It’s been two weeks since we came back from Greece and I just cannot let it go. Cannot let go of the sea and the summer (now that the vacation is over, one has to get used to the fact that there will be no rest for the weary until the summer of 2016), cannot let go of that take-it-easy island feeling, (as in you stash your worries and chores and boring daily rituals deep inside the bottom-most drawer of your closet and the only worry that remains is that someone might take your beach umbrella unless you run out there first thing in the morning and claim your property). I cannot let go of the sunshine and cannot let go of the food. Greece acutely inspires me to think about food, more than France, more than Italy, more than India, China and Peru combined, more than any other country on this planet. Why is that so? I often ponder this issue late in the night, in my most ponderous hours. Could it be something in the Greek air, so wonderfully fragrant with olives, cypresses and antiquity? Or it is the Orthodox-Greek-Serbian connection, the brotherhood, as we like to say, the bond that dates back to Middle Ages and our joint Byzantine inheritance? Or maybe it is that mysterious, addiction-inducing substance in the Greek soil? Let us consider the situation in Greek mountain villages, where pigs still graze on sage, thyme and hazelnuts -- it is a weird substance, this mysterious chemical in the soil I must say, because it becomes strangely potent once subjected to the heat of the grill and the charcoal fumes, and once you taste it, I mean the chemical, not the meat, it stays inside you and you will never ever eat pork meat again. Except in Greece.
Or could it be the slow roasts, because as we all know, slow roasts are the weakness of my character?
Maybe it is the language? How can one say “NO” to such wonderful, mysterious-sounding words like “Portokalopita” (orange filo pie), “Soutzoukakia” (aka Smyrna Kofte, fragrant with oregano and cinnamon, and drunken with tomato sauce)? How can once resist the tempting resonance of words like “Kritamos” (pickled leaves of the rock sapphire plant, briny like capers and wildly aromatic with the beach rocks they grow on) and “Magiritsa” (soup made with lamb offal thickened with avgolemono)? I bet it’s the language! Greek language (and consequently the menu) is like a melody, echoing with mouthwatering rhymes such as, “Saganaki” (fried cheese) ~ “Souvlaki” (the mighty skewer!!!) ~ “Kaimaki” (ice cream made with mastic-resin and salep)!!!
Oh my, Greek language is the music to my ears. No wonder Greece is the inspiration for and oftentimes the root cause of my food obsessions. I wrote about my food obsessions before, they are a well researched phenomenon, but in Greece they get worse. Much, much, worse. In Greece, my obsessions turn into full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. Let’s just say that my first Greek summer holiday (on the island of Thasos, with my parents) is still remembered in the family as The Loukoumades Vacation, because for three weeks I ate nothing but loukoumades, deep fried pastry-balls doused in honey syrup. My second trip to Greece turned into a never-ending exploration of yogurt and honey – imagine my surprise when I discovered that people actually eat them together, and that, surprise, surprise they taste wonderful! In the circle of close friends, our short college excursion to Athens is cited as The Nights of Mastika (don't all college students consume alcohol at one point?). When traveling to Mykonos, most people bring back wonderful memories of white-washed windmills, golden sunsets and pink pelicans, while the only thing I remember is the village of Ano Mera, a tiny, non-descript settlement in the center of the island, known to mankind as one of the few places in Mykonos with no sea view and a spot worth visiting if and only if one is passionate about religious history (Ano Mera is a home to two monasteries and a small collection of Byzantine icons). I do not quite remember the icons, but I can tell you volumes about the tiny town square and taverns on it, where we ate the very best kokoretsi and Ekmek Kataifi in this Universe. For those of the weak gastronomic disposition, let’s just say that kokoretsi is a dish of lamb intestines. To spare you the misery I will not go into all the glorious details of this delicacy, which include sweetbreads, lungs, kidneys and slow roasting on the spit. But let me tell you about Ekmek Kataifi... The Turks have created kataifi – that curly, noodle looking filo, which is the centerpiece of the glorious desert that goes by the same name, but it is really the Greek genius that took the pastry to the next level -- the Greeks took the syrup soaked kataifi base, and topped it with custard and cream, thereby creating culinary masterpiece of the region. How can I even begin to describe Ekmek Kataifi we ate in Ano Mera?
And then, there was the summer of 2005, also known as The Summer of Horta.
I ordered Horta entirely by accident in a shabby tavern on the outskirts of San Torini. The menu had no English translations and I liked the sound of it – there was a melody to the name, the rolling H and R that pull you in. I could almost touch the sounds; I could almost feel the promise of a feast, an echo from the deepest depth of the ocean, like an exotic seafood tune.
What I got instead was a plate of semi-cooked, semi-sad looking vegetables, semi-wilted, semi-fresh, with a lemon on the side. I was literally served a lemon.
“You ordered it, you eat it,” said Dr. V and so I did. And then I ran to the tavern’s public phone and called my Greek friends to find out what Horta is. “I am not sure,” said one friend. “It’s some sort of a green,” said another. “I think it is a boiled salad and I do not eat it, because no one in the right mind would boil a salad!” The answers kept on coming. For my Greek, meat-loving, spit-turning friends a Greek vegetarian dish was an oxymoron, an item that fully justified its placement on the outskirts of the menu. We do not eat that kind of stuff, was the consensus among my meat-loving Greek gang.
We, as in Dr. V and I, on the other hand, ate Horta for fourteen days in a row. Not once but several times a day. We would start the dinner in one tavern, ordered Horta, tsatziki and wine, took a walk, changed the venue, sampled new Horta, sipped more wine, and then closed the night in another restaurant, together with a new new Horta, more more wine and a grand finale plate of Baklava and Ekmek Katafi to satisfy Dr. V’s sweet tooth, sooth his horta-induced wounds and mourn the loss of all glorious roasted lamb dinners he could have eaten instead.
None of the waiters could tell me what horta is, because they spoke no English. And horta proved to be a little enchantress herself, eluding me constantly, because sometimes it tasted like spinach, but not quite so, sometimes there was a note of arugula, occasionally a dandelion.
Then what is horta?
Remember, back in 2005 when Internet was somewhat less ubiquitous, when cyberspace was less populated with recipes and advice, the answers were more difficult to find. So I consulted my Greek friends, when they were in the mood to discuss veggies, and I consulted the dictionary, and some waiters and restaurant owners who ended up speaking English, though they kept on saying “greens” and “weeds” and for the life of me I was not sure what they are trying to say.
And I am pretty sure you will laugh at this but the word for "vegetarian" in Greek is "hortofagos", which literally translates to "weed eater". And that my friends is horta, a bowl of boiled weeds seasoned generously with lemon, some good, robust Greek olive oil and some sunshine. To this day, if you stroll through a remote Greek village, or the fields and forest nearby, you might see a villager or two holding a tiny plastic bag, picking weeds. A while ago, I read in the Chicago Tribune that an elderly Greek gentleman was given a $75 fine for picking weeds in Cook County Forest Preserve. “With so much crime in the Chicago area,” wrote the reporter, “from murderous gangbangers to those thug mobs and everything in between, it's nice to know that law enforcement finally cracked down on Public Enemy No. 1.”
A decade later, I still order horta every time I grab a seat at the Greek table. It is a mighty glorious dish. We ate quite a bit of it this time around, although this time around it was overshadowed by another food discovery, by a different vegetable and a new food obsession. Hence, let me introduce you to a couple of new Greek words, because my obsession du jour goes by different names. Some call it Ntakos, some call it Dakos, in Crete, where it comes from, they call it Koukouvagia and Kouloukopsomo. To master the recipe, one needs modest baking skills, and some knife skills too, a little bit of patience, and a couple of slices of another wonderful-sounding Greek word. Paximadia... Paximadia, paximadia, paximadia. And to conclude, allow me tell you all about it.
Dakos: Cretan Tomato and Rusk Salad
I like to think of Dakos as the mother of all panzanellas. It’s a simple, poor man’s salad made with tomatoes, feta, olive oil, capers, oregano and paximadia, Cretan rusk. Dakos can be an appetizer, a salad and the entire meal. You can fake Dakos with toasted bread or croutons, but it will not be the same, because there is wonderful chewiness to paximadia, the mouthful and the taste of ancient grains, which are difficult to fake. (But if you are really dying to cut corners, I suggest pumpernickel bagels.) Most frequently, Dakos is made with barley rusks, but wheat and my favorite, rye, are also an option. I highly recommend making your own rusk, because: A) in its pre-rusk condition it makes for an amazing bread, B) in its rusk form, it lasts quite a while, and C) baking is a lot of fun.
* 4 rye rusks (see the recipe below)
* 4 medium, ripe tomatoes
* 2-3 tbsp finely minced red onion
* 1 generous tbp capers
* 4 oz feta, crumbled
* 1 tsp dried oregano
* about 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
* a couple of olives or capers (to garnish)
Cut the tomatoes into 1/4-inch dice. Mix the tomatoes with onion, capers, oregano, half of the olive oil and a pinch of salt, and place the mixture in a colander to drain. Collect the juices.
Moisten the rusks with about two tablespoons water each. Drizzle with reserved juices. Place the rusks on individual plates, top with the tomato mixture. Sprinkle with feta. Drizzle with more olive oil. Garnish with olives or capers and serve.
(Rather than individual servings, you can also make Dakos in a communal form, i.e. in a bowl. To do so, break the rusk in pieces and pave the bottom of a pie or lasagna dish with the bread, then top with the rest.)
Rye Breads with Anise and Caraway Seeds + Rye Paximadia (Rye Rusk)
* 2 cups rye flour (I used Bob's Red Mill organic dark rye flour)
* 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
* 1/4 cup olive oil
* 2 tbsp honey
* 3/4 tbsp caraway seeds
* 3/4 tbsp anise seeds (in addition to anise + caraway, fennel + cumin combination also works nicely)
* 1 tbsp dried yeast
* 2 cups water
* 1/2 tbsp salt
Heat the water to about 110°F. (If you do not have thermometer, try a few drops of water on your wrist. If it feels warm and comfortable, yeast will be comfortable too.) Add the honey. When honey is dissolved, add the yeast. Stir once or twice to dissolve. Let the yeast mixture rest for about ten minutes, until it becomes foamy and doubles in volume.
Combine all-purpose flour, rye four, salt, caraway and anise seeds in a bowl. Add oil and the yeast mixture. Slowly mix in flour from sides of bowl and knead until the dough has formed. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in volume, for about 45 minutes to an hour.
Preheat oven to 375F.
Punch the dough down; divide the dough into 8-10 pieces. Roll each piece out until it is about 10 inches long. Join ends of the strip to create a circle and place on a baking sheet. Leave approximately two inches in between the breads. Once all pieces are formed, cover the cookie sheet with a clean kitchen towel and allow to rise for about 30 minutes.
Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, until the breads are dark golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped. Remove the sheet from the oven and let the breads cool completely before eating (or making paximadia).
To make paximadia, cut each bread in half, crosswise. Place the bread halves back on the sheet and dry in the oven at about 200F, for about two hours, until the bread has completely dried out. Allow the rusks to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.
Makes about 8-10 rye breads, and 16-20 rusks (bread halves)
My favorite Horta is made with lambs quarter, a common weed, which is fortunately sold at the New York City farmers markets, given that being a poor city dweller I have limited opportunities to pick it myself. My second favorite Horta ingredient is the variety of mustard greens known as Ruby Streaks. Sometimes, I throw in some dandelions in the mix. Different greens have different cooking times, and it is not a bad idea to cook them separately.
* 1 lb wild greens (lambs quarter, amaranth greens, beet leaves, dandelion, mustard greens and alike)
* one lemon
* red wine vinegar
* extra virgin olive oil
* salt and pepper to taste
* feta (optional)
Fill a large bowl three quarters of the way with ice. Add cold water to reach the top of the ice.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the greens and blanch for about a minute. (Do not overcrowd the pot, instead cook your greens in batches to make sure they remain glowing green and nutritious.)
Drain the greens and transfer them into the ice water immediately. Leave the greens in the ice bath for a couple of minutes until they are no longer warm. (This will stop the cooking process, keep the greens tender and preserve the nutrients.). Drain well. Cover the horta and refrigerate about an hour; it should be eaten at room temperature.
Arrange the greens on a plate, drizzle with lemon, red wine vinegar and a generous amount of olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with feta and extra lemon edges.