Greek Meze

When I think of Easter, I think of Greek food. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the way the weather is warming up. That first hazy hint of sunshine that sends my mind southwards, towards the Aegean. To blue skies, blue seas, lamb roasted with oregano, spinach pie and feta crumbled over everything. A longing for summer in the spring, because I am never satisfied with what I have right now.

So when The White Company asked me to develop some recipes for them for Easter, inspired by their homewares range, I immediately thought of Greek food. I especially thought of Greek food when I saw the enormous dip dye paddle board, which they describe as “perfect for a mezze platter”. Greek meze: now there’s something I haven’t eaten in a while.

In my 20s I went on holiday to the Greek islands a lot. Days there were always the same: omelettes and frappé nes for breakfast, all day at the beach and then long nights in tavernas and bars, where we looked like a gathering storm cloud, all dressed in nightclub black while the Greeks wore tans and white cotton.

We ate meze wherever we went, splitting Greek salads, prawn saganaki, plates of tiny fried fish, taramasalata, meatballs and calamari. It was such a friendly way to eat, passing the plates around the table and negotiating for the last spoonful of everything.

I thought it’d be nice to recreate that vibe for Easter. For one of those meals when the family has gathered to celebrate, and everyone can collapse into familiarity and good food. Although, being British, there is a strong element of meat and two veg to this meze meal.

Lamb meatballs (keftedes arni) flavoured with oregano and cumin are the centrepiece, with lemon soaked greens (horta) and fat butter beans in tomato sauce (gigantes plaki) helping you along to your 5-a-day. The rice is exactly the sort of rice I’d use to stuff vine leaves, but stuffing vine leaves is really time consuming so I’ve skipped it and made it a side dish. And you do need the tzatziki to bring it all together in a garlicky mess kind of a way. The recipes can double, treble or halve, depending on how many friends and relatives you have at the table.

This post is sponsored by The White Company, purveyors of cloud-like duvets and excellent slippers. The props in the pictures are from their homewares range: dip dye paddle board (£55), stoneware oval plate (£10), and porto dipping bowls (£6 each). Napkins are mine.

Greek Feast

 

Keftedes Arni, Dolmades Rice & Tzatziki
Serves 4

FOR THE KEFTEDES
50g fresh breadcrumbs
50ml whole milk
1 red onion
2 garlic cloves
A handful of flat leaf parsley, plus extra for garnishing
3 leafy sprigs of mint
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
1 egg
600g lamb mince
Cornflour, for dusting
Olive oil, for frying

FOR THE DOLMADES RICE
250g long grain white rice
1 onion

85g currants or raisins
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp tomato purée
100g pine nuts
A handful of dill (around 20g)
A handful of mint (around 20g)
1 lemon

FOR THE TZATZIKI
250g whole milk Greek yogurt
1/2 cucumber
2 garlic cloves
A squeeze of lemon juice
A handful of mint (around 20g)

1 Make the meatballs: tip the breadcrumbs into a bowl and stir in the milk. Set aside to soak. Peel and grate the onion into a large bowl. Peel and crush the garlic and add to the onion. Finely chop the parsley leaves and stalks, along with the leaves from the mint sprigs. Add the chopped herbs to the bowl with the dried oregano and cumin.

2 Beat the egg in a separate bowl then add to the herbs with the soaked bread. Add the mince and season well with salt and pepper. Use your hands to mulch everything together. Make sure everything is well mixed, then shape it into balls around the size of a walnut. Arrange on a plate, loosely cover with cling film and chill for 1 hour to overnight.

3 Start the tzatziki: an hour before you want to start cooking, spoon the yogurt into a fine mesh sieve and set it over a bowl to drain for 1 hour (this is entirely optional, but you get a slightly nicer texture). Coarsely grate the cucumber and toss it with a good pinch of salt. Spoon the cucumber into a colander. Cover with a plate and weigh down with a few tins. Leave to drain in the sink for 1 hour.

4 Start the rice: 40 minutes before you want to start cooking the rice and meatballs, tip the rice into a large bowl and cover with water. Whisk for a few minutes till the water goes cloudy, then drain, rinse and tip back into the bowl. Add the currants or raisins. Cover with fresh cold water and leave to soak.

5 Peel and finely chop the onion for the rice. Warm a medium pan over a low heat for a few minutes. Add a good splash of olive oil and the onion. Season with salt and pepper. Cook and stir for 5-8 minutes till the onion is pale and glossy.

6 Drain the rice and add to the pan with the cinnamon stick and tomato purée.  Pour in 500ml boiling water. Turn the heat up, bring to the boil. Pop on a lid and turn the heat down. Simmer for 8-10 minutes or till all the water has been absorbed. Put to one side to steam, lid on, for a few minutes to finish cooking the rice.

7 While the rice is cooking, finish making the tzatziki. Tip the yogurt into a bowl. Squeeze the cucumber with your hands a couple of times to squeeze out any excess water. Add to the yogurt. Peel and crush the garlic. Finely chop a few mint leaves and add the garlic and mint to the bowl with a squeeze of lemon juice. Stir together. This is your tzatziki. Taste it and add a little salt, pepper or more lemon juice if you think it needs it.

8 Set your oven to its lowest setting. Dredge 1-2 tbsp cornflour over the meatballs and turn to coat. Warm a large frying pan over a medium heat for a few minutes. Add a good splash of olive oil to the pan. Add the meatballs – you don’t want to crowd the pan, so you may need to do this in batches. Fry for 12-15 minutes, turning every so often, till well browned and cooked through. Lift them out of the plan and lay on a plate lined with kitchen paper. Keep warm in the oven till you have finished cooking all the meatballs.

9 Wipe the frying pan clean. Add the pine nuts for the dolmades rice. Toast for a few minutes till golden brown. Fluff the rice and pick out the cinnamon stick, then stir in the pine nuts. Finely grate in the zest from the lemon and squeeze in the juice. Roughly chop the dill and mint and stir that in too.

10 Serve the warm meatballs and rice with the tzatziki, along with horta and gigantes plaki (see below for recipes).

Horta Greek Greens

Horta
Serves 4

Trim and chop 1kg greens, such as Swiss or rainbow chard, spinach, kale or spring greens, removing any thick stems. Pop them in a steamer basket or colander and set that colander over a pan of boiling water. Steam for 5 minutes or till the greens are just tender. Lift the basket off the pan and rinse the greens under cold water to stop them cooking. Press to squeeze out any water. You can leave these overnight in your fridge till you’re ready to serve. To serve, tip the greens into a bowl and stir in a good squeeze of lemon juice, a large splash of extra virgin olive oil and some salt and pepper. The lemon juice may start to brown the greens, so add it just before serving.

Gigantes plaki 1

Gigantes Plaki
Serves 4

Peel and finely chop 1 onion. Trim and dice 1 stick of celery, Warm a medium pan for a few minutes, then add a splash of olive oil, the onion and celery. Season with salt and pepper and fry over a medium-low heat for 10 mins, till soft and glossy. Stir now and then. Peel and crush 2 garlic cloves. Finely chop the stems from a handful of flat leaf parsley. Stir the garlic and parsley stems into the onion with 1 tsp dried oregano. Drain 1 x 400g tin of butter beans. Rinse them and add to the pan with 1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes. Quarter fill the tin with water, swill it round and pour into the pan. Add a pinch of sugar. Bring the pan up to the boil, then turn down the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes till the sauce is thick and the flavours well mixed. Taste the beans and add more salt, pepper or sugar if you think it needs it. Spoon the beans into a warm serving bowl and top with chopped flat leaf parsley leaves and some crumbled feta.

 

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