Under the olive tree

in Food and Drink · 28-08-2020 01:00:00 · 0 Comments

A couple of well-known Greek cheeses and, of course, Greek yoghurt might very well be staples in your fridge, but apparently we're really missing out.

"It bugs me in a way that after all these years, people are still only familiar with feta and halloumi!" says Irini Tzortzoglou.

Tzortzoglou was the winner of the first all-female final of BBC's MasterChef when she lifted the trophy last year. The 60-year-old, who hails from a tiny village in Crete, impressed judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace with her sophisticated, modern take on traditional Greek fare.

Tzortzoglou's endearing warmth and cheerfulness won many hearts during her stint on the show, which has led to a new later-in-life career in food - a passion deep-rooted from a childhood growing up on her family's farm and in the kitchens of her grandparents in the village of Ano Akria.

"We grew grapes and made sultanas, and olives we had to pick in the middle of the winter -my little fingers were frozen but I had to be there after school and on non school days. The children in the farming community work! So that contact with food and soil and the earth, it's in my DNA," she says.

At home, where she grew up without electricity, they ate "things that didn't go off" - like chickpeas and broad beans. "Anything that grew in the sun in the mountains would be dried to have in the winter months. In the summer it would be a lot of vegetables, in the spring many wild greens," Tzortzoglou recalls. Her grandfather had 100 beehives so they ate a lot of dairy with honey - a classic Greek combination.

Her parents and both sets of grandparents' deeply-rooted influence is celebrated in Tzortzoglou's first cookbook, Under The Olive Tree: Recipes From My Greek Kitchen - which includes her grandmother Yiayia's pancakes with cheese, honey and cinnamon, 'garides saganaki' - king prawns, peppers, ouzo and feta, and 'fasolakia ladera' - runner bean and tomato casserole.

Food is less structured in Greece, she explains. When you cook, you make more than you need and bring it out at a later meal. "You end up having four or five different dishes on the table," she says, "so if you go to my uncle's house, you will get a feast, but that's not because he cooked that moment for you, he will have cooked for the day but then he will bring out 10 other things he's got in his fridge."

"At the Greek table, food was therapy, whether it was preparing for the other women of the family, and you talked and you cried and you showed your anger with your husband or your mother-in-law - it was the table where you resolved little things."

And there's a freedom about Greek food - so don't be a slave to the recipe, she says."You're creating something to feed your family, to entertain your friends, to be hospitable, so be relaxed about it. Cook with love and people will love it."

Sunshine salad


(Serves 4)

A handful of pistachio nuts

4-5 golden beetroots, preferably with their stalks

Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

A sprig of fresh thyme

2 garlic cloves, unpeeled

2 oranges

1 packet of watercress

2 baby gem lettuces

1/2 a fennel bulb, fronds reserved

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the beetroot stalks:

1tbsp extra virgin olive oil

A squeeze of lemon juice

For the dressing:

300ml freshly squeezed orange juice

Zest of 1 unwaxed orange

20ml lemon juice

1tsp orange blossom honey

50ml extra virgin olive oil

Seeds from 3 cardamom pods, crushed

1cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated


1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4. Roast the pistachios on a baking tray for five to seven minutes, then put aside to cool. Cut the stalks off the beetroots and set aside.

2. Wash and dry the beetroots and place them on a piece of foil large enough to wrap them completely. Drizzle them with a little oil, season with salt and pepper, then add the sprig of thyme and the garlic cloves, wrap well and place in the oven. Check after one hour by inserting a knife into the beetroots, though they may need as long as one-and-a-half hours, depending on their size.

3. Wash the stalks and cut them into pieces about 5cm long. Drop them into a pan of boiling water with a pinch of salt and cook for a few minutes, until soft but still with a bit of crunch, then drain and rinse under cold water. Put them into a bowl with a drizzle of oil and a squeeze of lemon, and season.

4. Take the beetroots out of the oven when cooked and leave to cool. Peel, thinly slice and put into a bowl. Drizzle with a little oil and season with salt and pepper.

5. Peel the oranges and divide into segments, discarding the membrane. Rinse and drain the watercress. Trim the ends off the lettuces and slice them horizontally into 0.5cm-thick rings. With a vegetable peeler or a mandolin, shave the fennel.

6. To make the dressing, bring the orange juice and zest to the boil in a small saucepan, then boil until reduced by half. Place in a small blender and add the lemon juice, honey, oil and a pinch of salt and pepper, and blend to a thick consistency. Add the cardamom seeds and grated ginger and give it a good stir.

7. On a flat serving plate, arrange the beetroot slices, watercress, fennel shavings, orange segments and baby gems in layers, scattering some of the beetroot stalks here and there. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and scatter over the roasted pistachios and fennel fronds.

Pan fried mullet


(Serves 2)

For the red mullet:

4 fillets of red mullet

25ml extra virgin olive oil

A squeeze of lemon juice

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the risotto:

750ml fish stock

50g pine nuts

2tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

100g risotto rice

100ml dry white wine

1 courgette, cut into matchsticks

For the sun-dried tomato cream:

6-7 sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained

2tbsp Greek yoghurt

2tbsp double cream

50ml extra virgin olive oil

2tbsp white wine vinegar

A pinch of dried rosemary

For the pickled radishes:

50ml white wine vinegar

50ml water

25g sugar

4 small red radishes with leaves attached, thinly sliced


1. Heat the stock in a saucepan, then keep it on a low to medium heat during the rest of the cooking process. Bring a small frying pan to a medium heat. Add the pine nuts and shake the pan while they turn a golden colour. Empty out on to a small dish and leave to cool.

2. To make the sun-dried tomato cream, place all the ingredients in a small blender with half the cooled pine nuts and blitz to a smooth cream. If your blender is not powerful enough, you may need to pass the cream through a sieve to remove any tomato skins. Taste and adjust the flavour with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, or a drop of lemon juice. Spoon the cream into a squeezy bottle or a piping bag, or into a small bowl, and set aside.

3. To pickle the radishes, put the vinegar, water and sugar into a small saucepan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the sliced radishes and leave to cool.

4. To make the risotto, bring a saute pan to a medium heat. Add the olive oil and shallot and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the garlic and the rice and toss to coat them in the oil. Cook for two to three more minutes, then add the wine and cook until it has evaporated.

5. Start adding the stock a ladle at a time, stirring constantly and not adding more until the previous ladle has been absorbed. Towards the end of the cooking time (about 20 minutes), add the courgettes. When the risotto is fully cooked, stir in the rest of pine nuts.

6. To fry the red mullet, wash the fillets and pat dry. Put a large non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and add the olive oil. Lay the fish in the frying pan skin-side down and press down gently, using a spatula. Try not to overcook the fish, as its flesh will toughen - depending on the size of the fillets, two or three 3 minutes should be enough.

7. When the fish is cooked, transfer it to a plate and season with a little lemon juice and flaky sea salt. To serve, spoon some risotto into the middle of each plate, place two red mullet fillets on top, followed by a few pickled radishes, and drizzle the sun-dried tomato cream all around the plate.

Olive and rosemart bread


2tsp dried active yeast

A pinch of caster sugar

300ml warm water

500g plain flour

100ml extra virgin olive oil

30g stoned Kalamata olives

Tips from a few fresh rosemary sprigs

Fleur de sel and extra virgin olive oil, for sprinkling


1. In a bowl, mix the yeast and sugar with the warm water. Cover and put in a warm place for about 15 minutes, or until you see bubbles on the surface.

2. Place the flour, olive oil and a pinch of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and add the yeast liquid. Using the dough hook, knead the dough for five minutes at a medium speed. Alternatively, knead the dough by hand on a floured surface for about 20 minutes, until it is shiny and elastic.

3. Place the dough in a clean bowl with a little oil, cover the bowl with cling film, then a dry tea towel, and leave in a warm place for about one hour, until it has risen to double its original size.

4. Knead gently again, then shape into a flat piece about 2cm deep and place it on a baking tray lined with baking parchment or a silicone baking mat.

5. Gently push the olives and rosemary tips into the dough, sprinkle with a little fleur de sel and extra virgin olive oil, cover with a slightly dampened tea towel, and leave for 30-60 minutes for it to rise some more.

6. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas 6. Put the bread into the oven and bake for about 30-40 minutes. Remove when it is golden in colour and hollow when you tap it underneath.

Under The Olive Tree: Recipes From My Greek Kitchen by Irini Tzortzoglou is published by Headline.


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