Saturday November 14, 2015
Ikaria by Diane Kochilas is not simply an assortment of recipes, but rather a well-crafted exploration and representation of an island that relies upon its local ingredients and treasured techniques to maintain an approach to living that preserves the culture that has developed there over so many years.
Beginning in its “Small Bites” section, Kochilas proposes consuming an entire onion at once, a suggestion that would intimidate even the most dedicated onion lovers among us. However, her Whole Roasted Onions with Vinegar and Olive Oil trumps any aversion to this thought. Lightly coated in only a teaspoon of olive oil, slow-roasted in a hot oven for about an hour -- this is Greek-style cooking at its finest. Only a few quality, well-sourced ingredients are prepared so that their flavors are emphasized, while still allowing the onion to take the focus of interest above all else. Though the instructions give the option of preparing this in the oven, why not do as the Greeks do and roast these oversized pearls of perfection in the fireplace or on an outdoor grill?
Recipes are juxtaposed with stories of the practices and ingredients native to the island. One excerpt highlights the medicinal effects of the mallows -- a plant which heals rashes and other inflammations. Another centers in on “Knowing and Loving the Old”, which discusses longevity as a result of the foods Ikarians prepare and their all-encompassing love of life. My favorite, though, is the aside dedicated to “Mushrooming in the Mountains”, which pays tribute to the 25 different types of fungi the island boasts. It shows that mushrooms, the enjoyment of both the hunt for and the eating of, are among the many curiosities of Ikaria, one of the small things that makes this a place like no other.
The Mushroom Stew, which follows later in the book, uses a simple cooking method for the mushrooms, taking something infinitely complex in its varieties and adding to it only a shimmer of Greek olive oil, translucent onions, and complementary spices. This is a dish that relies upon the essential, extracting the beauty of its ingredients, and adding little else.
The dessert section is small, coming only at the book’s close. The various recipes put to use the island’s natural offerings -- cherries, walnuts, apricots, peaches, figs, and takes advantage of the many different honeys available. These are displayed beautifully in tarts, cookies, and what Kochilas calls “spoon sweets” -- the mixture of many of these ingredients made into a delicious, subtle sugar syrup. We see one application of this in her Greek Jam Lattice-Top Tart, which adds to the pastry the abundance of Ikaria’s apricots in the form of jam. The outcome is slightly tart, with just a hint of sweetness.
Ending the book with these little culinary indulgences says that the Ikarian diet is not only about feeding ourselves the nutrients our bodies need, but allowing ourselves to enjoy what makes us happy, what feeds our soul, and what makes us complete.