A Creepy Non Ghost Story & Salted Triple Chocolate Pistachio Cookies

“She really really wants to rent your house, Papa Giorgi”, my translator Yiannis said to the old, bearded priest as we walked briskly beside him towards his home in the center of town.
“No,” came his translated reply, “there’s no electricity. It’s not safe.”
“Tell him I don’t mind ” I told Yiannis. “Tell him I’ll have gas lights and don’t need a fridge, or anything that will need electricity, since I’ll only sleep there and it’s only for the summer”.
I waited until my answer was relayed but was disappointed when the old man raised his head up, closed his eyes, and made a “tsou” sound. It meant no.
“But why? I heard that he used to rent that house for the summer. Has he already rented it to someone else?”
“I don’t know,” said Yiannis. “He doesn’t say.”
It was two weeks before Easter on Mykonos, 1988, and I was looking for a place to live for the summer. By driving around on the island, I had found a lovely little single room house, high above  Agrari  Beach, looking out towards the sea and the island of Naxos. It looked like it had an attached bathroom, a water tank on the top of it and a donkey wildly braying in its front yard. Perfect. Since my working hours were so long and I spent so much time in the shop, I didn’t need more than a place to shower and sleep. I didn’t want to pay a fortune for this, so if there was no electricity, I knew it couldn’t be very expensive. Gas lights and camping gas burners for the odd coffee were all I needed. I had found out who owned it and hoped they would rent it to me for the summer, since there was definitely nobody living in it, even though it looked very well maintained. Apparently this was not going to be easy.

After spending the following week searching unsuccessfully for alternative accommodations, I went back to Papa Giorgis’ house and tried again. This time without a translator. I found him in his living room room sitting on a chair, surrounded by palm fronds, busily weaving something out of a single palm leaf. He waved me over as if he’d been expecting me and showed me what he was making. It was a cone shaped container made out of the interwoven leaves of the palm frond. He picked up a palm leaf off the floor and gave it to me, motioning for me to make another one. So I did. Many many more. Two hours later we were still sitting there in peaceful silence making these strange palm leaf vessels when a neighbor of his came by with a plate of food for the priest. He asked me in English what I was doing there, and I explained how I had ended up there and why.
“Dear girl, he’ll never rent you that house,” the neighbor explained. “Not any more. Not to anyone.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Do you remember last year when that monster was loose killing the girls?”
“Yes, very well. I had an escort to and from the shop every day during that time.”

One year prior, a convicted serial killer had been released early from a Dublin Prison, due to a fatal heart condition. But before he succumbed to the ailments of his heart, he succumbed to his sick mind by heading to southern Europe and continuing his cruel killing spree. His particularly horrid modus operandi quickly notified Interpol to his presence in Greece, where young women had started to disappear. Some from the island of Mykonos.  He was eventually found in Athens while trying to burn the car that he had used to incapacitate his victims with. He was brought back to Mykonos where he proceeded to show the police where he had buried some of the women. Afterwards, he was placed in a holding cell on the island of Syros where he was found hung the next morning.
One of the women had been buried on a property belonging to Papa Giorgis. The one with the house and the donkey that I wanted to rent.
“So you see, you will have to find another house to rent, ” the neighbor explained.

I tried. I really did. But that house and that sad story kept coming back until I finally drove out to the property again. I stood at the low wooden gate and called to the donkey I knew was there. He ran out of his stall but stopped when he saw me, braying so loud I was worried he would attract attention. I calmed him with some fruit I had brought, then I walked into the yard next to the house I liked so much. To the left of the house when looking out to the sea, was a rocky area. It was close to the road and leaning against one of these boulders, I saw an unmarked plain marble gravestone, hardly visible from a distance. I suddenly realized what I needed to do.

I returned to town, packed myself a sandwich, a bottle of wine, a bottle of water, a beach mat, and a sleeping bag, and returned to the house. The sun was just setting and the view was gloriously amazing as the sea reflected the colors of the setting sun. I threw the beach mat down near where the gravestone lay, unrolled my sleeping bag, and made myself comfortable against one of the larger stones. The donkey stood attentively nearby, happy after more apples, while I ate my sandwich. It was calm and peaceful. Every now and then, I heard a car drive by, but I was invisible where I sat and tried to see if I would sense any of the pain, despair, and fear that the unfortunate young woman must have suffered in her final hours. But I sensed nothing of the sort. I wanted to say to her, “I’m here, don’t be afraid, he’s gone forever”, but I didn’t feel a presence to say it to. I don’t know whether the alcohol had made me bolder or numb, but other than peace and quiet, and the donkey rustling in his stall, there was nothing. I stayed there many hours, then dragged my sleeping bag to the front inner yard of the house and slept.
The next morning I went back to town to find the neighbor and asked him to go with me to visit Papa Giorgis.
“Please tell him there are no ghosts. Please tell him what I did.” I said after we were standing again in Papa Giorgis’ living room. “Tell him he is not responsible.”
When the neighbor had finished, Papa Giorgis looked at me, then got up from where he was sitting to go into another room. He returned holding a key, which he softly folded my hand around.
“Ευχαριστώ (Thank you),” he said to me, then a few words of Greek to his neighbor.
I was told the ridiculously low amount of rent I would owe and that I had the responsibility of making sure that the donkey always had enough water.

Happy Halloween!

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Salted Triple Chocolate Pistachio Cookies
(this recipe originally appeared in Gourmet Magazine, May 1998, was adapted by Yvonne Ruperti, and posted to Serious Eats: Recipes, on February 29, 2012)

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Makes about 4 dozen 2″ (4cm) cookies.
Chocolate bars can be used instead of chocolate chips, just chop them into coarse chunks.
Avoid over baking to keep the chewy texture.

2 1/3 cups flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
20 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
coarse sea salt for final sprinkling

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Preheat oven to 350F (170C). Make sure your baking shelf is situated in the middle of the oven, not too high, not too low. Cover cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Sift together flour, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt. Set aside.

Cream together butter with sugars until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla until well combined.

Slowly add dry ingredients until just combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary to incorporate ingredients evenly. Add all chocolate chips and pistachios until just combined.

Place heaping teaspoons about 3″ (6cm) apart on baking sheet. Lightly roll into balls and flatten them slightly. Sprinkle a few flakes of sea salt onto each cookie.

Bake until cookies have puffed and small cracks appear. About 12 minutes.  Immediately remove from oven and let cool on sheet 5 minutes before transferring them to a wire cooling rack.

The cookies pair fabulously with a Gewurztraminer or a port.  If you would rather not bake all the cookie dough right away, you can also, roll it into a log, wrap it in cellophane, and freeze it. Don’t forget to label what it is!

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September & Fried Green Tomatoes

September is glorious, no matter where I’ve lived. The heavy heat of summer is gone, the days are still warm and lovely, and the nights a pleasure to sleep through. I’m a big fan of wide open windows, curtains blowing in breezes, and the sounds of country living.
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In the northern States and in Austria, fall colors are telling us that summer will soon be over, and that we should probably start collecting firewood. In Mykonos, the masses of charter tourists are gone and are replaced by hip independent travelers who can travel when the kids can’t. In Kalamata, where every kind of tourist season has ended, and the beaches are marvelously empty, many locals start wearing their fall boots, even when the weather still calls for bikinis. I would normally say their new fall boots because Greeks are very fashion conscious people, but what with the ongoing financial crisis, they probably have to make do with older models.

Mr. Fabelhaft and myself are taking advantage of our lovely outdoor deck as much as we still can. We were sitting out there, having an early evening glass of wine, when I reminisced how I used to have this weird obsession with living in really old, whitewashed, Mykonian houses. These were usually single roomed, rectangular,  very thick walled structures, with small windows that helped control the temperature. In the summer the houses were cool, and in the winters they helped keep the interior warm.

View from inside Pigados, 1987.

View from inside Pigados, 1987.

They often had small unused fireplaces in a corner that were once used for cooking. Rarely did they have formal bathrooms.

I preferred these houses out in the middle of nowhere. My excuse was that I had grown up in suburban New Jersey and was therefor used to living at a distance from the downtown happenings in NYC. In Venice, California, I had been at a distance from downtown, LA (even though Venice was pretty damn cool itself), so of course, on Mykonos, my living out in some fields, or near the light house, was totally justified.
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Often these houses lacked some kind of basic utility. In one, there was no electricity, but it did have a nice clean well I could haul water out of (and warm in a black bucket in the sun), for my daily ablutions.
In another, I had electricity but no well. That was solved by a cleverly built tank that was built on to the top of the house. It was filled by having one of the four noisy and leaking water trucks that roamed the island  come by and drive down my dirt road to do its job.

In this house, the water tank was hidden in the curved structure attached to the house. It was adorned with arches, which also served as steps to the top of the house.

In this house, the water tank was hidden in the curved structure attached to the house. It was adorned with arches, which also served as steps to the top of the house.

The best house of all that I lived in back then, belonged to a Mykonian fashion designer named Yiannis Galatis. He was also well known at the time for trying to preserve these gems of Cycladic architecture.

It was a  small home built onto the side of a steep hill, composed out of single roomed rectangular structures, either on top of, or next to each other. There was a beautiful downward sloping garden and a lovely entrance gate.

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Between the white sugar coated cubes (that’s what they always reminded me of) was a small courtyard with a fireplace and two perfectly placed pine trees (they smelled so GOOD) between which I could hang my hammock.
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The view, of course, was unadulterated Mediterranean-ness; the sea, the island’s hills, stone walls and fig trees, a few houses scattered amongst the fields of dried grass. One of my favorite afternoon nap locations.

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Mr. Fabelhaft poured me another glass of wine and asked me what we’ll be cooking the next day. I turned my head to see what the garden dictated.

Fried Green Tomatoes with Spicy (If You Like) Pink Sauce

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This dish is far from Greek, but it would fit beautifully on a table decked with appetizers, mezes, and tapas. Fried tomatoes can accompany ouzo as well as a steak, and when leftover and cold, make filling and delicious vegetarian sandwiches. If you eat them on their own (which I also highly recommend), make more.

Serves 4

4-5 medium sized roundly shaped very green tomatoes (you want to avoid any ripeness as this will only lead to mushiness)

1 1/2 cup of buttermilk OR 1 cup of thick Greek yogurt (I prefer full fat) with just enough milk to make it just a tad runnier – about 1/4 cup

2 cups of cornmeal

1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp celery seed
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground sweet red pepper
1 tsp coarse sea salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
dash of Cayenne pepper (optional)

oil for frying

Cut the tomatoes into 1/2″ (or 1cm) slices. Place them in the bowl with the buttermilk or yogurt/milk mix and let them marinate for at least a half hour.

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While they are marinating, mix the cornmeal with the spices.

Dredge the tomato slices through the cornmeal mix, then fry to golden brown in medium to hot oil. Drain on paper, cool to almost room temperature, then serve with the spicy (if you like) pink sauce.

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Spicy (If You Like) Pink Sauce

3/4 mayonnaise
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon of Worcestershire Sauce
2 tablespoons of sweet pickle relish
small amounts of your favorite spicy red pepper sauce
(you’ll know best what amount suits you best – if at all)

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Blend all ingredients except hot pepper sauce together well. Serve with Fried Green Tomatoes, using hot sauce as an added garnish where desired.

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Flat Roofs & Tomatoes

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We’re slowly reaching the finish line here in Tomato-land. A cool night last night reminded us that it will all soon be over. We will stop eating tomato salads for lunch and dinner, we will stop making stuffed tomatoes to eat with our lunch salads and dinner salads; no more beeftekis baked with tomato slices, no more fresh tomato sauce with roasted veggies, no more green pickled tomatoes, but most of all, no more boiling down and processing, and no more drying.

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There’s still quite a few kilos of loaded plants out there in the collapsing bales, but the tomatoes will be picked soon, I’m sure, to finish ripening on the dining room table downstairs…. and yes, be processed. Those will be The Last.

The end is near.

The end is near.

I never made dried tomatoes while I was in Mykonos. I never even met anyone else that did either (not that this means anything), but for some reason Mykonian flat roofed houses seem to come to mind when I dry tomatoes. Probably because they are ideal for this job. Guaranteed sunshine, a dry atmosphere, and a steady northwind to keep humidity and rot away. Too bad I can’t beam ourselves and our tomatoes over there for a quick drying session. We’d hook up with some old pals, and just hang out a bit. Back in the day, some of those pals also used those flat roofed houses for other activities which did not make me very popular with the locals. Because of the strange behavior of my friends, I’m sure my neighbors thought I was a real hussy. I think it was probably a good thing that my Greek wasn’t very fluent then.

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Working with tourists was an exhausting business. Seven days a week, day in day out, morning and evening, often going on until late at night. To a Greek, the shop closes when the last customer leaves. This meant we sometimes had to draw straws as to who would stay awake to close up the shop. We just had to party on and keep the vibrations going because that was how money was earned. Tourists came to relax, blow off steam, or just frolic in their irresponsibility, and we who worked all summer long had to provide the services and the atmosphere they thrived in and paid for. The only time we could sleep was on the beach between shifts, or wherever we lived, but it was always just a few hours snatched here and there, and never enough. So sometimes one had to get inventive.

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Homemade Tomato Sauce (simple unstrained method)

For this process you will need a water bath canning system and mason type jars with rings and lids. Or a pot tall enough to boil the jars in, completely covered in water. I did this the first time I canned in a water bath. I threw some knives into the bottom of the pot for the jars to stand on so they wouldn’t directly touch the bottom and possibly explode. After you try this once, you end up purchasing a regular canning system.

Collect your tomatoes and wash them, scraping away any dried leaves or dirt. In a food processor, chop them, then pour them into a large pot. If you don’t have a food processor, you can grate them. This method may take more time, but you will also end up with less tomato skins in your sauce. Personally this doesn’t really bother me, but some people it does. These same people will then also have to strain their tomato sauce to make it pure and seedless. I’m not one of those. I buy that kind.
Cook your tomato sauce on a medium to slow heat until it has reduced by at least 30%. I like to cook mine until it is reduced  by more than half. This creates a thick and flavorful sauce, but it also takes about six to seven hours of simmering.

When your sauce has reduced enough, put it on a slow simmer on a back burner while you sterilize your jars, lids, and rings. Before I seal my jars, I like to wipe them down with alcohol. Something like Grappa is perfect, but never rubbing alcohol which is a poison!

Fill your jars with sauce, seal them finger tight and process at a boil for 15 minutes.

Set them on shelves and admire them.

Dried Tomatoes

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We have a ton of plum tomatoes. Both red and yellow. When they are dry, I layer them in the jars, cover them with olive oil, and they look very lush.

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If you don’t have a flat topped roof on a Cycladic house in the Aegean or somewhere in southern Italy or Spain or Mexico, you will need an electric food dryer. We got ours two years ago from my sister-in-law and have been thanking her every time we use it. Thank you. Thank you.

Slice your plum tomatoes in half, scoop out the jelly-like seed stuff, and place the hulls skin side down, on the drying racks. Turn it to about 135F, or whatever setting is recommended for that model for fruit and vegetables, and leave it alone for seven to nine hours. Towards the end, check them every so often so they don’t get too dry, otherwise they resemble sour chewing gum. Let them cool completely with the top off, so as not to cause condensation, then layer them in jars. Cover completely with olive oil.

Savor in the winter with crostini, vegetarian sushi, pizza,…

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Learning To Sail & Fish Cooked in Paper with Walnut Pesto

Several years after I arrived in Mykonos, I developed an insane desire to learn how to sail. I would sit on the beach between work shifts and look out to some horizon and see these swan-like white sails being blown along at various distances from the shore. I knew I had to learn this mode of transportation.
In a sailing school in Athens, I did a crash course, condensing two months worth of lessons into one month since traveling back and forth from Athens to Mykonos was both costly and time consuming. The only problem was that during that whole month, not once on a single day, did the wind ever blow hard enough to be able to open a sail while at sea. The instructor did open it once to show us that this, class, was a sail. I got my sailing license without ever seeing a sail being opened for the purpose of sailing.
So of course I still needed to learn how to sail.
I decided that I would need a job on a sailboat (cooking of course) and that way, I was sure to pick up more about the art of opening and closing a sail, etc. I mailed my CV to many Caribbean charter yacht owners, and I landed a job in St. Thomas. I was asked whether I had ever cooked on a boat before, I answered no. I was advised to find a sailboat being delivered from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean for the winter season, apply as crew, and cook non-stop throughout the whole of the Mediterranean and Atlantic delivery until I reached St. Thomas. I would then not only have ample experience cooking on a boat, but I would also have worked for the voyage, lowering my transportation costs.
What a grand idea, I thought.
I remembered that on the same dock that the sailing school boat was tied to, there was also a sign advertising a Sailing Charter Company with Bases in Greece, Turkey, and the Caribbean. Cool. So I walked up and down the dock, asking my routine question; “Anyone bringing a boat over to the Caribbean?” until I finally received a “Yes. Down there.” .
To make a long story shorter, I found the captain and the boat  and became a member of the crew. I eventually also became a member of his family and he of mine, but that’s yet another story. We crossed the Atlantic there and back, the second time I brought back a boat of my own, as captain.
Why am I telling you all this?
Oh yes; Fish in Paper.
So when you cross the Atlantic, you eat a LOT of fish because you catch a lot of fish. Once the refrigerated and frozen (if you’re lucky) meat  has run out, it’s fish, day in day out. Fried fish, baked fish, fish soup, fish salad, fish pie; you try to be as creative as you can, but at some point you are so sick of it that no matter how you prepare it, it will still be fish. Fish baked in paper was an idea I had, but never made, because parchment paper was not on any supply list on any boat I ever cooked on, and using aluminum foil seemed inferior and just reminded me of other culinary techniques. Until I finally made this dish, many years later, I always felt that it must be the ultimate fish recipe because it was The One I couldn’t do out there on the ocean and it would of course have been the best – the one that made fish taste the most delicious way imaginable and make us forget that we also had it for breakfast.

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Fish Cooked in Paper with Walnut Pesto

serves 2

2 pieces of white meat fish filets or steaks (Mai Mai would be perfect – we caught a lot of that)
3 medium sized potatoes, boiled, cut into thick slices
1 large fresh  vine ripened tomato, cut into at least four thick slices
3 tablespoons Walnut Pesto
freshly ground black pepper
a dash of sea salt
2 sheets of parchment paper

Walnut Pesto:
In a food processor, combine:
1 large handful of walnuts
1 clove of garlic
one packed handful of fresh Basil
1/4 cup olive oil
dash of sea salt
Blend/chop until nuts are still grainy and basil is finely chopped.

Preheat oven to 350F (170C)

Spread out the sheet of parchment paper. Place half the potato slices in the center. Sprinkle a little salt. Place the fish filet or steak directly on top of the potatoes. Spread the fish with 11/2  tablespoons of pesto. Place two tomato slices on top of the fish. Drizzle with a little olive oil and add a little more salt and pepper.

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Now you need to fold up the paper into a package. Grab the two ends of the paper, above and below the fish and raise them to the center, directly above the fish, bringing them together. Now start rolling the two ends together downwards towards the fish, stopping just above it, not too tight. Fold the ends of the rolled paper under the fish so that it weighs the ends down. Place the ‘package’ in a baking dish.

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Repeat the process with the remaining pieces of fish and paper.

Bake  for approximately 20 minutes.

Greek Style Stuffed Tomatoes and Peppers

ImageIt all really began in Mykonos, Greece, when I became a partner at the Orpheas Cafe and Wine Bar, in 1989. I had already been working there a few summer seasons and had made my contribution to the business and the island, by bringing American and European style breakfast to the cafe. Before I had arrived, they (everybody who sold breakfast) served a few slices of bread with some small, prepackaged butter and a small assortment of rather flavorless jams with either coffee, or tea, and that was that. Sometimes hardboiled eggs could be gotten or a simple omelet, or thick Greek yogurt with honey but that was not necessarily a breakfast item, since it was always available.

Then along I came and showed them about eggs over easy, or over medium, or not over at all. Cereals piled high with fresh summer fruit. Milk shakes, smoothies, and freshly baked croissants now could accompany the butter and jam. We rocked the casbah and danced while we were squeezing the oranges. Suddenly we were a hit in the mornings and couldn’t churn out those eggs fast enough. We also noticed that we had quite a few bar owners from other parts of the island as our customers. Sure enough, a year later, all those bars whose owners we fed, were serving more fanciful breakfasts, strangely similar to what we were doing.

So it was decided that I needed to officially join the team and we would expand the business to include dinner and a wine bar, with boutique wines from all over Greece. As a twenty-something year old at the time, in the midst of Mykonos’ Golden Years (that’s another story), I had landed in heaven.

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(that was me on the left)

I cooked many things at Orpheas’; an eclectic mix of international cuisine. My earliest challenge was learning how to cook Greek food properly and my sources were any people whose food I liked and who would take the time to show me how it’s done. My second challenge was learning Greek.
Greek Style Stuffed Tomatoes was one of the earliest and probably one of the most classic recipes I learned. Other summer vegetables, like peppers, eggplant, onions, and zucchini, can also be hollowed out and stuffed with the rice mixture. Whatever is ripe in the garden?

This is one of my favorite summer foods and brings back so many memories of life in the Aegean…

Greek Style Stuffed Tomatoes & Peppers

4 large ripe tomatoes
4 large peppers (that can ‘stand’ somewhat easily on their own)
2 medium sized onions
2 tblsp fresh chopped mint
2 tblsp fresh chopped parsley
1/2 cup of olive oil
1 toe of garlic, pressed
8 shot glasses full of round grain rice (the kind used to make risotto)
4 medium sized potatoes
sea salt
freshly ground pepper
oregano
olive oil for baking dish

Preheat oven to 180 C (370 F)

The first thing you need to do is arrange the tomatoes and peppers in a baking dish big enough to allow them to all stand up next to each other, with a little space left in between to allow for potato wedges. These will also help keep peppers that do not have flat enough bottoms from tilting sideways.

One by one, slice the top off each tomato, and hollow out the insides with the help of a short knife and a soup spoon, saving that inside bit in a bowl. Take care not to pierce the skin of the tomatoes. Return each tomato back to the baking pan as you complete hollowing it out, remembering to place each ‘top’ back on its respective ‘bottom’. Do the same with the peppers, only don’t save the inside bit (the seeds) in the bowl with the tomato pulp. Those go straight into the compost.

(If you have other vegetables you would like to stuff, slice off a side –keeping it as your lid, or ‘top’; then carefully gouge out the inside with a paring knife and a spoon, saving the inside bits in the bowl with the tomato pulp. Place in the baking pan when done, together with its lid)

Traditional Greek kitchens didn’t have food processors, but they did have graters. All the inside bits in the bowl, both from the tomatoes as well as from whatever other veggies you’ve got, get grated, so that there are no large chunks of anything left in the bowl.
Now grate the two onions into the mix as well. These will keep the rice filling moist.
Finely chop the mint, parsley, and garlic, and add them to the bowl.
Add the olive oil and the seasonings and blend everything well.

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I think it was my κουμπάρα (“kumbara” is a relative one acquires through a religious ceremony like a wedding, or a baptism – my daughter’s godmother is my “kumbara”; so are the best man, or woman, in a wedding) who once told me that in order to always have the right amount of rice for filling tomatoes (or any other veg you might have) one needs to calculate one (1) shot glass of rice per piece of veg. So since we are filling 4 tomatoes and 4 peppers, we will need 8 shot glasses of rice. Use only round kernel rice , the kind appropriate for making risotto, since only this kind will achieve the correct texture when cooked in the veggies.

So now add the rice, and blend everything well.
With a spoon, fill each piece of veg until just about full, while it is still sitting in the pan. Cover each with its respective lid. This will keep the rice from drying out.

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Cut the potatoes into quarters, and place these pieces in the spaces between the vegetables. Sprinkle everything again with salt, pepper, and oregano, and then drizzle all the vegetables and potatoes with a little olive oil.

Bake for at least 1 hour, then carefully check a small piece of rice with a fork to make sure it is done. If not add another 15 minutes to the baking time.
When done, let everything rest until it has reached almost room temperature.

Serve with feta cheese and some crisp, freshly baked bread, and a chilled dry wine – either a white or a rosé.