the cost is not an issue but more importantly Greeks have always known of the goodness of olive oil!–well before, the Harvard report.  My Grandmother, for example, would pour enough olive oil in her wild greens so that they would be swimming in it.  This much oil would be unacceptable even for me!  Olive oil was their sole source of dietary fat in their diet.  In fact, there are some dishes that we Greeks ourselves call them the ‘Lathera’, the oily ones.   Moussaka, Pastitsio, Greek broad beans, Stuffed Tomatoes and Peppers would fall under this category.   Although, olive oil is high in calories, the health benefits due to the high monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil make it one of natures natural medicines!  In addition to bolstering the immune system and helping to protect against viruses; ailments such as heart disease, cancer, blood pressure, diabetics and many others can be averted with only just 2 teaspoons of olive oil per day!

Greek Roast Pork *

As we have been in business for well over 35 years and we have come to the realization that we cannot serve the “lathera” dishes as we would serve them to the locals or as we ourselves would eat them so we have modified them to a point of less olive oil while they are still considered Greek dishes!  As I myself do not want my food to be too oily, I would say that we cook our dishes with moderate amounts of olive oil in them.  Thus recalling one of the sayings of the Ancients Greeks: “metron ariston”, or “moderation is best”.  It is interesting to note that not all the people who come to stay in the hotel share with this diet and some find my mother’s food greasy, due, of course, to the olive oil.  As we produce our own olive oil from our own olive trees, we use it bountifully in all our dishes.  A recent guest of the hotel, wrote in one of the reviews boards, “this was by far the greasiest food we have ever been served, nearly all meals had oil slopping around the plate.”  As I don’t want to disappoint anyone, next time someone who is not used to the olive oil can inform me so I can steer him away from the more Greek dishes!  All I can say to any of my guests is that in Greek food we use olive oil and to have it without it, would not be Greek food!  Extra virgin olive oil is highest in health-promoting fats, phytonutrients and other important micronutrients which is what makes Greek food healthy. * Photo by www.kalofagas.ca

Vasilopita

Vasilopita

Happy New Year!

I wish you all a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2012.  Vasilopita is a traditional Greek bread-like cake made every New Year. The cake is made to bless the house and to bring good luck for the next year.

In the Greek tradition, it is a custom to have sweet bread-like cake on New Years Eve. After the last few minutes of the Year we welcome the New Year by parceling out slices of vasilopita to the family. Each slice is dedicated to someone beginning with the church, the home, and then the family members from oldest to youngest. The vasilopita is baked with many ingredients, but most important is the coin which placed inside the cake, represents good luck throughout the year! Sweet flavoring is added to the bread which symbolizes the hope that the New Year will be filled with the sweetness of life, liberty, health, and happiness for all who participate in the cutting of the vasilopita.

It’s origins stem back to the legend of Saint Basil the Great was one of the most influential of the Greek Fathers of the Church during the “Golden Age of the Fathers” (the 4th and 5th Centuries).  Saint Basil died on the 1st of January which is when his Feast Day is observed.  According to the legend, one year during a famine the emperor levied a sinfully excessive tax upon the people of his parish.  The tax was such a heavy burden upon the already impoverished people,  Saint Basil came to his people’s defense by fearlessly calling the emperor to repentance.  The emperor did repent!   He cancelled the tax and instructed his tax collectors to give back the loot taken. But now Saint Basil was faced with the daunting and impossible task of returning these thousand coins to the rightful owners. He commissioned some women to bake sweetened bread, in which he arranged to place gold coins. Miraculously, each owner received in his piece of Vasilopita his own gold coins.

Saint Basil was a very giving man and took care of the poor and needy. He is also associated with bringing gifts to the children which is when gifts are given in Greece.  Normally kids get their gifts on New Years Day rather than on Christmas Day!

Stelios Parliaro’s recipe was used again for this recipe.

Ingredients (for 16 pieces)

250 gr butter at room temperature
250 gr sifted icing sugar
250 gr ground blanched almonds
6 large eggs, preferably organic
250 gr all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
100 gr raisins
100 gr prunes, stoned and finely chopped
100 gr dried figs, finely chopped
200 ml cognac

Soak the dried fruits in the cognac overnight.

The next day, puree the mixture.

Preheat the oven to 170-180C.

Beat the butter, icing sugar and ground almonds until a fluffy white cream forms. Keep beating and gradually add the pureed fruit, mixing well. Then add the eggs gradually. Stop beating and add the flour and baking powder, stirring with a spoon.

Pour the mixture into a greased and floured 30 cm diameter cake tin. Bake for an hour. If desired, glaze the Vasilopita with lemon icing: Mix 200 gr of icing sugar with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and spread over the cake.

Otherwise, dust the cake with sifted icing sugar.

Kourabiedes (Greek Christmas Cookie)

Kourabiedes

Kourabiedes or Kourabiethes (Greek: κουραμπιέδες, pronounced: koo-rah-bee-YEH-thehs) are a traditional Greek almond shortbread cookie made for special occasions like Christmas, christenings and other celebrations. Together with the Melomakarona they grace the Greek Christmas table. Traditionally they were flavoured with rosewater and through the centuries, other flavorings have been added such as  lemon zest, orange zest, etc. Local butter, usually ewe’s and/or ewe’s and goat butter is used but if you can’t find any use regular butter, although the cookies will lack the characteristic taste, they will still be delicious. The real magic of kourabiedes is how they immediately melt in your mouth, the memory of the crumbling delicious almond cookie only lasting until the next one entering your mouth.

Kourabiedes, adapted from Stelios Parliaros

Ingredients:

  • 300 grams of Greek Sheep’s milk butter or normal butter
  • 110 grams of powdered/icing sugar
  • 1 vanilla pod or vanilla extract
  • 30 grams of black rum or Metaxa brandy
  • 600 grams of all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 100 grams of almonds with the skin on, roasted and coarsely cut
  • 300 grams of icing sugar, for coating them

Preheat oven at 160 degrees Celsius and roast the almonds for  12 minutes.  Cut finely once they get cold.

With an electric mixer, whisk the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  This should be done for a long time as the longer we whisk it the more velvety it will become!

Sift together the flour and baking powder and then add to the butter mixture in four or five batches, making sure that each batch is well blended before adding the next. Add the rum. At the end, add the roasted almonds.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Break off 35 gram pieces of the cookie dough and roll by hand into balls, half-moon, or S shapes.

Place in a preheated oven of 180 degrees C.  The temperature of the oven depends of course on the oven you have. Bake the cookies for about 20 minutes, or until golden. Cool completely and then roll the cookies in the confectioners’ sugar.  If placed in a tin box without the sugar they can last up to 3 months.

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

Melomakarona – Christmas Honey-Dipped Spice Cookies

Melomakarona (on the lower right)

As most people who know me will know that I am not a sweet dessert person. Sure I would eat a dessert once it is put in-front of me but I would never seek it.  Being raised on fruit I much prefer their sweetness and sharpness to the sugary end of meal sweet foods.  Having said that, at Christmas time in Greece the shops and homes are filled with the Christmas Cookies, Melomakarona(in Greek: μελομακάρονα, pronounced: meh-loh-mah-KAH-roh-nah) and once you have eaten one you cannot stop with just one.  With ingredients like cinnamon, cloves, walnuts, and oranges, these little, soft cookies that are dipped into a spiced, honey syrup, cannot be more representative to the season festivities.  They are made from the end of November to the Christmas holidays and there is no home that will not have them on its table. After baking, the most unbelievable fragrance wafts through the house for a couple of days which subliminally prepares you for the holidays!

This version of the recipe is based on Stelios Parliaros recipe.  Although this youtube recipe is in Greek (my apologies to my non-Greek friends!), I think most of you will be able to see how he does it.  Like they say  a ‘picture is worth a thousand words’!!

Ingredients:

For the cookie dough

  • 400 gr. fresh orange juice
  • 530 gr. good olive oil or sunflower oil
  • 50 gr. butter
  • 30 gr. powdered sugar
  • 1 whole finely grated orange zest
  • 1200 gr. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch ground cloves

For the syrup

  • 500 gr. water
  • 700 gr.  sugar
  •  one orange cut in two
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 100 gr. thyme honey

For assembly

  • 1 1/2 cups finely crushed walnuts
  • thyme honey

For the syrup: Combine the sugar, cinnamon, 2 half of orange and water in a large saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, without stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then boil for 2 minutes and take off the heat. The syrup will thicken slightly and deepen in colour. Add honey and leave to cool, preferably in another saucepan to cool down quickly.

Preheat oven to 200°C and Line two cookie sheets with parchment.

For the dough: In a bowl, combine all the wet ingredients,  the oil, butter, orange juice and citrus zest.  To this you add all the spices, baking soda and powdered sugar.  With a wooden spoon or spatula we mix this and add all the flour.  We continue to mix this with our hands from the center towards the outside.  We don’t need to mix it too well so that the dough will not harden, just enough for the liquids and flour to be absorbed.

We take pinches of dough around 35 gr. each and roll it into oval balls with a fork press the tines of a large fork in a crosshatch pattern in the center of each cookie.  A wire mesh will do this beautiful by just rolling them! Place the cookies on baking sheets.  Bake them for 22-28 minutes until lightly browned.  When they come out of the oven, we place the hot cookies into the cold syrup for about 1 minute and place them on a wire mesh to drip dry.

Place one layer of cookies on a large platter and drip some honey on them followed by some crushed walnuts.  We continue to do this until all the dough is used up.