By JANET K. KEELER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- The food of the Greek islands hardly resembles the food of Greek restaurants.
Every Greek menu from Tarpon Springs to Palm Springs offers spanakopita and moussaka, gyros and baklava. Some of these dishes were developed to make traditional ingredients more glamorous, some were flat out copied from other cuisines. (The gyro, rotisserie-roasted lamb and yogurt sauce nestled in a pita, is actually Turkish. There it is called donerkebab.)
"There is no restaurant tradition in Greece," said Aglaia Kremezi, author of The Foods of the Greek Islands (Houghton Mifflin Co. 2000). "When Greeks began to open restaurants for tourists and in the U.S., they felt they needed fancier dishes to draw customers."
Kremezi was in St. Petersburg last month on a publicity tour for her new book, eight years in the making. She chatted about the state of Greek cooking in America over a dish of steamed vegetables drizzled with olive oil at Athenian Garden restaurant. I ordered a Greek salad, and when it came, Kremezi pointed to the lump of potato salad in the middle.
"What's that?" she asked. When I told her, she said, "Oh yes, I've heard of that." The Greek salad variation made famous in Tarpon Springs is not authentic, and not just because of the potato salad.
"We don't eat salads of lettuce and tomato in Greece," Kremezi explained. "In summer we have salads with tomatoes. In winter we eat lettuce."
Though Kremezi is far from being a critic of Greek food as most of us know it, she wants to share her love and knowledge of regional Greek cooking. To that end, she collected recipes from farmers, fishermen, bakers and women who live on the 170-plus Greek islands. Kremezi, who was born in Greece and splits her time between Athens and the island of Kea, won a Julia Child Award for her first cookbook, The Foods of Greece (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999). She is a food columnist for an Athens newspaper and a contributor to Gourmet magazine.
Nothing she has done so far, though, is as near and dear to her as her new cookbook. The recipes celebrate the Greece she loves and the seasonal cooking she was raised on. Besides recipes, the book includes history, anecdotes and photographs by the author.
A look through Foods of the Greek Islands, which has attracted interest from publications such as People and Food & Wine, and you'll wonder what separates Greek and Italian cuisines, both heavily draped in olive oil, tomatoes and oregano. Many other spices and vegetables are the same, as are the cooking techniques. Who thinks of Greek food when they think of polenta? During the German occupation of World War II, many Greeks made polenta from home-grown corn and ate it with sugar and cheese, or with olives when they had no olive oil, according to Kremezi.
"Italian is much more glamorous," Kremezi said.
Feta cheese and the use of fennel and lemon are distinctive hallmarks of Greek cuisine. In her book, Kremezi includes Briami Me Maratho (Baked Mixed Vegetables with Fennel), an example of a classic Greek summer dish. Since it can be served at room temperature, it is a good anytime accompaniment in Florida. Make it in the afternoon to serve with grilled meat that evening and keep the heat out of the kitchen. Eggplant, zucchini, fennel, tomatoes, bell peppers and onions are roasted in olive oil spiked with oregano, garlic and fennel seeds. The olive oil that collects at the bottom of the pan can -- and should -- be sopped up with crusty bread.
Though it's not classically Greek, shrimp saganaki celebrates the authentic ingredients of the islands, and Kremezi includes it in her book. Saganaki is brought to the table in Tarpon Springs' Greek restaurants, set aflame by a waiter who exuberantly yells "opa!" (bravo). The showy presentation befits the dish that got its start in the 1960s when tourists began to make Greece a popular destination. Kremezi's Garides Saganaki (Shrimp Baked in Tomato Sauce with Feta) is a snap to make and so, so delicious.
Kremezi is excited at the thought of Greek food returning to its roots, especially in restaurants. She hopes the success of Molyvos, a successful restaurant in New York serving regional specialties, will spread from the island of Manhattan and on to mainland America.
"Americans in general are more open-minded and are exposed to all kinds of cultures," Kremezi said. "That is why a restaurant that serves island food can make it here."
(Shrimp baked in Tomato Sauce with Feta)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large skillet, heat the oil and saute the onion over medium heat for 5 minutes or until soft. Add the pepper or pepper flakes and the garlic, and saute for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and saute for 2 minutes or until they start to become firm. Add the tomato and salt to taste and cook for 2 minutes more or until the sauce begins to thicken. Transfer to a baking dish or four individual gratin dishes.
Bake for 10 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly. Sprinkle with the cheese and bake for 2-3 minutes more. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve. Makes 4 servings.
Note: If you leave feta cheese uncovered in the refrigerator overnight, it will dry a bit and can then be easily grated.
-- Source: "The Foods of the Greek Islands" by Algaia Kremezi (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).
Briami Me Maratho
(Baked Mixed Vegetables with Fennel)
Place the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt. Let stand for 30 minutes. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large baking dish, combine the eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, tomatoes, onions, fennel bulb or wild fennel, garlic, oil, fennel seeds, Aleppo pepper or pepper flakes, oregano, and salt and black pepper to taste. Toss well.
Bake for 40 minutes or until the vegetables are tender, tossing once after 20 minutes. The tops will probably char a little, but this caramelizes the vegetables and makes them sweeter.
Sprinkle with the fennel fronds or dill and serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 8 servings.
- Source: "The Foods of the Greek Islands" by Algaia Kremezi (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).
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