More than you can eat
Ever been a guest in a Greek household? If so, you’re probably no stranger to that warm - perhaps even over zealous at times - generosity when it comes to food. From the stereotypical yiayia figure with force feeding superpowers, to that uncle who judges your non-carnivore diet, diplomacy is often part of the menu when eating with a Greek. All this capricious arm twisting is never ill-intentioned. It all comes from our deep, genuine need to share. When it comes to food, there’s always a story to share as well; be it collective or personal. Attending a cooking class, my first one ever, I wondered how much of each would be on the table.
Growing up, my mother insisted I help out in the kitchen. Back in 1995, it wasn’t that common for a 15-year-old Greek boy to know how to cook your basic Greek ladero (slow cooked veggies with tomato juice and olive oil). So, stepping into the open rooftop kitchen of The Artist hotel, I was already pretty up to speed with the dishes we would prepare. But what of the group? Naturally, we would all get more than we could eat. It’s the first thing that chef Fotis Paravas warns us, as we put on our aprons.
Who’s for milk pie?
No sooner are they on, than the spirited group from Louisiana, and the mother-daughter duo (also from the US), are already firing questions point blank at Fotis.
“No eggshells, please. And no lumps,” Chef interrupts playfully, as the first volunteer of the day takes over the egg whisking for our galatopita (milk pie) coating. “Galatopita is our Greek version of a custard tart except it’s more versatile than that,” Fotis explains. “It makes for a light and nutritious breakfast or work snack - and you can also serve it up for dessert at a Sunday barbecue.”
Vanilla extract, lemon zest, salt, a few other ingredients and a bunch of tips and alternatives later, Fotis is stirring the custard cream to thicken. We ration it out in ceramic bowls, cover it with our no-eggshells-no-lumps coating and season it to choice; sugar, cinnamon (powdered please, no sticks) or perhaps some golden sesame seeds? All bowls are full now, but there’s still some mouthwatering creme left in the pot.
- Can we, like, taste it straight from the pot?
- Gloves off, wash your hands, and go nuts.
- Yes, Chef!
Good things come to those who layer
Time to try our hand at Greece’s most famous dish! Potatoes, eggplants, minced meat, béchamel sauce; that’s how you spell moussaka. Along with gyros and tzatziki, this Greek classic is arguably one of the most poorly photographed meals you’ll encounter on picture menus at the more touristy restaurants around Plaka. Not our moussaka. Ours is healthier - baked veggies, not fried - with a rich, seasoned minced meat sauce (cinnamon sticks this time please, not powdered) and a béchamel sauce so good you’d seriously consider marrying it, if you could.
To the group’s collective awe, Fotis finely chops carrots and celery for the mince meat sauce without looking, while calmly reciting how he’s managed to cut himself with every imaginable thing in a kitchen, except a knife. There is, of course, a method to cutting with confidence, which he shares (but we won’t spoil the fun by spilling the beans).
“Do you know why kitchen gloves are blue?”
“Use a whisk to break up the minced meat inside the pot and thank me later,” winks Fotis.
Chef reveals these and other great hacks while we all sleeve up and get to work, each of us under his impressively attentive gaze.
Clay bowls at hand, it’s layering time: potatoes first, then a layer of our delicious minced meat sauce, then eggplants, minced meat sauce again, lastly the béchamel sauce. “Never skip on the extra minced meat sauce in between, that’s one of the secrets,” reveals Fotis. We’ll give out another one: add some béchamel sauce to the minced meat sauce and give it a good stir before adding it to your moussaka. Trust us, this is a game changer. Even for a Greek!
Dill with it
Next up, another fêted Greek go-to: spanakopita (spinach pie).
Over the hiss of sautéing onions in extra virgin Greek olive oil, Fotis tells us that it was the need to carry leftover food on the road to work - or the occasional war in ancient times – that gave birth to this quintessentially Greek grub.
Unlike galatopita, spanakopita is a full meal in itself. You can have it for breakfast, lunch, a midday snack, hors d'oeuvre, even dinner. It’s the little black dress of Greek gastronomy.
“Some say that dill has no place in spanakopita. I say, ‘dill with it’,” quips Fotis as he tosses a generous amount of the aforementioned herb, finely chopped, along with other fresh herbs (some plucked from the flower bed right outside his kitchen window) into the spanakopita filling; now lush with added chunks of delicious Greek feta cheese.
Flour power and liquid gold
Meanwhile, the group has been handed balls of dough and rolling pins. We’re stretching the dough into phyllo for our pies, something that requires skilled handiwork, mastered through a lot of practice. One fellow in our group doesn’t quite get the round result we were shooting for.
“Yours will be the best of the bunch,” Chef assures him, as he teaches us how to turn a flop into a score by treating the overstretched phyllo dough with a special technique. Definitely a flour power moment.
Fail-saving techniques aren’t the only thing being passed down to us. What to do with the spinach-flavoured water after boiling? How about the herb stems and that extra minced meat sauce from the moussaka? There’s a use for everything. “A chef throws away nothing,” says Fotis.
The spanakopitas are done and headed for the oven. Lunch will be served in 15 minutes. Hallelujah.
Each time the chef uses olive oil, the crowd goes wild. Our liquid culinary gold is now being dribbled over a bowl of Greek yoghurt with minced garlic, grated cucumber, salt, pepper, and white vinegar. All you need for an authentic tzatziki dip.
“We can’t find the same yoghurt in the US, though,” the group laments. Fotis has the answer.
“All you need to make your own strained yoghurt out of any brand is a cheesecloth and Nature will do the rest,” he tells them.
And now for the salad…
We’re making an Aegean salad: a Greek salad variation with xynomyzithra (sour Cretan cheese made of goat or sheep’s milk) subbed in for feta. We also add capers, olives, balsamic vinegar and carob rusks to the mix and naturally, another good slug of olive oil, to help the rusks absorb all those appetising juices.
“If you think of it, this salad has it all: the land, the seas and mountains,” Fotis declares. A bit cheesy? Maybe at first, but, come to think of it… The combination of juicy, crimson tomatoes and crisp cucumbers from the land, lively kosher salt off the sea and fresh aromatic oregano from the mountains, proves his point.
“That’s all folks, time to eat,” exclaims Fotis as the group makes haste into the inner patio to tuck into their creations over a glorious view of the Acropolis hill. You’ll excuse us now, there’s a feast waiting.
What’s the verdict?
The way Fotis took over the difficult parts of our workshop while keeping it all interesting, informative and above all, fun, was absolutely wonderful. Considering that this sort of menu would cost something close to 30€ at your typical traditional Greek taverna, this enjoyable and enlightening exercise in Greek cooking also makes for great value.
- Duration: 3 hours and 30 minutes
- Cost: Adults €80, children €40
- Time: 11:00 am and 4:00 pm