I have been dreaming of Greece as I often do. What brought this to my mind this time around was an event that Marla at Bella Baita View reminded me of. Jeni of Passionate Palate and Inge of Vanielje Kitchen are the time honored creators of this event. If you haven't already discovered their sites please spend some quality time for some exceptional recipes and stories. Their Apples & Thyme event has been a heart-warming success. To use their own words, "It is a celebration of time spent in the kitchen with our mothers and grandmothers (or anyone else you wish to blog about) and what they did or did not pass on to us that influenced how we cook and eat today."
My mom's mother died when she was 11 years old. Her sisters where considerably older and married with husbands in the British army. Therefore, being the only female at home, she was left to do a good portion of the household chores and cooking from an early age. My mom often talks about the meals she remembers and how wonderful and intuitive a cook my grandmother was. She prepared something from nothing for a large family during war time and rationing in Britain. I'm sure that many of our grandparents have similar stories. My mom does not enjoy cooking...simple as that. Now whether it has something to do with being thrown into it at such an early age or being self taught... I'm not totally sure. My mom cooks simply and with no use of spice or flavouring. We had a vegetarian dad so grew up never having a roast, a leg of lamb, a ham (maybe a turkey at Christmas), but, to her credit she can turn out a pretty mean pie with a light and tender crust. If my mom did not enjoy cooking it was not something she could pass down to her sons and daughters. If I had to continue to eat this way for the rest of my life I would retire my eating utensils for good!! I had never thought that my mom influenced my cooking style, but I have come to understand that she was the biggest influence of all. She made me want to strive to be "the hostest with the mostest".
Now what does this have to do with cooking schools and Greece and influences in my life?
As far back as I can remember I have collected recipes and dreamed of hosting elaborate dinner parties. I had files and files of future recipes, cookbooks and magazines even then. I didn't learn to cook wonderful tasty meals at my mothers skirts and my siblings were less than enthusiastic to be experimented on. So... I dreamed up recipes in my mind for future dinner parties, Christmas and other holiday dinners. When I left home at 18 I never presented a meal without the use of flavouring or spice. I had dreamed of wonderful exotic flavours all my growing up years and found no pleasure in eating the ordinary. As a young adult I met my future husband who introduced me to Greek cuisine ...I had found my Madeleine!!!!! The pure and intense flavours fused with olive oil, lemon, garlic, capers, olives, oregano, mint, fennel and goat cheeses play a huge roll in my cooking style to this day. These are the flavours I identify with. I shunned the bland flavours of my childhood for the purist of flavours.
When the opportunity arose to travel to Greece for 5 weeks and spend 2 weeks immersed in the lifestyle of a small island on the Agean Sea I of course jumped at the chance. The island of Kea has a similar summer climate to here in the Okanagan Valley, but, our winters are harsh so there are no figs or olive trees only vineyards and fruit trees. What I learned from Aglaia as well as her friends Marcie and Kostis of Red Tractor Farm was to utilize everything from your surroundings. Sustainable cooking is their way of life and their livelyhood. This is probably a doctrine that our own ancestors and grandparents followed , but , seems to have been lost for the most part when our busy, modern lives take over. Aglaia would use lemon in a dish and then make a lemon liqueur from the leftover skins. Marcie and Kostis make wonderful gourmet condiments and preserves that are produced seasonally in small batches with the freshest local ingredients on the island. The European Union supports environmentally sustainable projects and has awarded their efforts with a financial grant for Greek island eco-tourism. They also produce Spatholado with St. John's Wort from herbs and plants found on the island. "It is an ointment which is prepared in small quantities using an ancient method. The oil is used to heal burns, cuts and surgical scars. It is particularly effective for deep wounds, injuries caused by crushing, or any kind of trauma associated with nerve damage. The name 'spatholado' literally means 'sword oil'. Its heyday was to heal sword wounds during the Crusdades!!!"
In the day I used to make my own salsa, and preserves and produce things like Blueberries in Grand Marnier to give away as gifts. I can't remember the last time I ever canned anything in a jar or made a jam. Those few weeks in Greece brought me back to a simpler time in my life when I used to utilize the ingredients that surround me. I would watch my mom preserve lovely peaches and make delicious jams. I still try and buy local ingredients and sustainable products. I frequent the farmers markets when they open in the Spring and am almost on a first name basis with every fruit stand and orchardist from here to Penticton.
This recipe for Melitzanopita uses all the wonderful flavours of Greek cuisine I have grown to love. I believe that Aglaia developed this recipe from the overabundance in her extensive gardens...it is one that I am often asked for and if you have the opportunity to try it you will be in love with it to!!!!!
Photo was taken of a sunset on the island of Kea. Photo below is of the meze table I prepared at a friends home.
3 round eggplants, cut in thick slices
3 leeks (white parts plus 1-inch from the green
part ), thinly sliced
olive oil for frying
2 cups graviera or Cheddar cheese, grated
1 cup kefalotyri or pecorino cheese, grated
1-1/2 cups walnuts
1-1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
freshly ground black pepper
1 packet frozen commercial filo or homemade filo pastry
olive oil for brushing
Salt generously both sides of the eggplant slices, and let them drain in a colander, for at least 1 hour.
In the meantime, saute the leeks in 2 T of olive oil, and set aside.
Rinse the eggplant slices and dry with paper towels. Fry in a heavy skillet, on both sides, until golden brown, using a little oil at a time, as the eggplants have the tendency to absorb immediately. let them cool in a colander so that they let out the excess oil.
When cold, chop them and mix with the leeks, the grated cheeses, the cumin and the walnuts. Add salt and pepper and stir well.
If you are using commercial filo, fold one sheet in the middle, brush the inside with olive oil and place 4 - 5 T of the eggplant mixture on it. Spread the mixture evenly on the filo, leaving 2-inches all around that will help you shape the strudel like pies.
Fold the left and right side of the filo to cover part of the stuffing, brush with oil and start to roll the filled filo, as you would have done a strudel, brushing filo with oil. You will obtain 9-inch long cigar-like pies.
Fold one more sheet of filo in two, brush the inside with oil, place the already rolled eggplant pie in the middle, turn the two sides inward and roll the pie, brushing with oil, to cover it with some more layers of filo.
Continue with the rest of the filo and stuffing, to obtain six similar strudel-like pies. Place them either in a round pan in the form of a coil, or in a rectangular pan, side by side.
Bake for about one hour in a 375F oven, until golden brown.
Let cool a little before serving. Eggplant pie can be eaten warm or cold. It can be frozen and reheated.