As I write this we are in the middle of carnival weekend. It’s big weekend here in Greece leading into Lent and is a time for a good deal of celebration. Following the main carnival weekend we have Kathari Deftera or ‘Clean Monday’ which is the official start of lent. On this day there are specific foods that it is traditional to eat and most Greeks head out to a local taverna and order a table load. In fact, for the devout, it will pretty much form their diet until Easter in 40 days time. Lets run through the staples of a Clean Monday menu and find out how to prepare some of these simple, tasty dishes.
All food served today will be accompanied by a special bread called Lagana. This was once unleavened but over the years the recipe has started to include a little yeast. It comes in the form of a large rectangle covered in sesame seeds and is most wonderful but very expensive to buy (bakers make a killing on Clean Monday!).
The types of foods eaten on clean Monday are generally vegetable or seafood based. Even the normally ubiquitous feta cheese is absent. Here is a list of what you would typically find on the menu:
Taramasalata (a dip made with cod’s roe), Skordalia (a dip made with garlic and potatoes), marinated octopus, calamari (squid), fava dip, bean salad, and lettuce salad.
There are other dishes, like whitebait, prawns and cuttlefish for example, that may show up here and there as well. But here we will concentrate on the staple dishes.
- Taramasalata. You will need 100g red salted cod roe, 300g boiled potatoes, 1 cup of olive oil, 1 small onion finely grated and the juice of 2 lemons. Simply mash the fish roe, onion and the potato together and drizzle in the olive oil and lemon juice gradually. Don’t worry if you can’t find the fish roe where you live, you will no doubt find that there are commercially made versions of this salad available to buy.
- Skordalia. You will need: a head of garlic, 200g boiled potatoes, half a cup of olive oil, a couple of teaspoons of vinegar and a pinch of salt. Mash the garlic first then add the potato and vinegar. Continue mashing to a purée whilst dribbling in the olive oil a bit at a time.
- Fava Dip. For this you will need 500g fava beans (split red peas), 2 medium onions (1 quartered and 1 finely chopped), half a cup of olive oil, the juice of a lemon and salt & pepper. Wash & boil the fava beans, skimming off any scum that forms on the top. Add the quartered onion, salt & pepper and half of the oil. Continue to simmer until the fava had broken down to a porridge-like consistency. Put the mixture through a food mill of processor to form puree. Sir in the rest of the lemon juice and serve topped with the raw finely chopped onion.
- Lettuce Salad. Quick & simple. Just finely shred a couple of lettuces and toss with an olive oil and lemon juice dressing (two-thirds oil, one third juice)
- Bean Salad Another simple one. 500g of dried white beans, soaked and boiled or – better still – 2 cans of white beans drained, 1 medium onion finely chopped, oil & lemon dressing as described in the lettuce salad, a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley and salt. Simply mix the ingredients together in a bowl and add the dressing.
- Calamari. Cut the squid into rings (use the tentacles too) and dip into milk. Squeeze of excess milk and toss in flour. Shake off excess flour in a sieve and deep fry until golden. Throw on some salt and serve immediately while piping hot with wedges of lemon.
- Marinated Octopus. Not as difficult as it may seem, this one. Firstly, a word about octopi. Don’t fret about trying to find a fresh one in February. 99.99999% of Greeks will use a frozen one. Octopus does not lose any quality through freezing. In fact, many would say that the freezing process helps to tenderise the flesh. Anyway, find a frozen one and, if you can, find one from Morocco as they are the best. Here’s what you will need: A 1.5 kilo octopus (thawed), 3 cloves of garlic mashed or v. finely chopped, a teaspoon of dried oregano, a cup of olive oil and half a cup of red wine vinegar, a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper. Wash the octopus inside and out (it will already be prepared if you buy a frozen one) and put into a large stockpot or saucepan. Many people say do not add water, but I put a just little in the bottom just to protect the pan in the early stages of cooking. You could put a little white wine in if you wish…not much, a couple glugs, that’s all. Then cook the octopus in its own juice over a low heat until it is tender to the point of a knife. Remove the octopus from the water and, when it has cooled, chop it into small pieces. Take all of the other ingredients and put into a jar, put the lid on (do remember this) and shake vigorously. Use this dressing to pour over the octopus. This will keep well for several days in the fridge and tastes much nicer the day after it has been made, once all of the flavours have got to know one another.
Other vegetable dishes would include a shredded white cabbage and carrot salad dressed with oil & lemon, vine leaves stuffed with a rice mixture and horta (boiled mixed wild greens)
For a dessert, Greeks would favour ‘Halva’ a sweet made with semolina and nuts which is available in many different varieties.