Thursday, November 28, 2013

Easy Greek feast ideas for your vegetarian friends and a recipe for
Stewed Apricots with Honeyed Greek Yoghurt and Pistachios

I was half way through procrastinating about my next post for the blog when I received an email from a reader in the UK seeking some advice and recipe ideas for a Greek dinner party he’s planning for some of his vegetarian friends this week.

That I receive any blog-related emails at all these days is nothing short of miraculous given my new-found tendency to neglect the blog for weeks on end, but to have someone on the other side of the world turn to me for advice to help them put together a three-course meal for 8 people is, to put it mildly, simply monumental.

For that reason, I’ve decided to write an entire post inspired by that email from Matthew in Manchester.

Preparing a Greek vegetarian feast for a group of friends need not be a daunting task. It should be fun to cook for our favourite people, not stressful. All it takes is a bit of planning and preparation.

Most of the dishes mentioned below can be made ahead of time allowing you to enjoy the meal with your mates without spending too much time in the kitchen on the night.

It also helps to write up a schedule of everything that needs to be done on the day. I usually draw up a simple columned list with time prompters on the left and tasks on the right. For example:

3:00pm ... Grocery shopping. Home by 4:00pm.
4:30pm ... Prepare undressed salad, cover and place in fridge.
5:00pm ... Make Spanakopita and keep on bench ready to place in oven.
6:00pm ... Prepare honeyed yoghurt and chopped pistachios.
6:15pm ... Make tzatziki and salad dressing.
6:45pm ... Set table and place tzatziki, bread, dukkah and olive oil on table.
7:00pm ... Guests arrive.
7:20pm ... Preheat oven.
7:30pm ... Put Spanakopita in oven. Set timer for 45 minutes.
8:15pm ... Take salad out of fridge and dress, and serve Spanakopita.
9:00pm ... Take stewed apricots out of fridge and place over low heat on stove. Set timer for 5 minutes.
9:15pm ... Assemble stewed apricot dishes and serve.

There are lots of Greek starters and sweets that can be bought ready-made from good quality Greek delis and cake shops. It's not really cheating if you at least arrange the items artistically on platters and garnish appropriately (I do this a lot!) – a sprinkling of fresh parsley or dusting of icing sugar goes a long way.

Anything from dips and pickled vegetables, to baklava and Turkish delight can be store bought, but keep in mind some starters and sweets are so easy to make yourself it might even be quicker than taking a trip down to the shops!

As for main dishes, they are much better home-made. While you may be able to buy frozen spanakopita from the supermarket, it won't taste anywhere near as good (or look as impressive) as a spinach and cheese pie you made yourself.

Below are some suggestions for easy, stress-free vegetarian Greek feast ideas with recipe links in blue, and at the end I’ve included a new recipe for Stewed Apricots with Honeyed Greek Yoghurt and Pistachios.

For starters, impress your guests with home-made tzatziki and dukkah served with gorgeous crusty bread and a bowl of extra virgin olive oil for dipping. Dukkah can be made up to one month in advance (stored in the fridge in an air-tight container) and tzatziki one day ahead. Just give it a stir if liquid has formed on top overnight.

You could prepare a platter of dips with two or three heaped tablespoons each of hummus, roasted eggplant and walnut dip and Kalamata olive dip, or any of your favourite store-bought Greek dips. Decorate the platter with cubes of marinated feta, olives and semi-sundried tomatoes. Make the dips yourself or buy everything from a good Greek deli or even the supermarket.

A more simple starter dish can be made using canned dolmathes (rice-stuffed vine leaves imported from Greece) served warm with tomato sauce. Carefully empty the contents of the can into a saucepan along with around half a cup of home-made (or jarred) tomato passata and heat slowly with the lid on until warmed through. These are brilliant served with crumbled feta and freshly chopped parsley sprinkled over the top.

The entire meal can even be made up of a selection of starters all on separate plates that everyone can pick and nibble at throughout the night. You could include everything mentioned above, as well as a green bean, tomato and feta salad, some crispy roast pumpkin and feta filo triangles, tasty lentil keftethes or succulent tomato fritters.

If you want to prepare a traditional main dish, Spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie) is an old favourite. Alternatively, a baked vegetable dish like Briam is perfect to just throw into the oven and forget about until cooked. But if you have a little more time, Vegetarian Moussaka or Pastitsio with Broccoli are wonderful show stoppers.

Sticky Greek sweets like Baklava (honey and walnut pastries), Galaktoboureko (semolina custard pie) or Melomacarona (honeyed cookies) are delectable morsels to finish off a Greek feast. These can be difficult to make but very easy to buy at Greek cake shops. Just make sure you buy them on the day of your dinner party.

If you’d like to try your hand at some simple Greek pastry desserts, try Bougatsa (custard-filled pastry) or Lemon and Ricotta pastries. Bougatsa can be made up to three days in advance, kept in an air-tight container in the fridge and reheated on a baking tray at 180 degrees celsius for 5 minutes before serving.

For a really easy and much lighter little Greek dessert to conclude the evening’s feasting, you might want to make these delicious Stewed Apricots with Honeyed Greek Yoghurt and Pistachios.

Stewed Apricots with Honeyed Greek Yoghurt and Pistachios

Serves 8

Note: The apricots can be stewed a day ahead and reheated just before serving. Store in the fridge in the saucepan they were cooked in, with the lid on. Reheat over low heat with lid on, until just simmering.


  • 1 cup castor sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 800g can of apricot halves in natural juice (no added sugar), strained
  • 800g thick Greek yoghurt
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 120g pistachio nuts in their shells


  1. Place water, sugar and cinnamon in a medium saucepan and heat, stirring, until sugar has dissolved.
  2. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes without stirring, before adding the apricots.
  3. Add strained apricots to syrup, stir to incorporate then simmer for another 5 minutes without stirring. The apricots will become quite mushy after cooking – if you'd like to keep a few still-formed apricot halves for garnishing, set them aside without cooking and only add them to the stew in the last 30 seconds to warm them through.
  4. Meanwhile, shell the pistachio nuts and chop finely. Set aside until needed.
  5. Combine yoghurt with honey and vanilla essence in a medium bowl and mix well. Set aside until needed.
  6. Remove apricots from heat and allow to cool a little. Remove and discard cinnamon stick.
  7. Just before serving, spoon the yoghurt into serving bowls, then carefully place warm apricots with some of the syrup over the yoghurt, and sprinkle with chopped pistachio.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bougatsa me Krema (Greek custard-filled pastry)
and the liveliest street in Limnos

Yeah, I know. Almost three weeks since my last post. But you must forgive me! Why? Because I have bougatsa!! Trust me, bougatsa fixes everything. These little soul-soothing capsules of sweet Greekness filled with custard love and wrapped in paper-thin buttery crisp fillo pastry will make you forget that even a day has gone by since my last post. (Is it working yet?)

And thanks to a simple custard-making technique that my friend George Calombaris shares with us in his book Greek Cookery from the Hellenic Heart, bougatsa is one of the easiest Greek sweets to make. Thanks George :)

Growing up in a relatively non-Greek household meant that there were many Greek dishes and sweets that I didn’t become familiar with until I was an adult and started developing an interest in my Greek heritage.

On a mission with my dad back in 2004, we took a trip to the island of Limnos to assess the condition of an old family house that was in desperate need of some TLC, and it was on this trip that I discovered bougatsa and its "amazing healing powers".

More than 30 family members had shares in the house but none was prepared to contribute to the repair and maintenance of the collapsing building. Except my dad.

Passionate and committed, my dad took on the huge responsibility over the next nine years to acquire everyone’s shares and spend his life savings on fixing up the house.

Our visit to Limnos back in 2004 was just the beginning of this process and at the time involved a lot of emotional negotiation (and even permanent fall-outs) with greedy relatives. Added to this was a good five weeks of hard physical labour to clear out the mountains of squalor inside the house and the dense jungle of overgrowth and rubbish out in the garden.

Physically and emotionally taxing as this Greek island visit might have been, we were on a Greek island, and with any Greek island comes the reprieve of gorgeous weather, pristine beaches, and a joyous village atmosphere. When our hands and minds were at rest, it wasn’t difficult to turn our awareness to the relaxed and easy lifestyle that the Limnian locals embrace, and nothing assists that better than a morning tea break with frappes and bougatsa.

Taking a stroll down the main market promenade of Limnos known as the "Agora" can bring peace to any troubled mind, and when the work around the house got a bit much, it was a relief to be amongst the happy locals.

Every morning the Agora is alive with activity. Closed to cars, the one-kilometre Agora is the backbone of the island’s capital, Myrina, where people go about their daily shopping and banking, taking baby for a stroll, and catching up with friends.

Lined with an endless array of shops and speciality stores from artisan bakeries and designer boutiques, to vibrant fruit and vegetable markets and tacky souvenir shops, the Agora air is filled with the seductive aromas of freshly ground coffee beans, roasted nuts and sweet pastries.

Perfectly positioned half-way down the Agora is a leafy square where people take a break to catch up with friends for coffee and bougatsa. Under the shade of enormous plane trees the tables are always full at the popular Axni & Kanella (“icing & cinnamon”) cafe where they make the best bougatsa I've ever eaten.

Thought to have originated in Macedonia, it’s not surprising that bougatsa is now popular in the northern parts of Greece around Thesaloniki and the north Aegean islands such as Limnos and Lesvos.

There is also a savoury version of bougatsa that is filled with cheese, and another variety with minced meat. But it is the sweet custard bougatsa that brings a smile to my face, and the recipe for which I’ll be sharing with you today.

If (unlike me) you can master the art of making your own fillo pastry, your bougatsa will reach heavenly levels of melt-in-the-mouth delectability (see video below). Using commercial fillo pastry certainly doesn’t disappoint though. As long as your custard filling is smooth and creamy with just the right balance of sweetness, you can’t go wrong.

(Video filmed in Athens by Michi's Videos)

Bougatsa me Krema (Greek custard-filled pastry)

Recipe for custard filling adapted slightly from Greek Cookery from the Hellenic Heart by George Calombaris.

Serves 8


  • 3 tablespoons cornflour
  • 4 tablespoons semolina
  • 2/3 cup castor sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 650ml full-cream milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 16 sheets filo pastry
  • 250g melted butter
  • Icing sugar to dust
  • Cinnamon to dust


  1. Place cornflour, semolina, sugar, eggs, milk and vanilla essence in a large bowl and whisk until smooth. 
  2. Transfer to a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, until mixture thickens. Remove saucepan from heat and whisk custard to smooth out any lumps.
  3. Place lid on saucepan and allow to cool.
  4. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius.
  5. Lay four buttered sheets of fillo pastry on top of each other, brushing between each layer with melted butter. 
  6. Pour around half a cup of the custard mixture into the centre of the pastry.
  7. Lift the corners of the pastry and fold over the custard to form a squarish parcel. Make sure the pastry is sufficiently folded over and the custard is sealed well within the pastry. See the video above to get a rough idea of how this is done (Note: Commercial fillo pastry isn't as pliable as the pastry in the video (and the sheets won't be as big) so you might want to go easy on the wrapping technique. Unless of course you've made your own fillo pastry.)
  8. Repeat with the rest of the fillo pastry sheets to make four parcels.
  9. Using a large spatula to lift the parcels, place them, sealed-side face down, on a baking tray lined with greased baking paper and bake for 20 minutes or until lightly golden.
  10. Using a large, sharp knife, cut each parcel into small squares around 4cm x 4cm and dust with icing sugar and cinnamon.

Bougatsa can be kept in the fridge for around 3 days in an air-tight container, but must be reheated on an oven tray (preheated oven at 180 degrees celsius for 5 minutes) before serving.