Reading, watching, listening: Make Hortapita, Not War; Plus, Rufus Does Lenny

June 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

It was a drag of a week for an indolent wench like me who wants only to recline on a cushy sofa all day and read cookbooks, and instead is still unpacking and cleaning up everything that failed to be scoured by magical shipping container fairies during two months on the wide sea. Fire those fairies.

Let’s talk about Greek food.

Reading: The Foods of Greece, by Aglaia Kremezi (1999)

I love Greek food. By which I mean, I love the food at Molyvos and Elia in New York.

But when I first visited Greece as a student, back when drachmas were the currency and though everything was cheap it still didn’t seem worth buying, after three or four days of exotically grim breakfasts and identical stodgy meals at roadside tavern after roadside tavern, I swore by all that was dear to me that once I was home I would touch neither spanakopita nor moussaka ever again.

Do not make oaths.

A friend has let me borrow her much loved The Foods of Greece by Aglaia Kremezi, an expert on all foods from Corfu to Iconium, up to Macedonia and down to Crete. In the introduction to her recipes, she gives an excellent overview of Greek cookery, its evolution both good and bad. Eventually it emerges that this cookbook was written to exorcise a devil. His name is Tselementes, the French-trained author of “the most influential cookbook in Greece,” whose name is a synonym for “cookbook” and who is considered the inventor of that sad diminished repertoire we know as modern Greek food. Though Kremezi doesn’t name the nefarious volume itself, it looks likely that she means Odigos Mageirikes (1910), a self-loathing Greek’s guide to the kitchen. She writes,

Tselementes tried to refine Greek peasant cooking, making it more suitable for the tastes of Europeans and Americans. He believed that French cooking had its origins in ancient Greece, and that under Turkish rule, Greek cooking became more Eastern—something he was determined to correct.

If that wasn’t damning enough, she adds,

The popular version of moussaka is probably his creation.

I see with my soul’s eye that Tselementes, now in hell, swims forever, for sins against palate and patriotism, in a lake of béchamel with neither floor nor shore.

And Kremezi adds:

What most Greeks of my age and younger have known as “Greek” food is the “neither Eastern nor European” dishes that Tselementes promoted—food that cannot compete with French or Italian cooking.

True, one of the curiosities of the Greek food I encountered years ago was its limited variety. The hills are fragrant with thyme in abundance, from which a rightly famous honey is made, but thyme does not seem to scent the food. You can hardly stop the rosemary, basil, mint, parsley, cilantro, verbena from sprouting, but the only herbs that appear with regularity in dishes are oregano, garlic and members of the onion family. Olives and capers only seem allowed in the disjointed melange known as “Greek salad,” mostly composed of tomatoes, an American berry. In the countries to the north, east, west and south, pickles and relishes abound, but here I see only a salty mixed vegetable pickle, like what I’ve seen in jars that come from Poland.

You need only look next door to Sicily to find a varied, inventive, joyful cuisine, using much the same ingredients, but reveling in far more striking combinations, mounting all the glories of its mongrel history on its plate. For example there seems no practical reason that the Greeks should not cook a dish of sardines, fennel and saffron as the Sicilians do, especially as Greece produces a beautiful saffron of its own. Greek cuisine just suffers for not being Arab enough. As Kremezi points out, for reasons of politics and pride the Greeks have shaken off the best of the east as well as the worst—Turkish coffee is Turkish no matter how stubbornly it is called “Greek coffee” here. I think of it as the Freedom Fries fallacy.

Fortunately hints of the Eastern influence that Tselementes was so keen to repress appear throughout Kremezi’s recipes. In her introduction she explains that a rather bland dish of chicken with white sauce, a classic Tselementes creation, is probably his perversion of a far more interesting chicken in garlic-and-walnut sauce, which she includes. Her chicken with egg-and-lemon sauce (the famous avgolemono) lazes on a big bed of parsley salad that can only remind you of tabbouleh. Cinnamon scents her giouvetsi, or lamb stew; a hare is stifado with allspice, cinnamon and cloves. She provides a pilaf of rice, chickpeas and currants that any Persian could recognize. And the recipe I want to try next, melitzanopita, or eggplant pie, is seasoned generously with cumin.

Still, I spy another influence that could use some purging. There is no getting rid of New World ingredients, but must they be so prominent? Not only do tomatoes and peppers combine in the Greek salad (salata horiatiki) I find so boring, but the tiresome tomato is always off being stuffed or stuffing something, or lubricating other things in ubiquitous red slick. And the potato, that damnable tuber: do I come all the way here only to be greeted by potato stew?

Furthermore, food nostalgia can really go too far. Greeks, Kremezi writes with no apparent horror or regret, traditionally have gathered wild greens for their χορταπιτα (hortapita), which, reduced to spinach alone, has become the little slice of dull spanakopita to down with your ouzo, sold in a thousand tavernas from here to Macedonia, and which to me represents more than any other dish my memories of Greece.

She reports that the women of the countryside claim that seven different sorts of greens, balancing several fragrances and tastes, are required for a decent hortapita, and that these greens are not sold in stores and must be picked painstakingly by hand among the weedy hills.

It was pure delight, after reading such a passage, to head to the local supermarket and just pay money for food.

My hortapita was made with a very bitter green that looks like dandelion with a red rib, which they call χορτα ιταλικα (horta italica), plus spinach, fennel bulb, leek, scallion and dill. Kremezi’s recipe sweetens this mixture with raisins and salts it with a combination of feta and pecorino cheeses. Supermarket phyllo dough, which I’d never handled before, resembles wonton wrappers for giants, thin and fragile though flexible; Kremezi’s directions for making my own phyllo reinforced my impression that the traditional way of life involves greater expenditure of energy in making food than can be gained by consuming it, a thermodynamically unsustainable practice.

Even with the cornucopia available at the local A/B supermarket, preparation was a drag: the greens and leeks contained so much sand it was a surprise not to see parasols and Russian tourists come tumbling out. But in the end the pie was delicious, fresh and surprising, displaying an unusual range of tastes and textures. It put every other vegetable pie to shame (and utterly trumped that weird tart from Nice made with chard and raisins.) It lasted three days. I fear I am going to make it again. There’s one promise broken.

If you see me lingering on the moussaka page, however, someone come and restrain me until the doctor arrives.

Watching: The Warlords (2007)

After watching Ip Man 2, I got to thinking of that arty-farty, flighty-fighty movie Hero, which had both Donnie Yen and Jet Li in it. What’s Jet Li doing these days, anyway?

It turns out he’s getting an eight-figure paycheck, for which he consents to stand around in 19th-century military getup, keeping his expression blank while one glycerin tear streams down his cheek.

Apart from the appalling acting job that Jet Li turns in, the rest of the picture is a nearly two-hour-long orgy of battle scenes, complete with juicy slicing noises as spears and knives and arrows rip through soldiers whose useless armor must be made of dried fruit strips. As videogame cut scene this would be OK, but as film narrative it would all be much better if absolutely any wit had been deployed. Depressingly, there is also the regulation love interest, played by an actress who looks like the Chinese equivalent of Jennifer Aniston: whenever she arrives on screen, my eye keeps frantically searching for the person I’m supposed to be looking at. The only reason I can think of to watch The Warlords, if you’re not a connoisseur of gory battle scenes, is to gaze on the talented, super-handsome face of Andy Lau, who, with his flashing eyes and his bristly hair, has a healthy dose of that old Toshiro Mifune charisma as he out-acts everyone.

Listening: I’m Your Man (2006)

Leonard Cohen’s own performances are a minority taste, but some of his ditties that have been covered by others (try Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” or Madeleine Peyroux’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”) stand as some of the most gracious, intelligent songs ever recorded. So I imagined that I would love the cover album “I’m Your Man,” connected to the movie of the same name.

Unfortunately, several of the performances suffer from the singers seeming not to understand the songs, perhaps to have learned them phonetically. Worse, while Cohen’s twee folk impulses have always been well masked by his creepy bass drone and his prickly language, when the likes of Kate McGarrigle turns up with her high Celtic gargle and wavery flutes, the music hardly survives the revelation. Some of the covers turn Cohen into bad country-western; others turn him into bad gospel. The Handsome Family, Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker all suffer from the impression that they are competing in a Leonard Cohen soundalike contest, which Leonard Cohen is winning. But Rufus Wainwright, who has decided that Cohen is simply a music-hall piano man, makes up for it all with a tender “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” and a cheerfully sarcastic “Everybody Knows” tango, each well worth a 99-cent download.

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