With our son, James, going back to school in a day or two my mind started to focus on my to-do list. Next? Vacation! And back to Greece! I can already feel that delicious, dry heat on my face. It’s blistering hot in the sun but under a sea grape or olive tree it’s quite pleasant…especially if there’s a cold pitcher of house white wine and a few pieces of freshly grilled octopus sitting in front of me lounging in a pool of fruity, green olive oil and oregano from the field next door. Last year on the island of Lesvos in the town of Molyvos I happened to chat with the owner of a shop I was in and learned she gave cooking lessons in her home. I took several classes from her and had a marvelous time. The lessons were not demanding and quite enjoyable.
I was able to take away quite a bit of information from technique to previously unknown ingredients due to the fact that she tailored the classes to me. I don’t need anyone to show me how to make a spanakopita; I can make that in my sleep. This was right up my culinary alley. I loved my teacher. She young, vivacious and pretty, she buzzed about the island on a moped. She’s incredibly knowledgeable regarding Greek cooking but, most importantly, she believes passionately in the traditional, time-honored, Greek methods. That and she’s totally laid back. The lessons were to take place in her home, something I yearned to experience. I asked Jimmy to stick around the morning of my first class just in case things didn’t work out. My teacher, Eleni, took us for a quick tour of her property.
Her daughter is grown and gone, London I think, so it’s just her husband and her. Well! The more I saw the more pea-green I turned with envy! They have, of course, the ubiquitous groves of olive trees and that’s enough to throw me into a spiral of jealousy. But to add to my covetousness, or joy take your pick, they have peach trees, pomegranate trees, cherry trees, fig trees, orange trees and grape vines. She also has a gorgeous herb garden filled with banks of dill, mint, basil and parsley surrounding a delightful koi pond her husband built for her. It’s just paradise! Towards the rear of the property is the hot-house where Eleni had figs drying…shelf after shelf of beautiful, wrinkled figs. And did I mention she had a voluptuous pot of fig and grape marmalade bubbling and whispering softly in a corner of the outside grill?
I want that life! When we met the day before she asked my what I wanted to prepare. What was it I wanted to learn? From that she put together a menu for my class. Jimmy was to come back at noon or 12:30 to join us for lunch and we would be finished by 2:30 or 3:00. She started pouring wine at 11:00am. I was one happy girl! Jimmy took off and we started prepping. For the Sougounia she said that big red onions are better. I peeled them and she instructed me to trim the stem end and the root end but not to cut the root end off completely. Carefully, so as not to cut ones self, the onion was sliced from stem to root BUT ONLY TO THE MIDDLE OF THE ONION. The whole onions are then boiled in salted water 15-20 minutes until tender. Now while the onions are simmering the stuffing will be mixed in a separate bowl. Gently break up in the bowl 1/2 pound of ground beef and 1/2 pound ground pork. To that add 1/2 cup medium grain rice, 1/2 cup ouzo (lovely flavor with the pork), 2 teaspoons ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika, 1 teaspoon salt, 1//2 teaspoon black pepper,1/2 teaspoon sugar, 1/3 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup chopped parsley. Combine enough that all ingredients are mixed but not too much or you’ll toughen the meat.
When the onions are cool enough to handle peel off the layers one by one. Don’t let them cool completely or they’ll be difficult to handle and won’t roll up. The tough outer layers may be set aside to tuck into any empty spaces prior to baking. Cover the bottom of your baking dish liberally with olive oil. Take one layer of onion in the palm of your hand and you’ll see it rolls right up into shape, like the shape of a boat or a diamond! Fill the onion with a good tablespoon of the meat filling, close the opening as best you can and place into a baking dish. It’s fine to gently stack them. When you get to the onion’s small inner layers they can be saved for another dish or chopped and mixed into the meat. Continue until all the meat has been used. Chop a tomato and scatter over the stuffed onions. Tuck any outer skins into any spaces or corners so they all fit snugly in the baking dish. In a small bowl dissolve one chicken bouillon cube in 1/4 cup of hot water. To that add 1 teaspoon of ground cumin, mix well and gently pour over stuffed onions.
Cover the baking dish tightly with tin foil and bake at 350° for approximately 45 minutes. This dish may also be prepared in a braising pot stove top. The preparation is exactly the same except you would cook the sougounia at a low simmer. The flavors are wild! You’ll pick up the deep richness of the ouzo and pork then the smoky earthiness of the cumin and paprika. It’s like no other dish and you’ll never have to worry about someone else turning up at a party with it. It stands alone!