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In the introduction to his book The Man Who Ate Everything Jeffrey Steingarten tells how upon his appointment to Food Writer at Vogue magazine he set out to conquer his list of food phobias. How could he be an objective critic, he reasoned, if the mere thought of eating anchovies or dill sent him into spasms of revulsion. High on Steingarten’s list of reviled foods was Greek cuisine, something I found hard to believe. How could one think this uncomplicated yet delicious cuisine distasteful? Plates piled high with tender calamari, savoury little pitas and pies, moussaka, chunks of roasted lamb or chicken on skewers … what’s not to like, I ask you? Jeffrey worked hard at neutralizing his palate but I suspect that not very many Greek restaurants are high on his list of preferred dining locations. I think he might think differently were Aglaia Kremezi to cook for him.
Aglaia is an international authority on Greek food and often contributes to Gourmet magazine and the LA Times. She won a Julia Child award for her book The Foods of Greece. Recently I came across her wonderful book The Foods of the Greek Islands, a collection of authentic recipes from Corfu to Cyprus and all the islands in between. I spent about a week cooking from this book. Even the simplest dishes, like lentils and rice, were tastier than I imagined, and I was surprised by the diversity of the offerings in Greek cuisine, most of which you won’t find on the menu of your local taverna. From the chicken with tomatoes and feta, to the veal stew with quinces, to the onions stuffed with ground meat and pine nuts, everything I have made from this book has been delicious.
As much as I love Italian and French food, I have grown weary of cooking it. My taste buds have been crying out for the zing of something completely different, and Aglaia’s recipes fit the bill. They are relatively simple and rustic yet highly flavorful. You won’t have a problem finding most of the ingredients at your local supermarket these days. My favorite chapter is on pitas and pies. Pitas are closed pies–meat, homemade cheeses, zucchini, eggplant, greens and other vegetables wrapped with thin layers of pastry. Spanakopitas are the most well-known type of pita in North America, of course, but the truth is that there is a multitude of these little pies popular across Greece.
I am including Aglaia’s recipe for phyllo here because it’s the best one I have found. Earlier, I put up my recipe for Balkan Style Cheese Pie, which proved to be a popular post. You might want to try making it with homemade phyllo dough. Making your own phyllo is something I think every home cook should try at least once.
The other two recipes shown here are for a couple of simple recipes I like to make at home when the mood for Greek taverna style food strikes–Calamari and Saganaki. I adore calamari and I mean, who can resist fried cheese?
Aglaia Kremezi’s Cretan Phyllo Pastry Dough
Adapted from The Foods of the Greek Islands
Makes 1 pie or 50 small turnovers
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 cup vodka
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
about 2/3 cup water
1) Pulse flour and salt in food processor until mixed. With the motor running, add the vodka. lemon juice, and oil. Add just enough water to make the dough soft. Let it rest in the processor for 15 minutes.
2) Process the dough until it is slightly elastic, about 1-2 minutes. Let it rest for another 30 minutes.
3) On a lightly floured board, knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. Add a little flour if it becomes sticky. Divide the dough into 4 pieces and cover 3 of them with plastic wrap so they won’t dry out.
4) Roll out the dough with a rolling pin as thinly as possible, dusting with a little bit of flour to prevent sticking. The thinner the better. If you have a pasta machine, you could alternately roll out strips of phyllo that way.
5) Repeat with remaining dough. Use immediately, proceeding with instructions for individual recipes.
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer
1 pound (500g) frozen calamari rings, thawed and drained
1 cup (250ml) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon pepper
parsley and chopped red onion, to garnish
1) Rinse calamari rings under cold running water and drain. Heat vegetable oil in a frying pan to about 375F. You do not have to use a lot of oil; just enough to submerge the calamari halfway.
2) In a large bowl toss flour, salt, paprika, and pepper until well-combined.
3) Toss calamari rings in the flour mixture and shake off the excess. Fry on each side for about 2-3 minutes, or until tender. Check for tenderness as you are frying, as calamri can quickly become rubbery.
4) Remove from pan and drain on a plate covered with paper towel. Sprinkle with chopped red onion, parsley or garlic chives, and serve hot with lemon wedges.
Saganaki isn’t actually a type of cheese but the name of the cast iron frying pan it is usually made in. The best cheeses to get for making taverna-style saganaki are hard yellow Greek cheeses like kasseri or kefolotiri.
To make this popular meze, cut strips of cheese about 1/3 of an inch thick. Dip in a bowl of warm water and then press each side of the cheese onto a plate sprinkled thickly with all-purpose flour. The warm water will help the flour stick and not slide off while you are frying the cheese. Dip in warm water again and fry the cheese in olive oil or a knob of butter until golden. Serve immediately with a good dousing of freshly squeezed lemon juice.