Recipes for the good life

Australian author and teacher Meni Valle. PHOTOS: LEAN TIMMS
Australian author and teacher Meni Valle. PHOTOS: LEAN TIMMS
Fascinated by her Greek heritage and its traditions of cooking and eating, Australian author and teacher Meni Valle has searched out what makes the island of Ikaria so special.

THE BOOK: Ikaria: Food and life in the Blue Zone, by Mene Valle, published by Hardie Grant Books,...
THE BOOK: Ikaria: Food and life in the Blue Zone, by Mene Valle, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $50.
The Greek island of Ikaria in the Agean Sea is considered one of the five locations in the world named a "blue zone", as its people live longer and better.

In blue zones, people are 10 times more likely to reach 100 years old than the general population of the United States.

The reason for this is attributed to being active, having low rates of smoking and eating a diet high in fresh, seasonal ingredients such as fruits, vegetables and legumes and low in meat and processed foods.

In her latest book Ikaria - Food and life in the Blue Zone Valle, who is considered one of Australia’s most respected authorities on Mediterranean cuisine, has searched out traditional recipes from across the island that encapsulate the best of Mediterranean food: vegetables, beans, whole grains, small amounts of meat and fish, a couple of glasses of wine, and plenty of olive oil.

She also includes stories about the people of the island, how they live and about taking time to do so.

When not writing cook books, Valle passes on her love for Greek food in cooking classes and tours to Greece.

Hortopita (wild greens filo pie)

I have heard hortopita referred to as a "longevity pie" many times, as it’s made with so many of the nutritional wild greens that Ikaria is celebrated for. It is perfect as a snack or a meal. When I serve it with a side of Greek yoghurt it transports me to Greece every time.

Makes 1 36cm round pie

2 Tbsp olive oil, plus extra for brushing

2 leeks, washed and sliced

2 brown onions, sliced

450g wild greens, roughly chopped (see

recipe below)

75g (1 cup) wild fennel, sliced thinly

25g (½ cup) chopped mint

30g (½ cup) chopped parsley

7g (¼ cup) chopped oregano

300g (2 cups) crumbled feta

Filo dough

500g (3⅓ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour

1 tsp salt

60ml (¼ cup) olive oil

1 Tbsp white wine vinegar

250ml (1 cup) lukewarm water

cornflour (cornstarch), for dusting

Pickled wild greens

170g salt

600g wild greens vinegar

olive oil

Method

To make the filo dough

Place the flour in a bowl with the salt. Make a well in the centre and pour in the olive oil and vinegar. (The vinegar here helps with the flakiness of the pastry.) Start mixing, either with a spoon or your hands, adding lukewarm water until it resembles a soft dough. You will need about 250ml (1 cup) water, more or less. Tip the dough on to a floured surface and knead lightly until it is smooth, then place back in the bowl and cover with a tea towel. Allow it to rest for an hour while you make the filling.

To make the filling

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and add the leeks and onions. Saute until soft and golden.

Remove from the heat and place in a large bowl. Add the wild greens, fennel, mint, parsley and oregano, and mix to combine. Add the feta and, using your hands, mix all the ingredients. Check for seasoning — it may not need much salt because of the feta.

Heat the oven to 180degC.

Transfer the filo dough to a surface that has been dusted with cornflour. Divide the dough into 6 balls.

Brush a 36cm round baking tin with olive oil.

Take one ball of dough and roll out into a dinner plate-sized round. Brush with some olive oil and set aside. Roll out another piece of dough to the same size and place on the oiled piece, then brush with oil. Repeat with another piece of dough. You will have three sheets that have been oiled in between. Roll this stack of dough out to the size of your baking tin, making sure it is enough to cover the sides as well. Lay the pastry in the baking tin.

Pour the filling on to the dough and spread evenly.

Repeat the rolling procedure with the other 3 balls of dough, but this time roll them out more to make larger sheets, so that when you place them on top they are ruffled and not smooth. When you place these layers of dough over the filling make sure the edges are neat by pinching them together all the way around. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with a little cold water.

Pickled wild greens (horta toursi)

Horta is the word for wild cooked greens, usually dandelion greens. Vlita, or amaranth leaves, are considered the more refined relative of radikia, or dandelion. Amaranth has a more mellow flavour whereas dandelion can be sharp and a little bitter, but both are equally delicious. If you have trouble getting your hands on these greens, you can also use silverbeet (Swiss chard), endive or collard greens.

Pour 2 litres (8 cups) water into a large saucepan and add 135g of the salt. Bring to the boil over a high heat and add the wild greens. Blanch for 3-4 minutes, just until they start to soften. Remove and rinse under cold running water and drain.

Place the greens into prepared sterilised jars (see below), sprinkling with the remaining salt as you go, and pour in enough vinegar to cover the greens completely. Seal the surface of the vinegar with a drizzle of olive oil and refrigerate. The pickles will be ready for serving the next day. They will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator as long as the greens are submerged in the liquid.

Note: These are a perfect accompaniment to bean dishes, and delicious with grilled fish or taramosalata. Ideal as part of a meze plate accompanied by a glass of ouzo.

How to sterilise jars

Heat the oven to 180degC.

Clean the jars thoroughly in hot, soapy water. Allow to dry on a clean tea towel.

Once dry, place the jars on a baking tray, and place in the oven for around 10 minutes.

Place the lids in a large saucepan of boiling water for 10 minutes, and remove using tongs. Allow to air dry on a clean tea towel.

Bamiyes me kotopoulo (Yiahni okra chicken stew)

This dish is a much-loved meal of mine, and it’s perfect with some fresh bread to mop up all the juices on the plate. I would always order this if it was on the menu at Thea’s inn.

You can also make this without the chicken as a vegetarian option, and it’s ideal with some hand-cut pan-fried potatoes.

Serves 3-4

100ml olive oil

1 1.5kg chicken, cut into 8 pieces (you can use chicken thigh pieces if you prefer)

1 onion, grated

1 garlic clove, crushed

6 tomatoes, grated or 400ml canned tomatoes

50ml white wine

½ tsp sugar

1 bay leaf

3 oregano sprigs or 1 tsp dried oregano

2 potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes

500g okra

To serve

feta

olives

Method

Using a large saucepan, warm the olive oil over a medium heat. Add two or three pieces of chicken at a time and brown on all sides, for about 6-8 minutes, until golden all over. Remove, set aside on a plate and brown the remaining chicken.

Add the grated onion and garlic to the large saucepan and saute until soft. Return the browned chicken back to the pan with the onion and garlic mixture and combine gently.

Pour the tomatoes over the chicken and stir to combine. Add the wine and enough water to cover the chicken. Add the sugar and herbs and season with salt and black pepper.

Cover and simmer over a low heat for 30 minutes, until the chicken is almost cooked and the sauce has thickened a little. This dish can also be cooked, covered, in the oven at 180degC.

Add the potatoes and cook a further 10 minutes, then add the okra, gently shaking the pan so they spread evenly. Add a little extra water if needed. Cover and simmer for a further 30 minutes, or until the chicken, potatoes and okra are cooked through.

Serve with feta and olives.

Portokalipita (orange pie)

I first tried this exquisite sweet at the Women’s Co-op. It is not surprising that it is one of their most popular cakes — it is zesty, custardy, crispy and syrupy all at the same time. Serve with a dollop of Greek yoghurt or even some ice cream on a summer’s day.

Makes 1 35cm round cake

melted clarified butter, for brushing

400g ready-made filo pastry

To serve

Greek yoghurt

drizzle of honey

Filling

4 eggs

100g caster (superfine) sugar

200ml vegetable oil

3 Tbsp grated orange zest

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 Tbsp baking powder

285g (1 cup) Greek yoghurt

Syrup

345g (2 cups) caster (superfine) sugar

250ml (1 cup) orange juice

3 Tbsp grated orange zest

1 cinnamon stick

3 cloves

Method

Heat the oven to 180degC. Brush some melted clarified butter on to a 35cm round baking tray or a 25cm x 35cm rectangular baking tray.

Fold or crumple each filo sheet using your hands and place in the tray. If you are using a round tray, work your way from the centre until all the dish is covered. If you are using a rectangular tray then concertina fold and place each sheet side by side until the baking tray is lined.

Place in the oven and bake for 6-8 minutes, until the filo feels crispy to the touch. Keep the oven on.

For the filling

In a large bowl beat the eggs, sugar, oil, orange zest and vanilla using an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the baking powder and the yoghurt and stir gently until all combined.

Ladle the filling mixture evenly over the filo pastry and set aside for 4 minutes for the mixture to find its way through the folds of pastry, then bake for about 25-30 minutes until golden.

While the pastry is baking, make the syrup. Put the sugar, orange juice, zest, cinnamon stick, cloves and 250ml (1 cup) water into a saucepan and bring to the boil, then reduce to a low heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

When the pie is baked, remove from the oven and ladle the hot syrup over the warm pie and allow to sit until all the syrup has been absorbed.

Serve cool with a dollop of yoghurt drizzled with honey.

 

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