I‘ve been loving Greek for a long time…not way back to The First Bites, of course, but long. My first exposure, in fact–after growing up with Italian, Chinese, and no Greek at all–was in 1971, at an unassuming place in Manhattan’s theatre district called Molfeta’s. Along with lots of Broadway actors who loved the prices and the (I remember seeing Broadway star Julie Harris by herself on my first visit), I found it a revelation. The place was, as I realized later, blessedly authentic–just like many a simple taverna in Athens where you walk up to the steam table in the back, view the 30 versions of lamb with vegetables and sauces, and talk to the smiling chef about your selections.
Later, I traveled a good deal to Greece, so I could know this kind of deliciousin situ. Oh man, is it good. Ironically, Molfeta’s is long gone…as are many other places in the New York area that used to be like this. But, comfortingly, many places like this are still alive in Greece! The reason, I imagine, is that this kind of mama , so beloved by the Greeks, has refused to yield much space to the kind of new-fangled, la-di-da that afflicts the restaurants of other European countries.
And, of course…this kind ofis easy to make well in your own kitchen, no matter where you may be!!!
Here are my five favorite Greek dishes of the homey/yummy kind:
Of all the spreads and whips in the world of first-course mezes, this one is definitely my favorite: fish eggs (usually grey mullet, in Greece) whipped with a carb (usually either bread or potato) and olive oil into a light-colored, fluffy mousse. But there is lots of danger in Taramasalataland. So very often–especially in Greece!–the dish is crappy, and I mean crappy! In Greece, I suppose, since it is such a staple, and since everyone needs to offer one, many lazy restaurants buy and sell the industrial stuff, which is lurid pink and gloopy and flavorless. A good one is a very pale pink; it is creamy but very fluffy; it tastes faintly of fish, backed up by lusher tastes, like a good whitefish salad would do. Spread on a little pita–with some Kalamata olives and ouzo–it is Hellenic heaven, the sunset announcement that all is right with the world. I’m lucky in New York City; a place called the International Grocery, just behind the Port Authority, daily makes and sells the greatest taramasalata I’ve ever tasted. Please check it out, when in NY…or make the recipe yourself, which I reproduced in my 2003 cookbook, It’s ALL American
Well, there are many folks (mostly from Istanbul!) who’d tell you this dish is not Greek at all, and then there are others who’d be surprised that something so common appears on my list. I say phooey to all them; not only does Greek moussaka have a different feel from Turkish moussaka…but…moussaka is amazing when it’s well-made. Of course, I’m a sucker for mama-like layered casserole dishes (lasagna to me, for example, is also a miracle when well done). But the flavors of moussaka are even deeper and more interesting–as are the textures. The dish is built of eggplant, which loves to absorb flavor–like the cinnamon-scented kisses of the Greek tomato sauce. The gamy ground lamb boosts the party to another flavor level. And then the crowning glory: a puffy bechamel on top, which adds the gullet glow of dairy to the whole she-bang. A great moussaka quivers on the plate, just before warming your soul on a winter’s day.
It’s amazing how transformable rice is, how many rice dishes there are in the world with different textures. This fabulous piece of Greek home-style cooking is nothing like a risotto in texture, nothing like paella, nothing like fried rice. But it is a creamy bowl of rice-present greenness that is, in effect, a short course in Greek taste. Try the recipe below (it’s so simple!) to understand exactly how greens, herbs, lemon and olive oil configure Hellenically. You can serve it as a side dish to roast lamb (or roast most anything). Some Greeks like to get a little fancier with it–topping it with a dollop of yogurt, or curls of shaved feta, or even a sunny-side-up fried egg. If you choose the latter route, you might consider serving it as a first course.
makes 12 tasting portions
1/3 cup olive oil
1 medium onion (about 6 ounces), minced
12 ounces fresh spinach, washed and coarsely chopped
1 cup chopped fresh dill leaves
1/2 cup long-grain rice
1 1/4 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Place the olive oil in a heavy, medium-large pot over medium heat. Add the minced onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is starting to soften, about 4-5 minutes. Add the spinach and 2/3 cup of the dill. Stir well to coat the greens with the olive oil. Cover, and cook the spinach until volume is considerably reduced, about 3 minutes.
2. Add rice and chicken stock to spinach, stirring well. Season broth to taste with salt. Cover, turn heat to medium-low, and cook for 20 minutes more.
3. After 20 minutes, check to make sure the rice is cooked. If not, cover and cook until the rice is done. When it’s finished, if there’s excess liquid, turn heat to medium-high and boil it away, uncovered, for a few moments. Just before serving, add the remaining 1/3 cup of dill, and the lemon juice. Stir well, check for seasoning, and serve.
It was only about ten years ago that I fell in love with paidakia, or Greek lamb chops. I dunno…it just never sounded very different, and there were so many other lamb dishes to try. But that was before I discovered that Greece is the frickin’ lamb chop capital of the world! Heading down to Athens after a northern Greece trip, I got a tip on a taverna not far from the Athens airport…at which I was specifically advised to try the lamb chops. I did. I’ve been back ten times since, and have led many people there just for the lamb chops. Then things got even better: I found that cooks all over Greece make lamb chops like these, and most Greek people always and passionately have their local faves for paidakia. Seriously…if you’ve been to Greece and missed paidakia…as I had…make arrangements soon to get back. Why are they so different? All over Greece, the chops are cut from young lambs…and cut in such a way so that the bones are long, arcing, and layered with meat, fat, meat, fat, meat, fat. Forget about your steakhouse lamb chops: these guys do not have big, rare, meaty eyes of lamb. The eye is rather small and, after cooking, the color is rather grey. No matter! I’m a “rare” man all the way in meat–but there ain’t nothing better in the world than these thin, well-done lamb chops, alive with crackle, bursting with flavor, kind of like the pork of lamb. I like to sit down and a dozen or so, if I’m not too hungry. The prep is simple as can be: salt, olive oil, and a big open flame. If you want to see for yourself…well, ten years later…I have never tasted paidakia in Greece better than my beloved first ones! So hie thee to Athens, stay at the airport Sofitel (a good hotel!), take a taxi to the nearby town of Kalyvia, and have dinner at Taverna To Trigono, right across from the gas station. Prepare for a thunder bolt. And, if you’re dining at midnight, you’ll be privileged to see the whole lambs for tomorrow coming off the truck, straight from a shepherd high in the hills of the island of Lesvos. Ah, old world! Don’t vanish, please!
5) The Milos Special
I feel a little sheepish about including this last one, which is a dish from a fancy Greek restaurant–but, then again, it is one of the best things you’ll ever ! Now, all over Greece you have the opportunity to taste lightly battered and fried thin circles of zucchini and eggplant. These morsels, though delicious, would not make it onto my list of Five Favorite Greek Dishes. Forty-Five Favorite, maybe, but not Five. And that’s where the fancy restaurant comes in. Milos, a very beautiful, very expensive Greek seafood restaurant in New York City–also in Montreal, Athens and Las Vegas–is run by a man positively mad for quality. Nowhere on the menu does this reverberate more profoundly than in Costa’s version of the humble fried vegetables. The dish is an appetizer called the Milos Special, and–despite the almost $30 price tag–you will see it on the tables of all the regulars at Milos. It is a high pile of impossibly light, crispy slices, anchored by a mound of garlicky tzatziki, ringed by perfect morsels of fried Greek cheese. Why so much money for, I dunno, a dollar’s worth of ingredients? Because Costa hires two cooks, full-time…just to cook this appetizer!!!. That curious labor maneuver guarantees perfect frying every time…and probably the most addictive fried vegetables in the known universe.