Greece is the word: Food for the immortals

Credit: Ryan Michalesko

Credit: Ryan Michalesko

Yes, the recipe for moussaka has 25 ingredients. No, I never run recipes that long, because who has the time? — To be honest, when I decided to write about the food of Greece I wasn’t even thinking of including a recipe for moussaka, because it is too obvious a choice. Most everyone who wants to make moussaka already has a recipe for it. — But then I saw that the recipe came from Molyvos, a restaurant in New York City. And suddenly I could not wait to try it.

Greek food is one of the world’s great cuisines, and no wonder. The civilization has been around for thousands of years, and for all of that time they have been perfecting ways to cook with the wonderful, fresh ingredients they have on hand: fish, lamb, olives, lemons, cinnamon, garlic, honey, goat cheese, yogurt and oregano.

And wine, too. Don’t forget, the ancient Greeks had a god of wine, Dionysus.

Of all the great and memorable Greek meals I have had in my life, the best and most memorable was at Molyvos. The restaurant is smack-dab in the middle of midtown Manhattan, and we found it the last time we were in the city. We had a plane to catch, so we had an early dinner that was more of a very late lunch.

I ordered the grilled octopus. It was tender, surprisingly tender for octopus, and delicately sweet, with just the right amount of char to add a faint counterbalance of bitterness and a light crunch. Dionysus would have approved.

So for my culinary tour of Greece, the birthplace of democracy, I determined to make the Molyvos recipe for moussaka — even though it has 25 ingredients. But it could be worse. I could have gone for the grilled octopus.

Moussaka is essentially a layered casserole, with slices of potato on the bottom topped with slices of eggplant. This being a restaurant recipe, the potatoes and eggplant are both fried before layered. You could save calories by baking them (though that would take time) or sautéing them (though that would save fewer calories), but if this is the first time you make the recipe, try frying them. You won’t regret it.

The next layer is ground lamb spiced with cinnamon, ginger and allspice cooked in a flavorful tomato sauce. Think of it as a sloppy joe, only exponentially better and considerably less sloppy.

The top layer, and this is where restaurant cooking really comes into play, is a ridiculously rich bechamel sauce. Bechamel is a thick white sauce made from butter, flour and milk, but this version dials up the amplitude by adding egg yolks and Greek yogurt.

The result is pure ambrosia, to use a Greek term. It’s definitely Molyvosian.

A much easier dish, and very nearly as good, is Shrimp With Feta and Tomato, or garides saganaki. At first, this seems like a typical dish of shrimp in a tomato sauce — and you can never go wrong with shrimp in a tomato sauce — but it has two distinctions that make it better than the others.

The first distinction is the onions. Rather than using yellow or white onions to deepen the taste of the tomato sauce, this recipe uses green onions. Their taste is sharper but also milder, which gives the sauce a bright flavor without dominating it.

The second distinction is the feta cheese, which lends a nice briny counterpoint to the earthier tomato sauce. Softened slightly, the cheese also studs the sauce with occasional bits of chewy texture.

I also made a true Greek salad, which is to say the way they make it in Greece, not America. In Greece, the traditional salad called horiatiki does not have lettuce. At all.

It’s practically the law: In Greece, what we think of as a Greek salad consists only of tomatoes, onions, cucumber, parsley, olives and feta cheese, topped with oil, red wine vinegar and dried oregano, plus salt and pepper. Sliced green pepper is optional.

Put it all together — at the last minute, please — and it is an incredibly fresh dish, bursting with well-balanced flavors and wholly satisfying.

For dessert, I thought that because I had already made moussaka, I may as well make baklava. In for a drachma, in for a euro, as they say.

Like moussaka, baklava takes some time to make (though not as much). Like moussaka, the result is worth it.

Baklava, of course, is the irresistible dessert made of layers upon layers of thin and crispy phyllo dough, stuffed with lightly sweetened (and cinnamoned) chopped nuts and doused in a sweet syrup. In Greece, the syrup uses honey; other Mediterranean countries with their own versions use just sugar or sugar flavored with rose water.

But the key ingredient of baklava is butter. Each fragile, individual sheet of phyllo must be brushed with melted butter, which is why it takes a while to make. If you have never worked with phyllo before, it can be a little tricky, because the thin dough tends to tear.

But there is one simple trick to solve that problem: Use a pastry brush with soft bristles. A silicone brush will just leave you with an ugly, tangled mess.

Baklava is a perfect dessert to share with others, but don’t forget to save a few pieces for yourself. Some things are just worth it.



Yield: 8 servings

1/4 cup dried currants

1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 pound ground lamb

1 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Salt and black pepper, to taste

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped

1 red bell pepper, stemmed, cored and finely chopped

1 cup red wine

1 1/2 cups canola oil

1 1/2 pound eggplant, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices

1 large russet potato, about 1 pound, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 1/4 cups milk

1 bay leaf

Freshly ground nutmeg, to taste

1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt

3 egg yolks

1 cup grated parmesan

1. Put currants into a small bowl and cover with boiling water; let soften for 30 minutes. Drain and set aside. Purée the tomatoes in a blender and set aside.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a 6-quart pot over medium-high heat. Add the lamb, cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring to break up the meat, until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer lamb to a large strainer set over a bowl and drain; discard any liquid left in the pot.

3. Return the pot to the heat and add the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil along with the garlic, onions and bell pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost evaporated, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the reserved tomatoes, currants and lamb, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

4. Heat the canola oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, add the eggplant slices and fry, turning occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer slices to paper towels. Working in batches, add the potatoes and cook until tender, about 5 minutes, and transfer to paper towels.

5. Make a béchamel sauce: Melt butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, until pale and smooth, about 2 minutes. Whisking constantly, add the milk in a steady stream until incorporated; add the bay leaf and cook, whisking often, until reduced to 2 cups, about 15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and discard the bay leaf. Let sauce cool for 5 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and egg yolks and whisk into the sauce until smooth.

6. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place the reserved potato slices in the bottom of a 3-quart baking dish (or two 11/2-quart baking dishes) and season with salt and pepper. Put the eggplant slices on top, season with salt and pepper, and then cover with the meat sauce. Pour the béchamel over the top of the meat sauce and spread evenly with a rubber spatula. Sprinkle parmesan evenly over the top and bake until browned and bubbly, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Per serving: 657 calories; 48 g fat; 16 g saturated fat; 144 mg cholesterol; 22 g protein; 63 g carbohydrate; 14 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 394 mg sodium; 298 mg calcium

Recipe by Jim Botsacos of Molyvos restaurant, via Saveur


Yield: 6 to 8 servings

16 medium raw shrimp

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 3/4 ounces green onions, including some of the green part, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 (14-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

4 tablespoons chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, divided

Salt and black pepper

4 1/2 ounces feta, crumbled

Note: This is an appetizer, small portions meant to be shared among several people.

1. Peel and devein the shrimp, leaving the tails intact. Heat the oil in a wide nonstick pan that has a lid and sauté the onion on medium-low heat until softened. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add the tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of the parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Put the lid on and simmer for 10 minutes or so.

2. Add the shrimp to the pan and turn to cover all of them with sauce. Simmer, uncovered, for 3 to 4 minutes. Scatter in the feta, put the lid back on and cook until the feta just softens, about 5 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice. Serve with a good grind of pepper and the remaining 2 tablespoons of parsley scattered on top, and some lovely Greek bread.

Per serving (based on 6): 206 calories; 13 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 126 mg cholesterol; 17 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 267 mg sodium; 114 mg calcium

From “Food From Many Greek Kitchens,” by Tessa Kiros


Yield: 2 servings

2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish

2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, cut into 11/2-inch pieces

1 small cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces

1/2 medium white onion, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1/8 teaspoon dried oregano, plus more for garnish

Salt and pepper, to taste

6 ounces feta, cut into thick slabs

8 kalamata olives

1. Combine parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in a bowl.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar and oregano; season with salt and pepper and pour over cucumber mixture. Toss. Transfer salad to a serving bowl and top with feta and olives. Garnish with more parsley and oregano; season with pepper.

Per serving: 545 calories; 48 g fat; 17 g saturated fat; 76 mg cholesterol; 15 g protein; 19 g carbohydrate; 10 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 1,445 mg sodium; 485 mg calcium

Recipe from Saveur


Yield: About 30 servings

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

2 tablespoons honey

Juice of 1/2 small lemon

1 strip of lemon peel

2 or 3 small cinnamon sticks

1 cup almonds, chopped fine but with some texture

1 cup walnuts, chopped fine but with some texture

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

22 sheets phyllo pastry (one roll of frozen phyllo)

10 tablespoons (11/4 sticks) unsalted butter, melted to golden brown

About 30 whole cloves, for decorating

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. To make the syrup, put 2 cups of the sugar, honey, lemon juice, lemon peel and cinnamon sticks in a saucepan with 1 cup water and bring to a boil, stirring. Lower the heat to simmer for 5 to 6 minutes, then take off the heat and cool.

3. Mix the almonds, walnuts, the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and ground cinnamon together in a bowl. Have the phyllo sheets ready, covered by a dish cloth to prevent them from drying out. Brush the base of an 81/2-by-12-inch baking dish with butter.

4. Lay 1 sheet of phyllo on a clean work surface and brush with butter (use a pastry brush with soft bristles). Cover with another sheet, brush it with butter and continue in this way until you have a neat stack of 10 sheets. Place these on the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Spread half the nut mixture over the phyllo, patting it down firmly and leveling the surface.

5. Cover with 2 more sheets of phyllo, buttering each one. Scatter the rest of the nuts over evenly and press down gently. Now lay down the last 10 sheets of phyllo, buttering each one, and finishing with the last layer buttered on top.

6. Using a small sharp knife, cut diamonds on the diagonal of about 21/2-by-21/2 inches. Cut all the way through the layers of phyllo. Flick just a little cold water over the top to prevent the layers from curling up. Stud the center of each diamond with a clove.

7. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until gently golden on top. Gently pour half the syrup all over the baklava. Wait for it to be absorbed, then pour over the rest. Leave to cool totally before serving (remember to tell guests to remove the clove before eating). Will keep, unrefrigerated, for at least a week, covered with a dish cloth or foil to deter flies and bees.

Per serving: 180 calories; 9 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 11 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 24 g carbohydrate; 16 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 68 mg sodium; 19 mg calcium

From “Food From Many Greek Kitchens,” by Tessa Kiros

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