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I thought of my beloved aunt, Theia Nina, a few weeks ago when we shared Helen and Billie's interview. These two sisters behind the Mia Kouppa Greek food blog spoke of how their parents always cook without a recipe, just eyeballing ingredients and textures. Theia Nina, my father's sister and my favorite aunt by far, was exactly like that, differently from my mother, who was actually more of a by-the-book kind of cook. Theia Nina was a phenomenal cook, never afraid to always make more so that she'd have enough for the frequent drop-in visitors. But what was really unique about her was that she never owned an electric stove & oven!! She only had a set of gas burners on her counter (the old petrogaz, for the Greeks reading this), and no oven at all! She'd make everything on those gas burners and only occasionally take whatever needed baking or roasting to the neighborhood fourno, the local bakery, which in the Greece of the 1970s would still do a healthy business in baking dishes for people who didn't have ovens.
As a result, Theia Nina was the queen of stovetop recipes. She had a small home and her sewing machine was in the corner of her kitchen. As a seamstress, she never wanted to give up that space for a proper stove, so stovetop cooking it was. To make it extra special, she would only use the old copper cookware that her father, my grandfather, used to produce from recycled copper in Batum (now part of Georgia), before they left as refugees to settle in Thessaloniki.
One of Theia Nina's most popular dishes was her gemistá, an iconic Greek summer meal, usually baked in the oven and served at room temperature. Gemistá are summer vegetables, the "purists" only use vine-ripened tomatoes & green bell peppers, but also zucchini and eggplant, stuffed with rice and herbs or with a mixture of ground beef and rice. My second son Panos was an especially devoted fan of Theia Nina's gemistá so I just had to ask her for her recipe (knowing full well, of course, that it might be hard to replicate those Greek garden veggies back in the States!!). No surprise, Theia Nina didn't have a proper recipe with exact ingredients, but she did write down something for me and I still have it today.
The last time I made this recipe, I had a lot of tomatoes & peppers on hand but was missing the usual parsley that Theia Nina would chop into the stuffing. Now if you've been following my blog for a while, you know I'm always looking for a good cooking hack! I love coming up with creative solutions whenever I'm missing an ingredient (every try my chicken stew made with Avaris tea?!). So there I was without any fresh parsley, reluctant to get into my car for just one ingredient. I opened my pantry, took a look at what dried herbs I had on hand, and then my eye rested on Sparoza's Greek Granny's Tzatziki Mix and I thought, jackpot! Sparoza founder Effie Ekmetzoglou has handcrafted a fragrant blend of dill, garlic, sweet paprika, natural sea salt, and peppercorns and is highly aromatic so I substituted all the herbs & spices in the recipe with 2 tbsp of the Tzatziki Mix. I loved the result, and while it might be a bit different from what Theia Nina had in mind, I like to think that she'd have approved of my practical fix.
Enjoy Theia Nina's original recipe and my shortcut below.
If you read Greek you may enjoy her recipe in her own words! Her last phrase reads "food should not be hurried"! She truly believed in slow cooking and eating and always finished her recipes with that phrase. Enjoy!
Well-ripened tomatoes and peppers (about 10 in total)
1 lb ground beef
1/2 cup rice (arborio would be the best)
Salt & pepper
A pinch of Greek oregano, a pinch of cinnamon, and half a bunch of chopped parsley...or alternatively 2 tbsp Sparoza's Greek granny's tzatziki mix!
Grate the onion and place in a pot with just half cup water, boiling for a few minutes to make the onion more easily digestible - that tip is compliments of Theia Nina! Let the water evaporate and add 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Stir until the onion is soft and translucent.
Theia Nina's version: Add the ground beef and stir constantly. Add salt, pepper, a pinch of oregano and a pinch of cinnamon. Grate a tomato and add the juices to the pot. Let the mixture boil for 5-10 minutes making sure it doesn't dry out. Lower the heat if necessary. Remove from heat and add a bunch of parsley and a half cup of rice. Set aside.
In my version, I substituted all the aromatics and herbs (oregano, cinnamon and parsley) with 2 tbsp of Sparoza's tzatziki mix and the result was equally successful and flavorful. You just might want to give it a try!
Either way, hollow out the peppers and tomatoes, being careful to leave enough of a shell to hold your filling. Keep the inside of the tomatoes, hollowing them into a bowl, as you'll use juices of 2 of those for cooking. Salt the veggie shells and fill with the ground beef and rice mixture. Place them in a deep pot or dutch oven and add 1/2 cup of water and the juices of 2 tomatoes that have been chopped or grated. Add a drizzle of olive oil on top of the veggies and cook on medium low until most of the liquids are absorbed and the rice is cooked. Alternatively, cover your pot and bake it in the oven, 45-50 minutes at 400 should be plenty.
If you're looking for a vegan version of gemistá, try this version from our friend Pamela Ann in Okinawa!
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