Ejo #115 – My Mum’s Recipes: Stuffed Tomatoes

Here I am writing another ejo about my Mum’s food, and the only thing I can think of is how much I just want my Mum back.  This need permeates every cell in my body and imbues every single moment of my day.  It is relentless, because while my “grief” may be gradually subsiding, my sense of loss seems to only increase.  And I don’t think that the words exist that could explain this feeling to you. I am at my parent’s home in Mt. Waverley, with my sisters, stripping it bare to prepare it for auction in a few weeks. This is about as much fun as it sounds.  And yet there is nowhere else I would rather be. I’m so fortunate that I’ve been able to take some extended leave from work to be here with my sisters, to sort through the stuff that we’ve accumulated as a family over the last 36 years. And boy, is it a lot of stuff. So far we’ve donated more than two dozen carloads of family belongings to charity shops, filled skips with 8 cubic metres of rubbish, given away countless bits and pieces to friends, organised for another charity to pick up several of the larger pieces of furniture, and we’ve rented a storage unit that is already filling up fast.  Oh, and we have a garage full of hard rubbish that the council will (hopefully) pick up in a couple of weeks.  Honestly, we may even need to get another skip. It is just mindboggling how much stuff a four bedroom house can hold.

So yes, I’m here in my home town, Melbourne.  The reasons I love this city are many, but mostly I love it because of the people that live here.  My sisters, my friends.  Usually a trip to Melbourne is jam-packed with social engagements, fun outings, dinners, weekends away, picnics, drinks (lots of drinks).  But this time I’m not here to socialise or to have fun, I am here to spend time with my sisters and to work. And (self-pity alert!) it really is hard work.  Almost every single knuckle on my hands is scraped, my knee and elbow are hurting from a spectacular tumble I took in the back yard a week ago, my forearm was scratched by some mystery item and I’m debating whether I need to go and get a tetanus shot, just in case. I have a gorgeous array of bruises, in various stages of bloom and I needed first aid when I gashed my wrist trying to wrestle a toolkit from the back of my Mum’s car.  A couple of days ago, I almost concussed myself when I banged my head on a wooden ledge, and my arms ache from carrying heavy boxes (who needs the gym anyway). But most of all, my heart aches because, room by room, we are systematically deleting the fragments that collectively defined not just my childhood, but my sense of identity.

The only thing that has made this process tolerable is the fact that I’m sharing it with my sisters. Together, we are working as a team to write the final chapter of the Stathopoulos family home.  There are ups, and you can bet your sweet ass there are downs.  But one of the things I absolutely love is that every night, after a hard day at work, the three of us gather together and eat dinner as a family.  It’s such a beautiful, bonding thing for us to do and I’m so grateful for it.  Dinner time was always a big deal in our family.  It was a time to connect, to talk, to sometimes fight (c’mon, we’re Greek, of course there were fights) and to enjoy my Mum’s amazing cooking.  I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity, while I’m here, for the three of us to get together and cook one of our favourite of Mum’s dishes – stuffed tomatoes.  This recipe has been a favourite in our family for as long as I can remember – because it’s absolutely fucking delicious.  I hope that some of you try cooking this at home, and I hope that you enjoy it as much as we always have.

Kalí órexi.

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These few, simple ingredients make a yummy traditional Greek meal.

 

STUFFED TOMATOES
INGREDIENTS:
8 ripe (but not too soft) bull-heart tomatoes
1 large brown onion, peeled
4-8 cloves of garlic (depending on how much you like garlic)
8 heaped tablespoons medium white rice (one for each tomato), plus extra for the pan
1 small bunch of parsley (stems removed), finely chopped
a few sprigs of mint leaves, finely chopped
olive oil
2 large roasting potatoes, cut into eighths, lengthwise

METHOD:
Preheat oven to 180°C (for a fan forced oven – otherwise 200°C)

Make a horizontal cut near the top of each tomato to create a “lid”, making sure not to cut all the way through.

Using a spoon, gently scoop out the inside of each tomato, making sure to keep the skin intact.  Preserve the pulp.

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Scooped out tomato with the lid (kinda) attached.  Notice the lumpy tomato pulp.

Place the scooped out tomatoes in a roasting pan, leaving room for potatoes and extra rice.  Coarsely grate the preserved tomato pulp until it becomes juicy with no lumps.

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Unlumpy tomato pulp!!!  This is probably the hardest part of the recipe, but very necessary.

Coarsely grate the onion (prepare to cry!!!) and add to tomato mixture.

Finely grate the garlic cloves and add to tomato mixture.

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Behind the scenes.  It’s thirsty work recreating a recipe.

Add eight tablespoons of rice to the tomato mixture (one for each tomato).  Then add extra rice (for the pan – we used an extra five tablespoons).

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The rice mixture goes in the tomato cups and also into the pan, resulting in different textures.

Add chopped parsley and mint to the tomato mixture and stir to combine the ingredients.  Season to taste. Add a liberal glug of olive oil (we added about three tablespoons), and stir to combine.

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Plenty of olive oil.  This is a Greek recipe, after all.

Taste (the most important part of cooking any meal).

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Ready to assemble.

Fill each tomato cup with the tomato/rice mixture, making sure not to fill all the way to the top.

Place potatoes in pan, and season to taste.  Add remainder of tomato/rice mixture into pan with the potatoes and drizzle the entire pan with olive oil. Place the roasting pan on the middle tray of the oven and cook, uncovered, for about 1½ hours or until the rice and potatoes are cooked to your liking.

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Pop the tomato lids closed and then pop the pan in the oven.  Wait for the delicious aromas to permeate your house, and your brain!!!

Enjoy!!!

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I was so excited to eat this I forgot to take a photo right away.  Nom nom nom!!!

 

Ejo #114 – My Mum’s Recipes: Tzatziki

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to become friends with a woman who was studying shiatsu. She was happy because she had a regular, willing body to practice techniques on, and I was happy because I received incredibly therapeutic treatments at half-price. Win-win. Over the years we became quite close, and we are still friends to this day. What I remember the most about that time was how much Harriet was there for me when my father passed away. Not only as a friend, but also, instrumentally, as a shiatsu therapist. I recall the sessions we did after Dad died so clearly. They were super emotional, as you’d expect, but also so cathartic, so cleansing, so healing. She helped me in ways that I’m still not sure she’s aware of. I don’t know if you’ve ever done proper shiatsu, but it is a truly remarkable therapy, and I would really highly recommend it.

Over the years, I’ve struggled to find someone as good at shiatsu as Harriet was. And I’ve been disappointed enough times in Dubai to essentially just give up trying there altogether. Recently however, while we were travelling, I decided to give it another go. I did a bit of research and found someone online that didn’t seem like a total charlatan and made an appointment at her home clinic. Ostensibly I was there for her to treat my lower back, but during our initial consultation the fact that my Mum had recently died came up. I knew it would – the loss of my Mum is always with me. Always. Front and centre.  Perhaps in seeking out shiatsu therapy, rather than a more traditional massage, I was hoping to replicate the deep healing that had occurred during my sessions with Harriet, all those years ago. Even just a little bit. Sometimes, when you’re grieving, wishful thinking is all you’ve got. I was happy to give it a go.

It was a nice session. It was no Harriet level magic, but it was better than I’ve had in many years, and that was good enough. Something amazing did happen during the session though, and that’s why I’m rambling on about shiatsu when I really want to be talking about garlic. During the first part of the treatment, while the therapist was still feeling around my lower back and trying to figure out what the problem was, out of nowhere, she said to me, gently, “Mother and food are connected, yes?”. I nodded silently and brushed away the tear that fell onto my cheek. I understand that this comment may not be true for every mother/child relationship, but it was always true for me and my Mum.

Fun fact: when my Mum first had me, my Dad was away a lot for work, so she was basically all alone in a foreign land. She had no-one to support her, no family or friends to teach her how to look after a demanding, whiny, fat little baby. So she had to make things up as she went along. For the most part, I’d say she did a pretty good job. But because she didn’t know any better, when I was hungry, she would feed me, and then keep on feeding me, basically until I vomited. Now, I don’t want to go down the path of blaming anyone for any possible eating issues I may have had while I was growing up – that’s not my stripe. Of course I used to tease my Mum that I’ve been chubby my whole life because of her, but it’s always just been a bit of a joke between us. The fact is that my Mum’s cooking has featured enormously throughout my life. Maybe because of the force-feeding, maybe because of the wog-factor, maybe because she put all the love and commitment for her family into the food that she fed us, or maybe just because she was a really good cook. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that for me, yes, Mother and food will always be connected. They both mean sustenance, they both mean nourishment, they mean comfort and fulfilled needs. And they mean joy, and togetherness and love.

I mentioned in a previous ejo how important it is to me that I have some of my Mum’s recipes written down. It’s a way of preserving her memory, and the homely feelings that her food has always given me. I know that towards the end, cooking became less of a pleasure for her than it used to be. She mostly lived alone, eating a very spartan diet herself. But whenever David and I visited, she always wanted to cook our favourite dishes for us. Even though I knew it was an effort for her, I still made these requests because I knew that it gave her real pleasure to make them. It was something she genuinely wanted to do for me. And the resultant gathering of the whole family around the table was something that we all delighted in. After years of living away from my family, what had once been a daily routine became a very special occasion.

I’ve decided to write a series about my Mum’s food, and I’ve chosen to start with garlic. Coz Greek people love the stuff. I’ve certainly always loved it – the more garlicky, the better. I remember back in the olden days, there used to be an unwritten rule that you shouldn’t eat garlic before going out in public. I never paid that rule much kind. If people didn’t like my garlic breath, that was their problem. I didn’t give a shit. Which is lucky because my Mum’s signature tzatziki is ferociously, and famously, strong. Tzatziki, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a staple in any Greek household. It is a super fresh condiment, made from shitloads of garlic and Greek yoghurt, flecked with grated cucumber – and it’s fucking delicious served with meat, fish or even just spread on a piece of bread.

David has always enjoyed my Mum’s tzatziki enormously and she always made sure to have some in the fridge when we were coming over, just for him. It got so that after a while, he couldn’t even wait for our weekly visits to Mum’s place for his tzatziki hit, and he asked her to teach him how to make it. As you can imagine, she was absolutely delighted. He started off watching Mum make it in her kitchen, asking questions, assisting her and taking notes. He practiced and practiced at home, until he’d perfected the recipe. Over the years David’s version has evolved to (somehow???) be even more garlicky than my Mum’s (honestly, I sometimes think that David is more Greek than me!!). Anyway, if you want to try it, the original recipe is below – I’d love to know how your version works out.

Kalí órexi.

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The ingredients.  Greek yoghurt, cucumber and shitloads of garlic.

 

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Stir, stir, stir.

 

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The finished product – best served the next day, all the better to allow the garlic to infuse, but we’ve definitely been known to devour it immediately.

 

TZATZIKI
INGREDIENTS:
1 tub plain Greek yoghurt
1 cucumber, halved
8-10 cloves garlic

METHOD:
Drain yogurt in a kitchen towel for a couple of hours.
Peel cucumber into strips and strain well.
Peel garlic and grate finely.
Mix all the ingredients together with a spoon until combined.
Refrigerate until ready to use.

Ejo #113 – And So, This Is Ramadan

Most of my readers will already have some idea of what Ramadan is (they’d better – I write about it often enough!!!).  For those who don’t know, Ramadan is the most important month of the Islamic lunar year – a thirty day period of spiritual growth and introspection, during which Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex during the hours of daylight in order to commune with their god. One of the traditions of Ramadan is, of course, the celebrated breaking of the fast – and in Dubai this tends to be a pretty lavish affair. Five star hotel restaurants put on huge spreads every single night, tables groaning under the weight of platters of Arabic and international cuisine. It’s truly a sight to behold. Though not necessarily a good sight. At least not if you are aware of the monstrous amount of food that is wasted each and every day during Ramadan.

Iftar buffets produce 500,000kgs of food waste every Ramadan in Dubai.

Apparently, in the UAE, about 500 tonnes of uneaten Iftar food gets thrown into landfill during Ramadan. That doesn’t even come close to the 400 tonnes a day wasted in neighbouring Bahrain during the holy month, but it’s still a shitload of food that gets chucked away. Which is a disgrace when there are half a million impoverished labourers in Dubai. A lot of these workers are Muslim, which means that during this year’s Ramadan they are going without food and water for fourteen hours a day, while toiling in the harsh sun.  These are the guys that should be enjoying five star buffets laden with extravagant food every night.  But they’re not.  They’re breaking their fast with whatever scraps they can afford – which is not much.  It’s enough to make you want to organise a food handout!!

Indeed it is!  So, on Friday 24th May, just before sunset, David and I joined our wonderful friend Roshni and her amazing team of volunteers at a labour camp in Sharjah to help distribute hot Iftar meals to some of these men.  Remarkably, we were able to give out 1000 meal packages consisting of dates (traditionally eaten to break the fast), water (to quench the thirst of many hours of dehydration), a delicious and nutritious chicken biryani (packed full of flavour, energy and protein), and a piece of fruit for a simple dessert.  Nothing fancy but definitely fancier than nothing.

As always I have taken lots of photos of the guys as they receive their dinner package.  The reason I do this is because sadly, the labourers of the UAE are an often unacknowledged demographic. I want to humanise them, because despite being treated like slaves, they are real people, like you and me. I want to show their dignity and uniqueness.  I want you to look into their eyes and recognise that they may have dreams and hopes and aspirations.  That they may experience irritation and depression. Joy and laughter and gratitude. That being poor in worldly possessions doesn’t make their lives any less valuable.  I hope that by looking at these pictures you can find just one face that you can connect with – because ultimately we’re all the same.  Some people are just luckier than others.

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The sun beat down hard – at 6pm it was still 37°C.

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The men lined up in an orderly fashion.  Unruliness was dealt with firmly.

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I’d like to say a very special thank you to everyone who contributed to this year’s Ramadan handout.  You are wonderful.