My first taste of Greek food was, appropriately, in a Greek home. And yes, a fresh tuna Moussaka was served. I remember it well. A Greek fisherman whose wife worked at my aunt’s hotel had invited us for dinner at their abode. I was allowed to bring my girl friend (I was 12 or thereabouts at the time) so it was quite an event for me, and possibly the first time I officially “went out” with a girl. I remember holding hands all the way to their house. But my real entry into Greek food was in Sydney, several years later, sans girlfriend…but newly married to an Aussie beauty.
Sydney, circa 1970: there was this little restaurant in the city, you had to climb up quite a few stairs and were greeted at the top by a giant aquarium teeming with fish and shellfish. Once you had decided to go either left or right of the aquatic display, you could sit a table by either the window overlooking busy George Street or in the various recesses that made this place so intimate. When you’re young and newly married, chances are you’re broke so it’s vital to find a reasonably priced restaurant with good food and large servings. Being a creature of habit I always ordered the same thing: a large platter filled with mezedes (a collection of 15 or 16 small appetizers, similar to Spanish tapas) with warm pita bread, washed down with a couple of Ouzos.
The cost for two was less then ten bucks in those days. Hard to beat.
The Greek diet is undeniably at the heart of the Mediterranean diet. I wrote about ancient Greek food recently: due to the supremacy of Athens and Sparta, Greek cooks were able to draw on a rich abundance of ingredients. The Greek gastronomy reflects their entire philosophy as it is a way of life that’s joyful, direct, human, and spontaneous. Their mezedes coupled with the warmth and hospitality of sharing food (and rounds of Ouzo) with friends and family define what the Greek cuisine is all about. In a country where tourism accounts for almost one-fifth of the gross domestic product, good cuisine and good produce is crucial. For example Greece produces about 120.000 tons of table olives per year. The table olive is one of the country’s most important agricultural exports, with the plump black Kalamata olives that are among the country’s best-known snacks.
In this post I’ll concentrate on itemizing Mezedes or meze (served with Ouzo since in Greece it is customary to eat while you drink!) and they are all linked to a recipe for your enjoyment. And yes, I’ll give you that much sought-after fresh tuna moussaka recipe downthread. Pic below is a typical array of mezes.
Mezedes is a generic term that includes practically anything that is seasonal and can be served on a small plate. Mezedes are served at the same time and such a variety of choice gives a better opportunity to spend a relaxed evening with friends, sharing this mini feast and drinking Ouzo or Retsina.
First on the list is the mystical taramosalata, an unctuous paté style made with smoked cod roe, white bread, lemon juice and flavored with a strong olive oil. Another divine dip is the ubiquitous tzatziki, a yogurt & cucumber confection laced with garlic and olive oil. There’s a third dip (my favorite) made with eggplant, the gorgeous melitzanosalata, a real treat.
Moving along, a good array of meze is not complete without a small slice of spanakopita, a light spinach and feta cheese pie. Domadakia, I’m sure you have eaten them before, they are simply stuffed vine leaves with rice or a combination of rice and beef or lamb mince, spiced up with fresh mint (see pic above). Keftedes, are small meatballs that are seasoned with mint and onions and are deep-fried. Loukanika, char grilled spicy sausages made with a sprinkling of orange zest and lemon juice (Greek dishes are often drizzled with lemon juice, an important part of Greek health), a truly great little dish. A good Greek establishment will serve souvlakia, grilled mini pork or lamb kebabs.
Gavros Marinatos are marinated anchovies in oil, Lakerda is bonito tuna, marinated for a few days in olive oil and served with lemon (can’t find a good recipe for that one but it is simple: marinate slices of fresh tuna in half olive oil and half lemon juice, and add some crushed peppercorns). I never fail to order Htapothi Xythato (octopus to you!) The best octopus is grilled, provided it is done right and is tender.
Zucchini keftedes (zucchini and feta cheese fritters, goes extremely well with tzatziki) is another must have. Of course one must also have the pan-fried Cyprian Haloumi cheese which can be served with a small salad. Another Greek delicacy I’d recommend is pastourma which legend tells us it’s made with camel meat, but it’s not. Skordalia(creamy garlic and potato) is also divine. Being a gourmand I make sure I get a serve of gigantes plaki, which are simply baked butter beans, the bigger the better. A Greek feta salad to go with all these? No problem.
Now for the tuna moussaka:
most people, when in Greece or in a Greek restaurant, would order the traditional lamb moussaka. Not me. I’ve rarely encountered a truly great moussaka, it tends to be overcooked or greasy, or both. I’d much prefer the marine version or the vegetarian one which uses seitan and Portobello mushrooms. The real trick to this dish is the sauce that binds it all, the lowly but satisfying cheese sauce. I use the bechamel recipe for my tuna moussaka.
For 6 people you’ll need 6 slices of fresh tuna (it’s ok to use a good brand of canned tuna) 2 eggplants, 2 onions, 4 peeled and minced garlic cloves, 1 glass of dry white wine, 2 tbsp corn starch, 2 cups of milk, a pinch of the following: ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, salt & pepper to taste, 1 cup of cottage cheese, 2 free range eggs, and a good half cup of grated Parmesan cheese (ok, it’s not Greek cheese but damn good in that recipe though if you can find kefalotiri cheese then it’s kosher!) Preheat your oven to 350F.
Peel and slice eggplants. Cook in boiling water in a saucepan for 4 minutes; drain & set aside. In a covered saucepan, simmer chopped onion & garlic in white wine for 5 minutes. Blend in a mixture of cornstarch dissolved in warm milk. Add cinnamon, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Add cottage cheese, warm milk and lightly beaten whole eggs to the sauce. Keep beating for a few seconds, and reduce the heat. Keep cooking till nice and thick.
Arrange half the eggplant slices in an 8-inch baking dish. Add layers of the fresh tuna (or the canned one), grated Parmesan cheese, the bechamel cheese mixture, ending with the Parmesan cheese. Bake for 50 minutes, or until set. Let stand for 10 minutes before slicing. You can make the lamb one by substituting the tuna for lamb chunks.
There is no way in hell that I’m going to pass up Greek sweets. I stay clear of the gooey ones (loukoumades or tiganites) but if there’s some baklawas about, I’m doing a beeline for them. Here’s a simple recipe, easy enough for the beginner.
Apricot & Pistachio Baklawa
4 cups Turkish dried apricots, 1 cup shelled pistachios, 1 cup water,
1 cup orange juice, 4 tbsp honey, a pinch of cinnamon, a pinch of grated lemon or orange rind, a knob of soft butter, 10 or12 sheets of phyllo or fillo dough (which can be bought in any supermarket), 1/4 a cup of ground almond, 2 tbsp sugar.
Simmer the apricots with the water, orange juice, honey, cinnamon, lemon or orange rind and half the butter. When they are tender, remove from the heat and cool slightly before chopping into small pieces. Keep the liquid to pour on top the next day.
Mix together the pistachios, ground almond, sugar and cinnamon and add it to the apricot mixture. Grease a rectangular baking dish with soft butter, line it with a sheet of phyllo and brush it with melted butter. Repeat this exercise 4 times, making sure you butter the pastry each time.
Gently spread the apricot & nut mixture evenly across the dough, being careful to not tear the layer below. Top with a sheet of phyllo, butter it, and repeat same exercise 4 or 5 times. Mark the portions with a diamond-shaped pattern, brush a little more butter and bake for about 60 minutes or until golden brown. Cool overnight, sprinkle the sweet cooking liquid on top and cut it. It’s ready to eat.