Melbourne cooking teacher and tour guide Meni Valle first visited the Greek island of Ikaria three years ago, where she became captivated by its food and people.
"The moment I step off the aeroplane on my first visit to Ikaria I feel the magic of the Greek summer, and the promise of relaxing days to come," she says.
The island is known for its inhabitants' long life spans and low rates of chronic disease, much of which can be attributed to their plant-rich diet.
In her latest cookbook, Ikaria: Food and Life in the Blue Zone, Valle has collected traditional recipes from across the island that encapsulate the best of Mediterranean food: vegetables, beans, whole grains, limited meat and fish, a few glasses of wine and plenty of olive oil.
Born to Greek parents, Valle includes glimpses of the island's festivals, produce, kitchens and people to transport you to its quaint villages and mountainous coastline.
Here, in the the Aegean Sea, life is about taking time: to cook, to eat, to nap, and enjoy life with family and friends.
As one local Valle meets puts it: "Here in Ikaria, we do not try to add years to our life. Instead we add life to our years. We make the most of every day."
Lahanika me avga (baked vegetables with eggs)
Adding eggs to this dish makes it a complete meal for me. If you have leftover baked vegetables this is a great way of creating another dish. Serving this with some bread to soak up any juices is essential.
- 1 eggplant, cut into chunks
- 2 zucchini, diced
- 4 long green peppers, seeded and sliced
- 4 tomatoes, diced
- 2 potatoes, peeled and diced
- 2 red onions, peeled and quartered
- 1 small handful herbs, finely chopped (parsley, oregano)
- 60ml olive oil
- 6 eggs
- fresh bread, to serve
- Preheat the oven to 180C fan-forced (200C conventional).
- Put all the vegetables and herbs into a large ovenproof dish. Pour the olive oil over and combine well. Season with salt and pepper and mix lightly. Add in 125ml water, cover with aluminium foil and bake for about an hour or until the vegetables are tender. Check periodically to stir and ensure there is enough liquid so that it doesn't get too dry.
- When it's ready, uncover, make space for the eggs and crack them into the vegetables.
- Bake for a further 4 minutes until the eggs are cooked.
- Serve hot with plenty of fresh bread.
Perfect for an easy lunch or dinner. Photo: Lean Timms/Hardie Grant
Prasino kolaro me patates (greens with potatoes)
This rustic dish is not only simple but also nutritious. Served with olives, cheese and bread, it can make an easy lunch or dinner.
- 60ml olive oil
- 1 red onion, diced
- 500g greens, chopped (kale, silverbeet, English spinach or collard greens)
- 3 large potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
- 2 tablespoons oregano, chopped
- 2 large tomatoes, grated (optional; see below)
- In a large saucepan warm the olive oil over a medium heat.
- Add the onions and saute until soft.
- Add the greens and lower the heat. Cook, stirring, until they have wilted.
- Add the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, and stir in the oregano.
- Pour in 250ml water. Or if you are adding grated tomatoes, only use 125ml. Add the grated tomatoes, if using.
- Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 20-30 minutes until the vegetables are cooked through and there is very little water left.
- Serve warm.
Grated tomato: To grate a tomato, ﬁrst cut it in half. Then, holding the skin side in the palm of your hand, grate the tomato ﬂesh into a large bowl. Once you have grated all the tomatoes, add the sugar to maximise the ﬂavour, and a pinch of salt and the whole garlic clove. Allow the tomato mixture to sit for a few minutes to develop the ﬂavours.
Serve with an extra drizzle of olive oil. Photo: Lean Timms/Hardie Grant
Psita revithia (baked chickpeas)
This earthy dish was originally baked in a ceramic dish, which enhanced the flavours of the chickpeas. A heavy baking tray or casserole will also do the job if you don't have a ceramic dish.
- 500g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained
- 1 zucchini, cut into cubes
- 2 carrots, peeled and cut into cubes
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 tomatoes, grated (see above)
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped mint
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
- 100ml olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- squeeze of lemon juice, to serve (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 180C fan-forced (200C conventional)
- In a large saucepan, add the soaked chickpeas and cover with water. Bring to the boil over a medium-high heat and cook until almost cooked through but still ﬁrm. Drain, reserving about 250ml of the cooking liquid, and pour the chickpeas onto a heavy baking tray or casserole dish. Add the reserved liquid.
- Scatter the prepared vegetables and herbs over the chickpeas. Season well with salt and pepper and pour over the olive oil.
- Mix well to combine.
- Bake for 20 minutes or until cooked through.
- Serve with an extra drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, if you desire.
Zesty, custardy, crispy and syrupy all at the same time. Photo: Lean Timms/Hardie Grant
Portokalopita (orange pie with filo and syrup)
This cake is zesty, custardy, crispy and syrupy all at the same time. Serve it with a dollop of Greek yoghurt or even some ice-cream on a summer's day.
- melted clariﬁed butter (ghee), for brushing
- 400g ready-made ﬁlo pastry
- Greek yoghurt, to serve
- drizzle of honey, to serve
- 4 eggs
- 100g caster (superfine) sugar
- 200ml vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons grated orange zest
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 285g Greek yoghurt
- 345g caster (superfine) sugar
- 250ml orange juice
- 3 tablespoons grated orange zest
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 cloves
- Preheat the oven to 180C fan-forced (200C conventional). Brush some melted clariﬁed butter onto a 35cm round baking tray or a 25cm x 35cm rectangular baking tray.
- Fold or crumple each filo sheet using your hands and place in the tray. If you are using a round tray, work your way from the centre until all the dish is covered. If you are using a rectangular tray then concertina fold and place each sheet side by side until the baking tray is lined.
- Place in the oven and bake for 6-8 minutes, until the ﬁlo feels crispy to the touch. Keep the oven on.
- For the ﬁlling, in a large bowl beat the eggs, sugar, oil, orange zest and vanilla using an electric mixer until light and ﬂuffy. Add the baking powder and the yoghurt and stir gently until all combined.
- Ladle the ﬁlling mixture evenly over the ﬁlo pastry and set aside for 4 minutes for the mixture to ﬁnd its way through the folds of pastry, then bake for about 25-30 minutes until golden.
- While the pastry is baking, make the syrup. Put the sugar, orange juice, zest, cinnamon stick, cloves and 250ml water into a saucepan and bring to the boil, then reduce to a low heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
- When the pie is baked, remove from the oven and ladle the hot syrup over the warm pie and allow to sit until all the syrup has been absorbed.
- Serve cool with a dollop of yoghurt drizzled with honey.