Summers in Palm Beach… then and now

And I’m back!  It has been a busy several weeks at the mad cafe.  Tax season is wrapping up and Anna is off for her summer vacation, after successfully finishing up 4th grade.  She’s earned more junior Olympic times at swimming, and is now a safety patrol!  Anna loves rules and order.  She also made it on the news crew for next year.  Most of all, she’s happy and learning to think for herself.

My Anna!

My mom is leaving for her three month trip to Greece this week… with two 70lb suitcases!  She’s packed not only gifts for everyone, but also the weird comforts of American products, including Krispy Kreme cake mix.  I didn’t know those existed!  I’m glad she’ll be going and spending some time out there with our family and friends.

That leaves us here working on tax returns, invoicing, and a big renovation project in one of the units.  It’s fun to watch the unit come together slowly.  I love how creative we can be with a tiny space of barely 400 sq feet.  But, I’ll admit it’s also exhausting and a challenge to stay focused on it 24/7, when there are other things to do.  And I know myself by now.  After every long day, I need some precious time on my own to just think.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the summers when we would travel from Athens to visit my grandmother here for two months.  She was so cute, she used to welcome us with her famous potato leek soup.  It tasted so different from the soups in Greece.

Summer in Palm Beach… outside our door

I grew to really enjoy it.  Once I would finish my bowl, she’d tell me to go to the bedroom where I’d find some thoughtful gifts from her.  They were few and very thoughtful, which I loved.  Our summer routine in Palm Beach included summer camp, following my mom around from mall to mall to shop (yuck!), indulging in TV shows that we didn’t have in Greece, writing letters home and waiting for the mail every afternoon, and volunteering at the local Red Cross in West Palm Beach.

Volunteering was a lot of fun for me.  My brother and I were assigned in Disaster Services at the Red Cross, but worked in different offices.  Somehow, I ended up helping the Director of Disaster Services, Lucy, and still remember all her good business advice.  She commanded respect – I listened actively and watched her as she handled so much work and remember her office was full of papers everywhere.  I would try and organize it for her.  She really took a liking to me and when she was out of town for a training seminar on a Monday, she assigned me to be Director for a Day.  I was 13!  It was so much fun.  No such opportunities in Greece.

The best advice Lucy gave me was that I should refuse to do brainless work, because I’m capable of always doing more.  Some of the volunteers were stuck stuffing envelopes and stapling papers for hours.  I didn’t mind doing whatever needed to get done, but Lucy always took me away from that and had me either calling people to schedule meetings, which really helped me practice my English, or she would take me on the road with her to disaster sites.  I’ll never forget how kind she was to me!

Other than that, our times in Palm Beach during the summer were kind of boring.  My dad would stay in Athens to work and join us in August, when the courts are closed for summer vacation.  And I missed him so much!  In Palm Beach, it was hot and humid outside, with not much to do outdoors, except going to the beach.  But, that had to wait until my dad came to visit, because my mom did not enjoy the beach at all.  At least when he came, we went to the beach every morning and it was a lot of fun!

Two trees watching the sun rise in Palm Beach

So, we had no choice but to follow my mom around for the months of June and July… and I hate, hate, hate shopping.  And my mom’s favorite hobby is to bargain shop!  We would follow her for hours going from store to store where she could shop for clothes and whatever else for Greece.  I would so much want to stay home alone and write letters to my friends, but she wouldn’t let me.  The only productive thing I learned from all that is to quickly figure out the 75% off of this, or 90% off of that, which I suppose is generally helpful.

I did enjoy the evenings at our house though.  My mom would retreat to her room to go through all her shopping bargains, my brother was either reading airline timetables or financial news, and I had no interest in any of that so I’d walk into the living room where my grandmother quietly sat.  She would either read the newspaper or just sit and think intently.  I can still picture her sitting in the flamingo pink armchair with her hand on her face.  While she would appear lost in deep thought, her gorgeous green eyes were alert and usually fixated on a particular point in the room as she quietly examined things.

Without wanting to disturb her, and filled with endless curiosity, I would slowly walk into the room to see if she’d let me join her.  She’d break away from her thoughts and smile and invite me to sit with her.  Then she’d quickly let me in her thoughts and we would talk for hours… about anything, including life, love, marriage, ambitions, family.

Since we live in the same house now, I can’t help but think of these thoughts now that summer is here.  I am typing this post in the same room, where my grandmother and I would have these deep conversations and laugh for hours.  It is surreal at times.

On one of my walks on the beach

I loved it when she kept saying I remind her of herself.  And that when I say something I should mean it.  Or, that if I set my mind to do something I need to figure it out and get it done without complaining.  And that I should be proud to be a woman and not let anyone put me down.

And much more.

The room looks very different now, but her light still shines through at times, especially in the evenings…

MAD POTATO LEEK SOUP

I’ve made changes to my grandmother’s original recipe to make it a bit lighter.  It’s still a great recipe to welcome visitors in town and bring them together around the table.

Prep time: 30 minutes (soaking leeks included) Cooking time: 45 minutes  Yields: about 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 stick of butter
  • 2 leeks, thinly sliced up to where the green part starts (discard the upper leaves, or rinse and keep for stock)
  • 6 cups of vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 5-6 preferably Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced into small cubes
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup of whole milk
  • 1/2 cup of feta cheese, crumbled
  • s/p to taste

Directions

First, you have to make sure the leeks are clean from dirt and sand.  Once you’ve sliced them, add into a bowl with warm water and let soak for 10 minutes.  Repeat 2-3 times until no more dirt is in the bottom of the bowl.

In a large stock pot over medium heat, melt the butter.  Stir in the leeks and cook until they sweat and feel tender, about 12-15 minutes.  It’s important to stir frequently to ensure the leeks are evenly cooked. Add the potatoes and coat with the butter.  Lower the heat to medium low.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the cornstarch into the veggie broth in a separate bowl and stir well.  Slowly pour broth into pot with the leeks and potatoes.  Set to medium heat and gradually bring to a boil. Adjust the seasoning.  Once the mixture boils, add the cream and the milk and stir well.  Turn heat to simmer for about 30-40 minutes until the potatoes are tender to the touch.

Mad potato leek soup! I think I added a streak of balsamico for effect in this version, undoubtedly getting carried away in the creative process. Yum!

If you have an immersion blender, here’s your opportunity to use it.  BE CAREFUL and learn how to use it first to avoid splatter and getting burned.  If you know how to use it: turn off the heat and blend the mixture right in the stock pot until velvety and smooth.  Add the crumbled feta at the end and stir well until it’s melted.  You can garnish with sprigs of thyme or chives.

Serve warm!

 

 

 

The non-celebration of an unorthodox Greek Easter

The countdown to tax day is officially on.  We are hardly sleeping well and just working and working non-stop – or what feels like non-stop.  One more week of this, and then the next wave of invoicing hundreds of clients will begin, as well as seeing Anna through the end of her 4th grade year, followed by a hands-on renovation project of one of our units upstairs.

I was thinking last night before falling asleep, which was well past midnight, how Easter was always my favorite holiday growing up in Greece.

Tsoureki is delicious with coffee and makes for awesome french toast.

We had two full weeks off from school and work, and things would just slow down around us.  I’m not religious, so for me personally it wasn’t so much about going to church and following strict rituals, but I was enamored with the cultural traditions and learned to look forward to them year after year.

Here we are trying to get organized for our Easter table at my brother house some years back… the soup (magiritsa) is served first

So, traditionally, this week is Holy Week for those observing Greek Orthodox Easter and it’s the last week of Lent, when mostly everyone fasts from meat and dairy.  I so enjoyed the tradition of eating so simply for a whole week, building up the anticipation of devouring roasted lamb with my family on Easter Sunday.  It forced us to be creative with food for a week, trying to think up many delicious recipes… except for my mom’s idea of boiled pasta with a jar of plain tomato sauce – yuck!

Just as we would get into a rhythm for Holy Week, Good Friday would come along, really restricting things!  On that day, we would also fast from oil.  Some people fast from water, too, which we never did, but there are various levels of fasting extremes practiced on this day.  And there were a lot of superstitions, too!  You were not supposed to take a bath, wash your hair or wear anything colorful on Good Friday, for obvious reasons.  I remember there was one Good Friday when I was in high school, when I did wash my hair and felt fine about it, so it really depends on each person’s convictions.  But, I still enjoyed the church service on that particular day, the chanting is amazing and the entire church lights up with candles making it truly magical to experience, regardless or not if you’re religious.

My brother and I cracking eggs many years ago. I wish I had photos from when we were little, but they might be in Greece.

On Holy Thursday, we would traditionally dye the eggs red, and there are tons of recipes out there on how to proportion the dye and the vinegar in such a way, so that the eggs really turn deep red, vs. pink.  That was always very funny for me!  We would prepare the eggs, shine them with a little bit of olive oil and crack them on Easter Sunday… that’s also tons of fun, especially if you choose a solid egg and crack everybody’s!

After the Good Friday evening service, the four of us would come home and my dad without saying a word to anyone would fry up the golden delicious potatoes.  He would justify that by saying, “it’s ok, the first resurrection happened!”  So, we’d break the fast from olive oil at least, which was a very delicious way to do so.  I remember he did that every year and it was funny every time.

I love this photo. I had just woken up after baking all into the evening the day before… Anna wants to do a craft and I’m thinking of everything need to finish!

On Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, was basically a day of preparation.  This meant, making tsourekia (a sweet type of bread, similar to challah bread), baking Easter cookies, while the men would prepare the lamb to roast on the spit the next day.

Koulourakia is the traditional Easter cookie in Greece. Of course your mom bakes the best, and so on..

This involved using every part of the animal, which I personally appreciate, as much as disgusts many people.  So, all the organs were removed, cleaned with vinegar and would be used in a soup for that night or for frying into a meze.

While I loved watching my aunt bake, and setting the table and preparing the midnight soup (magiritsa), I was definitely curious as to what “the men” were doing.  So, one year I think I was about 15, my cousin Mary’s husband, George (they are

I’ve previously posted this, but it’s probably the same year we made the kokoretsi at the farm. Great times!

both like my second set of parents, since they are much older), wanted to make kokoretsi from scratch.  Now, that’s a Didi challenge!  Kokoretsi generally consists of lamb or goat intestines, tightly wrapped around seasoned offal, including heart, lungs, sweetbreads, spleen, kidneys, etc.  If you’re disgusted by now, feel free to go read something else, because my mouth is watering right now just thinking about it!  Specifically, the intestines of suckling lambs are preferred.

I really wanted to learn how to make kokoretsi and no one was helping George, so I volunteered.  Instead of pushing me away, he showed my how to clean the intestines, which was a fascinating experience.  You take a long metal spit and you flip each one inside out… which is a very delicate process and you really need to be careful.  Some people don’t turn the intestines inside out and that’s how food poisoning happens.  Anyway, once that’s done, we make a bath of vinegar and warm water and rinse them well.  Of course you see little parts of green residue washing away, which is no doubt from the grass that the animal was feeding on.  It was remarkable to experience how important it is to appreciate the animal… something we definitely don’t do here in the States.

Kokoretsi on Easter Sunday! (source: pinterest)

Anyway, after the vinegar bath, the next step was to season the offal with lots of oregano, salt and pepper.  We’d pass everything through onto large metal skewers and then very carefully wrap the clean intestines over the offal, nice and easy until complete.  We’d tie the ends so the kokoretsi would stay in place.  These typically grill outdoors next to the lamb or goat on Easter Sunday and it’s unbelievably good.  Yes, it’s high in cholesterol, but remember this was done once a year.  Before you complain with any disgust, just think about all the burgers you ate this past week.

I am grumpy today.  I’m chasing clients to e-file their returns and not paying any attention that it’s even Easter.  Far too absorbed with tax season, it’s also Anna’s FSA exams at school this week, further taking away my focus.  We’re barely fasting, if you consider my forgetting to eat lunch since I’m so busy these days.  My family is totally scattered this year, which is such a sharp contrast to how things were growing up.  So, I’m finding some comfort sharing these stories.  I hope one day I’ll get to celebrate Easter again in Greece and show Anna how it’s really done!  Though I highly doubt she’ll have any interest in making kokoretsi, but I guess there’s always hope!