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
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!!