My dear friend A, who lived on a Greek island for 20 years, where daily she tended a fabulous fruit and vegetable garden so skillfully that we named her Lara Crop, left it all behind to move to the US. One day, beyond disbelief, she Skyped me to tearfully announce that lemons there cost a dollar apiece and were all GMO. It was then that I was struck with the realization that despite the crappy crisis and many other problematic issues in this country, we are at least fortunate enough to live in a place where neighbours with country houses will actually try to force bags of garden-grown, organic lemons on you so they don’t have to watch them rot in a pile.
Here, we are still lucky enough (but for how long, I don’t know) to have access to rich varieties of non-GMO, healthy and delectable, locally-grown foods; saying that, the majority of fruit & veg is heavily sprayed so one has to seek out the organically grown stuff, and even then there’s the issue that some crops are near sprayed crops, and this grown with water contaminated by pesticides. Nevertheless, Greek foods -olive oil, honey, yogurt and more are generally healthy and even discerning meat-eaters can always find free range meat from mountain goats, chickens and sometimes pigs, although rumour has it that all the organically grown, grass-fed beef is exported abroad.
Despite making sound effects like “bletch” when I reticently suggest he eats his greens (or even, in desperation, the cheesy, melty, ketchup-splattered concoctions with hidden vegetables that I have felt confident he will love but he still ends up refusing to even taste), my son will demolish a massive lemon sole solo, or a huge slice of his grandmother’s pastitsio, I count my blessings that at least he has the appetite to eat some of the really good stuff.
What I’ve discovered above all as the mother of a three-year old (aka a special agent dealing with an incredibly cute but sometimes highly volatile terrorist-like being who needs to be handled with exceptional Mentalist-style intelligence) is that if I use my cunning, I can slip in all kinds of healthy stuff that comes to me easily from my pantry and get away with it with glowing results, and that he actually loves a lot of the simplest Greek stuff. These are the products this Greek mama uses most days, and for which she truly thanks her lucky stars:
It’s sweet, sticky and incredibly nutritious: with anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, immune system-boosting, cough-alleviating, and probiotic benefits, to name but a few. I stir it into in herbal teas, yogurt, (see below), porridge, warm milk drinks, and the amazing avocado-banana-cacao “chocolate pudding”, and use it as a replacement to sugar when I make cakes or muffins.
Barley & Rye Rusks
Rich in B vitamins, magnesium, fibre, phosphorus, silica and antioxidants, I crush paximadia (which come in a huge range) into crouton size with my fingers to add the crunch element so beloved by many toddlers, over smooth vegetable soups and stews; I also blend them to make breadcrumbs for patties, schnitzel, fried chicken or fish fingers.
An anti-inflammatory, immune system booster, intestine-soother and digestion-booster, high in antioxidants and so much more, olive oil is Greece’s true blessing. My family gets through around five kilograms of pure, extra virgin olive oil per month! I just pour it generously into practically everything, from soups, pasta and raw veggies to cake mixes and other desserts (for the latter class I make sure I use one with a delicate flavour).
Another amazing food we are blessed with in Greece, that can be found everywhere, including random kiosks on the street, is thick, creamy, flavourful, probiotic-rich yogurt. B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and a significant protein content are just some of the great benefits of yogurt. We serve it with chunks of seasonal fruit and a huge dollop of honey, and I often sprinkle in some superfoods like chia seeds or crushed linseed, sunflower or pumpkin seeds mixed with a chocolate chip granola to avoid complaints. I also add a dollop of yogurt to thick soups like leek and potato instead of sour cream.
They each have so many different health benefits that I can’t list them all here. As an Italy-raised Greek, the taste of basil is an essential component of my summer diet. Since his baby days, my son was given fresh tomato sauce with basil, and when he started to walk, going to the garden to pick basil for our dinner became a ritual. Other medicinal Greek herbs that I regularly throw into our dishes are parsley, oregano and wild thyme (often picked by us from the side of some mountain road on an island). Less often I manage to slip in some rosemary (great with oven-roasted, lemony potatoes) and even more rarely, sage. Meanwhile I regularly make him light (ie. not steeped for more than a few minutes) teas with organic chamomile, linden, lemon verbena, mountain tea (tsai vounou) or lavender (all soothing and calming) and when he’s under the weather a cup of oregano or cinnamon tea for its anti-microbial properties. All always with a heaped teaspoon of honey.
High in protein and iron (that can be better absorbed with the addition of vitamin C-rich ingredients such as lemon juice), as well as in magnesium and folate, good for digestive health and energy boosting, lentils are a staple Greek dish that had me labelled as a “hippy” at university in the UK when I regularly cooked them in my student house. Fortunately my toddler loves them, usually cooked as a creamy soup with tomato, carrot, garlic and celery with of course the crunchy rusk croutons, a squeeze of lemon and olive oil). He still refuses to eat fasolda, the classic Greek large-bean soup cooked with tomato, onion and oil or other beans, but I worked out that making falafels out of well-soaked chickpeas that I blend with parsley, garlic, cumin, onion and coriander, usually usually does the trick. I serve them with a minty yogurt sauce diluted with a little water and olive oil and seasoned with a pinch of salt.
Garlic and onion
Both of these highly medicinal ingredients are part of our daily cooking. I put them in everything and did so, in small quantities ever since my son started eating solid foods (before that it was definitely present in my milk!). Among many other things, garlic has allicin in it, which can help eradicate colds and boost the immune system, help clear the body of heavy metals and is packed with antioxidants. Like garlic, onion is antimicrobial, helps regulate blood suga and contains numerous antioxidant vitamins. Very finely chopped or crushed in their raw form in small quantities or cooked and blended into sauces and soups they always add great flavour and a healthy punch.
A major source of Vitamin C, high in antioxidants and flavonoids,with antibacterial properties, an immune system booster and very uplifting due to its fresh aroma. I’m obsessed with zingy lemon, and squeeze it on everything – including my hands, my chest (I did it once on a hot summer day as I had cool, lemony hands and it has now become a cheerful ritual), my eggs, soups like minestrone, leek and potato or Greek chicken soup, which is made using a mix of egg & lemon (known as avgolemono), raw vegetables etc. My son has fortunately followed in my footsteps and loves tons of lemon squeezed on everything. Fortunately toddlers don’t just imitate the bad stuff.