Although Easter is Greece’s most important religious holiday, second place without a doubt goes to Assumption Day, celebrated during the season most tourists associate with this sun-kissed land. On August 15th, Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox Christians celebrate the assumption of Mary into heaven, although the different branches differ in their interpretations of what exactly preceded the miraculous disappearance of Mary’s body from its tomb. Yet although a major holiday celebrated in almost 50 nations from Brazil to Vanuatu, it’s relatively little known in America (although New Yorkers do get a precious reprieve from parking regulations that day–always a celebratory occasion).
Assumption Day in Greece is also known as Dormition of the Theotokos, or the “falling asleep” of the mother of Jesus, and it’s celebrated in idiosyncratic ways across its myriad islands and regions. In Cephalonia, the Ionian island from which Zanthe’s family hails, there is a Church of the Dormition, around which each year on Assumption Day black snakes marked with a cross swarm. They are harmless, and legend holds that they are nuns who begged Mary to transform them into snakes or birds to escape marauding pirates. It is considered a very bad omen when the snakes fail to appear. In 1953, after the snakes didn’t come, Cephalonia was struck by a massive 7.2 earthquake that decimated the island and led to four-fifths of the inhabitants’ emigration. It’s the earthquake commemorated in the wonderful novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières (and a less wonderful movie version with Nick Cage).
Coming in the dog days of summer, named not for how the heat and humidity make you feel but rather for the ascension of Sirius, the dog star, Assumption Day should keep you far away from a hot stove. We’ve been loving a new Greek cookbook called Cooking with Loula by Alexandra Strata, and a recipe of hers fits the bill perfectly. Tangy tuna salad is piled on slices of juicy tomato and crusty bread, and makes a light and easy weeknight dinner or weekend lunch, perfect with an easy-peasy green salad and a glass of ice-cold rosé. Her recipe uses ketchup but we’ve substituted sriracha sauce.
We’re also making a version of dolmades, the famous stuffed grape leaves that most people have only eaten from a can. Jarred and preserved grape leaves can be found in Middle Eastern groceries, and if you want to make a traditional version just soak them briefly in cold water to remove the brine. We wanted to try a different version with easier-to-find ingredients, and although you do have to turn the oven on, it’s not for long (we like to use a small countertop oven in summertime). And you can serve these little green beauties at room temperature or even chilled: another win for summer eating.
Tuna Salad with Tomatoes
Adapted from Cooking with Loula
1 shallot, finely chopped
5 tbsp capers, rinsed if salt-packed and drained
2 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tsp red wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 ½ tsp ketchup or 1 tsp sriracha sauce
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 5-oz cans tuna packed in olive oil
2 or 3 large ripe tomatoes, thickly sliced
Chopped fresh basil to garnish
Crusty bread, sliced and lightly toasted (2-3 slices per person)
Whisk together dressing ingredients in a medium bowl until well combined. Drain tuna and add to dressing, using a fork to gently break up into large pieces. Refrigerate for 3o minutes to allow flavors to combine. To serve, pile tuna onto tomato slices, allowing excess liquid to remain in bowl, and garnish with basil. Serve with toasted bread.
Chard and Lamb Dolmades
1 cup medium-grain rice
½ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tbsp kosher salt
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1 pound ground lamb
2 or three bunches swiss chard, preferably small/young leaves, washed
1 cup chicken stock
2 tbsp olive oil
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil and a line a cutting board or counter with paper towels. If swiss chard leaves have large center rib, carefully cut it out Meanwhile, combine rice, butter, salt and cinnamon in a large bowl, then add lamb and mix well together with your hands and set aside. Preheat oven to 350℉.
Once water is boiling, carefully dip each chard leaf into the water for 1 or 2 seconds while holding the stem (if you’ve removed the stem, use tongs). They will cook for a few more moments while they cool–the goal is to make them just pliable enough to roll. Lay them to dry on paper towels. Once all leaves are cooked, trim off any protruding stem ends. Take a leaf and put a tablespoon of filling an inch in from the stem end.
Fold the long sides in towards the middle, then carefully roll leaf around filling, tucking sides in neatly as you go. Rice will expand so don’t make them too tight. Place rolls snugly in a baking dish, seam sides down, then pour chicken broth over and drizzle with olive oil. Cover with foil and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until rice is cooked. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold. Nice accompaniments are avgolemono (egg and lemon) sauce, cucumber tzatziki, or even just a cool dab of yogurt.
This is the perfect summer desert…hydrating, refreshing and only three ingredients. Feel free to bypass the sugar if your watermelon is super ripe and sweet. Try garnishing with mint or a handful of blueberries.
4 cups of cubed seedless watermelon
1/3 cup of sugar or agave
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
Puree the ingredients in a blender until smooth. Pour into a 9″ square baking pan. Freeze for around 1 hour and then stir with a fork, breaking up the frozen parts. Freeze for another hour or two and scrape the granita until it flakes into coarse crystals. Cover and store in freezer until ready to serve. Top with mint and/or blueberries if desired. Can be made 2-3 days ahead.
Makes 6-8 servings.