Thursday, September 27, 2007

Stinging Nettle Soup: A Tale of Revenge

Just outside the vegetable garden fence at the house in Greece there was a patch of poison ivy, st least I think it was poison ivy. In French we called them "des ortilles", which translates as nettles. stinging nettles which are safe to eat cooked but really nasty to touch raw. In any case they sting/itch with a violence I'd never before felt. I backed into them and was struck with an almost vibrating sensation on my ankles where they touched. I immediately ran for the anti-itch cream and began to plot my revenge.

Ever since spying nettle recipes in Italian cookbooks, I've been intrigued by the idea of eating poison ivy. Thing is, unless you walk through the wrong place in the wilderness, it's not that easy to find. Imagine picking up something like that in a grocery store! So aside from being irrationally angry at the poison ivy for itching me, I knew a rare culinary opportunity when I saw one, so I donned the thickest pair of garden gloves I could find, grabbed some pruning shears and whacked that poison ivy patch to the ground.

When I brought the bounty in to the kitchen, my father-in-law got a really bright look on his face. He had a really easy old family soup recipe called "Soupe des ortilles".

Here's the recipe:
1 big bunch of nettles (don't ask me how much, but enough to fill a large plastic collander)
water to cover
1 garlic clove, minced
1 large baking potato
small dollop of cream or butter
salt and pepper

This recipe is in the potage parmentier family, which means a few vegetables boiled in water until soft, with minimal seasoning added, which as if by magic, tastes really, really good. A soup much more than the sum of its parts. Music to sip soupe aux ortilles (nettle soup) by: Jennifer Nettles singing "Who says You Can't Go Home" with Jon Bon Giovi.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sun-Dried Octopus: Would You Eat This?!

Oregano-rubbed octopus tentacles drying in the sun outside of seaside tavernas are a surprisingly common sight in Greece. I've heard the drying tenderizes the octopus a bit before it's grilled and served but I can't confirm that. (If anybody out there can explain, the rationale for the sun-drying, I'd love to know.)
At any rate, I think grilled octopus is pretty great, but the question of the day is: Would YOU eat this?!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Here's another wild, edible plant that grows along the rocky coasts of Greece (and certainly other parts of the Mediterranean as well) alongside the flowering caper plants. In Greek it's called kritama and it tastes very unique; its succulent leaves are naturally salty with notes of celery and citrus zest. I really love it. My Greek Horta cookbook explains that this plant is hardly ever harvested anymore, which I think is rather a shame.
Every summer I pick about a pound and put it up in jars. As you can see in the photo, I like to pick the last 5 leaves at the tips of the stoutest, pudgiest plants. The recipe goes something like this:

1 pound kritama
dry white wine to cover
a pinch of salt*
3-4 bay leaves

* The leaves, eaten raw are salty enough but once they're boiled in the wine they need a bit more salt for flavor and it couldn't hurt their shelf-life after jarring.
I bring the wine to a boil and add the kritama leaves, the salt and the bay leaves. I boil some clean glass jars in water. After 10 minutes of boiling, the kritama leaves are ready to be jarred. I take a jar out of the boiling water and spoon some kritama and wine into it, the seal tightly, and set upside-down until it cools to room temperature, then repeat with the other jars.

One pound of kritama makes enough small jars to serve as an appetizer along with the house olives at the occasional Greek dinner party. Because I was taught to be really selective in my kritama picking (only the last 5 leaves from the fattest plants, I've passed a lot of kritama by in my time) I was really surprised to find this dish served as a vegetable, not a tiny appetizer at the restaurant in Labinou town, Pelion. Here's their version, dropped into boiling water, boiled until tender and served simply with salt, pepper, white wine vinegar and really good olive oil. I have a lot more to say about this restaurant that seems to specialize in old-fashioned peasant food. It's really neat because the dishes at this place are hard to find anywhere else. Music to eat the rare Greek delicacy, kritama by: "So Unusual" by Jason Mraz.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Name Game

Susan, Susan Bo-Busan, Banana-fanna Fo-fusan, Me mi mo musen, Susan! No, actually it's not THAT name game; this is something completely different.

Actually the real game comes to us thanks to Judith of Shortcut to Mushrooms for tagging me on this meme even though it was so hard to do! The name of the game is to choose a fact, word or tidbit that's somehow relevant to your life for each letter of your name. Let me say that this was the hardest meme I've ever done. I don't know why, maybe it's the crippling idea that I have to think of 5 things (1 for each letter in the name Susan) that identify me or sum me up. I had to stop thinking that way, or I'd never finish this so here all of my chosen words are culinary.


S is for Sweets. The world can fairly be divided into salty snack lovers (munchers of potato chips, peanut and pickles) and sweet-tooths (why isn't it "sweet teeth"? - lovers of cakes, cookies and candy). I'm firmly in the latter category. I've even dedicated a recipe category to sweet things.

U is for Unagi, freshwater eel, my all-time favorite sushi ingredient. It's even great for the culinarily non-adventurous because it's served cooked.

S is for Sourdough. I you have read this blog even just a few times, you're probably aware of the sourdough bread starter colony that can be seen seething in my fridge. I grew it from scratch out of organic grapes, some water and some flour. If anyone wants any, just ask.

A is for Ancho. Rick Bayless calls ancho chilis the powerhouse of Mexican cuisine because they are used as a base in so many delicious dishes. They're as flavorful as they are hot and since they're almost impossible to get here in Italy, they're precious to me.

N is for Nigella. NOT Nigella Lawson (nothing against her but I've never even seen her show) but little black nigella seeds. They are great in flatbreads (giving them a punchy, crunchy edge) and pretty much nothing else as far as I know. I bought a ginormous bag of them to make naan bread a while back and now don't know how I'll ever finish them. Any ideas out there?

Now, I'd like to invite any of you out there to consider yourselves tagged and do this meme. Let me know in a comment that you're doing it and I'll be by to see how it all turns out.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Greek Yogurt with Wild Blackberry Preserves

One of our favorite Greek vacation house pastimes is making preserves out of the abundant fruit harvest from the grounds around the house. The wild blackberries that grow along the road and footpaths are large and sweet. If you follow a general recipe here and your preserves turn out just a little liquidier than "set", they make a great topping for the super-dense Greek yogurt. In summer, we spend mornings lingering a bit over breakfast because we have such good stuff like this to eat.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Um, hi remember me? (Blame it all on Wentworth Miller)

I have been such a bad blogger. I had every intention of getting back into the culinary swing of things when we came home from Greece but pure sloth got in my way. My return from Eden left me with only the energy after facing work to turn on my E Mule and watch seasons 1 and 2 of Prison Break. That's 44 episodes in 3 weeks, so you do the math. My brain's gotten a little fuzzy after all that. Thing is, Wentworth Miller is cute and everything, but the show just isn't coherent enough to be worth 3 weeks of virtually undivided attention.

So, I'm ready to pick up where I left off. Actually some nostalgic blogging on food of a vacation past is just the thing I here's what I did the first week of vacation with a couple kinds of weeds (purslane and caper leaves) and some salt:

In the one Greek-language cookbook I own (it takes me quite a while to translate a recipe before I can begin to make it) there's a recipe for sun-dried, salt-cured purslane (glisistrada) and caper leaves (fylla apo kappares). First you pick 1 kilo of purslane (the 6th most common weed on the planet, and an excellent substitute for okra in gumbo) and 1/2 kilo of small, tender caper leaves. Wash and pat the leaves dry. Place them in one layer on a dry towel and leave in the afternoon sun for at least 1 hour.
With a glass jar and 1/2 kilo of salt, layer the leaves. Begin by pouring a little salt in the bottom of the jar, drop in a few purslane leaves, more salt, some caper leaves, more salt, more leaves, yet more salt and still more leaves until your jar is full. Make sure the top layer is about 1 centimeter of salt. Then... get this: leave it in a cool, dry place for 8 MONTHS until the leaves are ready to eat. Music to sit around for 8 MONTHS by: (well, not really but this is the coolest song played in any episode of Prison Break): "Home" by Alexi Murdoch. The recipe said something about this being good in salads. I'm not sure but I'll let you know in April.

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