Ah Greece…they may be in the midst of terrible economic and political turmoil, but the land is magnificent, the people warm and inviting, and the food super fresh and healthy. Greek cuisine revolves around a handful of vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini or courgette as they are called throughout Europe, eggplant or aubergine, and greens; local fish and seafood such as sea bream, red snapper, octopus and squid; meats such as goat and lamb; a wide variety of local cheeses; tons of lemon and herbs such as oregano and mint; and the ubiquitous olive. Grown throughout Greece and the islands, olives and olive oil are central to Greek cooking and Greek cooks use olive oil liberally!
I recently returned from a two week adventure to Athens, Santorini, and Crete, and decided upon my return to host a Greek inspired dinner party. The food was a hit and, since most of it could be prepared in advance, it was a perfect choice for a summer dinner party. Pick and choose between the appetizers and main courses listed below and see how simple it is to create your own Greek feast!
Some version of eggplant dip was served as an appetizer at every restaurant we visited. Some were chunky, some smooth, but all were delicious and refreshing. In Greece, appetizers are served with Greek bread, rather than with pita bread.
2 medium eggplant
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat grill. Cut eggplant in half lengthwise and place skin side up on foil sprayed with cooking spray. Grill for about 20 minutes or until skin is wrinkly and flesh is soft. Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons oil and sauté onions over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until onions and garlic are soft but not brown. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Allow eggplant to cool enough to handle. Scoop out flesh and place in bowl of food processor with the onion garlic mixture. Pour in the fresh lemon juice. With the blades running, slowly pour in the remaining olive oil and blend until smooth. Add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve with bread, pita, or crackers, and a side dish of olives.
MARINATED FETA AND OLIVE SKEWERS (adapted from www.foodnetwork.com )
This recipe may sound unusual, but it was the hit of the party, thanks to a unique blend of flavors and a beautiful presentation! Look for authentic Greek feta, which is far less salty than the feta we’re accustomed to.
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest (remember to choose organic fruit whenever you will be using the zest!)
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
4 ounces feta cheese, cut into 24 (1/2-inch) cubes
24 fresh mint leaves
12 pitted large green olives, cut in half
Â¼ large English cucumber cut into Â½-inch chunks or small Israeli cucumbers, sliced Â½-inch thick
24 (6-inch) wooden skewers
In a medium bowl, combine the fennel seed, orange zest and juice, and cracked pepper. Gently stir in the feta and marinate for 1 hour at room temperature or up to 3 hours in the refrigerator. For each skewer, place a mint leaf about Â¾ inch up the skewer. Add 1 cucumber chunk then one olive half. Gently place cube of feta on the end. Skewers can be made several hours in advance and stored in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Allow to come to room temperature before serving.
SIZZLING HALLOUMI CHEESE WITH FAVA BEANS AND MINT (adapted from www.epicurious.com )
Fried and grilled cheeses appear on many menus throughout Greece, but I never saw flaming cheese the way it’s done in the U.S…nor did I ever hear a waiter yell, “OPA!”
10 ounces frozen fava beans, thawed, or 1 Â¼ pound fresh
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves plus extra for garnish
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
3 (8 Â½-ounce) packages Halloumi cheese, each cut lengthwise into 6 slices, rinsed and patted dry
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 lemon, cut into 6 wedges
Place fava beans, olive oil, 2 tablespoons mint leaves, and lemon peel in large skillet. Cook over medium heat until warmed through, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and divide mixture among 6 plates or one large serving plate. Heat large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add cheese slices and fry until golden, about 1 minute per side. Arrange 3 cheese slices on top of vegetables on each plate. Drizzle with lemon juice and garnish with peperoncini, lemon wedge, and mint sprigs.
GREEK POTATO AND ALMOND DIP (adapted from Gourmet, November, 2009)
Â¾ pound russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
Â½ cup slice almonds
Â½ cup coarse fresh white bread crumbs
3 garlic cloves
Â½ cup water
3-4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, divided
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, warmed
Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack in middle. Cover potatoes with water in small pot and season well with salt. Simmer until tender but not mushy, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, toast almonds and bread crumbs on separate sheets in over until pale golden in color, about 8 minutes. Allow to cool. With motor running, drop garlic into food processor to chop. Add almonds and bread crumbs and finely grind. Pulse in water, Â¾ teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Drain potatoes and coarsely mash with fork. Add to processor along with remaining oil (add a bit at a time and stop when you like the consistency!) and pulse to combine. Add lemon juice to taste and thin with small amount of water if desired. Makes 2 Â¼ cups.
ROASTED EGGPLANT AND FETA (adapted from www.food.com)
Some incarnation of this recipe appears on virtually every Greek menu. From traditional mousaka with its luscious, but highly caloric layer of béchamel sauce, to baked or grilled eggplant layered with tomato sauce and feta, to this chopped appetizer- friendly version…all are incredibly delicious! Many recipes involve sautéing the eggplant slices in oil before baking. Since eggplant absorbs a tremendous amount of oil, this can greatly increase the calorie count of your final dish. Experiment with pan steaming the eggplant in a small amount of water or chicken or vegetable broth to allow it to soften before layering and baking.
Â¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Â¼ cup lemon juice
Â¼ cup onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound feta cheese
Â½ cup pitted kalamata olives
Oregano sprigs to garnish
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place eggplant cubes in shallow baking pan, toss with Â½ cup olive oil, salt to taste, and bake until soft but not mushy, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool. Whisk together remaining Â¼ cup olive oil, lemon juice, onion, garlic, and oregano in small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Toss about half of the dressing with eggplant. Sprinkle with cheese and olives, then add dressing if desired. Can be served as an appetizer or as a topping for lettuce, pasta, couscous, or even pizza. Garnish with oregano before serving.
GREEK SALAD(adapted from www.myrecipes.com )
Greeks take their salads very seriously! Huge swaths of Crete are covered with massive greenhouses growing…you guessed it (!) tomatoes and cucumbers for Greek salad. A bit different from the American version, authentic Greek salad typically has tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, and a feta cheese, but no lettuce. The delicious mildÂ feta is usually served as a lovely slab atop the salad, and dressing is oil and vinegar which you mix yourself. The biggest decision you have to make is how large to leave the vegetables!
2 English cucumbers, cut into Â½ inch cubes
2 pounds tomatoes, cored and cut into Â½ inch cubes
1 medium red onion, chopped, then rinsed and drained
1 cup coarsely chopped parsley
1 cup drained pitted kalamata olives
Â½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Â½ cup lemon juice
1 Â½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 pound feta cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
In large bowl, mix cucumber, tomatoes, onion, parsley, and olives. In small bowl, mix olive oil, lemon juice, and oregano. Break feta into Â½ inch chunks and add to cucumber mixture. Slowly add dressing to reach desired saturation. Add salt and pepper if desired.
CHICKEN GYROS WITH CUCUMBER SALSA AND TSATSIKI (adapted from www.epicurious.com )
Gyros are eaten as a street or “fast food” in Greece.
Tsatsiki, the typical condiment served with gyros, is delicious, healthy, and simple to make. If you prefer, Costco carries an excellent pre-made version to keep in your fridge!
2 Kirby cucumbers, divided
1 Â½ cups Greek yogurt, full or low fat
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, divided
5 cloves garlic, minced, divided
1 pint grape tomatoes, quartered
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Â¼ cup chopped mint
Â¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 rounded teaspoon dried oregano
1 rounded teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled
1 (12-ounce) package naan bread (four 8-inch pieces)
Or 4 (8-inch) pocketless Greek pita
Â½ roast chicken, skin discarded, meat shredded, about 2 Â¼ cups
Â½ head romaine lettuce, shredded
Preheat broiler. Peel and grate 1 cucumber, then squeeze it between your hands to remove excess liquid. For tsatsiki, stir together with yogurt, Â½ teaspoon lemon juice, one third of the garlic, and Â¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. For salsa, cut remaining cucumber into Â¼-inch pieces and stir together with tomatoes, parsley, mint, remaining lemon juice, and Â¼ teaspoons each of salt and pepper. Gently simmer oil, oregano, rosemary, garlic, Â¼ teaspoon salt, and pepper in small heavy saucepan, stirring constantly, until garlic is fragrant, but not browned, 1-2 minutes. Toss chicken with 3 tablespoons garlic oil and brush one side of each piece of bread with remainder. Place bread oiled side up on a sheet pan and cover with foil. Heat 3-4 inches from broiler for 3 minutes. Remove foil and heat until golden in spots, about 2 additional minutes. Spread warm bread with tsatsiki and top with chicken, lettuce, and cucumber salsa.
GRILLED LEG OF LAMB
This marinade works beautifully with chicken breast as well.
2 pounds plain Greek yogurt (regular or low-fat)
Â½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon
Â½ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
Â¾ cup fresh whole rosemary leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 5-pound butterflied leg of lamb
Combine yogurt, olive oil, lemon zest and juice, rosemary, salt, and pepper in a large nonreactive bowl. Add the lamb, making sure it is covered with the marinade. Marinate in the refrigerator overnight or up to 3 days. Bring the lamb to room temperature. Prepare charcoal or gas grill. Scrape marinade off lamb, wipe the meat with paper towels, and season generously with salt and pepper. Brush the grill with oil to keep lamb from sticking. Grill on both sides until the internal temperature is 120 to 125 degrees for rare, about 40 minutes to and hour. Remove lamb to cutting board, cover with foil and let rest 20 minutes. Slice and serve.
SHRIMP SAGANKI (adapted from www.foodnetwork.com )
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium onion, chopped
16 large shrimp, whole with heads on
Salt and pepper
Â½ teaspoon dried oregano
Â¼ teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
1 Â½ ounces ouzo (Greek anise-flavored liqueur)
Â¼ cup dry white wine
1 (16-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon olive paste
Â½ cup crumbled feta cheese
Heat oil in sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and onion and cook until softened, but not browned. Add the shrimp (complete with heads and shell to add flavor), salt, pepper, chili flakes, and oregan0. Once simmered, remove the pan from the heat and add the ouzo using caution to avoid flaming. Cook for 1 minute then add wine to pan. Return pan to heat and simmer 30 seconds more. Using slotted spoon, remove shrimp from pan onto plate. When cool enough to handle, peel and remove heads from shrimp. Add the crushed tomato and olive paste to the pan and let it simmer for 3 minutes. Return the shrimp to the pan and toss with sauce, using care not to overcook shrimp. Sprinkle crumbledÂ feta over pan and melt it into the sauce by pushing it down with the back of a spoon.
Many variations of this recipe appear on menus throughout Greece. In my Cretan cooking class, we prepared stuffed vegetable with zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, grape or vine leaves, and zucchini blossoms, the most delicate treat of all!
This recipe calls for tomatoes and peppers, but experiment with whatever vegetables you like. Firmer vegetables like zucchini and eggplant will need to be pre-baked like the peppers in the recipe. My cooking instructor taught us to use a melon baller to scoop the insides out of the vegetables, which worked amazingly well. She reserved every ounce of those “discards” and used them in cooking other dishes we prepared!
2 large ripe tomatoes
2 large red or yellow peppers
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Â½ cup blanched almonds, chopped
Â½ cup long grain rice, boiled and drained
Â½ ounce mint leaves, roughly chopped
Â½ ounce parsley, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons sultanas (dried white grapes)
3 tablespoons ground almonds
Salt and pepper to taste
Herbs for garnish
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut the tomatoes in half and scoop out the pulp. Leave tomatoes to drain on paper towel, cut side down. Roughly chip the tomato pulp and seeds. Halve the peppers leaving the cores intact. Scoop out the seeds. Brush the peppers with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and bake on a baking tray for 15 minutes to soften. Place the peppers and tomatoes in a shallow ovenproof dish and season with salt and pepper.Â Saute the onions in the remaining oil for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and chopped almonds and sauté for one more minute. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the rice, chopped tomatoes, mint, parsley, and sultanas. Season well with salt and pepper and spoon mixture into tomato and pepper halves. Pour 2/3 cup boiling water around the tomatoes and peppers and bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes or until turning golden. Garnish with fresh herbs.
ROASTED POTATOES WITH GARLIC, LEMON, AND OREGANO (adapted from www.epicurious.com)
3 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 Â½ inch cubes, or 3 pounds small thin skinned potatoes, halved
Â½ cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 Â½ teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Â½ cup beef or chicken stock
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place potatoes in a single layer in a 13X9-inch baking dish. Pour oil over the potatoes, add garlic, dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste, and toss well to coat with oil. Bake the potatoes for 15 minutes. Add the stock, toss, and bake f or 10 more minutes. Add the lemon juice, toss and bake for 15 more minutes, or until potatoes are cooked through. For extra crispiness, preheat the broiler and broil the potatoes 2-3 minutes, or until golden brown, using care not to burn the tops of the potatoes. Sprinkle with fresh oregano and serve immediately. Makes 4-6 servings.
YOGURT WITH HONEY AND DRIED FRUIT
My husband couldn’t get enough of this lovely, light, and delicious dessert, served throughout Greece. Low-fat yogurt would work, but the richness of the full fat variety makes it extra special for a dessert treat.
2 cups Greek yogurt (preferably whole milk)
4 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons dried chopped dates, figs, or dried fruit of your choice
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts or pistachios
Divide yogurt between 4 dessert bowls. Top each with 1 tablespoon dried fruit and Â½ tablespoon chopped nuts. Drizzle each with 1 tablespoon honey. Serves 4.
KALI SAS OREXI! THAT’S GREEK FOR BON APPETIT!!