[Last night, Spetses, August 2007.]
… Greece, and the Mediterranean, slipping into a sea as still as glass and as warm as bathwater, impossibly clear. Drinking beer at a little cafe near the sea wall with my friend come over from Jerusalem for a long weekend, talking about things large and small. Riding bikes up a long, steep hill in the blazing sun, wiping sweat out of my eyes and breathing dust. It was so quiet you could hear the banging of gates that were meant to keep in the horses; they looked at us wearily as we sped past (they probably were off from pulling the carriages that week). Making dinner in ‘my’ apartment: roasted chicken, feta salads, stewed tomatoes, sauteed zuchini with fresh oregano, then getting ice cream from the little corner market. Getting up early-ish to swim my laps with only the fish for company and the blat of the ferry as it pulled into the harbor. The sweet air against my skin as we rode on motor bikes around the island. Swimming, every day, much more than once.
For the past two nights it’s been so windy here the windows rattled around in their sills with a feeling of fall. Every day lately has felt like fall; last night after work when I went for my run the wind pushed me back with all its might as if to tell me it was too cold and I should just give up and go home (I didn’t, but the fog came in awfully early which was daunting). However, it’s now June, and summer begins in just a few short weeks, so the only thing really I could do to console myself was to remember the heat of last August, in Greece.
I was supposed to go to Greece again this summer, to Thessaloniki and then even further north. My best friend and his wife are celebrating their wedding in her small village in the mountains, and even though I just went last summer I was set to go again. Then I looked at the price of the plane ticket and unfortunately my plans had to change; I already miss the trip that might have been. I could have taken a few extra days to go back to Halkidiki; I could have taken the train to Athens and then wandered the Acropolis again in the suffocating heat; I could have gone to Piraeus and caught a high-speed ferry to Spetses.
Sometimes I think of my trip there last year as if it were a dream — as I’ve written, I stretched out and ate and swam and swam and slept and just was for 10 days. I packed my bag heavily with books (it was so hot I didn’t much in the way of clothes, just a few skirts, a dress, my swimsuit) and read them all. I spent so many hours on the beach I lost track, and felt, for the very first time when traveling abroad that I belonged. My brother is gone from there now, to Maine, and I know if I went back to Spetses it wouldn’t be the same. Still, I wonder …
What, then, to do when you’re homesick for a place you might not get to see again for a very long time? You moon over old pictures, and then you make something involving feta cheese.
[Orzo with feta and spinach, June 2008.]
I just wrote a piece for NPR about my gradual, grudging acceptance of feta cheese, and it’s true I owe it all to Greece. When I was younger and tasted it I hated it: too salty and strange (I felt much the same about olives for a long time, too — oh, I am so Greek). Thank goodness our palates change as we grow older, because if I hadn’t given it a second chance I would have missed out on all the wonderful things one can make with it: spanikopita, baked feta with pita, salads piled high with the stuff, couscous salads — and this orzo pasta dish.
Maybe it was because feta was the subject and thus was at the forefront of my brain as I was writing that story, but my mind fixed on the idea of an orzo pasta run through with the crumbly cheese, lent a bit of bite from chopped red onion, and smoothed over with a luscious spinach sauce. At first I considered wilting the spinach and tossing it with the cooked pasta but I thought the whole thing would have tasted too bland and not flavored enough. So instead I pureed the spinach after I cooked it with a tablespoon of olive oil to make it silky smooth and creamy without any dairy (that would come later, with the feta) and tossed it with the orzo to coat. Then I added a vigorous shake of pepper and another of salt, drizzled with a bit more olive oil, threw in the onion and cheese, toasted some pine nuts and added those too, and stirred gently to combine.
Simple, fragrant with oregano, a bit crunchy and punctuated by salty pieces of feta, I ate this Sunday night with a glass of red wine alongside and hardly lamented the weekend’s passing. I also couldn’t stop filling my bowl (luckily I was alone for dinner, and didn’t have to share). The sun had been out for part of the day but by the time I sat down to my dinner and the paper, it was long gone. Lucky, then, I had incorporated enough feta cheese so that I could almost imagine myself sitting at the table outside my rented apartment, drinking cold beers with my brother and friend against the evening heat. It might not have been Greece, but it tasted pretty close.
Orzo with feta and spinach
1/2 pound spinach, washed and coarsely chopped
1 cup orzo
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
2 cups crumbled feta
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
salt and pepper
Boil 3 cups of water with a pinch of salt. Add the orzo and cook until al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water. Set aside.
Meandwhile, steam the spinach in a frying pan with a dash of water until wilted. Remove from heat and place in a food processor or blender with one tablespoon of olive oil and puree until smooth.
Put the orzo in a large bowl and pour the spinach puree over it. Mix well to blend. Add the red onion, pine nuts and feta cheese and toss to combine. Season with the oregano and salt and pepper to taste and drizzle with olive oil. Serve at room temperature.
Vegans: omit the cheese for an almost-as-good version.