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Eric Akis: Grandmother's cooking inspires Cyprus Cuisine cookbook

Victoria author set out to preserve family recipes enjoyed on childhood trips to Amargeti
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These tasty, Cypriot-style, squash-filled hand pies are from the cookbook Cyprus Cuisine by Christina Loucas.

My favourite cookbooks are ones written with passion and purpose. Engaging works as enjoyable to read, as they are to cook from. After reviewing Victoria-based Christina Loucas’s recently published book, Cyprus Cuisine (Whitecap Books), it was clear it checked off those boxes.

Loucas’s introduction to good food began at an early age. As a child she helped out in her late father, Harry’s, restaurant, Victoria Harbour House, which he operated for 27 years and sold in 2007.

As a child, every summer she would travel with her mother, Katherine, a trained baker, and her sister, Stephanie, to Amargeti, Cyprus, where her grandmother Despina lived. It was there that the seed to one day write a cookbook was planted.

“Amargeti is a typical Cypriot mountain village — cactus pears grow along the roadside, grape vines swirl around your head. Olive and lemon trees stood heavy with fruit, as they probably had for hundred of years,” Loucas writes her book. Adding that her grandmother, other relatives and acquaintances there kept up Cypriot culinary traditions, such as making homemade halloumi (cheese), and bottles of lemon squash, a syrupy base for making Cypriot-style lemonade.

When Loucas became an adult, trips to Cyprus became less frequent. That was because her career choice took her to London, England, where she worked as an international arbitration lawyer. It was rewarding work, but it was stressful, energy draining and involved long work hours.

When she did get to Cyprus during that time period, Loucas said she noticed less of the homemade foods she remembered from her childhood. Folks she knew making them, such as her grandmother, were growing old, others were dying, and their methods for making traditional foods were not always being documented.

“When I looked for a cookbook telling me how to cook these recipes, I could not find one that explained things in a way I could relate to,” Loucas writes in her book. She then determined, if she wanted to preserve her family’s recipes, she would have do it her herself.

Loucas decided to move to Cyprus for what she deemed a brief adventurous career break to begin work on that project. Influential people she knew, though, were shocked at that decision, thinking it would jeopardize her legal career. She wavered and took a position with a Cypriot law firm, with the mindset that in her off time she would write the cookbook, but fate had other plans for her.

In brief, she started feeling exhausted all the time, sought medical attention, was diagnosed with a serious illness and ended up back in London, this time in a hospital, to have surgery and convalesce. She recovered, took a new view of life and decided to unapologetically do things she dreamt of doing. They included becoming a skilled photographer, working on her food blog Afrodite’s Kitchen (afroditeskitchen.com) and creating her beautiful cookbook, Cyprus Cuisine.

“When I first held the book, I felt a sense of accomplishment. It was a passion project come true — both preserving my family’s recipes and also publishing my first cookbook,” Loucas said. “It was also the first significant achievement after my thyroid cancer and change of career.”

Cyprus is a small Island in the Mediterranean Sea, in the vicinity of places such as Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Greece and Turkey. Over time, those places influenced the foods eaten on Cyprus. As Loucas says her book, Cyprus has a humble but alluring eastern Mediterranean cuisine where Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours and ingredients mix together.

This fusion is reflected in her book’s recipes, accompanied by her marvelous photos, including many step-by-step preparation shots.

“In Cyprus, we eat mostly vegetarian food on a day to day basis,” Loucas said. Which is why in her book you’ll find tasty recipes for such things as Cypriot lentils, spinach pies and shelled white bean soup.

Meat, of course, is also eaten and you’ll be happy you showed up at the table if Loucas’s lamb orzo stew, egg lemon drop soup with meatballs or hearty and amazing Cypriot Lasagna were served.

The book also has recipes for drinks, such as lemon verbena iced tea, breads and pastries, such honey cinnamon sticks, seafood, dips, salads, pickles and sweets, such as pistachio baklava.

Preceding the recipes in the book, are sections on Cypriot cooking and important ingredients and tools that provide you with enlightening information about the Island’s cuisine. The book also has photos taken in Cyprus — at farm markets, by the sea and of people there.

“I have tried, through the images I took, to transport people to a beautiful Mediterranean island through its colours and scenes,” Loucas said. “I made the recipes accessible to anyone anywhere in the world, as it was my goal for those living outside of Cyprus to be able to enjoy the wonderful cuisine.”

Cyprus Cuisine can be bought in Greater Victoria at Bolen Books, Munro’s and Bungalow. It’s also available from online sellers.

Butternut Squash Pies (Kolokotes)

This recipe is from Christiana Loucas’s Cyprus Cuisine (Whitecap Books). She says these delicious hand pies are typically made in the fall and winter when a particular variety of squash comes into season in Cyprus. It’s difficult to find here, so in Canada she uses a combination of acorn and kabocha squash. You can also use 4 cups butternut squash in the filling, as the recipe name suggests.

Makes: 12 small pies.

For the filling:

2 cups cubed acorn squash (1/2-inch cubes)

2 cups cubed kabocha squash (1/2-inch cubes)

1 shallot, lightly sautéed in 2 Tbsp olive oil

3 to 4 Tbsp chopped fennel fronds (the green leaves)

1/2 tsp pepper (or more to taste)

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 Tbsp brown sugar

1/2 cup fine bulgur wheat

1/2 cup sultana raisins

For the dough:

4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup (60 mL) olive oil

1 Tbsp chardonnay vinegar (or any vinegar)

• pinch of salt

1 1/2 cups warm water

• olive oil, for coating

Mix all filling ingredients together in a bowl and let rest for two hours.

To make dough, in a large bowl, rub the flour and olive oil together with your fingers so that the flour absorbs the oil. Add the vinegar, salt and warm water, and mix the dough together with your hands. Add more flour and/or warm water if needed, so that you can form a ball. Shape the dough into a ball, place it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and two kitchen towels and let rest for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough 1/4 inch thick. Cut out circles with six-inch diameters. Spoon 1/4 cup filling into the lower half of each circle. Close the circles to form half-moon shapes, pressing the edges tightly together using your fingers. Set pies on the baking sheets and let rest for about 15 minutes.

Brush the top of each pie with a little olive oil and cut out little holes in the top of each pie. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until light golden brown on top.

eakis@timescolonist.com

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.