Archive for the ‘Cooking Life’ Category

I remember March on the island last year as being full or wildflowers, soft warm breezes, and lots of time spent outdoors.  We even went swimming in the sea around the end of March.  This time… not so much.  Today we’re waiting for snow.  I’ve never seen snow in Southern Greece except way up in the mountains, in the 12 years I’ve been in and out of this country.  When I lived in Northern Greece (near Thessaloniki), we had snow a few times, even snow that would stick.  Traveling through the very highest mountains in the Peloponnese, I have seen snow.  Here on the island, it hasn’t even gone below freezing yet this year (although it sure feels like it when the humidity is very high and the cold north wind blows).  However, it is currently snowing in Athens, and we have been hearing that snow is expected here as well.

Yesterday was Clean Monday – the day when Greek Orthodox Christians traditionally start their Lenten fast, which lasts for forty days until Easter, much like in the Catholic church, except the calendar is different.  Clean Monday is traditionally a day for kite-flying, because it usually falls somewhere in mid to late March, when there is usually a lot of wind but also a lot of sun.  Aside from the kite flying, there is the eating:  despite the fact that it’s the first day of fasting, there is still a long list of foods (not particularly light, for that matter) which are usually consumed.  I did my best to recreate this for my husband, who, while not a Greek Orthodox Christian, grew up with these traditions and wants to keep them alive.

The Clean Monday feast is called Koulouma, affectionately, and is primarily based on a type of bread called lagana.  Lagana looks very much like focaccia, in that it is flat, squooshy-looking, and has lots of little holes.  I thought about making lagana but decided to buy it at the local bakery, since it occurred to me that maybe they make it in some special local fashion that would be nice to try.  It tasted exactly like normal bakery bread, while costing twice as much.  Oh well.

We also had taramosalata, which is a dip made of running soaked bread, codfish eggs, and oil through a food processor.  Pink food coloring is added in most commercial versions to make it more appealing to 1950s housewives.

We had fasolada, a very basic Greek bean soup made of navy beans, carrots, wild celery, potatoes, and tomatoes.  This is one of my husband’s favorite foods, for some reason; it tastes fine but kills my stomach (I fell asleep at 6:00am, to give you an idea) and we eat beans at least 6 times per week.  We even changed the cooking water.  Oy.

We had olives, both Kalamata (his favorite) and Thassos (my favorite), and olive paste.

We had tsikoudia (well, he did – I think it tastes like rubbing alcohol) which is a Cretan drink much like raki.

We had halva, a sesame seed dessert popular during Lent because its extreme calorie content keeps you going when you’re fasting, I suppose.

End result:  NOW I want to fast.  NOW I don’t want to eat for forty days.

Oh……  I get it now!


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I love Mexican and Tex-Mex food. I grew up in the US, where it’s one of the most popular cuisines. But in Greece, Mexican food (which is almost always Tex-Mex actually) is viewed with suspicion. There are a few “gourmet Mexican” restaurants in Athens and its suburbs, like this one, but most Mexican places cater to tourists from western Europe, not to Mexicans.   In the larger supermarkets in Athens and the other cities, you can find El Paso taco sauce, tortillas, and canned jalapenos, and I’ve even found really good specialty salsa in Athens.

Here on the island… nothing.  Not only is there no Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant, but there are no Mexican ingredients in the markets here.  I just wanted a burrito, for goodness sake.

Luckily, I had brought a jar of jalapenos from Athens.  I used wheat flour, baking powder, salt, olive oil, canned red beans (dried are not sold on the island), white rice, tomatoes, onions, parsley (cilantro is not sold here either), half of a fresh peach, powdered lime juice (limes are available but extremely overpriced), garlic, cumin, nonfat plain Greek yogurt, and milk to make lunch today:

– wheat flour tortillas (they came out shaped like amoebas, but they tasted terrific)
– red beans
– dry Mexican rice
– peach pico de gallo
– plain yogurt

Ta da!!  (you have to imagine the yogurt, I couldn’t fit it in the frame.)

Mexican lunch!

If I lived in the US, this meal would have taken about 5 minutes, instead of 3 hours, and I could have had refried beans, some kind of cheese (feta didn’t really seem to go…), and real sour cream. All things I probably don’t really need to be eating, now that I think of it.

It was so much better than it would have been if I had used purchased stuff in the US. Even – dare I say it – than if I had gone to a Tex-Mex restaurant in the part of the US where I grew up (nowhere near Mexico!).

I’m starting to learn that most “international” foods are created out of pretty simple ingredients. I’ll never be able to make some things here, but with patience and ingenuity (remember my nonexistent cooking equipment?) many things I had pretty much given up on can be made right at home on this little speck.

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Lunch with a view

Somewhere around 5am this morning I woke up when my husband came to bed. He was not very good company yesterday after Greece lost 0-2 to South Korea in the World Cup. I saw bits of the game and it looked like they weren’t playing very well. Worthy of a comment, but not much more, in my opinion, but my poor dear was pretty upset about it and ended up with a headache that got worse and worse. He took some headache medicine containing caffeine, and thus the 5am bedtime.

So while he slept away the morning, I cooked. I made homemade fat-free tzatziki, homemade almost fat-free hummus, and homemade pita bread. It was my first time making pita bread, and it was a success. Since my main goal is to save money, and this made enough food for two people for an entire day, I tallied up the whole thing and it came to just about €1.70 including some carrots, not including water.


This is pretty much what my life looks like these days. I spend about 2 hours every day reading recipes online, trying to find things I can make with what I already have on hand, or with things that I can buy very cheaply, another 4 to 6 hours cooking every day, plenty of time cleaning (mainly the kitchen) and doing laundry, and the rest of my time I spend at the beach or walking around the island alone, with my husband, or with friends.

It’s not a particularly modern lifestyle, but it suits me since it’s only for two more weeks. After that, everything changes dramatically and I will be in a city of 6 million people and it will be hot and I will be exhausted and cranky. I’m enjoying this while it lasts.

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Today is Saturday, I spent the morning making homemade focaccia while my husband did the laundry and the floors.  We had the amazingly delicious focaccia with garlic-olive oil dipping sauce, and a Greek salad for lunch, after which I did the dishes and put the clothes on the line.  Sounds pretty normal so far, right? And then my husband went absolutely freaking nuts.  He is having something resembling epileptic fits.  It’s because Greece is playing their first game in the World Cup 2010 in South Africa, against South Korea.

I knew he would watch the game – he even watched the Mexico/South Africa and Uruguay/Somebody Else games last night – but I didn’t realize he would take it all so seriously!  This only happens every four years, and four years ago, Greece wasn’t in the World Cup, so this is the first time I’m seeing this reaction.

I’m going to post the focaccia recipe, because we thought it was really delicious.  This is not a food blog, and I’m not going to start taking photos of everything I cook, but it’s something to do instead of pretending to follow the game.

Caramelized Onion and Olive Focaccia

I got the original idea from here and also here, but after reading this article, I decided to use this recipe here and alter it as seemed appropriate.


240 gr (2 cups) white all-purpose flour
1 cup warm water, divided
1 packet (7-8 gr) active dry yeast
1 tsp white sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp and 1 tsp olive oil, divided
5 whole Kalamata olives
2 tbsp dried rosemary
1 tbsp dried thyme
2 medium red onions


1. Heat the water very briefly in a tea kettle (or, if not using bottled water, just use warm tap water) and pour 1/2 cup water into a mixing bowl.

2. Sprinkle the yeast over the top of the water, followed by the sugar. Let sit for 10 minutes. The yeast should foam up. If it doesn’t, throw it away and buy fresh yeast.

3. Add the flour to the water and mix well; start adding the water bit by bit as you mix it until it reaches a moist but not overly sticky consistency.

4. Flour your kneading surface. Put the dough onto the surface and start kneading it. It doesn’t need to be kneaded very long. I usually knead bread dough for 10 minutes, and the recipe called for 1 minute; I did it for more like 5 minutes and it came out great. I ended up having to add a bit more flour as it was too wet; the original recipe never specifies how much water the recipe is supposed to use, so I overestimated.

5. Shape into a ball. Wash and dry your mixing bowl well. Put 1 tsp of olive oil into the bowl and coat the sides well. Put the dough ball into the bowl, rolling it around so it is coated lightly in oil on all sides. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and then drape a kitchen towel over the top. Leave the bowl in a warm spot. Note the time, because in 45 minutes, we will come back to the dough. Preheat your oven to 245 degrees Celsius.

6. Turn on your burner to medium heat with a largish saucepan on it. Clean and slice two medium red onions. The slices should be about 1/8″ thick (normal onion slices) and all about the same thickness. At this point, add 1 tbsp olive oil to the saucepan. Separate the rings. Once the oil is hot enough to make a piece of onion sizzle, add all the onions to the saucepan.

7. Stir the onions well so that they are all coated in olive oil. Stir slowly but more or less continuously for a few minutes. Then you can stir every 30 seconds or so (but for 10-20 seconds each time) until the onions turn golden.

8. Lower the heat a little to one tick below medium, and continue stirring the onions. It took mine about 25 minutes to caramelize so don’t rush them – it’s worth the wait. Withdraw them from the heat when they are brown but not burned. Put them on a plate, so they don’t continue to cook in the pot.

6. 45 minutes after the dough started rising, check on it: it should have doubled. Mine more than doubled, but it had a much wetter consistency than bread dough; it turned out great so I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be.

7. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Put the doubled dough ball onto the cookie sheet. Gently press out the air while also pushing the dough so that it spreads over the cookie sheet. Mine ended up pretty thin (about 1/4″). All the recipes say to brush with olive oil at this point – I didn’t, and it was great, and it saved some calories, but I suspect it would be worth doing, and next time I probably will. Cover with plastic wrap and wait 15 minutes.

8. Slice the Kalamata olives, removing the pit, into small pieces (about 8 pieces per olive).

9. After 15 minutes, uncover the cookie sheet and, using your fingertip, press “dimples” into the dough every inch or so over its surface.

10. Sprinkle the rosemary and thyme over the dough. Then spread the onions and sprinkle the olive pieces over the dough.

11. Put the cookie sheet on a low rack in the oven and bake for 15 minutes.

12. To serve, cut into long, slender pieces. I made a garlic olive oil dipping sauce which went perfectly with it.

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I cook a lot here. Not just because I’m trying to use up all the stuff in the cupboard, or because it’s cheaper, or because I am an eager-to-please newlywed, but because I genuinely enjoy it. My mother was a great creator of food – I can’t call her just a cook, since most of her dishes started with a seed catalog. I have always been inspired to cook well because of her, and to start every dish as far back as possible: it’s better to make a pizza at home on purchased dough than to buy a pizza ready-made; it’s better to make the dough from flour than to buy dough; it’s better to have grown the toppings in your garden than to use storebought; it’s better to have milled the wheat yourself than to buy flour; it’s better to have grown the wheat than to have bought it… you can keep this game going for a long time.

I have no hopes of actually growing and milling wheat, but I would like, at least, to make the dough and grow the toppings, at some point in my life. For now, since I don’t have a garden of my own, I have to be satisfied with making the dough.

Just in the past week, I’ve made the following completely from scratch:

– thyme-scented French bread
– chocolate chip cookies
– basil-infused orzo pasta
– basil-infused castellane pasta
– whole wheat fettucine
– whole wheat w/ honey pizza dough
– Mexican rice
– Chinese egg-fried whole grain rice
– feta-sesame saganaki
– black-eyed pea salad
– hummus from dried chickpeas

… and more. It may not sound that impressive, and maybe it isn’t, but I’m impressed with myself for doing it for two reasons:

1) This whole year, since September, I didn’t have a kitchen. I didn’t even have a microwave. I had a sink, a knife, and a cutting board, but no source of heat.

2) The kitchen that I cook in is small. Most people claim to have small kitchens, even people who manifestly do not. But I do, honestly. Today when I made the chocolate chip cookies, I didn’t have enough space to put the cookie sheet down, so I had to do it on the bed. My refrigerator is so small that it doesn’t have a freezer. My oven is so small that its stovetop only has two burners and the oven part is not much larger than an American toaster-oven.

I have a double sink for some reason, whoever designed the kitchen thought it made sense, but it doesn’t, because there’s no counter space as a result. Everything I do in the kitchen (unless I do it in the bed, which is not rare), I do by balancing a cutting board on the divider that separates the two sink sections, and working on the cutting board. The cutting board regularly flips to one side or the other, very often sending my food flying into the sink.

As for cupboard space… I store the water on the living room floor, and most of the dried goods like beans, rice, sugar are in jars lined up here and there.

What about equipment, you ask? Aside from the aforementioned refrigerator-sans-freezer, glorified toaster-oven / hot plate, and cutting board, I have one functional knife, a digital kitchen scale (one of my prized possessions), a Zyliss garlic press (another prized poss.), a colander, a large pot, a 9″ frying pan, and a tea kettle / hotpot.

There is no coffee maker, no food processor or blender, no microwave, no freezer (I just have to bring that up again), no garbage disposal, no toaster, no grill, no dishwasher (ha!).

The entire counter space consists of 3″ of space between the sink and the oven on the right, and 3″ of space between the sink and the wall on the other side. That’s it. So I work by balancing my cutting board on the sink divider, and with this setup, I cook two meals from scratch every day.

I do sometimes need some flat space, so I have a table that I temporarily steal when I need to roll out pasta dough or knead bread dough.

My mother has complained for decades about her kitchen: too small, bad appliances, not enough light, not enough air, old countertops, etc. But the truth is that you don’t need space or equipment to cook from scratch. In fact, I think that’s the real secret: the REAL “from scratch” stuff doesn’t call for equipment at all. If your great-grandmother made it, think about what she would have used. And the results are astounding. Everything I cook makes my husband very, very happy. I started a notebook to write down recipes that he loves, and I’ve been writing them at a rate of two per day for a while now.

It’s not all rosy, though. Almost my most common expression is “I want a kitchen!” Because the oven is balanced on top of the mini-fridge and the air vent is positioned directly above the oven, there’s so little space between the stove top and the air vent thingy that I can barely fit my pot on the stove. Stirring with a wooden spoon is tough, and forget about pouring anything into the pot. If I have beans ready to go into the pot, for example, instead of pouring them in with the pot on the stove, I remove the pot from the stove, balance it precariously on the sink divider, pour the beans in, and transfer it back to the stove.

My mother would say that I’m lucky because a small kitchen is easier to keep clean. I think this is true, but I really wouldn’t mind cleaning a massive kitchen – that would be a trade-off I’d be willing to make.

One of our closest friend-couples on the island own a gorgeous little house in the capital village (heh) of the island, which they renovated themselves. Their kitchen is gorgeous. We went there for dinner tonight (I brought the chocolate chip cookies) and when I came in, I just stood in the kitchen and watched her cook. She asked me what I was doing, and I said “I’m enjoying my jealousy.”

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So how do we do it?  How do we survive now that we suddenly have no money?

Once you take out the €240 we spend for rent, the €200 for car payment, and the €50 for cell phones/electricity/whatever other unavoidable expenses, based solely on my husband’s frighteningly reduced income (and yes, in case you’re wondering, he still has to do the same amount of work plus extra now, and there’s no chance of an increase for a minimum of 4 years, even if there is inflation) – because we are saving my puny savings for emergencies – we have about €500 per month to survive on.

There are just two of us, no pets, and we both have health insurance (even me, now, thanks to the marriage) that supposedly covers us, so we use that money for everything else:  food, transportation/gas, entertainment, over the counter medicines/toiletries, household products, and whatever else we need in a given month.

It may sound like a lot, but let me remind you that things are really expensive here.  A packaged frozen two-pack of chicken breasts costs €9.00.

We aren’t getting any money from anywhere else, so we really have to make this work.  The following is an outline of what I’m doing to try to make this happen.

From the €500, subtract the likely extra expenses for that month.  At the end of the month, we’re moving off the island (our apartment needs to be rented to tourists who pay €120/night, not €240/month, so we aren’t able to stay on the island over the summer while school is out).  Moving expenses for us, all our stuff (we can’t leave it on the island in storage because we aren’t sure we’ll be coming back in the fall yet), and our car will be roughly €200 (including ferry tickets for two plus a car, train tickets, and sending a few boxes).  Gas, another €100 because of the driving we’ll have to do once we’re off the island.  That’s €300 out of the €500, leaving us with only €200 and we haven’t eaten a single meal.

My husband has uber-sensitive teeth and has to use some special (not covered by insurance) dental products that add up to about €60/month.  I have a few prescriptions I have to use every month, even with insurance it’s still around €20/month.  So we’re down to €120, or 13 two-packs of chicken breasts.

We spend roughly €60 per month on the cheapest available bottled water because of the severe health risks of using the local water.   So now we’re down to €60 for actual food, for two people who are trying not to die of an early heart attack or diabetes.

€60/month is €15/week on food.  I hope I don’t need to tell you that, at the end of the month, we do not have money left over to put into savings.

This is what I do:

1)  Use up stores of food already in the house.  We’re moving soon (at this point it’s less than 20 days away), so what better way to reduce moving stress than by getting rid of consumables?  Back in our wealthier days (not so long ago) we bought things like rice and pasta and dried beans, but we ate things like cereal, fresh fruits and vegetables, and potatoes.  Well, now we are eating the rice and pasta and dried beans.  I have put all of our dried food stores into clear glass bottles and have lined them up on the kitchen counter.  This way, I can easily see how much we have of everything.  Keep in mind that it’s not that cheap to cook dried beans and rice, even if you already own the foods, because it takes so much bottled water to cook them.  But I’m finding ways to reduce the water and it still saves money overall to use up stuff we already have.

2)  Handmaking everything.  I bought flour back in February, when we still had money.  It came in a package of three 2-kg bags, so a total of 6.6 lbs of flour.  I bought it because I wanted to make bread but I never got around to actually making the bread.  Well you’d better believe I make bread now.  I have almost seven pounds of flour to use up!  Not only have I baked amazing French bread, but also homemade pasta (without a pasta machine – in fact, without even a rolling pin – I used a glass jar).  I bought a bag (2.2 lbs) of whole wheat flour at some point too, and I made whole wheat pasta and also whole wheat pizza dough with that.  I still have about 1 lb of whole wheat flour and 3 lbs of white flour to use!  Bread is cheap to make, because the only thing you need aside from flour and a little bit of water and salt, is yeast.  So yes, I have had to buy yeast (once I ran out of the yeast I bought back in February), but it’s not that expensive considering how much food you can make out of it.

3)  Relentlessly seasonal shopping.  I don’t care if it’s cherry season in the rest of Greece; if the apricots are cheaper per kilo than the cherries this week, we’re getting apricots.

4)  Substitutions.  You don’t have to use butter or sesame oil if all you have is olive oil.  Just use the freaking olive oil.  Olive oil burns?  Turn the heat down.  It’s not perfect?  So what, you already have it sitting on your shelf, and you don’t want to carry it in your suitcase, now do you.  This is what I tell myself when I look at a recipe that calls for something I don’t have.

5)  Absolutely no meat whatsoever.  Per gram of protein, meat isn’t that expensive in most places, but here on the island, I could buy about 80 eggs for the price of those two damn chicken breasts.  So we eat eggs and beans, which are great sources of protein.

6)  Never eat out unless someone else is paying.  I hate to say this because it sounds like we’re taking advantage of others, but we’ve been invited twice this month to go out as a treat, and we accepted both times, happily and gratefully.  One of those times I was able to cook a homemade meal for our friend who took us out; the other one was our landlord who wanted to treat us before we left.

7)  When you run out of something, don’t buy more.  I can only drink decaf coffee, and I love it, but when I run out (which will happen in the next 5 days), I’ll be switching to caffeine free teas and hot chocolate, both of which I have on hand.

8)  Put water on cereal (if you have cereal – the stuff is crazy expensive but we still had some left over) because it actually tastes almost the same as milk, and I can’t even tell the difference if I don’t think about it too hard.

9) Eat all of everything.  I don’t mean eat the apricot pit, but eat the peel of carrots, potatoes, and cucumbers, don’t throw away a lemon without zesting it first, and don’t core or seed anything (you can pull the green stem part off a tomato without cutting into it at all); there’s nothing deadly about the end of a cucumber.

10) Rehydrate dried fruit by soaking in warm water before eating (it will seem like more food that way).

11) Use spices liberally if you have a lot of them on hand and wouldn’t mind using them up, to make up for bland ingredients or for a lack of sauces:  for example, the other day I wanted to make feta saganaki, a lovely Greek dish, but I didn’t want to use flour to coat it (too boring); I found a recipe that suggested to use sesame seeds to coat it instead.  Far more nutritious, far more delicious, and how else am I going to use up a huge jar of sesame seeds in 20 days?

12) Use fresh herbs that grow nearby:  we have a mint plant growing outside our house.  We didn’t put it there, our landlord did, but no one ever uses it for anything.  I put it in salads, in tzatziki, in whatever I think it would be good in.  Not only does it taste great, but it saved me buying fresh herbs (something you absolutely can’t do on this budget).

13) Absolutely no alcohol or tobacco.  My husband and I are both hard-core non-smokers, the kind who roll our eyes at each other when someone lights up 9 tables away in a restaurant, so this is nothing to us.  Alcohol:  I don’t drink it at all, as it makes my heart beat weird, but my husband does, so we basically just stopped buying any kind of wine, beer, or spirits.  There is still some brandy in the house in a bottle, but only a little bit; he’d better finish that before we leave because I don’t want to carry that damn bottle.

14) Don’t just throw stuff away.  If a vegetable looks like it’s going to go bad, use it in a sauce, don’t throw it away.  I am careful not to cook too much of anything in the fear that it won’t keep (we don’t have a freezer – I’m not kidding, we have a tiny fridge that doesn’t have a freezer at all!).

15)  Buy often, in small amounts, things that are sold by weight.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are a gamble on this island.  I have been known to buy a single lemon or a single pepper, because that’s what I needed, and didn’t want to risk the rest going bad.  I can walk to a market here so there’s no added expense (gas) in doing that.

16)  Buy cheese only on sale.  Luckily for us, our favorite cheese, Milner’s low fat feta cheese, has had a buy-one get-one free deal going on for a few weeks.  We bought two and got four.  This is the basis of many of our meals lately.  Feta isn’t cheap, but at half-price, it’s doable.  Since we don’t do meat or fish, we really enjoy this.

17)  No canned or frozen foods.  Canned goods are insanely expensive here.  Maybe it’s the weight, maybe it’s the fact that most people don’t buy them and prefer fresh, but a can of tuna costs the equivalent of $3-4 dollars – for a normal sized can!  Since I used to buy those for $0.50 in the US, I do not like this at all.  Frozen foods are also insanely expensive – even worse than canned – but I can’t buy them anyway since I have no freezer.  The only exception to this rule is that I will sometimes get canned chopped tomatoes and tomato paste when the price is reasonable.

18)  To save water, I’ve found that cooking fresh homemade pasta takes almost no water to boil, since they are finished in such a short time (2-3 minutes).  Since I have the flour and the eggs, this one is a no-brainer.

Here’s a sample menu of what we ate yesterday:


Husband:  chocolate-milk made from powder we’ve had for months
Me:  cereal with water


Both of us:  handmade white-flour orzo infused with rehydrated dried basil served cold and tossed with sliced black olives, small-chopped cucumber and tomato, a bit of red wine vinegar, the juice of half a lemon, a bit of olive oil, and about 10 large leaves of fresh mint, chopped.


Husband:  several fresh apricots, Greek coffee (no milk or sugar)
Me:  several fresh apricots


Both:  the rest of the basil-pasta dough rolled into handmade penne, cooked in a light tomato sauce left over from my homemade pizza last week; a salad with lettuce, sliced olives, finely sliced cucumber, and an entire can of water-packed tuna (left over from several months ago), with a drizzle of olive oil.

Out of ALL the ingredients, the only things that had been purchased in the entire previous month were:

– milk for his chocolate milk (€0.25)
– fresh apricots (in season at the moment) (€0.50)
– the black olives (these are quite cheap in Greece) (€0.40)
– the cucumber (€0.10)
– the tomato (€0.10)
– the lemon (€0.10)

As you can see, it comes to €1.45 for both of us.  Now, we really need to be spending €2.15 per day for both of us, since we only have €15 for the whole week, but it’s not easy and most days, I don’t actually make it.  But I’m trying REALLY hard.

And if you think about it, yesterday we had two delicious hand-made home-cooked meals with some fresh fruit and dairy, plenty of protein and healthy fat, and it was interesting, not bland or boring.

This is really hard.  The worst part is that we are living in Athens over the summer for my summer job, and it’s going to cost us a lot more money.  We really wanted to save that money and get by on his salary (luckily, teachers in Greece get paid 12 months/year) but I realize that it will be impossible.

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