By Chef Marilena Leavitt
Introduction to Greek Cooking
Culinaria Cooking School
Why is Greek food so good for you? As a native of the country and a chef by training, I can tell you it’s because Greek recipes contain heart-healthy grains, and nutrition-packed fruits and vegetables. Nothing is processed or pre-packaged, and most every dish is prepared slowly and deliberately, then savored by family and friends.
Bread, for instance, is the cornerstone of the Greek daily diet. More than just flour and water, Greeks knead in herbs; seeds like sesame, flax and anise; and honey, olives, and raisins.
Vegetables, legumes, rice, and pastas do not necessarily accompany meat, but are often the centerpiece. Fruit is always served after a meal. Pare it, slice it, chop it, or eat it whole. Just get fruit into your diet. When in season, fruit is often turned into compotes, baked, dried, candied, or made into preserves. In fact, fruit often replaces sweet cakes, pastries, and puddings for dessert.
Fillo dough in Greece, like pizza dough in Italy, reflects Greek ingenuity and frugality as cooks enclose inexpensive ingredients in the flaky crust to make the final product festive and special.
Sound like a better approach to eating well? Just look at the number of centenarians in the Greek Isles. It’s clear that healthy Greek cooking may just add a few more healthy years to your life.
Try it yourself! On the following pages you’ll find recipes for three delicious Mediterranean dishes that you can prepare this month: Roasted Pepper and Feta Spread, Baked Shrimp with Tomatoes & Feta, and Lemon and Ricotta Cookies.
As a new teacher at Culinaria Cooking School in Vienna, VA, I am excited to introduce students to an array of classes, which use only fresh, seasonal ingredients. This is central to the Greek kitchen. Please join me for these upcoming classes by signing up here: culinariacookingschool.com.
- March 18: Introduction to Greek Cooking. Students will learn to prepare foods that are the heart of any taverna menu, from tzatziki with zucchini fritters, to savory skewered meatballs with pita, to Greek peasant salad, to delicious almond cookies.
- April 1: Cook with Fillo Dough. Students will learn to cook and bake with this versatile ingredient to make spanakopitakia, creamy chicken fillo pie, and mouthwatering baklava.
- April 14: The Foods of the Greek Islands. In this class, students will make mini sesame bread rolls, olive tapenade, baked fresh fish wrapped in parchment paper, coriander potatoes, fennel and orange salad, and walnut spice cake.
Roasted Pepper and Feta Spread (Tirokafteri)
Makes 1 quart
What you’ll need:
1/2 sweet onion
2 red bell peppers
Extra-Virgin olive oil
Salt and cracked black pepper
1 cup crumbled Greek feta
1/2 tsp dry Greek oregano
2 T. chopped fresh parsley
pinch of ground cumin
1/2 tsp. of grated lemon zest
1 small pickled yellow pepper (pepperoncini), stem removed, optional
Sprig of fresh dill for garnish
1. Thinly slice the onion slices and the pepper slices and place in a swallow pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle liberally with olive oil, and roast in a 375˚ oven until tender and slightly char-marked. Set aside to cool.
2. In food processor, combine all ingredients and process until very smooth. Taste for seasoning, but be careful not to add too much salt because feta is very salty.
3. Smear some on pita wedges, and top with a slice of pepperoncini and a sprig of dill.
Note: For a little heat, add pepperoncinis, which can be found in the pickle aisle at most supermarkets.
Baked Shrimp With Fresh Tomatoes and Feta Cheese (Garides Youvetsi)
What you’ll need:
4 T. olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 fresh medium tomatoes, chopped
¼ cup of white wine
1 T. tomato paste
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 lb. large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 T. parsley, chopped
4 oz. of Greek feta cheese
1. Preheat oven to 400˚F.
2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet and stir in the onion and the garlic, cooking until soft. Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Stir in the wine, tomato paste, and salt and pepper. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes more.
3. Add the shrimp and the parsley and cook, stirring from time to time, until the shrimp begins to turn pink, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a casserole dish, crumble feta in chunks over the top, drizzle some more olive oil, and place in the oven.
4. Bake for 10 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly.
5. Serve over rice pilaf or orzo, and have plenty of crusty bread on hand to sop up the delicious sauce.
Note: When fresh tomatoes are not in season, substitute with good-quality canned tomatoes.
Lemon and Ricotta Cookies (Dolci di Ricotta e Limone)
Makes 4 dozen
What you’ll need for the cookies:
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 stick margarine, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
15 oz. whole-milk ricotta cheese
½ tsp. lemon extract
3 T. lemon zest
1 T. lemon juice
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
For the glaze:
6 T. unsalted butter
3 cups confectioners sugar
3-4 T. lemon juice
1. Preheat oven to 350˚F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Using a mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, ricotta cheese, lemon extract, zest, and juice; blend well. Mix in 1 cup flour, baking powder, and salt, and blend to combine. Add the remaining flour in two parts, blending to combine between each, until a dough forms.
3. Drop by rounded tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets. Bake until cookie edges are very light golden, about 12 to 15 minutes. Let cookies rest on baking sheet for a few minutes and then transfer them to a wire cooling rack.
To make the glaze:
While the cookies cool, prepare glaze by creaming together butter and sugar. Gradually add the lemon juice until glaze becomes the desired consistency. Pour on cooled cookies, and let set. Enjoy!
About Chef Marilena Leavitt
Born and raised in Greece, Marilena began exploring Mediterranean cuisine when she was a student at the University of Athens. While living in Rome with her family, she attended an Italian cooking school and started teaching small groups of students the art of Greek cooking. After moving to the United States, she completed an intensive six-month course at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, with a focus on traditional French cuisine and classical cooking techniques. Marilena joined the Culinaria Cooking School team in February 2011, and is teaching Greek and Italian cooking classes throughout the DC region. She is a member of the American Personal & Private Chef Association. Learn more here: www.foodphotosandtravel.com.