Saturday, September 1, 2018

Stuffed Tomatoes with Beef, Currants, and Cinnamon

The flight from Athens to Paros took only 30 minutes, but it seemed much longer. Like a sum of all flights in my life. Maybe not all, but many.

New York, Belgrade, Athens, Paros, Athens, Belgrade, New York...

Over and over again.

Usually, as we approach the island, a grandeur of blue extends its welcome. The sky is brilliant, and the sea is shimmering -- a foreplay between a topaz and a sapphire. But this is a late afternoon of an aging summer and the blues are gone. I catch the glimpse of the sunset, cinnamon colored and mellow, and only a hint of aqua in the distance, like a watercolor in the making. The paint is still settling in, and the colors have not assumed their permanent positions; instead they are spreading across the landscape in a slow migration. A long stroke of golden light is stretching from the upper right corner of the painting, teasing the shadows, confronting them, reaching for the shore; at first, it's bold, brilliant and playful, but somewhere pass the horizon it grows up and becomes serious; the youthful dance matures, and the ocean takes over, until the light drowns in the depths of burnt umber.

I am grateful for this unusual welcome, because despite elaborate planning and preparation, this year we almost did not make it to Paros. It was entirely my fault. As soon as we landed in Belgrade, I ran to the tennis courts. I could have taken a rest. Waited a day. I could have warmed up properly. But no. No, no, no... Time runs by quickly and vacations are short, and I was greedy to grab the biggest share of it possible. ASAP. An I did, for one brief moment. For a moment I had it all: the warmth of Belgrade afternoon, the Zen of the tennis ball hitting the sweet spot and getting lost in it, then rebounding into the depths of the opposite side of the court with perfection, pulling me with it. A pull that lasts only a nanosecond, yet it never ends... Until I heard a snap. And just like that, my knee (and my vacation) went to pieces.

Sometimes life takes charge and rewrites our itinerary. It grabs the steering wheel, determined, unyielding, and it takes us places. Places we have not been to before. Places we did not want to go to.

I did not expect to make it to Paros. But two weeks into the injury, I slowly climbed the stairs of an airplane, one foot at the time. Have you noticed how some stairs are taller than others? I have not, because I never paid attention. I did not pay attention to many things, running through life fast -- crazy fast -- too fast to register. But one notices things much better in slow motion.

I am now busy noticing things.

The scent of the beach towel when I dig my face into it: the leftover fragrance of a laundry detergent, mixed with sunscreen, Aegean air, and evergreens.

The warm current right in the middle of the Golden Beach, halfway between the orange buoy and the horizon.

The small church on the other side of the bay.

I can't walk that much -- no hunting for photos as before -- and my photographs are scarce and random, like a kaleidoscope of stolen moments. There is no polish and no glamour to the images inside the camera, just an ordinary life of ordinary people, in slow motion. One step at the time. One photo at the time.

It's entirely different Greece that I am discovering with my lens. Introspective, quiet, and thoughtful. It's Greece of round mirrors at narrow intersections of curvy village byroads. Greece of unpretentious taverns and small bakeries, where horta, grilled meats and sweets oozed in orange-honey syrup rule the menu. Greece of broken lampposts and unkempt sandy beaches where fishing boats lie to rest. It's Greece of warm undertones, often hidden, undetected, until one scratches beneath the surface. Like a hint of honey in sesame sticks we eat for breakfast. Like buttercream scented afternoon air on the path to Dryos, imparted with a backnote of salt, immortelle and figs. Like a faint aroma of cinnamon in the ground beef filling for pasticio. It's also in the meatballs and in stuffed tomatoes -- barely audible, yet tenacious, so tenacious that it claims the dish. How is it possible that I did not notice it before? Could I be imagining it, or is it the cinnamon-colored sunset playing a trick on my senses?

I decide to check with the kitchen.

"Is there cinnamon in the ground beef," I ask Anna, the cook.

"There is," she says. "But just a touch. You should not know that it's there."

I order the cinnamon-flavored dishes over and over again. I want to drown in this imperceptible flavor, obscure, yet so confident and sturdy, like the inner side of the wind. And I brush-paint my photos with this persistent cinnamon dust, until blues fade into oblivion, and sienna overtakes the azures... Until my photos stop looking like real places and turn into my memories.

As I said, sometimes life takes charge and rewrites our itinerary. It rips apart the pages of the diary and writes new ones, reminding us to count both our blessings and our sorrows, sending us onto a journey along the inner side of the wind. Because sometimes, oftentimes, most of the time, it is where true wisdom lies.

Stuffed Tomatoes with Beef, Currants, and Cinnamon

* 6 medium to large firm tomatoes
* 1 small onion, finely chopped
* 1 lb ground beef
* 1/3 cup short-grain white rice
* 1/4 cup dry currants or raisins
* 2 tsp dry oregano
* less than 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 

* a pinch of nutmeg
* 3 tbsp sunflower oil, plus more for oiling the pan
* about 2-3 tsp of sugar
* salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Prepare the tomatoes. Cut the tops off the tomatoes and scoop out tomato flesh, seeds and juices. Keep the tops, and the flesh. Season the insides of the tomatoes with salt, pepper, and a tiny pinch of sugar (about 1/4 tsp per tomato).

In a medium skillet, over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook for a minute or two until translucent. Add the beef and cook for about 5-7 minutes, until the meat is cooked through. (Throughout cooking, break up the meat with a spatula.) Add the rice, currants, oregano, and cinnamon. Reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer for about 8 minutes, until the rice is translucent. Season with salt and pepper. Try a little. If you do not sense the warmth of cinnamon, add another pinch, but just a pinch really.

Arrange the tomatoes into an oiled baking dish. Gently scoop the beef mixture into the tomato shells. Add about 2-3 tbsp of water into each tomato (the inside of the tomato should be filled up with liquid) and cover with the reserved tomato tops. Brush the outsides of the tomatoes with a little bit of oil.

Chop the reserved tomato flesh finely. Combine with about one cups of water and pour into the bottom of the baking dish. The tomatoes should be covered in liquid three quarters way to the top.

Bake for about 90 minutes, or until the tomatoes are tender, gently charred and rice is fully cooked. If you have extra time, turn off the oven and leave the dish in for another hour to mellow. Serve slightly warm.

1 comment :

  1. .."inner side of the wind.." by Milorad Pavic :)
    Beautiful description of both - embrace for everything that life brings (and making the best of it) and the magic Greek atmosphere that we feel regardless of the part of the country we're in..

    Regards from Novi Sad :)


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