World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Month: August, 2004


I was less nervous than when I had my wisdom teeth out. But the only way to overcome it all was to face my fear of filo. Although it was a tense and focused effort I am well on my way to demystifying the effort.

Filo (phyllo or fillo) dough is named after the Greek word for “leaf”. The thickness (or for that matter, the thinness) of Filo gives baklava its delicious crispy taste. So, when some people eat a piece of baklava, they may want to think of Greece. However, the history of baklava reveals it came from farther East.

According to The Kitchen Project, around 8th century B.C., it was recorded that Assyrians baked thin layers of dough with nuts, poured honey over it. However, Greek voyagers and sea merchants brought this treat back and improved on it. By creating a technique that made the dough as thin as a leaf, compared to the rough, bread-like texture of the Assyrian dough.

Various countries offer tasty variations using this pastry made from only flour and water it is used in the making of many Middle Eastern savories and sweets. The Armenians, as their lands were along the Spice and Silk Routes, added cinnamon and cloves to the recipe; the Arabs introduced rose water and cardamom. Strudel is also another pastry direction using filo.

Baklava is layers of nuts blended with cinnamon and spices layered between light, flaky filo dough bathed in honey.

Although tradition suggests you lay a sheet down and then paint the sheet with butter I saw a local cooking show this weekend that used a butter-flavored cooking spray, such as PAM. But since this is pastry making a bit of real butter maybe on every other sheet could be the happy compromise.

Having read a good deal about baklava and dozens of recipes I settled on the version that appears in The Professional Pastry Chef, 3rd edition, by Bo Friberg. This was probably my first judgment mistake was made. Mid way through I was moving from this pastry school textbook to the back of the Athens filo box. By choosing the pastry school recipe I overcomplicated what is a simple and elegant creation.

Due to my novice approach and the overstated instructions I inadvertently swapped the sugars using the white sugar to process the nuts instead of the brown causing a less than desirable texture I’d say that baklava is easier than I anticipated. And seeing a tray of golden brown flaky treats cut into uniform triangles was rewarding. Maybe I’ll try spanakopita. I’m encouraged.


1-pound packages of filo dough come packaged approximately 20 to 25 sheets per box. However if the filo sheets are larger than the size of your sheet pan, cut through the stack of unrolled sheets with scissors so that they fit properly.

Allow filo dough to thaw in refrigerator overnight. Bring to room temperature before using about 30 minutes.

Use a damp towel to keep the filo from drying out as you create the layers.

Don’t worry about tears on the sheets, particularly on the inside layers. After buttering and baking they will disappear.

Brush the final layer with butter.

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Glykismata-Greek Desserts


As I look back on my marathon of Greek culinary exploration I realize that there are no sweets present. Every culture has something sweet to indulge or celebrate the holidays or special occasions.

When I think of Greek desserts I think of that flaky treat baklava. I’ll be writing more about that in the next few days. I’m determined to take on the first time challenge of homemade Greek pastry using this baking component.

Clarified butter is frequently used in Greek baking as this imparts a rich, nutty flavor. Olive oil is often used with savory pastries or used as it is here in the following recipe where it is featured in this delicious olive cookie. This baked treat originates from the island of Lefkada, where they are known as ladokoulouro.

Often a lemon-honey syrup is used to dress many Greek desserts after baking. In classical mythology, the golden syrup was said to be food for the gods; adding lemon juice to the honey prevents it from crystallizing.

Fruit, such as oranges or figs, sometimes served with yogurt is often served at the end of a Greek meal. More elaborate desserts are an afternoon treat or a gesture of hospitality.

The most illuminating tidbit I learned was that Greek havlas, a semolina and almond cake, differs from that in Middle Eastern countries where it is a confection from sesame seeds and honey.

The Complete Book of Greek Cooking has been a great discovery during this Greek culinary odyssey here at World on a Plate. This book assembled by the members of the Recipe Club of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral in New York is charming and full of explanations on culinary and cultural traditions. Favorites such as creamy rizogalo (rice pudding), karithopita (Kefalonian walnut cake), galaktoboureko(custard in a crispy phyllo pastry shell) are featured.

If you want immediate virtual gratification there’s a number of recipes provided over at Greek Boston , the Boston Greek online community forum.

Photo credit of Dionysus:


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Mediterranean Diet

Crete, located in the Southern Aegean Sea is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. It’s also just about equidistant from three continents–Asia, Africa, and Europe. This rugged island is said to be the birthplace of Zeus. Visions of hiking in the White Mountains through orange-scented breezes and olive groves while listening to goats bray are starting to build. Or possibly I could squeeze in a lesson at Cooking in Crete and conquer my fear of filo.

Cretan food is uncomplicated and simple. It reflects the natural abundance found on the island–olive oil, lemons, oranges, wild greens, lentils, beans, barley, snails, and fish. Interesting food note is Crete was also the source of that catch phrase “Mediterranean diet”, derived originally from a case study in the late 1940s.

Clifford Wright has historical notes on the history of this island’s food culture. He writes:

Cretan food is actually quite simple, based on olive oil, olives, pulses and vegetables and fresh and dried fruits with very little meat and fish consumption. Crete also has deep traditions surrounding two food items that remain special on islands: bread and cheese. There are many breads, from votive breads to preserved rock-hard breads for times of famine. Like its other Mediterranean islands, Crete shares the same traditions when it comes to bread and a whole book could be written about them. So too with cheeses, many are still unnamed, just as in Corsica, called simply “cheese.” Although when pressed, Cretans will tell you that you are eating kefalotyri, or malaka or a clotted cream-like product called staka. Each of Crete’s invaders influenced the food. The ancient Greeks made sausages. The Byzantines salt and dry-cured meats and used honey in both sweet and savory dishes. With the Venetians wine production grew as did olive. Although many Cretan dishes have Italian names, they are not necessarily Italian in origin. The Turks brought the use of various spices such as sesame seeds, cumin, and coriander seed and certain other dishes such as the chicken liver and cinnamon pie called tzoulama. But there are other influences including Jewish.

Photo credit:

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IMBB- My Fat Greek Dumpling


It’s time for Is My Blog Burning? 7, the group food blogging virtual event. The theme for this round is Your Just the Cutest Little Dumpling and is hosted by Jarrett someone who has changed my life through his Food Porn Watch.

In keeping with this week’s theme while also participating in my first IMBB Dumpling quest I chose to prepare dolmathes—grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice. Something that looked relatively easy. What I found out is that there is an art to the making these Greek-style dumplings. With a little perseverance this are a crowd pleaser and will make you like a savvy culinary hero.

Anya Von Bremzen, in The Greatest Dishes! provides a historical context to the dolmathes or more familiar name dolmas:

“The vast stuffed-vegetable empire encompasses the entire Turkic and Arab-speaking world, stretching from the Middle East to the eastern Mediterranean to the Balkans into Eastern Europe. The nomenclature varies from language to language and often from dish to dish, with the most common term being a variant of dolma. Derived, appropriately, from the Turkish word for “stuffed,” dolma can denote a specific dish of filled grape leaves (such as the Greek dolmathes) or refer to stuffed vegetables in general, as in the Iranian domeh or Armenian tolma.”

A popular appetizer in Greece grape leaves can be stuffed a number of ways–meat and then topped off with a hot lemony egg-based avgolemono sauce or stuffed with bulgur. In northern and mainland Greece, they are typically served cold with a more mixture of spice-enriched rice and pine nuts.

The first recipe, which will go unacknowledged, was a disaster. The cooking time was incorrect—too short and the rice was a crunchy texture. The second go around, from Ethnic Cuisine by Elisabeth Rozin was far superior. Why I strayed from this consistently rewarding book is a mystery to me.

After cooking these twice, I thought that these would be very impressive at a picnic or bbq as they can be prepared a day ahead, left to cool in the cooking pot and stored in the refrigerator overnight allowing the flavors to deepen. I brought the final presentation, accompanied by tzatziki as a dressing, to an Olympic opening ceremonies Greek-themed dinner party last week.

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Souvenir Shopping


Okay, I am preparing for my first go at IMBB this weekend so I offer these two small newsy items…

Walking around New York you are sure to see the ubiquitous blue and gold Acropolis motif on paper coffee cups emblazoned with the phrase “We Are Happy to Serve You”. It is an icon of sorts. Artist George Skelcher was inspired to create the purse pictured here after seeing the coffee cups being used by the homeless to panhandle for change. Well-constructed of durable, printed leather, the purse closes with a sturdy zipper.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each purse is donated to HELP USA, an organization that has been helping the homeless since 1986.


The olive tree is one of Greece’s best-known symbols. Despite high levels of production and domestic consumption, Greece is a distant third behind heavyweights Italy and Spain on the export market. It took me a while to break the Tuscan olive oil habit but now I mix it up. Over 20 years ago, Austrian-born Fritz and Bergi Bläuel moved to the mountainous region of Mani in the Greek Peloponnese, where an intersection of climate and rich volcanic soil creates ideal growing conditions for Koroneïke olives. But they weren’t going to be gentlemen farmers. Instead they organized local olive farmers and began to train everyone in organic farming practices. There are now over 300 farmers growing olives together to create <a href="”>Mani olive oils and products. The olives are picked by hand to guarantee ripeness, and pressed using traditional millstones. The resulting oil is very fruity. This organic olive oil has one several international awards and is available at most Whole Foods.

Greek Chicken Soup


Olympic fever, at least in my world, reached its pitch yesterday. Tyler Hamilton was finally number one in pro cycling. Awarded a gold medal for the men’s individual time trial yesterday he’s back on top after withdrawing from the Tour de France (TDF) and suffering the loss of his buddy, Tugboat, his golden retriever days into the TDF. Although Tyler isn’t currently a member of the USPS team, he’s a former teammate of Lance. He’s got courage, game and he hails from my home state of Massachusetts. It should also be mentioned that the bronze was captured by fellow American Bobby Julich. Go USA. American pro cycling has never looked better!

Last night having arrived home late and nursing the start of a summer cold I accompanied my Olympic viewing with a classic Greek chicken soup—avgolemono (pronounced ahv-goh-leh-MAH-noh).

This is a very tasty and easy Greek soup which may be served cold or hot. Served cold, it is wonderful on a hot summer day. I prepared my soup warm as summer in San Francisco, well, that means gray, chilly and foggy days. Avgolemono is also the name for a warmed Greek sauce made with, egg yolks and lemon. It is often used to dress dolmades-stuffed grape leaves or lamb meatballs.

The preparation of this dish is remarkably simple. In preparing this dish it made me think of an easy Italian soup I like to prepare, brodo con straciatella. As a point of comparison it would appear that the only difference between Greek and Italian cooking is a matter of technique and lemon juice.

For this soup the whites are folded into the broth first with the lemon juice, and the yolks are added on a very low heat that mustn’t reach boiling point or it will curdle. Finally a knob of butter is floated in each bowl to serve.

I started with a recipe from James Peterson’s Splendid Soups simply because this chef-author is one thorough professional. In the text of this book he writes of several well-known avgolemono variations. One from James Villas using orzo and oysters; another made with lamb broth and one more from Morocco that flavors the soup with saffron, cinnamon and uses cilantro instead of the parsley.

As orzo is a Greek pantry staple I substituted the rice Peterson calls for with it. I also had some left over poached chicken that I shredded and added in at the end. As I love the fresh, clean taste of lemon I also added in some zest at the end. The following recipe was what I ended up doing.


Greek Lemon Soup

Serves 2-4

1 quart chicken broth
1/2 C partially cooked orzo
2 eggs
Juice of 3 lemons
5 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
little lemon slices
Lemon zest
Optional – shredded cooked chicken
Freshly ground salt and pepper

Bring first 2 ingredients to a boil in a saucepan. Cover and simmer until orzo is tender. The goal is to infuse the orzo with the chicken broth flavors while finishing the cooking of the orzo. Remove from heat.

In a bowl, beat the eggs until fluffy. Add and beat in lemon juice and parsley to the eggs.

Slowly stir about 2 cups of the hot broth into the egg mixture and whisk vigorously. Pour back into rest of soup over very low heat whisk until slightly thick. The soup must not come to a boil or it will curdle. Add shredded cooked chicken and lemon zest if using.

Serve hot or refrigerate until cold. Garnish with lemon slice.

Serve with Kalamata olives and bread for a complete meal.

Greek Breakfast


Greeks, my well-traveled friends tell me, are not big on breakfast. Many Athenians consider coffee and a cigarette or two sufficient to start the day. Traditionally, breakfast is not a big affair. Often people on the go will enjoy a Greek coffee or these days a frappé paired with a hard roll or with loukamades, fried doughnut holes drizzled with honey.

The Greek islands have been the crossroads of the Mediterranean since the time of Homer. Over the centuries, Phoenicians, Athenians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, and Italians all stirred the pot in this region, putting their distinctive stamp on the food. One example is the coffee served in Greece which is similiar to Turkish coffee.

In fact until the 1974 Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus, coffee in Greece was called Turkish coffee; it’s in your best interest to not call or refer to it as Turkish coffee for many reasons historical and political. Just know that the coffee you drink in Greece is not for the meek or those with heart conditions!

Typical of most local cafés the venues serve as the place to catch up on the news and, of course, gossip or to play backgammon. In Greece it is not uncommon in the bigger cities to see employees of coffee bars delivering trays of coffee to local businesses on foot. How many times has this been my want at 3:30?

Greek coffee is made in a briki traditionally bronze but today they can be found in stainless steel and aluminum. The vessel also has a lip for easy pouring. The long-handled shape comes from the days when it was placed in the dessert sand to prepare the coffee. The coffee is not served with milk and if sugar is added, it is always added before boiling. The grind of the coffee is finer than espresso, often called Turkish grind. It is served black, in small and thick cups called flitzania. Before drinking it let the coffee stand a minute to allow the grounds to settle to the bottom of the cup. This also allows for a professional coffee ground fortune teller to turn the demitasse-like cups upside down for readings. In Greece, you will usually be served a cold glass of water to accompany the coffee.

Today’s hip crowd prefer frappé, instant coffee with milk (pictured above). I’ve include two recipes, one for the frappé and another with an influence of a traditional American breakfast.

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Bringing Greece to the Table


Watching the Olympics over the weekend got me to thinking, naturally, about Greek food. What came as a surprise was that noticeably absent from my cookbook library is a tome featuring this cuisine. So I took to the virtual library to learn some more about signature cookbook authors of a Hellenic nature.

The doyenne of Greek cookbook writing is Diane Kochilas. Born in raised in New York City and now residing in Greece she has written four books on her native cuisine: The Food and Wine of Greece , Greek Vegetarian, The Glorious Foods of Greece: Traditional Recipes from Islands, Cities, and Villagesand Meze: Small Plates to Savor and Share. Her restaurant reviews appear in Greece’s largest newspaper the Athens-based, TA NEA where the reviews are both anticipated and feared. Someday I would like to learn firsthand from the writer-chef by participating in her one-week “Glorious Greek Kitchen” cooking school program. The sybaritic week includes hiking, cheese-tasting, wine and olive oil tastings and cooking lessons. In the September issue of Food & Wine there’s a great feature article about the school, 8 recipes, Greek wine profiles–great for afternoon coffee break daydreaming. (I hope the link works; I’m a subscriber so I don’t know if my cookies allowed the link.)

Another top goddess of the kitchen is Aglaia Kremezi, who won a Julia Child award in 1994 for best “First Book” with The Foods of Greece, The Foods of the Greek Islands, The Mediterranean Pantryand Mediterranean Hot. This last book intrigues me as I have been known to enjoy a spicy dish. Throughout the Mediterranean spicy means the use of one or more of the following spices–capers, chilies, cilantro, cumin, garlic, onion, paprika, or hot pepper. The UK-based Food Illustrated provides a bit more insight into this chef-author in a 2001 interview that took place in Aglaia Kremezi’s Athen’s apartment with a view of the Acropolis. Another vacation option exists with Ms. Kremezi on the island of Kea where she now lives
The culinary week also includes hands-on classes, artisanal honey tastings, learning how to make homemade phyllo and plenty of hiking and a picnic on the beach.

In the hot off the press category, The Olive and the Caper, by Susanna Hoffman, an anthropologist and author of nine books, has written a 700-plus-page book that is dubbed “a sensuous adventure of luscious recipes, itinerant travel, and historical anecdotes.” In 1971, she was part of a group of friends who opened Chez Panisse. It’s quite a hefty book. There are 150 recipes plus dozens of essays about the origins of Greek food, village life, history, language and custom.

And last up but yet another award-winning food writer, Clifford Wright, and his collection entitled Little Foods of the Mediterranean, features 500 recipes including an introduction to the way people eat in the Mediterranean region and an awe-inspiring collection of all sorts of appetizers, snacks, and little foods served across the region, from Spanish tapas bars and Italian cafés to Tunisian and Moroccan open markets and Greek and Turkish meze tables. Mr. Wright is my kind of writer. He seeks out recipes and endeavors to understand the historical roots of foods we eat today. He won a 2002 James Beard award for A Mediterranean Feast: The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean a comprehensive history of Mediterranean cusines from A.D. 500 to 1650. He’s currently in production on a 13-part PBS an eye-opening tour of the Mediterranean and tells surprising historical stories of a now famous cuisine. He also writes for Saveur and other food publications.

But now I’m getting into collections that are shifting ever so slightly toward the all encompassing dishes of the Mediterranean region. It’s clear to me there’s a world of food from Greece that goes beyond the always present Greek Salad.

Garides Saganaki
Shrimp Baked in Tomato Sauce with Feta

excerpted from
The Foods of the Greek Islands Cooking and Culture at the Crossroads of the Mediterranean

By Aglaia Kremezi

Makes 4 servings
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2-1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or
1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
3 garlic cloves, minced
1-1/2 pounds medium shrimp,
peeled and deveined, tails left on
1/2 cup finely diced tomato,
drained in a colander for 5 minutes
2/3 cup coarsely grated hard feta cheese (see note below)
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat the oil and sauté the onion over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until soft. Add the pepper or pepper flakes and the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and sauté 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 to 3 minutes more. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve.

If you leave feta cheese uncovered in the refrigerator overnight, it will dry a bit and can then be easily grated.

Going for the Gold

GRKFLAGLet the Games begin! Here’s a roundup of some good readings on Greek food history in general and as it relates to the Olympics and other tidbits including a few recipes.

Snails, olive oil and wine are some of the most crucial components of the cuisine of Greece’s largest island. Other staples include bread, legumes and savoury pies. (Athens News)

The influences (not definitive the writer states) on Greek food, the importations from other cultures, the influence of individuals, an overview of the main events that have shaped what we call Greek food. (The Age-Australia)

Greek food during the Olympics circa 1896 and how it was reclaimed. (Washington Post)

In antiquity, Olympic athletes were fed well and carefully, says Francine Segan, author of The Philosopher’s Kitchen. But what did athletes and spectators eat at the original Olympics? (USA Today)

Meze is the granddaddy to tapas.
(Boston Herald)

Greeks have long played a central role in the food business, there are only a handful of fine Greek restaurants in New York. (Newsday)

Patricia Wells on Tomatoes

A celebration of the tomato, from gazpacho to sorbet at the International Herald Tribune guaranteed to make you want to be in France.