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Hunting for horta

"We lived in Greece when I was little, and my grandmother was boiling this green stuff. It had a very strong smell and did not look appealing ..."
-- Irene Filippou Arvanitis

You might call the lovely Irene Arvanitis a bag lady.

Wherever the longtime Greektown resident goes, she carries bags with her, shopping bags with handles and plain grocery bags.

Just in case she sees succulent greens -- especially dandelion leaves -- growing wild in greater Baltimore.

"Out in the county, by the side of the road, but you have to be careful of poison ivy," said Arvanitis, 55, a medical claims processor for the state of Maryland. Foragers have been known to double-park, and, she confessed, "If I can venture into somebody's backyard, I'll do it."

Trespassing for horta!

"The old-timers in Little Italy did it all the time," said local author Rosalia Scalia, whose award-winning short story "Picking Cicoria" was published in 2007. "You had to be sure not to pick plants that dogs had peed on."

A dandelion is a dandelion is a dandelion but the Italians call it cicoria; the Greeks know it as rathikia.

In Greek, horta vrasta means "boiled greens" from the Latin hortus for "garden." It encompasses a wide range of leafy vegetables, wild and cultivated. In the poorer regions of Greece, particularly during the famine that followed World War II, it meant any greens that wouldn't kill you.

The vaguely bitter goodies include a variety of endive (Belgian and escarole among them, rich in vitamins and minerals, high in fiber and the key to Italian wedding soup), spinach, All-American collards (seasoned with fatback and neckbones), the young and dark green leaves of the beet root, mustard greens, kale (though it can be tough) and the dagger-shaped leaves of the dandelion.

Altogether they are known simply as horta, as in "Hey, Effie, pick me up some horta when you go out to your cousin's farm this weekend."

An international staple of Hellenic culture, horta is eaten in Greece from high society to low; no one in Greece looks down on any food, however humble, if their grandmother made it. It is easily found in Greek restaurants throughout the metro area and many a proud ethnic kitchen from Perry Hall to East Baltimore to Rosedale.

"Zorba's [on Eastern Avenue] has great horta and my mom, of course, who uses kale," said Kaliope Parthemos, a Greektown native and Baltimore's deputy chief for economic development. "When I got older, I was shocked to find out that 'American' kids didn't grow up with friends and neighbors dropping off bags of fresh-picked greens from the side of the road."

Arvanitis, who lives on Ponca Street near St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, has two distinct early childhood memories of horta: one eating and one picking, one in Greece and one in Baltimore.

"I lived in Greece from the time I was 4 to about 6," said Arvanitis, a widow who graduated from Patterson High School in 1976.

While living with her maternal grandmother in the family village of Lachania on the island of Rhodes, young Arvanitis turned her nose up at the horta — not unlike many an American kid faced with a plate of Popeye's secret weapon. So her yia-yia did what grandmothers are beloved for doing:

"She appeased me," Arvanitis said."She folded the [boiled] horta in dough — not phyllo but bread dough — and baked it outside in their brick oven like a spinach pie."

The smell was intoxicating — the scent of fresh bread mixed with a breeze off the Aegean — but still the kid resisted.

"So then she sprinkled sugar on it," said Arvanitis. "And I devoured it."

Sugar-coated horta?

What would the gods of Olympus say?

(At the Sacred Rock of Athens — the Acropolis — they'd ignore the blasphemy to search the ground for fresh mustard greens.)

In a few short years, Arvanitis would not only be eating horta savory and proper — "I acquired the taste of saltiness," she said, "olives and anchovies and smoked mackerel" — but went hunting for it on the grounds of the old Baltimore City Hospitals, now Hopkins Bayview.

"Rathikia is what we went searching for," Arvanitis said of dandelions. "We'd go up to the hospital fields on Saturday afternoon. The leaves had to be a certain length. We'd snap them off and come home with two Epstein's [department store] shopping bags full for the whole week."

The leaves stayed in the bags until needed and would then go under the faucet in a colander for a good rinse.

Dandelion horta is a treat suitable as an anytime-you-can-get-it side dish. It is regularly on sale at Santoni's supermarket in Highlandtown for about $2.29 a pound. Endive is a preferred Sunday dinner horta, perfect with fish or lamb.

Arvanitis recently bought three full bunches of endive at Shoppers supermarket on Eastern Avenue near Dundalk for $1.49 a pound.

Cooking one of the bunches and setting the others aside for later, she washed it several times (there's always some sand in leafy greens), broke off the stems and placed them in a stew pot full of water seasoned with Kalas Greek sea salt from Prima Foods.

In about 10 minutes, the greens boiled down to about four cereal bowls' worth, enough for the Arvanitis household: Arvanitis, her daughter Anastasia, toddling granddaughter Marianthi and that extra seat always reserved for the unexpected guest .

The taste was bright, sharp and clean, just a little fresh olive oil (Greek, of course, from kalamata olives) to soothe the tart leaf and a squirt of lemon.

"You can only ruin it by boiling it too much," said Arvanitis, who said the best horta is "al dente, like good spaghetti."

Irene's Greens

Like spinach, boiled greens wilt and reduce to a fraction of their original quantity when cooked. For 4 ample servings, use approximately 3 pounds of greens.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

1 large bunch of endive or leafy green of choice

1 "palmful" (about a tablespoon) sea salt or kosher salt

2 tablespoons fresh, extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 1/2 to 1 fresh lemon

Trim any coarse stems. Discard brown or prematurely wilted leaves. Rinse thoroughly in colander under running water.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and then add about a tablespoon of salt to the water. Place in the greens carefully until submerged. Boil for about 10 minutes, maybe a minute or two more. The less stem, the less time necessary for boiling.

Drain and put in large salad bowl. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice or allow diners to dress the greens themselves.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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