Thursday, January 31, 2013

Green Bean, Tomato and Feta Salad

There's something about fresh mint and sweet tomatoes that makes my taste buds tingle with glee, but this taste sensation is one that is not easily found here in Australia.

In recent years the quality and flavour of store-bought tomatoes in this country has been declining. They're usually dry, bland and tasteless – genetically modified to look good, but tasting like cardboard.

Tomatoes in Greece are wonderfully sweet and juicy, like the fruit they are meant to be, and it was with family on the Greek island of Limnos that I first learned of the tantalising tomato and mint combination.

Unfortunately, without enough room or sun in my back garden to grow my own tomatoes, my search for the perfect tomato in Australia is limited to hunting the stores. The closest I have come to finding sweet, fruity tomatoes are packets of Mini Romas and Grape Tomatoes. (I think that's often the way with vegetables – the smaller they are, the sweeter they are.) I chose Mini Romas for this salad recipe, but you could use any variety of sweet tomato.

Thankfully the quality of green beans in Australia isn't too bad and combined with sweet tomatoes and feta they make a lovely refreshing, crunchy summer salad to accompany a generous serve of Spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie) or vegetarian moussaka. And the contrasting colours look great too!

Green Bean, Tomato and Feta Salad

Serves 4–6

Note: You can present this either as a "two-tone" salad where the tomatoes are kept separate from the beans (as pictured above), or you can just toss everything together.


  • 400g Mini Roma tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
  • 400g green beans, stems trimmed
  • 100g smooth feta cheese, roughly crumbled
  • 1/3 cup almond slivers
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped
  • 1/2 small red onion, finely diced
  • Cracked pepper


  1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Add beans, cover and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
  2. While the beans are cooking, prepare a large bowl of ice-cold water (just empty as many ice cubes as you can spare into the bowl of water).
  3. Drain and rinse the beans under cold running water for 20 seconds then immediately transfer to the bowl of iced water and leave for 5 minutes. This will ensure the beans remain bright green and crunchy.
  4. Meanwhile, dry fry the almond slivers in a non-stick frying pan with no oil until slightly browned, tossing fairly constantly. It takes around 3 or 4 minutes, but be careful because once they start to brown they burn quickly. Remove from the heat and empty onto a plate to allow to cool.
  5. Drain the beans again and pat dry with a paper towel. Set aside.
For a two-tone salad
  1. Place the mini roma halves in a medium bowl. Whisk oil and lemon juice together in a separate bowl and pour half of this mixture over the tomatoes. Add mint and mix well.
  2. Go back to the remaining oil and lemon juice mixture and add onions and parsley. When almonds have cooled, add to the salsa and mix well.
  3. Arrange the beans on one half of an oval or round plate, and the mini romas on the other half.
  4. Spoon the onion salsa over the beans, and sprinkle the feta over the tomatoes. Season with plenty of cracked pepper.
For an all-in-one version
  1. Just toss the whole lot together!

One day Tony and I hope to have enough room and sunshine to grow our own vegetables. Do you grow your own tomatoes? I would love to know if your home-grown tomatoes are irresistibly sweet and luscious like those found in Greece.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Home-made Ricotta Cheese
and a little story about my mum's upbringing

My mum grew up in a fairly non-traditional environment. Her dad was a cotton merchant and was required to be on location for work, hence the family moved a lot. For a Greek family, tradition is usually fostered by stability and deep attachment with your surroundings. Many villagers have a strong connection with their region because they lived there all their lives, as did their fathers and forefathers. Generations remain in the same place and specific ways of speaking and of course cooking become strongly ingrained.

Fifi (my mum) and her sister Rena never lived in the villages. Their family travelled from city to city, spending time in Egypt, France and sometimes Greece. Cooking influences ranged from middle eastern to French provincial, without a whole lot of Greek.

However, as I discovered the other night when my mum was telling me this story, there are certain Greek traits that will always remain, no matter how untraditional a family may be.

Marika, my mum's mother, enjoyed making her own ricotta cheese, but not without the help of the maid that was employed to help with the cooking and at times run errands for the family. The cheese kept longer if stored in brine, but it needed to be a special kind of brine. The special kind that was fetched from the ocean by the maid and brought back to the house in a bottle. Now that's a special kind of maid. But get this: During times when the family wasn't living anywhere near a beach, a friend or relative on the other side of the country would be asked to make the collection and post the bottle back in the mail!

This to me is very Greek. No matter what country you live in or how French your cuisine, if you're Greek you will do anything to make sure things are done right. This and stubbornness are strong Greek traits in our family, even if doing it right means doing it wrong. Of course we never admit to being wrong!

There are sooooo many uses in Greek vegetarian cooking for ricotta cheese. Sweet and savoury pies, pasta dishes, stuffed vegetables, custards, cakes and tarts, or just on toast with some Greek honey.

Most commercial ricotta is produced using the whey left over from the production of other cheeses which are likely to have been processed using animal rennet, so for many vegetarians store-bought ricotta is not an option.

Thankfully, one of the traditional ways to make ricotta uses a completely different method, free from any traces of animal rennet, and it's one of the easiest things to make at home. It also tastes amazing. And it's very hard to get this wrong!

The photo at the top of this post is of a spreadable, smoother version of ricotta cheese, whereas below is a picture of firm ricotta. Both are outlined in the recipe below.

Home-made Ricotta Cheese

Makes about 400 grams of ricotta


  • 1.5 litres whole milk
  • 1 cup whole cream
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
Note: Many thickened creams contain gelatin which is an animal by-product. Check the label.


  1. In a medium pot, heat the milk and cream until just beginning to simmer. You will need to stand by the stove to make sure the milk doesn't boil, and stir occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. This will take around ten minutes so you might want some hummus and dipping biscuits at hand.
  2. Once simmering, remove from heat and add the lemon juice. Stir very gently for around 30 seconds. The milk will immediately begin to curdle (see Picture 1 at end of instructions). Add the salt and stir gently for another 30 seconds.
  3. Cover the pot with a clean tea towel and let stand at room temperature for around 1 hour.
  4. Line a fine-mesh strainer with two or three layers of cheesecloth, allowing a few inches of overhang. Set the strainer over a bowl and pour the curds into the strainer (see Picture 2).
  5. (Omit this step if you are making a smooth ricotta.) Carefully gather the corners of the cheesecloth and tie with string or a rubber band to create a bag, leaving it to sit in the strainer over the bowl (see Picture 3). Transfer to the refrigerator.
  6. Let the ricotta sit in the strainer for anywhere between 10 minutes and 2 hours, depending on the desired consistency. The longer you leave it, the firmer the ricotta will become.
For a smooth, spreadable ricotta
There is no need to tie up the bag for smooth ricotta as it only needs to strain for 10 minutes. After the 10 minutes, empty the curds from the cheese cloth into a separate bowl and whisk to the desired consistency. Enjoy it spread thickly over crusty bread with home-made fig paste (recipe coming soon!).

For a firm ricotta
Lift the bag from the strainer after 2 hours and gently press out any excess whey. I sit mine on a few sheets of paper towel and press. Remove the cheese from the cheesecloth and carefully use your hands to form a round shape.

Your ricotta can then be placed in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to one week, but I guarantee it will be gone before then. You won't be able to help but use it to make beautiful spanakopita (cheese and spinach pie), melitinia (sweet cheese pastries) or my take on ricotta yemista (stuffed vegetables) (recipes coming soon!)

Picture 1: The milk will immediately begin to curdle as soon as you add the lemon juice.

Picture 2: Set the strainer over a bowl lined with cheesecloth.

Picture 3: Tie with string or a rubber band to create a cheesecloth bag.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Greek Vegetarian food on Australia Day
Lentil Keftethes (faux meatballs) with Tzatziki

This Saturday, 26 January will mark the 225th year since Australia was discovered by Captain Cook. Many people feel very patriotic on Australia Day and for some reason this has brought about a very primeval attitude for a lot of people, compelling them to eat copious amounts of meat on this day.

Unfortunately, this attitude is strongly encouraged by the media and spokesperson for Meat and Livestock Australia, Sam Kekovich in the form of a very bold and confronting campaign to eat meat, particularly lamb, on Australia Day. The controversial "lambassador" as he's been labelled has been delivering his message "Don't be un-Australian, serve lamb on Australia Day" to us for 8 years now.

Well this "long-haired, tofu-sausage-eating hippy" is very pleased to have recently come across a fantastic counter-campaign in response to the (in my opinion) appalling message Sam Kekovich and the meat industry is trying to beat us down with.

Animal protection organisation Animals Australia is a not-for-profit organisation that investigates animal cruelty and conducts strategic public awareness campaigns to expose animal abuse. Their goal is to significantly and permanently improve the welfare of all animals in Australia and believe that a better world can be created for all through promoting kindness to animals.

Their current campaign "Everyone deserves a day off" is a brilliant response to Sam Kekovich's plea to Australians to eat lamb on Australia Day. I urge you to watch this video. It not only delivers a strong message about the rights of our furry friends – it's also very, VERY funny.

This is what I'm bringing to my cousin's Australia Day barbeque this Saturday:

Lentil Keftethes (faux meatballs)

Inspired by Peter G. at Souvlaki for the Soul

Makes about 48

Note: You need a decent amount of ground coriander seeds for this recipe. I recommend buying it in bulk from an Indian grocery store. It's so much cheaper than buying the little jars from the supermarket.


  • 2 cups uncooked brown lentils
  • 1 potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 carrots, finely grated
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
  • 2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 cup rolled oats
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons plain flour
  • 5 tablespoons ground coriander seeds
  • Olive oil for frying


  1. Boil lentils in a separate pot and boil potatoes in another pot.
  2. Meanwhile, cook onion in 3 tablespoons of olive oil over low heat until caramelised, stirring occasionally. Takes around 30 minutes but worth the effort for that golden, sweet stuff. This is multi-tasking at its best with three burners going on the stove at the same time.
  3. After the 30 minutes, add garlic, cumin and cinnamon to caramelised onions and stir thoroughly. Cook for one minute, then remove from heat and allow to cool a bit.
  4. When the potatoes are tender, drain and mash. Set aside. The lentils should be cooked by now as well. Drain them and press them in the strainer with the back of a wooden spoon to remove excess water and set aside.
  5. Prepare a bowl and a large plate for dipping and flouring the keftethes. Put one lightly beaten egg in the bowl and sift the flour and coriander together over the plate. The coriander creates a beautiful crust when fried.
  6. When lentils, mashed potato and onion mixture are cool enough to touch, combine them together in a large bowl with carrot, oregano, mint, sunflower seeds, rolled oats, salt and pepper to taste. Use your hands to mix well. Taste before adding egg.
  7. Add one egg and continue to mix with your hands (there's something very pleasurable about mixing this sort of gooey stuff with your bare hands). The mixture will be quite sticky so you will have to work quickly and have a bowl of water near by for frequent hand rinsing. If you have time, refrigerate the mixture for a couple of hours to firm it up.
  8. Carefully form oval-shaped balls the size of a heaped dessert spoon, dip in egg first, then roll in flour and coriander mixture, and place in one layer on a separate plate ready for frying. (You'll need at least three plates if doing the full batch of keftethes.) Repeat until all mixture is used up.
  9. Heat around 1/4 cup of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan on high heat for 2 minutes. Turn heat down to medium and fry keftethes for 8 minutes, turning frequently. The keftethes will develop a lovely crust but will still be quite soft inside so turn them carefully to prevent them from falling apart. I use two dessert spoons to gently turn them.
Lentil Keftethes almost taste like the real thing. Honest, they do! Enjoy them with home-made tzatziki (yoghurt, garlic and cucumber dip).

Cooked keftethes can be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator in an air-tight container for up to three days. To reheat, just lay them out on a baking tray and place in the oven at 180 degrees celsius for 15 minutes to crisp them up again. They're also great to eat cold!

Home-made Tzatziki

Makes one small bowl, just enough for 24 keftethes


  • 200g natural Greek yoghurt (or home-made yoghurt)
  • 1 small Lebanese cucumber
  • 1 small garlic clove
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon of Greek honey (optional)
  • Salt to taste


  1. Peel and grate the cucumber. With your hands, squeeze out as much moisture from the cucumber as you can.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well.
  3. Transfer to a smaller serving bowl and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
The dash of honey gives this tzatziki a slightly mellower taste and softens the garlic hit.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Rustic Chunky Spanakopita (Spinach and Cheese Pie)

Until just a few hours ago, I'd never heard of Meatless Monday. I know I know. What vegetarian hasn't heard of Meatless Monday?! A luddite like me, that's who.

I was over at Veggie Mama's blog drooling over her Roasted Corn Salsa and my eye caught the "linky" thing at the end of the post about the "Meatless Monday" thing.

Hmmm, Meatless Monday. What's that. And what on earth is a linky?

The technical jargon was just too much for me so I sought the wisdom of Veggie Mama herself and she kindly enlightened me. Meatless Monday is a worldwide movement and non-profit initiative to encourage people to reduce their meat consumption by 15%. Blogs like Veggie Mama have got on board with this and provide a tool for other bloggers to share posts of their Meatless Monday meals, which of course must be... meatless!

The classic Greek dish Spanakopita contains no meat. It's a hearty, healthy spinach and cheese pie that goes really well with Greek salad and a cold beer. I have many spanakopita recipes, all of which I will eventually post here on my new-born blog. But today I'd like to share with you my rustic, chunky spanakopita. It uses a combination of onion and shallots in the filling which gives it a lovely earthy sweetness.

Rustic Chunky Spanakopita (Spinach and Cheese Pie)

Makes 6–8 portions


  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 or 4 shallots, diced
  • 400g frozen chopped spinach
  • 300g fresh ricotta*
  • 180g Greek feta cheese, roughly chopped
  • 4 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 3 sheets of thick filo pastry or 6 sheets of regular filo
  • Olive oil for brushing filo
* I make my own ricotta cheese but you can use store bought. Home-made is much creamier and thicker so if using store-bought ricotta, you might need to drain it over some cheese cloth for a few hours. Click here to see the recipe to make your own ricotta.


  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius.
  2. Fry the onion and shallots over low heat, stirring occasionally for around 20 minutes, or until golden.
  3. Meanwhile, combine the cheeses, dill, eggs and nutmeg in a large bowl and mix well.
  4. Heat the frozen spinach in a saucepan with the lid on. When cooked, strain as much water from the spinach as possible and add the spinach to the cheese mixture. Mix in well by cutting through the mixture with a spatula or fork.
  5. Grease a small to medium but high-sided baking dish with olive oil. Lay one sheet of filo in the dish and brush with olive oil. Make sure there is plenty of pastry hanging over the edges of the dish – this will be used to cover the pie afterwards. If your tray is too large to allow for the overhang, use two sheets of pastry side by side and slightly overlapping each other, to broaden the coverage of pastry.
  6. Repeat with two more sheets (or 4 more if you have a larger dish), brushing between each sheet with olive oil.
  7. Pour cheese and spinach mixture into dish and use overhanging pastry sheets to cover the mixture in a suitably rustic way. Rough as you like really.
  8. Pierce the pastry several times with a knife to allow steam to escape, and bake at 180 degrees celsius for 45 minutes, or until top is golden and crusty.
The pie will appear to rise drastically in the oven, and may even resemble a volcano, but do not fear. It will subside once removed from the heat. And don't worry about any spillage or lava-like markings on the pastry. It all adds to the rustic effect. Results may vary :)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Halvas (Semolina Syrup Cake)

Thank you to everyone for your encouragement and good wishes for this blog. I'm really excited about sharing some of my thoughts, photos and of course recipes with you here. There are lots of Greek vegetarian dishes that people just don't know about, and so many meat-based dishes that can be converted into vegetarian ones with a little creativity and imagination. I can't wait to share all this with you.

It goes without saying that this blog will also feature plenty of Greek desserts, and I thought I'd start with a favourite of mine that reminds me of my childhood.

A thousand years ago I was a little kid living in the then very brand new anglo-saxon Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley. Our family was the only Greek clan in the street. My sisters and I (and one other boy) were the only Greek kids at our school. We kind of stood out a bit.

My parents were on the 1956 boat to Australia, bound for a land that promised greater opportunities and freedom. They made a committment to their new country and chose to assimilate with the Australian culture as much as possible. They anglicised their surname, had backyard barbeques with the neighbours, and didn't teach their children to speak Greek. I didn't even know I was Greek until I was 8. I thought "Papou" was my grandfather's name. My two sisters and I only had one aunty and one cousin, also with anglicised names. This is not Greek at all.

But there was another relative. Great Aunty Betty. And she was definitely Greek. This was the dead giveaway for us as children that we weren't the skips we thought we were. Great Aunty Betty was my mum's mum's sister. My mother's Aunt. Our Great Aunt. But everyone just called her Aunty Betty.

Aunty Betty lived in Australia with us for a few years when we were growing up. She didn't speak much English but the unspoken "grandma" language was understood by all. And Aunty Betty was just like a grandma to us. She would teach us Greek words, show us how to play card games, and knit "sosonia" for us (woollen booties to keep our feet warm at night).

She was a black-clothed widow with no offspring but seemed content living a solo life. She was very independent and travelled back to Greece several times during her time with us in Australia, eventually moving back to her hometown of Volos in the early 80s.

One of my most vivid memories of Aunty Betty was her morning ritual for breakfast. A few cigarettes, some tablets and a whisky. After breakfast she would spend the morning in the kitchen cooking Greek biscuits and sweets.

The house always smelled of cinnamon, freshly ground nuts and cakes baking in the oven. Many of the recipes I'll write about on this blog will be inspired by my memories of Aunty Betty and the little treats she used to cook up in the kitchen.

The syrupy semolina cake, "Halvas" as she called it (sometimes known as "Revani"), was one of my favourites. Spongey cakey goodness made from semolina and almonds, soaked in a lemony sugar syrup, served with a large dollop of thick cream or vanilla ice cream.

Halvas (Semolina Syrup Cake)

Adapted from Recipes from Limnos by Ourania G. Vayakou

Makes 8 ramekins


  • 250g fine semolina
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 125g butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 1/8 cup of milk
  • 3/4 cup ground almonds

For the syrup

  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • Squeeze of lemon juice
  • One sliver of lemon peel


  1. Mix the semolina, cinnamon and ground cloves together in a medium bowl and set aside.
  2. In a new bowl, whisk egg whites and a pinch of salt until stiff and set aside.
  3. Cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer (or hand beat if you so desire!). Add egg yolks and beat until the batter starts to lighten.
  4. Mix the brandy and baking powder together in a small glass and add to the batter.
  5. Continue to beat and add the milk then slowly add the semolina.
  6. Use a wooden spoon to carefully fold in the almonds, followed by the egg whites.
  7. Pour the batter into oven-safe ceramic ramekins (no need to grease) and bake at 170 degrees celsius for 30 minutes. Insert a knife into the centre of one of the cakes – if it comes out clean, the cakes are cooked. Allow to cool.
  8. Meanwhile, prepare the syrup. Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and simmer for around 12 minutes, stirring very carefully and only very occasionally to test consistency.
  9. When the simmer bubbles start to look a little sticky, the syrup is ready. Do not allow the syrup to change colour.
  10. Carefully spoon syrup over cakes, a bit at a time. Give each cake time to soak up the liquid before adding more syrup. You will need to do this a few times until the cakes are saturated.
  11. Decorate the top of each cake with a blanched almond* and enjoy with a large dollop of thick cream or vanilla ice cream.
* It's easy peasy to blanch your own almonds. Just soak them in hot water for five minutes and the skin peels right off.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Welcome to the Greek Vegetarian blog

Hey there, Lisa here. I've just come up with this idea to create a blog of Greek vegetarian recipes and cooking adventures. I'm Greek. I'm vegetarian. And I can't be the only one in the world. There must be others out there, looking for a blog like this.

Just give me a week or so and I'll have this up and running because seriously, I think it's a nice little idea this Greek vegetarian thing... Are you with me?