BOOKS 15 July 2018
Greek Cookbook: Traditional recipes tested for today’s kitchens
Before travelling to a non-English-speaking country, I try to learn as many of the practical phrases of the language as I can before and during my trip. A language that I knew very little of turned out to be one I took to quickly. It was all Greek to me. Now, I can speak, read and understand demotic Greek at a basic level. Being away from Greece and native speakers is a hindrance to improvement, but I continue to love the language.
So, sitting at our table, ecstatic as always to be in Greece again, I happened to overhear a group of older men discussing the best method to cook green beans. I thought how marvellous, not only did I understand what they were saying, but these men were very interested in food preparation. The men gesticulated, slapped the table, raised their voices arguing passionately to support their positions. It was refreshing to hear each one extoll the virtues of one cooking method over another: One might say this was an unassuming vegetable they were championing.
In March of this year, at a poetry and music event, while scanning two or three volumes of poetry by John B. Lee, I was amused to discover a line that went something like this:
Old men don’t want sex anymore.
They want to know how their string beans will be cooked.
John must have had a similar experience to mine during one of his visits to Greece. The Greek Cookbookcontains two string bean recipes: Green Beans with Onions and Green Beans with Tomatoes.
My Greek Cookbook: Traditional recipes for today’s kitchens(1980, Delair Publishing, Inc.) is the perfect book for me in terms of Greek home cooking. My parents gave it to me as a Christmas gift. It was even signed, oddly, not by the writer, Margot Kopsidas Phillips but by her mother. Still, very special for me. I received this book just two months before moving to Europe for work. Knowing the proximity of Greece to many other European countries, I was excited that my years’ long desire to visit as an adult would be realized. I took this cookbook with me in order to learn more about Greek cuisine before I went on the vacation I had envisioned for so long. Several of my favourite dishes are included in this wonderful book.
Among the sections I appreciate in a cookbook are: an engaging, informative introduction; chapter descriptions or head notes; names of the recipes in the national language (using the English alphabet); and, glossary of terms with a pronunciation guide. That’s what I get with Greek Cookbook.
The traditional recipes in this book have been used for generations and are well-known throughout Greece. They can be simple or more rarefied if one desires, however, in their home-cooked style, they are not overly complex and are more delicious than one might imagine when reading the list of prosaic ingredients. This is because these common ingredients are perfectly suited to the cooking methods employed in combination with Greek herbs and spices. There are several ingredients, nonetheless, that might be a little difficult to source. For example, tarama for taramosalata, the fish egg appetizer. I can no longer find it. The spread is absolutely delicious in tavernas as well as when made in one’s own kitchen, because the amount of lemon juice or olive oil can be measured to your specific taste. Then, there are the baby lamb’s head and lamb innards that could be difficult to find. There is an excellent representation of all the food groups in this cookbook, slender though it is.
In her introduction, “Greek Cuisine,” Margot harks all the way back to the ancient Greeks. If only we could return to the halcyon days of those who “apparently did not concern themselves with calories.” (p. 7) She cites the foods that were regularly served at banquets, including the whole animal (pigs, boars), insects and seafood and lists the 27 foods often included.
This thought-provoking, two and a half-page introduction moves from fascinating information about ancient Greeks, through the Ottoman occupation whose influence, combined with that of the Greek Church, affected the evolution of Greek food, to a description of the holiest period in the religious calendar–Easter. Included in the Introduction is an absorbing discussion of the ingenuity of village cooks who had no electricity, running water or gadgets to help prepare foods. Cookbooks were unheard of as well. Recipes depended upon “the oral tradition and cultural practice.” (p.9) Please read the amusing anecdote by Merlie Papadopoullos in The Passionate Artist’s Palate Cookbook where she describes her desperate quest, after leaving Greece, for ingredients and a recipe to make her mother’s vegetable stew.
For those not familiar with delicious Greek cuisine or its breadth, that is, beyond souvlaki and such, this book is superb and better than many recent books of the last 15 years or so which tend to copy each other providing the ‘usual’ dishes and, very often, the same photographs whether all of the same ingredients were present or not. Margot’s book conveys heart, enthusiasm and sincerity creating a sense of sharing rather than profiting.
While Margot’s commentaries on cultural foodways do not specifically mention the Mediterranean Diet, traditional Greek meals are a well-known exemplar. The concept, also applied to other Mediterranean countries, is no longer a subject of debate regarding the health benefits of this diet. Briefly, it involves eating fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts, limited amounts of red meat, olive oil and red wine in moderation. My husband and I have had first-hand experience with this tasty, wholesome diet in regions all over Greece. There is nothing that can compare with Greek olive oil from the grove. It is unadulterated, aromatic, consisting of different types and a variety of beautiful colours from pale yellow to deepest green. Greek olive oil is a taste sensation in salads as well as cooked foods. There is no substitute in health or taste properties. Dining habits, with members of the family eating together, is also a beneficial health practice. This could be one of the home cook’s hooks to bring family together for a well-prepared home-cooked meal.
The photography in Greek Cookbook is a good illustration of how the dishes will turn out. They are not the new, overly-produced photos that, I grant, are beautiful, but, in many instances, appear to be more important than the food itself. In the Greek Cookbook, the pictures provide home cooks with an idea of what they can realistically expect when preparing the dishes.
I marvel that a mere 96-page compilation contains all the essential, typical and some lesser known foods of Greece. Finally, what I like about this book is, after taking it to Europe, the following year I went on my dream trip to Greece. Since that return trip to Greece, I have been back many times. This magical book began a trend. Several years after my husband and I bought a Polish cookbook, my husband’s work took us to Poland, a place we never thought of visiting. We had an exciting, educational and gastronomic several months there. The magic has continued with trips to Turkey, Spain and Tunisia following our purchase of these cookbooks. May this magic work for you.
You will find a similar recipe, “Moskari Stifado,” to Margot’s “Moskari Stifatho” in The Passionate Artist’s Palate Cookbook. Her “Melitzanes Tiganites” (Fried Eggplant) is included as well.