Opa! Greek Goes Chic

Now that Americans have mastered Italian, they're ready to embrace the next big cuisine to pique their palates from the sunny Mediterranean.

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By Carla Waldemar, Contributing Editor

It's time to take your place in the vanguard and prepare for the next best-seller on the global menu. Think Greek. The recent Olympics hosted by Athens directed the spotlight onto a cuisine whose stock was already rising faster than the bechamel on a moussaka.

The facts driving this food phenomenon promise it a long shelf life. For people striving to eat more healthfully, studies such as those produced by Oldways’ International Conference on the Diet of the Mediterranean show that Greeks live longer and have fewer strokes and heart attacks than many other populations. Credit goes in large part to the unique landscape of the country. Rough, rocky terrain poorly suited to all but subsistence agriculture brought the bittersweet taste of poverty, yet it also cultivated appreciation for the freshness of homegrown foods.

For centuries Greece has been a hardscrabble nation, and putting food on the table meant meals of vegetables and grains, yogurt and olives, with fish if luck held out and meat as a garnish or a treat for special holidays. Today Greek cuisine is held up as the poster plate for the recommended Mediterranean diet.

Mediterranean foods rode the top of the trend chart through Greece’s Adriatic neighbor, Italy. But the healthiest diet in Italy is considered by many to be that of the Puglia region in the southeast — an area so heavily influenced by Greek culture that many of the villages still retain Greek roots in their names and architecture.

Greek cuisine traditions we know today go back at least a couple of millennia. While the gods on Mount Olympus were said to “party hearty” with all manner of rich food and drink, it was simple fare that their Greek subjects favored. The ingredients of these simple foods remain the cuisine cornerstone: luscious vegetables, such as eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, garlic, onions, capers and artichokes. Favorite fruits lead off with figs, lemons, grapes and apples.

Fresh herbs grow in abundance too, with oregano heading the list. Rounding out the rustic pantry are lamb (sheep being so perfectly suited to the challenging terrain), crusty breads, nuts, honey, creamy yogurt and pungent cheeses. And olives — above all, olives.

The typical Greek meal strives to include as many of these flavorful ingredients at once. An array of mezedes (the small plates of appetizers Greeks were eating long before the Spaniards came up with the idea of tapas) includes a pool of tzatziki, that addictive blend of homemade yogurt, garlic — lots of it — and shredded cucumbers, to dip into with rounds of pocket bread still warm from the brick oven; melanzanasalata, a silken sea of pureed roasted eggplant (and more garlic); rings of calamari in a simple marinade; and olives. (There are always olives, served in abundance.)

Next, a Greek peasant salad of Olympian proportions composed of tomatoes straight from the garden patch, freshly-sliced cucumbers, lettuce, a toss of shiny purple Kalamata olives and a crowning slab of dense, white feta cheese — all glistening with a splash of vinegar and olive oil.

Surrounded on three sides by water, Greece has a fishing culture that reaches back to the Stone Age. So it’s common for the main dish to be a whole fish or some of the abundant cephalopods (squid and octopus). Even today one can spot a weathered Greek fisherman slapping an octopus on the pier — the age-old way of tenderizing. Fish are most commonly cooked quite simply on a wood-stoked grill, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with oregano and served with a slice of lemon — nothing fussy, nothing rich — except for memories and the bones left on the plate. These are all what make up the appeal of Greek cuisine, and why it has stood the test of time.

In Athens, where the Plaka’s tavernas resound with the sound of bouzouki music by the local Zorba and the thunder of crashing plates (a custom that the fiery, licorice-flavored liqueur called ouzo seems to encourage), you find waiters standing their ground at each doorway eager to lead a passer-by straight back to the kitchen, where each simmering pot is triumphantly uncovered and explained in verbiage rivaling the country’s famous poets — lamb stifado [stew] here; avgolemono (an addictive, lemony soup that is practically a national treasure) over there; a sheet pan of moussaka (waiter: ”Next door, they use [rolling eyes,] potatoes! I use eggplant!”) and crispy squares of feta-scented spanikopita (spinach and phyllo pie). Still, before it’s time for serious eating, let’s bring on those mezedes, please.

A quintessential Mediterranean meld of sweet marinated figs, mint and fresh cheese perfectly finalize the classic Greek repast.
The joy for the preparer of these small plates is that they lend themselves to be made well ahead of time: Let the garlic steep in the mashed potatoes of the skordalia and the red wine permeate the cuttlefish. Roll those rice-filled grape leaves (dolmades) in the morning, ready for a squirt of lemon once the sun drops behind the Acropolis.

Mezedes are meant for sharing. Food has always been a way to connect with other people in Greece, and that’s yet another reason for its rise in popularity in the U.S. today, as folks seek to return to the basic values of family and friendship. A Greek cookbook — said to be the world’s first, written in 400 B.C. — lists lots of small plates meant for passing: capers, raw fish, wine-soaked bread, sliced meat, and olives.

Sea bass with feta was praised by Plato, along with tuna in a mint-caper pesto sauce. Pythagoras, the master of geometry, also shared his recipe for cucumbers with rabbit in coriander vinaigrette, all of which could just as well appear on a fine-dining menu today. And it’s likely that the playwright Aristophanes was referring to a ham sandwich when he wrote, “Fetch me the paunch of a suckling pig with some hot rolls.” Honey-glazed ham didn’t originate in Virginia, it came from ancient Greece. So did baking fish in parchment, done 2,000 years ago. And Hippocrates, the famed physician, foretold the Atkins diet when he prescribed, “Eat rich foods so your appetite will be satisfied with less.”

The World’s First Fusion Cooking

Hippocrates’ legendary spiced wine recipe calls for cinnamon, cloves and allspice brought his way by Arab caravans. Being a hub and command center of world trade for centuries, Greece likely saw the beginning of fusion food. Greeks didn’t limit the use of aromatic spices to desserts, however. They infused them into their meat and macaroni dishes, for example pastitsio and moussaka, and into their sauces.

Turks took their turn to rule over this nation, too, adding raisins and almonds to the culture, along with the rose water that flavors baklava. Americans, in turn, have fused that tasty little sweet right onto dinner menus; in Greece, the delicate pastry is served primarily in coffee houses.

Socrates taught his students to question, to be open to new ideas. And that's what fusion cooking at its best is all about. (At worst, there's always hemlock.) Chef Theodore Kyriakou, in his Real Greek Food restaurant in London (and cookbook by the same name), uses his classy setting to showcase traditional peasant dishes from his childhood (and that of his great-great-grandmother) such as shrimp baked with feta and tomatoes, chicken stuffed with walnuts, and rabbit with avgolemono sauce.

James Botsakos, the chef who runs New York City’s trendy Molyvos with Rick Noonan, turns out what he calls a “progressive” rabbit stifado. “We take an extra step: We use stock fortified with both sweet wine and red wine, along with cinnamon, cloves and allspice. It’s the technique which is different,” he explains. “Another thing I’m doing that’s new is using kalamata vinegar, the next big thing. It’s made balsamico-style from dry-cured olives. I use it with thyme, Greek honey, oregano and extra-virgin olive oil to make a vinaigrette, a marinade, or a glaze.

“I use phyllo in both sweet and savory dishes,” Botsakos continues. “I wrap up boiled, shredded chicken but take it one step further, too. I confit the chicken first [cook it in its own fat], then store it with cooked leeks, onions, and fenugreek.”

Fenugreek! Isn’t this a spice straight out of India? “It was used by Greeks in ancient times,” the chef sets me straight. “It’s a spice people don’t associate with Greece, but we’re reintroducing it. Mix it with raisins, almonds, pea greens, popcorn shoots and mint along with the chicken, wrap it in phyllo, and serve with slaw—a very Greek thing. Take slaw and add capers, roasted peppers and endive, and elevate the idea of that salad.” He’s also playing around with ouzo-marinated barbecued ribs, glazed with a Greek fig glaze, “like a duck sauce.”

Evvia, the new, upscale Greek restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif., fuses the classics, too. A “Caprese” salad of tomatoes with barrel-aged feta, citrus salt and virgin olive oil; mussel stew with tomatoes, ouzo, garlic, and savory; wood-oven-roasted prawns with a lemon, caper and golden raisin dressing for starters, then an herb-grilled duck breast with black noodles, calamari, Kalamata olives and saffron sauce; or a Sonoma rabbit casserole with macaroni, myzithra-cheese béchamel and lemon carrots; or ravioli filled with chard and manouri cheese, served with braised artichokes, chanterelle mushrooms and avgolemono sauce.

At Kokkari, its San Francisco counterpart, guests can start on a salad of watermelon, arugula, feta and pine nuts, or razor clams steamed with ouzo and tomato. Then they proceed to a shellfish stew in saffron-ouzo broth, perhaps, and finish up with an almond and honey panna cotta or Greek yogurt served with spiced walnuts, fresh stone fruit and a drizzle of Greek Attiki honey.

In the mid-90s, there were said to be only three “serious” Greek restaurants in the country — Periyali in New York, Papagus in Chicago and Sofi’s Aegean Kitchen in Los Angeles. “Today, says Food & Wine magazine, “first-rate Greek restaurants are opening in New York faster than you can say ‘souvlaki’.” And in December’s Year in Review issue of Food Arts magazine, Greek cuisine was ranked “on the front burner.” The same article called mezedes “hot stuff.”

Making life easier for chefs, Krinos has recently introduced “ready to go” pre-buttered phyllo and new chocolate and graham Athens brand mini-phyllo shells. Its recipe book lists trendy items like prawns with prosciutto in phyllo with a papaya-tomato relish and even chimichangas with a phyllo wrap replacing the customary tortilla.

Jeanne Quan, president of Jeanne Quan Fine Food Marketing in Minneapolis and formerly involved with Mount Zigos and Peleponnese brands, is aware of the uptick. She was delighted to watch her former boss on TV, during a break in the Olympics, giving viewers a virtual tour of Greek cheese production. She notes that Peleponnese was the first distributor to import a variety of olives, “not just Kalamatas. Today you see olive bars in delis and supermarkets everywhere, and to see that variety now is second nature, just as with apples. Olives are now seen as a good flavor accent, not just eaten out of hand. And Greek olive oil is organic,” because the growers never had money for commercial fertilizers.

Fusion of this nature — removed from shouts of “Opa!” in blue-and-white tavernas and transferred to fancy digs for sophisticated diners, yet serving peasant dishes well-prepared — is a perfect demonstration of Greek food’s trendiness. Greek cuisine, once an oxymoron in Americans’ eyes, is not only here to stay, it’s decidedly on the increase. Says Quan, “Just as people learned about the regions of Italy, now it’s not just Greece, but the regions of Greece. It’s on the cusp.” Get ready.

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