The Lenten fasting season has started. In our house it was marked by Mr K asking, "do you know how to make fassolada?"
During Greek Orthodox lent, you are supposed to supposed to avoid animal products (meat, dairy, fish) until Easter. The only animal products allowed are shellfish, octopus and calamari. Tahini is used as a source of fat. The traditional fasting rules also do not allow the use of olive oil and wine during the week and only on the weekends one can consume them. As such, many stovetop dishes are cooked, which usually have lots of legumes, wild greens, vegetable and pasta or rice. Hence Mr K's question, about the all important fassolada - a hearty soup with lots of beans and vegetables.
I was a bit confused about where to start with making fassolada. All the books I had read and recipes I had collected on our recent trips to Greece suggested that fassolada was made with white beans. Mr K was fairly insistent that it was made with chickpeas.
Luckily, I had planned a visit to see my lovely mother in law, for her birthday - a perfect opportunity to sort out my legume dilemma by going straight to the best source of information on Greek food! After collecting a birthday gift - a beautiful bunch of late summer blooms from my favourite Marrickville florist (and our wedding florist), Flowers by Theresa, I went straight to visit my in laws. Over a thick Greek coffee with a hint of cinnamon, Ma and one of Mr K's Theias (aunties) who was visiting and I cleaned some large bunches of the last of the summer vlita and talked recipes.
It turned out that what Mr K called fassolda was really more of a chick pea soup, called "Revithosoupa" in Greek. There was some debate between Ma and Theia about the best recipe for a revithosoupa, (to add tomato paste or not too add tomato paste) but they settled between the two of them the best recipe and I carefully wrote it down. While I had sorted out my legume dilemma, Mr K still had not. When we later went to buy our lovely chickpeas from Earlwood wines, Mr K asked the proprietor, "how do you make your fassolada". The kind lady must have instinctively known about Mr K's legume confusion, (or maybe it was my bad poker face) as she said to me, "what are you cooking dear". I replied "Revithosoupa". She turned to Mr K and said, "why do you ask about Fassolada? Your wife is making revithousopa - she needs the chickpeas!"
I am always amused by the notion that Greek cuisine is big on meat - you know the famous line from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"...."you're vegetarian?.....no problems. I'll make some nice lamb." In the Greek orthodox tradition, some people not only fast for the 40 days before Easter, but also the 40 days before Christmas - plus many other major holidays. That is nearly half the year without meat, dairy or fish.
More recently, fasting traditions have changed and very few people avoid animal products for the full forty days. More importantly too, it is a rare event now when someone avoids olive oil during the week. Nonetheless, a whole culinary repertoire has evolved from home cooks based around the fasting rules. As such, Greek cuisine is rich with many healthy recipes that provide increased intake of fruits, vegetables, beans and good fats from nuts, seeds and a lower intake of calories. Now that many people eat olive oil during the week, popular Lenten dishes include artichokes cooked with lots of olive oil, dill, carrots and potatoes or broad beans and artichokes and octopus stifado - slow cooked octopus stew with cinnamon and tomato. Simple starters also include the classic taramosalata and a simple dip called "fava" made with yellow split peas, which is often served alongside a large bowl of boiled wild greens.
This soup is perfect for the start of Autumn, when the nights are starting to cool just a little. It is very filling and warming, but doesn't leave you feeling too heavy due to the light tomato broth. Perfect to nourish the soul - and after all, that's what Lenten fasting is really all about! You may also be happy to know that my revithouspoa got the tick of approval from Mr K. He said, with a completely straight face, "it's just like mums fassolada"......
Ma & Theia's Revithosoupa
1 & 1/2 cups dried chickpeas
4.5 litres of water
1/3 cup of olive oil
1 medium sized yellow/brown onion, finely chopped or grated
1 medium sized leek, white part only, very finely chopped
1 tablespoon of dried Greek rigani
1 dried red chilli
6 fresh tomatoes, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
*1 tablespoon of tomato paste
Prepare the Chickpeas
The night before, soak the chickpeas in a bowl with plenty of 2 litres of water (they will double in size). Add some ice cubs to the water - or put the bowl in the fridge. This will help to remove any skins from the chickpeas.
Cook the Soup
1.Place the chickpeas and water in a pot and bring to a boil. As the water boils, skim off the foam that forms on the top.
2. Reduce heat, add the onions, chilli (whole) and leek, cover partially, and let simmer for 1 hour.
3. Add the tomatoes and rigani and continue cooking until the chickpeas are soft - about another 1/2 - 1 hour. You may also wish to add the optional tomato paste at this point.
4. Add salt and olive oil, cook a few minutes longer. Remove the chilli and serve.