Getting in the spirit of Olympic winners

Serving suggestions for your own bash

Athens Olympics

August 11, 2004|By Natasha Lesser | Natasha Lesser,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If you aren't going to make it to Athens for the Olympics, try the next best thing: Invite over some friends and cook up some authentic Greek food as you watch Michael Phelps or fellow Baltimorean hoopster Carmelo Anthony go for gold.

We asked several experts in the cuisine to give us some suggestions on the best way to throw an authentic Greek bash. Here's what they suggested.

To start with, grill like the Greeks.

For Stelios and Pauline Spiliadis, real Greek food goes way back. As owners of the Black Olive, the Fells Point restaurant that offers some of Baltimore's most sophisticated Greek fare, they create food that reflects this history.

"Greek cuisine has its direct roots in ancient Greece," said Stelios Spiliadis. For many Americans, Greek food means gyros and spinach pies. But in Greece, the cuisine relies heavily on a simple yet sophisticated approach using fresh Mediterranean basics that have been used for centuries: thyme and oregano, lemon and vine-ripened tomatoes; the best fish, meat and cheese; and high-quality extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil.

Greece has thousands of miles of coastline, so it's not surprising that seafood plays a large role in the country's cooking. For your festivities at home, the Spiliadises suggest grilling whole fish. The ancient Greeks would probably have grilled barbouni, a fish from the Mediterranean similar to red mullet. But it's nearly impossible to find here (the Spiliadises fly it in from Portugal or Greece). Good substitutes are rockfish, red snapper or black sea bass. Before grilling, marinate the fish in a simple mixture of olive oil, lemon, fresh thyme, oregano, sea salt and black pepper.

Also on the menu: chicken souvlaki and tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt dip) served with pita warmed on the grill or in the oven.

If, on the other hand, preparing a whole meal from scratch feels like too much of an Olympian task, head to Prima Foods in Highlandtown, the heart of Baltimore's Greek community. Prima is a wholesaler of Greek food, but also has a small grocery that's open to the public.

Here you can find a large assortment of tasty, reasonably priced, pre-made Greek foods. Portions are big, so you'll have to invite a lot of people - or you could enjoy the leftovers yourself. After all, the Olympics do last for two full weeks. Start with dolmas - stuffed grape leaves - which come in a large, 4 1/2 -pound can. Appetizing spanakopita - triangles of spinach and feta cheese in phyllo dough - comes in trays of 48. Just heat in the oven at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes (or until golden-brown) and you're ready to go. Prima's hummus, baba ghannouj (savory eggplant spread), Greek cheeses, olives and pita bread also make good, easy appetizers.

For the next course, serve chicken, beef or pork souvlaki. These come pre-seasoned and already on skewers; all you have to do is defrost and grill. You also could offer moussaka (baked eggplant with ground meat and bechamel sauce) or pastitsio (baked pasta casserole with ground beef). The 6-pound trays at Prima serve about 10 to 12.

Prepare a quick Greek salad of spring greens (make it easy, use a bag from the supermarket), cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers and red onion. And top with olives, feta cheese, and oil and vinegar. For dessert serve baklava, the flaky Mediterranean pastries that melt in your mouth. Or try Greek yogurt - it's more like a sweet sour cream than the typical American variety - topped with sour cherry preserves or honey, a traditional ending to a Greek meal.

If this feast doesn't satisfy your Greek desires, you can go much further. Let one of these great Greek cookbooks guide you.

Diane Kochilas' The Food and Wine of Greece (St. Martin's Press, 1993) provides excellent classic and modern recipes as well as background on the essentials of Greek cooking - such as olive oil. In the ancient Olympics, athletes were rewarded in gallons of olive oil. So for your festivities, Kochilas recommends having plenty of it with great bread on hand. Her cookbook has many great suggestions for meze (appetizers) and dips, grilled fish and meat, and bean stews, which can be made in advance.

Aglaia Kremezi's The Foods of Greece (Stewart, Tabori & Chang Inc., 1999) includes lots of beautiful photographs, history about the cuisine and a selection of classic recipes. The Periyali Cookbook: New Classic Greek Cooking (Villard Books, 1992) by Holly Garrison with Nicola Kotsoni and Steve Tzolis offers flavorful recipes that are easy to follow.

Let Michael Phelps do the swimming; we'll do the eating and drinking.

Stelios Spiliadis' Grilled Chicken Souvlaki

Makes 4 servings

4 boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1 1/2 -inch cubes

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/4 cup extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil

1/4 cup lemon

fresh thyme and oregano

3 to 4 medium-size tomatoes, chopped

1 large red onion, chopped

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