Goodbye, Caponata

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Recipes for the listless

Probably it is just a feeling of listlessness. A not uncommon pandemic feeling. I have not been bedridden, not anhedonic nor alcoholic nor anorectic; I have not even been all that grouchy. Just languid enough to drop my wet towel on the floor and not be bothered picking it up. Sapped enough to think, I will clean the chipped colour off my nails another day.

There has been work, but that has calmed down, now, and with proper time management, I will master my set tasks to a satisfactory (but no better than that) level. There is a short course in architectural theory I am keeping up with, which is better than anything else.

The problem is the writing. How is anyone writing? In 1920, Erwin Panofsky wrote that ‘artistic products are not statements by subjects, but formulations of material, not events but results.’ I have been thinking about that lately—how it takes so much time, and so much play, to settle on the satisfying ‘results’ of a writing, thinking, accumulating, process. That you need materials, and the materials themselves have to be imaginatively drenched in meaning, life, potential.

By which I mean I don’t understand how easily some writers have produced contents on the pandemic so quickly; how a subject arises and immediately there is a response. I am slow, I am tired, I am uninspired. I need more time, perhaps, to understand what covid means, if anything. Perhaps I will never be able to respond to something that is so inherently non-productive.

Speaking of non-productive: before I wrote this letter I am sending you, which you are reading, I started eight or nine drafts of other letters I thought I would send. All were boring; all were binned. I was trying my best to put on a jazzy coronavirus voice, to make snappy observations about all the nothing going on.

So instead of trying to create ‘content’ from nothing, I have decided to share recipes for the listless and lazy. Recipes you can cook with your eyes closed, which require little skill, cheap and simple ingredients, and which produce comforting results.

The following two recipes are Greek-ish but not really, or truly, from Greece. The following two recipes are what I would cook if I had accidentally invited someone over for dinner when I was feeling peppy a week ago, and then on the day of the dinner I felt like dropping my towel on the floor and walking away. The cooking would take all of twenty minutes, then a 40 minutes in the oven, and whomever came for dinner would say: My God, this is delicious, and they would really mean it.

The first recipe is for baked feta. It’s Μπουγιουρντί (bougiourdi) in Greek, which as far as I know doesn’t translate to anything meaningful in English—I have it stuck in my head that it comes in some way from φούρνος, fournos, as in oven, but I know that’s not correct, so don’t go spreading rumours. My version of baked feta comes from my time working in a Greek tavern in Brunswick when I was aged nineteen to twenty-one. I worked there three nights a week, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. The owner’s girlfriend and I did all the shopping, food prep, set-up, table service, bar service, grilling, and cleaning. We drank while we worked and I often just ended up dancing the Kalamatianós instead of working for half the night. I liked the job and loved my bosses even though they never signed the form that said that I worked there twenty hours a week, which would have allowed me to get the student payment from the government I very much needed to support myself. They were worried about the tax man, I suppose. The bar was quite legendary, it was wild and had the feeling of deep illegality to it. It was there for a few years and then, without warning, it was gone.

The baked feta we served at Byron Bar was very different from the version you eat in a taverna in Athens or Thessaloniki (it comes from the latter, originally, apparently). The Greek versions I have eaten tend to be a lot sharper and richer than mine—the base vegetable there is chargrilled capsicum, and it has a high oil content. It is grilled at a high temperature with no lid, which seems to separate the fats from the proteins, and sort of liquefies the cheese (and sometimes a smattering of yellow graviera cheese is added in the final step), which gives the whole thing a stoner-food vibe, which is obviously exactly what you want when you are four rakis deep.

My version of baked feta is much lighter and more vegetal than the Greek version, but it may have a counterpart on one of the islands, as I have definitely seen photos that resemble it on the internet.

If you ever decide to cook this, I insist that you call it ‘Ellena’s baked feta’. Thank you.

‘Ellena’s baked feta’

Ingredients

  • 1 huge beefsteak tomato, or three medium-sized supermarket tomatoes, cubed or sliced

  • ½ capsicum, sliced into thin ribbons

  • 1 large red onion, sliced into thin rings

  • A handful of Kalamata olives

  • A couple of whole garlic cloves, skins on, cracked on the head once so that the aromas leak out

  • A supermarket-sized feta chunk (200-300g) (Australian feta is crap for most things, but works well in this recipe because it holds its composition more than other kinds do.)

  • A bunch of fresh thyme, or a teaspoon of thyme from a jar

  • Chilli flakes

  • Nice olive oil

  • Salt and peps, to your liking.

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to the usual temperature: 180-190 degrees C.

  2. Get out a small-ish casserole dish. If you don’t have a small baking instrument with a lid, that’s fine. You can use a very small baking or grilling sheet and cover the top with al-foil before putting it in the oven. You can also construct this whole dish on a piece of foil and just smoosh the foil closed at the top to create a single-serve little casserole dish (and you can bring these cheeses, in single foil wrappings, to barbeques, and chuck them on the grill). The point of the cooking vessel is the lid: you want to trap the steam inside the dish so that the vegetables soften and release their gentle liquids, and so that nothing dries out.

  3. Layer in the following order: cheese, then veggies, then oil, then thyme, chili, salt, pepper.

  4. Cover with the casserole dish lid or foil and put in the oven for half an hour. Sometimes it can take 40 mins. You will know it’s ready when everything has denatured and looks very sloppy and wet.

My tip with this dish is to be generous with the onion. A whole giant red onion may seem like too much onion compared to the volumes of other ingredients in this dish. But after it has steamed in the feta juices and the oil, the onion slices will be a mild and silky blessing.

Serve the cheese in its cooking vessel on a wooden board in the middle of the table with patates lemonates (recipe below), bread of any kind (flat, Turkish, Italian, French, sourdough), and an enormous green salad with lots of herbs in it, and maybe a bean salad if you can be bothered (a can of precooked berlotti, black, navy, white, whatever, beans, herbs (dill is nice in this one but any will do), spring onion, lemon juice, salt, and oil, ‘tossed’ in a bowl).

‘Patates lemonates’

Another recipe that I long-thought was Greek, given the Greek name, before I moved to Greece and discovered how regional Greek cooking was. I’ve had this dish only a couple of times in Athens—it seems to not be a standalone mezze but is available only when the chef is also roasting some pork with celery and leeks, so it’s a winter thing (Greek food in Greece is also seasonal). In Australia you can do anything you like, seasons be damned, so you can make these and eat them today.

Ingredients

  • However many potatoes you like (the old wisdom is one potato per person, but this depends on the size of the potatoes and the size of the humans). I go one large potato or one-and-a half medium sized potatoes per person.

  • Juice of around one fresh lemon per person, or two between three.

  • A couple of garlic cloves, smashed over the head once.

  • Thyme, salt

  • Olive oil – generous blobs of it.

Method

  1. Peel and slice the potatoes into wedges of 2cm on the fat edge.

  2. Toss them onto a lined baking tray with oil, salt, and thyme. Make sure there is a film of oil over all sides of every potato wedge.

  3. Make sure the potatoes are evenly spaced on the baking sheet (it’s ok if they’re touching or overlapping a little, but you don’t want them stacked on top of each other).

  4. Pour half the lemon juice evenly over the top, and put them in the oven.

  5. All the recipes say 40 minutes for roast potatoes, but everyone knows that is just an estimate. Just check them until they’re nearly there – soft and getting golden, but not yet brown, and pull them out of the oven to add the remaining lemon juice. Take out the garlic cloves if they’re getting too burny.

  6. Put the tray of potatoes back in the oven for a final ten minutes of browning time.

Note: the cooking times vary wildly, and I’m clearly not a very precise recipe-writer, but when I am making this spread, I always put the potatoes in the oven before the cheese. About 10 or 15 minutes before.

Et voila.

Love,

Ellena

Robes

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