Welcome to More Kouppes, and to our first guest (meaning, not our parents’) Greek recipe! When we decided to share favourite meals from families which were not our own, we knew that we would focus on recipes we had either heard people raving about (Oh man, my mom’s spanakopita is like, The Best!), or food that we had been lucky enough to eat, and love. Immediately we knew that this vegan pastichio would top the list. A few times a year, during periods of lent, this dairy, egg and meat-free pastichio unexpectedly appears and replaces the brown bagged lunch of peanut butter or hummus. What a delicious surprise! The sad sandwich gets tossed, and the day is immediately better. The woman behind this delicious, and unexpected real meal, is Κυρία Αργυρώ (Mrs. Argyro), and her lenten pastichio is so, so, SO good!
Sometimes in life, you have to take risks. Think outside the box. Blaze a new path. It can be scary and uncomfortable, but the rewards are usually worth it. That’s what we have done here. Manestra, a simple, tomato-based pasta soup, is usually made with orzo, but we decided to use pasta shaped as little stars (cue gasps). We were brave. We were ground breakers. We were unintimidated. We were out of orzo.
No matter what small shaped pasta you use, the end result is sure to be delicious. Manestra’s subtle flavour makes it a favourite amongst picky eaters, and when it is served plain (that is, not topped with grated mizithra) it is a perfect vegan and lenten option – particularly when you are all beaned out.
Have you ever made a bowl of Cream of Wheat cereal and not been able to eat it right away? Maybe you had to tend to a fussy baby, a pesky telemarketer or a parcel delivery (hurray for on-line shopping). No matter the interruption, when you finally settled in to add milk to your porridge, you were faced with a solid mass of wheat semolina. The fact that, as semolina sits it firms up, is what halva banks on.
The halva recipe which we are sharing here is grain-based and not the same thing as the nut butter or tahini based crumbly dessert with which it is often confused (no kidding, since they both go by the same name!). This halva is semolina based and has a soft and somewhat gelatinous texture. It is a great dessert to pull together when you have unexpected company or a sudden onset of sweet tooth-itis. Because halva is not baked, it can be made quite quickly, and is ready to eat as soon as it cools and retains it’s shape. An added bonus is that halva does not contain eggs or any dairy products, making it a wonderful treat for anyone following a vegan diet or for those abstaining from eggs and dairy during lent.
Don’t you just love pink food? Us too! Like strawberry yogourt, raspberry smoothies and cotton candy, taramosalata is beautifully pink. Its colour is not only beautiful, but handy, because when taramosalata has difficulty rolling off the tongue, it’s lovely hue is mentioned, and suddenly, everyone knows what you are referring to. That pink Greek dip is universally understood to be the traditional carp roe spread which is a staple in many Greek restaurants and homes. It is caviar for the masses.
The key ingredient for taramosalata is carp roe (yes, fish eggs), which is called tarama. It can be found in Mediterranean or Middle Eastern stores, or on-line. Tarama is not usually eaten in its pure form, but is instead mixed with other ingredients to create a spread which is delicious slathered over a thick slice of bread, some crackers, or even used as a dip for vegetables.
What was that? You want something satisfying, luxurious, super easy and vegan? Oh, good. We’ve got just the thing for you. Gigantes (or gigantes plaki) is a dish that we think you will come back to again and again. In this recipe, beans are prepared into a stew-like casserole, giving you a meal which is at once elegant, yet simple.
Maybe because gigantes are not the most common of beans, people often refer to them as giant lima beans. Despite the fact that they look similar, gigantes are creamier, meatier and hold their shape better than lima beans when cooked; they are not the same thing. When they aren’t mislabeled as lima beans, gigantes are sometimes colloquially referred to as elephant beans. In actual fact, they are white runner beans (which we think sounds much more appetizing than elephant beans…no offence to elephants). Even more officially, and officially Latin, they are classified as Phaseolus coccineus . We think these distinctions are important, particularly because gigantes are so special in Greek cooking. They are so special, in fact, that certain regions of Greece have varieties of gigantes which have been accredited as Protected Geographical Indication products. Take that, lima bean.
Today is Clean Monday (Καθαρά Δευτέρα), the first day of great lent in East Orthodoxy. The date, like the date of Easter Sunday, varies from year to year and is the Monday seven weeks prior to Easter Sunday. It is described as “clean” because today is the day we are meant to leave behind sins, sinful attitudes, and non-fasting foods. In actual fact, lent began yesterday evening with the service of Forgiveness Vespers and the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a major part of lent, and the faithful are meant to embrace this period with clean consciousness (making confession an integral part of this week), clean hearts and even clean homes, as it is customary to clean the house thoroughly during this week.
The decision to fast, and the degree to which one undertakes the fast is, in our opinion, a deeply personal one. It hinges upon many factors, including one’s health, life circumstances, and previous experience with fasting. People may choose to limit only meat, to cut out all animal products, to allow olive oil or not, or to fast only the week before Easter Sunday. We would never presume to tell you the right way to fast, but would instead suggest that you speak to your priest if you have any questions or concerns about your particular situation and the path you would like to follow. Regardless of your decision, one of the best pieces of advice that our parents gave us growing up in relation to fasting was the following: When you fast, you don’t look at anyone else’s plate (they said this in Greek of course). By this they meant that you should never look beyond your own self when fasting, and you should never judge another based upon what they put into their mouths. They also always maintained that fasting should go hand in hand with prayer, confession and goodness towards your fellow man (and of course, woman).
For many families, Christmas brings special traditions and special recipes. Whether it is pannetone, fruitcake, plum pudding, or tourtières, what makes these limited edition foods extra meaningful is that they are often only made during the holidays; a time of gatherings, joy and celebration. In our family, the traditional Christmas Eve treat is lalagia; savory, oval shaped rings of fried dough. I know, I know….we had you at fried dough. For our parents, making lalagia brings them back to their own childhoods. On the day before Christmas, the women in the villages where they grew up would gather to prepare this special, highly anticipated treat.
We realize that many of you (even Greeks) will have never heard of lalagia. Or maybe you have had something similar, which goes by a different name. Our parents are both from the Messinia region of the Peloponnese where lalagia are extremely popular and considered a local specialty. Yet, even within this region of Greece, they are not found everywhere. Traditions, customs, and of course recipes, vary from village to village and from family to family.
Although especially common during Christmas, when folklore claims that they ward off evil elves and evil spirits, across Messinia lalagia are available in bakeries year-round. In fact, during the summer in Kalamata there are vendors who sell their freshly made lalagia right on the beach. Sigh. So, if you are unfamiliar with lalagia, this is the year to make their acquaintance. Trust us. You’ll be happy you did.