Tag Archives: Olive oil

Working the field.

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Sunday morning my brother and I trekked out (well, not actually trekked – we drove in the comfort of my car) to my aunt’s olive grove for an olive-pickin’ day.  I don’t know much about olive trees and their care, but from what I was told they are a relatively low-key crop to take care of.  You water the trees throughout the year and you gather a crew for a few days in the winter (such as this lovely January) to pick the olives.

The process is relatively simple.  You lay a big plastic tarp underneath the tree and you use a plastic “rake” to scrape down all the branches of the olive tree.  Once you gather enough olives on the tarp you slowly move all the olives to a big sieve to separate as many branches and leaves as you can from the olives.  Then you can sack your olives up, take them to an oil-pressing factory and voila!  You have fresh olive oil!

 

When one branch is raked, ten more branches appear right behind it.

My brother (left) and cousin hard at work.

 

Anyways, I hope by this point y’all are still awake.  It might sound boring to many people, but here in Greece agriculture is a big part of people’s lives.  And let me tell you, Sunday I was re-introduced to the idea of “back-breaking” work.  But there’s also a joy in getting your hands dirty and diligently going through the same motions all day.  With the sun shining on your back and nothing but the sounds of scraping branches and falling olives, you really get a sense of connection to nature.  To quote my mother: “When your hand touches the earth, your soul is at peace.”  There’s a brief window of time when your mind is clear, focused on the task at hand and you really do feel at peace.  All the trivial bullshit that so often inundates us at work is nowhere to be found. You breathe in the clean air, you feel your body moving and everything in the world is fine.  For me, working in the field is also a way to connect to family.  After all, this was the type of work that my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents grew up doing.  This was the type of work that my family survived on throughout years of war, famine and poverty.  To gather early in the morning, work together as family, eat lunch in the field and watch the sun set as you peer through the tree branches is pretty much my family history. It’s an honor to be able to continue it on.

The highlight of the day was my grandmother, who at 76 years old still has the cojones to last almost an entire day picking olives.  Go grandma!  We started work at 9 a.m. and at 3:30 p.m. she passed on her rake to me, laid down on the tarp and took a quick cat nap amongst the olive groves.  This is a woman who could be sitting in a chair and she loses her breath.  But put her in a field and she’ll start dancing.  And I love how her hands are so chubby they look like little bread loaves.

 

Sieving olives like a maniac. And yet her chubby little hands are so happy to be doing that.

Cooking 101.

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What is it about cooking that relaxes me so?  I love the entire process – browsing recipes until one makes my stomach growl.  I love shopping for my meal and I love cooking it.  From the tedious prep work – chopping onions, measuring out ingredients, making marinades, washing herbs; to the actual excitement of using heat and skill to turn a bunch of ingredients into a tasty meal, cooking for me has become not only a hobby and an enjoyment, but a necessity to keep me sane.

I’ve always loved eating food but never really got too involved with cooking.  I call it the curse of the Greek mother – the incessant need to do everything herself, the nerve-inducing nagging about the mess, the dirty dishes, etc.  And maybe when I was younger those were valid concerns.  I can’t really imagine that at 15 years old I would have been a stickler for cleaning detail.

College was a much too stressful experience to allow me to focus on food. Between working full-time at my family’s bagel shop and commuting three hours a day to school, I really was much too pooped out to even think about cooking.  And, really, how many college kids care about cooking? My post-college professional life kept me too busy to even fathom spending a second in the kitchen.  So I fulfilled my foodie desires by obsessively watching The Food Network.  Barefoot Contessa, Giada, Iron Chef America…these were all shows that were on my “To Watch” list.

I envied Ina Garten’s beautiful Hamptons kitchen. I loved Paula Deen’s rich Georgian accent – her tongue rolling in such mystical ways that the word “oil” would come out sounding as “awl.”  I questioned if Giada’s male demographic watched the show for her recipes, or her cleavage.  I wondered why Rachael Ray created an acronym for extra virgin olive oil…why go through the trouble doing that when you explain the acronym.  Every. Single. Time.  “Ok, so now we pour some EVOO in the salad, that’s extra virgin olive oil.”  Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the acronym?  In between the anthropological musings I daydreamed of cooking all sorts of foods – from complex stews to fresh bread, to sweet desserts.

What my idea of red-carpet celebrities looks like, y'all.

In the last year, (much to my mother’s dismay about the associated costs), I’ve fully embraced my love for cooking and baking.  I’ve made homemade chicken Caesar salad teriyaki pork, orange chicken, chow mein, homemade pizzas, cheesecake, biscuits, pop tarts, chocolate cake, carrot cake…the list goes on and on. I’ve considered making English muffins; even boiling and baking my own bagels. I basically try to re-create foods that are unavailable in Greece.  Foods that I love and I miss eating.  Perhaps that is the motivation that I needed to get my cooking gears moving.

Cooking non-Greek foods can be a challenge when you live in Greece.  It requires full dedication.  If I want to cook Chinese I have to make a special trip to a specific supermarket that has a small international foods section, and even then I still have to forgo ingredients like bok choy.  I still haven’t been able to find fresh cilantro.  I make my own buttermilk to save money.  I also make my own sour cream (yogurt, lemon, salt and pepper – who knew it could be so easy?)  I’ve even considered making my own ricotta cheese for lasagna. There are so many simple ingredients that I took for granted when I lived in California. I’ve basically turned into a cooking addict and I’m on a bender to get my next fix.  The more random the recipe, the more I want it.

The night before, after running some errands, I came home and felt the need to unwind a bit.  An hour later this need to unwind resulted in a rich, moist chocolate cake. Yesterday, some leftover barbecued steak gave me the inspiration for my dinner.  I made a thyme-infused pizza dough.  I lovingly caramelized onions for 30 minutes until they were soft and brown and so sweet they would have passed for dessert.  I ran into my garden, chopped off a large chunk of basil and made an impromptu pesto sauce.  I cooked down some balsamic vinegar until it was thick and rich and dark – a glaze that was worthy of the pizza I envisioned.

The result?  Thyme pizza topped with pesto dressing, caramelized onions, fresh mozzarella and goat cheese and barbecued steak.  Drizzled with a lovely balsamic glaze.  It. Was. So. Good.  Melt-in-your-mouth-good. I-want-to-eat-the-whole-pizza-good. It was so good, in fact that I completely forgot to take a picture of it.  My masterpiece was consumed without any evidence of it existing.  But here’s a photo that I found on Google. I typed  “pizza with caramelized onions” and I found a picture of something extremely similar to what my pizza looked like.  I call it the Wonder Twin.

It's not the original, just the second-best version.

For the love of food.

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“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”  – George Bernard Shaw

The Mediterranean diet gets a lot of props for its health benefits.  And it truly is a way of eating that we should all aspire to – lots of vegetables, plenty of olive oil, lots of fish.  There are lots of foods that I eat in Greece that are so much better than what it’s Californian versions – excellent feta cheese; delicious, homemade olive oil, seasonal produce that is at the peak of its flavor.

Last week my mother cut a cucumber for our lunch salad and the whole kitchen was suddenly filled with the cool aroma of cucumber. Who knew a cucumber could produce aroma?  But when it’s fresh and seasonal, that’s what happens.  Ever craved a tomato?  The tomatoes here in the summer are so red and juicy, I can’t even describe them.  You’re almost sad to see them disappear from the bowl.  And then you taste them and you know that it was meant to be.  That was the purpose of the tomato – to be enjoyed by you.  It fulfilled its destiny…

However, there are plenty of foods that I miss that are simply not available in Greece.  Often times I try to replicate them at home – a simple version of a quesadilla with Greek yogurt to replace sour cream. Or Thai peanut sauce mixed in with linguine pasta as some sort of bastardized version of something Thai.  I’m really even sure that dish even exists in Thai cuisine, but I love the peanut sauce and so I’d rather slather it over pasta than not have it at all.

I’ve made carrot cake, cheesecake, teriyaki pork, bruschetta, pesto, savory pop tarts, chicken Caesar salad, chocolate chip cookies, vegetable lasagna.  At one point I even contemplated making my own ricotta cheese.  You just don’t find these foods in Greece.  And I love them.  At times I feel like I’m missing good friends – how sad is that?  That’s definitely the fat kid in me talking.  Sometimes all I want to do is sit in front of a table with all the foods that I miss and just eat and eat and eat — gluttony at the max.

What else do I miss?

Thick-cut, smoky bacon.  Emphasis on the thick-cut.  The type of bacon that crumbles in your mouth in one hearty bit.  The only bacon they have here is some lackluster, thinly cut sliced bacon that literally disappears when you cook it.  Remember “Where’s the beef?”  Well, in this case it’s “Where’s the bacon?”  I haven’t had a good BLT in two years.

A good old-fashioned bagel with cream cheese.  I don’t care what flavor it is, I just want to eat one, whether it’s toasted or not, whether it’s plain cream cheese or jalapeno salsa, I just want one!

Thick, crumbly, stinky goat cheese.  I could eat this all day.  Hell, I’d even marry goat cheese if I could.  It makes everything tastes better.  The stinkier, the better!

Come to momma!

Tuna tartare.  I cannot really explain in words how much I crave this.  I think about it at least once a day.  Zesty, refreshing, tender –  just lovely.

One day we'll be together again.

Cilantro!  I love it and unfortunately it is available here for only about one month in the spring. I wish I had access to it all year round.  After all, you can’t make good guacamole without cilantro in it.

Can someone ship some to me?

A big, juicy, stuff-your-mouth burger that I don’t have to spend 2 hours preparing to make.  I just want to walk into a burger joint (Val’s in Hayward for all my California peeps) and order one and stuff myself with it.  With a side of onion rings.  Oh, sweet little onion rings.  You taste so good with charbroiled beef…

As big as your head and that's how I like 'em.

The Laurel to the burger's Hardy.

RIB-EYE STEAK.  Let me educate those of you who don’t know: Greeks are not huge red-meat eaters.  Their beef is tough and stringy.  They don’t age it.  I don’t know what they feed it but it definitely doesn’t melt in your mouth.  And they cook it well done.  Really well done.  If I ask for it rare it will come to me medium well.  That’s just how they roll here.  Last year we resorted to bringing frozen rib-eye steaks with us in my mother’s suitcases.  Thank God for Costco and their family packs.  I tell ya, it was the best beef I had in Greece.

Where is the beef, indeed...

Chicken Tikka Masala – Ethnic food is sorely lacking here.  In Athens you may be able to find a couple of restaurants, but trust me, they are not performing to the level and taste of their US counterparts.  When I used to work in San Francisco, my coworkers and I had a standing lunch date (maybe once a week or once every 10 days).  We’d mosey on over across the street for Indian food.  We always got the same thing – samosas (extra brown sauce, please!), chicken tikka masala, extra naan.  I miss the meal and the extreme food coma that inevitably hit you after an hour.

Induces the best nap in the world

Eggs Benedict – for those who live close by know this:  Katy’s corner in San Ramon makes the best ones I’ve had and you get three eggs instead of two.  What more could you want?  Beautifully poached eggs, crispy english muffin, salty Canadian bacon, creamy and lemony hollandaise sauce.  It’s the perfect brunch.  Throw in some home fries and a latte and call it a day!

Perfection on a plate.

I’m so so so hungry all of a sudden.