Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cooking Lessons

I went to Nikoletta’s grocery store last Friday. When she saw me hesitating over whether to buy some eggplant, she said, “You can make a very nice meal from these and it is good for fasting, too. I will tell you how.”

Taking an eggplant and a sharp knife, she made the motions as if cutting. “First, you cut off the stem. Then you peel strips away from the skin, making stripes. Then you cut the eggplants in half, lengthwise, but without cutting all the way through.

“Pour some olive oil in a baking pan, put in diced tomatoes, a little garlic, chopped onions, and a lot of parsely. Season it with salt and pepper. Do you like mint? You can put some of that in if you like. Lay the eggplant on top and put it into the oven until it is soft. Then you take it out of the oven, scoop all the things into the eggplant," demonstrating with a large spoon. "Lay some round tomato slices on the top, to keep everything moist, and cook some more until it is brown.

“It’s called imam, because when we were under the Turkish yoke, an imam used to like it very much. You know what is an imam?"

"Yes, like a priest, but -- "



"This is a very Greek, classic recipe.”

So I bought the eggplant and cooked the imam (without mint) and promised to let her know how it turned out. (It was tasty!)

Nikoletta and I were very pleased to be able to communicate that well, too!

Tuesday I had a hankering for stuffed cabbage leaves. So Demetrios and I, on our way back from coffee and a treat at a local café, stopped by Vasiliki’s vegetable store and asked for cabbage. Demetrios mentioned why we wanted it. Kyria Vasiliki looked me over, narrowly. Time for her enormous kindness to kick in; did the Amerkanidi even know how to cook stuffed cabbage leaves?

“This is how my Mama does it,” she said, taking a sharp knife and demonstrating, the same way Nikoletta had cone. “First you cut out the middle, where the stem was, going around and around, but not too deep, only partway.”

I nodded. “I do it the same way.”

Mama, who was looking on, nodded approvingly. Vasiliki pared away a couple of leaves that weren't perfect.

“Then,” she continued, “you put the cabbage in the pot and boil it.”

“Until the leaves become soft,” I put in.

“Exactly. And then – are you going to buy some ground beef?”


“You brown it a little first. Onions?”

I pointed to the ones I had picked out and laid on her counter.

“Good. You do this, chop, chop, chop. And tomatoes? Ah, you have them. Well, then, a little salt and pepper... you put a big spoonful of the mixture on the softened cabbage leaf and roll it up, put it in the baking pan with olive oil, bake in the oven until it is brown on top.”

I thanked her warmly for the lesson, and she was so pleased she gave me a hug and then, picking up a bunch of bananas, broke two off and stuck them in my bag as a gift.

The stuffed cabbage was good, too.

It's people like Nikoletta and Vasiliki that make Greece so wonderful.