Chicken Ttavas/Τταβας (Chicken Stew with Cumin and Onions)


We decided to drive to Platres, a village resort up near the highest point of Cyprus, on the Troodos mountains. Even though it was mid-April, the weather was wintery. Low clouds played hide-and-seek among the mountain tops, coming down enough to envelop our cars in a thin fog. The sun triumphed occasionally, only to be followed by a short hailstorm and then rain and then back to sun again. Above us, we could see that the highest peaks were snow covered from the night before.DSC03982

We reached the village around noon and parked at its center. Unlike other villages we had seen, with their disorganized chaos of delapidated shacks, restored old houses, and construction garbage everywhere, Platres was pristine. Beautiful houses were dotting the landscape, with tended gardens and flowering trees. “Platres was a popular upscale resort during the British colonial times,” I explained, “and it remained so after independence.”DSC03977

It started to drizzle. “Lunch?” I asked. Everyone nodded. We walked into the closest restaurant, doubtful it was even open. The whole village was quiet and empty. This was Easter week and much earlier than the crowded tourist season. The door to the restaurant opened and we walked in to a dining room empty of any customers, except for three men at a table, with a laptop open. “Come in,” one of them said, the apparent owner.

We sat down and he explained what was available for the day. It was a limited menu but there was enough there to entice us. Steve and JC ordered ttavas, a lamb stew, cooked in onions and tomatoes with a heavy dose of cumin. Traditionally cooked in clay pots in outdoor wood-burning ovens, I always remember it from my childhood, tasting of sweet earth and smoke. When it arrived at our table and Steve took a bite, his eyes lit up. “This is amazing,” he said. JC nodded in agreement.

Last week, back in New York, I decided to create a version of it, tweaking my mom’s recipe and using chicken instead of lamb. No clay pots or wood-burning ovens are involved, but it will get you as close as possible to a cold spring afternoon in Platres without leaving your home.

DSC04012Chicken Ttavas/Τταβας (Chicken Stew with Cumin and Onions)


½ cup olive oil
1½ teaspoons of salt, divided
2 lbs onions (about 4 medium onions), peeled, cut in half and sliced crosswise in ¼-inch thick slices
6 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed with back of knife
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds, lightly crushed in mortar and pestle
One 14.5 oz (411 gr) can of diced tomatoes in juice
¾ cup white wine
¼ cup rice vinegar
2 bay leaves
freshly ground black pepper
1½-1¾ lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs


Preheat oven to 325° F.

In a large oven-safe pot with lid, heat olive-oil over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, and ½ teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are soft but have not turned brown, about 15 minutes. Add cumin, and cook, stirring constantly for another minute.

Add diced tomatoes and their juices, wine, vinegar, bay leaves, an additional 1 teaspoon of salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Stir to combine well. Add chicken thighs and nestle them in the onion mixture to cover them. Bring back to a gentle simmer, cover pot and place in oven.

Cook covered for 60 minutes. Uncover pot and return to oven for an additional 20 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper, if necessary

To serve, use two forks to separate chicken thighs into large pieces. Serve in shallow bowls with chunks of bread to sop up the onions and tomatoes.

Lentils with Onions and Smoked Fish

I was going through the recipes I’ve posted on this blog the other day and I realized that I probably should have called it “Better with Butter and Sugar” instead of “Better with Lemon.” Most of the recipes I’ve shared have been for things that are baked and sweet and buttery. It’s true, I do love to bake and I do have a really bad sweet tooth. But I also cook. Pretty much every day actually.


The problem is that most nights I cook without a recipe. I use what’s good right now and put together a quick dinner for us. So there isn’t always a recipe that I can share. Unless you want me to tell you about cooking a chicken breast on a grill pan and coating it with olive oil that was pressed with lemons when it’s done (which reminds me that I have to tell you about this olive oil that was pressed with lemons one of these days).


Anyway, this recipe isn’t sweet or buttery or baked. But it’s absolutely delicious. Lentils are kind of special to me because it was one of the only two legumes that I liked to eat as a kid. Granted, there were only four kinds of legumes available when I was growing up: white beans (liked them), dried fava beans (couldn’t stand them), and black eyed peas (hated them).


Don’t get me wrong. I ate almost everything as a kid but there were four things I couldn’t stand. The first were the two legumes mentioned above. The other two were plain cooked spinach (it still makes me gag, unless it’s smothered in cream and cheese and baked in phyllo dough) and tahini. Yes, tahini. I don’t know why but since I was a little kid, tahini made me want to throw up (I think I actually did a couple of times when I was little). Hating tahini for me was the equivalent of a kid growing up in America and hating ketchup. Or mayo. Tahini was everywhere and everyone loved it.


Anyway, my mom’s lentils have always been a dish I love. This is a variation that is slightly different than how she makes them. The final dish is a combination of earthiness, smoke, and tartness, rounded out by the sweetness of the onions. My mom never adds smoked fish when she makes them, but I discovered a few years ago by accident that it’s an amazing paring. Growing up, we always added vinegar to the lentils but I use lemon instead because it goes better with the smoked fish. However, if you make this dish without the fish, you should also go for the vinegar. Don’t ask why. It’s just better.


Lentils with Onions and Smoked Fish

Note: If you want to make this completely vegetarian you can use vegetable stock instead of chicken stock and omit the fish. If you don’t use the fish, substitute the lemon with 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, or more if you like the lentils tart.

1 cup of french lentils (7oz / 200g)
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups water
1 medium onion, diced (6-7oz / 180-200g)
1/4 cup olive oil (60ml)
One 3.25oz (92g) tin of smoked kippers, or any smoked fish you prefer, drained and broken into small pieces with a fork
juice of one lemon
1/2 teaspoon of salt

In a saucepan, add lentils, stock, and water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring once or twice. Raise the heat to medium low, uncover and continue to cook for another 8-10 minutes until the lentils are fully cooked.

While the lentils are cooking, prepare the onion. Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for about 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened and have started to turn golden brown. Remove from heat and set aside.

When lentils are cooked, scrape the onions and all the olive oil into the lentils. Add the smoked kippers, the lemon juice, and the salt. Stir and serve immediately.

Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as a main dish.

Eliopitta / Ελιοπιττα (Olive and Mint Cake)

When I was a little kid I never did well in sports. I could never keep up with all the other kids and always ended up winded and tired, while everyone else was still running and kicking balls around. It was generally decided that I was just a “weak” kid, so I learned to live with that label and gave up on sports. It wasn’t until my early teen years that we found out the real reason for my “weakness.”


I remember it was a night when my parents were out visiting some friends and my sister and I were home alone. This was a time when it was acceptable and safe to leave your young kids alone at home. I started coughing and the more I coughed, the harder it became for me to breathe, which made me cough even more, creating a vicious cycle that ended in my sister calling our parents and asking them to come home because I was having difficulty breathing.


To make a long story short, we soon found out I had asthma (though it wouldn’t be until a couple of decades later that I would learn on my own that there is such a thing as exercise-induced asthma, explaining my “weakness” in sports). My parents were told to take me to an allergist, so one day my dad and I visited one. I still remember his office, a dark room that smelled of stale cigarettes (remember, this was in the early 80s) and old leather. He opened a large wooden box with several vials in it and pricked my arms to test my sensitivity to allergens. His verdict? I was allergic to olive tree blossoms.


Now, keep in mind that I lived on a Mediterranean island. There were olive trees everywhere. There was even one outside my bedroom window, which my dad, in an attempt to help me, cut down completely. To this day, I don’t really believe that I have a specific allergy to olive blossoms. I do have seasonal allergies and I do have exercise-induced asthma. But olive blossoms specifically? Doubtful.


Fortunately, the allergist didn’t tell us that I was allergic to olives themselves because I would then have missed out on this olive and mint savory cake that my mom made regularly. It was a great snack or quick breakfast that my sister and I loved to eat. It features a divine trinity of flavors: olives, mint, and onions. The onions turn sweet and combine with the briny saltiness of the olives, only to be confronted with the aromatic mint, in a combination that is as salient in my childhood as peanut butter and jelly is to most kids in the U.S.


Eliopitta / Ελιοπιττα (Olive and Mint Cake)

Note: I like to make this cake in a bundt pan because that’s how my mom always made it but you can use two regular loaf pans instead. I’ve also made this into muffins that are great for a picnic or a party. If you make muffins, adjust the cooking time down.

4 eggs
1 12 oz can of evaporated milk (unsweetened)
1/3 cup olive oil (plus some more to grease pan)
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup of pitted, black olives, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons chopped, fresh mint or 2 tablespoons of dried mint
3 cups (375 gr) all-purpose flour (plus some more for plan)
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Preheat oven to 350°.

Use a little olive oil to grease either one bundt cake pan or two 9×5 inch loaf pans. Sprinkle with flour and shake out excess. Set pan(s) aside.

In the bowl of a mixer beat eggs well for a few minutes until they have expanded in volume and they are pale yellow and creamy. Add the evaporated milk and the oils and beat until combined.

In a medium bowl whisk together flour and baking powder. Add the flour mixture to liquids. Mix with a spatula until just combined. Do not overmix. Fold in olives, onions, and mint. Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and bake for about 50-60 minutes, until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then invert onto rack to cool completely.