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?!