Until I visited Greece a couple of years ago, I had very little experience of Greek food. Our visit to Athens was a revelation. My fondness for westernized versions of moussaka and souvlaki had in no way prepared me for the incredible flavor of modern Greece.
The food I experienced forever changed how I cook, encouraging me to think differently the ingredients in my recipes, be more creative with herbs and incorporate meze into my appetizer repertoire. Here are some of the easy, creative things I learned.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices feature heavily in the flavor of modern Greece. Fresh and dried herbs are often used in the same dish to create layers of flavor. Moussaka was lightly spiced with cinnamon and souvlaki flavoured with rosemary, thyme and oregano. Veal chops were served on beds of fresh rosemary stems, giving the meat a heady yet earthy flavour. Omelettes and oregano were natural partners, roast vegetables were drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped fresh herbs and even French fries came sprinkled with delicious herb combinations.
Use both fresh and dried herbs together in recipes. Try both dried and fresh tarragon in sauces for chicken and salmon, using small amounts of both so as not to overpower the dish.
Dried and fresh basil used together in pasta sauces creates a fabulous fresh flavour. Or try fresh basil with dried oregano.
Use chives, parsley and milder herbs abundantly, in as many savory dishes as possible. Go slowly and taste as you go. While you can always add more, you can’t take flavour away.
Proximity to the sea means that fish is abundant and incredibly fresh in Greece. At Milos Restaurant in The Hilton Hotel, Athens, we were invited to select our fish from a vast array of whole fish laying on ice. Preparation methods were simple and fish is often served without any other accompaniment.
Cook fish very simply. Cook it wrapped in foil parcels with a bit of butter, lemon, and chives or parsley just until it flakes with a fork – or roast it on a baking sheet.
Try an herb flavoured breadcrumb crust or simply brush the fish with pesto before cooking.
Consider light citrus sauces with white fish but think beyond lemon to orange and even lime.
Meze, a selection of appetizers designed for sharing, is usually served before a meal. Hummus, whipped cheeses, taramasalata (a spread or dip made with fish roe) and herb butters are accompanied by lots of fresh, warm bread. Sharing plates of dolmades (rice stuffed vine leaves), bowls of sautéed aubergines (eggplant) spiked with garlic, tiny appetizer size pieces of spanakopita (Greek spinach and filo pie) and many other delicious dishes figure as part of this convivial beginning to a meal.
Consider serving lots of small appetizers ‘country style’ in the middle of the table before a meal to encourage conversation and add some of the flavor of modern Greece.
Hummus is easy to make at home or you can buy it ready-made.
Try my Red Pepper Crostini Topping served either on crostini or as a warm or cold salad.
Somewhat surprisingly, pasta and risotto figure highly in the flavor of modern Greece. Greek chefs have found ways of making these Italian specialties their own with spices and ingredients you might not expect to find in pasta. I had an amazing Spaghetti Napolitano spiced with the faintest hint of cinnamon, pasta served with dried fruits and nuts in a creamy sauce and a risotto made with parma ham, melon and red pepper cream at The Acropolis View Restaurant (above).
Don’t limit yourself to Italian style ingredients when it comes to making pasta dishes and risotto.
Consider using fruit as well as vegetables in your pasta dishes. Grapes and melon are gorgeous in pasta salad.
The Sweet Side
Honey, fragrant with the pollen of thyme, olive and pine trees, is used in both sweet and savoury cooking in Greece. At Orizontes Cafe at the top of Lycabettus Hill, we were served baklava in pie sized pieces with vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel sauce (above left). It tasted so fresh and delicious, nothing like the shrink-wrapped baklava you often see in stores. Loukoumades, delicious yeast based sweet dumplings fried in oil, are not to be missed, but we also enjoyed more western treats like macarons and brownies. Greek Spoon Sweets, sweet chunks of orange complete with rind, plump raisins and ripe plums, are often served after a meal. They are called Spoon Sweets as they are served in tiny, tooth achingly divine spoonfuls. Dried fruit is also popular as a dessert.
Move past the bear shaped bottle to honeys from around the world. Earthy Greek honey, heather-scented Shropshire honey, Canadian clover honey, Orange Blossom honey and local Berkshire honey are all in my cupboard as I write this.
If you’ve never tasted fresh baklava, keep your eye open for this wonderful treat. Artisanal bakers often stock it or try making baklava at home .
Dried fruit and cheese make a lovely dessert, especially served with a delicious red wine or glass of Port.
Just one visit to Greece awakened my taste buds in a wonderful way and changed how I cook forever. I can’t wait to return to this amazing country to discover more about its history, culture and of course, the flavor of modern Greece.