Today's cooks turn out tasty morsels in traditions made familiar over time From the delicate sheets of phyllo dough,to the recurring flavors of lemon and cinnamon, Greek food is a celebration of time-honored tradition


October 30, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Like the culture, the cuisine of Greece has timeless appeal.

That's "timeless" in two senses: For the modern cook with little time to spare it means there are no last-minute flourishes -- often things are made days ahead.

Greek cooks have mastered the making of alluring dishes that are good lukewarm or even at room temperature. It's an ideal cuisine for buffets, for many items are finger-food size.

In addition, the unchanging nature of such food has worked to preserve historic delicacies and ancient traditions.

It's traditional, for instance, for a ceremony to accompany some food preparation. The hearty tradition of preparing kasseri (a sort of Greek Cheddar) oven-style is a famous example, says Ted Stavrakis, one of the supervising cooks for this weekend's 20th annual "Athenian Agora" festival at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in downtown Baltimore.

"The cheese is bedded down in the oven with olive oil. After it browns, you flambee it with metaxa brandy. As it burns, everybody gives a traditional Greek cheer and then you douse the brandy flames with lots of lemon juice," Mr. Stavrakis says. "It's very traditional," and a great party feature, he adds.

Baked Greek goods are unchanging. While homemade puff-paste and patty shells died out as an American domestic accomplishment for a generation or two early in this century, Greek cuisine all along fostered its first cousin -- delicate phyllo pastry sheets for use in a wide variety of elegant ways and now widely available in food stores.

These and other Greek standards mean that the folk tradition has existed for centuries. Food fads over the years have had little effect. So you want something like lasagna? Well, here comes that traditional pastitsio from your Greek kitchen, a dish which is milder than the Italian casserole and less caloric.

Annabelle Setren, another of the cooks for the weekend event renown as a master of this versatile baked pasta, says it can become "fin-ger food for buffets" sliced in bite-sized pieces and firmly toothpicked.

There are certain other traditional flavors that pervade Greek cookery, as well.

The lemon, for instance. Mrs. Setren uses lemon in seasoning meats, sprinkling the juice on lamb and chicken pieces. In this line, she says, grated lemon peel is also frequently used to spark Greek pastries. (For details about the event, see box, at right) The tart lemon refrain, in fact, is played over and over again in the delicate honey-nut sauce that tops many Greek desserts, though perhaps its most high-profile appearance comes in avgolemono, the soup (or sauce) without which no Attic restaurant worth its salt would open its doors.

Mr. Satvrakis says that basically Greek cooks "use lemon in everything." Even though Greek cooking "can vary from one part of the country to the other," he says, the citrus note keeps coming through.

Cinnamon too runs like a fragrant thread through much of such food preparation, especially meat dishes and baked goods. Meats are also used creatively, as seasonings in their own right, in casseroles and poultry stuffings.

The unusual Greek practice of blending meats and poultry in the same dish could be an echo from the classic age 2,000 years ago and more, when banquet cooking called for such exotica as stuffing large game or domestic animals with small birds inside rabbits that were inside lambs, etc.

Rice and meat stuffings are everywhere in the Greek cooking canon and a unique flavor is achieved from wrapping such fillings in pickled grape leaves. Unlike other national cuisines, the Greek kitchen does not shun mint and uses it abundantly to wake up meat balls and vegetable dishes. Baked fish, routinely, demands an oven escort of tomatoes, onions and peppers.

In the past generation, Greek desserts have become generally popular, with honey-sweet baklava now a nationally known treat, often offered on gourmet carts. Also well-known today (even if unknown outside of big cities before World War II) is that man-sized mainstay of the main course -- the moussaka. Worthy Greek cooks are masters of eggplant, a main ingredient of most moussaka.

Spinach pie (spanakopetes) can be made in any dimension from single-serving to crowd-size, making it a popular newcomer on American buffet menus.

And then -- as you might expect from the culture that spawned Pythagoras -- geometry also plays a role in Greek cuisine. Many hors d'oeuvres, especially those with phyllo pastry and some baked snacks, are geometric in shape -- triangles, squares and rectangles.

Of all Greek baked goods, one of the most unusual is the round powdered-sugar cookie served during the Christmas season, family festivals and weddings. It's called kourambiethes and is so densely coated with sugar it puts the vocal cords out of commission for a minute or so. For this reason, I was once told by a Greek bride, "It's informally known as the mother-in-law's cookie. She has to shut up for a while after eating one."

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