Preparing Food the Greek Way
“GO, EAT your food with rejoicing,” wrote wise King Solomon. (Eccl. 9:7) And no doubt tasty food contributes to the enjoyment we get out of life. Housewives all over the world know this, and many make it a point to look for more interesting ways to prepare meals.
Some countries have specialized types of cooking, and people in other lands can learn from this, thus getting more variety into their meals. Sometimes new recipes can help the housewife, not only to attain more variety in the meals, but also to stretch the food budget, a necessity in these days of rising food prices.
A look at Greek cooking can provide some interesting recipes. Just what is it that distinguishes Greek cooking? What foods are preferred and how are they prepared?
Typical Greek Foods
Greeks have, as you may know, a favorite meat—lamb. In some Greek homes virtually the only red meat eaten is lamb. Veal is sometimes used, but that is in second place; beef is third and pork is seldom used.
Chicken is another favorite of the Greeks, and it would be difficult to imagine their cooking without rice.
Fish dishes are popular, and they are usually made with olive oil, garlic, onions and tomatoes, served with lemon halves. Octopus and squid, besides the usual variety of fish, are much enjoyed by Greeks.
Among vegetables, beans (both dried and fresh) and eggplant are favored. Since meat supplies are limited, eggplant is used extensively—braised, baked, fried, stuffed and mashed into a dip.
One of the characteristics of cooking vegetables, as well as meat, Greek style is the use of tomatoes and tomato paste, with onions and/or garlic being used for flavoring.
Greek cooking is not hotly seasoned. Instead, the cook often seasons food with oregano, mint leaf, sweet basil, bay leaves, sesame and parsley. A dash of cinnamon imparts a subtle but distinctive flavor to Grecian meat dishes.
Lemons play a big role. In fact, few flavors are so typically Greek as the egg-and-lemon-juice sauce that imparts a tart creaminess to various dishes and to soups. The housewife uses lemon juice on almost everything that she serves. In salads, lemon juice is used instead of vinegar. Greeks nearly always cook their food in olive oil, and this oil is also frequently used to flavor prepared food.
The typical Greek salad is made with raw vegetables and might include greens, celery stalks chopped fine, sliced cucumbers, an onion sliced thin, tomatoes sliced lengthwise, a sliced green pepper, radishes and parsley.
The salad is arranged on a large platter and built up into a peak at the center. First, large lettuce leaves are placed on the platter. The rest of the lettuce is shredded and made into a mound in the center. Other vegetables are added on the mound.
As for seasoning the salad, oregano, salt and pepper may be added along with a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice (or vinegar if you prefer). For a large platter, about one-third cup of olive oil may be used, along with the juice of one lemon. The salad is garnished with anchovies, black olives and small pieces of a white cheese called feta, a soft, salty cheese made from goat’s milk and which crumbles easily and gives the salad a unique flavor. (Small pieces of blue cheese can be substituted for the feta.)
Soups and Lemon Sauce
Soup is often a main course and is eaten with chunks of bread and the typical Greek salad. Bean, pea and lentil soups are popular. A favorite soup is soupa avgolemono—a chicken soup flavored with lemon. It is now popular with persons in various parts of the world.
An easy recipe for this lemon chicken soup is: Wash a half cup of rice in warm water and soak for fifteen minutes, then drain. Bring six cups of chicken broth to a boil. Add the rice and cook it over low heat for fifteen minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Now prepare the lemon-and-egg sauce by taking two eggs and beating the whites well. Make sure they are stiff. Next, gently pour the egg yolks into the whites and beat further. Then add two tablespoons of lemon juice and gradually beat it in. About one cup of the hot broth is gradually added, stirring continually to avoid curdling. Add the rest of the broth, stirring constantly, not allowing it to boil.
This fine soup can be made in various ways. Some cooks like to make their own chicken broth from chicken backs and wings. Also, some prefer to make the soup with one chopped onion, one stalk of celery, cut up, and two carrots, cut up.
Meat Dishes with the Grecian Flavor
Lamb is cooked in a great variety of ways, either roasted, skewered or broiled. Many persons who are not Greeks find that when they try to prepare a meal with lamb the meat has too strong a flavor for them, yet when they eat lamb cooked by Greeks they find it quite pleasant and palatable. This is because of the way the Greeks cook lamb.
If you are going to roast a leg of lamb and want to avoid a strong lamb flavor, trim off all the fat. Make slits in the meat, perhaps sixteen or so, with the tip of a small knife. Sliver four cloves of garlic and then insert the slivers into the slits. Also use a little salt and pepper along with the garlic slivers. Rub the meat with lemon juice, thyme, butter and a little salt and pepper. Baste occasionally with lemon juice and butter. To keep the juices in, cover the leg of lamb with aluminum foil. Roast for about three hours, at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many persons enjoy arni souvlakia, the Greek shish kebab. To prepare this dish, marinate chunks of tender lamb in olive oil, lemon juice and wine. Season with salt and pepper and a dash of oregano and then grill on skewers over hot coals. During the cooking, you can smear the meat from time to time with some olive oil.
To give lamb chops or steak a Grecian flavor you can broil them to the desired doneness, and then sprinkle with crushed oregano and lemon juice. Broiled or fried liver can also be seasoned with oregano and lemon juice. When roasting chicken, baste it with butter and lemon juice, and some cooks also like a sprinkle of oregano.
If you would like a different kind of sauce with your meat, whether roasts or steak, try the following: To your heated butter or oil, add a clove or two of minced garlic. Then add some minced celery and some chopped onions and fry slowly. When it is cooked, mix in some canned tomatoes and a little tomato paste. As you heat the sauce and mix it, add a dash of oregano. You will have a truly delicious sauce for meats and vegetables.
One of the most popular dishes in Greece is moussaka. This baked dish contains layers of fried eggplant and ground lamb. It is seasoned with tomato, oregano and a dash of cinnamon. Then it is topped with a white sauce and grated cheese, baked to a golden puffiness and served warm, cut in squares.
One of the most famous of Greek foods is stuffed grapevine leaves (called dolmathes). The vine leaves are stuffed with ground meat (lamb or beef) and rice and then served with the egg-and-lemon sauce.
To prepare this dish to serve three or four persons, use about a pound of grapevine leaves (cabbage leaves can be substituted by boiling the cabbage head till tender, then removing each leaf and trimming the stem). If vine leaves are used, scald them first to soften them. Use about one pound of ground lamb or beef and half a cup of rice (long grain); half a cup of butter (measure, then melt); one cup of canned tomatoes, including juice; one and half cups of hot water; two medium onions chopped fine; two tablespoons of olive oil; two tablespoons of mint leaf or parsley chopped fine; salt and pepper. Mix the ingredients, except leaves and water.
Then stuff the vine leaves one by one with the mixture. Fold over the top and sides like an envelope, so that the stuffing remains within the leaves. Set all these stuffed leaves in rows in a skillet or cooking pot. Pour water in. Cover them with a heavy heatproof plate (to keep them in position) and the lid. Let them simmer in the cooking pot on a gentle fire for about an hour, or until the rice is done.
Prepare the egg-and-lemon sauce as already mentioned. But you may wish to use three eggs instead of two. Remember that this sauce is always made from the liquid in which meats or vegetables have been cooked. So use the hot broth in which you have cooked the stuffed vine leaves, but do not let the sauce boil. You can determine the degree of tartness of the sauce by regulating the amount of lemon juice. Then take the saucepan with the stuffed vine leaves and pour the egg-and-lemon-juice sauce on. And your vine leaves are ready to be served.
Keep in mind that recipes for Greek dishes differ from cook to cook, but the ingredients are basically the same. In fact, the Greek housewife seldom follows a recipe, but does her cooking by memory and invention. Given tomatoes, tomato paste, lemons, onions, garlic, thyme and olive oil, most Greek housewives can take off in any culinary direction, with delightful results.
Greek cooking, of course, is just one of a great variety of cooking styles. Those who would like to try recipes from other parts of the earth will usually find that public libraries have books with recipes from around the world. And if you choose to add variety to your meals, why not try to prepare some foods the Greek way?