International Cooking: Food from Greece

Greece is located in Southeast Europe, on the southern tip of the Balkan Peninsula. It has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean basin, with thousands of islands.

Greece is the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy, Western literature, historiography, political science, major scientific and mathematical principles, theatre, and the Olympic Games; for this reason it’s considered the cradle of Western Civilization.

Greece was organized into independent city-states from the 8th century BC. Most of present-day Greece was united by Philip II of Macedon in the 4th century BC, followed by his son, Alexander the Great, rapidly conquering much of the known ancient world. The period that followed, known as the Hellenistic period, saw the height of Greek culture.

Rome annexed Greece in the 2nd century BC, and the country became an integral part of the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire.

Greece fell under Ottoman rule in the 15th century, but emerged as a modern nation-state in 1830 after a war of independence.

Greece is a developed country with the second-largest economy in the Balkans, and it is a founding member of the United Nations.

What Do People Eat in Greece?

Some of the most important components of a Greek meal are wheat, olive oil, and wine, and this has been true since ancient times. This is also something that can be said of other Mediterranean countries.

Fish has always been common, but meat has only been widely consumed during the last few hundred years or so. Meats commonly eaten in Greece today include pork, poultry, lamb, rabbit, and goat. Beef dishes do exist, but there are less of them because the climate and terrain are better suited for breeding goats and sheep than cows.

Greek cuisine makes use of a wide range of vegetables, with some of the more notable including tomato, eggplant, potato, green beans, okra, green bell peppers, and onions.

Dishes often include herbs such as oregano, mint, dill, and bay leaves, with parsley often used as a garnish. Other common seasonings include garlic, onion, lemon, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves.

I’m sure most people are familiar with feta, which is probably the most well-known Greek cheese. It is used in many dishes, but there are also many other types of cheese produced in the country.

When it comes to sweet dishes, honey and nuts are often used. Pastry, usually phyllo, shows up in a few desserts I was looking at, though it can also be used in savory dishes.

What I Made

Yiaourti Me Meli (Yogurt with Honey and Walnuts)

Yiaourti Me Meli (Yogurt with Honey and Walnuts)

This is a simple dish that can be enjoyed for breakfast, as a snack, or as a light dessert. To make this, I toasted some walnuts, then coated them in honey. I combined Greek yogurt with some vanilla and topped with the walnut mixture. Then I sprinkled over some cinnamon and drizzled with a little more honey.

This was delicious and so simple to make! I can see myself making this again, but I might add some berries next time.

The recipe I used is from My Greek Dish.

Fasolakia (Braised Green Beans)

Fasolakia (Braised Green Beans)

This is a popular way to prepare green beans in Greece. I started by sautéeing some onion in olive oil. Then I added garlic, grated tomatoes, more olive oil, and a tiny sprinkle of sugar and brought it to a simmer. I stirred in the green beans and let them cook with the lid on for 20 minutes or so. To finish, I seasoned with salt and pepper and added some chopped parsley.

I don’t usually like green beans unless they are just barely cooked. But despite being quite soft, these beans were really good. The fresh tomato sauce was delicious and worth grating tomato for!

I ate this as a side with the giouvarlakia (next dish), but it is often served as a main. I had the leftovers the next morning with a fried egg on top which I can highly recommend, though I don’t know what the Greeks would think of that!

This recipe was from My Greek Dish.

Giouvarlakia (Meatballs in Avgolemono Sauce)

Giouvarlakia (Meatballs in Avgolemono Sauce)

Avgolemono is something I’ve always wanted to try but I never got around to it, until now. I always thought of it as a soup, because there are many recipes out there for ‘avgolemono soup’. But avgolemono itself is really just a sauce made from eggs and lemon juice. As someone on the Greek subreddit said, eating avgolemono on its own would be like eating a bowl of barbecue sauce.

So, it was suggested that I make this meatball soup. The meatballs are made from ground beef, rice, parsley, onion, egg, olive oil, dill, ground coriander, salt, and pepper. The recipe didn’t call for them to be browned or anything; they just went straight into a pot of simmering water.

Once the meatballs were cooked, I made the avgolemono sauce by whisking together eggs and lemon juice. I added some of the hot cooking liquid a ladle at a time, whisking well. This is so that when the egg mixture is added to the pot, it doesn’t curdle from the heat, because it’s already been warmed up (or ‘tempered’, as I have heard it called before).

I poured the tempered egg and lemon juice mixture into the pot and cooked for a few minutes, being careful not to let it come to a boil. And then it was done! I served this with a garnish of parsley and it was delicious, though maybe slightly too lemony for me.

This was another recipe from My Greek Dish.

Gemista (Stuffed Vegetables)

Gemista (Stuffed Vegetables)

Gemista was a popular dish among Greek Redditors and so I felt I had to make it this week. Exact recipes vary greatly, but it’s basically just various vegetables stuffed with a vegetable and rice filling (meat can be added too). I made a small batch and just stuffed some tomatoes, but eggplants and bell peppers are also common choices.

First, I cut the tops off my tomatoes and scooped out the insides, which I put into the blender for later. I seasoned the insides of the tomatoes with salt, sugar, and butter, and set them aside in a baking dish for the moment.

I added olive oil, tomato paste, sugar, salt, and pepper to the blender with the tomato flesh and blended until combined. This is the sauce that gets poured over later.

Next I started on the filling. I sautéed some onion in olive oil, then added some finely chopped zucchini and eggplant, and some minced garlic. After a few minutes I added risotto rice, then some canned chopped tomatoes, water, salt, and pepper. Once the mixture had boiled for a few minutes, it was ready—it doesn’t need to be fully cooked here because it will cook in the oven later. I stirred in some fresh parsley and mint.

I chopped up some potatoes and put them around the tomatoes in my baking dish. Then I filled the tomatoes with my rice and vegetable mixture. The leftover filling went over the potatoes. I poured the sauce over everything, and then added some water to the dish.

I baked the gemista, covered with foil, for about an hour, uncovering towards the end.

This was pretty good, but I added too much water to my baking dish; I think it was supposed to mostly reduce in the oven and I had quite a bit of liquid left. But I was reducing the recipe so maybe I needed to reduce the liquid by more than I did.

If you’d like to make this, the recipe I used is from My Greek Dish.

Spanakopita (Spinach and Feta Pie)

Spanakopita (Spinach and Feta Pie)

This is a dish I’ve had before and enjoyed, but never tried making myself. It’s a mixture of spinach and feta cheese, baked in layers of phyllo pastry.

First I had to cook my spinach. The recipe used frozen, but I prefer to use fresh wherever possible. Once my spinach was cooked I squeezed the liquid out of it and put it in a bowl. I added the other ingredients: parsley, onion, garlic, olive oil, eggs, feta, dill, and pepper. The recipe didn’t mention salt, probably because feta is quite salty, but I think I would add some next time. (As I am looking at the recipe again, I see that salt is mentioned as an ingredient in the caption of an image with the spinach mixture, but it’s not in the recipe itself so I thought it was an intentional omission and didn’t include it.)

Next, I greased a baking dish with olive oil and started layering my phyllo sheets (storebought; I’m not sure phyllo is something I ever want to make from scratch). I used two at a time, then brushed with olive oil before adding more. After a few layers, I spread the spinach mixture over the top and continued layering the phyllo.

This took nearly an hour to bake. The recipe said you could cut part-way through before baking, which I may try next time since the pastry on top didn’t want to stay intact once I started cutting. That had no effect on the flavor however, since this was pretty good. I just would add some salt to the filling next time, and I’d also reduce the dill since I felt it was a little too strong.

This recipe is from The Mediterranean Dish.

Choriatiki (Greek Salad)

Choriatiki (Greek Salad)

Of course, Greek week would not be complete without Greek salad. The authentic version contains cucumber, tomato, onion, bell peppers, black olives, and feta. The salad is topped with a block (or a few) of feta. I don’t know how Greek people eat it, but I crumbled the cheese over my salad before eating. The dressing is made from red wine vinegar, olive oil, oregano, salt, and pepper.

This was delicious, though I went light on the olives since I don’t like them too much. I served it with the spanakopita, and also the moussaka.

I got this recipe from The Mediterranean Dish.

Moussaka (Eggplant and Meat Casserole)

Moussaka (Eggplant and Meat Casserole)

Moussaka is Greece’s national dish, but it sounds like it’s not being made in homes as often as it once was. This might be because it’s a bit of a process to make, and younger people don’t like to spend as long in the kitchen (I think this was an excuse someone on the Greek subreddit provided). Moussaka is made by layering eggplant with meat, usually lamb or beef. Then it’s topped with a béchamel sauce and baked. Some versions also include potato.

The recipe I used had potato as an optional ingredient, which I included. First I salted the eggplant slices. Then I fried them in olive oil, as well as the potato slices.

I started the meat sauce by cooking onions in olive oil. I added some lamb, and when it started to brown I added garlic and tomato paste. After a minute or so I poured in some red wine to deglaze. Then I added tinned tomatoes, sugar, cinnamon, a bay leaf, salt, and pepper. I let the mixture simmer for about half an hour, stirring now and then.

Next, I made the béchamel sauce. I started by melting butter, then whisked in flour. I slowly added milk (cold, not warm as the recipe suggested since in my experience I’m more likely to get lumps with warm liquid), whisking constantly, until everything was combined and the sauce had thickened. I took the saucepan off the heat and whisked in an egg yolk, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and some grated Parmesan cheese. Then I was finally ready to assemble the moussaka!

I started with a layer of potatoes and followed with half the eggplant. Then I poured the meat sauce over the top and layered over the remaining eggplant. The bechamel sauce went over that, followed by a sprinkling of Parmesan, and then the moussaka was ready for the oven.

I baked for about 40 minutes or so until golden on top – the recipe said 60 minutes, but I halved the recipe, so maybe a bigger dish would need longer. I let the moussaka cool a bit before slicing, as the recipe suggested.

This was really good. I’d been apprehensive about it since I’m not a big eggplant fan, but I mostly just tasted the meat sauce and the bechamel, which were both delicious.

This recipe is from My Greek Dish.

Final Thoughts

This was another great week! Everything was good but I think the fasolakia and spanakopita were my favorites.

Next week, I will be cooking food from Grenada.

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