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Vegetarian Eats

I’m back on the wagon…the vegetarian wagon that is! I got a little lazy, busy and my head was so full of what I had to get done that I didn’t have time to consider what I was filling my fridge or pantry with and too often I would just grab what I had and cook. It was healthy but not always meat free.

A couple of decades ago my father was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He hadn’t been feeling too crash hot for a few weeks when he noticed things were not right. He was scheduled for surgery immediately. It really is a big blur for me because at the same time he was being operated on, I was giving birth to my third daughter.

Let’s just say I am not the nurse type of gal.

When I was pregnant with our first daughter and I took the obligatory hospital tour the prenatal class insist you take, I was beside myself with fear. You see, I’d never been admitted to a hospital before; it was going to be my first time ever (except when I was born) being a patient in a hospital and quite frankly, all I knew about hospitals was that people were very sick and some died. I think what unnerved me about hospitals was the sadness that filled those buildings. It was too much for me.

Even just a few years ago while waitressing in a restaurant, I served a customer who had just finished a round of radiation and it was evident by the ‘burn’ marks on her neck she was being treated for cancer. I could hardly speak to her without my voice shaking… my heart went out to her!

Anyway, back to why I have chosen to be mostly vegetarian.

I needed to take note of the past so that it didn’t become my future!

My father was diagnosed with bowel cancer, my grandfather (maternal) died of bowel cancer and other relatives on both sides have succumbed to this deadly disease.

One of the biggest issues with bowel cancer is red meat and a low fibre diet – you know us Greeks, we love our lamb! But I knew I needed to take note of the past so that it didn’t become my future!

You may be tempted to think a vegetarian diet is boring or tasteless but I assure you it is far from that. There are so many dishes you can choose from using all kinds of vegetables, legumes and fruits. I even challenged myself one year and did vegan eating for 12 months – now that was a challenge but I was able to rise to the occasion and I was very creative in my cooking! It’s doable friends!

The Mediterranean diet is filled with vegetarian recipes. In fact, the Mediterranean cuisine is primarily a plant-based diet with a little meat on the side.

And then there is the Indian cuisine – another favourite cuisine of mine. When we visited Little India in Singapore I recognised the Greek influence in this culture. In fact, I remember looking at the faces of some of the older men and seeing similar features to my dad. It took me by surprise as I had never connected it before but Alexander the Great did have a big impact on this country. Whatever the reason, I love watching all the Bollywood movies on my flights overseas and I love eating Indian food!

One of my favourite recipes I discovered while doing volunteer work in Fiji was the Chana Aloo Curry (Chickpea & Potato Curry). It is full of flavour and when served on a bed of rice .. oolala .. it is heavenly!

So if you are looking for recipes with less meat and more vegetables, try this recipe…it’s easy to make and delicious to eat!

Enjoy!

Chana Aloo Curry (Chickpea & Potato Curry)

2 cups cooked chickpeas or 2 cans (400g) chickpeas rinsedwith 1 cup of liquid reserved

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 leek, sliced thinly

4 cloves garlic, minced

4cm ginger, grated

2 small red chilli, finely sliced

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

300ml tomato passata

1 cup vegetable stock

salt & pepper to taste

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh coriander, chopped

METHOD

1. Heat oil in medium pan over low heat. Add leek, garlic, ginger and chilli, fry until soft. Stir through the spices and fry for 1 minute.

2. Add tomato passata, stock, salt and pepper, chickpeas, reserved liquid and bring to boil. Turn heat to low and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Stir through lemon juice, scattering coriander on top.

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Longing for a Mediterranean Summer Escape

It’s hard not to get a little nostalgic at this time of the year – it’s cold and wet here in the eastern side of Australia and when photos of my beloved friends and relatives living it up in warmth in the Northern Hemisphere, in particular when Greece and Italy pop up, I can’t help but want to jump on a plane and join them.

I was born in Australia, raised in Australia but I can never appreciate our colder months – which logically when I think of my friends in Kamloops, Canada and how cold their winter months get, I’ve nothing to complain about!

But as each winter sets in, I’m dreaming of a holiday by the Mediterranean Sea, soaking in the sun and enjoying the Greek melodies in the background.

So after much imagining my dream is about to come true and I am off to the land of my ancestors for a four-week holiday soon!

It’s more than 12 years since we last visited and the first time we will be going without our girls. It will be a little weird going and visiting my relatives without our daughters accompanying us – they were always the drawcard of course – just like my granddaughter is today.

When we first travelled in 2000, we’d set out for a three-month European holiday starting in Greece. The plan was to stay there for a week or two then start trekking across to Italy by ferry, hop on a train in Bari and just ‘wing it’ from country to country. Except for our hiccup – the “my wallet is gone” hiccup.

Let me start from the beginning. We had been saving for years – that’s what you do when you only have one wage earner in the family. Week after week, I would deposit a little here and a little there. My husband had said to me a few months earlier, “we could never save for a European holiday on one wage.” Poor guy still hadn’t learnt not to set a challenge before me!

Months later, he says to me, “see I told you we’d never save on one wage.” So he thought!! Oh don’t you love these moments ladies!! I sat him down and showed him the account I’d opened up in my name and had been slipping in various amounts of money week after week. Put it this way, I’d put away a lot of money. The man was speechless! Ah! Where there’s a will, there’s always a way!

So we head on over to Athens, Greece, venture out on our own (without our street-wise relatives) and by the end of the day, we were heartbroken! Greg had mistakenly put his wallet in his back pocket and the rest is history. By the time we reached my cousin’s apartment, the ratbags had helped themselves to $6,500AUD!!

Anyway, this set us up for some unfortunate awkward moments as we travelled around Europe with our credit card but we managed to overcome and by the time we returned back to Australia and being cautious not to overspend as we may have to pay the stolen money back to the bank, we ended up with enough leftover cash to book another trip a couple of years later. There is always a silver-lining somewhere, don’t you think? By the way, the bank realised it was theft so we didn’t have to pay back anything…yay!

What I am looking forward to is the food! Really, it’s another dimension of flavoursome goodness in that part of the world. The cucumbers and tomatoes are mind-blowing, rich with taste and paired with olives and feta you have one fabulous salad!

Half of our time will be spent on the island of Crete, the largest island in Greece and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. This island has rugged mountains and endless beaches and the fresh produce… well let’s just say I am frothing already!

My plan is to swim everyday, eat something new everyday and search out recipes that are long forgotten. The Cretan diet is based mainly on eating vegetables and olive oil and shared with family and friends.

I really appreciate that part of my culture – sharing of food. I find it weird when people are gathered with others but don’t share what they have. I have never been comfortable with taking my own drinks or meat to a gathering and just keeping it all for myself! No, I am a sharer and always will be!

So in that spirit, I want to share a recipe with you, so you can then share with your family and friends.

Baklava Cheese Cake

Serves 12

Ingredients for the Crust

½ cup walnuts, roughly chopped

½ cup caster sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

8 sheets filo pastry

½ cup butter, melted

Ingredients for the Cheesecake

500g cream cheese, room temperature

½ cup sugar

¼ cup honey

1 tablespoon cornflour

pinch of salt

zest of 1 orange

juice of ½ orange

2 eggs

1 egg yolk

¼ cup thickened cream

¼ cup walnuts, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons caster sugar

6 sheets of filo pastry, individually buttered and ready to go on top

¼ cup syrup

¼ cup pistachios, roughly chopped

Method

1. Mix together walnuts, sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.

2. Brush one sheet of pastry with butter and place inside of a 20cm spring form cake tin. Take it up the sides and over the edges. Sprinkle with some of the nut mixture. Repeat.

3. Preheat oven to 180*C.

4. In a large bowl, beat cheese, sugar, honey, cornflour, salt, zest, juice and whole eggs. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating in cream on low speed.

5. Pour half of the mixture in, sprinkle with nut mixture and pour remaining on top. Fold in filo overhanging tin and place remaining filo crumbled and placed on top around the edge.

6. Place cake on a pizza tray in oven. Bake for 20 minutes before lowering oven temperature to 170*C. Bake for another hour or until set turning oven off and leave in oven to cool slowly. Remove from oven and set aside for 2 hours before serving.

7. Unclip tin, place cheesecake on platter and drizzle with syrup and pistachios.

SYRUP: Place 1 cup sugar and ½ cup of water in a saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1 teaspoon rosewater and boil for 5 minutes. Lower heat and simmer for another few minutes. Turn heat off and allow to cool.

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7 Steps to Becoming a Fabulous Cook!

Do you ever wonder if you can cook? You want to be a good cook but don’t know how to get there?

Here is a list of what you can do (it’s not exhaustive) to get you on that road to becoming the amazing cook you’ve dreamed about….

1. Practice Makes Fabulously Tasty Dishes

 Picking up a new recipe and only cooking it once is not enough. It is important to make it over and over and over again until you really feel you have mastered it. Reality is you may have fluked it the first time and then go make it a second or third time and often you will find it’s not quite the same. Practicing the same recipe also gives you the opportunity to adjust the recipe slightly to accommodate your tastes.

2. Have your pantry and fridge stocked with all the basic ingredients you will need for the recipes you have chosen

I always have olive oil, vinegar, flours, sugars, pasta, rice, salt, pepper, nuts, honey, spices and dried herbs ready to access in my pantry. In my fridge, I always have eggs, cream, milk, butter, yogurt, lemons, oranges, dates, figs and vegetables. My freezer is stocked with chicken, lamb and tomato passata.

I mainly cook Mediterranean food so my ingredients reflect that.

I also cut all my vegetables up and place in containers in the fridge so that they are ready to go when I have been out all day and need to get dinner ready in a hurry.

In my pantry, I have everything sectioned off, like in the supermarkets, which makes it quick and easy for me to find what I am looking for when cooking.  My fridge is organised in sections too. My brain doesn’t function with mess so ‘ordered’ works best for me.

3. Get a Garden Happening

Whether you have a large backyard or a small patio, do what you can to have fresh produce available to add to your recipes. Adding fresh herbs and vegetables to your meals increases the flavour, not to mention the nutritional value!

The herbs I have are Italian parsley, basil, mint and oregano. There’s nothing that makes me happier than to be able to go out to my garden and collect fresh herbs.

The vegetables I like growing in my garden are leek, shallots, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, eggplant, zucchini and capsicum. They’re all easy to grow and very versatile for many dishes and different cuisines.

4. Set your kitchen up with the essential tools

 I remember having a gathering at my home last year and someone said to me, “I am interested in looking at the tools you use in your kitchen.” It took me by surprise because I don’t have many tools in my kitchen because I consider my hands to be my tools. Nonetheless, I do have a food processor – fabulous for grating vegetables, mixing dough and making those wonderfully healthy bliss balls!

Last year my husband bought me a kitchen aid. It’s been many, many years since I had a mixer – the last one I had was from Sunbeam and it wasn’t until years later I realised it was broken because there was a fault in it. I did try to get compensated by Sunbeam but they weren’t as keen as I was! I also own a pasta machine and a really fancy blender/grinder – I love grinding my nuts and spices in this machine…oh and it blends my fruit juices perfectly leaving all the fibre in!

5. Check out your local Cooking Workshops

I remember growing up and looking forward to our Thursday morning cooking demonstration classes with the Sydney Electricity Council. I went to school for two things – sport and cooking! I watched the ladies demonstrate how to bake cakes and make savoury tarts – it was the best!

Get yourself to your nearest cooking class – Essential Ingredients is a great place to learn new skills, make some friends and generally have a wonderful experience. Check out their website – www.essentialingredient.com.au and book yourself into a class.

And if you are really game, book yourself a Mobile Cooking Workshop where I come to you, cook alongside you and invite a couple of friends to join you for dinner! It’s a dinner party with your own personal assistant! Check out my website – www.insofiaskitchen.com.au and book yourself in.

6. Follow your Favourite Chefs

You can learn so much from others – Food Network and SBS Food are fabulous shows to watch and pick up a trick or two.

Some of my favourite chefs are:

Rick Stein – this guy knows his stuff but is down to earth and appreciates the everyday cook. His latest adventures have taken him around the Mediterranean and worth the watch.

Yotam Ottolenghi – I love the creativity of this guy – the colours and foods he brings together are breathtaking!

Margaret Fulton – this lady is an inspiration! Her recipes can be trusted and even though some are very basic, she has laid a wonderful foundation for us, and the generations to come.

7. Experiment with dishes putting your twist on them

Once you’ve made your dishes over and over and over again, begin to break out of the box and start putting your twist into the recipe.

Recently I experimented with brownies and wanted to put a Greek twist on them so I made Baklava brownies! They were fabulously moist, spongy and full of flavour.

Being a Mediterranean girl at heart but ever so grateful I was born in this beautiful country, I like to bring together both cuisines and make something new out of it – just like my husband and I – two cultures coming together and making something new!

I am heading off to Greece later on in the year and I hope to bring back a few more ‘not so common’ recipes to share with you and put my twist on them!

So if you haven’t already, get yourself a copy of my cookbook – In Sofia’s Kitchen: Mediterranean Flavours Down Under available online and start practicing!

Oh, and I am setting up a Youtube channel where I will show you how to cook each of my recipes in my cookbook which I am sure will help you on your quest to becoming a FABULOUS COOK!

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Winter Warmers: Starting Your Day Right!

If you’ve been following me for a while now, it wouldn’t be hard to guess I love all things Mediterranean! Mediterranean food, Mediterranean culture, Mediterranean coastlines…what’s not to love I say!

Growing up in a home where all things were Greek, I remember watching my dad, every morning without fail, tossing a couple of knobs of butter in the well used frypan, letting it get to the sizzling stage before frying a couple of eggs and toasting a couple of slices of fresh bread!

It was the time when everyone was up in arms about cholesterol and eggs was supposedly a contributor to this disease! My father is 90 years old this year and it doesn’t look like the eggs or the butter did him any harm!

I was fascinated to read recently that eggs are back in fashion. An egg a day is starting your day right and as for cholesterol, giving up the greasy takeaways is probably a good start!

I love a fried egg paired with crumbled Greek feta on top and a little tomato salsa on the side. Served with fresh crusty bread, I know I am in for a fabulously productive and energetic day!

But I also love a steaming hot bowl of homemade Lentil & Basil soup or Moroccan Lamb & Chickpea soup after a long walk and quick swim in the ocean baths in the middle of winter.

So I decided why not mix it up a little and make a kind of Shakshuka but adding chickpeas to the mix and creating myself a very hearty Mediterranean style breakfast.

Chickpeas in my passata sauce with a handful of fragrant fresh basil leaves, eggs cushioned in the mix with feta cheese melting through with olives adding that extra bit of bite to the dish – now this is my kind of dish!

I used homemade passata, we had a bumper of a season with our tomatoes and with 80kg you make passata and you make chutney! I am slowly making my way through the hundreds of containers!

Also, our basil plants were fabulous this year and we made oodles of pesto and froze it. But wait there’s more….I bought a large packet of dried chickpeas (cans are okay but wanted to avoid that added salt), cooked up a big batch and froze it in snap-lock bags. So when it came to cooking this dish, everything was on hand, including the organic eggs our chookies so graciously provide us with on a daily basis!

But for those of you that don’t have the time or desire to do all that prepping, there is good quality passata available in the supermarkets, as well as pesto, chutney and canned chickpeas.

This dish is full of flavour and it has that wonderful comforting feeling you get when you climb into bed, snuggle under your covers and listen to the rain pitter patter on the tin roof.

Enjoy!

SHAKSHUKA WITH FETA & OLIVES

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 small red onion, diced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 cup cooked chickpeas

1 cup tomato passata

1 cup diced red capsicum

1 tablespoon tomato chutney

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon basil pesto

½ cup chicken stock

1 tablespoon dried herbs

salt & pepper, to taste

4 eggs

½ cup crumbed feta

½ cup Greek Kalamata olives

½ cup fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped

METHOD

1. In a large frypan, heat oil over medium heat and add onion, garlic and cumin sauté until transparent.

2. Add chickpeas, passata, capsicum, chutney, tomato paste, pesto, stock, dried herbs and season. Bring to a gentle simmer before turning heat to low and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until sauce has thickened.

3. Make four openings in the sauce using your stirring spoon. Gently crack eggs into each opening. Simmer gently for 8-10 minutes or until the whites are set but eggs still runny. Place a lid on top and cook for a further 2-3 minutes.

4. Remove from heat, crumble feta on top, scatter olives all over and sprinkle some basil leaves on top. Serve with your favourite bread.

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A Tasty Childhood: Youvarlakia (Greek Meatballs in Tomato Passata)

If you love Greek food, you will love this dish! The mince is infused with fresh herbs and spices, which makes an ordinary meatball turn into an extraordinary Greek meatball! Served on a bed of al dente pasta and you have one very tasty and comforting dish!

I’m heading over to Greece this year – it’s been almost 12 years since we last visited all our relatives and I cannot wait to give them all big hugs and meet my nieces children.

I remember when I first visited them back in 1995, my girls were 2, 4 & 6 years old and it was very much a culture shock for me. The streets looked quite run down, the traffic was manic and everyone lived in apartments. The noise was very unnerving and a few days into my trip, I wanted to hop back onto that plane and come home.

What I do love about my trips to Greece is the warm welcome we always receive. No amount of kilometres could separate the love of family whatsoever. We were embraced, fed and they did what they could to have us sleep under their roof.

I’ll never forget sitting down to a bowl of spaghetti bolognaise. It was the biggest serving I’d ever been given! And my girls, they were given big serves also. That’s what I love about my culture, kids are not seated anywhere else, or give a sandwich or heaven forbid, some warmed up frozen fish fingers!!! No, we are all equal when it comes to food, we all eat at the same table from the same menu!

And that’s how it is with my little grandie.

When I cook dinner for the family, Florence will eat what we are eating…and she can have as much as she likes! Knowing I was looking after her this week, I decided I’d introduce her to one of my favourite dishes, Youvarlakia.

This dish is so easy to make, really. Like pretty much all of my recipes in my cookbook – In Sofia’s Kitchen: Mediterranean Flavours Down Under are easy to follow. This dish is made from scratch; even the tomato passata is made from scratch using tomatoes and herbs from our organic garden. I believe that is the secret to deliciously tasting food! And the health benefits are amazing!

I always use lamb mince because in my opinion, it is more flavoursome and when I lightly sauté the onion with garlic and spices, the mince is infused with the spices, giving the mince a rich and tasty flavour.

And if you have passata already made up and in your freezer, just pull it out, defrost and warm in a saucepan over low heat. Once thawed and heated through, you can add the meatballs to cook. They will only take around 20 minutes, so now’s a good time to get the water on and boiling so you can cook the pasta.

Once pasta is cooked and drained, serve up in bowls and top with Youvarlakia, crumble feta on top and be ready to hear all the ooohs and ahhhs from your family and friends.

Full recipe is available in my cookbook – page 97 and if you haven’t yet purchased it, go onto my website www.insofiaskitchen.com.au/store and grab a copy today!