Always on the hunt for new Mediterranean Diet recipes, we are venturing onto the Greek island of Crete to discover the flavors of the area. We started by the beach and began to climb into the mountains in search of the small traditional villages. After about half an hour, we stopped in a one-shop village for our most pressing need--coffee. On the front porch of the shop, four men sat around a pile of fresh fava beans and tiny glasses of ouzo. They had tan skin and beards and wore wrap around dark blue tunics. They shucked the beans and ate them while they chatted. They called out to the old man across the street sitting on the porch of his home to join them but he waved them off. We settled into a table in the already warm sun and ordered the thick coffee and a lemonade. The trees around us dripped with lemons and the lemonade was fresh. The coffee was cooked with the grounds and we had to wait a few minutes for the grounds to settle to the bottom of the cup. While we sipped and chatted, learning a few Greek words from the men at the other table, a van pulled up and other villagers began to gather. Curious, I went along to see what was inside--fresh bread! I bought a brown loaf and we munched on a piece as we finished our coffee.
We continued our climb along the curvy roads into the mountains. All along the roads we see goats and sheep munching at the low scrub. The views of the bay were spectacular and we eventually began to see a deep and rugged gorge unfold. We found a small staircase climbing the side of the mountain with a little sign indicating a cave. We followed it and found 'The Cave of Wisdom of God' (or Cave of Agia Sofia) where an ancient icon was found and housed from the Greek fighters at Constantinople. The history of Crete is rich, dating back to the Minoans who lived around 3000 BC followed by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Venetians, etc. The history is felt all around us and ruins are found everywhere.
We continued to wrap around the mountains and continued off the road down a progressively worsening dirt road. The conscious community of Milia was promised at the end of this road with little signs to help deter us from giving up and turning back. This was a tiny ancient village that was restored with a community of Greeks living from the land. Beside the hobbit-like houses was a small restaurant with stunning views and, more importantly, an excellent chef.
He came to our table and between his limited English and our even more limited Greek, he managed to explain to us what he had cooked that day. We ordered almost one of everything because they all sounded too good not to try. The bread arrived and it was obvious that they had milled their own grain to make it. I asked if I could purchase a loaf as I made a mental note to myself to slice the previous loaf I had bought from the van and leave the slices on the windowsill to dry for salads.
The first dish to arrive was a plate of long red peppers stuffed with herbs, beans and cheese. It sat in a small pool of olive oil colored from the ingredients it was cooked with. The red peppers were sweet, not spicy, and exploded with flavor. The rich stuffing was light but creamy and blended perfectly together with the fresh flavor of the pepper. I had to restrain myself from asking how it was made as I try to ask for only one recipe from each dining experience. I didn't know what else would be in store!
The rest of the meal was delicious--cheese pies with mint, zucchini baked with potatoes and a cheese called mizithra (boureki) and slow-roasted lamb that fell apart with the fork. After seeing hundreds of sheep along the road munching on the low scrub, we knew that the lamb had to be free-range! After the meal, a fruit-based dessert, coffee and a small bottle of ouzo where brought out without our asking.
The stuffed peppers were the highlight of the meal and I went inside to ask the chef how it was prepared. "I cook with the ingredients I have" he said simply. He pointed to the ingredients and I understood that he chopped fresh mint, parsley and the frilly tops of fennel--the three herbs the Greeks always use according to the chef--and mixed them with feta cheese and previously-boiled beans to stuff inside the red peppers and bake slowly at a low temperature under a generous drizzle of olive oil.
After dreaming about making these peppers all night, I have already been to the market this morning to buy the ingredients and the beans are slowly bubbling away on the stove....
If you are interested in learning more about the Mediterranean Diet, be sure to visit our website and consider joining naturopathic oncology specialist and chef Dr. Michelle Qaqundah in the beautiful hills of Tuscany, Italy for a one-week hands-on culinary retreat! You can also follow our FaceBook page to read about more culinary adventures.
Until our next adventure...I wish you all "BUONAPPETITO!" Or I guess I should say "kalí órexi!"