It's All Greek to Me
By Debbie Matenopoulos, Peter Capozzi
BenBella Books Copyright © 2014 Debbie Matenopoulos
All rights reserved.
Philotimo and the Greek Art of Living , Loving, Laughing, and ... Eating Well
This book started with a simple idea. My mother is an amazing cook, so I wanted to write a cookbook with her and include all of our family recipes. For years people have asked me how I learned to cook so well. Many of my friends assumed I had gone to cooking school. That concept seems so strange to me. Of course I know how to cook. I'm Greek. Cooking is in our blood. Growing up in a traditional Greek home, I learned the art of Greek cooking simply by watching my yiayia, my mom, my aunts, my cousins, and my sister. That is precisely how my mother learned to cook, my mother's mother before her, and down the line for generations. That is how most Greeks learn to cook. It is a family affair. To Greeks, food is not just food. It represents love. It represents family. Sitting down to the table to eat is the time when friends and family come together to connect and share their day with one another, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The most impactful and poignant conversations of my childhood and young adult life all happened at the dinner table. This ritual is one of the most important ways that we Greeks keep such close-knit family bonds.
Because of this, spending time in the kitchen has never been stressful for me. Instead, I look forward to my time cooking as a calming and heartwarming experience. I have endless memories of being in the kitchen with my mom, watching her whip up one of her magical meals. With a few sparse ingredients she could create an amazing feast. My dad would bring in some fresh vegetables from our garden, and she would turn them into the most delicious thing I had ever eaten.
As you might imagine, my mother quickly developed the well-deserved reputation for being the best cook in the neighborhood. On any given day there was at least one friend staying over for dinner, often a small army! It was years before I realized that not every mother was as great a cook as mine, nor had the love of food and generosity of spirit to literally feed an entire neighborhood.
I didn't realize how fortunate I was to have such a big, loving family to teach me the beauty of respecting the food we put in to our bodies. When I moved to New York City in my late teens to attend New York University and intern at MTV, I was no longer eating the way I had been taught as a child. The days of well-balanced family meals disappeared, and they were replaced with a standard "American" diet of takeout and deli food. It was cheap, and it was convenient. What wasn't convenient was my expanding waistline and my distressed skin. Although I was eating less food, I was gaining weight. That's when I realized the nutrient-dense, whole food diet on which I was raised was not only full of love but was clearly much better for my body and well-being.
Feeding us a traditional Mediterranean diet wasn't a conscious effort on my mother's part to start my family on a health kick. It was simply the diet and lifestyle she was raised on. It's just how we Greeks eat and have eaten for centuries. A classic Mediterranean diet is rich in fresh organic, seasonally available and locally grown fruits and vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, oregano, parsley, lemon, and organic, free-range, and hormone-free meat, poultry, and seafood. Consciously or not, my mother was ahead of her time. I strongly believe this is the way we humans were intended to eat.
As you will no doubt see as you begin to cook from this book, Greek dishes are made with whole, natural ingredients from the earth. In Greece, vegetables are almost always organic because most Greek farmers would never consider using pesticides on something that they would put into their own bodies, much less bring to market for others to consume. It is just common sense to them. Fruits and vegetables are picked at the peak of ripeness, and they are on your lunch table that same afternoon. The same rules apply for their poultry, livestock, and fish. Animals are treated incredibly humanely and roam free on farms (or in people's gardens), and when another living creature gives its life to nourish us, that creature is honored and never taken for granted. Every part of it is used for some form of sustenance. The eggs, the milk, the wool, the meat, the bones, and even the skins. Nothing is wasted, for that is considered sinful.
Ironically, the word organic has little meaning to Greeks. When people started to become more aware of what goes into the foods we eat here in America, and the word organic was suddenly everywhere, my mom was baffled. She said, "Organic? What is this, honey? Oh, they mean normal and natural. The way God intended." To her, growing up in Greece, organic was all they ever had.
When I reflect on my "Greekness" and what it means to me, the thing I love most about my culture is how warm and welcoming we are. Greeks love to generously share their love of food and their love of life with everyone. There is a word in the Greek language, philotimo, which has no equivalent translation in the English language or any other language for that matter. Its literal translation is "friend of honor" or "love of honor," but those phrases cannot define the true depth and complexity of this seemingly simple word. Philotimo is a powerful concept. It is a way of being in the world and relating to others that all Greeks learn from a very early age. Philotimo is considered the highest of virtues in Greece, and it is something in which we Greeks take much pride. It is about doing what is right, not just what is convenient and right for you but what is right for the universal order of things. Your philotimo is a badge of honor that shows the world what kind of person you are and what kind of character you have. Every family in Greece instills this concept in their children.
Philotimo embodies an array of crucial values. It is about the unconditional love of family and friends, performing random acts of kindness, and never expecting anything in return. In Greece, all of these virtues are practiced on a regular basis. You see, Greeks don't practice philotimo to try to impress others. They do it because it feels right to treat the world we live in and our fellow man with respect. Philotimo is about expressing total gratitude for life. It is about paying it forward. It is one of the core, rock-solid values that all Greeks posses. The ancient Greek philosopher Thales (c. 624 BC–c. 546 BC), who Aristotle considered Greece's first philosopher, wrote, "Philotimo to the Greek is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive."
Personally, I am honored and humbled to be part of such a rich culture. And like so many Greeks before me, I want to share my culture with the world so that everyone can experience the love and the philotimo I have felt throughout my life. My first step in doing so is to share my family's century-old recipes with everyone (much to the chagrin of my sister Maria, who was holding on to her baklava recipe for dear life. Sorry Maria! The secret's out!). I wanted to show the world that Greek food is not just gyro, souvlaki, and Greek yogurt. Although those are all pretty yummy, there is a lot more to traditional Greek cuisine. The recipes in this book will prove it. These are recipes that have been passed down in my family for generations. They are both scrumptious and great for you. And they are all made with love. My hope is to make my family proud by sharing their treasured recipes with you so that you too can enjoy them with your friends and family. Let us all share in the philotimo of Greece together. Opa!!
Stin igieia sou kai kali orexi, (To your health and good appetite,)
Horiatki Salata (hor-YIA-tee-kee sah-lah-TAH)
GREEK VILLAGE SALAD
Unlike many of the Greek salads found on menus in America, traditional Greek village salads do not contain lettuce. This salad is a staple of nearly every Greek lunch and dinner. Serve it with any of the main dishes in this book for a wholesome, rustic, and traditional supper you and your family will adore.
SERVES 4 TO 6
1 seedless English cucumber, peeled and sliced
4 to 5 large ripe tomatoes, sliced into wedges
1 large red onion, sliced
1 large green bell pepper, sliced
1 cup Kalamata olives, plus more to taste
¼ pound brine-packed Greek feta cheese, drained
and sliced lengthwise
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 lemon cut into wedges, to serve with salad
Sea salt (optional)
Toss the cucumber, tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, and olives together in a large salad bowl and top with the slices of feta. Crush the oregano in your hand to release its fragrant essential oils, then sprinkle over the salad along with capers (if using). Drizzle the lemon juice over the salad, then the olive oil. Set aside to marinate at room temperature for 20 minutes, or serve immediately with some lemon wedges alongside for added zest. The feta is quite salty, which usually eliminates the need for added salt. Give the salad a taste just before serving, and sprinkle a pinch of salt over the tomatoes and cucumbers, if desired.
SPINACH FETA PIE
I love sharing this Greek favorite with my friends. Over the years I have mastered making an excellent spanakopita. In fact, you'd be hardpressed to find someone working in entertainment news in Hollywood who hasn't tried my spanakopita and who wouldn't agree that it's pretty darn delicious. Still, I must admit that mine will never be quite as good as my mom's. She has the magic touch. Practice makes perfect, and while Mom's is still the best, yours will be pretty fantastic too!
SERVES 8 TO 10
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more
for baking dish
1 bunch scallions, white and tender green parts,
washed and thinly sliced
½ large sweet onion, finely chopped
2 pounds fresh spinach, coarse stems removed,
washed in several changes of cold water,
drained, and chopped
1 pound brine-packed Greek feta
1 cup finely chopped fresh dill
4 large eggs, beaten
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 (1-pound) package phyllo dough sheets
(13 × 18 inches), thawed (see tip, page 112)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 9 × 13-inch baking dish.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the scallions and the onion, and sauté until translucent, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the spinach and sauté until just wilted. Remove from heat, let cool slightly, and transfer to a fine-mesh strainer. Cool slightly, then squeeze as much excess water as possible from the spinach, and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Crumble the feta into small pieces and add it to the spinach mixture. Add the dill and mix gently to combine. Add the eggs and pepper. Mix well to combine with impeccably clean hands or a silicone spatula.
Roll the phyllo dough out on a flat surface, working quickly and keeping it covered to prevent it from drying out. Place 2 phyllo sheets into the baking dish at a time, centering them and letting the edges hang over the sides. Brush the top sheet of each 2-sheet layer with a little of the remaining olive oil, but do not brush the overhanging edges. Continue in this manner until you have used 10 of the phyllo dough sheets. Spread the spinach-feta mixture evenly over the phyllo dough layers in the prepared dish. Fold the overhanging phyllo dough over the filling, then continue to layer the phyllo dough, brushing each 2-sheet layer with olive oil, until you have used all of the dough. Trim the top layers of phyllo to fit the baking dish. Slowly pour the remaining olive oil on top, and spread evenly.
Before baking, using a large knife, very carefully score the pie into 8 to 10 pieces, cutting through the top layers just until you reach the filling. Precutting makes it much easier to serve, as the phyllo dough becomes crisp and very fragile after baking.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until the top is golden brown and flaky, watching carefully. Cool for 10 minutes, slice the precut pieces all the way through, and serve.
DEBBIE'S TIP: As noted earlier, as with most of the phyllo pies, spanakopita can be made with either melted butter or extra-virgin olive oil. I find the olive oil version to be a lighter, more healthful dish, but I also love to indulge in my mom's decadent, traditional version once in a while. To make it Mom's way, replace the olive oil used to brush the phyllo with 6 tablespoons of melted butter (see tip, page 112), add an extra egg, and use 1½ pounds of feta instead of 1 pound. It's over-the-top delicious!
GREEK WEDDING COOKIES
Kourambiethes are served year-round at many holidays and special occasions in Greece. They are easy to prepare, buttery, and coated in powdered sugar, which gives them a lovely festive appearance. Their white color indicates wishes for continued happiness and good fortune. These cookies may take a little practice; you want them slightly crispy at first bite and meltingly tender in your mouth. The trick for light, airy cookies is to use whipped butter instead of sticks.
YIELDS 60 TO 70 COOKIES
2 cups slivered blanched almonds, toasted until
1 pound whipped unsalted sweet cream butter at
2 egg yolks
½ cup confectioners' sugar plus 3 cups more
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cognac
4 to 5 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Process the almonds in a food processor or high-performance blender, pulsing until they are coarsely ground. They should retain a slight texture, not become a very fine meal. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter, egg yolks, and ½ cup of the confectioners' sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 6 minutes. Reduce speed to low and add the almonds, vanilla extract, and cognac. Increase speed to medium-high and beat for another 2 to 3 minutes, until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl a couple of times during mixing.
Reduce speed to low and add the flour, a little at a time, until the dough comes together and is soft and not sticky. You probably will use about 4½ cups of flour. Remove the dough from the mixer and knead by hand for 1 or 2 minutes to make sure everything is incorporated.
Using a tablespoon as a measure, scoop out small, equal-size pieces of dough, shape them into half-moons, and place them 1 inch apart on 2 large, ungreased cookie sheets. If the dough becomes too warm and difficult to work with, place it in the refrigerator for a few minutes to firm up. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cookies are a pale yellow gold. (Do not brown.) Remove from oven and cool slightly on the baking sheets, about 5 minutes.
Sift about 1 cup of the remaining confectioners' sugar onto a large sheet of wax paper. Using a small spatula, transfer the warm cookies from the baking sheets to the sugar-coated wax paper. Liberally sift the remaining confectioners' sugar over the top and sides of the cookies so that they are bright white and completely covered with sugar. (Continues...)
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