Greek cuisine

I love food, all kinds of food. Gourmet food, soul food, street food, ethnic food, home cooking. So I thought it would be amusing to do a little research on Greek cuisine, because it’s fun to think we have a lot of the same things on our plate as Plato (forgive the pun!)

Some Greek recipes have existed for thousands of years, especially those including local produce such as oranges and lemons, pomegranates, tomatoes, grapes, figs. And, of course, olive oil – our liquid gold.

Lentil soup flavored with bay leaf
Lentil soup flavored with bay leaf

 

The first cookbook ever to be written is credited to Archestratus, a Greek poet living in Sicily around 350 B. C. It’s a poem called Υδηπάθεια (Life of Luxury) written in hexameters, of which only 62 fragments survive. The poem is in fact a gastronomic guide, where the author tells of his travels around the Mediterranean in search of the best food and wine. Like today’s foodies, Archestratus loved learning the culinary traditions and customs of different places. He believed in the importance of quality ingredients, which had to be fresh and in season, and cooked simply, with little fat, using seasoning lightly in order to enhance and not mask their flavor.
He focused mainly on fish, being a big fan of tuna, but also of mullet, sea bass, swordfish and squid. One of his recipes is for tuna wrapped in fig leaves, cooked under the ashes and flavored with olive oil and oregano.

But even before Archestratus, the Greeks were interested in good food. Aristaios (or Aristaeus) was the god of shepherds and cheese-making, bee-keeping, honey, honey-mead, olive growing and medicinal herbs. His name was derived from the Greek word aristos, “most excellent” or “most useful.” It seems he started life a mortal, but was made a god because of his services to mankind.

Χωριάτικη (Horiatiki) salad with feta and olives
Χωριάτικη (Horiatiki) salad with feta and olives

 

The Greeks invented bread; they made wine which they flavored with thyme, mint, cinnamon or honey and stored in clay pots, amphoras, which they marked with the year and origin. They drank their wine cut with water, to keep their wits about them, and thought drinking undiluted wine a barbarian custom.

They cultivated orchards of fruit and nut trees, and raised swine, goats, sheep
and cows, as well as chickens, ducks, geese and swans. They grew an abundance of vegetables and gathered myriad greens. Fish was essential to their diet but they ate little meat. They enhanced dishes with wild oregano and sage and imported cinnamon and pepper.

Fava with sausages
Fava with sausages

 

The Greek diet has been influenced by both the East and the West. In ancient times, the Persians introduced Middle Eastern foods, such as yogurt, rice, and sweets made from nuts, honey, and sesame seeds. When Rome invaded Greece, the Romans brought with them foods that are typical in Italy, such as pasta and sauces, and the thin phyllo pastry dough used to make sweet and savory pies. Then came the Ottoman conquerors, with assorted Central Asian dishes like rice pilaf and loukoum – Turkish Delight, flavoured with rose water. Arab influences added spices such as cumin, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, and introduced coffee to Greece. Potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes were later brought from the New World.

For Greeks, food and eating did not just satisfy physical needs; it was primarily a social event. Plutarch, a Greek historian, said, “We do not sit at the table to eat… but to eat together”. This idea of conviviality has resulted in the meze tradition of sharing a multitude of small dishes, which has spread throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Pork with celery in an egg-and-lemon sauce
Pork with celery in an egg-and-lemon sauce

 

In Greece today you will still find all the foods that have been eaten through the ages: plates of fava, a puree of yellow split peas topped with wild capers, onions, or marinated sardines; tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and vine leaves stuffed with meat or rice, pine nuts, sultanas, cheese; λαδερά (ladera), vegetables braised in olive oil; meats simply grilled or cooked with tomatoes and wine; fish and seafood of all kinds; meats and greens encased in delicate phyllo pastry. Food is seasoned with sea salt, onion, garlic, oregano, thyme, rosemary and mint, as well as cumin, cinnamon, allspice and chili pepper.

For dessert, the same phyllo pastry enfolds fruit and nuts and is bathed in honey syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon. A simple dish of yogurt is topped with walnuts and drizzled in honey. And there’s always fruit: apples, pears and citrus fruits in winter, cherries, apricots, strawberries in the spring, peaches, watermelons, melons and figs in summer, grapes, quinces and pomegranates in fall. Of course now you can get fruit out of season, as well as exotic fruits like bananas, pineapples and mangoes. But Greeks generally like to buy things in season.

 

Πρασόρυζο - leeks with rice
Πρασόρυζο – leeks with rice

 

Greek chefs today have taken this rich tradition and given it a modern twist. You will find them plying their trade in Athens, but also in other cities, on the islands and on the mountains. The success of the tourist trade, as well as the popularity of tv cooking shows has made the profession lucrative for many young people. They like to use local produce in season, bring a fresh take to old recipes, and also use ideas and influences from other countries.

Greece produces a wide variety of cheeses, from the ubiquitous feta and other soft, fresh cheeses, to hard cheeses such as γραβιέρα (graviera) and κεφαλοτύρι (kefalotyri). Every region also produces their own local cheeses – always ask to sample them when traveling.

 

Shrimp with tomato and feta
Shrimp with tomato and feta

 

The first Greek wine has been dated about 6,500 years ago, and, in recent years, the Greek wine industry has been undergoing a renaissance. Improvements have been made with serious investments in modern wine making technology. The new generation of native winemakers is being trained in the best wine schools around the world and their efforts are paying off as Greek wines continue to receive the highest awards in international competitions. What makes Greek wine so unique are the more than 300 indigenous grape varieties grown here, some of which have been cultivated since ancient times. Many well-known international grape varieties are also used in Greek wine making.

Greeks love to eat outdoors, and will do so all year round, weather permitting.
Following the tradition of hospitality, people will welcome you into their homes with a glass of water and a spoonful of γλυκό (glyko) – preserves made with fruit such as sour cherries or citrus peel, flowers such as rose petals and lemon tree buds, and also fruit and vegetables not yet ripe, such as tiny aubergines, green walnuts, tiny green mandarins and figs.

imageFor those interested in trying their hand at some Greek specialities, there are many good cookbooks in English. For example, the lovely series written by Diane Kochilas;

 

imageor Vefa’s Kitchen, the bible of Greek cuisine by the grande dame of Greek cooking.

 

 

There are also a few great blogs, such as Little Cooking Tips, which features delicious recipes. They kindly allowed me to borrow their lovely photographs of food, all of which could have been in Plato’s plate.

And, by the way, Bon appetit in Greek is Καλή Όρεξη (Kali Orexi)!

Ringing in the New Year in Greece

On another TBT, I thought I’d repost this blog for newer readers who are interested in seasonal Greek customs.

Christmas may be over but the festivities are far from finished. In Greece the New Year celebrations are considered more important than Christmas, and are connected to Saint Basil, whose nameday falls on January first. This is when gifts are opened, since our Santa Klaus or Father Christmas is Aghios Vasilios or, familiarly, Aï Vasilis.

These are the main festive customs:

Βασιλόπιτα – Vasilopita (Basil’s cake)

After midnight on December 31, with the ushering in of the new year, there is the cutting of the Vasilopita, which is either tsoureki, a kind of brioche, or a cake – usually flavored with orange and sometimes containing candied fruit and nuts. A coin we call a flourí is slipped inside and, once the cake is distributed, the person who gets it is supposed to have extra good luck for the rest of the year.
In older days and in affluent households the coin used to be gold (usually an English gold pound) but nowadays it is mostly some kind of gold charm with the year etched on. Sometimes there can be a gift associated with it.

The simplest, most delicious - from last year, the new ones are not ready yet!
The simplest, most delicious pita – from last year, the new ones are not ready yet!

The Vasilopita has to be entirely distributed so it is divided equally amongst those present – the family, visitors and anyone working in the house are included. Tradition varies, but the first slice is usually reserved for Christ, the second for the house and the third for the poor. Then everyone gets their piece according to age, the eldest being first (or sometimes the householder). In my home the youngest child has to choose which piece will be cut first and then we proceed in a clockwise direction. People must not look for the coin until everyone has had their piece. Then there is usually a silence – often the person who has found the coin says nothing, to prolong the suspense – and the ‘discovery’ is followed by applause, congratulations and good wishes: Χρόνια Πολλά (Chronia Polla – Many Years) or Καλή Χρονιά (Kali Chronia – (May you have a) Good Year).

The Vasilopita is considered so essential to the start of each year that one is shared out not only in each and every home, but in the workplace – in offices, shops, public organizations – and even sports clubs and other associations. Because of the difficulty of getting everyone together, pitas are cut well into February and sometimes even March!

The story behind this custom is the following, although some versions existed in even more ancient times: In the 4th century, Aghios Vasilios was the Archbishop of Caesarea, an area of Cappadocia. A local tyrant was threatening to conquer and loot the town, so all the citizens gave their valuables to Aghios Vasilios, to give the tyrant in lieu of ransom, so the town would be spared. The tyrant, however, was deflected from his goal by the intervention of another Saint, Aghios Mercourios. Vasilios had the hard task of returning the valuables to their owners, but he had no idea what belonged to each. So he asked the townspeople to bake small loaves, inside which he hid the valuables, and which he then distributed at random. Upon breaking open the loaves, the parishioners were astounded to see they had each got their rightful belongings!
The Vasilopita was not the same in every part of Greece. In many places it was a savory pie, containing different meats and vegetables, such as leeks. Various spices and flavorings were used in both sweet and savory pies.
The surface of the cake or pie bore many decorations, according to local custom and the occupation of the householders. For example, in Asia Minor, the top was decorated with the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Byzantine Empire. Elsewhere, housewives etched the top with Saint Basil’s and the householder’s initials,and with barrels of wine, sheaves of wheat, lambs and goats, plows and boats, or anything else they wanted blessed for the new year.

There is still a large variety of Vasilopita to be found, but nowadays most are sweet.

 

Another festive and seasonal delicacy - κυδονόπαστο (quince paste)
Another festive and seasonal delicacy – κυδονόπαστο (quince paste)

 

Καλή Χέρα – Kali Hera (good hand)

Gifts of money are traditionally given to children on New Year’s Day. In some places, the custom was to give a gold coin, especially by grandparents to their grandchildren.

 

Σπάσιμο Ροδιού – Smashing of pomegranates

Another tradition thought to bring good luck for the coming year is the smashing of a pomegranate on the threshold of each house. The pomegranate is a fruit with a history going back to ancient times and figures prominently in mythology. It is widely revered as a symbol of regeneration, fertility and prosperity.
imageThe pomegranate smashes to the floor and the red grains scatter in all directions, spreading good fortune in the household, office or shop.

 

Κρεμύδα – Kremyda (Onion or squill bulb)

A squill bulb, or even a plain onion, sometimes wrapped in foil to deflect bad spirits, is hung above the front door on New Year’s Eve. Because of its many layers and ability to sprout even when removed from the earth it is meant to symbolize regeneration and growth; this custom is thought to have originated in Ancient Greece. On New Year’s Day the bulb is brought into the house and kept for the rest of the year.

 

Ποδαρικό – Podariko (First Footing)

The person who first steps into a house on each New Year’s Day is supposed to bring good luck for the rest of the year. That’s why a child, innocent and pure of heart, is often chosen to walk in, always stepping in with the right foot first. This ‘right foot’ custom extends to anyone coming to a house for the first time, especially if it is a new house.

 

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The feast

Most people gather with family and friends to celebrate the New Year, and in some houses an extra place is set at the table for Aghios Vasilios. Another rich meal with a main dish of lamb or pork, cooked according to local tradition, followed by the same festive sweets as Christmas.
In many places the feasting was – and still is – preceded by the killing of a pig, with everyone joining in for the confection of sausages and other delicacies.

 

Gambling

To while away the time until midnight, decks of cards are brought out since Greeks think it’s good luck to have a flutter on New Year’s Eve. All sorts of games are played but especially black jack and rolling dice; some people even have a roulette wheel. Non-gamblers, but not only, take the opportunity to invest in a national lottery ticket.

 

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Cologne and Fireworks

Many Greeks party the night away on New Year’s Eve and in town centers the traffic is likely to be as dense at five in the morning as it is on a Saturday rush hour! In some places people walk around holding bottles of cologne, with which they spray each other. Often the municipality will put on firework displays for the enjoyment of those out and about.

Kalanda – Carols

If you’re at home on New Year’s Day you have to keep running to open the front door, as children arrive to sing the Kalanda. These are different to Christmas carols, since they celebrate the feast of Saint Basil and the start of the New Year. You have to reward the kids with some coins and maybe a melomakarono or two!

 

Happy New Year to all!

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The photographs of food are courtesy of Cake & Cookie Co, who make delicious goodies! 

A Christmas treat

After the success of my post on Christmas traditions in Greece, I thought the cooks amongst you might like to try making the butter cookies we call Kourambiedes. I found this recipe on a blog called Little Cooking Tips, which I highly recommend to those interested in Greek cooking. The authors, Mirella and Panos, post lots of yummy recipes accompanied by mouth-watering pictures. Here I re-blogged the whole post on Kourambiedes, so you can get a taste – of the blog, and the cookies! They have a unique crumbly texture and buttery taste. I like to make the cookies quite small, but that’s personnal preference.

Greek Christmas Butter Cookies: Kourambiedes
Photo and text by Panos Diotis and Mirella Kaloglou.

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Calories (per serving): 206
Servings: 12+ slices/pieces
Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 20 minutes

Up until the last couple of weeks the weather was very kind to us here in Greece; lots of sunshine and warm temperatures allowed for long walks and enjoying the scenery.
If the leaves hadn’t fallen off the trees, one may had the impression it was spring, not autumn! This changed a few days ago and it seems that the winter is finally here. The first snow has fallen up in the mountains, especially in the north, helping us get into the festive mood, which is appropriate for Christmas and the New Year celebration!

Of course, the winter was already here, providing us with lots of its yummy fruits and veggies. We especially enjoyed the quinces, made quince spoon sweet (you can read more about spoon sweets here) and cooked a wonderful ancient Greek recipe with roasted pork and quinces, which Panos learned from his grandfather (and he learned it from his own grandfather before). It’s a very old recipe and of course we’ll share it in the blog at some point.

imageFresh carrots are also amazing this time of year, and a very versatile ingredient. We used them in soups (especially fasolada bean soup), in coleslaw, made carrot cakes, and so on and so forth:)

Another delicious sweet fruit you can enjoy this time of year is the persimmon. If you haven’t tried them before, you’re missing out. They usually have a mild aroma and are very juicy and sweet. They’re packed with vitamins and full of antioxidants. You should’ve seen us devouring those like we were kids, all smiling and making a mess.

imageDo you remember the green oranges back in the summer? Check them out in the photo of this post! Ripe and sweet, this year’s oranges are perhaps the best in years. And for some strange reason the trees in Evia were very generous, we got much more than we can eat, turn into jams, preserves etc. So we started sharing them with friend, like an Orange Santa, passing by on a weekly basis.

Speaking of Santa, we’re so excited the Christmas season is here! Greek Christmas food is delicious and full of memories of older times. Just like anywhere in the world where people celebrate this season, the food this time is special, is shared with family and friends and it’s this loving setting that sears those memories in our minds and makes them so unique.

The main ingredient of the season is pork. Back in the day people didn’t consume much meat, but they raised a pig which was slaughtered around Christmas and then shared in a large table with family and friends. Some of the parts were also used in sausages, while others were put in salt or were smoked, in order to preserve some of the meat for the next weeks. By the way if you’ve never tried Greek sausages, called Horiatiko Loukaniko, you must try them at least once!

Another popular recipe this time of year is chicken avgolemono (egg-lemon) soup. It’s a creamy delicious soup, usually including rice, which is served with lots of fresh ground pepper and artisan old-school bread. Even as we type those lines and remembered all about it, we’re drooling over the keyboard 🙂

imageA big part of the Greek Christmas tradition is of course the sweet treats:melomakarona, kourabiedes and diples. Melomakarona and kourabiedes are the most popular ones, and if you’re in Greece around Christmas you’re bound to fall in love with them. You will find them in every household, any pastry shop, even in super markets and grocery stores. When you’re a guest, you know you’ll be treated a melomakarono (singular for melomakarona) or a kourabies (singular for kourabiedes). And even though you most certainly will have tasted many of them already, you will devour this treat with pleasure.

Melomakarona and kourabiedes are traditionally a made at home. When we were kids ourselves, singing carols, many neighbors were giving us kourabiedes or melomakarona as a holiday treat. Back at home of course, we also had our families’ versions.

They’re pronounced “koo-ra-bee-ye-thes”, and yes, it’s not that easy for a non-Greek speaking person to say the word! But, if you only say “kourab-yeh” to any Greek, he will know what you’re asking for, and give you the proper cookie. With a big smile on his/her face.

imageThose traditional, shortbread butter cookies include almonds, lots of powdered sugar, vanilla and usually rosewater or other flower water.
Edible rosewater (or flower water), adds an amazing scent to those cookies. But we know it may be difficult to find in some places (it’s available online though). If you do buy it, you will make traditional kourabiedes with exceptional aroma. If you’re thinking that it’s something you’ll buy once and then it’ll stay on your pantry gathering dust, that’s not the case.

There are many recipes which call for rosewater, plus you can try it in cookies, cakes and other desserts you already bake and create something different and delicious! Try substituting vanilla with flower water and you’ll get the idea:)
People who may not like the aroma of rosewater or flower water may also try adding bitter almond liqueur (Amaretto) which also makes for wonderful kourabiedes.

The main ingredient for kourabiedes is of course, butter. You want to use the best quality butter you can afford in this recipe. It will define the texture and taste of the cookies. The traditional way to make kourabiedes is with sheep’s or goat’s milk butter. The flavor is a bit intense for any non-Greek, plus it’s a bit hard to find abroad. That’s why we used regular cow’s butter in this recipe. Feel free to use any type of butter you prefer, or even mix of butters (like half sheep’s butter and half cow’s butter). If you can get the famous – in Greece -Corfu butter give it a try, it’s pure, excellent quality butter.

imageRegarding the shape of those cookies, some people may be confused due to the variety. There are 3 main shapes for kourabiedes: thick round cookies, crescents and balls. We think the easiest and nicest are the thick round cookies, as the shape helps in stacking up the cookies in layers, as they’re traditionally served.
As for the size of the cookies, they may be large ones (about 40gr/1.5oz of dough per cookie), or smaller bite-size ones. The ones sold in pastry shops are usually bite-sized, and the homemade ones are usually larger.

So go ahead and give them a try! You won’t regret baking those, your home will be filled with the aroma of butter and rosewater, and you’ll enjoy dusting them with lots and lots of icing sugar. They’re both pretty and delicious! So follow the recipe below and make some festive Greek cookies!

Ingredients:

– 500gr / 17.5oz / 1.1 lb (4 cups) all purpose flour
– 250gr / 9oz butter (2 sticks and 1/4), softened (room temperature, see preparation)
– 150gr / 5.5oz (1 1/4 cups) powdered sugar
– 150gr / 5.5oz (about 1 cup) almonds, unsalted and toasted
– 1 egg yolk (use a large egg)
– 1 teaspoon baking powder, and more for dusting the cookies
– 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or vanilla powder
– edible rosewater or other flower water

Preparation:
Remove the butter from the fridge at least a couple of hours before using it. This will allow it to soften. Chopping it to pieces also helps.

imageIf using raw almonds, place them in a single layer on a lined baking sheet/pan and bake them for 10-15 minutes at 180C/350F (preheated oven) (pic. 1). Grind the toasted almonds in small pieces, using a food processor. Do not grind them into powder.

imageMaking the cookies:

In a large bowl, beat the butter (pic.2) for 8-10 minutes, using a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer on medium-high speed (until soft and fluffy, pic.3).

imageAdd the powdered sugar (pic.4) and beat for 10 more minutes until you get a “whipped cream” -like result (pic. 5).

imageAdd baking powder, vanilla (pic. 6) and mix with a rubber spatula. Add the egg yolk (pic. 7) and mix until it’s incorporated.

imageAdd 1 tablespoon of rosewater or flower water and mix (pic. 8). Start adding the flour (pic. 9), a couple of tablespoons at a time. Mix with the spatula each time you add some.

imageWhen you’ve added half the flour, you’ll get a fluffy, almost rubbery dough (pic. 10).
At this point add the rest of the flour at once, wear single-use gloves and start mixing with your hands (pic. 11). Do not overmix. Once the flour is incorporated,stop.
Important: USE the gloves in the recipe. It will help insulating the warmth of your hands (to avoid melting the butter as you mix).

imageAdd the ground almonds (pic. 12) and fold them into the dough. Shape the cookies (pic. 13). If using 40gr/1.5oz of dough per cookie, you’ll make about 25 cookies.

imagePlace the cookies in a lined baking dish/pan (pic. 14) and bake for 15-18 minutes in the middle rack (use the oven fan in preheated oven). Remove from the oven,let them cool for 2-3 minutes, and then place them on a rack to dry out (pic. 15). Let them to cool completely.

imageSpray them with rosewater or flower water (pic. 16) and dust them with powdered sugar (pic. 17). Be generous with both.

Your yummy treats are ready, place them in cookie box or a cake stand with a lid, in layers.
Kala Christougenna and Kali Chronia!

Tips:
1. You can use sheep, goat or cow butter or mix them. In any case, choose high quality butter for this recipe.
2. You can shape the kourabiedes in thick round cookies (like we did here), crescents or balls.
3. Leave a little space between the cookies before you bake them, as they will expand during baking.
4. If you want to make more cookies, feel free to double the ingredients above. The result is exactly the same.
5. If you don’t like rosewater or flower water (or can’t find any), add some vanilla powder in the icing sugar when you dust the cookies at the end of the recipe.
6. Always wear single-use gloves when you mix the dough and shape the cookies, to insulate the heat from your hands.

 

Try making these for Christmas or the New Year!

You can visit the Little Cooking Tips site by clicking on the name.