Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Lisa's Vegetarian Youvetsi

This dish came about by accident. Tony needed a tomato-based sauce to accompany the Keftethakia (fried meatballs) he was cooking up. The intention was to prepare a rich napoli sauce to pour over the meatballs, and boil some risoni separately to serve on the side. In the final stages of reducing the sauce, I thought it might be better to add the par-boiled risoni to the sauce and let it finish cooking in the sauce. I put the lid on, turned down the heat and ten minutes later when Tony asked for the sauce, I lifted the lid to discover there was no longer sauce. Just a pot full of tomato-tinged risoni! Tony was mortified. But tsatsiki, the new accompaniment for his meatballs, would have to suffice, and the accidental tomato-tinged risoni was now to become a side dish of Vegetarian Youvetsi.

Youvetsi is traditionally made with lamb and cooked in the oven for several hours. I'm sure Youvetsi experts would be horrified to know I didn't cook my vegetarian youvetsi in the oven ... which is why I didn't mention that detail to anyone that day. Everyone was so impressed with the flavour, especially given it had no meat, that I didn't want to spoil the moment. I'm not even sure some of them realised there was no meat in the dish! I thought it best to just accept the positive feedback and not reveal any of my "secrets"! ... Until now:

Lisa's Vegetarian Youvetsi (serves 6)


2 large onions, finely chopped
6 large tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 large red capsicums
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 heaped tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and pepper to taste


Slice capsicums lengthways and remove seeds. Arrange capsicum slices (skin up) on baking tray, spray with olive oil and grill under high heat for 10 minutes until blackened. Place capsicum slices in a plastic bag and leave to sweat for 10 minutes.

Melt the butter over medium heat in a large heavy-based pot and add olive oil. Add onions and turn down heat. Fry for 20 minutes or until onions are golden and caramelised.

Meanwhile, score (in a cross shape) the bottom of each tomato with a sharp knife and blanch tomatoes for 20 seconds in boiling water. Remove tomatoes from boiling water and immediately place in a bowl of cold water. After a few minutes the tomatoes will be cool enough to handle so you can easily peel off the skins.

Chop the tomatoes finely and add to onions along with tomato paste, wine, bay leaves, cinnamon and honey and stir thoroughly.

Remove capsicum slices from the plastic bag and peel off the skins. Cut into small pieces, add to the sauce and stir.

Allow sauce to simmer uncovered on low heat for at least one hour, stirring occasionally.

Place two cups of risoni in boiling water and cook for ten minutes. Drain and transfer risoni to sauce during final 10 minutes of sauce cooking time and place lid on pot.

After 10 minutes turn off the heat and leave pot on the stove for another 10–15 minutes to allow all the sauce to be absorbed by the risoni.

Serve with lots of grated Cretan Graviera cheese.

Hermion Restaurant, Plaka

It was more than two weeks ago now that we were enjoying lunch at Hermion Restaurant on our last day in Athens, and I only just realised today that I still haven't written the review. The heat in Greece has burned away a few brain cells I think.

It was our last day in Athens before flying out to Limnos so we tried to fit in as much as we could that day. Probably not the best thing to be attempting when it's 39 degrees. After a train trip up to Kiffisia, and a hot and sweaty adventure on foot around Athens looking for the Hellenic American Union adult education centre (Tony is learning Greek through their online courses), we thought it would be fitting to cool off for lunch under the shade of Hermion Restaurant in Plaka.

My dad had taken me to this place the first time I ever went to Greece when I was 16 years old. I remember pergolas densely shaded with grapevines and dad running into an old friend there that he hadn't seen in years. Ever since that day back in 1983, my dad has always told me "Next time you're in Athens you must go back to Hermion". For one reason or another there hasn't been the opportunity to go back there, until now.

Hermion Restaurant is hidden away from view behind some old buildings in Plaka, near the Mitropoleos Cathedral. There is a sign on the footpath directing you through the arcade that takes you to the restaurant, but it's easily missed. You are lead to a beautiful shady courtyard, only now there are mostly canvas canopies instead of grapevine-laden pergolas. There is also a large indoor eating area for the winter months.

The food is lovely. Traditional Greek fare but still lovely. Not too oily and really fresh ingredients. There weren't many people there so the service was excellent. There was also some live music by way of a duet of musicians, one on classical guitar and the other on mandolin, playing mostly traditional Greek love songs from the 1940s and 50s.

The obligatory bread came with some plump black olives and a creamy cheese dip. We also ordered saganaki (fried cheese), village salad, zucchini fritters and spaghetti bolognese. I seem to remember dad telling me Hermion is famous for their spaghetti bolognese so I insisted Tony order it. Dad later told me he never said anything of the sort so I'm not sure where I got that idea from, but Tony loved it nevertheless. He said it had a very exotic taste with hints of cinnamon and cloves. The saganaki and zucchini fritters were freshly prepared, crisp on the outside and soft in the middle, and the salad had the sweetest, ripest tomatoes we'd eaten in Athens.

We couldn't really fault any of the dishes except for the creamy cheese dip that came with the bread. It appeared to be sweetened whipped cream with a little bit of feta stirred through it. Just a little bit weird for our likings.

The setting, the music and food of Hermion Restaurant are three very good reasons to relax here for lunch on a hot Athenian day, and yes dad, next time we're in Athens we will definitely be going back to Hermion!

You can find Hermion Restaurant at:
15 Pandrosou Street, Plaka
Phone: +30 210 324 7148
Website: www.hermion.gr
Rating: 8/10