Discover traditional Greek flavours with Mary Calombaris
Like most nonnas, cooking is a devoted daily affair for Mary Calombaris. Drop in on Mary any day and she might be whipping up anything from a simple weekday lunch of pan-fried John Dory with fennel and potato mash to a 500-strong batch of kourabiethes (Greek shortbread) for a charity event. Other times you might find her spending a week preparing food for up to 100 friends, neighbours and family members for a name day feast. Indeed, when it comes to cooking, Mary is a can-do kind of lady.
“I love being in the kitchen, it’s enjoyable,” Mary beams. “The best gift you can give people is to make them happy by feeding them. Money can’t buy the smile you put on their faces. Food is life.”
When we were compiling our list of suitable candidates for our Nonnas of Melbourne film series, Mary was a firm favourite. Apart from being the mother of that other famous Calombaris (restaurateur and MasterChef Australia judge, George) Mary is also a much-loved member of Melbourne’s Greek community and a passionate advocate for home cooking.
“I want to say to everybody: Please, just start cooking at home! It will bring you more joy than anything else. It’s so easy to dish up beautiful food; you don’t need much.”
Like all of our nonnas, Mary is a passionate champion for no-waste cooking, “You can do a lot of things with scraps and leftovers. One of my sons says I could make a casserole out of the onion peel. It’s true! You should never throw anything out; it takes many hands to grow all our beautiful produce.”
According to Mary, a typical dinner at the Calombaris home might include tzatziki, spanakopita, haloumi skewers, slow-cooked lamb and snapper, along with sweet treats including Mary’s galaktoboureko (Greek custard slice), kourabiethe and an Aussie-style pavlova topped with toasted almonds.
But the dish we really wanted to learn to cook was Mary’s signature pastitsio. It’s a recipe that she learned from her mother, and which has been passed down through multiple generations of Mary’s mother’s family.
One of four sisters, Mary says she was the one most passionate about food and memories. “My mum used to write down her recipes on scraps of paper, and I gathered them all up as I went along,” she says. “When I got married and left home, I’d go back [to my mother’s house]… she and I did dishes together, and that is where this love of cooking grew inside of me.”
Today, her mother’s recipes are among her most treasured possessions and unlike others, Mary isn’t one to veer from tradition. “I would never change any of the recipes that were given down to us,” she says, “It’s always nice to keep them the way they always were.” Her mother’s recipes are now lovingly pasted in books, and along with family photos, Mary says they would be the first thing she would grab if the house was on fire.
“The best gift you can give people is to make them happy by feeding them. Money can’t buy the smile you put on their faces. Food is life.”
Mary came to Australia from Cyprus as a young girl in 1955 and says that Melbourne couldn’t have been more different from the life that she and her family left behind. “After about a week, my mum was crying and saying to my dad that she wanted to go home,” Mary recalls. “She couldn’t find any of the ingredients she wanted; the only olive oil you could get then was in little bottles at the chemist.”
Mary says there was one very good delicatessen on Lonsdale Street, and that members of the Greek community successfully lobbied the owner to sell olive oil and all other products they missed. “He started importing them and he was making a mint,” she says. “It was expensive, but it was one way we really started to feel at home here.”
It was thanks to delis such as this one that Greek food began to establish itself in the Australian culture, and Mary loves the fact that Greek food is now mainstream and popular among Australians from a range of cultural backgrounds. “They respect our food and our olive oil and oregano and garlic.”
As her children were growing up, food was an intrinsic part of life in Mary’s home. “We’d set the table when they came home from school and wait for dad to come home. I’d give them little snacks to keep them going, but we all ate together as a family. I’d put the pots in the middle of the table and they’d serve themselves.”
It also gave Mary great pleasure to teach her children to cook, passing on the recipes that have now fed multiple generations of her family. “I loved watching them on the floor getting their hands dirty with pastry and flour,” she recalls. “They’d help with the dolmades and other things I was making. I have some lovely memories.”
As adults, her children have now taken over some of the cooking for family celebrations, but Mary still makes platters of their favourite dishes. She has handed down her mother’s recipes, too. “I respect and cherish those recipes and I’ll pass them down to whoever asks for them.”
Mary’s pastitsio recipe
Makes: 10 serves
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Oven Temperature: 250º fan forced
500g penne pasta
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup grated parmesan
100g unsalted butter
100g unsalted butter
3/4 cup plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
6 cups full cream milk
250g minced beef
250g minced pork
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
700g tomato passata
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup grated parmesan
Prepare the pasta:
In a large pot, bring water to the boil with a teaspoon of salt. Add pasta and cook until al dente (follow instructions on packet). Remove and strain pasta then return to the pot. Add two tablespoons of unsalted butter and half a cup of grated parmesan and mix thoroughly. Place half of the pasta in a greased 13 x 9-inch baking dish.
Prepare the meat sauce (can be done a day ahead):
Heat a large non-stick pot over medium heat then add mince, stirring until the meat is no longer pink. Add onion and garlic, stirring for three minutes. Next, add ground cinnamon, cinnamon stick, salt, pepper, sugar, tomato passata and half a cup of water. Stir well and allow to simmer for five minutes, then add one tablespoon of unsalted butter. Simmer for three minutes then remove from heat and take out the cinnamon stick. Stir in a cup of shredded parmesan cheese and mix well. Place the sauce on top of the pasta, then add the rest of the pasta on top of that. Set aside while you prepare bechamel.
Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add flour, salt and pepper and mix until combined. Gradually add warm milk and stir continuously until smooth and creamy. If necessary, used a hand mixer to make it creamy. Add egg and whisk, mixing well. Spread bechamel evenly on top of the pasta.
Cover with baking paper and bake in a preheated oven for 20 minutes, then remove the paper and cook for a further 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
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