Greek food – in search of ambrosia
If you’ve come to Greece for a little taste of the foods of the Greek gods, some ambrosia or nectar, we’re sorry to say but they’re out. However, the legacy of their feast will delight your taste buds. Greek cuisine is well-known for its eponymous salad and yoghurt, tzatziki, feta cheese, Kalamata olives, moussaka, and olive oil – but there is so much more. It shares many elements with Mediterranean countries. For example, the mezedes, the small appetisers, are similar in style to the Spanish tapas and can give you a quick taste of Greek cuisine: just mix and match.
The good thing about Greek food is that some of the dishes are so easy to make. Take Greek salad for example, which is so refreshing on a hot summer day, wherever you are in the world, not just Greece. Just slice some tomatoes, a cucumber, a red onion, add some olives of your choice (maybe Kalamata), a bit of feta cheese and drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on top. You could even add some croutons. Yum!
Or take saganaki, which in Greek cuisine refers to any dish cooked in a small frying pan, be it cheese, shrimp or mussels. Grab some local cheese like kefalotyri, graviera, kefalograviera or kasseri, cut it in thicker slices of at least 2cm so it doesn’t melt away in the pan, rinse it with a bit of water, dip it in some flour and throw it straight in the pan until it gets a golden crust. It makes a mouth-watering appetizer that you can have with a side of fresh tomatoes. Why not replace those tacky souvenirs of Greek god statues with some local cheeses for those friends at home who like to experiment different cuisines and play the amateur chef every now and then, but don’t get to travel as much as you? You won’t find these cheeses just anywhere in the world.
But let’s not stick to easy. Here are a few of my favourite Greek dishes.
Zucchini balls with tzatziki
Ingredients: 2 kg zucchini, 3-4 eggs, a small bunch of fresh dill, parsley, mint, self-rising flour, 2 onions, 1 tsp of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
For tzatziki: 3000g of Greek yoghurt, 3 garlic clove (crushed), 1 cucumber, 1 tsp lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.
Grate the zucchini and add some salt. Let it sit for a few minutes to absorb the salt and then drain the mix as much as you can to get rid of the extra water. Put the mix in a bowl and add the dill, parsley, mint, and onions finely chopped. Stir very well until you have a quite thick mix: the eggs and flour will do the trick. Add some flour as needed. Turn on the stove. Make small round balls of the mixture, cover them with flour and fry them in an unsticky pan in olive oil for 4 minutes each side. The mix can be quite watery, so make sure you drain it as much as possible. It helps to have dry hands when you roll the balls, so you might want to do it in two rounds. It might seem impossible to make the mix stay together, but the more flour, the better.
For tzatziki, make sure you avoid the extra liquid, so try to peel and de-seed the cucumber, then finely slice it or grate it and leave it in a towel to absorb the extra liquid. Mix the ingredients for tzatziki and leave the magic sauce in the fridge for a couple of hours for the flavours to blend in.
Read our mini guide to Athens here: Top things to do and explore in Athens
Pastitsio (or Greek Baked Lasagna)
Pastitsio is the perfect alternative to the famous moussaka if you don’t like aubergines – and easier to make. Just picture layers of pasta and beef sauce all topped with melted cheese and béchamel.
For the meat filling
700g minced beef
2 cloves of garlic (chopped)
2 red onions (medium, finely chopped)
400g canned chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
a glass of red wine
1 tsp sugar
a bay leaf
1 whole clove
1 cinnamon stick
55g of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Start with the meat sauce. Sauté some chopped onions in a bit of olive oil. Add some garlic, tomato puree and the minced beef and sauté some more. Cook the mix in red wine until some of the wine evaporates. Add the tinned tomatoes, cinnamon, the sugar, clove and the bay leaf. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Then take out the cinnamon stick, the bay leaf and the clove.
For the béchamel
2 egg yolks
100g Kefalotyri, Kasseri (both cheese variants are made of sheep milk with some goat’s milk and are very popular in Greece and Cyprus if you want to go local) or Parmigiano-Reggiano (if you can’t find the other two)
a pinch of nutmeg
Next, make the béchamel sauce. Melt the butter, gradually add in the flour and the warm milk and keep whisking to make a paste without any lumps. Wait for the paste to thicken before you remove the pan from the stove. Add the egg yolks, a pinch of nutmeg, salt, pepper, and the grated cheese.
For the pasta
350g bucatini (or penne or ziti)
120g feta cheese
Cook the pasta a couple of minutes less than indicated because this baby is going straight in the oven where things are going to get a little hot. You don’t want your pasta to get all soft from overcooking. Drain the pasta and add in the eggs and the crumbly feta cheese.
And now the masterpiece. Use a large baking dish of about 20X30cm and cover it in butter, both the bottom and the sides. Make one layer of pasta and add on top the meat sauce and spread it evenly. Add another layer of pasta and top it up with béchamel sauce and some more of that delicious grated cheese. 40 more minutes of baking in a preheated oven at 200C, until the crust turns golden brown and we’re all done! I know you won’t have the patience to wait, but try: let the pastitsio cool down for a while before serving. You can add a small side salad of your choice.
Καλή όρεξη! (Kalí óreksi!)