(Greek) light acquires a transcendent quality: it is not the light of the Mediterranean alone, it is something more, something unfathomable, something holy. Here the light penetrates directly to the soul, opens the doors and windows of the heart, makes one naked, exposed, isolated. – Henry Miller (The Colossus of Maroussi), qtd. in Tony Perottet’s The Naked Olympics
A long, long time ago, before marriage, but after our engagement, the Greek and I escaped to the island of Syros, whose largest city, Ermoupoli, is the capital of the Kyklades, for two wondrous days. It was the epitome of a short trip, but its length did nothing to detract from the sheer adventure of it all: waking up in bustling and sizzling (even at dawn) Athens, boarding the ferry in a literal sea of luxury liners in Piraeus, and, several hours later, stepping off this same ferry into a colorful neo-classical landscape bathed in a light so bright it could blind you.
Although early September, there was nary a hint of the season that would soon arrive. Instead, everything about the place still bellowed summer, from the revelers near the harbor to the heady scent of blossoming figs in the air. Thanks to a view of the sea from our hotel window, it didn’t take us long to embrace the island mentality of beach, sun(screen), and relaxation. Truth be told, it’s an easy spell to fall under. No effort is really required.
As this trip came on the heels of our cross-country move, somehow it seemed that we had more than earned this brief island respite. We swam, we siesta-ed, and we ate, oh we ate oh so well. There were the standard delights of the Greek summer: fresh Greek salad (xoriatiki), plenty of the day’s catch, cheese, wine, spoon sweets with yogurt, and my favorite zucchini stuffed with meat and served swimming in silky egg-lemon sauce. But when you are on the islands, not only do you get to discover the local specialties–in this case, crisp wild fennel pie (marathopita), Syros delight (loukoumi, which is basically the same as Turkish delight, although don’t tell anybody I said that!) and pork sausages flavored amply with fennel seed–but you can also find unexpected ingredients in the more traditional dishes, like the addition of chopped capers to the Greek’s favorite eggplant dip (melitzanosalata). Oddly enough, it was the presence of these capers, which brightened the dish, that made me feel like I was really on holiday and seeing something unique not just to the islands, but to the culture of Syros itself. Who knew that capers, a fairly divisive ingredient, could be so transformative?
Truly, the memory of those capers has stayed with me, in no small part because, before we left the island, I visited a local food shop on the main thoroughfare and, as is my custom when I want to try to capture the essence of a place that I never want to leave, gathered boxes of Syros delight, a container of halva, some pastries and spoon sweets, and a large jar of salt-packed capers. I can’t say I really know the shelf life of capers, but this jar has lasted for the past two years and two months. In fact, if you can believe it, I polished off the final two tablespoons of the best and plumpest capers that have ever haunted my fridge only today.
It’s possible that I hoped that I would never actually finish the jar, that these very capers would somehow continue to brighten our meals for the next 20 years or so. It’s really not that hard to imagine because, when they’re as flavorful as these were, you really don’t need to use that many to provide a little flair to a dish. But, really, I think the simple truth is that I liked seeing them in there. When my eye would catch sight of that nondescript and unlabeled jar standing steadfastly in the fridge, the whole trip would suddenly come rushing back.
Nudged by the capers, I can see us wandering about Ermoupoli, making our way up and down its steep hills, cutting through dusty roads surrounded by rundown buildings that are home to feral cats who gaze at you with more than hunger in their eyes. Beyond this dilapidation and the higher we climbed, there were beautiful, sprawling Orthodox churches, as well as the wealthy neighborhood of Vaporia, where the sea captains and shipping families live(d). There, at a cliffside cafe and with a stunning view of the sea, we enjoyed a glass of water and the ubiquitous and refreshing beverage of the Greek summer: the frappé (instant coffee, sugar, and water shaken to a frothy perfection).
I can remember how, climbing ever higher, the sheer sprawl and soft pastels of the island became more and more visible. At moments, it was almost dizzying to be that high up, winding our way along narrow staircases marked by graffiti.
I recall how, even as dusk fell around us, the island remained bright and vibrant. Lights twinkled in the distance and the rising of the moon was accompanied by the purest shades of blue and pink. People will tell you that you have to go to Santorini for the sunset alone, but, given my experiences on both Milos and Syros, I think I can safely say that no island sunset will disappoint you.
That last afternoon, I remember how as we sat there waiting to board the Athens-bound ferry, we decided to get Greek-style gelato at a little shop in the center where, much to my delight, they offered both apple pie and peanut flavors. Choosing what to order was easy; the real challenge in the hot sun was eating them quickly enough so that we didn’t turn into a sticky, sugary mess.
It may seem silly to say that a jar of capers could evoke all of this, but each time I’ve noticed them or even opened the jar (the green pepper salad
I went crazy for last year features them as well), I’ve mentally revisited all of these places and flavors, sounds and colors. Lately, because of the arrival of high fall and freezing temperatures, with the sky darkening earlier and earlier and the sun playing a fairly cruel game of Hide and Seek, I’ve found myself gravitating towards things that remind me of what it feels like to be warm. The last of the capers naturally more than made the cut.
In fact, they were the inspiration for the side dish I am featuring today–Roasted Cauliflower with Breadcrumbs, Capers and Feta– which could make a lovely addition to any table, but especially the Thanksgiving (or general holiday) one. I have, truth be told, been sitting on this recipe for as long as our jar of Syros capers has lasted.
Shortly after we returned home from this trip and, feeling very bored by a head of cauliflower, which I normally love, I recalled a recipe that I had written about in the early days
of this blog, when, during a housesitting stint in the hills of Kensington, I would read The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
before bed. And, just like that, I knew what would make that cauliflower sing. Unlike the Zuni recipe, however, which combined pasta, broccoli, olives, capers, and
anchovies, I would go for something simpler and, at its essence, more Greek, using an herb, a little bit of garlic, the breadcrumbs that I am obsessed with collecting, and feta cheese. The only question was how to execute. This is where things got tricky because, at first, I was overcomplicating things when home cooking should ideally: 1) be simple; 2) involve dirtying the least amount of dishes; and 3) not require the use of either too many hard-to-find herbs or special equipment. But after a few tries–one involving too many unnecessary steps, another an experiment in roasting vs. frying and yet another a few different herbs–I’ve finally settled on the winning formula, which is roasting the cauliflower the Molly Stephens’ All About Roasting
way (at 450 F for 15 minutes) and using dill as my fresh herb, although Greek oregano, parsley, mint, or fennel fronds could do. It’s easy to prepare, vibrant in terms of both appearance and flavor, and, all in all, is a dish worthy of the Greek islands.
P.S. Greek apple pie is coming next week; the blog will now be updated on Tuesday or Wednesday of each week. Yes, say yes to writerly discipline.
P.P.S. The Mindy Project, after six seasons, came to an end yesterday, which also concludes my Tuesday lunchtime fun. That said, I thought the finale delivered and am a little obsessed with The Chromatics’ cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”
Roasted Cauliflower with Breadcrumbs, Capers and Feta
While obviously, for me, the capers are the essential ingredient in this dish, I realize they aren’t for everybody. If you, like my mother, despise capers, I would suggest you substitute Kalamata olives or, if you’d like to go in a different direction, even chopped preserved lemon. You do, however, want something that is bracing in flavor, almost briny.
Similarly, if you are vegan, you could hold the feta cheese, substituting nutritional yeast and, for the gluten free amongst us, panko breadcrumbs will do the trick.
1.5 (700 grams) pound head of cauliflower, leaves removed and chopped into smaller florets
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup (35 g) breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and finely chopped
1 small bunch (30 g/1 oz) dill, finely chopped
113 g/4 oz feta cheese, crumbled
Preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C) and line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Spread the cauliflower out evenly on the pan, then add the olive oil and, using your hands, toss to coat. Lightly sprinkle the cauliflower with salt and pepper (don’t add too much salt at this stage, as you will add feta and capers later) and toss to coat again. Roast the cauliflower for 15 minutes, or until golden and sizzling.
While the cauliflower is roasting, add the additional tablespoon of oil to a heavy-bottomed skillet and, once shimmering, add the garlic. Cook for 30 seconds or until fragrant, then add the breadcrumbs and stir, coating them with the oil. After a minute, add the capers and the dill and continue cooking until the dill has wilted a little. Remove from the heat.
Once the cauliflower is golden, remove it from the oven and set on a rack. Sprinkle the feta over the cauliflower, then evenly spoon the herbed breadcrumb mixture on top. Put back in the oven for an additional 5 minutes, or until the feta has become soft and slightly melted.