For my neighbors in Poulithra, the Μεσημεριανό, or midday meal, is the most important repast of the day. And from my apartment, tucked into a quiet side-street halfway between the sea and the village’s crest, I can often smell the beginnings of that meal. By about 10 or 11 in the morning, the intoxicating aromas of lunch being cooked in kitchens and outdoor ovens around the neighborhood begin to waft through my open window: garlic and onions simmering in rich, green olive oil, savory pites, or pies, made with wild greens, herbs and handmade cheeses, meat or seafood stewing in an aromatic sauce of tomatoes, garlic, cinnamon and allspice.
This time of year, when many of the villagers are fasting, the heady aroma of garlic and onions cooking in olive oil prevails. Although the combination serves as the base for many Mediterranean dishes, when I smell that mouth-watering, mid-morning scent during the “Great Fast” before Easter, I tend to assume that my neighbors are making one of the most common dishes from the Greek Lenten repertoire—lathera—and usually I am right.
Not unlike the words “stew” or “soup” in English, lathera is the name of a category of simple, one-pot dishes made with fresh vegetables and pulses and lots of olive oil. Translated into English, lathera means “oily” or “oiled,” but I find the translation to be a bit misleading, if not off-putting. Lathera aren’t greasy at all. Instead, they are aromatic and rich, with a complexity of flavors that results from stewing the freshest of garlic, onions, vegetables and herbs in the freshest of olive oil. Olive oil is used both as the base of lathera—for example, to saute onions and garlic—and again at the end, when uncooked oil is poured over the dish to add additional flavor, nutrients and depth. The result is delicious and between the oil, which is rich in antioxidants and healthy monounsaturated fats, and the vegetables and pulses, very nutritious.
There are many variations on the lathera theme. One may include chickpeas stewed with onions and garlic while another might be made of of white beans stewed with tomatoes, wild greens and aromatics. Another is a sort of casserole of spinach and rice. The common thread among them all, of course, is lathi or olive oil. This lathera recipe is a common lunchtime dish in Poulithra during the fasting season and during a time of year when body still yearns for a bit of hardy fare, provided in this case by the potatoes.
Potatoes Stewed in Olive Oil (Patates Lathera)
1/2 – 3/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 pounds new potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 medium onions, finely chopped
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dry red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cups finely chopped or grated fresh or canned tomatoes
Salt and coarsely ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
In a deep skillet, saute the onions until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and chili pepper flakes, stir. Add the potatoes and stir until all of the contents are coated in oil. Add the wine, the oregano and tomatoes and stir. Cover and simmer until the sauce is thick and the potatoes are tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, adding a little water if needed. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and drizzle with olive oil, to taste. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve either hot or at room temperature.
While my friends in the village tend not to add olives to this stew (or any stove-top dish, for that matter), I find they’re a delicious addition. If you care to do so, add about a cup of them, pitted. Since olives are salty, however, you may want to adjust the amount of salt you add.
P.S. Lest all this talk of the mid-day feast (often followed by the mid-day nap) suggests that Greeks are in any way lazy, consider this: In Greece, the work day traditionally begins early in the morning. Shops and other businesses typically open at 7 or 8 am and while they close at 2:00 for the midday break, many reopen at 5:30 in the afternoon until about 9. My fishermen friends rise at 4:00 to bring in their nets, returning to the village to sell their catch in late morning and then going back to sea in the late afternoon or early evening to start the process all over again…