Dishes like this are what make the Mediterranean diet such a healthy one, unlike the recipes with a heavy red meat emphasis that so many people mistakenly believe are the typical daily fare for Greek households.
Mama Aphrodite, my Greek-Cypriot mother-in-law, would often cook this meal at our request. We would usually ask for it after a weekend of visits to various Cypriot relatives’ homes where they showed their love for us with incredible feasts that invariably resulted in us stuffing ourselves to the point of discomfort.
There's a reason that the first word I learned in Greek (other than a few choice expletives and please and thank you), was the command to eat. In fact, “Fáe, Fáe, Fáe!” (Eat, eat eat!) is probably the most common refrain a guest will hear from any ethnic Greek host or hostess.
When entertaining guests, they pull out all the stops, so that as a visitor to a typical Greek home you’ll often encounter a table almost groaning from the sheer weight of the platters of different grilled and stewed meat dishes, pasta and meat casseroles, meat and vegetable casseroles, stuffed grape leaves and zucchinis, small plate “meze” offerings (similar to appetizers or tapas), fruits, and desserts, etc.
The hospitality for which the region is renowned obligates the host or hostess to ply their guests with course after course of food until you are stuffed to the point where you simply cannot eat one bite more.
Little wonder then, that I gained 10 pounds every year when we visited Cyprus. Every.Single.Time.
It was just so hard to resist the encouragement to overindulge and enjoy all the delicious options. It took me many years to learn a survival strategy to prevent this from happening, but I was finally forced to to find a solution when losing that extra weight became significantly more difficult post-children and as I moved out of my thirties.
As I said goodbye forever to the years where losing weight and staying lean were easy, I eventually figured out that I had to politely refuse an offer of food at least 3 times before my host or hostess would believe I meant it and was not merely trying to be polite.
And I also learned to leave a small amount of food on my plate rather than clean it as I was brought up to do. The reason being that if I ate every last bite, my hostess would assume I was still hungry and load my plate up with more.
She was always a bit concerned that these types of meals were not worthy of our status as visiting family, but we always found them tasty and more than satisfying. Mama had no reason to worry in that regard at all.
The recipe as written is almost identical to her original one. The only thing I have changed is the option of coriander or cilantro instead of, or in addition to, the parsley, and the addition of the red pepper that adds just a bit of zing to the dish to make it that much more flavorful.
I also serve it sometimes over brown rice or barley, or add them to bowls of the chickpeas to make it a heartier meal. Mama always just served this dish in bowls with plenty of fresh bread from the bakery around the corner.
Mind you, bread is still a fantastic choice to sop up any of the sauce left over on your plate, but it is an option you can choose or not.
Beyond that, the recipe is straight out of Mama’s huge, simple kitchen - another meal I will forever associate with family and shared meals around her kitchen table. Very sweet memories, they are, too.
Here’s the recipe:
Makes approximately 8 hearty servings
Prep time - Approx. 20 minutes
Start to finish time - Approx. 30-45 minutes
(depending on whether you need to cook brown rice or have some on hand)
Total recipe cost – Approx. $6.50
Total per person meal cost with tossed salad, yogurt, and fresh whole grain bread – Approx. $1.50
6 cups cooked brown rice (optional)
2 cups uncooked brown rice (optional)
2 tablespoons of canola or other vegetable oil
4 cans chickpeas (14-16 ounce size)
6 ounces of tomato paste
1 can (28-32 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 medium onion
2 large celery stalks
½ teaspoon of salt (to taste)
2-3 large garlic cloves
¼ tsp of crushed or flake cayenne pepper (to taste - optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 bunch fresh parsley and/or cilantro
1 tablespoon dried parsley and cilantro
Plain yogurt (optional)
(Recipe continues after pictures)
- If you are having rice, and have no cooked rice on hand, then start the rice right away by putting 4 cups of water and 2 cups of brown rice and about ½ teaspoon of salt in a covered, medium pot over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low to maintain a simmer and set the timer for 35 minutes. When the rice is firm/tender, remove it from the heat and set aside, covered.
- Now move on to prepare the vegetables. Peel and dice the medium onion and set aside.
- Wash and dice the 2 large celery stalks and set aside with the onion
- Peel and chop the 2-3 cloves of garlic and set aside.
- If you are using fresh parsley and/or cilantro, wash the bunches by swishing them vigorously in a large bowl of water while you hold the stems. Drain and rinse the bowl and repeat the washing, as necessary.
- Cut off most of the stems from the parsley and/or cilantro, and chop or cut the remaining leaves relatively coarsely to make approximately ½ cup.
- Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a medium pot over medium heat for about 1 minute. Stir in the onions and celery and cook them until the onions are translucent and the celery is just tender, usually about 7-10 minutes. Stir them often.
- Add the chopped garlic and cook it for about 1 minute, stirring frequently.
- Add the the 28-32 ounces of diced tomatoes, the tomato paste, the ½ teaspoon of salt, the ¼ teaspoon of red pepper, the 1-2 tablespoons of dried parsley or cilantro, if using, and the 1 teaspoon each of cumin and coriander, and stir to blend well. Bring to a simmer, and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.
- Add the 4 undrained cans of chickpeas and the chopped parsley and/or cilantro, if you are using them, to the pot, and resume simmering. Allow them to simmer for about 5-10 minutes. Stir occasionally.
- Serve the chickpeas in a bowl, or over the brown rice, along with the salad, whole grain bread, and a large spoonful of plain yogurt on the side, if desired.