When you taste Aglaia’s “Lazy Woman’s Pie” fresh from the oven, you are struck with the taste of love. Oh, the aroma of her crumbled feta Crispy Cheese Pie coming out of the oven is a sensory memory I’ll never forget. I’m transported back under that fig tree, taking Aglaia’s outdoor cooking classes at Kea Artisanal on making homemade phyllo dough at her home in Kea, Greece.
I’ve always felt I should have been Greek, but with my strong Southern upbringing, I had to wait until much later in life to connect with my mentor, dear friend and adopted Greek aunt, Aglaia Kremezi.
This past fall, Aglaia visited San Francisco to promote her latest book, Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts. I had the great pleasure of helping her with her cooking demo at CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and attended her beautiful dinner at 18 Reasons where her Nettles Soup was one of our starters. I’m excited to share with you my recreation of this divine recipe from spring nettels we discovered at the farmer’s market in March.
Of her six cookbooks on Mediterranean cooking, this one is my favorite. She has not only gone back to her roots, with the seasonal vegetarian foods she was raised on, but she has also opened a window into a world for cooks across the globe to learn how to make simple, yet extremely flavorful plant based meals to nourish even the most discerning palettes.
If you have never tried them, nettles are amazing. As Langdon Cook refers to them in his book on foraging wild edibles, Fat of the Land, stinging nettles are the kryptonite of the plant kingdom. Loaded with more iron than spinach, rich in calcium, protein and a whole host of vitamins, nettles have been used for medicinal purposes for ages. These wild greens are among the many Aglaia explores in her book and are favorites of Balkan foragers for their deep, sweet flavor.
Even a boy scout will tell you, the fine thin hairs on these wild greens hurt if they brush against your skin. Be sure to handle the uncooked nettles with gloves or tongs to avoid a sting when washing and removing the stems. Once you’ve blanched them, they are no longer treacherous and can be handled with your bare hands. As Aglaia suggests in her book, don’t throw out their cooking liquid. Instead, drink this lovely tea with a fresh squeeze of lemon.
What I adore about learning from Aglaia is that she takes us back to how it was always done, while also reminding us of how we can explore both old and new ways of cooking Mediterranean dishes. Her ancestors cooked and ate what was in season. Meat was expensive and greens, called horta, were plentiful. They built upon these basic components with staples like beans, nuts, grains, good olive oil, olives, capers, local cheeses, and yogurt–and occasionally cured or fresh fish.
Aglaia’s advice is practical and empowering for every home cook that wants to eat delicious food and make it good for their family.
Shop with your head up, not buried in a list; look, touch, taste, and smell what the market has to offer. Go to your local farmers market without a recipe or shopping list in hand; choose the seasonal produce that inspires you, and only then search the pages that follow for recipes that will showcase your fresh ingredients.
If you want to learn how to build your pantry with essential Mediterranean ingredients and how to cook from scratch in well-planned stages, these sections are beautifully laid out with stories from her experiences and those of her ancestors. Aglaia takes you on a trip to a time when cooks wasted nothing and grandmothers lived to 98 years-old, giving and taking their own advice for daily doses of yogurt to ensure good health.
What I love most about cooking Aglaia’s recipes is also what I love about teaching kids to explore new foods. They take me to a far away place that I can recreate easily in my own kitchen, using the same ingredients she would on her beautiful Greek island. It’s an adventure that’s not only fun but also sensorily delightful.
When you open Aglaia’s gorgeous book, don’t miss her dedication to her mother, Frossoula Kremezi, and “to the Mediterranean women who bring love and joy to the table, the two secret ingredients that elevate even the humblest meal to an amazing feast!”
As I teach kids and families to love eating vegetables and fruits each season, I always feel Aglaia with me in spirit, looking over my shoulder saying “bravo,” and reminding me that to teach and bring the joy of cooking to others is the greatest expression of love I can bring into this world. Thank you, Aglaia!
- Nettle tops, 1 pound, (thick stems discarded)
- Olive oil, ⅓ cup
- Garlic, 1 ½ tsp
- Porcini Mushrooms, dried, 50 grams
- Morel Mushrooms, fresh or dried, 6 to 12
- Dry white wine, 1 cup
- Romaine lettuce, 6 large outer green leaves
- Parsley, 3 bunches (fresh)
- Salt, approximately 2 ½ tsp
- Vegetable broth, 1 cup
- Greek-style yogurt, 1 cup (plus more than serving)
- Black pepper, approximately ¼ tsp
- Good fruity olive oil for drizzling
- Cilantro, ½ cup, for garnish
- Take 5 minutes to get out all your ingredients, measuring and cooking equipment needed, and place them on a cookie sheet within easy reach.
- Wash all produce.
- Soak dried mushrooms in hot water for 30 minutes to rehydrate. Note: this recipe calls for using the soaking liquid which is full of flavor. I like to pass that liquid through a mesh strainer lined with a coffee filter to ensure I capture any remaining dirt that was on the dried mushrooms. The recipe calls for 1 cup of hot water for the porcini and one cup for the morels, if dried.
- Rough chop romaine and parsley. Discard stems from parsley.
- Bring a large pot of water (1.5 quarts) up to a boil.
- Blanch the nettles in 1 ½ quarts boiling water for about 3 minutes, until well wilted. Remove with tongs or a slotted spoon and let drain in a colander. Reserve the cooking broth.
- In a medium pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and saute for one minute. Add the porcini and their soaking liquid as well as the morels (if using). Saute until tender, 3 to 4 minutes, then carefully remove the morels only and set them aside. Pour in the wine and add the romaine, parsley, and salt. Toss several times, until the greens are wilted and soft.
- In the bowl of a food processor, combine the greens-and-porcini mixture from the pot with the drained nettles. Add a few teaspoons of the reserved nettle broth and pulse several times to make a paste. You will have to scrape down all the bits that stick to the sides of the bowl as you process. At this point, classic French cuisine would have you pass the paste through a fine sieve in order to make a perfectly smooth soup. I love a chunky texture so I omit this step, but it is up to you.
- Pour the green pulp back into the pot and add the vegetable broth and 1 cup of the reserved nettle broth. Bring the soup to a slow boil, and then reduce the heat. Simmer, half-covered, stirring every now and then, for about 15 minutes, until the soup thickens.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the yogurt and plenty of pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
- Serve in bowls, adding 1 to 2 morels to each serving, if using. Drizzle with good, fruity olive oil and garnish with the chervil leaves. Serve extra yogurt on the side.
- If nettles are not available, replace them with ⅔ pound tender spinach leaves. The taste will be different but still delicious. Serve warm or cold.
- As Morel mushrooms were not available at my store, I used two packages of dried porcini mushrooms, which were both 28 grams in weight. For garlic, I used 4 small-medium sized garlic cloves, and slightly more white wine, 1 ⅓ cups, so I could use up a bottle!