Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I've fallen out of love with my blog,
but can we still be friends?



Dear readers. I wonder how many of you still exist.

I am so sorry for my extended absence. I honestly feel quite supremely terrible for abandoning this blog without any explanation. Even knowing that my blog is just one of millions that fade away every day, I still feel I owe an apology to the empty space out there for dropping off the grid.

I can't believe it's only been a year since I started this blog – it feels like a hundred years (and at least ten years since my last post). It may seem like eons ago, but I still remember how insanely ecstatic I was about creating a new space to share my exploration of Greek vegetarian cooking. The blog gave me a real purpose and enormous enjoyment cooking, photographing and writing about every recipe. It was also really nice to tell you some of the stories about my Greek background, and my connection and love for the island of Limnos.

I’ve truly been amazed by the support both the blog and Facebook page have received – it’s wonderful to know so many people around the world love not only Greek food, but Greek Vegetarian food.

But in recent months, for a variety of reasons, my desire to blog has waned. To be quite honest, I’m actually not very good at blogging. I like to cook but I’m definitely no chef, so it takes me half the day to prepare a dish. I’m an okay photographer but I’m very slow at that too – it takes me another half day to style the shot, photograph and edit the images.

However the one thing I really struggle with, is writing. I love to write, but it can take me FOR EVER to write and edit a post for the blog. And my posts are by no means perfect. I am such a slow writer you could read War and Peace in the time it takes me to write my opening paragraph.

Needless to say, putting a post together for this blog is always an epic task for me.

But I didn’t mind at first. I had all the time in the world when I first started this blog – I’d just lost my full-time job and was itching for something to do to fill my days while I looked for work. My time was completely consumed with blogging and reading other people’s blogs. Every minute of every day I was obsessed with the world of blogging.

Being a vegetarian and living with a guy who’s not is hard enough, but when Tony made the radical but necessary decision (for health reasons) to go on a life-long low-carb diet a year ago, it didn’t give us much choice but to fend for ourselves when it came to meal times.

Our eating choices are so polarised you’d think we were from different planets. As you can imagine, motivation levels to cook and eat together are pretty low, which is a real shame as cooking together was something we both really enjoyed in the past.

So with no one to cook for but myself and the blog, I didn't really have any compelling reasons to get experimental in the kitchen. Spending half a day cooking something that I wouldn't normally cook for myself wasn't doing it for me anymore. And to be honest, the meals I do usually cook for myself really aren’t all that blog-worthy.

And then work got out of control.

When word got around that I was looking for freelance work I started getting a few jobs here and there, but before too long, a few jobs exploded into full-time work again. Even while we were on holiday in Greece last year I had work coming out of my ears which was great, but left me without much leisure time and eventually no time at all to spend on a blog that I was already falling out of love with.

But this is not good bye.

The passion for my blog may have subsided but there’ll always be a flame in my heart for cooking, photography and everything Greek. I know that at some stage my work will lessen and there will be days when I’ll be wanting to come back to the blog with my tail between my legs. I'm sure that flame will reignite from time to time and I’ll be burning to write another post for the blog. Even if there’s no one left to read my posts, it’s nice to know the blog will always be here waiting for me to come back to it one day.

So the Greek Vegetarian blog isn't going anywhere, it’s just that I won’t be updating it all that often. The recipes will always be here, as will the photos and stories of Limnos. And I truly hope that there is enough content here that will still be of interest to anyone that might come across these pages.

I don't know when I'll be back. I might try for a Greek Easter post since I completely neglected to cover that monumental event last year. Or perhaps I'll rope Tony into doing Meat Free Week again and write about that. But until then, I just want to thank you all for reading my posts and especially for all your wonderful comments.

This is not good bye – it is only "Ta leme argotera".

In the meantime, I hope we can still be friends :)

Lisa xxx


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Easy Greek feast ideas for your vegetarian friends and a recipe for
Stewed Apricots with Honeyed Greek Yoghurt and Pistachios


I was half way through procrastinating about my next post for the blog when I received an email from a reader in the UK seeking some advice and recipe ideas for a Greek dinner party he’s planning for some of his vegetarian friends this week.

That I receive any blog-related emails at all these days is nothing short of miraculous given my new-found tendency to neglect the blog for weeks on end, but to have someone on the other side of the world turn to me for advice to help them put together a three-course meal for 8 people is, to put it mildly, simply monumental.

For that reason, I’ve decided to write an entire post inspired by that email from Matthew in Manchester.


Preparing a Greek vegetarian feast for a group of friends need not be a daunting task. It should be fun to cook for our favourite people, not stressful. All it takes is a bit of planning and preparation.

Most of the dishes mentioned below can be made ahead of time allowing you to enjoy the meal with your mates without spending too much time in the kitchen on the night.

It also helps to write up a schedule of everything that needs to be done on the day. I usually draw up a simple columned list with time prompters on the left and tasks on the right. For example:

3:00pm ... Grocery shopping. Home by 4:00pm.
4:30pm ... Prepare undressed salad, cover and place in fridge.
5:00pm ... Make Spanakopita and keep on bench ready to place in oven.
6:00pm ... Prepare honeyed yoghurt and chopped pistachios.
6:15pm ... Make tzatziki and salad dressing.
6:45pm ... Set table and place tzatziki, bread, dukkah and olive oil on table.
7:00pm ... Guests arrive.
7:20pm ... Preheat oven.
7:30pm ... Put Spanakopita in oven. Set timer for 45 minutes.
8:15pm ... Take salad out of fridge and dress, and serve Spanakopita.
9:00pm ... Take stewed apricots out of fridge and place over low heat on stove. Set timer for 5 minutes.
9:15pm ... Assemble stewed apricot dishes and serve.

There are lots of Greek starters and sweets that can be bought ready-made from good quality Greek delis and cake shops. It's not really cheating if you at least arrange the items artistically on platters and garnish appropriately (I do this a lot!) – a sprinkling of fresh parsley or dusting of icing sugar goes a long way.

Anything from dips and pickled vegetables, to baklava and Turkish delight can be store bought, but keep in mind some starters and sweets are so easy to make yourself it might even be quicker than taking a trip down to the shops!

As for main dishes, they are much better home-made. While you may be able to buy frozen spanakopita from the supermarket, it won't taste anywhere near as good (or look as impressive) as a spinach and cheese pie you made yourself.

Below are some suggestions for easy, stress-free vegetarian Greek feast ideas with recipe links in blue, and at the end I’ve included a new recipe for Stewed Apricots with Honeyed Greek Yoghurt and Pistachios.


For starters, impress your guests with home-made tzatziki and dukkah served with gorgeous crusty bread and a bowl of extra virgin olive oil for dipping. Dukkah can be made up to one month in advance (stored in the fridge in an air-tight container) and tzatziki one day ahead. Just give it a stir if liquid has formed on top overnight.

You could prepare a platter of dips with two or three heaped tablespoons each of hummus, roasted eggplant and walnut dip and Kalamata olive dip, or any of your favourite store-bought Greek dips. Decorate the platter with cubes of marinated feta, olives and semi-sundried tomatoes. Make the dips yourself or buy everything from a good Greek deli or even the supermarket.

A more simple starter dish can be made using canned dolmathes (rice-stuffed vine leaves imported from Greece) served warm with tomato sauce. Carefully empty the contents of the can into a saucepan along with around half a cup of home-made (or jarred) tomato passata and heat slowly with the lid on until warmed through. These are brilliant served with crumbled feta and freshly chopped parsley sprinkled over the top.

The entire meal can even be made up of a selection of starters all on separate plates that everyone can pick and nibble at throughout the night. You could include everything mentioned above, as well as a green bean, tomato and feta salad, some crispy roast pumpkin and feta filo triangles, tasty lentil keftethes or succulent tomato fritters.

If you want to prepare a traditional main dish, Spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie) is an old favourite. Alternatively, a baked vegetable dish like Briam is perfect to just throw into the oven and forget about until cooked. But if you have a little more time, Vegetarian Moussaka or Pastitsio with Broccoli are wonderful show stoppers.

Sticky Greek sweets like Baklava (honey and walnut pastries), Galaktoboureko (semolina custard pie) or Melomacarona (honeyed cookies) are delectable morsels to finish off a Greek feast. These can be difficult to make but very easy to buy at Greek cake shops. Just make sure you buy them on the day of your dinner party.

If you’d like to try your hand at some simple Greek pastry desserts, try Bougatsa (custard-filled pastry) or Lemon and Ricotta pastries. Bougatsa can be made up to three days in advance, kept in an air-tight container in the fridge and reheated on a baking tray at 180 degrees celsius for 5 minutes before serving.

For a really easy and much lighter little Greek dessert to conclude the evening’s feasting, you might want to make these delicious Stewed Apricots with Honeyed Greek Yoghurt and Pistachios.


Stewed Apricots with Honeyed Greek Yoghurt and Pistachios


Serves 8

Note: The apricots can be stewed a day ahead and reheated just before serving. Store in the fridge in the saucepan they were cooked in, with the lid on. Reheat over low heat with lid on, until just simmering.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup castor sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 800g can of apricot halves in natural juice (no added sugar), strained
  • 800g thick Greek yoghurt
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 120g pistachio nuts in their shells

Instructions

  1. Place water, sugar and cinnamon in a medium saucepan and heat, stirring, until sugar has dissolved.
  2. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes without stirring, before adding the apricots.
  3. Add strained apricots to syrup, stir to incorporate then simmer for another 5 minutes without stirring. The apricots will become quite mushy after cooking – if you'd like to keep a few still-formed apricot halves for garnishing, set them aside without cooking and only add them to the stew in the last 30 seconds to warm them through.
  4. Meanwhile, shell the pistachio nuts and chop finely. Set aside until needed.
  5. Combine yoghurt with honey and vanilla essence in a medium bowl and mix well. Set aside until needed.
  6. Remove apricots from heat and allow to cool a little. Remove and discard cinnamon stick.
  7. Just before serving, spoon the yoghurt into serving bowls, then carefully place warm apricots with some of the syrup over the yoghurt, and sprinkle with chopped pistachio.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bougatsa me Krema (Greek custard-filled pastry)
and the liveliest street in Limnos


Yeah, I know. Almost three weeks since my last post. But you must forgive me! Why? Because I have bougatsa!! Trust me, bougatsa fixes everything. These little soul-soothing capsules of sweet Greekness filled with custard love and wrapped in paper-thin buttery crisp fillo pastry will make you forget that even a day has gone by since my last post. (Is it working yet?)

And thanks to a simple custard-making technique that my friend George Calombaris shares with us in his book Greek Cookery from the Hellenic Heart, bougatsa is one of the easiest Greek sweets to make. Thanks George :)


Growing up in a relatively non-Greek household meant that there were many Greek dishes and sweets that I didn’t become familiar with until I was an adult and started developing an interest in my Greek heritage.

On a mission with my dad back in 2004, we took a trip to the island of Limnos to assess the condition of an old family house that was in desperate need of some TLC, and it was on this trip that I discovered bougatsa and its "amazing healing powers".


More than 30 family members had shares in the house but none was prepared to contribute to the repair and maintenance of the collapsing building. Except my dad.

Passionate and committed, my dad took on the huge responsibility over the next nine years to acquire everyone’s shares and spend his life savings on fixing up the house.

Our visit to Limnos back in 2004 was just the beginning of this process and at the time involved a lot of emotional negotiation (and even permanent fall-outs) with greedy relatives. Added to this was a good five weeks of hard physical labour to clear out the mountains of squalor inside the house and the dense jungle of overgrowth and rubbish out in the garden.

Physically and emotionally taxing as this Greek island visit might have been, we were on a Greek island, and with any Greek island comes the reprieve of gorgeous weather, pristine beaches, and a joyous village atmosphere. When our hands and minds were at rest, it wasn’t difficult to turn our awareness to the relaxed and easy lifestyle that the Limnian locals embrace, and nothing assists that better than a morning tea break with frappes and bougatsa.


Taking a stroll down the main market promenade of Limnos known as the "Agora" can bring peace to any troubled mind, and when the work around the house got a bit much, it was a relief to be amongst the happy locals.


Every morning the Agora is alive with activity. Closed to cars, the one-kilometre Agora is the backbone of the island’s capital, Myrina, where people go about their daily shopping and banking, taking baby for a stroll, and catching up with friends.


Lined with an endless array of shops and speciality stores from artisan bakeries and designer boutiques, to vibrant fruit and vegetable markets and tacky souvenir shops, the Agora air is filled with the seductive aromas of freshly ground coffee beans, roasted nuts and sweet pastries.



Perfectly positioned half-way down the Agora is a leafy square where people take a break to catch up with friends for coffee and bougatsa. Under the shade of enormous plane trees the tables are always full at the popular Axni & Kanella (“icing & cinnamon”) cafe where they make the best bougatsa I've ever eaten.



Thought to have originated in Macedonia, it’s not surprising that bougatsa is now popular in the northern parts of Greece around Thesaloniki and the north Aegean islands such as Limnos and Lesvos.

There is also a savoury version of bougatsa that is filled with cheese, and another variety with minced meat. But it is the sweet custard bougatsa that brings a smile to my face, and the recipe for which I’ll be sharing with you today.

If (unlike me) you can master the art of making your own fillo pastry, your bougatsa will reach heavenly levels of melt-in-the-mouth delectability (see video below). Using commercial fillo pastry certainly doesn’t disappoint though. As long as your custard filling is smooth and creamy with just the right balance of sweetness, you can’t go wrong.


(Video filmed in Athens by Michi's Videos)

Bougatsa me Krema (Greek custard-filled pastry)


Recipe for custard filling adapted slightly from Greek Cookery from the Hellenic Heart by George Calombaris.

Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons cornflour
  • 4 tablespoons semolina
  • 2/3 cup castor sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 650ml full-cream milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 16 sheets filo pastry
  • 250g melted butter
  • Icing sugar to dust
  • Cinnamon to dust

Instructions

  1. Place cornflour, semolina, sugar, eggs, milk and vanilla essence in a large bowl and whisk until smooth. 
  2. Transfer to a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, until mixture thickens. Remove saucepan from heat and whisk custard to smooth out any lumps.
  3. Place lid on saucepan and allow to cool.
  4. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius.
  5. Lay four buttered sheets of fillo pastry on top of each other, brushing between each layer with melted butter. 
  6. Pour around half a cup of the custard mixture into the centre of the pastry.
  7. Lift the corners of the pastry and fold over the custard to form a squarish parcel. Make sure the pastry is sufficiently folded over and the custard is sealed well within the pastry. See the video above to get a rough idea of how this is done (Note: Commercial fillo pastry isn't as pliable as the pastry in the video (and the sheets won't be as big) so you might want to go easy on the wrapping technique. Unless of course you've made your own fillo pastry.)
  8. Repeat with the rest of the fillo pastry sheets to make four parcels.
  9. Using a large spatula to lift the parcels, place them, sealed-side face down, on a baking tray lined with greased baking paper and bake for 20 minutes or until lightly golden.
  10. Using a large, sharp knife, cut each parcel into small squares around 4cm x 4cm and dust with icing sugar and cinnamon.


Bougatsa can be kept in the fridge for around 3 days in an air-tight container, but must be reheated on an oven tray (preheated oven at 180 degrees celsius for 5 minutes) before serving.



Monday, October 21, 2013

Spectacular Santorini
and a recipe for Santorinian Tomato Fritters
(Tomatokeftethes)


Hello everyone! All two of you that might still be waiting for me to post again on the blog. I am so sorry for taking such an extended leave of absence – I feel terrible about neglecting this space, especially because my only excuse is that I've been busy with work.

This would be completely legitimate if I was genuinely snowed under, but that hasn't been the case. I pretty much have the standard amount of work that anyone else has to deal with. I only have to look at dedicated bloggers like Veggie Mama who works and has two small children, and Liz over at I Spy Plum Pie who also works and posts almost every day, and I have to confess that my real problem is just laziness.

I mean, it's not like I spend every waking hour working. I spend many waking hours just sitting around thinking about dumb stuff, procrastinating about the housework, and worrying about things that I can easily fix with just a little motivation.

Blogging is something that I do enjoy, but like other things in my life, once I get out of the routine it's difficult for me to get inspired again – not helped at all by my annual struggle with post-holiday depression! I do, however, gain a lot of inspiration from other bloggers and over the weekend I spent some time catching up with many of my favourite blogs.

Thanks to blogs like Veganopoulous, Where's the Beef, Souvlaki for the SoulOh My Veggies and The Vegan Chickpea, I woke up this morning feeling excited about posting on here again.

So before it's too late, I'm going to try my best to make up for my tardy behaviour. This blog hasn't been around for very long but in the 10 months that I've been posting here, I have been nothing but humbled by the amount of support and kind comments from so many lovely people, and I really don't want to lose that.

I haven't been cooking much since we returned from our trip, and my photography has been narrowed down to staff portraits for work, but I'm hoping that getting back into the blogging momentum will reignite my passions for both cooking and photography because these are the things that make me happy.

The blog also serves as a record of our trips to Greece which have now become an annual event for Tony and I. These days I rarely print my holiday photos and they inevitably end up hidden away as numbers in folders on my hard-drive. Having them on the blog means they will always be in easy reach to look back on and remember the fun we had on our holidays.

So here I am, trying to make a comeback, sincerely hoping that I haven't lost too many readers over the last few weeks, and desperately hoping that my burst of enthusiasm that I've managed to harness today gets me back into the practice of perpetual blogging.


When last I posted from Greece, I'd just started to tell you about the wonderfully blissful time we'd spent in spectacular Santorini.

Created after a huge volcanic eruption over 3,500 years ago, Santorini is a staggeringly beautiful ring-shaped island with the most amazing views out to the Aegean Sea. Our small villa was perched high up on the Caldera's edge, 300 metres above sea level in the quiet village of Imerovigli – our minds repeatedly blown away by the incredible vista that greeted us every morning from our own private terrace.

We spent four days in Santorini, mostly walking around the towns of Thira and Imerovigli, admiring the views and taking ridiculous amounts of photos. We also explored other parts of the island on a motor scooter, riding out to Perissa Beach where black volcanic sand burns your feet, and spending a day at beautiful Oia drooling over the boutique art and craft shops.

Okay, prepare yourself now for the barrage of photos from our never-wanted-it-to-end affair with this fantasy island.







Meticulous pebble-work covers the foot ways and squares of the main villages. This one, located in Thira, is of a double-headed eagle, a beloved Greek symbol that is often used as a decorative motif.




We couldn't get enough of the panoramic scale of this place. Here I am enjoying the view from the same vantage point that I have managed to find each of the three times I've visited Santorini. It's the roof of a villa in Imerovigli, and somehow, amongst the maze of cobble-stoned pathways that riddle the island, I've been able to locate this spot every time...


And here I am on the same roof, over 20 years ago:


More incredible views.



Even the cats enjoyed the views.


Another view that mesmerised me to no end was the delectably-stocked mini-market shelves, loaded with all those Greek goodies that you can only get at specialty delicatessens here in Australia. These mini markets were dotted all over Santorini, this one a stone's throw from our villa.


The village of Oia is not only known for its amazing sunsets, but also for its abundance of boutique art and craft shops and street stalls.





This dog wasn't all that interested in shopping. He was happy to just relax in the shade with the cool marble beneath him, away from the hot Santorini sun.





Black volcanic sand of Perissa beach.





"Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world ... I feel like I can't take it ... and my heart is just going to cave in."
(quote taken from the plastic bag scene of American Beauty.)


Could there possibly be a more outrageous place to live? Yes, I believe this was someone's private property:





Below is the view from the our gorgeous little studio villa. We stayed at Artemis Villas, run by a Greek Australian guy named Chris and his wife Angela. We had our own private terrace from which to take in the vast expanse of the indigo seas and not for one minute during our four days here did we stop marvelling at this ridiculous view.


How gorgeous is this? Every day the towels on our bed were sculpted into the shape of a different animal by the most friendly (and talented!) room attendant I think I've ever met, Juliana. She was such a lovely and delightful lady, and every afternoon delivered complimentary cake and champagne for us to enjoy on our terrace.






Menu choices when eating out in Santorini were a mix of traditional Santorinian fare along with quite a range of western and other international favourites to cater for the vast variety of tourists that visit the island. I'm always drawn to the Greek appetisers for vegetarian options, but was pleasantly surprised to find Vegetarian Moussaka was a specialty dish at Argo Restaurant in Thira. I also loved the way it was served in its own terracotta dish.


The landscape of Santorini is very dry and arid with harsh volcanic ash soil, however these conditions enable some unique produce to be cultivated on the island such as the indigenous Asyrtiko grape, beautiful white eggplants, and deliciously sweet cherry tomatoes.

The intensely-flavoured tomatoes of Santorini are grown using a centuries-old method called dry farming. Plants are nurtured until established, then all watering is stopped which forces the plant to find water deep underground, in turn encouraging it to be more proactive in producing fruit. The hot, dry summers of the mediterranean are perfect for growing tomatoes this way. The fruit is smaller but the flavour and texture is incredibly rich and sweet.

It's no surprise then that Tomatokeftethes is featured on just about every taverna menu in Santorini.

During our short stay in Santorini, the best tomatokeftethes we came across were at Thalami Taverna in Oia. Golden brown and oh-so-crispy on the outside, soft and sweet with a hint of tartness on the inside.


I knew I'd never be able to reproduce these at home without access to Santorini-grown tomatoes, but with the help of some tomato paste and a bit of pre-frying to intensify the flavour, my version of Tomatokeftethes didn't turn out too badly.

Most of the recipes you will find online don't include egg in the batter, but after a little experimentation with and without egg, I found it necessary to use egg to hold the batter together (without the egg I pretty much ended up with little bits and pieces of brown crumbled rock – which may or may not have had something to do with my worn-out "non-stick" frying pan which is anything but non-stick). I'd be interested to hear if anyone (other than the phantom internet people posting all the eggless recipes) has had success making tomato fritters without egg.


Santorinian Tomato Fritters (Tomatokeftethes)


Makes around 20 fritters

Ingredients

  • 400g cherry or mini roma tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 1 small red onion, grated
  • 2 teaspoons tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 120g self raising flour
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • Olive oil for flying

Instructions

  1. In a medium saucepan, fry the onion in a little oil over medium heat for a couple of minutes.
  2. Add the chopped tomatoes and stir to combine. Reduce heat to low and cover for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Transfer the onion and tomato mixture to a large bowl, add tomato paste and herbs and season well with salt and pepper.
  4. Add the flour and egg, mixing, until it forms a thick batter, adding more flour if necessary.
  5. Over high heat, pour some olive oil into a large non-stick frying pan until it reaches a depth of around 1cm. Once the oil has heated, drop a small amount of the batter into the oil and if it sizzles, the oil is ready. Turn the heat down to medium.
  6. Drop heaped tablespoonfuls of the batter into the hot oil and fry both sides until golden and crisp.
  7. Drain over paper towels and serve immediately with fresh Greek yoghurt.