Last time Tony and I moved house it was a rather stressful experience for us. I'd just sold my apartment and Tony and I were moving in together for the first time. It was all very rushed and we ended up choosing a house that didn't really suit our needs (like proper heating and somewhere to park the car).
Call us crazy but three years later we are still living in this uncomfortable house. On the surface it's a beautiful, character-filled art deco home, but both Tony and I really struggle with the cold and living in a house with pathetic heating and no insulation is something we just can't do no more. It's also dark, the bathroom is a thousand years old and we have possums living in the ceiling. The only reason we're still here is because of our grand plan to move to Brisbane. We decided to stick it out until we were ready to move to sunny Queensland, and didn't want the hassle of making another move in between.
Learning from our past mistakes, this time we are planning our move well in advance. Moving interstate also means the logistics will be more complicated than just moving to another suburb. We've actually postponed our move until February now so we have plenty of time to pack and clean this place and find a suitable house in Brisbane that we both love. It's seven months away, but yes, I've already started packing!
This time around I am thoroughly going through stuff and culling what I can before it gets packed. I'm not going to just throw everything in boxes without labelling and leaving them piled up in cupboards and under beds for years like I've done in the past. There are so many of these boxes still lying around in this house with who-knows-what in them.
So by "packing" I mean I've been "unpacking" these boxes over the last few weeks to reassess what stays and what goes before repacking again. And boy have I found some stupid things. Have you ever kept the empty packaging for a set of wooden spoons? Or a 3-year-old opened box of cereal? (Even a 3-year-old unopened box of cereal would be weird.) These are the sorts of ridiculous things I'm finding in unpacked boxes from our last, very unorganised move.
However, among the rubbish in these boxes are some great forgotten treasures like old records, Greek Drachma coins, an old upright telephone with a dial on the base, film negatives and hand-written recipes. All this nostalgia got me thinking about what life used to be like before the internet, mobile phones, digital cameras, and iTunes. Oh, those were the simple days. Some things don't change though, like the food we love and remember eating at home when we were young.
As a Greek-Australian child with a hardly-at-all Greek and very-much-Australian upbringing, we didn't eat a whole lot of Greek food at home. But the Greek food I do remember eating left a very memorable impression on me – food like Pastitsio and Youvetsi.
Pastitsio is a pasta bake, usually made with macaroni or penne pasta at the base, then covered with a minced meat and tomato sauce, and topped with a thick layer of béchamel and cheese.
Youvetsi is a hot-pot casserole dish made with lamb shanks, slow cooked in a fragrant tomato-based sauce with a risoni or orzo type pasta.
I remember these family favourites well but being meat-based dishes, I haven't eaten either of them for many years.
Reminiscing and longing for the flavours of youvetsi and pastitsio, I started thinking about ways to vegetarianise these dishes. The main flavours in youvetsi come from the tomatoes and spices in the sauce, so replacing the meat was all that was required.
Cauliflower is a vegetable I don't use much in cooking, but it is eaten widely in Greek cuisine. It also holds together reasonably well when cooked at length and absorbs flavours like a sponge so I thought it would work well with youvetsi.
To create a deeper flavour, I decided to roast the cauliflower first. I made up a simple mix of spices with a bit of garlic, lemon and olive oil and roasted the florets until they were golden and sizzling. Of course I couldn't just throw these into the youvetsi without trying one first, and Oh My God. These were so yum.
Before I knew it, I'd eaten half of my star ingredient! What was left wasn't enough to add to the youvetsi so I ended up eating the rest with my dinner that night and made another batch the next day. I'm telling you, these roasted cauliflower florets were so delicious I'm going to write a separate post on them. But back to the youvetsi.
Youvetsi is traditionally cooked in a lidded casserole dish in the oven for several hours, mainly to slow-cook the meat so it ends up falling off the bone. This being a meatless Youvetsi means it's not necessary to cook this dish in the oven, although I'm sure the Youvetsi police would still be horrified to know I cooked mine over the stove. I probably could have cooked this in the oven but being a bit of a control freak I like to look and stir and generally hover over a pot of sauce while it's cooking, rather than just trust the oven to do this for me. Especially when the oven has a broken seal (yet another problem with this house!).
I did, however, use genuine Greek kritharaki (risoni).
The rest of the recipe stays true to most versions of youvetsi I've seen, and certainly tastes a lot like the youvetsi I remember as a child – a hearty pasta casserole for a cold winter's night, with a rich tomato sauce, hints of cinnamon and lots of grated cheese on top.
So what about Pastitsio? You will have to wait for my next post to see what I've come up with to vegetarianise this Greek family staple. It's based on a recipe of my mum's that is so full of flavour you wouldn't even know the meat was missing.
Vegetarian Youvetsi with Roasted Cauliflower and Red Pepper
Serves 4 to 6
IngredientsFor the roasted cauliflower
- 1/2 large cauliflower (or one small one), cut into florets
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 lemon, juice of whole lemon, zest of half the lemon
- 1/3 cup water
For the pasta and sauce
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large onions, finely chopped
- 2 large red peppers/capsicums
- 6 large tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 heaped tablespoon honey
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup uncooked risoni or orzo pasta
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Grated hard cheese* for serving
* Many hard Greek cheeses are made with animal rennet. Unfortunately I've yet to find one that isn't. When serving dishes that call for a hard or sharp cheese, look for one that uses non-animal rennet. There are plenty of tasty cheeses that are suitable and recently I've found a pecorino (True Organic brand) that works really well to replace Greek cheeses. Thankfully, most fetas and haloumis are animal-rennet free :)
- Slice peppers length ways and remove seeds. Place skin side up on a greased baking tray, spray with olive oil and grill under high heat for 10 minutes until blackened.
- Place pepper slices in a plastic bag and leave to sweat for 10 minutes.
- Prepare the roasted cauliflower. Combine the oil, spices, garlic, salt and lemon rind in a large bowl. Add the cauliflower florets and mix well to coat. Arrange in a small non-stick roasting pan with cut sides down, and pour in combined water and lemon juice. Roast in a pre-heated oven set to 180 degrees celsius for 20–30 minutes, or until golden and sizzling.
- Prepare the sauce. Heat olive oil in a large heavy-based pot. Add onions and turn down the heat. Fry for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are lightly golden.
- Meanwhile, score (in a cross shape) the bottom of each tomato with a sharp knife and blanch tomatoes for 20 seconds in boiling water. Remove tomatoes from boiling water and immediately place in a bowl of cold water. After a few minutes the tomatoes will be cool enough to handle so you can easily peel off the skins.
- Chop the tomatoes finely and add to onions along with tomato paste, wine, cinnamon, honey and bay leaves and stir thoroughly. You can either add the cauliflower now if you prefer your cauliflower to be really soft and tender, or later (in the last 10 minutes of sauce simmering) to retain the roasted flavours and a bit of bite.
- Remove pepper slices from the plastic bag and peel off the skins. Cut into small pieces, add to the sauce and stir.
- Allow sauce to simmer, uncovered, on low heat for at least one hour, stirring occasionally.
- Place the risoni in boiling water and cook for ten minutes. It should be only partly cooked. Drain and transfer risoni to tomato sauce during final 10 minutes of sauce cooking time and place lid on pot. Also add cauliflower to the sauce at this point, if you prefer your cauliflower a little more bitey. Check after a few minutes that the sauce is still bubbling, and not sizzling. If it is too thick, add 1/2–1 cup of water and stir.
- Serve Vegetarian Youvetsi with lots of grated cheese.