Family value

Family value

Irini Tzortzoglou

Say kalimera (good morning) to Greek cook and author Irini, winner of MasterChef 2019. Here, Irini talks about the family cooking that inspires her dishes today, her love of fresh, sunshine flavours and her passion for seasonal British produce

‘I was born in a tiny Greek village with a population of around 35. The lifestyle was basic and my family lived off the land. It was here that my appreciation for good food began — people who worked the land had such great knowledge of the difference between ‘not quite ripe’, ‘perfectly ripe’ and ‘ever so slightly overripe’ for the produce they grew. Today, my brother Yiorgos, who works a local smallholding, still goes out in the mornings to gather tomatoes for a lunchtime salad, only to return without them because they need a few more hours in the sun!

‘My love of food grew stronger still in my grandmothers’ kitchens, helping to prepare the food that my parents were bringing in from the farm. My mother could conjure up a meal out of very little — whatever we had in the kitchen was put to good use. 

‘The Cretan climate consists of long, hot summers and short, mild winters, but even then, meals would involve fresh ingredients. Cauliflower, cabbage, beetroot and spinach would be in season, while pulses (lentils, chick peas and various types of bean) would also be available. My mother would make pies — barley and wheat were grown locally and my grandfather, who was also the village mill owner, would mill the grains to produce flour for the pastry.

‘After a long time in lockdown, I’m looking forward to summer entertaining — weather [and Covid] permitting, of course. Where I live now in Cumbria, we’re surrounded by foodie people, so there’s always a barbecue or fire pit happening to come along to and join in, with everyone bringing a dish or two. As travel is still uncertain, I’m going to make the most of what the UK has to offer — summer berries in July and August are my favourites to make pudding with!

My grandfather used to say ‘feeding others is a blessing’, and it truly is

‘I love to cook seasonally and make use of what is around at the time. It’s so important to shop locally. Midweek meals for us at the moment tend to be roasted vegetables with a tangy dressing and pulses, perhaps served with a piece of chicken or fish.

‘I try to teach my step-grandchildren the joy of cooking your own food and offering it to others — something I learned from my grandfather. He used to say “feeding others is a blessing”, and it truly is. The recipes that follow, taken from my book Under the Olive Tree, are some of my favourites to share with family and friends, and I hope you’ll enjoy trying them, too.’

Griddled courgette & Feta salad (V)

‘The mild, sweet flavour of the courgettes, the acidity of the lemons, the saltiness of the Feta, the crunchiness of the croutons, the fragrance of the mint and the sweetness of the pasteli — a Greek honey sesame bar — make this dish a wonderful summer treat’

Serves 4 • Ready in 20 mins

  • 2 thick slices of white bread, crusts removed
  • 1 tbsp Co-op extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing
  • 4 courgettes, trimmed and peeled into ribbons
  • 80g lamb’s lettuce (or any other salad leaves)
  • 100g Co-op Greek Feta cheese, cut into small cubes
  • 1 lemon, peeled and cut into segments
  • A few chunks of pasteli (optional)
  • Courgette flowers (optional)


  • 1 tbsp Co-op clear honey
  • 4 tbsp lemon juice
  • 50ml Co-op extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp mint, shredded
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas 4. Cut the bread into bite-size chunks, drizzle with the oil and season. Spread out on a baking tray and bake for 10 mins, until golden and crunchy. Set aside.
  2. Brush a griddle pan with a little oil and set over a medium-high heat. Cook the courgette ribbons in batches, for 1 minute on each side. Put the ribbons in a salad bowl and season. 
  3. For the dressing, mix together the honey and lemon juice in a small bowl, then slowly whisk in the oil. Stir in the mint and season.
  4. Add the lamb’s lettuce, Feta, lemon segments and pasteli, if using, to the griddled courgettes, then drizzle with the dressing. Garnish with the courgette flowers, if using, to serve.

Peinirli (open-top pies)

‘Peinirli, which means “with cheese”, was a lunchtime treat for my friends and me. Occasionally, we would pass a bakery on Voulis Street in Athens and the smell of the freshly cooked dough, cheese filling and melted butter would be too much to resist’

Serves 5 • Ready in 1 hour, plus rising


  • 200g Co-op plain white flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 50g wholemeal flour
  • ½ tsp Co-op instant dried yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp Fairtrade caster sugar
  • 110ml Co-op semi-skimmed milk, slightly tepid
  • 25g Co-op unsalted butter, softened, plus extra, melted, for brushing
  • Pinch of dried oregano, to serve


  • 2–3 tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp Co-op Italian tomato purée
  • 50g Co-op Greek Feta cheese, crumbled
  • 4–5 Kalamata olives, sliced
  • 100g Gruyère cheese (or other hard cheese), grated
  • ¼ red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 slice Co-op British ham, cut into strips
  • 50g goat’s cheese, crumbled
  • 2 sundried tomatoes, finely sliced
  1. To make the pastry, stir all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the milk and butter, then mix with your hands until you have a soft dough.
  2. Knead for 10 mins, until smooth and shiny. It may appear a little sticky, but that will change as you knead — try flouring your hands if necessary. Form into a ball, put in a clean bowl dusted with flour and cover. Leave somewhere warm to rise for about 2-3 hours — you could leave it overnight.
  3. When it’s ready, roll the dough into a sausage shape on a clean, floured surface. Line a large baking tray. Cut the dough into five equal pieces. Flatten each piece, roll into an oblong, then put on the tray.
  4. For the fillings, cut a slice off the top of each tomato, then grate them into a bowl. Transfer to a sieve and let the juices run, leaving just the pulp and seeds of the tomatoes. Mix in the tomato purée.
  5. Mix together the Feta and olives in one bowl, the Gruyère, red onion and ham in another, and the goat’s cheese and sundried tomato in a third.
  6. Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/gas 6. Moisten the edges of each piece of pastry with water. Fold the long edges inwards by about ½cm to create a small rim on each side. Next, take the two ends of the rim on one of the short sides of the pastry, then fold and squish together into a point. Repeat on the opposite side to create a boat shape.
  7. Spread the tomato mixture over the base, then fill the peinirli with the different fillings, as you like. Bake for about 18–20 mins, until the pastry is cooked and golden.
  8. Brush straight away with melted butter, sprinkle with oregano and serve immediately.

Spanakoryzo (spinach & fennel risotto) with Feta cream

‘Like so many Greek dishes, this is simple and easy to make — the flavour of the spinach shines through. My mother often made spanakoryzo during winter, when spinach was plentiful in the main Athens market’

Serves 4 • Ready in 45 mins

  • 500ml vegetable stock, made with 1 stock cube 
  • 300g pack Co-op baby spinach 
  • 20ml Co-op extra virgin olive oil 
  • 1 onion, finely chopped 
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped 
  • 1 fennel bulb, finely chopped, fronds reserved and chopped 
  • 200g Co-op Italian risotto rice 
  • 100ml dry white wine 
  • 50g Co-op unsalted butter 
  • 75g Co-op parmesan wedge (25g grated, 50g shaved to garnish)
  • 2 tbsp Co-op flaked almonds, toasted


  • 25g Co-op parmesan wedge, grated 
  • 50g Co-op Greek Feta cheese 
  • 50g Co-op soft cheese 
  • ½ tsp grated nutmeg 
  • Zest of ½ lemon
  1. Reserve 150ml of the stock and put the rest in a pan, ready to heat later. 
  2. For the Feta cream, put the 25g parmesan, Feta, soft cheese and nutmeg in a blender, add a grinding of pepper and pulse. 
  3. Add about 50ml of the reserved stock, to thin the mixture to a drizzling consistency, then add the lemon zest and mix thoroughly. 
  4. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Cook the spinach for 2 mins, then drain and plunge into a bowl of cold water. When cool, drain in a colander. Squeeze out as much water as possible, then blitz the spinach to a smooth purée with the remaining 100ml reserved stock. 
  5. Heat the oil over a medium heat and add the onion, garlic and fennel. Cook for 2 mins, then add the rice. Stir to coat and cook for 2–3 mins, stirring continuously, until the rice is translucent. Add the wine and let it reduce completely. 
  6. Meanwhile, bring the stock in the pan to a high heat, then lower to a simmer. Start adding it to the rice, a ladleful at a time, adding more when the previous one has been fully absorbed. When the rice is almost cooked, stir in the spinach purée.
  7. Stir in the butter and the 25g grated parmesan, then season.
  8. Divide the risotto between serving plates. Drizzle over the Feta cream, and sprinkle over the parmesan shavings and flaked almonds. Garnish with chopped fennel fronds.

Cooking it this way gives the rice a beautiful green colour

Olive oil, almond & candied orange baklava (V)

‘Baklava, kataifi, samali, and all their variations, are the syrup desserts that many people associate with the Middle East, Turkey and Greece, and rightly so. The traditional way of making these very sweet treats involves copious amounts of butter, which is used both to moisten the filo and to add rich flavour’

Makes 20 • Ready in 2 hours, plus standing 

  • 100ml Co-op extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing 
  • 175g Co-op whole almonds, skin on
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped rosemary
  • 7 sheets filo pastry, cut in half widthways
  • 75g candied orange peel, cut into very small pieces
  • 150ml orange blossom honey or Co-op Irresistible Fairtrade clear honey
  1. Preheat the oven to 170°C/fan 150°C/gas 3. Brush a 26cm x 16cm baking tin with a little olive oil.
  2. Put the almonds in a food processor and break them up finely. Transfer them to a bowl and add the chopped rosemary.
  3. Place three pieces of filo neatly in the baking tin. Now, sprinkle one-fifth of the almond mix all over the filo, adding some orange peel. 
  4. Top with two filo sheets and sprinkle over more of the almond mix and orange peel. Continue sprinkling the almond mix every two sheets (you should do this five times in total), then lay the last three sheets neatly on top, to finish.
  5. Cut into 20 portions, using a sharp pointed knife. Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan and pour it first all along the cuts you have made, then all over. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour, then remove the foil and continue baking for another 30 mins, until the baklava is golden. Remove from the oven.
  6. Warm the honey in a small saucepan. Pour it first into the cuts you’ve made, then pour the rest over the whole baklava. Allow to stand for at least 30 mins, to absorb all the honey.
  7. Run your knife over the baklava once again, making sure it has been cut all the way through. 

If you make a deeper baklava, adjust the baking time so it’s cooked all the way through.


Find an exclusive recipe from Irini on — search ‘Oven baked omelette with butternut squash’


Under the Olive Tree By Irini Tzortzoglou (Headline Home) is out now