When you think about Greek and Greek Cypriot food, your mind might go to a whole lot of meat.
“There’s just so many kebabs, and we love a grill,” admits Georgina Hayden. “That is probably a preconception that is justified.”
But there’s another side to the cuisine she’s keen to uncover – the plant-based food eaten during Lent and other fasting times of the year. And there’s an awful lot of fasting: up to 200 days a year, including the 50 days before Easter, 50 days before Christmas, and every Wednesday and Friday.
“If you’re doing it properly, that is a lot of days without meat,” Hayden says. “But it means when you do eat meat, they go hard – it’s about balance.”
“In the book, there are loads of speedy recipes – because that’s life – but equally, if you’re not having a big chunk of meat for Sunday, apply the same compassion and love to your vegetables and you’ll get loads of flavour. I think that’s even more important to do with plant-based food, because it needs that sweetness that comes from slow cooking.”
Little za’atar buns recipe
1tbsp caster sugar
1 x 7g sachet of fast-action dried yeast
500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
¾tsp fine sea salt
125ml extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing
½tsp pul biber
1. Add the sugar and yeast to a jug and whisk in 275ml of warm water, then leave to one side for a couple of minutes. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl and whisk in the salt, then make a well in the centre. Mix in the yeast water and 25ml of the extra virgin olive oil until well combined – add more water if needed; you want a moist dough, it shouldn’t be too dry.
2. Transfer the dough to a flour-dusted surface and knead for around eight to 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Wash and dry the mixing bowl, then lightly oil it. Return it to the bowl, drizzle with a little more oil and leave to prove for around one to one-and-a-half hours (this will depend on how warm your kitchen is), until doubled in size.
3. When the dough has risen, turn it out onto a clean surface, knock it back and roll into a rectangle about 26 x 40cm. Brush over a layer of olive oil and evenly sprinkle over the za’atar and pul biber, leaving a one centimetre border around the edges. Pat the spice mixture gently into the dough with the back of a tablespoon. Starting with a short side, roll the dough up as tightly as you can. Trim off the uneven excess bits at the end. Slice the dough into nine pieces.
4. Pour enough oil to just cover the base of a 23cm square cake tin and pop in the slices, swirl facing up. Cover and leave to one side for a second prove to double in size, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/gas mark 6. When the buns have roughly doubled in size, bake for 25–30 minutes, until golden. As soon as they come out of the oven, drizzle over the remaining olive oil and leave to absorb in the tin for 10 minutes before serving.
Slow-cooked peppers recipe
4 garlic cloves
10 peppers, a mixture of red, yellow and orange ones
5 ripe tomatoes
100ml sunflower oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A few flat-leaf parsley sprigs, optional
1. Peel and finely slice the onions and garlic. Halve the peppers, remove and discard the core and seeds, and cut into even sized pieces, around 2-3cm. Score a cross in the top of the tomatoes, place in a heatproof bowl (or pan) and cover with boiling water. Leave for a minute or two, until the skin starts to come away from the flesh, and drain. Peel the tomatoes and then roughly slice or chop the flesh.
2. Place a wide flameproof casserole on a medium heat, drizzle in the sunflower oil and add all the ingredients (not the parsley). Season generously, with a teaspoon each of salt and pepper, and start to fry. After 10 minutes, reduce the heat to low and fry for around one-and-a-half to two hours. Stir occasionally, until you have a thick, rich and meltingly soft stew. Taste and tweak the seasoning as necessary, then serve, scattered with chopped parsley if you like.
Pistachio and cardamom halva recipe
8 cardamom pods
½tsp good-quality vanilla extract
½tsp fine sea salt
230g caster sugar
1. Grease a loaf tin with a little oil then line it with cling-film, leaving some overhanging the edges of the tin. Roughly chop the pistachios. Remove the cardamom seeds from the pods, discard the pods and grind the seeds until fine. Add to a large mixing bowl with 30g of the chopped pistachios, the tahini, vanilla and sea salt and beat until smooth.
2. Place the sugar and 75ml of water in a medium saucepan and gently bring to the boil over a medium heat. Gently swirl the pan, do not stir the syrup or the sugar will crystallise. Once it starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low and leave to simmer for around 12-15 minutes, until you have a thick syrup. If you have a sugar thermometer, it needs to reach 121°C. When it is ready, add the tahini mixture to the pan (you don’t want the mixture to cool down, it needs to stay in the warm pan) and quickly beat the two elements together to make a smooth paste. This is best done with a wooden spoon or spatula. Try not to overwork it, though, as this will make the halva crumbly – you only want to beat it for 30 seconds.
3. As soon as it is smoothly combined, spoon it into the lined tin and press on the remaining pistachios. Leave to cool. Once cool, cover with the cling film edges and transfer to the fridge to set overnight before serving.
Nistisima: The Secret To Delicious Vegan Cooking From The Mediterranean And Beyond by Georgina Hayden is published by Bloomsbury.