As I dipped my feet into the turquoise water of the Aegean sea, I thought of Mira. “There is nothing that sea water, salt and sunshine cannot cure,” she used to say. In her book, this miracle-medicine applied to everything, from cuts and bruises, rashes, scratches and wounds, to inflamed sinuses and the ailments of the heart. My mom loved the sea; she believed in it. This is the first summer vacation since she is gone and it is difficult not to remember.
We are staying in a small, family owned hotel on a spot where the deserted south shore of Paros meets the sea, far away from the crowds, trendy restaurants, bars and nightclubs, away from tourists and away from everything. Our hotel is on a piece of no man’s land outside the village of Dryos, on a long beach of golden sand. We fall asleep and wake up to the sounds of the sea.
Our beach is empty. We are in the middle of the Greek debt crisis. Greek banks are closed. Many Greeks cannot afford a vacation anymore, many foreign tourists have canceled their plans and I have the golden sands all to myself. As much as I cherish the feeling of having it all, I pray for the crowds to come. And I pray that the sea and salt work their powerful cure, because this country and its people need healing too.
Every morning, as soon as I wake up, I run to the beach in my pajamas and take a swim. Miss Pain and Dr. V are still asleep, awarding me an hour or two of complete silence and complete freedom; it is just me, my thoughts, the empty beach and the long swim. This early morning swim is the essence of vacationing on a secluded beach. It is a meditation, a ritual, something that keeps me going throughout the day. Early morning is the time when the sea is still latching onto the last embrace of the cold night winds, and it takes quite a bit of courage to immerse into the water; the splashes of coldness are painful, but it is this act of braveness that keeps you fresh, that keeps you invigorated. The freshness remains inside you and you carry it within throughout the day as a shield from the unforgiving heat of the Cyclades.
When the swim is over, I take a seat on the veranda of our hotel and wait for the rest of the gang to wake up; they storm down for breakfast with the speed of light and even faster they lose themselves to a table of Greek delicacies and locally produced goodies: yogurt, honey, homemade jams and Greek pastries, feta, watermelon, and tomatoes, almost fruitlike in their sweetness.
We spend the day on the beach doing nothing. Doing nothing is comprised of sitting next to a rosemary bush and listening to Chris Isaak. Doing nothing feels good. All of it! Occasionally, when we get bored with doing nothing (which rarely happens) or when we get scorched from the heat (a more likely scenario) we drive to the small fishing port of Naoussa and watch the fishermen repair their nets, or work on sorting the catch of the day. They work slowly and methodically, as if operated by the heat, their movements are measured and unhurried, and it seems that the task takes forever to complete. Yet, before we even realize it, every fish has found its way to a designated container. Except for the octopuses; one by one they carefully rinse the octopuses in a bucket of seawater, and then hang them to dry on a long wooden pole next to the boat, until it is octopuses' time to meet the pot. From a distance the pole and the octopuses look like a beautiful, oddly textured, tribal necklace, which makes our minds and our mouths watery, and our appetites run wild. It is hot and no one really feels like eating, but, hey, who can say no to a small serving of octopus, fresh from the sea and fresh from the grill, and so we take a seat in the nearby tavern and order a plate to share. Since we are already at the table, we order some spreads, because hey, they go so nicely with the charred octopus. And we order a plate of Gouna, because it is one-of-a-kind local delicacy here in Naoussa, and how can one forego an opportunity to sample rare and extraordinary foods. Gouna is mackerel, which is split open (think of a spatchcocked chicken), occasionally dusted with herbs, and then left on the sun to dry (think of sundried tomatoes). Once dry, the fish is grilled and served with a slice of lemon on the side. And since we are talking delicacies, we order some fried sardines, the morning catch, tiny and crispy and still fragrant with the sea. And since fish cannot be really appreciated without wine, we order a pitcher of local white and the feast unravels.
Sometimes, instead of Naoussa we drive to the tiny mountain village of Lefkes. Lefkes is a place where the air is scented with rosemary, sage, thyme and oleander, where chirping of the birds is all around and crickets are louder than people, a place where old ladies sit at doorsteps and clean green beans for salad, and doors are bluer than anywhere in Greece.
I stop by the church on the small village square and light three candles. One for Mira, one for the departed, one for the living. Miss Pain joins me, she tiptoes into the darkness, takes one candle and kisses it gently. And after this ritual we leave the church.
The square next to the church is lined with small taverns covered with bougainvilleas. The taverns are almost empty, no tourists, just a couple of locals and us. We take a seat, order cold ouzo, frappe and baklava, and get lost to the kind of silence only the high noon in the Greek countryside can produce.
Ouzo... My childhood nemesis. It is one of Dad’s favorite drinks, hence, whenever our family vacation took us to Greece, Mira and I suffered profusely because Mr. Stan made use of every opportunity to order a glass of ouzo, and its heavy, overly sweet anise scent followed us wherever we went. I made faces while Mom threatened to dispatch Mr. Stan to a separate bedroom, claiming that his skin oozes anise. “You two should not be complaining,” Mr. Stan staged his defense, “if it was good for the monks of Mount Athos, it should be good for you. Besides, it helps to chase away mosquitoes.” The taste for ouzo does not come naturally, it is an acquired taste, yet when one is sitting in an outdated Greek tavern, under a baldachin of bougainvilleas, looking at olive groves in the distance, surrounded by the trembles of residual heat and an all-pervasive sense of antiquity, one begins to understand ouzo.
We drive back “home” in late afternoon, for a “proper” lunch, where they serve us home cooked meals and the catch of the day. Moussaka, imam bayildi, pasticcio, lemon roasted potatoes and stuffed vegetables mingle on the table with octopus simmered slowly in honey tomato sauce, grilled sardines and mussels cooked in their own brine, salty and sweet at the same time, and slightly lemony. Everything is beyond delicious, but most of the time, it is the plain old stuffed vegetables we are after. Every day, come lunch, a new, different pot arrives from the kitchen. Stuffed tomatoes. Stuffed peppers. Stuffed zucchini. Stuffed cabbage. Dolmas. A different vegetable every day, its insides carefully scooped out, the remaining shell filled with meat and rice, and baked slowly, until everything melts and only the sweetness remains. We cannot have enough of this pot, no matter which veggie inhabits it, nor can we decide which veggie we like the best.
It is easy to fall in love with a cuisine like this. And I always do. Greece is a place where the cuisine of my ancestors meets the flavors of the Mediterranean. A place where two or three core ingredients meet and shine in their simplicity. A place where feta meets olive oil and lamb meets lemon, a place where every bite carries within it a tiny piece of sunshine. Every time I go to Greece, I eat some mighty good foods. Not as in Michelin-star-good, but as in your-Mom’s-kitchen-good, like you-died-and-went-to-heaven-good, like chicken-soup-for-the-soul-good, like wrap-yourself-in-the-blanket-and-sit-in-the-sofa-good. The Greeks are the only nation in the world that overcooks their meat and overboils their veggies, yet they still taste delicious. In Greece, everything is forgiven.
Greece feels like home. Greece always does. Because of its people. Because of their mindset and their way of life. Their kindness and occasional sharp edge. Their cooking. Because of the Greek farming lands and the small open-air markets nearby. In Greece one finds that particular kind of austerity, which lies deep inside the soil of the Balkan Peninsula; austere, yet giving, over the centuries the impoverished Balkan lands have produced the sweetest summer produce one could possibly find. No wonder we fight over the pot of stuffed vegetables, it spells H-O-M-E and C-H-I-L-D-H-O-O-D and W-A-R-M-T-H like no other dish.
No wonder stuffed veggies are our favorite dish here in Paros. We savor them slowly in the shade of hotel’s veranda; sometimes we take them to the beach where we share the plate under the late afternoon sun, golden and mellow. Every once in a while, more often than not, my good friend Achilles and I engage in a heated debate over whose family makes the best stuffed veggies in the world. Neither of us can let it go, because in our lands (I am from Serbia and Achilles, you might have guessed it, is from Greece), the supremacy in stuffed vegetable department is an issue of the utmost importance. I have the photos of Mr. Stan’s dolmas and his golden zucchini on my iPhone, and I proudly and victoriously wave them to Achilles’s face, yet he still does not budge. “The proof is in the pudding," he says, "and you have to cook them for me back in the City and I have to try them to believe you.” In return I pull out some more photo weaponry, yet I cannot help but secretly agree with him. There are as many recipes for stuffed vegetables as there are cooks in the Balkans. Some produce deeply caramelized vegetables, crunchy from the long bake, while in others the vegetables are soft and mellow, doused in their own sweet juices. Some are scented with oregano, some with summer savory. Every family in the Balkans makes their stuffed veggies differently; these pots are infused with the souls of their ancestors, their spirits and characters. Every pot has a different story to tell, and no matter what the recipe is, they all taste wonderful.
With our plates polished and our energies restored, we stay on the beach until late in the evening, running in the water, throwing sand at each other, building sand castles and collecting pebbles under the pastels of the Cycladic sunset. There is a certain color of a pink in a sunset that can be found only in the Greek islands. Not quite salmon, not quite pink, with a hint of blue and a hint of lilac, yet still warm. It lingers around for a while after the sun has set and then, within an instant, it disappears into the darkness. Before we go to bed, I open the door of our balcony wide, really, really wide, and welcome the night sky into the room. We fall asleep under the blanket of stars, snuggled in sheets that smell of salt and seaweed. For fourteen long, precious days. On an island, on a beach, by the sea...
The Summer Pot of Joy (Stuffed Summer Vegetables)
* 4-5 medium size firm tomatoes
* 2-3 zucchini, preferably round or pear shaped
* 2-3 yellow squashes, preferably round or pear shaped
* 3-4 peppers (I like to use Cubanelle or similar thinner skin peppers)
* 1 medium cabbage
* 2 small yellow onions, finely minced
* 2 lb ground beef, 85% lean
* 1 cup short grain rice
* 2 tbsp summer savory
* 2 tbsp parsley, minced
* 1 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
* 1 tbsp all purpose flour
* 1 small potato, sliced into ¼ inch thick slices
* 2-3 cups crushed tomatoes or thick tomato juice
* 2-3 tbsp sunflower oil
* salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 365F.
First prepare the filling. In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, for about two minutes. Add the ground beef and stir until mostly browned. Season with salt and pepper. Add the rice and stir until the rice is coated in oil, for about two minutes. Remove from the heat, add the summer savory and parsley, mix well and let it cool.
Prepare the vegetables: i) Wash the tomatoes. Cut the tops off. Use a knife to cut around the insides, separate the flesh from the skin and scoop out the flesh. Reserve the flesh. Keep one whole tomato, you will use the pieces of it to cover the veggie openings. ii) Wash the peppers. Cut the stems out and remove the seeds, leaving the opening of 1 to 1 1/2 inches. iii) Wash the zucchini and squash. Cut the stems out and carefully hollow out the zucchini from the stalk end by pushing and turning an apple corer (or a knife) into the flesh, until you have generous cavity. Make sure you do not pierce the bottom of the zucchini. Reserve the zucchini flesh for another purpose. iv) Cut the core out of the cabbage. Place the cabbage in a large pot of boiling water for a couple of minutes, until the leaves can be separated easily. With a paring knife, remove tough ribs from the leaves without damaging them. You will need about 10 large leaves for stuffing. Reserve the rest of the cabbage. (Alternatively, you can boil water in a kettle, and then pour over the cabbage. The outer leaves will begin to separate from the head. You may have to do it a couple of times, until you get as many leaves as you need.)
Prepare a large Dutch oven or casserole -- something like 16-inch diameter casserole will do nicely: i) Using a teaspoon, fill the tomatoes loosely with the meat mixture making sure that there is a little bit of room left for the rice to expand while cooking. Plug the opening with a potato round and lay the tomatoes upright in the Dutch oven. ii) Using a teaspoon, fill the zucchini and the squash loosely with the meat mixture, making sure that there is a little bit of room left for the rice to expand while cooking. Plug the opening with the pieces of tomato and lay the zucchini upright in the Dutch oven. iii) Using a teaspoon, fill the peppers loosely with the meat mixture, making sure that there is a little bit of room for the rice to expand while cooking. Plug the opening with the pieces of cabbage and lay the peppers in the Dutch oven. iv) Place 1 1/2 tablespoons of meat mixture on each cabbage leaf. Fold sides over and roll leaf up tightly lengthwise; tuck loose ends under into a neat package and place the package seam side down into the Dutch oven.
Pour the reserved tomato flesh and the tomato sauce (or juice) around the peppers and fill the pot with about three cups of water. (The vegetables will be covered with the liquid about half way.). Dust the vegetables with the flour, paprika and a bit more salt. Cover the vegetables with the remaining cabbage leaves (this will prevent the stuffed vegetables from getting burned). Cover the pot with the lid and place in the oven. Once the liquid starts to boil, reduce the heat to 325F, uncover and bake for about an hour and a half, until the vegetables are cooked through, soft and swimming in thick liquid. (The timing really depends on many factors, the size of the pot, the veggies, the oven, so this is really a rough guide.)
Remove the pot from the oven, let it cool and serve. (And if you add a side of mashed potatoes to absorb the remaining juices, you will be in heaven.)