Veggies provide dishes fit for a king - The Best from Greece

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Posted on: 31/May/2012 The Best From Greece Culinair

Okra, green beans, aubergines, capsicums, zucchini and tomatoes are the protagonists of summer meals. Cooked in the right amount of olive oil, they constitute a number of well-loved dishes that come under the general heading in Greek cuisine of “ladera” -- literally “oily.”

Each of these vegetables is combined with one or more of the others, with wild greens, pulses, herbs and spices, not to mention onions and garlic, to create a variety of dishes that make Mediterranean cuisine so special.

They all need special attention as to how much seasoning and oil to use, often depending on taste. Invented to meet the needs of a country where meat was a luxury, or off the menu due to religious fasting (Wednesdays and Fridays), they are still popular at all times for their variety and flavor, although more often as an accompaniment to a meat dish, now that so many people think a plate of green beans cooked in tomatoes and oil, accompanied by a piece of feta cheese and a slice of bread is not a full meal.

These tips will help you get the right balance of ingredients:

How much oil to use depends on taste, but remember that when vegetables were the main meal, perhaps accompanied by some cheese, more oil was needed by a nation who did physical labor and walked long distances. Now that fewer calories are needed, less oil is required. If you are using old recipe books, use less oil than suggested. It is better to use a little in the beginning and then add more after cooking to get the most nutritional value. Never brown the vegetables -- it won’t improve their taste and will only make the meal heavier. Just saute them very lightly in a little oil. The same goes for seasoning -- a little at first, more to taste at the end. Opt for coarse rock salt if possible.

Tomatoes should be medium-sized, deep red and ripe, but not too soft. The flesh should be firm and shiny and the skin smooth. The stem should be green and have the aroma of the fruit.

Green beans need their strings removed. If the lobes are swollen, it means they have lost their juice and will be tough. If you slice down the center of the variety known as “barbounia,” without cutting them in two, they will be tastier.

If you buy aubergines and want to cook them the same day, choose ones that appear slightly shrunken. Remove the bitterness by soaking them in a bowl of salty water after cutting them up as the recipe requires, letting them sit for at least half an hour. Drain and dry well with kitchen paper before cookingso they won’t absorb too much oil. Some people like to peel half of the amount required for the recipe.

To seal the flavor of zucchini, saute it very lightly in hot oil before cooking.

Green capsicums need to be cooked fairly soon after being bought; the longer they are kept, the tougher their skins get. Red, orange and yellow ones are used for their color rather than providing any special flavor. However, long, red Florina capsicums, which are sweeter, are great roasted and then peeled, and eaten on their own.

For best results, only a little oil or sauce should be left at the end of cooking, so you need to be careful about adding too much water. Add a little hot water after sauteing the ingredients, then wait for the vegetables to release their own liquid and finally only add a little water as necessary. The water should be boiled so as not to reduce the cooking time and “exhaust” the ingredients. Cook with the lid off the pot to let the liquid evaporate.

Some like their veggies “al dente,” others like them softer, but don’t overcook them or they’ll lose their nutritional value.

Making briam

The mixture of vegetables known in Greece as “briam,” cooked in a baking dish in the oven or in a saucepan on the stove, is a challenge for many cooks because of the different cooking time needed for the various ingredients. The way to do it is to add each vegetable according to the time it takes to cook -- so, for example, potatoes first, zucchini last. The same applies to the way the ingredients are chopped. The potatoes should not be in bigger chunks than the zucchini, the aubergines should not be cut too small. Apart from those general rules, it depends on preference. Some people believe all the ingredients should go in together to exchange aromas and flavors -- some will be cooked more, others less.

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