November 1st, 2021, marks 77 years of World Vegan Day, and what better way to celebrate than Cretan vegan dishes?
Ah, Crete, the land that inspired the celebrated Mediterranean diet. An island and yet, a world like no other: Crete is self-sufficient. If you live here, you know what to eat. If you visit the first time, you must learn. Here are your Cretan vegan basics.
Cretan Vegan Basics
No day without olive oil. Cretans eat their prized “gold” with everything in exorbitant quantities. Dip some bread in it, sprinkle some salt, and enjoy. On Crete island, any olive oil is good oil. Seriously.
Golden fava. Fava is a puree made of yellow split peas. There is no taverna, restaurant, joint, or whatever else you choose to call the establishment not serving fava. How does it taste? Like dust with some herbal flavor. It’s nice but boring.
Dolmades. Or Dolmadakia. These are grape leaves wrapped around some herb-flavored rice. They are usually disturbingly greasy (like the olive oil is trying to compensate for the absence of meat or something), but they are full of zest and flavor. Vegans, beware: they serve dolmades with yogurt or tzatziki (yogurt with cucumber and mint). Just say “no” and don’t be an ass about it.
Gemista medleys. Gemista are vegetables (tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, zucchinis) stuffed with aromatic rice and chopped vegetables. Meat is rare in these combos, so you can order gemista if you are a vegan. But to be safe, ask first.
Horta greens. Some 300 edible greens grow on Crete island. To the untrained eye, they are weeds. The Cretan grandmas and chefs know better: horta greens are vegan delicacies like no other. Horta greens are a staple in Greek households and on taverna menus, with the varieties changing by the season. And, because today I feel particularly generous, here’s how to cook Cretan vegan horta:
- 1 pound wild greens (horta) – you can use dandelions, spinach, kale, collards, and even lettuce
- Salt to taste
- 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Wash the horta thoroughly in plenty of water, repeating several times to remove any impurities.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then blanch the horta briefly. Drain through a colander, discarding the liquid. Cool the horta in ice-cold water, which will help maintain its vibrant green color.
Repeat this blanch-drain-cool process two or three more times, using a fresh pot of water each time. This will reduce the bitterness of greens.
Bring another pot of water to a boil, and cook the horta for about 10 minutes, or until soft, if you don’t like it a bit crunchy. Remove from heat, drain through a colander (if you want, keep the broth to drink), and cool in ice-cold water.
Drain again, then plate and serve seasoned with salt to taste, and generous drizzles of olive oil and freshly-squeezed lemon juice.
You can add some boiled potatoes and zucchini if you want to make this a more filling main.
Fasolada, no meat to fuss, bean soup or stew. This dish is simple, humble, and full of flavor. If you boil it long enough, it becomes a stew – and boil it, for Cretans don’t do soups.
Fakes, lentils with heart and soul. To cook fakes, you must understand patience. They don’t take longer than dry beans to be ready, but they require a certain type of finesse: they are blunt and dull if you don’t season them right. Cretan herbs are fantastic for this purpose. Add them from the start in the oil you use to saute the onion.
Spanakorizo: tasty and easy Cretan vegan main. It’s basically spinach and rice with some onion sauteed in extra virgin olive oil. This type of comfort food is customary year-round. Drizzle some lemon on top of it if you want to go full Greek.
Baked potatoes. Every time a roaring fire happens in a Cretan fireplace, you can bet there are some potatoes baking in the ambers. You may be tempted to eat them with a hearty slug of butter, but Cretans usually opt for olive oil and lemon juice. Be Cretan!
Grilled mushrooms, the Pleurotus type. Oyster, abalone, or tree mushrooms are the megastars of the Cretan vegan table. There’s no science in cooking them: grill, season, and drizzle some lemon before ingesting them. If you dine like a Cretan, you must realize by now that olive oil and lemon juice are the bee’s knees. But, of course, any type of mushrooms are OK on the grill…
Grilled veggies. Grill everything: eggplants, zucchinis, peppers, even cabbage if you feel particularly rumbustious (no, they don’t grill cabbage on Crete, but what would it hurt?) Again, as per all food ever served here, soak the veggies in olive oil and lemon juice. They do grill cauliflower, though… and carrots, and beetroot…
There are, of course, many other vegan dishes you can enjoy when you visit Crete, including seasonal salads but do mention “no cheese” or “fasting” if you want to avoid surprises. If you have any questions, please drop a comment and bookmark the site for recipes.