Getting in spirit of Olympics with fine-tasting Greek fare

August 04, 2004|By Rob Kasper

IF YOU ARE going to Greece for the Summer Olympics, Aug. 13-29, be sure to try the yogurt and the gyro sandwich. They taste much better than the versions we get here.

If the closest you are getting to the action in Athens is sitting in front of the television set at home, then you can whip up some Greek dishes to eat while you're watching. One is shrimp cooked in wine and oregano, then plunged in a salty lemon dip.

That is some of the advice that Susanna Hoffman, an anthropologist and author of a new book on Greek food, The Olive and the Caper (Workman, $29.95), told me recently.

In northern Greece and in Crete, the yogurt is often homemade, wondrously thick, savory-sour, she said. Often yogurt is combined with eggplant to produce a tangy spread.

The sandwich that Americans know as the gyro - thin slices of barbecued meat seasoned with herbs and spices, served with tomatoes and onions on pita bread and topped with a yogurt, cucumber and garlic sauce - also tastes better in Greece, she said.

The meat in the Greek version of the sandwich is "much zestier," she said. The usual meat is a mixture of pork and lamb cooked on a rotisserie. Often, she said, in Greece a proprietor has a prized custom blend of meats he uses on his gyro.

Hoffman is an anthropologist who went to Greece in the late 1970s to test a theory by Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the big brains in the anthro field. She explained the theory to me, something about how people who live in isolation structure reality.

She proved her theory and fell in love with Greece, traveling around it, living on the island of Santorini for two years, spending time in Athens and Crete and on eight of the Grecian islands. She now resides in Telluride, Colo., but regularly returns to Greece for visits.

In a recent, wide-ranging telephone interview, Hoffman listed some foods that visitors to Greece should sample, ticked off Greek dishes that Americans could make as we gather to watch the televised games and talked about the importance of adjusting to the pace of Greek life.

In addition to yogurt and gyros, visitors should take some time to stop and eat the zucchini fritters, Hoffman said. Zucchini will be in season during the games, and the fritters, shredded zucchini dipped in batter and fried quickly in hot oil, are spectacular.

"So much of the food of Greece comes right off the land - the herbs such as oregano, dill, rue; the greens, such as dandelions and chard," she said

Accordingly, she said, the best way to order a meal in a restaurant in Greece is not to look at a menu. Rather, she said, you should to walk into "the kitchen and see what they have and what they are cooking."

She also advised that if you see a stew bubbling on the stove, go for it. Even though the stew may not look appetizing to American eyes, the flavors are magnificent, she said. One of her favorite lamb stews is one that calls for 100 cloves of garlic, she said.

For those following the Olympic Games by watching television, Hoffman had some suggested menu items for an Olympic-watching dinner party.

Start with a salad made with bread, tomatoes, olives, barley and wheat. For the entree, have a mixture of chicken and yogurt stuffed in grape leaves, a leek phyllo pie as the vegetable and figs for dessert. She also mentioned a number of small dishes called "meze" if singular and "mezedes" for the plural. These are morsels traditionally served with a glass or wine or a drink. One of them in her book is called marinated shrimp Cretan- style. The shrimp is quickly cooked in wine, oregano and garlic, then dipped in a salty lemon sauce.

I made this dish twice. The salty lemon dip gave the shrimp a real boost. But rather than treating it as a meze for six, with small portions, I made it an entree for two.

A key to enjoying foods as the Greeks do, she said, is to adjust to the pace of their daily life.

"Try to accomplish more than three things in a day and the gods will kick you," Hoffman said. Rather than being a multi-tasker who talks on the phone while cooking, you undertake one task but do it well. That's the Greek idea.

For example, she said, when you make saganaki, you brown cubes of cheese in hot oil, giving it your total concentration, carefully turning each cube of cheese so that it has a crisp crust and a soft center.

Another component of Greek life is living in harmony with the sun, she said. This means rising early in the morning when it is cool, eating olives, cheese and tomatoes for breakfast, having a large meal at midday, then staying out of the sun from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. "It is very quiet in the afternoon," Hoffman said.

In the evening, activity picks up. In some locales, the night life is quite lively, almost the stuff of legends. When I asked Hoffman if she had danced on tables in restaurants, she replied, "Oh, gosh, yes. I have been in bars where the men picked up tables with their teeth."

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