What is the essence of Greek food?
Diane Kochilas: Simplicity, seasonality, robust flavors, herbs and great raw ingredients.
Most of the Greek families here are from Katerini. What is Katerini like?
DK: Katerini is a small city on the northeastern coast of Greece. It is known for its great seafood and ouzo culture. Small plates, excellent wines, too. One of my favorite Greek vineyards is located nearby in Velvendos, the Voyatzis Estate. Katerini is close to Thessaloniki and the food culture is similar.
What are the food and people like?
DK: The food is a little spicier up north than it is elsewhere in Greece. Seafood and fish are important ingredients and the sea is nearby. The mussels are amazing! People are warm, hospitable, friendly and the food culture is convivial. Greeks are generally warm and hospitable no matter what part of the country they are from.
One of your cookbooks Meze: Small Plates to Savor and Share from the Mediterranean Table, talks about this dining experience.
DK: Meze are the small plates meant to be shared with friends and savored with wine or ouzo or tsipouro (Greek grappa). They are robust and varied and they are supposed to be. When you set out a meze selection, variety is important. Textures, colors, cooking methods, spice and heat levels, temperature…all of these should vary in a selection plates, so that you have salty, spicy, room temp, hot, cold, spreads, crunchy etc, in the array of dishes set forth. Generally seafood is served with ouzo/tsipouro and meat meze with wines.
One of the first Greek dishes I ever had was taramosalata made with tarama.
DK: Tarama, the tiny beads of fish roe from cod or carp, is so nutrient dense that it could easily be labeled a superfood. The roe provides a boost of cancer-fighting vitamin D and brain-supporting omega-3 fatty acids. The high content of vitamins A and K2 work synergistically to prevent toxicity and over-calcification of the bones, heart, and kidneys. When combined with bread or potatoes to make taramosalata, a Lenten classic and one of the major Greek meze dips, the dish becomes a great source of protein, complex carbohydrates, monounsaturated fat (the good fat from olive oil), vitamin E, vitamin B12, potassium, selenium, phosphorus, and copper. The fact that taramosalata is a seminal part of the traditional fasting menu and on the Greek table daily during these periods, is not accidental at all.
Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Sweat the onions, chile pepper and garlic, but do not brown. Add the shrimp and cook for 1 minute to color lightly. Add the tomatoes and feta and stir gently. Add the lemon zest and ouzo. Simmer until you’ve cooked off the alcohol, 5 to 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with pepper and a little chopped cilantro and serve.
Heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat and cook the leeks, stirring occasionally, until lightly caramelized, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for a minute, to soften. Coarsely chop or halve the drained artichoke hearts. Cook the pasta in ample salted water until al dente. Drain and place back in the pot. Toss with remaining 4 tbsp. of olive oil, the leek-garlic mixture, the artichokes, olives, herbs, cayenne and black pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Peel, wash and cube the potatoes. Bring to a boil in unsalted water and simmer until cooked. Remove the potatoes from the water with a slotted spoon and transfer immediately to the bowl of a food processor. Reserve the hot boiling liquid. Add the tarama and lemon juice. Pulse on and off continuously until the mixture is pureed. Then, add ½ a cup of the hot boiling liquid and pulse a few more times. Then, pulsing all the while, add the olive oil, slowly drizzling it into the mixture, for about 4 minutes total. If the mixture is loose, add a few more drops of the hot boiling water, and pulse on and off again. Note: If the taramosalata is too sour because of the lemon juice, add more olive oil.
In a medium sauce pan, simmer the tomatoes, garlic, salt, sugar and olive oil together until thickened and reduced by about 1 cup. Remove from heat and set aside. Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Oil 3 baking sheets and one glass baking dish large enough to hold the eggplant rolls (about 13 X 9 X 2 inches). Place flour in a wide shallow bowl, eggs in second bowl, and breadcrumbs mixed with 1 cup kefalotyri cheese in another. Season each eggplant slice with salt and pepper. Press each slice, one at a time, into the flour, then dip into the beaten egg, and finally into the breadcrumb-cheese mixture. Arrange eggplant slices in single layer on prepared sheets. Bake eggplant in batches until coating is golden, turning after 15 minutes, about 30 minutes total. Cool on sheets. Mix the kasseri, anthotyro, herbs, and 1 cup of kefalotyri in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Spread about 2 tablespoons of the cheese filling over the surface of each eggplant slice. Starting at the narrow end, roll up eggplant slices. Arrange rolls, seam side down, in prepared baking dish. Spoon the sauce over the rolls and sprinkle with remaining kefalotyri. Bake uncovered until the eggplant dolmades are heated through and the kasseri melts, about 30 minutes.