Until I visited Greece a couple of years ago, I had very little experience of Greek food. In fact, I had never even been to a Greek restaurant! Our visit to Athens a couple years ago was a revelation. My fondness for westernized versions of moussaka and souvlaki had in no way prepared me for the incredible flavours on offer.
Despite being an economically challenged capital, abundance is everywhere in Athens, from the serving sizes and hospitality to the huge number of fruit and olive trees growing even on busy city streets. The air is heavy with the scent of orange, lemon and lime. As we were staying in a hotel, I didn’t do any cooking while I was in Athens, but what I ate stayed with me and has influenced my cooking ever since.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs figure heavily in Greek cuisine. Fresh and dried herbs are often used in the same dish in tandem to create layers of flavour. Authentic moussaka was lightly spiced with cinnamon and lamb and chicken souvlaki were flavoured with rosemary, thyme and oregano. Even French fries came sprinkled with delicious herb combinations. Omelettes were flavoured with oregano and veal chops served on beds of fresh rosemary, giving the meat a heady yet earthy flavour. Roast vegetables were drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped fresh herbs.
Kitchen Tips – 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. One proviso, 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 in The Hilton Hotel, the restaurant in the photograph above, we were encouraged to get up from our table to ‘be introduced’ to our fish, selecting it from a vast array of whole fish laying on ice. Preparation methods were simple and the fish was often served without any other accompaniment.
Kitchen Tips - Cook fish very simply. Try cooking it wrapped in foil parcels with a bit of butter and lemon, just until it flakes with a fork – or roast it on a baking sheet. Roast fish with an herb flavoured breadcrumb crust or simply brushed with pesto is delicious. Consider light citrus sauces with white fish but think beyond lemon to orange and even lime.
More Than Bread and Butter
Always there was bread, with absolutely every meal, accompanied by hummus, whipped cheeses, taramasalta (a spread or dip made with fish roe) and herb butters. My favourite herb butter was rolled in pink peppercorns, giving it a delicious hit of both heat and taste. Another was flavoured with beetroot, giving it a gorgeous pink colour and an earthy tang.
Kitchen Tips - Think of butter as a base for other flavours as well as serving it gorgeously plain. Any combination of herbs you enjoy can be mixed in with softened butter. Using cling film or plastic wrap, shape the softened herbed butter into sausage shapes and store in the fridge or freezer until you need them. Roll fridge cold herbed butter sausages in flavoured salt, ground pepper or even more herbs, pressing them in as you go. Rewrap and refrigerate or freeze. Herb butters look gorgeous served in a pretty butter dish. Think beyond bread – a slice of frozen garlicky herb butter is delicious served atop your favourite steak.
Somewhat surprisingly, pasta and risotto figure highly in Greek restaurant menus. Greek chefs have found ways of making these Italian specialties their own with unique combinations of 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. They were all divine.
Kitchen Tips - 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 plants, olive trees and even 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. It tasted incredible and oh so fresh, nothing like the packaged 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 here.
Kitchen Tips – While there’s a place in every cupboard for a plastic bear shaped bottle, try exploring the flavours of different honeys. Greek honey is wonderful, but I also enjoy honey from all over the world. 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 proper baklava, keep your eye open for this wonderful treat, but please don’t buy it shrink wrapped. Artisanal bakers often stock baklava or try making it yourself. Use a combination of mixed nuts, not just any chopped nuts – walnuts, pecans and pistachios all work well.
Dried fruit and cheese make a lovely dessert, especially served with a delicious red wine or glass of Port.
Whether you have travelled to Greece or not, allowing the influence of this intriguing culture and cuisine into your kitchen can open you and your family to some fabulous new taste experiences. Here are some of the recipes I have made influenced by our visit to Athens.
What are your favourite Greek or Greek influenced recipes?