Enliven your springtime celebrations with a little oompa
The “feast of Greek feasts” is Easter dinner, which showcases beloved traditional foods following a tedious winter and the forty-day Lenten fast. Easter celebrates the new agricultural and liturgical year with the season’s first vegetables, wild greens, and spring lamb. Lamb is as central to Greek Easter celebrations as turkey is to Thanksgiving. Spiked with garlic, doused with oil, and finished with lemon juice, its pan juices are tart and bright (see recipes). “Years ago, before refrigeration, Greeks ate little meat after the fall harvest, so fresh lamb was a very big deal,” says Greg Tirokomos, son of Kiki Tirokomos, owner of Bill’s Imported Foods in Minneapolis. The olives, harvested in the fall, have been cured through the winter and are ready to enjoy. Dried beans, lentils, and smoked meat and fish give way to fresh vegetables and berries, baby lettuces, wild greens, and unripened cheeses.
“We make plenty of everything and serve it all at once,” notes Kiki. Many of the Greek dishes served during Easter hold symbolic meaning, as well as savory flavors. Fava beans represent rebirth and hope. The sweet Easter bread is baked with eggs dyed scarlet to represent Christ’s blood. Easter baklava, a honey-drenched nut pastry, calls for forty layers of phyllo signifying the days of Lent. Walnuts are thought to bring new life and happiness. And honey-drenched fruit, such as dried figs dipped in honey, was once offered to the gods in thanks for spring. “Greek myths and stories enliven our food,” says Carol Parpas, co-owner of Christos Restaurants in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Minnetonka. And no festive table is complete without a large platter of kourabiethes, snowy, clove-scented, Greek shortbread cookies (see recipes).
Greek food represents a confluence of cultures Mediterranean traders brought to the country’s rocky shores. “The French-inspired sauces, Venetian pasta, Turkish lamb stews, and Arab kebabs are at home on the same table,” notes Gus Parpas, co-owner of Christos. Cumin, cinnamon, and coriander, spices associated with the Near East, find their way into savory meat dishes, as well as desserts. Cardamom, nutmeg, anise, and cloves are used in sweets. Dill, basil, mint, and parsley, used with abandon, are added to grilled meats and stews just before serving, fragrant and fresh. Greek oregano, a strong, bushy plant, is preferred dried, rubbed into meat before it’s roasted, broiled, or grilled. Bay and rosemary infuse stews and casseroles with distinctive flavor.
Photo by Maki Strunc Photography
Greek cheese, primarily sheepsmilk, is generally lower in fat than cowsmilk cheese and easier to digest. “Feta was on the table breakfast, lunch, and dinner when I was growing up,” says Alkis. Just as American Cheddar varies depending on origin and age, feta covers a range of flavors.
And it finds its way into traditional savory pastries such as spanakopita (spinach-cheese pie) and triopita (cheese pastry).
Greek food is “simple food,” says Vicki Chronakos, daughter of owners Aris and Cassandra Apostolou of the Acropol Inn Restaurant in St. Paul. “We eat in season, and we eat locally.” In springtime, that means foraging the hillsides for wild mushrooms and early vegetables from the garden, adds Denise Arambadjis, co-owner of It’s Greek to Me. And it’s also healthy food. Slow-cooked vegetable dishes make wonderful meals all on their own (see recipes). “Braised, stewed, and slow-baked vegetables are actually healthier (than those sautéed in oil or butter),” says Christoforides. Avgolemono (egg-lemon soup) is considered healthful and curative—think of it as Greek chicken soup. “My mother served this to us when we had colds, or our muscles were sore, or we were simply blue,” says Alkis.
“Those of us who cook seldom use recipes,” says Alkis. Instead, the season and locally available ingredients provide the guidance. “We understand balance and natural flavors—what seems to work together,” he adds. “(In) spring, the flavors are especially fresh. We let the ingredients tell us what to do.”
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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