Take the bait

In­tro­duc­ing res­i­dent chef Mar­i­anna Leiva­di­taki

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Mariana Leiva­di­tald is head chef at Lon­don mezze/ ta­pas bar Morito

I try to hold on to those ini­tial mo­ments I had with food, which have played such a cru­cial part in who I am

When you have grown up in a place you can for­get the beauty of it. You take it for granted. Some­times you even find it bor­ing, want to leave and cross the seas for new ad­ven­tures.

Then, as the years go by, you find your­self look­ing around when you go back to visit. You marvel at the beauty of it all, al­most incredulous that you spent your child­hood there.

I was born in Cha­nia, Crete. My Cre­tan fa­ther is a fish­er­man and my Scot­tish mother was in charge of run­ning our seafood restau­rant – Akroli­mano was its name, mean­ing “the end of the har­bour”, which is ex­actly where it was. Our days were spent around the wa­ter or talk­ing about the sea, the weather, the wind. Oh, the wind, is it strong? Is it work­able? Can dad go fish­ing? Will we have enough fish for the restau­rant? So many con­ver­sa­tions about the wind! To this day, when it’s windy in Lon­don, I think of my dad on his fish­ing boat in Crete.

We were one of the luck­i­est fam­i­lies around. We ate fish ev­ery day, fish caught by my dad’s hands; one man in a small boat. He fished alone all night long. When he came back in the morn­ing, he would of­ten ask me to cook him some fish be­fore he went to rest. When re­ally lit­tle I would have to climb on a chair to reach the sink, clean the fish com­pletely and fry it. (Hav­ing fish for break­fast is a good start to the day.)

Later on in the day came the prepa­ra­tion of bait for the next night’s fish­ing. It al­ways had to be the freshest bait avail­able, be­cause the fish were picky. Some­times it was oc­to­pus or squid, oth­ers it was anchovies, sar­dines, prawns, sea cu­cum­bers or limpets. Limpets were the hard­est to pre­pare as their stiff lit­tle bod­ies were so re­sis­tant to aban­don­ing their shells.

The rit­u­als would con­tinue when mum came back from the mar­ket with a haul of oc­to­pus for the restau­rant. We would clean it and hang it on our wash­ing line to dry in the sun un­til the early evening. First, you slit the hood open so it is flat, then you make another slit from the base of the hood to the mouth, re­move the beak and then slice in­be­tween two legs so that the whole oc­to­pus lies flat. You put the oc­to­pus in a large bucket and take it to the wash­ing line to hang. Each oc­to­pus needs four pegs. Two for the hood, and two for the first two legs on ei­ther side of the hood. We would let it hang for 4-5 hours un­der the hot sun.

By this time, the oc­to­pus was stiff and dry and perfect for what was go­ing to hap­pen next. When the char­coal was lit and the coals were red and hot, but with­out flames, we would put each oc­to­pus on a char­coal grill for about 40-45 min­utes, turn­ing it ev­ery so of­ten so it didn’t burn. When ready, we sim­ply served it with a quar­ter of a lemon and that was it.

I can still smell the aro­mas of our restau­rant’s kitchen. Ev­ery­thing was so fresh and cooked so sim­ply. There was no oven in our kitchen, just the 5-me­tre-long grill that stretched from one side to the other. At around 6pm, the grill would be full of small cut­tle­fish, slowly cook­ing over the char­coal un­til ten­der and golden brown. When the or­ders would start com­ing in we would stuff their alien lit­tle bod­ies with amaz­ing fresh cheese and aro­mat­ics and put them back on the grill un­til ev­ery­thing had melted. It was such a fun dish to cre­ate and ev­ery­one loved it.

In the sum­mer months, when we could get amaz­ingly fresh prawns, we would make the saganaki, a cheesy ap­pe­tiser pre­pared in a small fry­ing pan. We would go to the fish mar­ket and by prawns by the crate. We would sit around the ta­ble and peel them. (We were fast peel­ers thanks to all the ex­pe­ri­ence we had gained from pre­par­ing them for bait.)

We used to make large pots of the sweet onion and pep­per base and any­one walk­ing into the kitchen would sim­ply smell and smile ... and then the feta! It was soft and silky made by Mar­ian and her fam­ily in a small vil­lage out­side Cha­nia. It is the best feta I have ever tried. This is my favourite dish on a hot sum­mer night, sit­ting by the sea and sip­ping an ice-cold glass of ouzo.

Over the years, and through my ex­pe­ri­ences away from home, I try to hold on to those ini­tial mo­ments I had with food, which have played such a cru­cial part in who I am and how I cook to­day. The op­por­tu­nity to recre­ate this for oth­ers and of­fer th­ese flavours – both in Morito and here in print – makes me love my job more than ever.

Prawn and mus­sel saganaki with feta, fen­nel and ouzo Serves 4-6

4 tbsp olive oil 1 ro­mano pep­per, chopped 1 green pep­per, chopped

1 white onion, chopped 1 fen­nel bulb, chopped 3 gar­lic cloves, chopped 3 red fresh chill­ies, de­seeded and chopped 1 tsp anise seeds, crushed Salt and black pep­per 500g fresh mus­sels 200ml white wine 3-4 tbsp ouzo 200g feta 300g fresh cooked prawns, peeled Pars­ley, chopped, to serve

1 Start by mak­ing the sweet base. Warm a pan over medium heat. When hot, add 4 tbsp olive oil fol­lowed by the pep­pers, onion, fen­nel, gar­lic, red chill­ies and anise seeds. Sea­son with salt and pep­per, lower the heat and cover the pan. Cook for about 15-20 min­utes, or un­til sweet and golden.

2 Mean­while, add the mus­sels and wine to a hot pan and cook un­til they just be­gin to open. Re­move the mus­sels from their shells and set aside. Keep the cook­ing liq­uid. You may need it later to thin the sauce down a bit.

3 Add the ouzo and feta to the base and stir gen­tly un­til it be­gins to melt. Add the prawns and mus­sels and turn off the heat. Sprin­kle with chopped pars­ley and serve with toast.

Cut­tle­fish stuffed with sun-dried toma­toes, anchovies, goat’s curd and sage Serves 4-6

600-800g fresh cut­tle­fish or squid, cleaned but kept whole 2 tbsp olive oil

For the stuff­ing

4 tbsp sun-dried toma­toes, finely chopped 10 an­chovy fil­lets, chopped 300g goat’s curd 4 tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped 300g chard, chopped finely, plus 2 whole large chard leaves 3 tbsp sage leaves, chopped finely 1 tbsp capers Salt 3 tbsp olive oil

To gar­nish

A hand­ful of rocket leaves Juice of half a lemon Ex­tra vir­gin olive oil Salt

1 Pre­heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Put all the stuff­ing in­gre­di­ents in a bowl to­gether and mix well.

2 Stuff the cut­tle­fish or squid with the mix and then tuck the ten­ta­cles into the open­ing to seal it.

3 Put the whole chard leaves on the base of a small bak­ing tray and add the stuffed cut­tle­fish or squid. Driz­zle with 2 tbsp oil and sprin­kle with salt. Cover with parch­ment, then bake for around 30 min­utes, or un­til ten­der.

4 Re­move the pa­per. Put the tray un­der the grill to get some colour. Serve whole or cut into smaller pieces with some rocket leaves sea­soned with lemon juice, olive oil and salt.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.