The Season in a Spoon: Greek Spoon Sweets and a Recipe for Pear Preserves

Pass by a friend’s or a neighbor’s house in rural Greece and it’s unlikely you won’t be invited in to sip a cup of coffee or a bit of mastiha, or both.

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Along with the cups, saucers and glasses will inevitably arrive spoonfuls of glyka tou koutaliou, or spoon sweets. Served as a gesture of hospitality throughout Greece, spoon sweets are delicious, syrupy preserves made from almost any fruit or nut imaginable. The custom of serving them to guests is so engrained in Greek culture that sometimes even shop owners will keep them on hand to offer to passers-by who stop in for business or, also likely, a visit.

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Seasonal cooking is the backbone of Greek cuisine, and spoon sweets and other preserves are no exception. Thus, the spectrum of them follows the seasons. In autumn, they’re made with apples and quince. In winter, from lemons and lemon rind, bergamot, grapefruits and grapefruit rind, oranges and orange rind. Come spring, there are apricots, strawberries, and green, unripe figs. In summer, they’re made with cherries, plums, grapes, even tomatoes, eggplants, and watermelon rind. Nuts and flowers also make an appearance in the spoon sweet repertoire, rose petal sweets among the most prized of them.

In the mountains above the village we call home part of each year, pear trees grow in the most surprising of places: in meadows quiet but for the occasional tinkle of a goat’s bell, beside crumbling stone cottages, threshing circles and windmills long abandoned. Although these pear trees, planted by whom we cannot know, seem forgotten, it’s unlikely their fruit will go unharvested. Most of the Greeks I know are extraordinarily resourceful and will not let good food go to waste. Moreover, perhaps because the memory of famine is a part of the culture’s collective memory, there is a certain ethic against wasting food. If it’s there, ripe, and belongs to no one, it’s simply wrong not to put it to use.

One day this summer Vincenzo and I made a visit to the mountain village of Peleta to learn about a traditional dish called patsas, or hangover soup (story and recipe to come). Our host Vangelia had just made a batch of pear preserves, which she served to us before we got to work, with tiny cups of Greek coffee and glasses of ice-cold water. These preserves aren’t exactly spoon sweets as the pear, usually is cooked in its entirety, doesn’t fit on a spoon, but the idea is the same and the results are just as delicious.

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Vangelia’s Pear Preserves

Ingredients:
1 kilogram of pears (small, firm fruit is ideal)
1 kilogram of sugar
3 cups of water, or enough to cover the pears
Juice of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 lemon, in strips
A handful of whole cloves

Method:
If the pears are small, you may leave them whole. If not, cut them lengthwise in half or in quarters. If you do halve or quarter them, be sure to also core them. Whole pears can be left uncored.

Peel the pears and, if necessary, cut them. Stud each of the pears with a whole clove and place them in a deep stockpot. Add the water and bring it to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the sugar and the zest of one lemon. Boil for an additional 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and allow the pears to sit in the cooking liquid overnight.

The next day, add the juice of 1 lemon to the pears and simmer uncovered over low heat for about 2 hours or until the juices begin to thicken. (From time to time you will need to skim the foam from the top of the syrup.)

When the juices have thickened to a syrupy consistency, remove the pan from the heat. Allow the preserves to cool before serving. Preserved pears are delicious over yogurt (our favorite is unsweetened, Greek-style yogurt) or ice cream. The preserves can be canned or kept for up to two weeks in the refrigerator…if they last that long.

Our friend, Tassia, enjoys Vangelia's pear preserves. Photo by Vincenzo Spione.

Our friend, Tassia, enjoys Vangelia’s pear preserves. All photos by Vincenzo.

Rainy days in Leonidio and a salad for the citrus season

We arrived home, our Greek home, that is, a week ago today. When we left Leonidio last August, the landscape was parched and brown after months of that glorious Greek sun pouring (and sometimes beating) down on it. Today, after months of nearly nonstop rain, the land is a profusion of bright green clover and grasses.

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Mist clings to the mountains above our house. The gorge that divides the village–usually dry or occasionally host to runoff, torrential and temporary–is now a bonafide river.

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The river now runs through Leonidion.

Our olive-growing friends are grateful for the rain. Other friends who grow their food for sustenance or sale have mixed reviews: it is difficult to plant lettuces and other delicate winter crops in soil that is drenched with water.

Nonetheless, the produce market down the road is chock full of beautiful cool-weather fare: lettuces, curly endive and spinach, broccoli and cabbage, fennel root and of course, horta, the domestic and wild greens that are a mainstay in Greek cookery. Most of the olive trees are bare, the season to harvest just behind us, but the citrus trees are heavy with oranges, mandarins and lemons.

Yesterday, Manolis, a friend from the village, dropped by with a box of assorted citrus from his trees. A handsome and charismatic man with a thick thatch of white hair, he promised his oranges would taste better than any others from the village. And, indeed, they are delicious. He also brought three heads of lettuce from his garden (also succulent and flavorful) and olive wood for our newly-installed wood stove. All were gifts. This kind of generosity is commonplace here. The day before, for example, while doing errands downtown, we returned to our car to find a bag of mandarins left anonymously on the passenger seat. Okay, to a certain degree citrus season here is akin to zucchini season back in Montana, but still, it is not unusual to find gifts from friends’ kitchens and fields left beside the front door or inside, on the kitchen table.

So now that we are swimming in oranges, what to do with all of them? Of course we will juice many, but we’ll also use some for a favorite salad of mine, which uses orange as its main ingredient. Vincenzo, my partner, first made it for me last year when we were faced with the same delicious dilemma. He calls it “Insalata di Arance,” which in Italian means, simply, “Salad of Orange.” Salty rather than sweet, the salad is typical fare in Sicily, his birthplace, and is traditionally served at the beginning or end of a meal. Vincenzo’s version is the salad in its most basic form made with chunks of orange (blood orange is his favorite), olive oil and salt. There is no need for vinegar, he says (and I agree), because the juice from the orange gives the salad a sufficient tartness.

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Photo by Vincenzo.

The salad is also common in Spain, but many variations of it exist throughout the Mediterranean. Common additions include fennel bulb, onion, and olives. Some cooks add pomegranate seeds, others anchovies. Really, you can use your imagination and dream up all kinds of combinations, but in my opinion it is best kept simple in order to allow the main flavors–of orange, of olive oil (fresh and fruity this time of year) and of salt (and pepper if you want it)–to shine.

To make Vincenzo’s Insalata di Arance, simply peel and chop one orange per person and toss it with generous servings of olive oil and sea salt. Vincenzo says the secret is to not  skimp on either the oil or the salt as a sufficient amount of each enhances the flavor of the salad and distinguishes it from a typical “fruit salad.” Experiment and you will get it right.

Insalata di Arance

Insalata di Arance. By Vincenzo.

For those who prefer a little more direction, here is a recipe from Ed Behr, the editor and publisher of The Art of Eating, a fine magazine that explores food and wine, their flavors and stories, with passion and precision. The recipe is from Ed’s book, The Art of Eating Cookbook: Essential Recipes from the First Twenty-Five Years.

INSALATA DI ARANCE
Orange Salad

4 large oranges (or enough smaller ones to serve four people)
1/3 cup (80 ml) excellent, fresh-tasting olive oil
Salt and black pepper
Black olives (optional)
Thin slices of bulb fennel (optional)
Thin slices of onion (optional)

Peel the oranges using a very sharp knife so as to cut cleanly and avoid pressing out juice. (Ed says a 10-inch or a 25-cm chef’s knife is efficient; I prefer using a sharp paring knife). First cut a disc from the top and bottom of each fruit to reveal a flat circle of flesh; then, following the arc of the fruit, cut wide strips from top to bottom, each time cutting down to the flesh. Afterward, trim any remaining white pith. Slice the peeled oranges crosswise into rounds about 1/4 inch thick (a generous 1/2 cm). Remove any seeds. Vigorously stir together the oil, a good pinch of salt and finely ground pepper, and pour this dressing over the orange slices. Allow the salt to dissolve for about 15 minutes before serving. Optionally, add any combination of the olives, fennel and onion. Serves four.

Καλή όρεξη! (Or, as Vincenzo would say, buon appetito!) And thank you for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.