My grandmother Fani arrived in Melbourne from Greece in the 1950s with my Cypriot-born grandfather. Together with my mum Christina, they raised me and my five younger siblings in a very Greek household.
On weekdays, mum prepared her simple yet flavoursome Greek dishes, which included my favourite fried rice with spinach, chicken schnitzel with gravy and her Greek chicken nuggets, which in reality were regular chicken nuggets made from scratch, but in our household, all food was Greek, no matter what.
For Sunday brunch, Grandma Fani prepared the family's most anticipated dish of the week: her oven-baked roast with Greek-style lemon potatoes. My love for this meal was the only reason I got out of bed on Sundays.
This is a do-at-home version of the most amazing whole roast pigs we saw at Messeni Market, near Kalamata. They were set out on huge boards and the vendors cut big chunks with sharp cleavers. I was determined to work out my own way of doing it!
Talk to your butcher about this cut of pork. I found Peters Meats, who have national distribution, very helpful. The idea is to get a half saddle i.e. the loin with the belly attached, in a size which will fit in your oven. Measure your oven first and tell the butcher what size.
I remember how every Sunday morning we would pick grandma up for church. I would bolt out of the car, run into her kitchen and open the oven to steal one of her lemony potatoes. I then rated them from one to 10, depending on how crispy, lemony and salty they were – 10 being the best combination of all three of these elements.
The potatoes usually scored from eight to 10 and grandma always laughed me off when I told her what she got. I think she thought my enthusiasm for her roast potatoes was funny. In hindsight, I feel a bit guilty for rating her food, but as a kid, I didn't realise that she was up from 6am to prepare this meal for us.
My grandma's roast was bountiful enough to feed seven people and it included a big piece of pork or lamb, a large platter of lemon roasted potatoes and a rich selection of seasonal vegetables.
Before we gathered around the table to enjoy it, we stopped at the local bakery right after church for grandma to pick up her favourite loaf of bread called pasta dura – an Italian bread made with durum or semolina flour.
As a kid, I ate so much of my grandmother's roast and potatoes that I needed a nap afterwards.
Surprisingly, dessert wasn't a big thing in my Greek family, but grandma did make them during the two big holiday feasts: Easter and Christmas. On both occasions, grandma made a big tub of butter biscuits covered in icing sugar called kourabiedes, and sometimes daktyla. They would last for months so she kept the tub in her so-called good room, which refers to the dining room that Greek families only use to entertain guests on special occasions like holidays and parties.
If I ever felt like a sweet, I would sneak some, but grandma always brought them out to serve with coffee when guests visited.
My grandma Fani also made a mean egg lemon chicken soup which we enjoyed after Easter midnight mass and to break our 40 days of fasting.
Then there was spit lamb every Christmas and Easter Sunday for lunch, which grandma prepared the night before. She seasoned it with herbs, such as oregano, pepper, salt and lots of lemons, and kept it overnight in a bath with ice.
The next day my uncle began the cooking process and we picked the cooked skin off the lamb. The adults scolded us for doing this because the lamb was likely to burn without it.
Discovering my love for cooking
I wasn't interested in cooking when I was a kid, but I loved eating and it was the way we bonded as a family.
Yet at age 11, I picked up a copy of a Women's Weekly kid's cookbook and I made a simple recipe, a noodle omelette, with my brother Tim.
Instant ramen noodles were fashionable back then and I remember whipping up the eggs, boiling the noodles and adding them to a pan. That was my first cooking memory and a very successful one. I occasionally made this recipe and tried a few others along the way.
In contrast, my grandma and mum never used cookbook recipes. They made everything from scratch and memory. They used a regular drinking cup to measure, never a proper measuring cup.
It wasn't until I reached my late 20s that I realised I really did love cooking, specifically baking. In the beginning, I baked as a hobby, following simple cupcake and cookie recipes, but eventually, I became obsessed with macarons.
Although I trained as a graphic designer, I wanted a job that kept me on my feet to keep fit. My first thought was to join the Royal Australian Navy, which I did as a navy corp. But, seven weeks into it, I realised it wasn't for me and I discharged myself.
Before leaving, one exercise they asked us to do was to write down a list of things we wanted to accomplish once completing our service; studying cooking was on my list. Hence, at age 25 I enrolled and completed a commercial cookery course at William Angliss Institute.
After graduation, I travelled to Europe for three months. I visited my grandfather's home of origin, the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which is also my favourite food destination. There, I ate endless amounts of haloumi; sometimes with watermelon and bread and other times in haloumopitta, a traditional cheese pie. I like haloumi best when it's pan-fried in flour or butter. My last two weeks were spent in Paris, the epicentre of pastries, where I completed a macarons course.
Equipped with new skills and inspiration, I returned home to work at a bakery. For two years I learned how to manage a kitchen, be creative with desserts and take pride in making cupcakes.
Conversely, I began scouring food blogs for recipes and then when YouTube came along, I discovered Laura Vitale, a chef who created Italian cooking videos. All this slowly inspired me to make my own videos, which led to my own blog, called The Scran Line – an ode to my time in the Navy. Scran means food, and when you stand in line for food in the navy, you stand in the 'scran' line.
At the bakery, we had an occasion called 'Surprise flavour Friday' where we each took turns to design a uniquely flavoured cupcake. I loved doing that so much that my blog recipes today reflect that time.
Grandma Fani: my cooking inspiration
I don't consider myself a chef but a food enthusiast – and that's due to my mum, but mostly my grandmother.
While I don't often cook Greek food at home, when we do put the BBQ on to make souvlakia, I always make my own pitta bread. We did that a lot when I was young; we took pride in making it from scratch. It's something I still enjoy doing – kneading the dough and cooking it in the fry pan.
While we don't do our Sunday brunch anymore, I still make my grandma's Greek lemony potatoes. I'd score them a seven.
My family's favourite sweet that I make is my pavlova cake. I make sure it's a part of our Greek Easter and Christmas spreads.
I have a photo of my grandma in my kitchen and any time I enter it – no matter what I'm making – I feel connected to her and mum. They both loved cooking so much and I'm grateful how they instilled their love of all things food in me.
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A little ground fenugreek helps to lighten the sweet creaminess of this milk chocolate-based chocolate fool. If you can’t find ruby chocolate, replace quantity with milk chocolate. Layer with fresh or frozen berries to balance it all out.
This is a favourite at home and relies on some pantry basics plus a few fresh things. I came up with this on a cold, rainy day, but I was craving the delicious tang and saltiness of a Greek salad. This dish has the elements of this, but with baked warm buttery rice - hence its name. It turns out, like most things we think we discover or invent, this dish has a name and rich history of its own. So this is a version of spanakorizo with a few extras.
To keep the chips extra crisp, remember to pat the potato dry with paper towel prior to baking. Simple and quick to prepare, you’ll never revert to fried again!