Cheese-stuffed peppers / Πιπεριές με τυρί

All photographs by Vincenzo Spione.

All photographs by Vincenzo.

A few days ago, our friend Spiros, a local farmer, invited Vincenzo to harvest vegetables at his farm.

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Our friend Spiros.

I expected Vincenzo to return home with a grocery bag full of produce. (Spiros, like many here, is extraordinarily generous.) Instead he returned with a very large crate brimming with enough vegetables to feed us for a couple of weeks or longer. Among the goodies–so carefully packed by Spiros between layers of newspaper–were potatoes, dark red tomatoes, eggplants (our local heirloom variety) and, I was thrilled to see, the long, tapered, light green peppers our neighbors cook up in a number of delicious ways.

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They grill them. They fry them. They bake them and they broil them. They stuff them with cheese or with an aromatic mixture of rice, chopped vegetables, herbs and sometimes ground meat and then broil or bake them in the oven or, if you’re lucky, in an outdoor wood-fired oven, which imparts the dish with a delicious smoky flavor.

Last night we got busy making plans for each vegetable. With the eggplants, we will make papoutsakia, or “little slippers,” and melitzanasalata, or eggplant salad. The potatoes, I knew immediately, we would fry, as fried potatoes sprinkled with salt and oregano is, hands-down, Vincenzo’s favorite dish. The tomatoes we will use in fresh salads, of course, and for a couple of Italian pasta sauces. As for the peppers, it was a bit of a dilemma, albeit a delicious one, for we love the variety of methods used to cook them here. In the end, we decided to make piperies me tiri (πιπεριές με τυρί), or cheese-stuffed peppers.

A simple dish, piperies me tiri can be made in a variety of manners. After they have been stuffed, the peppers can be baked, broiled, grilled or even fried. Last night the weather was cool and so we decided to bake them in our indoor oven. Having been schooled by my mother in the practice of roasting peppers over a flame on our gas stove, I was a bit concerned that baking the peppers would not sufficiently enhance their sweet and smoky flavors. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised.

As with many of the recipes on this blog, the ingredients can be played with to suit your tastes. For the stuffing, we used feta cheese, a bit of olive oil and parsley. Some cooks use other cheeses, such as kefalotiri or touloumotiri. Others add oregano or a hot pepper finely chopped. Some add a splash of lemon juice or a pinch of lemon zest to the mixture.

In Greece, this dish is commonly served as a meze (small, savory plates of food enjoyed in the company of friends or family), but it is hearty enough to be served as a main course with a side of salad and, of course, bread to mop up the delicious juices.

Cheese-Stuffed Peppers

The Ingredients
10 or so long green peppers (Fresno or Anaheim peppers can be substituted. In Greece, try sweet Florina peppers, if you’re lucky enough to have access to them.)
400 grams (a generous 1.5 cups) of feta cheese
A splash of olive oil for the filling plus enough to coat the pan and drizzle over the peppers before they’re baked
A handful of chopped parsley
Sea salt and ground pepper to taste

The Method
Preheat oven to 200°C (390°F).

Remove the caps from the tops of the peppers and gently remove the seeds.

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In a bowl, add the feta cheese, olive oil, parsley, salt, and pepper.

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Mash and mix until combined.

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Using a small spoon, stuff the cheese mixture into the peppers to within a centimeter (approximately 1/2 inch) from the top. Place the cap back on the pepper, using it as a stopper to prevent the cheese from oozing out as it bakes.

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Coat a roasting pan with olive oil and place the peppers side by side in the pan. Drizzle the peppers with oil.

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Bake until they have softened and browned, approximately 30-40 minutes.

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Enjoy with a glass of classic retsina or your favorite spirit.

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Coming soon: Adventures in wood-fired cooking:

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A Taste of the Sea: Marinated Anchovies

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All photographs by Vincenzo.

Here on the southeastern Peloponnesos, the hot days of summer have begun. In the village, we walk along the streets’ shaded sides or gather in the shadows of trees and buildings to visit over tiny cups of Greek coffee, a cold beer or an icy frappe. During the heat of mid-afternoon, the streets clear and become quiet and still but for the thrum of the cicadas. People wake early, work hard and then rest during the hottest hours of the day, returning to the task at hand when the heat begins to ease.

As we tune our daily routines and rhythms to accommodate the heat, I find myself craving the freshest and simplest of foods: salads of tomatoes and onions; salads of eggplant and garlic; horta vlita, or amaranth, which grows profusely in gardens this time of year and is boiled and then served cool with a healthy splash of olive oil, a bit of salt and some lemon.

At the top of my list of favorite summertime foods is the marinated anchovy or, in Greek, gavros marinatos (γαύρος μαρινάτος). I’m not referring to the tinned anchovies one can buy in the supermarket, the kind that pack a fishy, salty, pungent (and to me, delicious) punch. I’m talking about fresh anchovies that are cured quickly and either eaten on the spot or saved, packed in oil, for future consumption. Compared to their tinned brethren, marinated anchovies taste of the sea, yes, but it’s a delicate flavor, one that is balanced with the flavors of the ingredients used to cure and finish the fish. Fresh anchovies are satisfying and refreshing. They’re a wonderful addition to lunch or dinner, but they can also stand alone as a meze and are delicious with a glass of wine or ouzo.

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As it turns out, the little fish are good for you, too. Like sardines, herring and salmon, anchovies are classified as “oily fish,” which simply means that their tissue contains oil. (No reason for alarm; I mean, the good, nutritional kind of oil.) Oily fish are rich in vitamins A and D as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital to heart health and to the growth and development of the brain and nervous system.

Anchovies shoal in profusion across the world’s temperate waters and are rare in very cold or very warm seas. When we are snorkeling in the quiet bays along the shoreline here, we often see them swimming in silvery schools two or three meters beneath the surface. The species we encounter in Greece is the European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) and although they thrive in the waters of the Aegean (who wouldn’t?), their range includes the Atlantic coast of Europe all the way up to southern Norway.

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Like the bulb of the wild tassel hyacinth and the sea urchin, anchovies were considered by the ancient Greeks and Romans to have amatory powers, particularly if eaten uncured and uncooked. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that anchovies are the primary ingredient in pasta alla puttanesca or the “prostitute’s pasta.”) In ancient Greece and Rome, the anchovy was the main ingredient in the highly nutritious fermented fish sauce known as garos (or the Latinized, garum), which was produced in industrial quantities and served as a lucrative trade item. Since ancient times, the Greeks and, indeed, people from throughout the Mediterranean, have cured a variety of foods, such as capers, olives and fish, by salting, drying or pickling them, or by using a combination of those methods. Today, they still do.

This summer, marinated anchovies have become a bit of an obsession of mine, and every time we’ve eaten out, I’ve ordered them, but until recently, I only ate them while dining out. Lately, though, Vincenzo and I began to grow curious about making them at home and so we asked various friends just how to do it, beginning with our local fishmonger, Spiros.

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What we found was a variety of approaches, all involving salt and acid (vinegar for some, lemon for others and the two together for still others). Factors that varied from person to person included the amount of salt used and the time they allowed the fish to cure. It seems everyone we spoke to cures their anchovies overnight or longer. Vincenzo, however, who is Italian, has fond memories of eating the fish just a few hours after they were caught. The recipe his mother used was with much less salt than our neighbors use here, the quick curing dependent primarily on vinegar and lemon.

Here is a very basic recipe from Spiros. It’s the approach we wound up trying in the end and the results were absolutely delicious. Of course, it can be adapted to include other herbs and spices, such as peppercorns, oregano and red pepper flakes.

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Marinated Anchovies / Γαύρος Mαρινάτος

Ingredients:

IMG_acc3-6037-1-1500 grams (approximately 1 pound) of very fresh anchovies

Course sea salt

The juice of one lemon combined with enough red wine vinegar to cover the fish

4-6 garlic cloves, cut into very thin slivers

A generous handful of parsley

Olive oil

Cleaning the fish:

Fresh anchovies deteriorate quickly, thus it’s important to clean them as soon as possible. Begin by washing the anchovies under cold water.

Pinch the head with your thumb and forefinger and remove it.

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Gut the fish by running your thumb along its belly cavity. Open the filet gently, trying to keep the fish intact—like a butterfly—rather than dividing it in half. Carefully remove the spine.

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Once again, using a colander, give the anchovies a little rinse in cold water. Place them on a plate for preparation.

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Curing the fish:

In a nonreactive dish (glass, ceramic or plastic), sprinkle a pinch or two of salt. Then, stack the fish in layers, sprinkling salt between each layer.

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Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, thoroughly rinse the fish. Wash and dry your container and return the anchovies in layers to it. Mix the vinegar with the juice of the lemon. Add enough of the mixture to cover the fish.

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Cover the dish and return it to the refrigerator, allowing the anchovies to cure from 6 to 12 hours, or until they have turned white.

Once again, using a colander, rinse the fish. This time, pat them with a clean towel, trying to remove as much of the water as possible. Wash and dry the container and pour a bit of olive oil in the bottom (about 1-2 tablespoons) adding a scant handful of garlic and chopped parsley to the oil.

Proceed to layer the fish in the container again, this time topping each layer with a scant handful of garlic and parsley. Pour a generous amount of olive oil into the dish—enough to cover the fish.

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Cover the dish and return it to the refrigerator for 3 hours or longer. At this point, the marinated anchovies are ready for your enjoyment.

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Serve with a glass of wine or ouzo and, of course, in Greece watch out for the presence of hungry cats!

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Stifado, a rustic Greek stew for a cold winter’s day

Last week, during a rare break in the rain that has been falling nearly nonstop in Leonidion since late autumn, we took to the road to visit friends who live in Kyparissi, a seaside village down the coast from us. As the proverbial crow flies, the distance between our home and theirs is short, but the drive is long, following a road that snakes precipitously up and over the mountains that divide our communities, passing tiny mountain villages and hilltops crowned with crumbling windmills, past generations-old vineyards where the families that live here grow the grapes for their homemade wine, through flocks of goats and sheep, their bells clanging as they walk past our car, gazing in at us with curiosity.

Curious.

The journey ends with a thin ribbon of potholed road that zig-zags down a cliffside that plunges to the sea. The drive is at times thrilling, always beautiful and, for me, beloved, in part because of the good friends who wait at the road’s end, but also because of the views the trip provides of the traditional ways of life our mountain neighbors lead.

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On the road to Kyparissi, we pass through Pelleta, a quiet but still-thriving mountain community. By Dina Vitzileou. (For more of Dina’s wonderful photos, visit poulithragr.blogspot.com)

Before we left Leonidion, our friends sent me a shopping list, for Kyparissi is not only distant from our own door. It is remote from everywhere, accessible only by boat or that skinny, pot-holed road.

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The descent to Kyparissi.

To do most of their errands, Kyparissiots must wind their way up and out of the village and then drive south to their main town of Molai, 45 minutes away. There is no operating gas station in Kyparissi. No pharmacy and no bank. Not even an ATM. And so we carried cash, medicine, vegetables, and, last but not least, rabbit, to the village, for our friends planned to make stifado, a deliciously intense and rich rabbit stew, for us for lunch the following day.

Wallace's stifado. He serves it on potatoes. Some use hilopites (akin to orzo). Others make it brothier and add no starch to the bowl, serving it instead with a hunk of bread on the side.

Wallace’s stifado. He serves it on potatoes. Some use hilopites (akin to orzo). Others make it brothier and add no starch to the bowl, serving it instead with a hunk of bread on the side.

Like many Greek dishes, stifado’s ingredients vary from family to family, season to season, and region to region. In part, this variety is due to what’s readily available to put in the stew. In the mountains of the Peloponnesos, for example, you’re unlikely to find a stifado made with octopus. You will, however, find it made with goat, rabbit or, on special occasions, wild hare. For octopus stifado, look to the islands and to fishing communities along the coastlines. In regions where wild mushrooms grow, you may find them serving as the stew’s “meat.” One recipe, from Crete, calls for snails. Another calls for tripe. Some cooks add such warming spices as cinnamon, allspice and cloves along with walnuts and currants. Others prefer the simplicity of the stew’s essential ingredients: onions (usually pearl onions or shallots), tomatoes and sometimes garlic. This endless variety on the stifado theme also provides a window into the region’s history. The use of exotic spices, such as cinnamon and cloves? These point east, to the Orient, which makes sense when we recall that the Turks occupied most of Greece for 400 years.

The name “stifado” has its origins in the Italian “stufato,” which simply means “stewed.” Like English “stew” and French “estouffade,” the Italian word “stufato” is a descendant of the Latin word “extufare,” which means, “to heat in steam.”  Again, stifado’s name reveals the region’s history. Its Italian etymological roots are likely due to the Venetians’ rule of Greek territory during the Middle Ages.

Venetian map of Isola di Corfu : posseduta dalla Serenissima Republica di Venetia ("owned b the Republic of Venice"). . Circa 1690.

Venetian map of  the Ionian island of Corfu. “Posseduta dalla Serenissima Republica di Venetia” (“owned by the Republic of Venice”). Circa 1690.

No matter which ingredients you choose, with its rich, intense flavors, stifado is the perfect antidote to a cold winter’s day. This recipe, from the inimitable Diane Kochilas, is one of my favorites. But remember, you can play with the ingredients. Squeamish about rabbit? Use beef or chicken. If you’d prefer to avoid the sweetness of exotic spices and fruit, omit the allspice, cloves and orange. If you like garlic, add it.

When it’s done, serve your stifado with red wine and warm crusty bread. The combination–universally appreciated, in my opinion–will warm your day.

Κουνέλι-Στιφάδο or Rabbit Stew

INGREDIENTS
One 3-pound rabbit, cut into serving pieces

For the marinade
2 cups red wine (if possible, use the delicious, slightly sweet Greek wine, Mavrodaphne)
2 bay leaves
6 to 10 allspice berries, to taste
1 cinnamon stick

For the stew
1 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 pounds small onions, pearl or shallots, peeled
All-purpose flour for dredging
1 orange, washed and cut into 8 wedges
2 cups red wine
1 cup chopped tomatoes (peeled fresh or canned)
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick

Wash the rabbit and pat dry. Place in a large bowl with the wine and spices. Marinate overnight, covered, in the refrigerator, turning several times.

In a heavy stew pot, heat 1/2 of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and reduce the heat to very low. Cook until lightly browned and translucent, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the rabbit from the marinade, pat dry, and dredge lightly in flour, tapping off any excess. Discard the marinade. Remove the onions from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil to the pot and heat over a medium-high flame. Place the rabbit pieces in the pot and sear to brown on all sides. Place the orange wedges over the rabbit. Pour in the wine and tomatoes and add the bay leaves, cinnamon stick, and salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Simmer the rabbit until tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours. Remove from the heat, let cool slightly, and serve.

"Welcome to beautiful Kyparissi."

“Welcome to beautiful Kyparissi.”