Island of secrets. (Extract from chapter 34. Aromatic Giant Beans)

 

I need a chair,’ Maria said when the emotional greeting had exhausted itself. ‘Your father’s waiting inside. Go to him, Poppy. His heart’s aching to see you. Angelika, help me into the house.’

Angie slipped her arm around Yiayá’s waist and slowly guided her back. The frail old woman stopped and turned her eyes to the sky, blinking slowly and gulping air. After a moment, she turned to Angie and said, ‘This is one of the happiest days of my life, koritsie, and you made it happen.’

Flapping her hand while struggling to keep her voice even, Angie said, ‘Nothing, nothing,’ in keeping with the Cretan response to a compliment.

Angie longed to be alone with Nick. Inside the cottage, he winked across the room as she entered with Yiayá. With his plaster-cast on the low round table, he sat next to Demitri who was already pouring out glasses of raki. Angie hoped Nick would remember they had the police station later. Poppy sat next to her father, holding his hand.

‘All right, Papoú?’ Angie said.

He nodded, tears still wet on his craggy cheeks. ‘I’ve prayed to the Blessed Virgin every night since ’68 that one day my Poppy would sit next to me at this hearth. A long wait, koritsie. You won’t understand this but, when Poppy was born, I couldn’t stand on two feet, such was my joy. A little girl. The day, and the time, and the baby, were so precious; especially after the loss of Petro. When she left for London, I felt my feet were lead, every step was a toil. Always wondering. But now I’m on air again.’ His eyebrows shot up, a look of amazement on his face. ‘My daughter’s back. I can die a happy man. Thank you.’

Angie couldn’t speak.

Voula brought more raki, and then plates of mezzé. Tiny meatballs, stuffed vine leaves, dips and rusks, plates of giant beans in sweet herby sauce, and olives. Delicious smells filled the room and, in the warm celebratory atmosphere, everyone chatted and laughed and ate.

Aromatic Giant Beans

I always make a large pan of these beans, using the entire 500g packet of dried beans. After one meal, I divide the remainder of the Aromatic Giant Beans into 200g portions and freeze in small freezer bags. Open a bag and heat though in a microwave to make one of an assortment of mezzé dishes, in the event of impromptu visitors. Drizzle with a teaspoon of olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Aromatic Giant Beans are a delicious and healthy vegetarian dish.

 

Aromatic Giant Beans can be cooked up to two days in advance and stored in the fridge. The slow, gentle cooking in olive oil and honey, gives the beans a mellow, nutty flavour.

500g dried butter beans

100ml good olive oil

50g of butter

2 onions, peeled, quartered and sliced

2 cups of celery, sliced

3 large carrots, sliced

2 tins of chopped tomatoes, or one kilo very ripe tomatoes skinned and chopped

2 generous tablespoons of good honey

1 tablespoon ground coriander

2 tablespoons of dried oregano

Small bunch fresh parsley, roughly chopped, optional

2 large cloves of garlic

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 fresh lemon to serve.

Put the beans to soak in cold water for a minimum of 6 hours, or overnight. Drain the beans, and place in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water and slowly bring to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse in a colander. Wash out the pan. Return the beans to the pan and cover with fresh cold water. Bring to the boil slowly, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer gently for approximately 30 minutes, until cooked but still firm. Make sure the beans are cooked enough, because once they go into the tomato and olive oil, they will not go any softer no matter how long you cook them. Drain, reserving the liquid.

Heat the oil and butter in a large, heavy pan. Gently fry the onions, celery, and carrots, for 20-30 minutes, until golden. Add tomatoes, honey, garlic, oregano, chopped parsley, and simmer for another fifteen minutes. Add the beans, cover, and simmer very gently for another thirty minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a little of the bean water if the pan becomes dry.

Serve with a sprinkle of lemon juice and a sprig of parsley. Delicious on their own, or a hearty accompaniment to bacon or village sausage.

This makes a large amount of Aromatic Giant Beans, which can be portioned up and frozen.

***

Island of secrets. (Extract from chapter 1. Stuffed Peppers)

‘Mama, Papa, your dinner’s here.’ Voula’s rotund body crashed through the doorway. The fly curtain whipped around her black dress like a multicoloured explosion. Gripping a casserole pot against her belly, she grinned, her face a friendly gargoyle.

‘No need to shout, Voula, we’re not deaf,’ Maria said.

Vassili cupped a hand behind his ear. ‘Eeh, what’s that? Ah, the food. No chance of any meat I suppose? I’ll be glad when Lent’s over. I can smell the lamb already.’ He shuffled to the kitchen table.

‘Only a few more days until Easter, Papa. I’ve made stuffed peppers. Will you have a glass of Demitri’s wine?’ Voula clattered the dishes and then helped Maria out of the armchair. ‘Anything else?’ she asked, pouring cloudy red krassié into tumblers before serving their meals.

Maria cut open a green pepper, hunched over her plate and sniffed the food.

Voula stopped bustling and watched her taste the rice stuffing flavoured with herbs, currants, and pine nuts. When Maria approved with a nod, Voula took a breath and smiled.

‘I want to write to Poppy and Angelika,’ Maria said.

Voula’s eyes widened. She glanced around the tabletop and then at Vassili who guzzled his food. ‘Are you sure, Mama?’ She lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘What if it starts up again, the trouble, after all these years? Isn’t it better to forget? We can’t bring back the dead.’

‘No,’ Maria said, her face drawn and thin above the mound of colourful vegetables. ‘I’ve decided.’

Stuffed Peppers

125 ml olive oil

30 g butter

Half a large onion, chopped

350 g long-grain rice

A good pinch of saffron or turmeric

1.2 litres chicken stock

1 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste

10 medium, or 6 large peppers, tops cut off, seeds rinsed out, and peppers blanched for 2 minutes in boiling water.

115 g currants

90 g lightly toasted or fried pine nuts

1 rounded tablespoon of oregano

1 bunch of parsley, leaves finely chopped

The juice and a little finely-grated rind from 1 large lemon

The juice of two large lemons

Heat the butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy pan and sauté the onions until soft, +-5 minutes.

Add the rice and cook, stirring, for 3-4 minutes.

Add the saffron or turmeric and 700 ml of the chicken stock to the rice.

Raise the heat and boil uncovered for +-8 minutes until the liquid has disappeared. Place a lid on the pan and put to one side while you blanch the peppers.

Loosely fill the blanched peppers with the rice stuffing, replace their lids, and stand them in a heavy pan that holds them upright. Pour the remaining olive oil and chicken stock over the peppers. Simmer for +-45 minutes until the peppers are tender. Keep a check on the level of the stock and top up with water as necessary. The dish will be ruined if the pan almost boils dry.

Egg Lemon Sauce

Whisk the 3 eggs until pale and frothy, +-3 minutes. Gradually add the lemon juice. Remove the peppers from the pan and place on a warm serving dish. Slowly add 250 ml of the cooking liquid to the eggs, whisking continually. Transfer to a double boiler and heat for five minutes until the sauce thickens. Do not allow to boil. Add salt to taste.

Loosely fill the blanched peppers with the rice stuffing, replace their lids, and stand them in a heavy pan that holds them upright. Pour the remaining olive oil and chicken stock over the peppers. Simmer for +-45 minutes until the peppers are tender. Keep a check on the level of the stock and top up with water as necessary. The dish will be ruined if the pan almost boils dry.

Egg Lemon Sauce

Whisk the 3 eggs until pale and frothy, +-3 minutes. Gradually add the lemon juice. Remove the peppers from the pan and place on a warm serving dish. Slowly add 250 ml of the cooking liquid to the eggs, whisking continually. Transfer to a double boiler and heat for five minutes until the sauce thickens. Do not allow to boil. Add salt to taste.

WHAT ARE CURRANTS, AND WHERE ARE THEY FROM?

Currants are small grapes, (USA: Zante currants).

The dried berries of the small, sweet, seedless grape 'Black Corinth' are harvested, dried, and sold as currants. The name comes from the phrase 'grapes from Corinth', and the Greek island of Zakynthos (Zante) is one of the major producers and exporters.

Greece is still the primary producer of currants, amounting to about 80% of total world production.

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WHAT ARE PINE NUTS, AND WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?

Pine nuts are seeds that develop in a pine cone.

Yes, those ordinary pine cones you glue and glitter and hang on the Christmas tree. There are 2 nuts under each scale, and they take around 36 months to develop. Pine nuts produced in Europe mostly come from the stone pine (Pinus pinea), which has been cultivated for its nuts for over 5,000 years, and harvested from wild trees for far longer.

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