“You’ll gain weight and you’ll come back,” our taxi driver told us as he dropped us off at the hotel. Never were truer words spoken. Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and tourists flock to its glorious beaches during high season. But we took advantage of the always pleasant weather by booking a getaway at the end of September. There were wild landscapes and quiet coves, transparent waters and quiet villages to discover. Yet, for me, the food was the real attraction.
I spent a morning in an old ruined oil mill with cooking teacher Koula Barykadis. She showed me how to whip up a feast of stuffed grape leaves (mine was imperfect), zucchini fritters and braised cockerel with hilopites, a type of local pasta. Then, as Barykadis told me about the island’s culinary heritage, I poked around in his pantry, which housed an assortment of mountain herbs, “spoon candies” and pickled capers, as well as only condiments such as the balsamic type grape molasses which she prepares once a year.
That afternoon we followed the scent of herbs and came across a farmers market. We sampled all kinds of seasonal fruits and vegetables, including fresh walnuts and briny jaw-sized olives. There were cheeses like hazelnut graveratraditionally aged in the cellar, and unctuous anthotyros, made from sheep’s and goat’s milk. Our appetites whetted, we chose a rustic tavern whose menu reads like a love letter to market produce.
We tried stamnagathi, a wild chicory, cooked in olive oil and served with a lemon wedge. Then dakos — rusks of dried bread coated with tomato pulp, oregano and strips of mizitra, a crumbly cheese like ricotta. There were supernaturally ripe melons and an anise-flavored fish stew that I’ve been riffing on ever since. Given the generous portions, we declined dessert but scoffed at a plate of honey loukoumades (small Greek donuts) between sips of raki, a local grape brandy.
The pleasures of the table are fleeting but, sitting facing the calm, moonlit sea, I thought of the words of the Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis in his novel Zorba the Greek: ” I feel good here. May this minute last for years.
Marinated melon with whipped feta and fried capers
To make the pickle, combine the vinegar, sugar, spices, lemon zest, a pinch of salt and 200ml of water in a small saucepan over medium heat and simmer for three minutes. Cool to room temperature. Cut the melon into bite-sized pieces or use a melon baller and let sit in the marinade liquid for 10 minutes, then drain.
For the whipped feta, blend the feta, yogurt, lemon juice and garlic in a food processor until very smooth. With engine running, add oil in a thin, even stream and blend until emulsified. Season to taste and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Once shimmering, carefully add the oregano leaves and cook until they begin to crisp – this takes about 30 seconds. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon and place on paper towel to drain. In the same pan, add the capers and cook, shaking the pan, until crispy. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain with the oregano.
To serve, smooth the feta onto a plate and garnish with melon, capers and oregano. Serve with crusty bread or Cretan rusks.
Kataifi fish pie
For six people
Heat the olive oil in a shallow ovenproof casserole dish (about 26 cm). Sauté the onions and garlic until soft and fragrant. Add the fennel and sauté for a few minutes, then pour the ouzo and leave to bubble. Once reduced by half, pour in 125 ml of water and the tomatoes, and add a pinch of saffron. Season with sea salt and pepper. Cover and braise over low heat for 45 minutes until the fennel is tender.
Preheat the oven to 180C. Separate the kataifi and place it in a bowl. Melt the butter, pour over the kataifi, add the fennel seeds and mix. Remove the casserole from the heat. Add the capers, parsley and lemon juice, then add the fish, prawns and calamari rings, making sure they are coated in the sauce. Line the surface of the dish with kataifi and bake for 30 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and the fish is cooked through.
Loukoumades Honey, Cardamom and Orange Blossom
Makes about 15 donuts
For the donuts:
For the honey syrup:
In a bowl, combine the yeast, sugar and 350ml lukewarm water and let sit for 10 minutes or until nicely frothy. Add the flour, cornstarch, olive oil, cardamom, orange zest and a pinch of salt and beat with a wooden spoon or a mixer with a dough hook until smooth and elastic – the consistency should be moist, halfway between a paste and a paste. Cover and set aside in a warm place for 90 minutes until doubled in size.
Meanwhile, prepare the honey syrup. Mix the honey, sugar, lemon zest, cardamom and cinnamon with 250ml of water in a saucepan and heat to dissolve the sugar. Once boiling, simmer for 15 minutes over low heat. Remove from the heat, add the orange blossom water and leave to cool.
Heat the oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan (no more than half full) to 180°C. (If you don’t have a digital probe thermometer, a cube of bread added to the pan will brown in 30 seconds at this temperature.) Line a plate with paper towel. Using a lightly oiled tablespoon, drop the batter into the oil and swirl occasionally until golden brown and cooked through – this will take about four minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent paper. While they are hot, briefly dip them in the honey syrup, making sure they are well coated. Sprinkle with pistachios and sesame seeds and serve with coffee.
Ravinder Bhogal is the chief patron of Jikoni. Follow Ravinder on Instagram @cookinboots and Twitter @cookinboots
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