Greek food is the absolute best. Using the freshest of ingredients, locally-grown products, aromatic herbs and tangy spices, there is nothing that compares to this harbinger of the Mediterranean diet. Every Greek woman has her own way of making traditional recipes–those “secret” tips that make her cuisine unique.
And this especially applies to my cousin, Eleni Koniditsiotis Kostakos, born in Amykles and now residing in Agios Ioannis. Because I offered to help one afternoon as she was preparing dinner, I finally, finally learned her secret to making meatballs that are soft yet firm.
The secret ingredient? Olive oil in the meat. It provides the “glue” to hold the meat, bread crumbs and other ingredients together and to keep the meatballs from falling apart.
In this bowl are (no measurements): ground beef, dry bread crumbs as well as stale bread which has been rolled between our hands to make crumbs, a puree of garlic and red onions (this prevents chunks which cause the meatballs to crack), eggs, salt, pepper, basil and cumin. I was surprised that there was no oregano, but I might try adding some. And of course, olive oil. Lots of it! Squish everything together and start rolling the meatballs. I was surprised at how smooth they were, and that’s the secret to keep them from falling apart while cooking.
Speaking of olive oil, there is nothing like fresh-pressed oil found in every Greek home. Eleni’s family, like most in Sparta, have olive trees. The olives are beginning to grow now, and are harvested in early winter, November-December.
The harvest is a task that is done by hand, not machine, and the entire family works together. Preparation begins early. Last week, Eleni washed the nets which are spread under the trees to catch the fruit. She then stretched them out to dry.
Every village has a processing plant where the oil is extracted; smaller settlements will bring their olives to the closest one. Families keep enough for their own use and may sell their surplus. I love Eleni’s olives. Unlike those sold in stores, hers are not kept in brine, but are packed in oil which makes them sweet, not bitter.
Now I have to figure out how to get bottles like these home!