Beyond the familiar old school dishes is a modern melding of ancient flavors with contemporary tastes. Just ask cookbook author Susanna Hoffman.
By JANET K. KEELER
Published August 18, 2004
[Times photo: Patty Yablonski]
Kleopatra Georgiou, who with her husband, Terry owns, Opa! Family Restaurant in Tarpon Springs, greets cookbook author Susanna Hoffman with kisses on both cheeks. Hoffman was in Tarpon to promote her book, The Olive and the Caper.
[Times photo: Patty Yablonski]
Saganaki, a flaming cheese appetizer, is lit by waitress Sissy Morris, who is joined in a chorus of celebration: Opa!
TARPON SPRINGS - In the Tampa Bay area, we know Greek food thanks in part to this town on the Pinellas-Pasco border.
The restaurants that line Athens Street and Dodecanese Boulevard, and the others that have migrated from there to spots around the bay, have given many of us our first tastes of gyros, broiled octopus and avgolemono soup. We can buy Greek kalamata olives and feta at most grocery stores. And we even know to yell a celebratory "Opa!" when the appetizer of flaming cheese called saganaki is delivered to our tables.
Delicious as it all is, that's old school Greek food, says cookbook author Susanna Hoffman, whose The Olive and the Caper: Adventures in Greek Cooking (Workman Publishing, $19.95) takes a contemporary view of this ancient cuisine.
"It's reimagined Greek food," she says of her book, which includes ample measures of history and geography. "There are a lot of the ancient flavors, but not used in ways you would expect."
It seems Hoffman has cooked up something to go with the modern Olympics in Athens: a modern Greek menu.
Take for instance Potato Salad With Olives, Capers and Caraway. Potatoes are a New World vegetable that arrived in Greece during the Ottoman reign but soon "received their baptism in fine olive oil," she writes. The mayonnaise for the salad is spiked with lemon juice and the potato mixture studded with olives and capers, iconic Greek flavors.
Some of the other 300-plus recipes in the book might surprise someone who thinks she knows Greek food. Sourdough Noodles, Barley Pancakes, Okra Fritters and Sesame-Crusted Roast Chicken are just some examples of how Hoffman melds the old flavors with contemporary tastes and techniques.
On the Thursday before Hurricane Charley slammed into southwest Florida, Hoffman is eating a late lunch at Opa! Family Restaurant (614 Athens St., Tarpon Springs; (727) 934-8444). Proprietors Kleopatra and Terry Georgiou have offered a lush spread of specialties. The coming storm has made everyone jittery, but the food provides diversion for a time. On the major roads nearby, traffic builds as north county residents heed evacuation orders.
On one wall of the small restaurant is painted a map of Greece with points of interest highlighted, such as Kleopatra Georgiou's native Athens and her husband's hometown, Thessaloniki. On the other side of the restaurant are photographs of local sponge boats loaded with the bounty that connects Tarpon Springs to the Mediterranean.
A trio of traditional Greek dips is the first to be sampled, scooped up by triangles of soft, warm pita bread. Terry (short for Eleftherios) Georgiou makes the most creamy taramasalata you'll ever have. This mild spread of fish roe is not fishy at all but tastes of earthy olive oil. The skordalia (garlic-potato dip) and tzatziki (a yogurt and cucumber mixture most commonly served on gyros) are equally yummy.
Before long, the table is nearly overflowing with Greek salad, broiled octopus, lightly breaded fried smelts, tender fried calamari, dolmades, moussaka, fresh fried potatoes and slices of gyro meat. For dessert, there's warm rice pudding.
Hoffman nibbles as she talks, keeping an eye on the clock. She has a plane to catch and wants to be on it before the weather worsens.
Hoffman, who divides her time between Telluride, Colo., and the Greek island Santorini, sounds a little like the father played by Michael Constantine in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Give him a word, and he'll tell you what Greek word it's derived from.
"I love the word "aroma,' " Hoffman says. "Most people think of it as perfume. But it's Greek and it means "the scent of newly plowed earth.' "
And did you know, she continues, that "trophy" is from the Greek word meaning food?
"The first Olympic footrace was won by a simple cook from the next town (from Olympia)," she says. "And his prize was food, or trophy."
Hoffman is the author of several cookbooks, including The Well-Filled Tortilla (Workman, 1990) and The Well-Filled Microwave (Workman, 1996), which she co-authored with Victoria Wise, and was one of the first owners of the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.
It was her doctoral thesis in anthropology that first took her to Greece in the late 1960s. She was looking for a place to study ancient cultures and thought Greece might be the safest country for a young woman traveling alone. Her studies begat her love affair with Mediterranean cuisine.
But it was a natural disaster in the hills of Oakland, Calif., in 1991 that changed her life. Her home was destroyed with more than 2,000 others when fires raced along the high ridges that look west toward San Francisco Bay.
In the house, with all her belongings, was her finished manuscript for The Olive and the Caper. Everything was gone. But her anthropological curiosity was not, and she became fascinated by the human response to disaster. Afterward, Hoffman co-authored two nonfiction books, The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective (Routledge, 1991) and Catastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster (School of American Research, 2002) and now lectures all over the world at emergency preparedness seminars and other gatherings.
She left California for her native Colorado, figuring The Olive and the Caper was gone for good. She didn't have the heart to begin again. Years of research, writing and dedication had turned to ash, she says.
But her friend Victoria Wise encouraged her to rewrite the book and offered to re-create the many original recipes. The book is dedicated to "Victoria, without whom I would never have plucked this book from the embers."
Hoffman, though not Greek, displayed just a bit of the mettle shown by the Greeks, who are emerging from a "terrible last century."
"They've had two world wars and a Balkan war," she says. "The recovery has been long."
Because of their struggles, Hoffman says, the Greeks were not able to get their fine olive oils and wines into the global market like the Italians. The wines are excellent, and the vines have not suffered diseases like others in Europe, she says.
Americans might get a glimpse of Greek cuisine beyond what they already know during the Olympics, Hoffman says. The olive tree, and perhaps as an extension the olive, is getting attention as gold medal winners wear a wreath made of branches from the tree of Greek mythology. The wreath is a nod to the early Olympics, when winners also wore kotinos.
And if film crews venture into the nightclubs of the trendy Gazi, Athens' version of New York's SoHo, they may capture images of young adults dancing on tables to traditional Greek music, just like their parents and their parents before them. Then they'll go home to meals of pork with quince, lamb and crispy spinach croquettes, and bulgur wheat and walnut pilaf.
New-to-us treats, derived from ancient flavors. Not unlike the Olympics being played out in Athens now.
2 pounds medium shrimp (about 42), peeled and deveined
8 ounces feta cheese
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
While the oven is heating, heat the oil in large nonreactive flameproof casserole over medium heat. Stir in the onion and garlic and cook until slightly wilted, 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes and cook until they are soft, 5 minutes.
Stir in the wine, Metaxa or brandy, tomato paste, 1 tablespoon of the dill and the pepper. Cook briskly until the tomatoes are collapsing, 10 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring from time to time, until they begin to turn pink, about 2 minutes.
Crumble the cheese in large chunks over the top and place the casserole in the oven. Bake until the cheese has melted, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon dill over the top and serve.
Nutritional information per serving: 377 calories, 18gm fat (6gm saturated), 38gm protein, 8gm carbohydrates, trace fiber, 696mg sodium.
Source: "The Olive and The Caper" by Susanna Hoffman (Workman Publishing, 2004; $19.95).
Melintzanosalata (Eggplant Caviar)
3 medium eggplants (about 2 pounds total)
1 green bell pepper, roasted and peeled (see note)
1/2 cup olive oil
3 to 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 to 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh chili pepper, or freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)
Pierce the eggplants with a fork twice near the stem.
There are three possible ways to give the eggplant the smoky flavor this recipe requires:
If you have a charcoal grill, cook the eggplants over the coals until the flesh is tender.
If you have an electric stove, place three layers of aluminum foil on a burner set at medium heat. Place the eggplants on the foil and let them cook, turning them frequently, until the skin is crisp all over and the flesh is tender, 25 to 30 minutes.
Or if you have a gas stove, hold each eggplant with a barbecue fork over the flame or place it on the broiler pan and broil until the skin is crisp, then transfer to a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees until the flesh is tender, 20 to 30 minutes.
Peel the eggplants while still hot and discard most of the seeds. Chop the flesh. Finely chop the pepper and mix with the eggplant.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggplant and pepper with a wooden spoon, adding the oil and vinegar a little at a time. Add the garlic, chili pepper and parsley while continuing to beat.
Season with salt. Taste, and add more vinegar if needed.
Makes 6 to 8 servings, about 2 cups.
Nutritional information per serving for 8: 157 calories, 1gm protein, 8gm carbohydrates, 14gm fat (2gm saturated), 62mg sodium, 3gm fiber.
Source: "The Foods of Greek Islands" by Aglaia Kremezi (Houghton Mifflin, 2000; $37.50).
Potato Salad With Olives, Capers and Caraway
1 1/2 pounds red or white potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
12 Greek olives, such as Kalamata, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into thin slivers
3 scallions, white and light green parts trimmed and finely chopped
Place the potatoes in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cook briskly until the potatoes are tender but still holding their shape, 6 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside to drip dry, for at least 45 minutes or as long as several hours, at room temperature.
Transfer the potatoes to a large bowl and add all the remaining ingredients.
Mix very gently to avoid breaking the potatoes. Mix mayonnaise and lemon juice together and dress salad.
Serve right away, or cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
Nutritional information per serving: 448 calories, 39gm fat (5gm saturated), 3gm protein, 22gm carbohydrates, 3gm fiber, 737mg sodium.
Source: Adapted from "The Olive and The Caper" by Susanna Hoffman (Workman Publishing, 2004; $19.95).
[Last modified August 17, 2004, 11:00:22]