It’s a very welcome side-effect of writing this blog that my friends and family often suggest activities with an international flavour and on occasion proffer gifts that might inject some culture into our lives.
One ingredient that I am familiar with, and which I chose to use as my first attempt at some Ukrainian cuisine, is beetroot. We have grown it in the past –the beauties in the pictures are some we grew in Tasmania– but I bought some plump beets from our local farmers market for my foray into the former Soviet Union.
It turns out that beetroot is a particularly nutritious vegetable, which I’m thrilled to learn because it is a very popular one in our household. I grew up on tinned stuff, which is fine but basically tastes of vinegar. Now we like it fresh, and roasted until it caramelises. We eat so much that we laugh about our pink wee. (Don’t forget I have four-year-old boys…).
I didn’t start with Cold Beetroot Soup, although I gather it is a classic of the region. Instead I went with a very simple salad that combined intriguing flavours with the beets; balsamic and sour cream dressing with walnuts, prunes and a scattering of coriander.
I served the salad with quinoa and it was dinner– very delicious and I found it really satisfying. Next time I would reduce the amount of balsamic and add more prunes because they were unexpectedly wonderful in this mix!
I have since done a little research into the culture of Ukraine (this blog gives some excellent insights) and I look forward to trying more recipes from this lovely book. Now, just to decide what clever “beet” pun to use for the title of this post…
When it comes to Greek food, I didn’t know that spinach and silverbeet are not the only greens that may be layered with feta between sheets of filo pastry. And I certainly didn’t know that the prolific weeds that are growing luxuriantly in our garden might be harvested and eaten!
For many years I lived in parts of Melbourne with thriving expatriot Greek communities, alongside numerous second-generation Greek Aussie friends. I have very fond memories of my time working at George and Costa’s wedding venue, and dancing in circles (or slapping my ankles) with generous old people** at the corner pub that has long since been hipsterfied. And I have eaten a lot of Greek food.
But I was not aware, until very recently, that there is a healthy tradition of “prickle picking” in Greek cuisine.
It’s such a sensible and thrifty idea to eat whatever greens are available, and certainly during times of food shortage it may have been the only option for many Greek people. The word in Greek is “Horta”, or χόρτα, which translates as weeds or wild grasses, and it is a catch-all term to describe both the plants and the simple dish prepared with them. Thus, a vegetarian in Greece is apparently known as a “weed eater“! I believe that they are as nutritious as more mainstream leafy greens (the weeds, not the vegetarians), but I suppose that depends upon which ones you are eating. More detail about the types of weed to look for can be found here.
Once I had verified that dandelions are a safe option (and conviced my fellow diner of the same), I simply cut leaves from around the backyard and washed them thoroughly. I boiled them for a few minutes then drizzled them with olive oil and lemon juice, with a pinch of salt. It’s my kind of recipe.
But the verdict? Mmm. Too bitter. Next time I would aim for small leaves only, perhaps boil them for longer, and maybe attempt a more complex recipe (such as the pie described here) to balance out the flavours. In any case, I will definitely attempt to turn my scraggly weeds into a tasty “horta” dish again.
Because when it comes to thinking about places far away and learning something of another culture, there’s nothing like our own backyard to start us on the journey.
*More than once I have had a conversation over a glass of ouzo along these lines: