The past few weeks, after all the hoopla surrounding the wedding, have been a slow and steady descent back into normalcy. The tupperware full of wedding cookies is now gone, the Greek’s parents have returned to Thessaloniki and the weather has taken a dramatically cold turn for October, one that we feel acutely as the fan in our heater/air-conditioner has stopped working. On top of this, my allergies are in revolt against the very air I breathe–at least I think it’s my allergies; it could very well be the flu shot that the Greek and I got this past weekend because, when it’s a grim and rainy Saturday, what is more necessary and exciting than being a responsible adult and getting your yearly flu shot (you may be laughing at or pitying this confession, but even I, a lifelong hater of needles, believe that a flu shot is infinitely more fun than the flu)? Clearly, given this sad state of affairs, not to mention my near death at the multiple legs of a sneaky centipede
this past week, there are good, solid reasons that honeymoons are recommended immediately following a wedding (even a second or third wedding…I think).
But the good news is that we are working on it. Next weekend the plan is to take a road trip to Virginia, although we are still undecided as to exactly where in Virginia: Charlottesville or Richmond (if you have strong thoughts or recommendations, we would love to hear them)? In the meantime, however, I am dreaming of last summer’s whirlwind trip to Greece, which included two days in Thessaloniki, the Greek’s hometown and the undisputed Culinary Queen of the Greek State.
Just a hop, skip and a jump from the White Tower
, and around the corner from some of my favorite street art in the city, is or, sadly, was
(the Greek’s parents reported that, when they tried to go there one day for lunch before their trip to the US, they discovered that it was closed. The sign indicated that the owners had gone to Germany to live and work, yet another example of the negative effects of the crisis) the loveliest little Cretan restaurant, Myrsini
. It was one of those places that, on the outside, was wholly nondescript, but once you entered or sat down at one of the outdoor tables, transported you, quite literally, to a paradise of salty cheese and honey pies, barley rusks and sprinklings of wild fennel. Not to mention, of course, the requisite dousing of olive oil, which in Greece somehow never feels excessive, but just right.
Despite having been to Greece four times in the past six years, I was first treated to a trip to Myrsini only last summer. The Greek, his mother and I must have been on some (wedding-related?) errand because we were meeting his father there. When we arrived, we discovered that he had started without us by ordering a dish of liver cooked in vinegar, which he insisted I try. If you know me, you know that not only is liver not my dish of choice, but also that, despite my belief in not wasting food, I avoid the appropriately named offal like the plague. I demurred more than once, but as the pressure was mounting, I decided to give in by taking the smallest piece possible. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t awful (pun not intended), either. The vinegar had either masked the flavor or, as I really object to it based on its chalkiness, improved the texture immensely. Whatever the cause, I immediately realized that a restaurant that could make me enjoy a bite of liver was probably not going to disappoint on any other front. And when I heard that one of the specials was “revithia…sto fourno…me piperia kai melitzanes” [chickpeas…in the oven…with peppers and eggplant], I poked the Greek and said that I didn’t care what else we ordered as long as that was one of the dishes.
Greek cuisine may be known for some of its flashier dishes–pies of all stripes encased in crisp, ready-to-shatter phyllo, yeasted balls of dough fried and then glazed with honey and lamb carefully caramelized on a spit–and its workhorses like tzatziki and souvlaki, but the truth is that nobody does legumes quite like the Greeks. Truly, ask me to choose between gigantes
(giant lima beans) and spit-roasted meat, and I would, bean lover that I am, undoubtedly reach for the beans. No matter how they are prepared, they are always tender, perfectly spiced and immersed in a liquid that is practically longing for physical contact with bread. What I like best about the Greek preparation of beans, though, is that it is exceedingly simple, an example par excellence
of why a dish doesn’t need approximately 27 ingredients or to lead to the dirtying of 6 bowls and one food processor (I adore you, Ottolenghi, but, yes, I am looking at you) to result in something spectacular.
Maybe it’s just that I’m getting crotchety in my old age, or maybe six years with a Greek have finally taken a toll on my adoration of the modern kitchen’s obsession with adding a little bit of this and little bit of that. While both of those things do play a role here, I think what I really like about Greek-style beans is that they represent how I (and real people everywhere) cook on a daily basis, when time is of the essence, or your work runs over or you just want something nourishing, easy and good (the most bland word ever, but one that represents how dinner should always taste) to eat.
When we returned home from Greece last summer, I immediately set about recreating these beans in my own kitchen. The dish seemed accessible and, more importantly, the memory was fresh in my mind. While I liked my first attempt (I used canned chickpeas, baby eggplant and peppers I had bought from the lady down the road who sells produce out of her garage), it didn’t quite have the same melting texture of Myrsini’s beans, which were cooked all day in a clay pot, nor were the flavors as rich and melded. I made a few notes in my the recipe journal I haphazardly jot all of my kitchen impressions in and decided I would leave it until the following summer.
When I came back to the recipe this summer, I immediately understood what had been missing. If your first thought was more oil
, you not only have been paying attention, but also have come to understand on of the tenets of Greek cooking (call this the Greek version of Julia Child’s belief that anything could be improved by more butter). This, however, wasn’t the only improvement I made: I also prepared my own beans, cooking them for 6 hours in the slow cooker (I am new to the slow cooker club, but the Greek and I bought one earlier in the spring and it has definitely changed how often I make beans at home) with a few cloves of garlic, fresh parsley and a light drizzle of olive oil; I also added a spice blend
the Greek’s aunt gave me–it combines bay leaves, coriander, ginger, lemon zest, mustard seeds, ground black and pink pepper, rosemary, sage and thyme–that I find indispensable in the kitchen. With these additions, it suddenly smelled right, tasted right and could even give the Myrsini’s beans a run for their money.
It makes you wonder sometimes if recipes are necessary at all. Just tinker and taste, taste and tinker. A little help from your memory (and an exacting Greek husband) doesn’t hurt either.
Chickpeas à la Grecque (or à la Myrsini)
Yields 4-6 servings
When I make this, I usually cook more chickpeas than I actually need; it’s nice to have the extra beans around for salads or for hummus, or even for freezing. Plus, I find that the bean broth makes for a good braising liquid, especially when combined with the olive oil. I’m not sure if this style of braising beans is common in Greece; after getting the recipe right, I went to a few of my favorite Greek sources, mainly to Vefa and Diane Kochilas, to see if there was a recipe for Cretan-style chickpeas with eggplant and peppers. While both The Food and Wine of Greece and Vefa’s Kitchen featured recipes for chickpeas with eggplants, there were no peppers in either one; similarly, the braising liquid for each recipe was a combination of canned tomatoes, water and olive oil. It may be that Cretan home cooking will sometimes use an oil-based liquid, rather than a tomato-based one, but it could also be that the absence of tomatoes in this dish really allows the sweetness of the peppers, the earthiness of the beans and the bitterness of the eggplant to shine.
Also, as we’re now knee-deep into fall and eggplant and peppers will soon be scarce, this recipe could also be turned into a fall/winter staple with slow-cooked chickpeas and their liquid, a 14-ounce can of tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (or a whole cinnamon stick), 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/4 teaspoon ginger, and 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano. After braising, you could top it all with feta and put it under the broiler for a minute or two.
1 lb. chickpeas, soaked overnight
a few sprigs parsley
a drizzle of olive oil
three cloves garlic, rinsed with their skin on
kosher salt, to taste
Place the soaked beans either in a large pot or in a slow cooker and cover with water. Add the parsley, olive oil and garlic cloves. Cook on low until tender (in a slow cooker, this should take at least 6 hours; the automatic setting for beans in a slow cooker is usually 8 hours, but, in this case, you don’t want the beans turning to mush). Once the beans have cooked, season them with salt (usually 2 teaspoons to a tablespoon of kosher salt will do).
1 eggplant, sliced into half moons
2 bell peppers (one green, one red; use what you have), roughly chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
1.5 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups chickpeas + 3/4 cup bean broth
2 teaspoons spice blend OR, to substitute for this, 1/4 teaspoon coriander, ginger and black pepper; 1/2 teaspoon dried or fresh rosemary, thyme and sage; the zest of 1 lemon; and 2 bay leaves)
1/4 cup olive oil (preferably Greek/Cretan, which you can easily find at Costco)
kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
Place a rack in the middle of the oven and then preheat to 350 F.
Heat the oil on a medium high in a large oven-safe skillet or cast-iron braiser. Once shimmering, add the eggplant and peppers and cook for 6-8 minutes or until they have started to soften. If they brown a little, this is not the end of the world; color equals flavor!
Lower the heat to medium/medium- low and then add the spice blend. Allow the spices to release their aroma (1-2 minutes) before adding the chickpeas and their liquid. Bring to a boil, then remove them from the heat and stir in the 1/4 cup of olive oil.
Cover with a lid and place in the oven for 1 hour. Remove the lid and cook for an additional 10-15 minutes, or until the chickpeas, eggplant and peppers are tender and have started to melt into each other, as well as their liquid.
Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes. Serve while still hot, preferably with sesame bread or pita (or, if you live in Newark, Delaware, naan from the local supermarket, which worked surprisingly well) and melitzanosalata (eggplant dip). Tzatziki would also do.