A brief history of eating, OR what happens when I try to explain my relationship with food (accompanied by gemista recipe)

Those who are here for the Gemista recipe please skip to the bottom of the post.

It’s no secret to anyone with whom I’ve ever had a conversation that’s lasted more than a couple of minutes that I love food. And I don’t mean that as in an “OMG, I loooove your new sweater” kind of way. I mean actual love. The kind that sprouts at a young age, when eyes and heart alike are hungry and eager, and which then evolves into a deeper kind of affection resulting from the understanding that the object of your childhood affection is indeed meant to be your partner for life.

It was easy for me to fall in love with food. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family and at a time and place where cooking wasn’t considered a nuisance to deal with between a zillion other things. It was more a daily ritual that left the kitchen brimming with smells I still associate with the warmth of a home and family life.

According to my mom, my grandfather taught my grandmother how to cook after they got married in Beirut and moved to Africa sometime in the 1940’s. I don’t fail to believe her for a minute, for my grandmother grew up being served from a very young age (that was before my great-grandfather lost everything, and out the window went the servants along with everything else he had single-handedly built, but that’s another story). Despite her late start, she proved to be a very avid student and evolved into a great cook herself. My father likes to say how he fell for my mother because she would make and bring him the best sandwiches with home-made keftedes and mustard at work. He didn’t find out the seducing meatballs were the work of my grandmother until after he married my mom. Ha! Who’s laughing now, dad?

Grandma Etta and grandpa Stelios on their wedding day in Beirut.
Grandma Etta and grandpa Stelios on their wedding day in Beirut.

I remember attempting to cook as far back as 1996-97 as a teenager. I experimented with basics at first: Easy stuff like pasta with different sauces and omelets. After that, the first couple of summers my parents would trust us enough to leave us alone in Athens while they spent some time at my father’s childhood home in Corfu, my brother and I were left to take care of ourselves and would take turns cooking and trying to top each other with every recipe we tried out. Suffice to say I’m very glad my brother was my first guinea pig. His stomach has withstood controlled nuclear experiments of destructive culinary forces time and time again, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Now, I won’t deny my dark university years. Everyone has had those. Who has time to cook when you’re busy meeting different people every day, missing lectures to drink coffee and play tavli for 8 straight hours by the sea, go out on tequila-shot drinking marathons and generally do everything you weren’t allowed to do while in highschool? Ready-made meals, a fridge containing mostly milk and water (god forbid I didn’t have the necessary ingredients for my frappé – it was the Dark Ages before the invention of freddo cappuccino) and cooking sessions that lasted 20 minutes at most and resulted in me surviving on pasta, rice and potatoes for a very long time, is the picture that painted the years between 2000 and 2005.

After I moved to Germany, the cooking landscape improved only slightly. I still didn’t dedicate much time and effort into preparing decent food, since I had the main meal of the day at the Kantine of the company I did my internship at. Those meals involved a lot of pasta (of course!), weird Auflaufs and pork in all possible forms. After I got my first real job I really, really wanted to, but rarely had time to cook. Travelling 80 km a day to and from the office with 10-hour sessions of me panicking every time the phone rang and a Swabian client started speaking in a language I had supposedly learned years ago but still couldn’t decipher, left me with little energy to do much more than weep when I came home late in the evening.

Which brings us to the years after 2009: Recently fired, with time on my hands and a kitchen to call my own after moving in with my then-boyfriend, I decided to finally take care of myself a little better. I missed my mom’s cooking so much and there was no other way to get Greek food where I lived (let us not open up the topic of Greek tavern food abroad) so I started using the recipes I had gathered from her over the years, experimenting with whatever I had in the kitchen and online recipes and generally having fun in the kitchen.

It’s been six years since and although I’m not half of the cook my mom is, I can finally say I am happy with most of what I make. Sure there are failures; I can’t imagine a single creative person (and don’t kid yourself, cooking is creative) who sails through life without a decent quota of flops accompanying his/her every endeavor. But with every recipe I become more and more the cook I’d like to be, which is all I can ever hope for.

Sometimes I am so proud of my achievements I commit the ultimate cardinal sin and post pictures of my creations on Facebook *cue shocked gasp by outraged readers*. One of those pictures piqued the interest of some of my non-Greek friends, and I promised I’d give them the recipe… which brings me to today. Phew! You thought this intro would never end, right?

The recipe in question is for gemista, a classic in every self-respecting Greek household during the summer months when the peppers, eggplants, zucchinis and tomatoes are in season and you can finally enjoy them properly. The ingredients may vary depending on what you like most. For this recipe I didn’t use eggplants because I didn’t have any, but you can add that to the mix in wedges, same as the potatoes.

It’s one of the few foods that taste even better on the second day than on the first and are even great when cold. It takes a while to prepare, but it’s definitely worth the effort. And if you care for such details, it is also gluten-free AND suitable for people of the vegan persuasion. Because that is how Gemista do.

Here goes nothing.

Gemista (serves approx. 4)

Ingredients

6 medium to large tomatoes (preferably beef tomatoes, because they are juicier and big enough to fill properly), hollowed out

2 zucchinnis, hollowed out

5 peppers, seeded (whichever color you prefer, the green ones give the rice a heavenly aroma but tend to have a slightly bitter taste when cooked, so it’s really a matter of taste)

2 large potatoes

1 large onion

A bunch of parsley

Olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

A pinch of sugar

1 tablespoon of short grain white rice per vegetable (in Germany I use the rice used for rice pudding, it has the right texture), in this case 13 tablespoons of rice.

 

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 200 °C

Wash the rice thoroughly until the water is clean. Rinse, drain and put aside.

Cut the top part of the tomatoes, peppers and zucchinnis so as to use it as a “cover” later.

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Seed the peppers.

Scoop out the pulp of the tomatoes with a mellon baller and empty it along with any remaining juice into a bowl.

Hollow out the zucchinnis and dice what you removed. Put in bowl with the tomato pulp and juice. Dice the parsley and add to the vegetable mix.

Dice the onion and put into a pan with 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir over medium-high heat until glossy, then add the vegetable mix.

Add the rice and lower heat to medium, stirring frequently, adding salt and pepper to taste, along with the sugar.

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The mix should be juicy, if you notice the rice absorbs the liquids too fast, grate a tomato and add to the mix, or add a little water. The rice should cook in the sauce, but it shouldn’t be done all the way. It will be cooked through in the oven.

After the rice has cooked for a while remove pan from heat. Fill the hollowed-out vegetables, which you’ve put in a baking dish. Don’t fill them up completely, just 2/3 of the way. The rice will almost double in volume when it cooks and will be thankful for the extra space (if it could feel gratitude, which I am assuming it does).

Peel and cut potatoes in wedges. Place in the baking dish with the other vegetables.

Place the tops of the vegetables and pour olive oil over everything. Again, don’t be stingy with the olive oil, it should go everywhere. Add salt and pepper on the potatoes and some on top of the vegetables. Add some water in the dish.

Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake in the oven at 200 °C for half an hour. Then lower heat to 180 °C and bake for another 30 minutes. After the first hour, open oven, remove foil and stir the potatoes. Scoop some of the liquid in the dish and pour it in every one of the vegetables. Place the dish in the oven again, this time without the aluminum foil and bake for another 20-30 minutes.

The vegetables and potatoes are ready when they look something like this.

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There shouldn’t be a lot of liquid in the baking dish in the end. Just the oil and some vegetable juice. Wait at least 30 minutes before eating. Eat with fresh bread and feta OR Greek yoghurt. Yes, you heard it right! Yoghurt goes with everything. Trust me.

I’d love to know how the recipe turned out, in case you try it. Since it’s my first attempt at “localizing”  a recipe, I’d appreciate any feedback on whether or not the instructions were helpful.

Have fun cooking and most of all, enjoy the fruit of your labor!

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How to survive an intercultural family vacation

My husband and I live far away from our respective homelands. Almost 2,000 km away.

Germany somehow “happened” for both of us. We never intended on setting up camp here. We were both passing by on our way to other countries, jobs, friends and mispronounciation incidents. It was a stop on an itinirary we hadn’t planned out, but instead it became a starting-point.

Being this far away from our family and friends, means we have to divide our shared free time between three or more countries every year. The logistics of this can be daunting and so we have introduced what I like to call the “inter-European meetup”, which includes at least four family members who don’t speak each others’ language, vast amounts of alcohol, creative body language, moments of panic upon the realization my father has gone missing … again, and the invention of several new words.

We are about to embark on another such trip, this time in beautiful Spain. I’m very excited about this reunion, mostly because this time I bring with me the experience I gathered during the previous two, which boils down to these survival points:

Make a plan

One of the hardest things to manage in an intercultural family trip, is everyone’s personal tastes and opinions voiced at the same time in three different languages.

I’m lucky enough to be married to someone who loves making plans, organizing trips and has a very close relationship to Excel. After we sat down together and decided what we wanted to do and see during our stay in Spain, we consulted with his family there and made a detailed plan (with timetables and everything) and sent it to all parties involved: cousins, siblings, parents and friends who tag along for the ride (I call these people “masochists”).

The less room for discussion you leave, the less arguments will likely arise during the journey.

Take someone with you as a buffer

This could be a sibling/friend who can communicate with everyone else in any way possible (hand-gestures, smoke signs, an invented language) or someone who is willing to distract aforementioned family members, long enough for you to regather your thoughts, take a bathroom break or steal a minute of peaceful silence in a dark, safe corner.

Take a break

Approx. 3 hours into the first visit of both our families in Germany three years ago, I felt like my head was about to explode. There is reason I never applied for the simultaneous interpreting master’s degreee at university, but somehow life decided I was apt to take on such a challenge.

So here I was, talking to two or more people at the same time, all posing questions, asking me to translate a joke, or just wondering where the coffee mugs in my kitchen were. I realized then, that time-outs are a must for my sanity.

Our parents got along perfectly last summer in Greece, when we went to a small seaside tavern and my husband and I opted for sitting at a different table after we realized there wasn’t enough space for everyone at one place. They laughed, sang and danced, without us interpreting everything for them all the time.

This time we decided to take this a step further: the hubby and I have arranged an entire (!) afternoon/evening just for the two of us at a music festival in Bilbao. Suffice to say, I am psyched at the idea of just listening to music for several hours. Oh, the joy…

Remember to enjoy yourself

No matter how stressful such holiday trips might be, I always look forward to them. There is nothing like uniting two families who live on different sides of a continent, bonded by the sheer coincidence of their children having met in a foreign country at the right time and fallen in love.

We are lucky enough to have families who get along splendidly, despite cultural, linguistic and age differences. I love the mess, the laughs and adventures we get into when we’re together.

My father now has his own song. It’s called “¿Dónde está Nico?” and was inspired by his constant deviation from our approved itinerary, in order to take the “scenic route” to our destination.

We all now know that “Vale” means both “enough” in Spanish AND “pour” in Greek, after witnessing the panicked look on my father-in-law’s face when my father almost overflowed his wine glass, obviously following instructions to pour some more.

We no longer discuss whether Spain or Greece has better beaches, but instead enjoy the different landscapes when we are in each country (always knowing that Greece is the obvious winner in the debate).

So, until I’m back I wish all my American friends a happy 4th of July, all my German friends another win at the World cup next week and all my other friends a wonderful weekend, no matter where they are.