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«Through my recipes I intend to lead you on a culinary journey among fragrant herbs and spices and to help you rediscover and explore both old and new ways of cooking and combining vegetables, pulses, grains and nuts.»
Greek food blogger and author, Aglaia Kremezi has just released her new cooking book Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts: she leads home cooks through the cookery of the Mediterranean with 150 traditionally meat-free recipes. Opening with detailed ingredient descriptions and the basic preparations that make the most of seasonal shopping at farmers’ markets, the latest work of the James Beard awarded author explores the heritage and the affinities of the various kitchens of the Mediterranean region through an appealing collection of vegetarian food.
Her blog, Aglaia’s Table, chronicles food and life on the Greek island of Kea, where she lives. We talked with Aglaia just before her departure for the USA where she will present the Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts book in various locations. She shared with us her insights and one of her recipes (a tasty grilled feta dish you can find here).
How did you come up with the idea of writing a book about vegetarian cooking?
First I should say that I’m not a vegetarian, but I have always consumed very little meat. I grew up in Greece, in times when meat was very expensive, something to eat in special occasions. Until the 70s I was used – like the rest of the people – to feed mainly on vegetables. Our family cooking is where my first traditional vegetarian recipes come from. After my mum and my grandma, come the foods I’ve tasted across the Mediterranean. There are many affinities in the various kitchens of the Basin. Healthy, vegetarian cooking has become very popular worldwide in the last years, but in our regional cooking it has played a central role for centuries. It finally makes sense to propose such dishes to a wider public, because quality vegetables and seasonal produce are now easier to source thanks to the increasing offer at the farmers markets. What I want to explain through this entire description, is that there’s nothing new about my cooking. Now, regarding the decision to write a vegetarian cookbook - it’s like that funny passage from Molière’s “Middle-class Gentleman” play, where the philosophy master explains the difference between poetry and prose to Monsieur Jourdain, who realizes that “he’s been speaking prose for his entire life without knowing!” Likewise, I’ve been a vegan and vegetarian cook for my entire life – without knowing!
What about the research part. How did the selection of the recipes take place?
This is a book based on a research of many years, which collects things that I’ve learned from home or from my travelling and of course the adaptations that have taken place in my kitchen. Some are recipes that I have since before working professionally with food – when I’d cook a lot for my friends. For me, food is pleasure. And what I cook is of course very healthy – but this is not my point. It’s on the taste that I prefer to focus.
Writing apart, in the last years you’ve been conducting Cooking Vacation programs in Kea, the Greek island where you live. Did your interaction with all those people who are interested to learn about Mediterranean cookery influence your writing?
Well, the classes gave me the opportunity to see how interested people are in Mediterranean food. It didn’t really influence the way I cook or write, but I realized that many things I take for granted because of the way I was brought up, are totally new to people from other countries. During one of the first cooking classes that I did in the US after the publication of my first book in the 90s, I remember cooking artichoke ragout, a typical dish with lemon, onions and fennel. People were so surprised by the way that I’d cook the artichokes! Even now – at the lessons we did last month, our guests were so surprised by the braised green beans, which are such a simple and humble recipe for us Greeks. 10 years ago, I couldn’t even imagine that I could include such a recipe in one of my books. So yes, the reaction of the people who follow my classes has given me the faith to go back to the basics of our regional cooking repertoire.
Your Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts book is illustrated with some great images by Penny de los Santos. How did this cooperation happen?
I first met Penny when she came here to Kea commissioned to shoot a story for Saveur magazine. I loved working with her on that feature and I thought that my food looked great through her images, so when I started working on this book, I asked her to take the pictures.