Home Cookin’ 5: Cool Yiayia

by Alan Lake (Jazzfood)

Synglitiki “Tita” Zervos comes to the United States in 1961 imagining she’ll live in the White House or a Hollywood mansion. From her tiny island of Kalymnos off the Southern coast of Greece (population 1,500), it seems possible. Based on American movies, her impression of the United States is all presidents and movie stars. Little does she know what lies ahead: a life full of cooking, family, and later – memories.

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Yiayia Tita’s Robethia tou Fourno (Lenten Chick Peas)

hc5garbanzoswonionsNote from Alan Lake: A Lenten staple that Yiayia calls her island’s best meal (besides whole roasted lamb), these baked garbanzos Kalymnia style were traditionally prepared by each family and then brought to the bakery to be cooked in their oven overnight (for a small fee). After church the next morning, the families would return to pick them up. Same for the lambs.

With her caveat “If I forgot something, it’s not because I don’t want you to know… I forget,” I watched and documented Yiayia’s recipes to the best of my abilities.


4 lbs. canned garbanzo beans/chick peas
1 large onion, peeled, small dice
2 oz. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
28 oz. tomato sauce
½ can tomato paste
3 vegetable bouillon cubes, crumbled
3 stems parsley, chopped
1 t. pepper
1 sprig fresh rosemary, smashed, chopped

For the onions that top the dish:
3 lbs onions, peeled and julienned
1.5 cup olive oil


1. Rinse and drain garbanzos in a colander until liquid runs clear.

2. In a 6-quart pot, combine 2 oz. oil, chopped onion and chopped garlic. Stir over high heat until onions start to brown.

3. Add garbanzos, tomato sauce, tomato paste, parsley, garlic, rosemary, crumbled bouillon cubes and pepper.

4. Mix well. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer for 1 hour.

4. Remove from pot and place in thick metal roasting pan. Preheat oven 375 degrees.

5. Cook the onions that top the dish. Heat olive oil in a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Brown the 3 lbs. of sliced onions in the oil and distribute on top of the garbanzos. Do not mix. Yiayia used most of the oil as well – about a cup’s worth. Place on top.

hc5onions4garbanzos6. Bake for 1 hour covered.

7. Remove cover and turn oven onto broiler setting. Place under broiler to allow onions to crisp up a bit (a couple of minutes maybe). You need to watch this carefully; do not walk away.

8. This makes a great side dish or main course. Serve with a salad of cucumber, onion, feta, and olives drizzled with some red vinegar, good olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Warm pita bread is nice as well.


Yiayia Tita’s Kalymnian Fela (Dolmades)

hc5felawgreeksaladNote from Alan Lake: We may know stuffed grape leaves by their more formal name, dolmades, but Greek peasants/commoners call them fela – a word that means simply “leaves.” There’s a short window of time in May and June when fresh leaves are at their best. Too small, and you can’t stuff them. Too large, and they get tough.

To explain how she knows when grape leaves are the right size, Yiayia makes a fist and then extends her fingers. “Somewhere in between, that’s the best size,” she says. They grow in sandy soil, and once picked can be dried or frozen. Yiayia freezes hers.  
People are protective of the spots where they find them, keeping them secret, as with truffles. We’re in luck. Yiayia picked hers a couple days before we made the dish, and they’re as fresh as can be. A different animal from the bottled, to be sure.

Fela can be vegetarian or contain meat or lamb or pine nuts, depending on your taste. Fela/dolmades are most often eaten on Sundays, but here, any time will do.  


1 large soup bone w/some meat still on it, browned and reserved (besides imparting flavor, this helps in preventing sticking or scorching)
3 lbs. ground beef (80/20 works best, you don’t want it too lean)
2 large onions, diced
3 stems flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 cup long grain rice, washed, drained
2 t. tomato paste
12 oz. tomato sauce
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper

For the avgolemono sauce
2 egg whites
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup pot juices from fela


hcfelapostblanche1. Mix all ingredients together, including whatever meat you can cut from the soup bone. This adds a different texture to the ground beef mixture. Chill. Moisten meat mixture with a bit of chicken stock or water.  It should be a bit glossy.

2. Prepare fela/dolmades. Ideally, the fela should have been picked fresh in May–June and frozen for year-round use – or, it’s available in ethnic grocery stores by the jar. First, rinse well. Bring water to a boil with the juice of 1 lemon. Add fela to water and blanch for 5 minutes. If they’re still tough, blanch for an additional 5 minutes. Strain and set aside to cool.
 Remove 1/4 inch of the stem, as they can be tough.

hc5felawstuffingc3. Assemble fela. Use a heavy-bottomed pot – 6 quarts at least. Place beef soup bone on bottom of the pot. Open leaves and place stem side on the bottom. Add approximately 1 T. meat mixture to the lower 1/3 of the leaf.  Fold leaf over the filling and then fold in the edges of both sides in, as as you would a burrito or egg roll.

4. Cook fela. Place in pot seam side down, layering tightly around and over the soup bone. Dilute 2 cups water with 4 chicken bouillon cubes, crumbled, and pour over fela in the pot.

 Add 1/2 stick of unsalted butter, cubed. Place a dish over the top to weigh down and cook for 1 hour over medium heat, covered.

hc5felacook5. Before serving, make the the avgolemono sauce.

 In a chilled mixing bowl, beat egg whites until fluffy. Add yolks one at a time and continue to beat.  Slowly drizzle lemon juice in.

6. Add pan juices slowly and adjust seasoning as needed with salt and pepper. Pour avgolemono over the top of the fela and swish the pot around to combine the juices. Reserve some sauce for garnishing once plated. Eat hot or cold. It’s even better the next day.