Cooking and Loving Bitter Herbs

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

"I wonder if you Greeks eat also the stuff that comes out of your ears..." exclaimed chef Rick Moonen, having just spit out a piece of pickled volvos--wild hyacinth bulb (lampascioni in Italian). A dozen years ago I was asked to initiate Rick--then chef of Oceana--and Jim Botsacos into authentic Greek taste and home-cooking when the Livanos family was preparing to launch Molyvos in Manhattan.

Rick is one of the most talented chefs I know, and a really adventurous eater, but bitter seemed to be a taste he wouldn't tolerate. He is not alone. Many Americans and Europeans have an almost violent, and certainly visceral reaction toward bitter foods. On the other hand, Jim Botsacos--chef and partner of Molyvos, whose grandfather came from Mani, the southernmost part of the Greek mainland, and whose mother is from southern Italy--had no problem with the bitter, crunchy bulb. Later, he even decided to include it in his book, New Greek Cuisine.

In the old days bitterness was considered harmful, but today scientists insist the compounds that give bitter taste to some vegetables are good for our health.

Maybe we Greeks, together with the inhabitants of southern Italy, and especially Puglia (Puglia, at the heel of the Italian "boot," still with towns like Calimera and Gallipoli, is a testament to the roots laid down in the times of Magna Graecia), are somehow genetically conditioned to crave bitter tastes: besides wild hyacinth bulbs, we also love red-stemmed chicory, probably the most bitter of the bitter greens, and fresh cracked green olives that have just become edible, after a very brief curing.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

Healthy 'Poison'

Although in the old days bitterness was associated with something poisonous and harmful, today scientists insist that the compounds that give bitter taste to some vegetables are in fact beneficial to our own health. Galatsides, another strain of the extended bitter chicory family, are among the most popular winter greens foraged on Kea. Early in the spring, locals search the gardens and hills for porichia, the shoots of a wild mustard green. Rare and delicious, with only a slight bitter taste, porichia are blanched and served as salad, dressed with fruity olive oil and lemon. From my Kean grandfather I learned to drink the cooking water where the various wild greens are boiled. Ari's potlikker reminded me of this deliciously bitter broth, which I keep in bottles in the fridge and drink warm or cold with a fair amount of lemon juice.

Although we enjoy savory, bitter foods, this does not mean that Greeks like dark chocolate and plain black coffee. I have found that here, more than in other countries, men and women prefer milk chocolate, add a fair amount of sugar to their coffee, and crave Greek sweets: the syrup-drenched baklava or galatoboureko (custard pie), and even the Western-inspired cakes contain much more sugar than you would expect.

Ancient Aphrodisiac

Volvoi (plural of volvos) are usually gathered from the wild and were much praised by ancient Greeks, who believed them aphrodisiacs. In ancient texts I came across a description of a lentil soup complimented with wild hyacinth bulbs, and I prepared it. I find it a truly wonderful combination, as the sweet and mushy lentils are balanced perfectly by the crunchy and bitter volvoi.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

During the spring one can buy freshly uprooted tiny bulbs at the farmer's markets in Athens, although very few people nowadays decide to blanch, peel, cook, and pickle them at home. They are available in jars in supermarkets, as they are traditionally part of the vegetarian Lenten table. Throughout the year they are served as mezze with our strong, yet somewhat sweet drinks: tsipouro, ouzo, or raki.

In Crete, where one finds the most interesting dishes prepared with all sorts of foraged greens and roots, volvoi are fried in olive oil, and also cooked together with fresh fava and other vegetables in lemon infused spring stews. But it is in Puglia that lampascioni find their way into a great variety of dishes. Just searching the word on Flickr I came across the most inviting dish of scrambled eggs with lampascioni and lots of other pictures of the bulbs, cooked and raw, as well as artistic shots of the pretty grape or tassel hyacinth flowers. I was surprised to see that European and American nurseries and seed catalogs sell different kinds of wild hyacinths as ornamental plants.

Lentil Soup with Wild Hyacinth Bulbs, Garlic, and Mint

Because Greek volvoi are no longer exported for use abroad, you can get the ones from Puglia, either roasted or in vinegar

Makes 4 servings

• 4 cups water
    • 1 cup brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
    • 2 bay leaves
    • 3 tablespoons olive oil
    • 1 tablespoon chopped red garlic cloves
    • 1/2-1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
    • 3 cups Chicken or Vegetable Stock
    • Salt
    • 1 cup pickled volvoi (wild hyacinth bulbs), drained
    • Freshly ground black pepper
    • 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint, plus a few leaves for garnish
    • Extra-virgin olive oil
    • Sweet Greek vinegar, such as Kalamata vinegar, or balsamic vinegar

In a large pot, combine the water, lentils, and bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Discard the bay leaves.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

Wipe out the pot with paper towels. Heat the oil in the pot and sauté the garlic with the Aleppo pepper or pepper flakes over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add the lentils and sauté for 1 minute.

Add the reserved cooking liquid, the stock, and very little salt--volvoi are usually strongly pre-salted--bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Return the broth to boiling, add the volvoi, and increase the heat to medium and cook for 3 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding a few grindings of black pepper. Stir in the mint.

Ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle oil and a little vinegar over each serving, and garnish with the mint leaves.