1.17.2021 Dinner in Athens
Rusks, at their most basic, are twice baked breads that last much longer than their fresh, once baked counterparts. They’re common in cuisines all over the world and come in many forms, sweet to savory. Prized for their long shelf life, they make an excellent snack or meal in their own right. While Paximadia, the Greek word for rusk, are eaten throughout Greece, this recipe made from whole wheat and barley flours, is of Cretan origin. A mainstay of ancient Greek seafarers and shepherds alike, these barley rusks make an excellent vessel for tomato salad, fava, or even just a healthy pour of olive oil, as they are at their most delicious with a little moisture to soften them. Contains gluten; vegan.
Unlike the hotly debated birthplace of it’s better-known chickpea based cousin, hummus, fava is of decidedly Greek origins. Not to be confused with fava beans, this delectable dip is made from yellow split peas, gently simmered with onions and garlic before being pureed and topped with fresh olive oil and smoked paprika. While fava is popular throughout Greece, and can be found at nearly every taverna, the best is rumored to be on the Island of Santorini, where split peas have been cultivated for thousands of years. Vegan, gluten free.
Roasted Tomato Salad with Kalamata Olives & Feta
As ancient as it’s people, olives have become synonymous with the Mediterannean and a symbol of Greece itself. According to ancient Greek mythology, when the young city of Athens needed an Olympian patron both Athena and Poseidon desired the title. A contest was held with each God presenting a gift to the people of Athens. Poseidon went first, striking his trident against the stones of the Acropolis bringing forth a bubbling salt water spring. Athena followed, thrusting her spear into the soil and planting a seed that grew into the first olive tree. Having little use for a salt water spring, but deeming the olive tree and it’s fruits to be invaluable, the people of the city chose Athena as their patron and changed the city's name in her honor. To this day, a sacred olive tree still grows in the Acropolis of Athens.
While the origins of Feta cheese aren’t quite as divine as those of the olive, it is no less integral to the diet of the Greeks. The cheese dates back centuries, with the first formal documentation of brining sheep cheese found in the 2nd century BCE work of Cato the Elder, De agri cultura. Together, olives and feta are pillars of Greek gastronomy. Paired with tomatoes roasted with garlic, tossed with olive oil and oregano, they make for an incredibly simple yet delicious salad or topping for Paximadi Kritiko. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
Keftedes, kofte, kofta; spiced mince meat goes by many names in Mediterannean and Middle Eastern cuisines, and there are even more ways to serve it, be it rolled, flattened, skewered, baked, fried or grilled. In Greece, they’re known as keftedes and are typically made from a combination of beef, lamb and pork along with spices and fresh herbs. Ours are a 50/50 combination of lamb and beef, laced with cumin, coriander, mint and oregano and served with the classic Greek yogurt sauce, tzatziki. Contains eggs, gluten, dairy.
The origins of tzatziki are somewhat opaque. Some claim that it has its roots in the Indian raita, a similar cucumber yogurt sauce used to cool down the fiery curries of the subcontinent and brought to Greece by the Persians. Others claim it’s derived from Tarator, a dish from the Ottoman Empire of ground walnuts and vinegar. Regardless of where it came from, this sauce of cucumber, garlic and yogurt is now as representative of Greek cuisine as feta, olives and pita. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
A “tavas” is a traditional clay pot used for slow cooking, and Cypriot in this context more or less means “of Cyprus.” This dish, a fragrant spiced stew of lamb, onions and tomatoes, is slow cooked for several hours in true Cypriot fashion (although we couldn’t find a traditional tavas to bake it in). The result is a deeply satisfying stew that pairs wonderfully with roasted potatoes. Gluten free.
Rosemary Lemon Roast Potatoes
We’ve written a few times now of the Peruvian origins of the potato, and it’s rather slow adoption throughout Europe; it didn’t even arrive in Greece until the 18th century. But as happened elsewhere in the world, potatoes eventually came to be an integral part of Greek cuisine, where they are most famously served roasted with herbs and lemon juice. We’ve opted to roast ours with olive oil, garlic, rosemary and fresh oregano before sprinkling them with lemon juice and salt. Vegan, gluten free.
Revani with Pistachios & Honey
Popular throughout the Middle East and Mediterannean, semolina cakes soaked in syrup have their origins in Egypt where they go by the name Basbousa. It’s not clear when it first arrived in Greece, but at some point during their long trading history, the cake made its way from Egypt to Greece, where it’s now known as Revani. Traditional versions of this cake keep things simple, semolina sponge cake soaked in an orange syrup. But variations abound depending on where you eat it. We added a little complexity and texture with a honey citrus syrup and glazed pistachios. Contains dairy, gluten, eggs, almonds & pistachios; vegetarian.
Boutari Nemea 2016
Situated about 100km southwest of Athens, lies the city of Nemea. In ancient Greek mythology, this region was home to the fearsome Nemean Lion. With a fur coat of gold and claws sharper than swords, it plagued the people of Argolis until the hero Hercules defeated it. Today, the region produces some exceptional wines, like this 2016 vintage from the Boutari family. With a medium-light body and flavors of dark fruits like plum and black cherry, this light red pairs wonderfully with the Cypriot Tavas, but is easy drinking enough to stand on its own. With a musty aroma of old wood, this wine evokes feelings of old world Greece, perfect for transporting you to the ancient Mediterannean during dinner.
Made by another wine producer located just outside of Athens, this Retsina Markou is an absolute must when eating Greek food. Broadly, Retsina wines are found only in Greece and are unique due to the use of pine resin during fermentation and preservation. Before the widespread usage of wine barrels, Greeks needed a way to seal their clay amphorae so wine would not oxidize. Given the abundance of Aleppo pine trees, pine resin became the preferred method to increase the shelf life of the wine. Although Retsina went through a bit of a PR nightmare during the late 20th century due to mass production and poor quality, new producers, especially in the Attiki region, are reviving this ancient tradition and elevating it with modern vinification practices. With notes of tropical fruit, melon, citrus, and distinctly pine resin, this is a wine unlike any other in the world. And it’s absolutely incredible with the mezethes.
“To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf.”
The birthplace of democracy and the cradle of western civilization, Athens has a history few cities can rival. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and home to some of the most influential thinkers of Western philosophy, it’s impact on modern society is undeniable. And while it often takes a backseat to philosophy or the arts, Athens, and Greece more broadly, has had an equally notable impact on the way we eat today.
Greek cuisine was initially known for its emphasis on simplicity, austerity even. Socrates, one of the most renowned of the ancient Greek philosophers, stated “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.” Epicurus, the eponym of Epicures, had a somewhat gentler outlook, but still advocated for simplicity, or at least it’s appreciation. He argued, “Not what we have But what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.” While his namesake has become synonymous with a more hedonistic attitude towards eating and drinking, his actual teachings focused on how to live a simple and happy life, a philosophy we can certainly endorse. It seems only fitting then that Greek food is the perfect marriage of ancient and modern Epicureanism, decadent in its simplicity.
Renowned seafarers, the Greeks were some of the first “culinary pollinators.” Having established trade routes throughout the ancient Mediterranean, they were exposed to the cuisines of Ancient Egypt, Persia, and Southern Italy. Despite so much academic focus on the storied Ancient Greeks and their foundational cannon for our modern society, surprisingly little is discussed about modern Greek culture. This is perhaps most likely due to the fact that for almost 400 years they were subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Although they were constantly struggling for resources and independence, Greek food was substantially influenced by their Islamic counterpart, with dishes like kofte, baklava, pita and others transcending the religious divide.
Just like in antiquity, modern Greece is still renowned for its maritime tradition, with the Port of Piraeus in Athens being one of the busiest in the world and a major hub connecting the products and peoples of the East and West. But it’s not only goods, services, and ancient wisdom that flow through this nation of archipelagos - the Mediterranean diet has become the gold standard of clean eating throughout the world. Gaining popularity starting in the 1960s and continuing well into today, the cuisine of Greece is renowned not only for being delicious, but also for its health benefits, with the Island of Ikaria achieving a “Blue Zone” status due to the high number of centenarians living there. While these benefits may be relatively “new” to many countries in the world, the Greeks have known for centuries just how good some olives, feta and wine can be for body and spirit.
Featured Recipe: Keftedes with Tzatziki
Makes roughly 24 meatballs
200g, about 1 medium, yellow onion grated with some of the moisture absorbed with paper towels
4 garlic cloves, minced
Olive Oil, to grease the pan
60 g, about a slice, day old bread or pita, cubed and soaked in milk
1.5 lb of ground lamb and beef, 50/50 mixture (just ground beef works if you can’t find ground lamb)
1 large egg
¼ cup chopped fresh mint leaves
1 tbsp organic ground coriander
1 tsp dried oregano, preferably Greek oregano
1 tsp organic ground cumin
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
1.5 tsp Salt
½ tsp pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and lightly grease with olive oil.
Wring the excess milk out of the soaked bread and tear apart into fine bread crumbs.
In a large mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and allow mixture to sit in the refrigerator to let the flavors meld. Make the tzatziki in the meantime.
After the meat has marinated, roll the mixture into balls about the size of a golf ball. Place on the greased baking sheet about an inch apart.
Bake for about 25 mins, turning the meatballs halfway through to allow for even browning.
Serve with fresh pita and tzatziki.
Makes about 3 cups
1 English cucumber, partially peeled / striped
1 tsp kosher salt, divided
20 g garlic cloves, about 5-6 cloves, peeled & finely grated
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 cups full fat Greek yogurt
¼ tsp black pepper
Prep the cucumber. In a food processor, grate the cucumbers. Toss with ½ tsp kosher salt. Transfer to a fine mesh strainer over a deep bowl to drain. Using either the sieve or a cheesecloth, squeeze as much moisture from the cucumbers as possible.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the garlic with the remaining ½ tsp salt, white vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. Add the grated cucumber, yogurt and pepper and stir to ensure everything is thoroughly combined. Let sit in the refrigerator while you finish the meatballs and allow the flavors to develop.
To Serve, drizzle with olive oil.
Recipes Inspired By:
Greek by chef George Calombaris
The Mediterranean Dish, a wonderful online blog by Suzy Karadsheh with recipes and stories from around the Mediterranean
Olive Tomato, another fantastic online blog focusing on Mediterranean cuisine by Elena Paravantes
The Spruce Eats, a comprehensive online resource with recipes and inspiration from around the globe