Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cooking with Granny

Every winter Mr Zeus's mother travels North and hauls their 95+ granny back to Athens, kicking and screaming, claiming she's too old to do the winters on her own. Naturally, Yiayia manages perfectly fine all year round in her little house, cooking and cleaning for herself and receiving visitors, despite barely being able to see and having two fake hips.

Since I'm also a fellow captive due to working from home, our winters are spent with her visiting me, gathering my laundry off the line and complaining about how bored she is. "I have nothing to do here, Maro, except move from chair to chair." She calls me Maria, nickname Maro.

She's an incredible woman. Not only does she manage perfectly fine on her own despite her age, but her mind is still 100% sharp as a pin. She claims she can't see any more but always notices when I left the bed unmade or dishes undone. At 14 she began training as a midwife under a doctor who fled Istanbul with the clothes he wore and a thermometer in his pocket. During the war, she wrestled her husband back from the Germans as they were about to execute him. All in all, not someone who can tolerate her winters cooped up and not allowed to lift a finger.

So I decided to put her to good use and learn Greek recipes from her, and I'm proud to say when anyone else asks her a recipe, she says "Oh I don't remember any more." but she quite happily gives me tutorials. Our latest project was laxanodolmades, parcels of meat and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves.


1 cabbage, roughly 2 kilos

1/2 kilo minced meat

1 cup of short grain rice. It's called glasse here, but I don't know what else it might be called

2 medium onions

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Olive oil

2 eggs

3 lemons

Salt and peper


Cut a cross into the bottom of the cabbage and boil whole until soft. Leave to cool. When cool enough to handle, begin separating the leaves and lay them one on top of the other for use. Don't throw away small pieces, hard cores or broken leaves. These can all be used.

While the leaves cool, grate the two onions. Fry in olive oil. Add the mince and parsley, salt and pepper. Stir until cooked. Wash the rice and add into the mince. Add a glass of water to help the rice absorb juices. Cook on a medium heat until most of the juice has evaporated. Add the juice of one lemon. Check for salt and add extra if necessary, as the rice and cabbage leaves will all drink up the salt. But you can always add more later. Leave to cool.

Get a big pot and at the bottom add some oil and lay down a blanket of hard cabbage cores and some broken leaves. Once the meat mixture is cool, begin putting about a teaspoon of the mix in the middle of each cabbage leaf and fold up like a parcel. To make this easier, remove the stiff part of the cabbage leaf (the vein) and use only the floppy part. Keep the removed veins to one side. Pack the parcels close together as tight as you can into the pan, adding layers as you go.

Once you have made all your parcels, use the remaining cabbage veins and broken leaves to pack in between any gaps in the pan. Everything should be nice and tight so that the parcels don't open as they cook. If you have left over mix, remove the insides of a tomato and stuff it with the mix. You can bake this with some cheese on top or squash it into the pan with the laxanodolmades.

Press a plate down over the top of the laxanodolmades to keep them in place while they cook. Yiayia told me that they used to go fetch a big stone and put it on top of the plate to make sure it didn't float off and spoil the laxanodolmades cooking, but since we didn't have access to big stones, we used a small marble mortar instead.

Pour in enough water to just cover the laxanodolmades. Cover the pot and bring to a gentle boil. Leave to cook on a low heat for about an hour and a half, taste the juice and add salt if necessary.

Finally, make the avgolemono mix (eggs and lemon). Remove about 3 cups of liquid from the cooking pot and let it cool a bit.

Separate the two eggs and beat the whites until frothy. Yiayia amazed me by taking a shaking fork to the bowl and whipping up the whites in less time than it takes me to do it with an electric mixer. I popped next door for some corn flour and when I came back, poof! Frothy eggs. Add the yolks into the whites and keep beating. Juice the two lemons.

Take a cup of cooking liquid and dissolve two teaspoons of corn flour in it. Add to the eggs. Slowly start pouring the lemon juice into the eggs, stirring as you go. Pour all the cooking liquid into the eggs and lemons in a slow stream. Once incorporated, add this mix to the main cooking pot and give it a good shake. Set on a low heat until the juice thickens.

And there you have it! Not as hard as I thought it would be, and nothing went to waste. Just make sure you have friendly neighbours because to make this, a small cabbage won't do, it has to be a big one, so you will have plenty to give to friends and family.

As we cooked, Yiayia told me stories of her own newly married cooking disasters, and shared her various pearls of wisdom. "A woman should always have work, Maro, you should always have your own money. Make sure you pay attention to your job. I call you Maro, ha ha ha, it's not that far from your name, isn't it!"

"There's nothing to it, you'll learn. You're a smart girl. Women are smarter than men you know, men are stupid! They'll never admit it, but they are. They don't know anything."

Hey the woman made it through two wars, she must know something!!


Maria said...

Hi Bollybutton,
I am in the Greek diaspora- I have been following your excellent blog for around year-
You are so lucky for γιαγια-try to write, record as much as possible- I am only doing this now, and everyone is almost gone-When I was a very young newlywed, finishing my first degree, how i wished for my mother or other γιαγιαδες-I could cook pretty well, had lived in Greece, too before marrying,
but remember the cultural dislocation of being in a "wonderful, quaint" New England college town, where for the first time I experienced being a Southern European cultural & religious minority, within a larger Anglo society(albeit "progressive, radical, hippy"). And no food available to cook our food- and telephones so expensive, we lost our phone service while pining for the various home countries( 10 minutes call to Greece was 120$)- I learned to cook Greek specialties by recalling the textures and the aromas!
And the first cabbage I bought from the local supermarket was bad & needed be thrown( how was this possible). One day they had χορτα and I bought the whole store out, the manager saw me and smilingly commented- I bet you are really happy today, and I was- you can imagine what happened when one day they had okra which , when picked through were decent- if there were ladies from Caribbean, I would restrain myself, so we could both have the dainty "lady fingers", leaving the huge clunkers for the goats as my mother says( actually she has a few spicier words)-
So enjoy your γιαγια, document her, record her- does she sing- I will, in shalla(sic), be in Greece recording old songsters-
PS. I live in international student housing- every Monday, we have an international program, where i coordinate the cooking- I love, cooking with my Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Persian, Turkish neighbors(OK, the head is German- American,who is married to a Liberian, whom she met while working, researching Africa-
Hope your wedding planning is going well-

bollybutton said...

Maria I can understand you so well. This has happened to me twice now. When we first moved to the UK we had to make monthly trips to Birmingham to buy spices, basmati rice, fresh coriander, ginger, as none of these were available in the supermarkets 13 years ago. I remember the first time I saw Indian ready meals in Tesco I nearly fainted from shock. Slowly all the ingredients found their way into supermarkets, and we don't have to go so often for ethnic shopping trips.

In Athens when I moved here 2.5 years ago, I became obsessed with finding fresh coriander because I couldn't find it anywhere. I used to fly back from the UK with as much coriander as I could carry and add to absolutely everything I ate because I couldn't bear throwing it away. Over the course of the last 2.5 years my discovery moved from Athens central market, to a laiki about 20 minutes and finally about 3 months ago my very own neighbourhood laiki started selling coriander. I had the same reaction as you finding the xorta! There's nothing quite so comforting as finding a longed for ingredient, one you never particularly missed when it was all around you.

But as you say, most countries have some sort of food culture where they gather their loved ones together to eat, and I've learnt that anywhere in the world, a mother's love can always be tasted in her cooking!

stassa said...

Heh, yiayiades don't need to see the bed unmade and the dishes unwashed, they have a special sixth sense that tells them when there is a disturbance in the feng-shui! :p

Aaah... dolmades! my own yiayia's specialty. Still haven't found the courage to try making them <_<

Sesi said...

Hehe Maria I know what you mean. I grew up in Germany, and a lot of my cooking is German too. I have a tough time finding ingredients in Greece. Some items I get shipped to Greece by my mother who still lives there. Large stocks of stuff I store for sporadic use during the winter. I log what I put in deep freeze, to make sure my husband doesn't eat any of the stuff secretly (he loves it too).
As for the Greek stuff, I'm Pontia, and we have many unique traditional receipes, neither of which did I bother to register before my grandmothers passed away (was too young to care to make the perfect this and that). Now that they are both gone though, there is time I miss those tastes. Thankfully, they both had passed the receipes to their own daughters, so I'm picking up bits and pieces left and right every chance I get.
The generally Greek stuff I just make with lots of imagination and tasting, and I usually end up with my mothers taste on my plate, with a few personal notes.
And a tip: never listen to a yiayia on the amounts of olive oil they require to cook lunch. I'm sure you can cook stuff that is just as tasty, without using the oil ten olive trees produce.

Psofofeggaro said...

+1 Sessi
When I first "inherited" a copy of my mom/granny's cooking book i freaked out one "half a cup oil" or "six spoonfull butter" but never tried that out, went on an eye measurement of what thought was the right for the amount to be made. Never cared to copy exactly the recipes, I keep add or remove spicies accordin to my taste (and hell, those kids eat nothing more than salt, they hate everything so I have to add most after I have reserved their portions)