how to make Ikarian soufiko

Posted on July 31st, 2012

As I mentioned a few days back, I came to Ikaria to look at food. Specifically the food the locals here have eaten for eons which might give an insight into why they live so damn long and well.

Athina and her mother Katina cooking Soufiko

I travelled around the island with the National Geographic team for a week chatting to old ladies who still cook like it’s 1856, and their first responses were:

  • fresh vegetables
  • olive oil

In all the food flotsam that gets flung about, I doubt few can dispute the value of these two ingredients. The thing is, here, they’re eating in abundance. Truly.

In Ikaria, it’s the norm to eat straight from the garden. Many, if not most, restaurants have gardens nearby and their menu features whatever they brought in early that morning. At Thea’s Inn, Thea’s husband goes off early to milk the goats and pick the vegetables. He’s back by 10am. Around which time, Thea’s cousin (second? third?) arrives with fish, some honey, herbs…it’s a procession I watch every morning as I drink my warm goat’s milk (Thea sets some aside for me before making the cheese for the following day). Thea and Athina, the other cook, then make the feta and the dishes for the day.

(PS I’ll share a little more on their meat consumption later…for now know, lots of vegetables are core.)

This is not just custom. Or the only option. It’s also a way of life that Ikarians are adamant is the only way to go. I’ve spoken (via translators) to a lot of oldies. They are vocal and passionate about eating fresh, to the point of being highly suspicious of anything else. For fun, mention skim milk to them. They respond the same – as though it’s poisonous. The disgust in their faces is really funny.

These people don’t know about fad diets. Or whole food revivals. So, it’s telling.

But now a few words about eating and cooking with olive oil…

In Athens, Dan Buettner and I had dinner with Antonia Trichopoulo, the leading voice for the past few decades on the Mediterranean diet. Leaving aside the fact she’s a colleague and fan of Ancel Keys. Her mantra, over and over, was “it’s the olive oil” that maketh the Mediterranean diet. I hear this everywhere.

Dan, Antonia, her husband, and my sometimes good self

But three observations I think you’d like to know about:

One. The Greeks, in particular the Ikarians, don’t eat moderate amounts of olive oil. They eat lashings of it.  Not a drizzle, a half cup. On a salad-for-one. One their horta. Their cucumber. Slim, modern young women guzzle it. No meal comes without a big bottle of it on the side. It’s fully accepted as healthy and robust to do so.

Two. It’s completely taken as food lore that vegetables should always be eaten with fat. It’s been mentioned to me several times that of course you don’t eat vegetables plain and undoused. “There’s no point,” said one old lady. Indeed.

The most important vitamins in vegetables – A, E, D and K – are fat soluble.

That is, without fat, they’re not absorbed. Our grandmothers, the French, the Italians etc knew this and always serve vegetables – cooked or salads – with oil or butter. Here in Greece, this style of cooking vegetables is called “lathera”, which means “oiled”, and these dishes are often eaten during times of fasting. Interestingly.

Three. It’s also understood olive oil is best not heated. Sure, food is fried here. But…

grilled or stewed over low heat is by far the norm. This is best.

Olive oil is a monounsaturated oil, which means that while it’s far more stable than the thoroughly scary polyunsaturateds (the seed oils like canola, sunflower etc), it will start to break down at high heats. Saturated fats (from meat and coconut) are really the only ones that should be cooked at a high heat.

The Ikarian cooked vegetable dishes, for instance, are slow-cooked in olive oil – very rarely boiled, or steamed at high heats or fried. The added benefit of this, of course, is that more enzymes are kept intact. More enzymes in the food, means less of your body’s enzymes are used to digest the food, which means less aging. I’ve written about this here….

All of which is a preamble to today’s recipe. Soufiko is a classic Ikarian dish that is served at almost every meal. It’s basically The Vegetables Picked That Morning, Slow-Cooked in Oil. It’s the simplest, healthiest dish you can cook. Here they eat it on its own (often for a light dinner), or with meats, some cheese and yoghurt.  And, of course, more oil.

Athina and her mother Katina (who raised nine kids on this dish!) taught me how to make it. That’s them up top.

Soufiko, plus fava and chickpeas at Thea’s Inn

They told me this:

  • use only in-season vegetables. It won’t taste right otherwise.
  • don’t fry the onion or garlic first (some people do)
  • don’t salt the eggplant first (the juices are good)
  • layer the vegetables from longest-to-cook to fastest-to-cook

Ikarian soufiko

serves 6-8 as a side dish

I really recommend organic vegetables only (if they’re in season, they’re likely to be just as cheap as the supermarket) and using a great olive oil. I’ve listed some vegetables below which are best suited to summer. If something below isn’t in season, substitute with beans – flat or string – some okra, corn cobs etc, or up the amount on the other vegetables. I personally like it best with just zucchini. However the tomato, onion, salt and garlic, and the oil quantities should stay the same:

2 eggplants, chopped

2 potatoes, chopped or 2 cups of chopped pumpkin (very much optional, I prefer without)

2 onions, halved and then sliced

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 capsicums (peppers; red or green or both), cubed

2 zucchinis, chopped

2 tsp salt

2-3 fresh tomatoes, chopped

½ cup of oil

2 tsp Greek oregano (of just good quality dried oregano)

Chop the vegetables about the same size – 2-3 cm cubes. Layer the vegetables in a big frying pan with a heavy base and a lid, or a very shallow pot, in the order I’ve listed, pouring oil over the top at the end. Cook on a low heat, covered, for 20-30 minutes. Sprinkle oregano over the top at the end and pour more olive oil on top to serve, hot or cold.

Let me know how you go with this one. And tell me what you think about eating so much oil?!

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  • Catherine

    Another amazing post and recipe, I’ve never felt so healthy and happy with my food consumption, thanks Sarah :)

    [Reply]

  • http://louiseandrolia.com Loulou

    This is so exciting to me, I feel like I get slated a lot because I really enjoy my food as it is, fresh and then using oil and herbs as maximum decorating, no fuss my favourite, so I’m totally trying this out asap!

    What I wanted to say about oil is last time I went for my check up with my doctor I see for my Hashimotos he had been doing a lot of research into the benefits of olive oil and also in relation to food absorbtion. He recommended that I drink two tablespoons of it specifically before eating carbs.

    Also there is a natural chemical in olive oil that is an anti inflammatory, so I guess that would definitely make sense in terms of the health differences over there, do you know what the stats are on auto immune disorders? I image they are lower too?

    xo

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  • http://www.sparechangekitchen.com sparechangekitchen

    I am LOVING your posts at the moment Sarah……and I am LOVING that dress!! This all proves yet again that our ridiculous obsession with fat/low fat is completely off the mark. And your trip is a perfectly lovely way to be researching said subject matter :)

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    thank you!!

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  • Liz

    Hi Sarah: So I am really getting into your blog and re-reading a lot of old posts. Not shocked at your findings here and am definitely going to try that recipe (plenty of those seasonal veggies listed above at our Farmer’s Market this week – huzzah!) – just wondering what you could use in lieu of the big fry pan (small kitchen, so not in possession of one)? Would Pyrex dish in the oven work? Also – have switched to whole milk recently, cooking with coconut oil, and left behind vegetable-based margarine in favour of butter on grain bread and popcorn etc and have to say that my skin has never looked better. It just seems like it’s more dewey (odd word choice, but you know what I mean) and not breaking out as much. Just made one of your pesto recipes this afternoon with market basil! We experienced something similar in Bosnia last year – slow eating, fresh local food, and these roasted veggies our friend’s mum made? Yum! Loving all the Instagram pics too.

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  • seeker

    Thanks for providing the perfect recipe for tonights dinner!! No recipe googling required! My Greek will love it!! :)
    ps LOVE that dress too!

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  • http://www.sparrowandsea.com Jess @ Sparow + Sea

    I lost quite a bit of weight a few years ago, eating a ‘lot’ of olive oil (umm, to me a lot meant a table spoon on my salad! Not quite the half cup you’re talking about!) and a heap of avocado (at least one big avo a day). Some people couldn’t understand why i would add ‘so much’ fat to my meals, but I became convinced (get ready for some true layman’s logic!) that because my body was getting enough good-healthy-wonderful-fats in my diet, it was happy to let go of fat from my body…
    Science-y people can feel free to prove me wrong, but I swear it’s true!

    [Reply]

    Cc Reply:

    I love that concept Jess! There is definately more to weight loss than just diet and exercise.

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  • Steph

    My boyfriend is (southern) Italian, so I am all over the olive oil thing. He is adamant that I have the best quality possible in the cupboard at all times (and not exposed to the light) and we put it on everything. The fresh vegetables thing made me laugh, because my boyfriend won’t even allow me to eat a tomato if it has been in the fridge for a couple of days – he curls his nose in utter disgust at the idea. (I agree with him, but having been raised in a cold climate has given me the habit of making do with what I have.) PS The food in the bottom photo looks mouth-watering…

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  • Rose

    Wow, awesome! thanks Sarah. Cant wait to try the recipe. being of italian background I’ve long suspected the olive oils benefits in health and longevity. and yes southern italiams too seem to like to guzzle their olive oil.

    [Reply]

    Rose Reply:

    Oh and forgot to say, olive oil in the diet (and probably applied as a moisturiser or a scrub, as Mia points out) seems to be great at wrinkle prevention too! :-)

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    Mia Bluegirl Reply:

    Also great as a hair treatment! :)

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  • Mia Bluegirl

    One of the best things to do with olive oil is mix it with a tablespoon or two of raw sugar, and scrub it all over your body. This is also a Greek thing. Makes your skin amazingly soft and costs nearly nothing.

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    Nicole Reply:

    I’ve recently been doing a similar scrub with my left over coffee grinds.

    [Reply]

    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    Nice use of sugar, Mia!

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  • Emma

    What I would do to be living in Icaria right now eating carbs and olive oil! : )
    From what I know about greater Europe, olive oil, coffee and smoking are all daily habits / foods. I’ve read about all the benefits of olive oil – but I wonder do many Icarians smoke? I’d expect to see some kind of drop in smoking rates throughout the Blue Zones even if it conflicts with what tends to happen elsewhere in the region? Just a thought…

    [Reply]

    seeker Reply:

    ooh yeah smoking – that’s an interesting point thanks emma. i’d be interested to know that too …. it seems like everyone in greece smokes … sitting outside to eat can take a bit of getting used to …
    what say bluezones on soking in icaria?

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    seeker Reply:

    err .. smoking that is!

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    Amy E Reply:

    I just spent a month living in Ikaria and what I noticed is yes, most people smoke, but they smoke the self-rolled kind. I have always had a serious eye allergy to cigarette smoke but only the pre-made kind. Surely they are a lot more poisonous?
    If anyone is interested in seeing my before and after Ikaria photos I am happy to email them to anyone. They are unbelievable. I have been extremely ill for three years and the change after just 4 weeks is astounding.

    [Reply]

  • Kirrilee

    Any suggestions on which olive oil brands to buy in Australia?

    [Reply]

    Vicki Reply:

    My favourite is Rosnay extra virgin organic olive oil for pouring.

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    maria Reply:

    I am of greek descent and recommend Minos Greek olive oil is delicious – that is all we have ever used. you can find it at Greek delis – retails for about $25 for 4L

    [Reply]

  • April

    Yummo, that food looks so good! What I wouldn’t give to be in Greece right now, rather than sitting at my work desk. Loving your posts Sarah.

    [Reply]

  • Lisa Ingram

    Nice recipe for basically a proper ratatouille, peperonata, no meanness with olive oil…delish. However the enyzme stuff you mention? c’m on enough already. The enzyme content of foods has no significance at all. Vitamins, yes, some are spoilt by cooking, so some raw stuff or lower heat is good. But enzymes in food are digested like any other protein and do not perform a function within the body once eaten. Let Ikaria heal you from b/s! Let this idea go! It’s rubbish! Lisa

    [Reply]

    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    Hey Lisa, do you have any studies that refute what I say? I’d be really interested to learn more?

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    John Reply:

    I had a quick look and can’t find any studies that DO support the idea that enzymes in food are actually absorbed when eaten. It doesn’t really should like they should be anyway (that would be fantastically dangerous for humans).

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    Mia Bluegirl Reply:

    A basic knowledge of chemistry would refute what you say.

    Like the pH alkaline food myth, the idea that humans need enzymes from plants to digest food is completely false, and the kind of scam that con artists have been using to prey on the weak and cancer-ridden for years.

    Plants metabolise energy in a completely different way to humans, and enzymes require a specific set of factors to activate (temperature, co-enzymes, etc) none of which are present in the human digestive system.

    Also, the part about vitamins being spoilt by cooking isn’t 100% true – some vitamins, like lycopenes, are more active after being heated at high temperatures.

    Lisa Ingram Reply:

    Sorry I took ages. I’m not much of an online queen. Anyway thx to the other respondents. Hard to find articles that prove, say, that a cow did not jump over the moon. However compare this:
    http://whfoods.org/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=120

    which seeks to “prove” using M cells that enzymes from food get taken up by the body – some very poor linkages in here around mothers’ enzymes and the baby…

    with this:
    http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.me.35.020184.000523?journalCode=med

    which actually describes the facts. Mostly about “bugs” getting in. It’s quite hard for most things to pass thru the digestive system. Hence it’s interesting when they do.

    This is interesting, sorry it’s so academic but lots of refs and Table 3 useful too
    http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FBJN%2FBJN80_S1%2FS0007114598001226a.pdf&code=f15752a08b0d6056388169c5ae3c5095

    And I sure wish this had references but it sums things up
    http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/PhonyAds/mp.html

    Basically our body’s own secreted enzymes get broken down pretty slowly but ‘normally’ enzymes that we got from anywhere else are simply treated like what they are – protein. What do we do with this – we digest it! We don’t use the enzymes to do whatever with. Not to say I don’t agree raw food is healthy and cooking can create change to that, but not for the reasons cited by the enzyme crowd.
    cheers, Lisa

    [Reply]

    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    Hey Lisa, sorry it took me ages!! Your comment was in “pending approval” due to the links. I’ll take a look at all these very shortly. Thank you for taking the time!

    John Reply:

    @Mia Bluegirl

    Any suggestions for those of us that want to get a basic knowledge of chemistry in relation to the digestive system?

    Thanks!

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    Mia Bluegirl Reply:

    Ask a biologist? :) I have some awesome friends in relevant industries! Although I actually remember this from high school human biology.

    In my case I worked in the alternative health industry (admin for a kinesiologist) which has shown me how unregulated natural health is, and how many con artists it attracts for exactly that reason. I believe a lot of the alternative health / dietary advice that opposes Big Pharma is sound, however you need to double check and triple check everything they say. Especially if it involves raw food for some reason. Or vaccination, but that’s another rant.

    You can always research the background of “experts” who give dietary advice. In the case of the alkaline diet Sarah posted a few months back, the only expert anyone could recommend was Dr Young. Who is not only NOT a doctor, but has been arrested multiple times for fraud in relation to claiming he could cure cancer with his so-called perfect diet. Also, if you look into the people he claims to have cured, most of them died of cancer shortly after.

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    Mia Bluegirl Reply:

    Also above, I should have specified that PLANT enzyme co-factors were the ones not present in human digestive processes. The human body has its own enzymes, and is capable of producing more if needed, in contradiction to the idea that we somehow run out. “Living enzymes” is a misnomer, as enzymes are proteins that were never alive in plants in the first place – and even if they were I doubt they would survive long in stomach acid!

    Lisa Ingram Reply:

    I don’t know if my reply got thru the magical wires. Anywy thx to all that answered

  • Jen

    Fantastic. Can’t wait to learn more.

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  • Jennifer

    Inspiring and thought provoking post Sarah. Since your first post about Ikaria I have been searching online for Ikarian recipes, cooking them and feeding my family. Most of the recipes are made from the produce in my vegie patch – so not only healthy but frugal! Can’t wait to hear more about all that have learned in this magical place. Jennifer

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  • Nicole

    The Ikarian / blue zone thing is interesting. In addition to what they eat I would think the quality of what they eat is paramount. “Organic” food grown in a commercial set-up is the poor relation of produce from the family and market gardens of the Med. I wonder about the soil of the blue zones. Has anyone, your “Indiana Jones” friend for example, looked at the mineral levels of the soils in these regions and their growing practices?

    BTW old friend I have followed your blog for sometime and thought it was time to say hi. Della, Canberra, San Fran, Sydney

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  • http://achievetheimpossiblecoach.blogspot.ca/ Natalia

    Sarah,

    You look amazing in that photo; really love your look. I tried the recipe you posted and I absolutely loved it. It’s now a part of my menu for a dinner party on Sunday. Please keep more recipes coming; I love Mediterranean food.

    Thanks again!

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  • Carey

    I wonder if you could use a slow cooker or crock pot for this dish.
    I may try that to see how it works and tastes. That is a lot of oil.

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  • Esta

    I just received 60 litres of virgin olive oil from my husband’s father’s orchards on the island of Lesvos. Yum yum yum! My mum was born and raised in Kalamata. I think I was born eating olive oil and table olives. Unfortunately after a visit last year I was disappointed to see much of the wonderful Greek diet falling away for the typical western diet of processed high trans fat sugary food. I was shocked to be told that greeks now have high obesity levels and high heart disease levels. What a shame.

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  • Caitlin

    I made this last night :) I used my 6.8 liter Le Creuset and it was piled to the top with veggies. I set it on low on my gas cook top. I am not sure if I should have turned the gas up more, but decided to leave it on low. I cooked it from 6:30pm and turned it off at midnight to go to bed. When I got up I put it back on low for another couple hours with the lid off to let some of the moisture evaporate. I finally thought bugger it, I am going to try it and it is killer good :) I will definitely be making this again :)

    I’m not sure if I just had the gas down too low, but at 20-30mins the zuc’s on the top were still completely raw. I wonder if I chopped the veggies in smaller cubes and used less if I could get it to cook in 20 – 30mins….? hhhmm

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  • http://greentiggy.com Chryssie

    I have a very proud, Greek family. Up until I was in my teens I never even knew there were other ways to cook apart from using olive oil. I just assumed all oil was olive, from the local restaurant to the fish and chip shop down the road.
    My parents have the faces of people 10 years younger than their age, and I not only put it down to good genes, but the way we’ve been eating our whole lives.
    I’ve read before that 60% of calorie intake in Greek food comes from olive oil – and I believe it! I wouldn’t have it any other way. (my grandmother used to put it in my hair and then wash it out to make my hair super silky too!)
    Thank you for reminding me not to buy in to this culture we have of being afraid of fats, of pouring more than a tablespoon in our saucepan, and to be proud of the food I’ve been brought up to eat!

    It looks like you’re enjoying Greece (I miss it terribly), it suits you!
    Let me just warn you – you can leave Greece, but Greece doesn’t ever leave you!

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  • http://www.katmillar.com Kat

    As an ex ‘fatophobic’ dieter, I love reading blogs such as this to remind me why I need to enjoy olive oil. I still don’t think I could pour gallons of it on my food as I prefer to ‘eat’ my fats (avocado, nuts etc.) but I am definitely now making it into dressings with balsamic vinegar and fresh herbs. I’m going to try your recipe too, yum!! Just bought some oregano :)

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  • Mia Bluegirl

    I made a modified version of this (to use up the remaining winter veggies in my fridge, go me!) and it is AMAZING. I had it with chick peas and a little feta on the side, and I swear I might have died of happiness and been re-born.

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  • Kylie Renete

    Have really enjoyed your posts from here it feels as though I am taken there with you when I read all of these updates which is a nice feeling especially with being stuck in an office with next holiday being 3 months away! I am super excited about this recipe can’t wait to give it a go it sounds and looks simple and yummo and the lashings of Olive Oil is something I am really looking foward .. will skull and not feel at all feel guilty about it!

    Keep your posts coming, I can’t get enough, very interesting! Thank you for sharing xx

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  • Leonie

    Hi I am definitely going to try the above recipe but I am wondering how the veges will cook on low heat and obviously not covered in the oil?
    Anyone?

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    annemarie Reply:

    I had the same concern, but made it today and it was delicious!! The veggies cooked through perfectly.

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  • Geraldine

    This is how I was brought up; oil, oil and oil.. On all our salads and vegges.Was always on the dinner table.
    I remember as a young kid not wanting to spend nights at ‘Aussie’ friends houses coz their dinners were so bland, and when they would visit us they learned how to ‘dress’ their food.
    We’re talking the 70′s here, so different from today, mostly.

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  • suzie fraser

    Mmmm…. I dont remember seeing that beautiful dress in your packing and travelling light video ?

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    Lisa Ingram Reply:

    Nice pickup. Hey let the lady shop! btw goop had a piece on packing – think it was more for us ladies, sorry chaps
    http://goop.com/journal/get/190/packing

    Lisa

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  • Gabrielle

    Well, that was a revelation – diVINE!

    Thanks so much for sharing, it’s an inspiration.

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  • Alice

    What about rice bran oil? I use olive oil on fresh dishes and rice bran for cooking.

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  • Bex

    Thank you Sarah for showing us this amazing recipe.
    First made it a few weeks ago and had it with steak (OMG!). Went to bed that night dreaming of it. Had some next morning, cold, with eggs & bacon, and again OMG. Then blended up the rest with some bone broth for soup. And AGAIN OMG!!
    A truly versatile recipe.
    Making some again tomorrow with roast pork, and will blend up the rest into soup for easy Sunday night dinner.
    My new favorite dish.

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  • Sarah Henderson

    Hi there…made this last night for friends (the second time) and they fell in love with it! I love eating all of this goodness as I can actually feel my body lighting up inside…definately a regular on our dinner table (actually, I am eating the left overs for brekky right now!)…
    Keep more recipes like this coming!
    Sarah

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  • http://www.evdilos.gr Nikos

    Hello from Ikaria island.

    [Reply]

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  • Peggy1975

    Hi Amy. I know your comment was from a year ago, but hopefully you’ll see this. I’d love to see your pics and hear about your experience. I’m heading to Greece next year for a month (my parents are from the East Coast of the peloponese so lucky enough to have a house by the beach to stay at!) but was also thinking about spending some time in ikaria. I’ve been unwell for the past two years as well and always find the food, sun and sea in Greece to be so therapeutic. How can we get in touch? Thanks.

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  • Nicolene Scarr

    Thanks for sharing this FAB recipe and article Sarah! I made it for my lovely husband who is not very well at the moment and not enjoying his food – and he LOVED it, so I’ll definitely be making it again! It’s just so rich and comforting and tasty – BEAUTIFUL!

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