This post is dedicated to a very dear friend of mine who is presently discovering the wonders of the Mediterranean diet. For her and for you, here is a little post on how to add a touch of Mediterranean charm to your store cupboard, pantry or cellar with my top ten essentials for Greek cooking. Here is part 1...
The holy grail of Greek cooking. Olive oil is not only used in the kitchen but in the Church. Little babes are bought into the Greek Orthodox faith with their hands, feet ears and mouth being anointed with blessed olive oil. God parents then anoint the entire body of the child with the oil. While the Greeks have a very significant spiritual connection to olive oil, when it comes to the kitchen they also take their olive oil very seriously. Most have a large vat in their cellar (which they have imported directly themselves from family olive groves in Greece) or at the very least there is a huge boxed can lurking somewhere close to hand in the store cupboard. I have been reliably informed by Mr K, connoisseur of Greek oil, that the best olive oil is from the Peloponnese (in Mr K's view from Olympia) or from Crete.
The health benefits of olive oil are widely known. Olive Oil is packed with beta carotene (pro-vitamin A) and tocopherol (vitamin E), otherwise known as antioxidants. Easily absorbed into the body, these antioxidants are known to lower bad cholesterol and stimulate an increase in good cholesterol. As such, research suggests that olive oil is said to help prevent arteriosclerosis, coronary heart disease, and possibly even some cancers.
If there were one thing that Mr K treasures more than olive oil, it would have to be garlic. I first became accustomed to the extent of his garlic eating ways, when I caught him nibbling raw cloves of garlic on our honeymoon, after a trip to the markets. It would seem Mr K is not alone. Garlic is absolutely essential to Greek cooking. It is used in everything from stews and sauces to keftedes, but it plays a starring role in classics such as skordalia and in yogurt-based dips, such as tzatziki. Any Greek kitchen worth it’s salt always had a good supply of this foundation ingredient.
Garlic is a good source of both vitamins C and B6. Like olive oil, garlic is also said to help prevent atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and cancer.
The plains of Greece are filled with citrus trees. Head to Sparta and you will see that the pedestrian streets are lined with trees heaving with juicy oranges. From the Ionian Islands to Crete, every household has a healthy lemon tree abundant with fruit. When I see all of the abundant citrus trees in Greece, I am reminded of a very old Greek proverb, which goes along the lines of, " A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in." In terms of cooking, lemons are used in virtually nearly every Greek dish (with the exception of dishes using tomatoes) from marinating meats, squeezing on grilled fish and salads (both warm and fresh) - to being the base for classic stews and soups, such as avgolemono. Oranges are also used in a variety of ways, from baking to flavorings for stews. To make a classic stifadio, an orange peel is added along with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and bay leaves.
All citrus fruits are rich in vitamin C and are highly anti-bacterial, which helps in protecting against infection. In addition to vitamin C, lemons also contain calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.
When people think of tomatoes they usually think immediately of Italy. However, juicy red tomatoes are very much an essential of Greek cooking. While the tomato was a relatively late arrival to the Greek culinary scene, around the late 19th century, Greek cooks certainly made up for lost time by using "the golden apple" in many classic dishes, from little shoes to stuffed tomatoes and horiatiki salata. In cooked dishes, while you may reach for good quality, tinned imported whole or diced tomatoes, there is nothing that comes close to replacing the flavour of fresh tomatoes in a luscious, olive oil rich red sauce. I have trusted my mother in law's brilliant, time honoured advice of only using fresh tomatoes - and never, ever putting them in the fridge. By adding fresh tomatoes, simple vegetable or meat stews, such as Rabbit in Red Sauce take on a completely different, absolutely delectable flavour. There is no substitute!
Tomatoes are rich in vitamin C and A. Research also suggests that the antioxidant properties of lycopene, the component which gives the tomato its red colour, also have potential anticancer properties.
Greek food is virtually unimaginable without rigani. It grows wild all over the hillsides of Greece (along with beautiful thick pockets of purple specked thyme and fluffy yellow chamomile) and permeates the air with a heady, spicy scent on dusk, after a day baking and releasing it’s essential oils in the hot sun. Mixed with oil and lemon, rigani makes up the holy trinity of a good Greek marinade used for basting meat such as souvlaki and as well as meat on the spit. With a little sprinkle of riagni on some homemade chips, you’ll think you’re at O’Thanassis in Athens.
Not only is rigani a delicious flavoring, but also it is also know for its exceptional health benefits. Full of vitamin C, A and K, riagni is an excellent antioxidant. Rigani was used in ancient times for both stomach and respiratory problems and it is still used today by companies such as Korres in products for relief of sore throats and coughs.
Part 2...coming soon!!!
Part 2...coming soon!!!