FOODS FROM GREECE
Milk is not a favorite beverage for the Greeks, whose dairy products of choice are yogurt and cheese. Yogurt, usually made at home, is used as a snack or ingredient in many dishes. Cheeses vary from mild to strong and may be grated for use in cookery or cut into cubes for salads or appetizers. Most popular is Feta, a pungent goat’s-milk cheese preserved in brine. Other cheeses used are: mild Kasseri; Mizzithra made from ewe’s milk and resembling cottage cheese; and Kefalotiri, which is a salty and hard grating cheese. Manouri and Graviera are used much like Feta; all three lend a pronounced flavor to tyropitas and spanakopitas, a marriage of phyllo pastry with the cheese as filling. Saganaki is an appetizer of deep-fried flour-dusted cheese squares served hot and sprinkled with fresh lemon juice.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
As in most Mediterranean countries, Greek fruits are noted for their luscious ripe tastes and are enjoyed fresh or lovingly preserved in thick heavy syrups to be served to guests accompanied with a glass of fresh cold water. Served in this way, fruits are called spoon sweets. Sometimes these are also made from selected tiny vegetables such as tomatoes. Lemons and other citrus fruits are used most widely. In season there is also a choice of grapes, figs, quinces, strawberries, cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, and many varieties of apples. Special autumn favorites are peponi, a Greek melon resembling both a honeydew and a cantaloupe, and karpouzi, a richly flavored type of watermelon.
Vegetables have a special place in the Greek menu and they are used frequently. Carrots, potatoes, and small beets are year round staples, while aubergine (eggplant) and courgette (zucchini) head the list of seasonal favorites. These may be made into pickles, stuffed and baked, or sliced and layered into casseroles with sauce and cheese. Even the zucchini flowers are considered a special treat and served batter dipped and fried. Kolokithokorfades is a zucchini flower specialty where the flowers are gently filled with a cheese mixture before being dipped in batter and fried. Artichokes, okra, broad beans and lima beans, cauliflower, fresh peas, tomatoes and cucumbers as well as many wild greens such as mustard, dandelion, and spinach are collectively known as horta.
Horta is cleaned, chopped and boiled, then served with lemon juice and oil. But other vegetable preparations may be more elaborate, including bechamel sauce and cheeses; layered between phyllo pastry and cheeses; or scooped out and baked with fillings. Dolmadakia are meat and rice stuffed vine (grape) leaves. Vegetables can also be a part of pilafs (with rice), yeast dough, and sometimes breads (zucchini bread) and vegetables can be a light meal when combined with eggs to make omelets or souffles.
A meal (other than breakfast) without fresh or cooked vegetables of some kind is rare. A main course of meat or cheese is accompanied by salata. This term is loosely used to include cooked, chilled vegetables served with oil and lemon and a sprinkling of herbs or the Greek salata, a carefully constructed mountain of fresh greens (sometimes over a mound of potato salad), garnished with black olives, cubed Feta, tomato and cucumber chunks all shimmering with oil and lemon juice and fragrant with fresh oregano.
Olives are of special importance in Greece. Greeks prefer their olives black, but these may be brined, pickled, or even spiced and are a part of almost every meal. Sometimes bread and olives form a simple meal.
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
Goats are plentiful in Greece, but because they are generous with their milk they are seldom used as food. Goat’s milk, and the Feta cheese made from it, are important staples in the Greek diet. Some pigs and chickens are available, but the staple Greek meat is lamb. Meat is generally scarce and expensive, so every part of the animal is used and the main cookery methods promote tenderness and “stretch” the flavor. The sweet nutty flavor of lamb blends well with all vegetables, and often a dish is considered different because of the different herbs used: spearmint, rosemary, oregano, and even cinnamon. Lemon juice and/or yogurt flavor as well as tenderize.
Eggs are not plentiful in Greece but are used in pastries, omelets, and the famed avgolemono sauce used to finish soups, glaze fish and meat dishes, top casseroles, and add a golden lemon touch to vegetables.
People living on the islands and near coastal regions enjoy fish and seafood dishes prepared from recipes that date to Greece’s Golden Age: grilling with herbs, oil and lemon juice; baking in parchment, and baking fish on a bed of chopped vegetables. Dishes may include eels (a traditional Christmas dish), squid, octopus, shrimps, cod, red mullet and sun-dried petalia. Those who do not live near the sea make every effort to obtain fresh fish and seafood for they are great favorites.
Fish roe is considered a special delicacy and may be made into small cakes and fried in oil (tarama kefthetes) or made into taramosalata, the popular dip used as an appetizer. This creamy mixture is made by pureeing soft white bread, fish roe, onions, olive oil, and lemon juice. It is served either from a bowl garnished with bread chunks and black olives, or as a filling for scooped-out cucumbers and small tomatoes.
Another valuable source of protein is available in the many varieties of nuts: almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, pistachios, and chestnuts. These are used in pastries and confections and often mixed with rice as a stuffing for vegetables or as a pilaf. Sometimes choice nuts will be arranged on a serving platter and honey poured over to be served as spoon sweets for guests.
Thick and hearty lentil soup (faki soupa) and bean soup (fasolada) are favorites in Greek cuisine. They have often satisfied appetites in hard times, and also are the Lenten staples when the consumption of meat is forbidden.
BREADS AND GRAINS
Bread is on the table for all meals. Kouloura, a crusty white bread baked in a ring shape and sprinkled with sesame seeds, is typical. Some wholegrain breads are used with appetizers (mezedakia) and some specialty dishes, but white breads are preferred. Wheat flour is used for breads and pastries.
Rice and pastas are eaten in small quantities, mostly in soups, in occasional casserole dishes or in pilafs to add variety to the menu. Pilaf is the name given to a rice-based dish of Turkish origin where sauced meat and/or vegetables are served either with molded rice or over a mound of rice.
Phyllo pastry is one of the most versatile. Modern Greek women buy the commercially made paper-thin sheets (“phyllo” means “leaves”). Liberally spread with oil or melted butter, they can be folded, rolled, layered, or twisted into endless sweet or savory delights.
Olive oil is of prime importance in the Greek kitchen. Some fats and margarines are made with olive oil and flavored like butter. Butter is used especially for its taste in baked goods.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
The traditional ending to a Greek meal, and a favorite snack in itself, is fresh fruit. But this is not to say that Greeks don’t have a sweet tooth. The offering of sweets is an important symbol of hospitality in the home, and a sweet pastry with Turkish coffee makes a pleasant break any time of day. Special breads and baked goods are made for festive occasions and these are crunchy with nuts and spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Baklava (layered nut-filled phyllo), kataifia (sweetened shredded wheat), and even a simple semolina cake called ravani are all enhanced with a drenching of hot thick syrup right after baking. Other confections include fritters (loukomathes), rich buttery cookies (kourabiedes), beignets (svingi), and sugared nuts and dried fruits.
Sweets are always served with a drink – Turkish coffee, Ouzo, or a simple but welcome glass of cold water.
Homemakers take great pride in preparing treasured recipes for spoon sweets. Choice fruits in season are carefully preserved in thick sugar syrups and enjoyed with guests anytime but especially in winter when fruits are not available. They may be made from citrus peels (lemon, limes, oranges), grapes, fresh figs, cherries, and even eggplant or tiny tomatoes.
Garlic, leeks, and many types of onions are widely available and used in most fish, vegetable, or meat dishes. In fact, the classic stefado (beef stew) owes its rich flavor to slowly simmered onions. Except for skordalia – a potent garlic mayonnaise, forerunner of the French aioli – garlic is used in moderation. A surprise to some tastes is the use of cinnamon, either stick or powdered, in many meat dishes.
Greek cooking has a pleasant freshness that comes from the generous use of fresh lemon and wild herbs. Together with lemon, garlic and onions, parsley and celery leaves, mint, oregano and green dill (not the dill seeds) are most frequently used. Chamomile and sage are used as herbal teas, while both marjoram and basil are used as potted plants rather than seasonings. In fact, most Greek homes have a little pot of basil for good luck and to give as a sign of affection – and to keep away flies and mosquitoes.
Greeks were among the first to use capers pickled in wine vinegar and used in sauces or as a garnish. Baked with bread, sesame seeds are a favorite, and sesame seed oil is used in the confection called halva (there is also a cake called halva made from semolina). Pureed seeds are used in the appetizer called tahini, a popular dip in many Mediterranean countries.
Three other flavors tease the palate: orange flower water, retsina, and mastic. Orange flower water is extracted from the oil of orange blossoms and is used in delicate sweets. Retsina is pine-flavored resin extracted from pine trees and gives its name to the well-known white Greek wine. Mastic is made from a resinous shrub and gives its clean pungent flavor to sweets, breads, and even chewing gum, and is popular in many Balkan countries too. The most widely known use of mastic is in the potent drink Mastika distilled on the Greek island of Chios.
Water, thirst-quencher, refresher, and symbol of hospitality, is the most frequently used beverage in Greece. Natural wellsprings are respected and cherished and many mark the location of monasteries and villages. Water and a sweet will he offered to a stranger even before the individual’s name is known; water brings men to the taverns and the zacharoplasteion (pastry shops) where sometimes the classic water may be replaced with Ouzo or Turkish coffee prepared exactly to taste. Water brings women to the wells to fill their jugs and also to socialize.
Ouzo, reputedly the favorite drink of Alexander the Great and believed to be the inspiration for Pastis and Pernod, is prepared by infusing distilled grape spirit with a blend of fennel, aniseed, saponaria, and mastic. The predominant flavor is licorice-like; it can be taken straight or with water when it turns milky.
Turkish coffee is a pleasant relic from the Turkish occupation and is always prepared to individual preference: glikos, very sweet; metrios, half sugar and half coffee; schetos, black. Actually, “to taste” means that there are more than thirty precise levels of flavor and preferred sweetness.
The usual beverage with meals is either cold water or homemade wine; more recently, children have been encouraged to drink milk. Retsina, the white resin-flavored wine considered so typical of Greece, is actually only one of many varieties, both red and white, and not all are treated with resin. Many legends describe the origins of the resin-flavored wine but the most persistent tells of Greeks pouring the resin over their wines during the early part of Turkish domination to prevent their conquerors from taking their wines. Later, when the Greeks tasted the resinous wine, they enjoyed it. Most visitors react like the Turks and drink something else. Fix and Alpha are Greek beers; imported ones are preferred.