Thursday, 15 September 2011

Cheap Chow

The uncertainty of the times compels dedicated drinkers to ponder what food should accompany the wine these days, or indeed whether to forgo eating completely. If reduced circumstances force you to buy your plonk from the bottom shelves of a Tesco Metro now instead of the eye-level displays at Adnams, you'll want to know how to make this swiggable but uninspiring, one-dimensional stuff feel right. Don’t worry, I’ve got this sorted. I have a hearty Greek dish here for the non-Greeks among you to try. Cheap, slightly sour wine goes well with this large dose of carbohydrate and olive oil. If any Greek reader feels I am a foreign interloper traducing traditional recipes, tough: έτσι το φτιάχνω εγώ, ρε, και δεν είμαι η μαμά σου, εντάξει;*

Get some runner beans, some waxy potatoes and a fat red onion. Top and tail the beans, peel the spuds and cut them into fat chunks, and slice the onion thinly. Fry the onion gently in olive oil until it is soft and savoury-sweet, and chuck in as much garlic as you fancy - in my case, a positively anti-social amount. Then throw in your beans and potatoes and half a can or so of chopped tomatoes. Add a little water if you think it necessary, but you don’t want too much liquid as the vegetables will give off their own. Season with salt or Aromat or Marigold bouillon, and add a pinch of cinnamon or two or three crushed allspice berries (my preference is very much for the latter) a generous amount of chopped open-leaf parsley and if you fancy it, a little chopped fresh mint. The mint I tend to leave out, as its taste when cooked reminds me of chewing gum, but that's me. Let the assemblage cook gently until the potatoes are tender. Eat this at room temperature with lots of fresh bread and a side dish of feta cheese slathered with olive oil and some dried oregano crumbled over it. There you go: dead easy, muck cheap, very tasty and at least seven of your five a day. You can add chunks of pork or veal to it if meatless meals leave you feeling deprived. It’s at its best the day after you cook it.

Variations on this theme of cooking vegetables in olive oil with herbs and garlic and a little stock or white wine are numerous and lend themselves to improvisation. You can make a hispanic-y version of the above recipe by adding chunks of chorizo and flavouring it with smoked paprika and a bayleaf, and sloshing in some dry sherry or red wine. Potatoes, carrots and artichokes go well together, or artichokes and broad beans. Peas can replace the beans, if you like, but not for me. I understand that some even like okra, a vegetable of which I have a horror for its slithery, mucoid juice. A plate of okra is like the pullover sleeve of a kid with a bad cold. Forget I said that. These simple dishes, served with bread and feta, are a godsend, and they just love rough red wine.

Not a steaming splat of boiled pond life, but okra (bámies), a dish that calls to mind the old playground song: 'nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I'm going down the garden to eat worms.'


A nice way with feta cheese: finely chop some red or green chillis, put them in a bowl with feta and olive oil, and mash coarsely: 'fuckin' bastard feta sodding cheese...' Some recipes for this τυροκαυτερή (tyrokafterí 'hot cheesy stuff') call for the inclusion of yogurt, vinegar and God knows what else besides, but I like it basic. The owner of a taverna in Kalamata used to make his tyrokafterí in a blender; shun his example unless cheesy Instant Whip appeals to you. A few seconds' work with a fork will make a pleasingly nubbly, salty, creamy, fiery dip to scoop up with bread or pita or crackers. As my grandma used to say, 'cheese is binding', meaning it slows the passage of food through the alimentary canal. Well, maybe. Perhaps the Greek custom of taking some cheese with such a dish as that above has the effect of putting the brakes on the bolus of beans that's plummeting through the system.


* I decided to see what my old mate the babelfish would make of this. It came up with:

'thus I make him I, [re], and I amn't your mum, all right?'

for 'this is how I make it, and I'm not your mum, OK?'

I amn't is very old Yorkshire dialect that even my grandparents found quaintly amusing - how did that get in there? The appellative ρε [re] is left untranslated as it has no real English equivalent, nor has its fellow appellative παιδί μου [pe'ði mu] literally 'my child'. You can translate them as 'oi!' 'hey, you!' 'mate', etc. but they're probably best left out. Παιδί μου is such a common feature of colloquial Greek, such a contributor to the flavour and character of everyday speech, it's a great pity you cannot capture it in English translation. Translated literally, it has a benign, ecclesiastical ring, uttered by superior to subordinate, and this is utterly the wrong note to strike. I have a translation of Kazantzakis's Zorba where these appellatives are variously rendered as 'you know' 'I say' 'my boy' and 'old fellow', making Zorbas come across as a Home Counties vicar circa WWI.


Nik_TheGreek said...

Haven't had that in ages... I should have. Thanks. :-)

Vilges Suola said...

Αλήθεια; Δυσκολευεσαι να ενεργηθεις;

Scott said...

If you sprinkle the okra liberally with white wine vinegar, leave to sit for an hour, and then rise and drain, you lose a lot of the mucoid quality. It's a Turkish trick but I wouldn't be surprised if the Greeks do it too.

Vilges Suola said...

Yes, I have heard that, but none of the okra I have eaten had been prepared that way. For me, unless all the snotty juice is completely gone, I couldn't stomach them, and if it were, would there be much left of the okra?


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