My family comes from a relatively small island in Greece’s Dodecanese known as Kalymnos. It’s a fairly dry island with rugged cliffs famous for rock-climbing. And those cliffs are latent with thyme which makes for a distinctly sweet aroma across the entire island—at least that’s how I see it. The thyme also makes for amazing honey, which I love and smuggle (shhh ...) back to the States every chance I get (but that’ll be the topic of a later post).
Personally, I think Kalymnos is the most beautiful island I have ever been to (Biased? Me? You think?!). Kalymnians are quite proud of their roots and take pleasure in keeping family traditions alive. The island enjoys some tourism, but is relatively unspoiled. Over the years, many Kalymnians have immigrated to various countries, a great majority, however, to America and Australia in particular. I personally have many a cousin in Australia, a place I unfortunately have never been. No matter where Kalymnians find themselves, however, they’ve managed to keep fellow island immigrants, traditions and customary dishes close to their hearts.
Grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice is a traditional dish on the island of Kalymnos and were always a staple in my Giagia’s (that’s Greek for grandmother) cooking repertoire. Whereas the rest of Greece refers to similarly stuffed grape leaves as “Dolmades”, Kalymnians have simply named this dish “Phylla”, the Greek word for leaves. Growing up, a typical Sunday dinner for us included my Giagia’s Phylla, pastichio, pot roast (our nod to an American classic), stewed peas and mashed potatoes. The sight, smell and taste of any of these dishes bring about a flood of memories for me.
I’d like to submit this recipe for Phylla, my beloved Giagia’s, to Ivy of Kopiaste and Val of More Than Burnt Toast for their World Food Day event. Everyone, everywhere should enjoy a warm family meal that symbolizes so much more than sustenance and this is my virtual contribution. I hope you enjoy these as much as my family and I.
Grape Leaves Stuffed with Ground Meat and Rice (Phylla) 1 ½ pounds of a combination of ground beef, veal and pork 5 tablespoons rice 1 large onion 1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons (left aside) diced tomatoes with their juices Salt and pepper to taste 1 16-ounce jar brine-packed grape leaves, rinsed and drained 2 ½ cups chicken stock 4 tablespoons olive oil ½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
In a food processor pulse the onion until finely chopped. In a large bowl, combine the meat, onion, tomato, rice, salt and pepper and mix well. Layer some grape leaves and the 3 tablespoons diced tomato in the bottom of a large pot. Place one grape leaf vein side up with the stem towards you. Cut the stem with a scissors. Place a rounded tablespoonful of the filling near the stem. Fold the two sides of the leaf over the filing and then fold the bottom and top towards the middle to create a small square “package.” Place stuffed grape leaves seam side down on the layered grape leaves and tomato in the pot. Continue with remaining filling and leaves, packing them relatively tightly in the pot. Pour stock and oil over the stuffed grape leaves. If there are any leaves left over, layer them on top. Set an inverted heatproof plate over the leaves so as to prevent them from unrolling. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover and reduce the heat to low, simmering for 30 minutes. Add the lemon juice and cook for another 30 minutes. Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt.
Food is more than a physical necessity; how we acquire it, how we prepare it, how we consume it and who we consume it with is so rich with meaning.
As in so many countries around the world, food and cooking play an enormous role in Greek culture. Growing up as a first generation Greek American has afforded me the opportunity to experience firsthand the importance of food in not only Greek holidays and traditions, but in daily life. I keep the recipes of my mother, grandmothers and aunts close at hand and although I've embraced a multitude of foreign cuisines over the years, the traditional Greek dishes I’ve grown to cherish remain dearest to my heart.
Kali Orexi (literally translated to Good Appetite) is the term echoed on the tables of families sitting down to a meal all across Greece, or in any corner of the world where Greeks can be found. I believe the dishes made by one who is passionate about cooking offer a glimpse into the soul. I'm happy to share this glimpse into mine ... Kali Orexi!