On the island of Chios, tomatoes are tied together and hung outside the home, where there is plenty of sun. They taste as lovely as they look.

You will love making your own sun dried tomatoes, either in the traditional way or in the oven, especially now in August, that there are so many of them. I am a little biased towards traditionally sun dried tomatoes, but the other option is good too, especially if the weather is not very warm and/or you are in a bit of a hurry and don’t want to wait for a week.

Sun dried tomatoes (Sun method)

You will need:

-Pomodori (plum tomatoes), or any other kind of fleshy, oblong tomato without many seeds and without too much juice.

-Coarse salt

Slice the tomatoes lengthwise. Place them in a plastic platter or any other dish as long as it is not metallic. Sprinkle with coarse salt and cover them with tulle fabric to keep insects away. Leave them in a sunny spot to dry out completely. Keep an eye on them and occasionally turn them around so that they dry out evenly. This usually takes about a week, sooner if the weather is really hot.

You need a large amount of tomatoes for your wait to be worth its while because they shrink quite a lot.

“Sun” dried tomatoes (Oven method)

Preheat your oven at 80 Celsius degrees

Slice the tomatoes in half, lengthwise and sprinkle them with coarse salt.

Place them in a shallow baking tin that you have lined with parchment paper.

They should be ready after about 10 hours. You may need to rotate the tins a few times to ensure they are evenly baked. You will know they are ready when they resemble the texture of a raisin and they are a deep red colour, almost burgundy, bout not brown. If they turn out too hard for your taste, simply take as many as you need and soak them in water.

Sometimes I store them in a zip lock bag, or if I want to give some as a present, I store them in a jar with the olive oil, garlic and capers we talked about earlier. This jar should be kept in the fridge and it will be good for a couple of weeks.

How to use them:

In salads

In pasta with basil and aubergines

In omelets

Finely chopped in savoury breads

Place them in a jar with olive oil, capers and garlic and use the tomatoes as a simple ouzo meze (after you have immersed them in the olive oil, it tastes quite nice too, so you can use it in your salads).

Tomato patties (tomatokeftedes) are perfect with ouzo and they are really easy to make. Obviously, it is not something you can eat every day, but you don’t eat large quantities either. It’s meze, so you have some tomatokeftedes, some cucumber, a few olives and your glass of ouzo, and you are set.

Ingredients

5 tomatoes

2 eggs

1 onion chopped

5 tablespoons of all purpose flour

Grated cheese (any kind of firm, yellow cheese)

Parsley

Mint

Salt and pepper

Olive oil for frying

Preparation

Boil some water and immerse tomatoes in the pan so that you can peel them off easily. Remove skin and seeds as well. Chop them finely. Beat eggs in a bowl and fold in all ingredients except flour. Combine very well and start adding flour little by little while mixing. Test your batter to see if it is slightly firm. You don’t need to be able to shape it; it just has to be able to stay glued together.

Heat olive oil in a pan and when it is hot, take a tablespoon of the mixture and fry it. Drain in paper towels and serve.

Greek Summer is a recipe in itself. It may still turn out all right if you miss one secondary ingredient, but it won’t be your mama’s summer. Not the same.

For the perfect Greek Summer, you have to have:

The sea: No lakes or rivers, although they are perfectly all right for other seasons. But as much as I hate beach culture, I have to admit it is a quintessential part of Greek Summer. Going for a swim is an integral part of our summer routine. Even for people who stay in the city, it’s essential to go to the nearest beach, at least in the weekend, but for many on weekdays too. Municipal authorities hire special coach buses that go to “bania”. Older people or big families or lonely people or people who simply don’t drive, take this magic bus and go to the beach, usually very early in the morning. My mother in law has been doing it for years and years, all her friends too. Then, they come home, have coffee and go about their day.

On the islands, it’s a similar story. Many restaurants are closed before 1 in the afternoon because people have not returned from the beach yet. People ride their bikes and try to find the best beach with the fewest people. Sometimes they stay there until 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening. Often, they take a small household with them. No, it’s not just sunscreen, towels,
hats and floaties. You have to have your beach umbrella, beach chairs and beach cooler with food –fruit, sandwiches, juices, beer- toys, beach racquets, snorkel set, and in the age before blessed mp3s people sometimes used to take their little ghetto blasters along.

Gemista: Tomatoes and bell peppers stuffed with rice. It’s the best summer food and it is even tastier the next day. Mums all around Greece make tons of gemista every summer. You have to have gemista with feta cheese. Try them at the tavern, if you are lucky you are going to taste something similar to the homemade thing. If instead of baked potatoes (3-4 that usually accompany your gemista) you see fries, it’s not the real deal. Other summer foods: imam (baked aubergines a garlic-onions-tomato sauce), briam (baked zucchini, peppers and potatoes in a garlic-onions-tomato sauce) and stuffed vine leaves (divine, when the vine leaves are fresh, preferably from the vine just outside your door). All mums make these.

Watermelons: Succulent, fleshy, juicy, cool. Great after a summer lunch or as mid-afternoon dessert, or any other time really. We eat lots every summer. Some people have watermelon with feta but I’ve never been a fan. Aficionados tell me it’s the best thing after sliced bread.

Ouzo: See here why there is no Greek Summer without ouzo. Ouzo is summer. I can’t imagine drinking ouzo in front of the fireplace, although I must have at some point, when I was a teenager and ouzo was the only kind of alcohol I could get my hands on without leaving the house.

Frappe coffee: That’s a year round staple for many, but summer is its best season, when people can stay at the café for hours and hours sipping their coffee and watching the world go by. The truth is, although it really sucks tastewise (my personal view, admittedly not shared by many) it is one of the few things that can wake you up from the indolence and sluggishness of the Greek hot summer.

Submarine”: a vanilla flavored sugar paste, dipped in water, that’s why it’s called “submarine” (greek: ypovrihio). It’s the most basic welcome sweet often flavored with mastic or strawberry or pistachio flavor. The water has to be ice cold and you lick the vanilla paste, dipping it in the water from time to time to soften it. It’s the sweet taste of our collective childhood, because it is so basic and so common in every household and most of all so easy to prepare, that all mothers, grandmothers, aunties, used to give it to children when they craved something sweet.

Figs: There is a huge fig tree near my parent’s summer place. When we visit them, we park the car near the tree and under the blinding summer sun the intoxicating smell of figs fills my lungs. In middle August, when they are full of honey, my mum gives us figs to take home and she makes fig jam and fig spoon sweet.

Reading in the early afternoon while your parents are asleep: In the summertime, after a swim in the sea, when the sun is in its hottest hour, the sea salt has stuck on your skin, exhausted from all the fun and the heat and the messiness of the sand, you make your way home. You have a bath and in your underwear, you lie in your bed or the sofa, and are ordered to stay quiet and “read a book”. Because it is time for siesta. Grownups take a nap, because what is more exhausting than a summer holiday with your family? One with your extended family. I read tons of books in the summers of my childhood, when I was ordered to be quiet. My son does the same now. It’s great to feel the cool, clean sheets, to be fresh from the shower and lie in bed with your book with the sun kept away behind the blinds.  And the only thing you hear is the cicadas. It’s a summer lullaby.

Collecting pebbles: I still do that almost every summer. You have to have about 10-15 good looking pebbles when September comes. They are like postcards. When we were little we used to paint them, but now we put them in our little zen corners in the balcony.

Tables in the plateia, or by the seaside: remember the siesta? When it’s over, that’s what you do. You go to the village square (plateia) and sit at your table under the tree and drink ouzo or coffee or wine, or a cold beer. And if you don’t have a plateia, that’s because the seaside is nearby, so there are kafeneia (cafes) by the sea. If you are lucky there is a festival (panygyri) and the locals dance and eat until late at night.

Smell of oregano: everywhere, at all times.

The full august moon: This year, it’s on the 24th of August. If you find yourself in Greece, remember that many archaeological sites like the Parthenon open this particular night, so that you can enjoy the full moon in a magnificent setting. Sometimes, special events are organized, like concerts.

Ouzo is an acquired taste. If you are not an immediate fan, don’t fret. Almost nobody is. But it grows on you as mezedes that accompany it (small plates of tidbits) come and go. Because it is always served with food. Even if it is just a few olives and a slice of tomato.

Also, you have to find your own, preferred proportion of ouzo to ice and water. Some people have it straight, but most like some ice in it. Do have some water or ice added to it, since it is quite strong. It will turn milky white (because of the anise) and will last longer. But above all, in order to enjoy it, you have to be in the right state of mind. To be calm, to be willing to kill time, lots of time, to be ready to laugh and philosophize, to remember and dream. Or, to be absolutely still and just look at the world go by. It is not something to do in a hurry or during a business lunch, God forbid. Ouzo drinking is always an informal experience.

If you find yourself in a Greek village on a Sunday, you may notice the men of the village enjoying themselves at the kafeneio (small café),  drinking ouzo and eating olives or sardines or some other salty delicacy, just waiting for Sunday lunch (the reason you won’t see many women is because they are the ones preparing said lunch). If you are in a town or city, you may find “ouzerie”, establishments that serve ouzo (but not exclusively) along with meze. Food is a bigger deal there than in kafeneio.

Ouzo and meze are appetizers, not a meal, although the process can last hours and hours. That doesn’t mean you can emerge drunk from the experience. That’s a faux pas. It is a conversational drink and the reason why you have food as you go is to remain sober so as to enjoy the company. “Pame gia ouzaki” (let’s go for a little ouzo) is an invitation to friendship, fun and sharing, not an opportunity to get wasted. Greeks don’t drink to get drunk, they drink to socialize. Let’s put it this way: If you are drunk senseless, you are not man enough (women can be ‘men enough’ as well).

Occasionally you may find ouzo without anise. It will not have the same licorice taste and it may be stronger. Have a go and decide for yourself. Similarly, if you find yourself on Chios Island, you will have the opportunity to taste mastic-flavored ouzo. It is superb, try it.

These are some ouzo brands I have tasted and liked over the years. They are of great quality and you can’t go wrong with them. Other than that, it is a matter of taste and preference. My very rough rule of thumb is: Stay away from VERY fancy bottles.

My favourite ouzo brands

Ouzo Pitsiladi (???? ?????????), Ouzo Kefi (???? ????), Ouzo Psihis (???? ?????)

Other good brands ? have tasted

Barbayanni (???????????), ?silili (T??????), Ouzo Plomariou (???? ?????????), Ouzo Teteri (OYZO TET????), Apalarina (?????????), ?abajim (??????????)

How to serve it

-Have tall highball glasses ready (I believe they are also called zombie glasses).

-Present a separate bowl of ice or ice bucket and a little spoon or ice tongs.

-Have a bottle of water on the table too.

-Serve some food: Olives, a slice of cheese, sliced tomato, cucumber slices, sardines, taramosalata or saganaki (fried cheese).  For something fancier, there are some links to recipes and ideas below.

-Each person pours their own drink and they dilute it according to their taste. Some want one or two ice-cubes, some add water, some both.

-Say “geia mas” (Cheers) and clink your glasses.

Some facts

Ouzo production took off at the end of the 19th century in Plomari, on the island of Lesvos.

It is made from pressed grapes or raisins and added herbs and spices (anise, fennel, cloves etc)

Top quality is 100% distilled ouzo

By European Law, only Greece has the right to produce it

Do not ever, ever mix it with cola. It is a disgrace and destroys the taste completely.

It can go up to 45% alcoholic degrees when mainstream vodka is 40%. It may be sweet but it is not innocent.

 

 

 

 

Friends from abroad often ask me how we drink ouzo.  Many think it’s a long drink to be taken with peanuts like some pubs serve beer. But that’s not the case at all. Both ouzo and tsipouro are meant to be accompanied by food. Usually, that’s not a big portion, but meze (plural: mezedes) ,  that are shared among everyone at the table. Usually meze is a selection of salty or spicy- small dishes, like stuffed vine leaves, olives, grilled octopus, oven baked giant beans, spicy cheese spread, aubergine tapenade, grilled cheese, etc.

 

Grilled aubergines with herring in a vinegraitte

 

 Oven baked potatoes and octopus (don’t ask if it’s good, I am vegetarian)

Grilled haloumi cheese

We eat Meze to accompany our drink, but mostly to socialize and have fun without engaging in a full blown three course meal that requires hours in the kitchen. Meze is always informal and the central idea behind is sharing. You share several wonderful dishes, you laugh and have fun. Eating meze is an unhurried social event, not just a snack.
The dishes may be small but they are many and you are supposed to eat them slowly, between sips of your ouzo or tsipouro. Eating mezedes at the taverna, or at home, lasts for hours and hours. A good taverna will serve a different meze with each new bottle of ouzo (the bottles are tiny, around 75 ml while tsipouro sometimes comes into 25 ml because it is so very strong).

 

Tsipouro is a clear grape skin distillate up to 46% alc./vol.

 

 Black eyed peas salad with dill

 

 Baked aubergines in a salty and sour dressing

One of the best ouzo you can find. I tasted it in Chios last summer.

 

 

Getting drunk is not the point at all. While merriment is intended, being drunk while having meze is not. It is a social experience and not being able to talk is not social.
The meze you are going to get when you are eating out, depends very much on where you find yourself eating. If you are on an island you will almost certainly get fish and seafood. Most areas in Greece have their own specialties, so you are probably going to get those if you are having a meze there, like special cheeses or salads, or greens.

 Red Florina peppers

 Stuffed vine leaves are a classic ouzo meze

 "Kagianas" is an omelette with fresh tomato sauce and feta cheese

Warm potato salad

If you want to try and recreate the Greek Meze table at home, keep in mind that the main principles are:
Variety: you have to prepare many small dishes. A plate of olives is considered a dish.
Simplicity : you should be at the table, drinking and conversing with your guests, not slaving in the kitchen. Simple dishes, that are easily prepared with first quality ingredients are the key.
Quality: Choose the best ingredients, as a meze is a small dish and you cannot easily hide behind sauces and intricate dressings. Not that you’d want to.

"Real Men’s ouzo Kakitsi. You wake up and feel well. Chios. Attention! For men only". It is meant as a joke (I hope!)

Tsoureki (sweet bread)

Greek Easter is full of drama and the food follows in the same line. Throughout the Holy Week, we are supposed to abstain from meat and dairy and on Good Friday we don’t even have olive oil (other oils are ok although many older people just eat soups boiled in water).

 Mageiritsa soup

After Easter midnight mass on Saturday, we crack our red eggs and eat mageiritsa, a special soup made with lettuce, dill and innards (blech). I actually make a vegetarian version and you can find the recipe here. Then we may have some cheese  or tsoureki (a sweet bread) and that’s it. It’s after midnight, remember? And you have to leave room for the next day.

Easter Sunday is the biggest feast of all. That is, if you are not a vegetarian. That’s when people spit roast lamb ALL DAY and also eat other kinds of offal which I’d rather not talk about.

Baklavas

Sour Cherry spoon dessert

On Easter Sunday We also have lettuce salad, greek salad, tsatziki and several homemade pies like spinach pie or cheese pie. After lunch which usually lasts till dinner, we have desserts like baklava or koulourakia (butter cookies) and tsoureki.

Nafpaktos

Giant beans eaten on Good Friday in "Petrino" restaurant, Nafpaktos

Beet salad eaten in "Petrino" restaurant, Nafpaktos

Aubergine patties eaten on Good Friday in "Petrino" restaurant, Nafpaktos

This year, we spent Easter in Nafpaktos, a beautiful seaside town and we were very lucky, foodwise. Most restaurants serve great food, but especially Maria Loi’s. She is a well known Greek chef and has opened her restaurant in Nafpaktos. It’s the sweetest place and she is kind and attentive to all. She called us on the mobile to tell us she had found a table for us (the restaurant was fully reserved) and she even made special vegetarian food for us.

Fresh pasta filled with truffle at Maria Loi’s restaurant, Nafpaktos

Rocket and greens salad with a delicious vinegraitte which had some sweet fig syrup, at Maria Loi’s restaurant, Nafpaktos

Cheese cake, chocolate coated strawberries and panna cotta at Maria Loi’s restaurant, Nafpaktos

 

Mum’s easter salad

We had Easter Sunday lunch at my mum’s. Think Christmas dinner. Now multiply by 10. That’s my mum’s Easter lunch. This year the vegetarian options were roast potatoes, spring salad, mushroom pie, stuffed vine leaves (dolmadakia), cheese souffle, tsatziki, greek salad, the obligatory red eggs, several cheeses, and baklava and ice cream for dessert.

Mum’s mushroom pie

Mum’s stuffed vine leaves (dolmadakia) 

These dolmadakia are so tiny, just a bite and my sister and I treat them like precious gems. My mother gave some to my mother in law and my sister and I sulked. Mum said: "But I gave you too!" Whereupon we replied "Oh, yes? How many? One hundred?"

 

 

I found this Greek, traditionally made pasta and I am a sucker for nice packaging so I bought it. I also thought, let’s try it and see if we like it for the deli. I decided to prepare it with aubergines, zucchini and feta cheese. It’s not a fancy recipe, but it is really tasty and easy and nutritious.

For 4 persons, cut 2 aubergines and 3 zucchinis in strips. Sprinkle with salt and set them aside.

Prepare the pasta. It’s going to be more tasty if you boil it in vegetable broth instead of just water. In my case it was ready in 7 minutes. Drain and leave aside (try to keep a little of the water so that the pasta won’t stick).

Put two ripe tomatoes and one spring onion in the food processor but don’t completely liquidize them.

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil and add 2 garlic cloves. When you can smell the garlic add the aubergines and a couple of minutes later the zucchini. A couple of minutes later add the tomato sauce. Season and add some dried spearmint.

When the vegetables are tender (but still retain their shape) place them in an oven dish with the pasta. Mix everything well together and add 2 cups of feta cheese in small cubes. Before you put it in the oven (180 Celsius or 356 F, or gas mark 4) sprinkle with some olive oil.  Remove from the oven 15 minutes later or when the feta cheese has melted. You can also add pitted olives if you want.

Serve with some basil leaves and fresh pepper. Kali oreksi (Bon appétit in Greek).

 

This was another one of those days when you don’t have time to go shopping and have to make do with whatever there is in the fridge. It was my son’s birthday so I had to make the things he like best, which is soya kebabs and chips. Peas and potatoes are a staple in Greece -and also peas and artichokes- but I wanted to add something more so I added spinach and chopped cabbage. Plus some mint and lemon.
It came out really tasty and fresh and it is no trouble at all. You can add whatever greens you may have as long as they are not too bitter.

Peas with everything

First I heated 3 tablespoons of olive oil in the pan and then I added one chopped onion. I mixed in 2 potatoes coarsely cut and 2 chopped cups of white cabbage. When the potatoes started softening I added 2 cups peas and 2 cups chopped spinach. You treat it a bit like risotto, adding water as you go, or even better, vegetable stock. Finally, I sprinkled some mint and served with a slice of lemon. It goes great with feta or any other white and slightly salty cheese. You can eat it a day old and it will still taste great, it gets better with age (limit it to just one day though).

 

Cinammon and Clove restaurant

Zagoria villages

On the second day of our visit to Ioannina, our friends took us to Vitsa, a nearby village that belongs to the Zagoria villages complex. The way I am saying it, it sounds as if they are not real villages but vacation places built like villages, but trust me they are very real and very beautiful. And very cold.

We went to have lunch at this restaurant Cinnamon and Clove (Kanella & Garifallo) and as soon as I opened the menu my pupils were dilated and my jaw dropped. There were dozens of mushroom dishes, with all kinds of mushrooms, cooked in all possible ways: soups, stews, grilled, oven baked, sautéed, in salads. Porcinis (we call them vasilomanitara which means king mushrooms) chanterelles, morels and other delicious fungi and when the waiter asked me what I wanted I said everything.

Chanterelles

Greens pie (lahanopita)

The other great thing you can eat while in Ioannina or Zagoria or Epirus in general (the northwest region of Greece) is savoury pies. I had a pie with all kinds of greens that they describe as “Lahanopita”. You can have one piece for lunch and you are full until dinner.

Cheeses are another specialty of the area. The most famous of the local cheeses is Metsovone (named after its place of origin Metsovo) which is a smoked cheese made of cow milk. I also tasted a fantastic soft goat cheese, and a delicious cheese made of sheep milk that is called galotyri and its texture is similar to that of Greek yogurt.

They do eat some disgusting things like frog legs and eels but thankfully apart from being a frog lover I am also vegetarian so I did not feel the urge to try either. I did have some horrid dreams about eating snakes in the days that followed though.

Poor, disgusting eels

I am not going to go into sweet things at all because that is a whole new chapter. There are wonderful pastries and other desserts and one of the best places to get them is “Diethnes” (all around town). We stocked up before leaving and I also hear they make a yummy chocolate pie but I did not try it because I am on a diet. Erm, controlled nutrition plan. However, I SAW it and I think I put on some weight staring at it.

Before we left my friend Pan made a cheese pie for us to eat on the road. I had seen it in a menu and asked her what it was and she said it was very easy to make. “One egg, one yoghurt” she said. That’s what it takes. Plus cheese and flour. I made it today too (envy), but I used twice of everything (gluttony).

Easiest cheese pie ever

Easiest & Fastest Cheese pie ever
I mixed together 2 eggs, around 300 gr (3 cups) all purpose flour, 2 cups yoghurt, 3 cups cheese (any kind, I used feta, gruyere and the Greek equivalent of cottage cheese). Beat them all together and add some milk and one or two tablespoons of olive oil. You have to end up with a thick mixture that will look like pancake batter but thicker. If it is too runny add more flour. Sprinkle some oregano or chopped rosemary and bake in a buttered tin in a pre-heated oven at 200 C (392 F) for about 20 minutes or until it is set (you can dip your knife in it and comes out clean). Frankly, it is the easiest cheese pie I’ve ever made (sloth) and one of the tastiest.

 

To dream of carrots, portends prosperity and health. For a young woman to eat them, denotes that she will contract an early marriage and be the mother of several hardy children.

10 000 Dream Interpretations, by Gustavus Hindman Miller

One of the main reasons I love autumn is because I can serve soup, especially carrot soup, and not be given the crazy/angry/disapproving glance. Because people in Greece only eat soup when they are sick. Or in funerals. What I love about Britain is that if you are in a hurry, you go to the supermarket and grab a fresh soup and just heat it and it usually tastes very good (the ones I had from Waitrose at least). Many times when I have been thinking with friends about future business ventures, the conversation leads us to soup in cartons, but half a minute later one of us says "who is going to eat soup?" and we sulk in our corners, sipping the soup that apparently nobody else would. So, yes, carrot soup. Clean your plates. 4-6 Servings

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 big onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1kg carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1400 ml vegetable stock
  • rind and juice of 1 large orange
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the butter in a large pan, add the onions, leave them for 2 – 3 minutes. Add carrots and the stock to the pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 25-30 minutes or until the carrots are tender. Do not throw the stock away. Liquidise all the ingredients and add the puree in the stock. Reheat gently for a couple of minutes. Season to taste. Before you serve, add the orange juice. Grate the orange rind and garnish the individual bowls.I think this soup needs a good crunchy bread, preferably wholemeal.