My paternal grandmother was a remarkable woman. She was mother to seven children and maintained a country household complete with chickens, goats, sheep, pigs, donkeys and a mule. She died just over a decade ago; yet, her memory continues to manifest her ongoing presence in my family’s daily experiences in some form or another. In many ways, this posting is my Grandmother’s eulogy, the one I was not present to deliver when she left us.
While my grandfather (already mentioned) worked and irrigated our family’s fields and olive plots, Grandma multitasked about the hearth and home. She swept the house and yard, made the cheese, baked the bread, and prepared the daily meals. She did so without complaint and without ever considering her role as demeaning or beneath her in any way. Indeed, quite the opposite, she viewed her life as dignified and fulfilling, and she woke each morning with an unwavering sense of purpose and a true zest for clean country living.
amaranth; and herbs such as mint, rosemary and laurel. The exterior of the house itself, along with the courtyard and verandas, were shaded by a network of trellised grape vines which produced enormous clusters of reddish-skin grapes in their season. A trio of olive trees, a small grazing field, a circular stone threshing floor, stables, pens, and a large chicken coop completed the property which was my Yiayia’s domain. She ruled it all with an effortless economy of activity which remains fixed in my memories of the woman. In point of fact, my grandmother was the cement which held my father’s family together. My grandfather adored her and deferred to her judgment in most things.
In addition to tending the house, raising the children, grazing the animals, and handling the household finances, Yiayia would rise well before dawn on Friday mornings and trek 23 kilometres to Megalopolis, where she would sell excess produce and trade for other goods in the weekly agora (market). Upon conclusion of the day’s business in the city, she would return again by foot to the village (until a regular bus service was instituted); arriving just before nightfall to resume her role of materfamilias. Not surprisingly, both my grandparents were the very definition of the phrase ‘hale and hearty’, and both lived well into their nineties, active and sharp-witted right to the end. Their lifestyle and diet had everything to do with their lengthy and vigorous lives.
One of the ingredients which figured prominently in my Grandmother’s pantry was pligouri (known as “bulgur” in English). Pligouri [pronounced “plee-WOO-ree”] has been a staple of Greek food for millennia. On the island of Crete, it is still called by its ancient name hóndros, and on some islands in the eastern Aegean Sea it is known as koptó. Pligouri consists of whole wheat kernels that have been parboiled, dried, and crushed. It comes in three textures: fine, medium, or coarse. Served on its own or as an accompaniment to other dishes, this foodstuff is a more nutritious alternative to rice, potatoes, or pasta. It is cheap, easy to prepare, has a very low glycemic index, and makes for a satisfying dish every time.
When making pligouri, my Grandmother would add any number of available seasonal ingredients to the pan to enrich the flavour of the dish. My favourite additions included mushrooms, golden raisins, pine nuts, and chestnuts, all of which I have included in this version of her original recipe. On its own, pligouri has a slightly nutty flavour, but it is basically tasteless. So, you can add any number of different nuts, dried fruits, herbs and vegetables (or even snails) to a pligouri recipe, this version is one of my favourite vegetarian combinations.
1 cup (250ml) medium bulgur
2 cups of vegetable or chicken stock (or water with a bouillon cube)
1 medium sized onion, diced well
½ cup of roasted chestnuts, peeled & cut in half (approx. 12 chestnuts)
¼ cup of pine nuts
1 small handful of golden raisins (sultanas)
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon Greek extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon petimezi (Greek grape must syrup)
½ cup of chopped mushrooms
1 tsp. (5 ml.) of ground cumin
Salt & pepper to taste
- In a medium sized sauce pan, sauté the diced onion in the butter and olive oil over a medium heat until soft. (3 minutes, or so)
- Add the mushrooms, raisins and pine nuts to the pan and continue to sauté for another 2 minutes, stirring regularly.
- Add the stock, cumin, salt & pepper to taste to the pan; turn the heat up to medium high and bring to a boil, then add the pligouri (bulgur) to the pan along with the petimezi and cook it while stirring well for about 3 minutes or so. [Note: if you cannot find any petimezi, some Greek thyme honey makes a good substitute.]
- Add the halved chestnuts to the pan, stir it well, then cover the pan with its lid and lower the heat to medium low; allow it to simmer for 20 minutes or so, until all the liquid is absorbed.
- Uncover the pan, give the pligouri a good mixing from the bottom and sides, and cover the pan with a tea or paper towel before replacing the lid (I do this to eliminate any steam water buildup in the lid from running back into the pan when we uncover it for serving). Remove from heat and set aside for 10 minutes.
There you have it, as nutritional and toothsome a dish as any Greek yiayia would recognize and enjoy. The sort of meal she might even want to pass on to her grandchildren, so that they too might develop a taste for simple and wholesome fare. Perhaps they would also see the value in it and pass it on to their own children in turn. In just this manner, traditional Greek food stretches back into the ages of ages.
Happy Mother’s Day, Yiayia! Happy Mother's Day to All Mothers Everywhere!
Pánta Kalá (Always be Well),
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.