17 reasons why I am just like Nigella

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Nigella in conversation with Maeve O’Meara at the Opera House

Exactly two years ago I fangirled shamelessly through this post on why I love my foodie hero, Nigella.

Nigella was back in town recently which means I am back in adoration mode. But this time our likenesses really struck me. Time and time again during her two talks (naturally I went to both), I found myself thinking, she’s just like me. Or rather I’m just like her. So here are the 17 reasons why, direct from Nigella herself.

“It’s a long time not to eat. Missing a meal would make me panic.” 

This was Nigella’s response to the question ‘Have you tried the 5:2 diet?” and I completely agree with her. I am flummoxed at how people survive for a day on a boiled egg and cup of black coffee and could never, would never do it.

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A section of my bulging bookcase of cookbooks

“People would faint at disapproval if they knew how many cookery books I owned.”

I would love to know what number that is. For me it’s 113 and steadily rising. And yes a good chunk of those are Nigella’s books.

“Food shopping is very pleasurable.”

I LOVE food shopping and can spend hours in a supermarket, especially if it’s an international supermarket. Granted I am not shopping for a family of six however the size of my trolley often suggests I am. I remember how much I loved the Thursday night shop with mum when I was little and I take great pleasure in examining produce and products, comparing value and picking up random new finds to have some fun.

I love salt.”

I love it so much I often commit the culinary sin of salting my food before tasting it. I hope dearly that I’m never put on a low sodium diet, it would be the end of me.

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Me eating spanakopita at around 18 months. The only thing that’s really changed is my taste in socks.

Food memories conjure up feelings of safety, the smells take you back and give comfort.”

My earliest memories all involve food. Hell, ALL my memories involve food. And nothing gives me greater comfort than my yiayia’s cooking, or the smell of a barbeque. ”Food says a lot about identity… we develop bonds through food’ Nigella noted to sociologist Hugh Mackay. One meal with a Greek family is all that’s required to prove this point.

“How do people live without leftovers?”

I live for leftovers. I cook for the aforementioned imaginary family of six and then portion out leftovers for lunch and future dinners. There’s nothing better than arriving home late and tired knowing there is a home cooked meal waiting to be reheated.

the fidgety foodie-17 reasons why i am like nigella

“Over half the recipes in this (new) book are vegetarian.”

Nigella noted that despite embracing every food type voraciously, she subconsciously leans towards vegetarian food much of the time and I am quite similar. I love meat but I rarely buy it, for a mix of health, environmental and fiscal reasons. I tend to save juicy steak and pork ribs for restaurant dining and dig into vegetables, seafood, pulses and whole grains at home. Which interestingly enough is a standard Mediterranean diet – perhaps I am more like my Greek islander ancestors than I realise. Read More

How the Greeks influenced Aussie eating

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Me with my Papou Peter – I inherited both his love of food and his nose

I really wish I had known my grandfathers.

They both died when I was a toddler so all I have are some old 80s-style photos of them holding me proudly in their arms.

Despite not knowing them I am pretty sure my love of food stems from their influence: one was a seafood chef at The Royal Automobile Club, amongst other places, and the other ran a fresh fish shop in Sydney’s Wynyard Station which was the place to buy fish in the 60s. It’s now a McDonald’s.

These weren’t uncommon career paths for Greek immigrants, who came to Australia with nothing but the determination to succeed and a little ingenuity. Food was a way for new migrants to assimilate into the community and find jobs, even when they didn’t speak English. Many also came via America or had family in America where they’d picked up culinary ideas that were ripe for applying to the Aussie market.

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The fantastic book by Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski

My ears pricked up when I heard about a new book by historian Leonard Janiszewski and photographer Effy Alexakis that delves into the impact that Greeks have had on the café culture in Australia. The book compiles the stories of many Greek families and looks at the development of eating culture through the lens of the Greek café and milk bar. The book proves that Greeks truly changed the face of public eating in Australia.

As part of History Week (can you tell I’m the daughter of a history teacher?) I went along to a book talk with my Aunty Kathy and was fascinated to learn more about other Greek families in hospitality and their impact on Aussie culture.

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Pitt St Sydney circa 1900 including iconic Comino’s Cosmopolitan Oyster Parlor – photo from Greek Cafés & Milk Bars of Australia

It’s hard to imagine how different things once were. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Australia mimicked the UK and social hierarchy was everything. The rich ate here and the poor ate there. But in Greece, people have always mixed and mingled and eating is about family, delicious food and a sense of community. When the Greeks came to Australia to find a better life, they eschewed the social stratification of the day and opened establishments for everyone.

First it was oyster saloons or oyster parlors (back when oysters were cheap), which they soon transformed with burgers and other foods they’d seen in America. Then they had the ingenious idea of taking soda fountains, traditionally used in apothecaries for helping bitter medicine go down, and making them customer-facing, adding syrups and flavours to create fun and social drinks.

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A classic Greek café menu inspired heavily by popular American dishes – photo from Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia

From soda the Greeks turned to milkshakes. New technology in the 1930s and the introduction of the Hamilton Beach Milkshake Maker made frothed milk drinks the beverage of choice. If you happen to have one kicking around from those times they’re worth an absolute fortune now. According to Janiszewski, the Greeks were even responsible for bringing in espresso machines… but it was the Italians who popularised them.

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Martin Place’s Black & White 4d Milk Bar – photo from Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia

The Black & White 4d Milk Bar in Martin Place was Australia’s first milk bar. When it opened in 1934, 5,000 people lined up for a milkshake on the first day. My Papou Peter, pictured at the top of this story, actually ran the Black & White 4d Milk Bar at one stage. This was the start of a movement – by the end of the decade there were around 4,000 milk bars around Australia. McDonald’s would kill for that sort of market penetration these days.

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The Niagara Café in Gundagai – the gent in the middle is my Papou Con

One of the better known Greek cafés, which still survives today, is the Niagara Café in Gundagai. From 1919 to 1983 it was owned by the Castrission family and my grandfather, Con Castrission, worked there when he first came to Australia. That’s him in the white shirt in the above photo, looking out from the bar. I’d really like to visit Gundagai one day and experience the café that was so influential in my family. My Papou Con went on to run his own café, The Astoria, in Echuca, before coming to Sydney to run Wynyard Fish Supply.

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Making dolmades with yiayia

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Delicious dolmades

I love to cook. No surprises there.

Pouring through the pages of a culinary tome and diligently following the instructions is a great way to reach gastronomic heights.

Or you can cook with my yiayia Alexandra and watch how she uses her instinct and years of experience to freestyle her way through a dish, never producing anything less than perfection.

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Yiayia Alexandra at work

My yiayia Alexandra was never taught to cook. She talks about her mother’s cooking with pride but never had a chance to learn from her because she spent her teens working in the family’s olive grove and was then whisked off by boat, alone, to Australia at the tender age of 19.

She initially lived in the small country town of Giri with her aunty and worked in the family café making sausage rolls and pies for the local farmers. It was only when she married and moved to Sydney that she learnt to cook and over the years of bringing up a family she became known for her culinary prowess. Not an easy task considering her husband, my Papou Peter, was a seafood chef.

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Dolmades are packed tight before being cooked

I’ve cooked and eaten many delicious Greek dishes from yiayia (I can’t think of a single occasion when she’s veered from Hellenic cuisine) but one dish I’ve never seen either of my yiayias cook is arguably one of the more recognisable Greek mezedes, dolmades.

I asked my Yiayia Maria once why this was and she told me it was because her husband, my Papou Con, didn’t like them. She had therefore never made them while he was alive and sure as hell wasn’t going to start now, even though he’s been dead for over thirty years.

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The bare ingredients

So I turned to Yiayia Alexandra to show me the ropes. I’ve only ever eaten rice stuffed vine leaves but it turns out yiayia had other ideas so we went shopping to pick up beef mince along with rice, parsley, onion, eggs and of course vine leaves.

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Yiayia works the mince mixture with her hand

Back in the kitchen, yiayia rinsed the salty packed leaves while I was tasked with chopping the onion and parsley. Yiayia worked them into the mince with her hands along with eggs, salt and pepper.

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Yiayia is a master at the stuffing technique

It’s the assembly stage of dolmades that takes time. We stood side by side for the next half hour, the concentration dripping from our pores as we carefully layed out the leaves, filling them with the mince mixture and rolling them up into little fingers. Read More

Why Greeks love weeds

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

Yiayia checks the horta thoroughly for dirt

Horta, or ‘weeds’, are a staple in every Greek household and foraging for these leaves is a national pastime. I’ve grown up eating mounds of these greens, lovingly tossed with olive oil and lemon, and nothing makes me happier than collecting them with my yiayia. And if I’m lucky, I get my own bag of weeds to take home.

‘Horta again?’ she wailed to her mum as the plate piled high with freshly steamed greens hit the table.

‘Yes’ came the firm reply. ‘They are so good for you’.

Okay so maybe that child was me. Admittedly I had little appreciation for greens back then but this quickly changed somewhere in my early teens and now I can’t get enough.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

See why they’re called weeds?

Horta, from the Latin word hortus meaning ‘garden’, literally means ‘weeds’ in Greek and encompasses a range of indigenous greens including wild spinach, endive, fennel leaves, dandelions, amaranth and nettles. In the Greek countryside it’s a common sight to see yiayiathes bent over with baskets collecting wild greens. The Greeks were foraging long before René Redzepi made it cool.

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Yiayia’s row of planted horta

Those weeds were plentiful in our house while I was growing up because yiayia would regularly drop around piles of the stuff. The idea of having fresh greens dropped off on a weekly basis seems like such a luxury now.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

Rogue rathikia at their best

But I can still get my fill with regular visits to see yiayia. At this time of year it’s the rathikia (dandelion) that’s in full bloom, in a few months it will be vlita (amaranth).

Yiayia is so adept at growing horta that it shoots up energetically, not only from the vegetable bed but from random pockets all over her yard.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

A good healthy bunch of rathikia

On my latest visit, yiayia took her knife and carved out a number of rathikia plants for me. I honestly couldn’t tell if we were collecting greens or weeding the backyard. Read More

Avgolemono: the best soup you’ll ever taste

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A bowl of yiayia’s avgolemono

Avgolemono

Anyone not Greek right now is struggling. It’s okay you can admit it.

Maybe not as much as the time you encountered galaktoboureko, but similar territory.

It’s not only a long word with far too many vowels but there is a silent letter that just throws the entire thing out of whack.

Av – wo – le – mo – no

See it wasn’t that hard. My recommendation is that you become familiar with this magical soup because it’s an absolute winner and if I had to consume nothing else all winter long I’d be a very happy girl.

So what is it? If you break it down it’s quite simple

Avgo = egg

Lemono = lemon

Egg and lemon soup. When I get to this point of the explanation I usually get strange looks.

Egg in a soup? How does that work?

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Meat and vegetables from the stock are served alongside the soup

It’s quite an unusual concept but once you try it you’ll be sold. The base of the soup is chicken stock (or lamb or fish) and this has to be made from scratch with fresh meat or bones, carrots, celery (personally I prefer leeks) and bay leaves. The meat and vegetables later become a side to the soup. Then you add rice. So far so good.

 In a separate bowl you beat eggs and combine them with fresh lemon juice. Read More

The 10 best foodie habits I’ve learned from my mum

I’ve written about cooking with my yiayias but it’s time to give some credit to the generation I missed – my mum, inspired by today being mother’s day.

The thing is, I don’t have reams of photos of mum’s food because, well, it’s mum’s food. It’s delicious, reassuring and dependable which is precisely why I rarely think mid meal – ooh, better capture this. It’s not exotic, boundary-pushing or haute cuisine. And thank god for that. I love to chase that stuff when I travel around the world but nothing, but nothing beat’s mum’s cooking.

I don’t think I really appreciated how good mum’s cooking was until I was out in the world tasting other people’s cooking. Then the penny dropped. I’ve definitely taken some of my mum’s staple recipes on board but more than that, I think I’ve taken on a lot of her practical ways when it comes to the kitchen. Once I started thinking about her pearls of wisdom I couldn’t stop. For example:

1. When entertaining, estimate how much food you’ll need. Then double it.

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A standard afternoon tea spread at mum’s place

You all know the legend of the Greek hostess who will always ply her guests with food. Well her name is Vicki and she’s my mum. And I have taken on the exact same practice. The upside is a week’s worth of leftovers. Plus when the guests have left, we have a habit of all congregating in the family room, with plates of cake in hand, swapping stories and gossip about what’s happened that day.

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Mum’s prawn and avocado platter – we can never get enough

2. Make it look effortless

I don’t think my mum intentionally tries to make entertaining look effortless but that’s always the end result. The kitchen and dining room will be overflowing with handmade dishes, mezethes are doing the rounds and everyone will have a drink in hand. Oh and the house is spotless of course. Once I started hosting my own parties I realised just how much work is involved in all that. And my parties are small. Mum’s hosted parties for 100+. I think this is where her eagle eye English teacher skills of forward planning and strategising come into play and I always hope that I’m pulling it off half as well as she does.

3. Kids will believe anything

Like the time mum served us ‘crumbed chicken’ which we wolfed down hungrily. Then my brother made a joke about it kinda looking a bit like brains. Unfortunately mum can’t keep a straight face so the cat was out of the bag. I’m pretty sure my brother still doesn’t eat brains to this day. Moral of the story is, kids won’t know any better unless you tell them. And yes, I still eat brains.

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Perfect turkey every year

4. When you’re on a good thing, roll with it.

This is what led to the artichoke and avocado salad era of the 80’s, the tiramisu times of the 90’s, the smoked salmon decade and the more recent mango mousse years. And that stretches into seasonal specialties like perfect roast turkey and ice-cream pudding at Christmas. Mum fine tunes a recipe and sticks with it, which means the requests come through thick and fast for said dish at family and friend gatherings.

5. The lunchbox is the key to a happy childhood

Sometimes I think wistfully about lunchbox days. When the most difficult decision of the day was – should I eat my Tiny Teddies for recess or save them lunch? Mum put a lot of effort into our school lunches and we usually had nice salad sandwiches or if she was super busy, devon and tomato sauce (which was our favourite back then – I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole now). Then there was the poppa that had been frozen from the night before so that by lunchtime it had defrosted to the perfect chilled temperature. Plus a piece of fruit and a miscellaneous snack. Lunchtimes have never been so much fun. Read More

Easter, the Greek way

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Red eggs for Greek Easter

Easter? But that was so last weekend right?

Not for the Greeks (and Serbians, Russians, Bulgarians and every other Orthodox religion out there).

We’re special so our Easter is a moveable feast. The date follows a modified Julian calendar which means it can sit up to a month before or after conventional Easter. Quite confusing when you’re small and marking the occasion before the hot cross buns have gone on sale in Woollies.

The lead up to Greek Easter (Lent) is a time of fasting. That means no meat, poultry, milk, cheese, eggs and fish with backbones. It’s a method for cleansing your body and soul (a precursor to the modern detox if you like).

To be honest, I was always more about the feast than the fast.

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Tsoureki – photo courtesy of Martha Stewart Living

Forty days of fasting culminates in a 2am feast to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus – think magiritsa (offal-based soup that’s tastier than it sounds), tsoureki (brioche-esque sweet bread), avgolemono (egg-lemon chicken soup with rice) and of course, red eggs.

To be fair, fasting food is not to be sneered at. I completed the Easter-themed Kytherian Kitchen classes a few years ago and learnt how to make some exceptionally tasty traditional fasting dishes. Read More

Sunday cooking sessions with my yiayia

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Yemista or stuffed tomatoes

Whenever I stop fidgeting for five minutes, my favourite place to spend a Sunday is at my yiayia Maria’s house – eating, cooking, raiding her garden for herbs, eating, playing gin rummy and more eating. Her mission in life has always been to feed everyone around her and you only have to look at my mum, sister and I to see that it’s clearly an inherited trait.

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Yiayia could make spanakopita with her eyes closed

For most of my youth I took it for granted that yiayia’s cooking always tasted exactly the same (i.e. delicious). It wasn’t until I started to notch up my own miles in the kitchen that I realised that kind of consistency is hard earned.

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Spinach and cheese filling in the spanakopita

Of course I want my cooking to taste like yiayia’s right now so I’ve made a point of learning as much as I can from her over the years. Extracting a recipe is easier said than done though, and I have to watch her like a hawk to work out each step. She relies purely on sight and touch to know when something is perfect.

‘How much flour yiayia?’

‘Enough until the dough is ready Alexandramou’.

Of course yiayia!

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A spanakopita of this size lasts roughly fifteen minutes in my family

Lucky for me we tend to focus on savoury dishes, so a little variation in quantity usually doesn’t spell disaster. Spanakopita (cheese and spinach pie), yemista (rice and meat stuffed tomatoes) and keftethes (meatballs) are always a good starting point. I wouldn’t dare go freestyle on kourabiethes! Read More

Fishy business

Everyone loves fish in my family, even Macey

Everyone loves fish in my family, especially Macey

If ever there was an ingredient I was born to embrace, it’s fish.

One of my grandfathers was a seafood chef. The other had a fish shop at Wynyard. I learnt how to catch, gut and cook a fish before I could do anything else useful with food. And tuna salad is my default lunch.

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Scaling and gutting a leather jacket

Okay maybe that last one doesn’t count, but in essence I eat more than my share of fish and love it in any shape or form, raw or cooked, from head to tail. Especially the tail. Not to mention the skin, cheeks and eyes. Yes eyes! That’s what my dad taught me and his dad taught him so I never raised an eyebrow : )

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Fresh fish on the barbeque with a few snags for good luck

I went fishing recently and am glad to see I can still reel ‘em in. The only way (in my family at least) to cook freshly caught fish is on the barbeque with oil, lemon and occasionally garlic. The oil and lemon form an unctuous sauce which is heaven against the crispy fish skin.

But there’s so much more you can do with fish and it’s one of my favourite things to experience when I travel (provided there is a body of water not too far away – I generally stay away from seafood in landlocked countries).

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Smoked salmon, any way you like it

Given the vast seas around them, it’s no surprise that the Scandinavians know a thing or two about fish. I almost wept at the sight of beautiful displays of salmon in Helsinki, radiating a signature peachy-orange glow. Read More