Near the top of a little hill above the harbor, we found a pleasant, brightly lit taverna, half-filled with what was left of the tourist trade and what was left of the locals. Perfect, we thought, and enough room to pull together a table for nine. As we looked over the menu posted in front of the entrance, my friend Gary noticed something in the distance.
He pointed to a bit of curling smoke that was coming from behind the scrubby, parched bushes several yards up the hill. I was intrigued, too. In my hunger-fueled imagination, those curls of smoke reached out to us with long, wispy cartoon fingers and pulled three of us by the nostrils further up the hill.
What we found was another taverna-- dimly lit and much less crowded, unless one counts the two dozen or so cats roaming about, aggressively begging for food. We were greeted both by the smell of a whole lamb roasting-- unmanned-- over an open fire, and the shrill yell of a very tan, very blonde Greek woman. Her ire was cast in the direction of a very tan, very not-blond Greek boy. She pointed to the lamb as she yelled. He withered, made his way over to the rotisserie, and started to slowly turn the crank; sulking and looking at the lamb as though he felt it had fully deserved its death, but angered by the fact that he was the one chosen to carry out the disposal of its remains.
"Oh, God. We have to eat here," was what one of us said. It doesn't matter which of us, because it's what we were all thinking.
Slow-roasted lamb and drama. It had all the delicious possibility of a dinner theatre specializing in Greek tragedy. We headed back to the other taverna to share our discovery. The rest of our crew were already seated and drinking, therefore unmoveable. They saw no reason on earth that they should pull themselves away from their beers and their sunset view, even if the sun might have been setting over the other side of the island. Their loss, I thought, as Gary, Bill, and I walked back to the cat-infested place.
Apart from having to throw the occasional cat off the table, our dinner was marvelous. We dined off of the slow, grudgingly-roasted fruits of Greek child labor served over roasted potatoes with lemon and lamb drippings, grilled local octopus, and platter of little fried fish called athirina, which nearly infested the harbor's waters.
It was the fried fish that caught my attention. Where I work, we do the same thing with smelt-- dredging them in chickpea flour and frying them until crisp. Tossed with fresh lemon juice, salt, and parsley, we place a big pile of them on a blue plate (shaped like a fish, appropriately enough) and serve them with a big dollop of skordalia through which one might drag their little fried heads. When the blonde, big-lunged proprietress brought the fish to our table, they were accompanied solely by two wedges of lemon. leading to a profound sense of disappointment on my end. I had just assumed that they would come with that sharply garlicky dip.
"No skordalia?" I asked. I wanted to sound disappointed-- as though I had traveled 7,000 miles to come to this particular island, to sit among these particular semi-feral cats, to eat of this particular woman's famous garlic dip.
"No, no skordalia," she said. "The people," she gesticulated with a sweep of her bronzed arms as though to suggest the other diners, both real and imagined, "they do not like so much the garlic." I wondered if she was specifically referring to the older German couple we had earlier mistaken for an ancient sea captain and his long-suffering wife. I inwardly cast them as garlic-haters.
"Well, I do. I love skordalia," I said.
"You do?" Her eyes widened, she hunched over a bit in my direction, and with a big smile on her face said, "Okay, I make you some!" She punched an index finger upwards as she said it, which added a nice visual exclamation mark to the end of that particular sentence.
From our table, she dashed off into the kitchen, yelling something again to her child as she went. A couple minutes later, we could hear the whirring of a blender. We occupied ourselves in the meantime by elbowing cats from the table and off our laps. Shortly thereafter, the woman reappeared at our table with a bowl of fresh skordalia. "Kalisas orexi!" she said rather formally, wishing us good eating. And on that note, she turned on her heel and headed back inside with a noticeably lighter step and an audibly more gentle calling out to her child/slave. Or so it seemed to me.
We were left with enough skordalia to drag a whole harbor's worth of fried fish through. I was worried that, if we didn't finish the whole thing, we might offend our hostess. No matter, really. I was delighted, she was delighted and, most of all, I think, those cats were delighted when we coated what was left of that pile of fish in gobs of skordalia and threw bits into the shrubbery for them to fight over when no one was looking. Everybody was happy.
And now, I make you some.
Skordalia with Roasted Beets
Serves 2 to 4 people, 20 to 40 cats.
Since I was too lazy to trawl San Francisco Bay for small, edible fish, I did the next best thing, which was trawl the Tuesday farmer's market for small, edible beets, which are conveniently in season and-- even more conveniently-- traditionally served with skordalia.
For the skordalia:
About 1 pound of Russet potatoes, well scrubbed
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt, plus a scant handful for the potato water
8 to 10 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup blanched almonds, whole or slivers
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Use Greek to keep in theme. Other nations' oils will do just fine, too, but the Greeks, you know, invented olive oil, just like they invented everything.
1/2 cup water (I use the water from the potato boiling pot.)
The juice of one lemon
4 to 5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
For the beets:
1 pound of beets, scrubbed clean and the ends trimmed. I have used chioggia and golden beets in this particular case, because they are delightful-- namely for their reluctance to stain my hands red.
About 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil.
A good pinch of kosher salt
A slightly less-good pinch of cinnamon
1. On a foil-lined baking sheet, toss beets in oil, salt, and cinnamon, making sure they are all well-coated. Place beets on the middle rack of an oven that has been pre-heated to 350 F. Roast until tender, which will depend upon the size of your beets. These took about 35 minutes.
2. While beets are roasting, place potatoes is a large pot of generously salted water and bring to a boil. Cook until tender (when a knife blade slips easily into the center of one).
3. While the beets are roasting and the potatoes boiling, combine garlic and almonds in a food processor, slowly adding 1/2 cup of olive oil as you go. Since one is not making an emulsion, one need not worry about pouring to quickly or too slowly. Just blend until a smooth consistency is achieved. Set aside.
4. Reserving 1/2 cup of the potato water, drain the potatoes. Let cool for a few moments, then rubs them free of their jackets in a clean towel. Roughly chop the potatoes and press them through a potato ricer or mash them manually. Do not, however, try to blend them in your food processor or they will get all gummy. Rice them into a large, clean bowl.
5. Add the garlic/almond mixture to the potatoes while the potatoes are still warm and combine; adding the lemon juice, potato water, salt, and vinegar as you go. Add pepper and more salt, if necessary, to taste.
Congratulations-- you now have your very own skordalia.
7. Remove beets from the oven when tender. Let stand a few minutes to cool slightly, then peel and cut to whatever size you desire them to be. Return the beets to the olive oil/salt/cinnamon-dirtied sheet pan and coat them once again in that particular goop. Add a touch more salt and cinnamon, if desired.