Jimmy was 24 years old the first time he went to Greece. It was the 1973. He went with his childhood friend, Peter. Remember? Jimmy’s mama and Mrs. Scarlatos, Peter’s mama, used to pick greens together on the side of the road in Boston? You remember. Anyway, Peter and Jimmy had gone to Greece together and were on the island of Paros. There they were, with a bunch of their friends from Boston AND girls. They were having a blast. They hiked to ruins, then at night, would descend upon tavernas, welcomed and embraced warmly by the locals who treated them as the long, lost greek children they truly were. They hung out on the beaches, talking, laughing, enjoying that ultimate luxury, the casual passing of time during a long, hot summer. And GIRLS. Jimmy tried not to think of the side trip he had to make. While all the other kids were playing and having the times of their lives, HE had to go to Moria, his family’s ancestral village, on the island of Lesvos. Moria. What he knew would be a rinky-dink town, some outpost of nowhere, Mr. Alighieri’s Fifth Hell. Kill me now. He was not happy. Resigned and defeated, Jimmy left the good time on Paros, boarded the over-night ferry and arrived at the port of Mytilini the following morning. He made the hour long trip to Moria on a tired, dilapidated, old bus and arrived mid-morning, hot and sweaty, sporting long hair, an unruly beard and an all-around generic american hippie look. Not pretty. Keep in mind, he’s from Boston. Looks don’t count. He walked through the village, trying to recognize houses and landmarks from the many years of stories told by his mother. Outside an ordinary house, he saw an older woman bent over sweeping her courtyard, clouds of hot dust swirling about her, she oblivious to the heat, wearing the requisite long black dress and head modestly covered with a scarf. He approached her, politely asking, “Signome…,” “Pardon…”, but before he could continue she whirled about with a fiercely protective scowl on her face and replied, “OHI!” “NO!” “Go away, tourist! Go away!” and waved her broom at him, making it perfectly clear, one more step and you’ll be feeling this broom, Yankee fool. She was not to be trifled with. Throwing his arms up to protect his head and face he screamed, “Ohi! Ohi, Thea Vasiliki! Paragalo! Eimai Dimitri, o anipsios apo tyn Ameriki!” “No, no, Aunt Vasiliki! Please! I’m Dimitri, your nephew from America!” WELL. That poor woman threw her broom in the air, ran to Jimmy and flung herself on his hippie self, crying and laughing, all the while frantically making the sign of the cross, over and over. She welcomed him into the house where he sat down. She knelt down before him and began untying his hiking boots. “Thea, what are you doing? Get up. You don’t need to do that.” And she replied with a little more than a bit of defiance in her voice, “I took your brother Peter’s shoes off. I took your brother George’s shoes off. I WILL take your shoes off.” It was a wonderful two days. Jimmy assured her over and over that her sister, so, so far away from her family and homeland, was fine. His cousin, Dimitri, had a motorcycle and showed Jimmy the island, up to the mountains and back down to the beaches. Cousin Dimitri showed Hippie Dimitri the ancient, Roman aqueduct which sat on the outskirts of the family property, and the horio, the village, with all its hiding places and secret spots. Cousin Dimitri threw out the challenge, “I hear all Americans drink ouzo with water.” Jimmy replied, “I don’t.” Cousin Dimitri said, “I hear all Americans drink ouzo with ice.” “I don’t”, again Jimmy answered. Challenge met, they became the best of friends, the best of brothers. Together they tried the different kinds of ouzo, all the while, Thea Vasiliki cooked and baked her heart out. I can’t say this enough, but it’s ALL about family.
This was one of the dishes prepared by Thea Vasiliki, typically Greek, unpretentious and incredibly savory. Yemistes, stuffed vegetables. It is an extremely easy and forgiving dish. You can stuff tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, squash, onions…anything that will hold stuffing. And you can stuff as many or as few as you’d like. The filling is also extremely versatile. Brown or white rice can be used. Ground lamb or ground beef, or no meat. It’s all good. I add shredded zucchini sometimes or use zucchini wedges in between the vegetables to keep them from toppling on their sides. Typically, potato wedges are used to keep the stuffed vegetables upright, but as I’m desperately trying to hang on to the last vestiges of my girlish figure I have to stick a lower carb leveling utensil. The herbs used in the stuffing, again, may be substituted to fit your tastes or mood. Fresh dill, mint and flat-leafed parsley are usually my choice but fresh thyme, rosemary or marjoram are also wonderful. If you find fresh marjoram and have never tried it, pick it up. Try it. It tastes like perfume in an herb. I’m crazy about it. Today I used a small package of ground lamb. Lamb is great, because it’s so flavorful you don’t need much to get that “meat heft” and flavor in your dish. Oh, and a great way to stretch this is to buy large vegetables and cut them in half lengthwise to stuff. The Greeks are crazy about these stainless steel round baking dishes, shown in the photograph above. They come in varying diameters but the height is typically 2 1/2 inches high. They’re used not only for yemiste, stuffed vegetables, but also spinach pie, baklava, and most dishes requiring phyllo dough. Jimmy always gets irritated with me when we go to the Greek market because I always want to buy another one. I have two now. One medium in size and the other monstrous. Great for parties. But I feel you can never have too many. I’ll let you know when he springs for another.
Greek Stuffed Vegetables
- 1 pound ground lamb, browned and drained
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 large bunch mint, leaves chopped
- 1 large bunch dill, chopped
- 1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves chopped
- 4 cups short grain, brown rice, or rice of your choice, cooked
- salt and pepper to taste
- 4 large peppers or as many as you’d like
- 8 tomatoes or as many as you’d like
- 3 or 4 zucchini cut into wedges or 1 or 2 potatoes if you’d rather, none it your vegetables fit snugly into their baking dish
- Preheat oven to 375°.
- Add onion to same pan as cooked, drained ground lamb, stirring, cook onion until clear.
- Add garlic and herbs, stirring all the while.
- When herbs have wilted, add rice and salt and pepper. Mix well and set aside.
- Cut tops off of peppers, set aside, and cut ribs and seeds and discard.
- Cut the tops off the tomatoes and set aside. With a thin spoon, I use a soup spoon, scoop out insides of tomatoes being careful not to poke a hole through the flesh. Set the innards aside and if it looks as though you won’t have sufficient filling, chop up the tomato cores and add to stuffing to stretch it out. Just see how it goes.
- Spray non-stick spray to baking dish and spoon filling into vegetables, placing upright in baking dish. Now’s the time for the zucchini or potato wedges. Tuck them where needed to keep your fruits of labor from toppling over and spilling their filling.
- For tomatoes and peppers, add the tops previously cut off.
- Carefully, add water to bottom of baking dish, maybe 1/2 to 1 inch.
- Cover tightly with tin foil and bake for a good hour, hour and a half. Drop temperature to 350° if your oven is too hot. Vegetables are done when tender.