On Food: Savannah Greek Festival shares flavors of an ancient cuisine

For practically anyone in America, the words “Greek food” will at the very least conjure images of fat, briny black olives, tangy feta cheese, thick, creamy yogurt, and the pungent aromas of cinnamon, lemons and oregano.

 

After all, Greek olives, yogurt, feta-studded salads, and pastries, such as baklava, kourabiedes and katiafi, have long been an indelible part of American food culture. Most of us have had at least one gyro wrap and sampled such culinary delights as Greek-style roast lamb, souvlakia (kabobs), moussaka and pastitsio.

But there’s a whole lot more to this ancient cuisine than that narrow little slice of the cultural pie.

Tomorrow, when St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church opens the doors of its Hellenic Center for the 2017 Savannah Greek Festival, those of us not lucky enough to be born Greek will have a chance to get a broader taste of the community’s rich culinary and cultural heritage.

Organizers have lost count, but between 50 to 70 cooks are involved with the festival. This culinary army has been busily preparing such traditional Greek classics as pastitsio (baked pasta layered with an egg-enriched béchamel and meat sauce), spanakopita (flaky filo pastry filled with spinach), dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves) and gyros (spicy roast lamb and beef wrapped in pita bread and drizzled with tzatziki sauce), as well as Greek-style meatballs, roast lamb, baked chicken and that famous salad.

They’ve also been baking thousands of Greek pastries, including such filo-based treats as baklava, diples, katiafi and flogeres (flutes) as well as the famously irresistible kourabiedes (sugar-dusted butter cookies) and loukoumades (fried puffs topped with honey and nuts).

All of the dishes that follow, adapted from recipe collections of the members of St. Paul’s, are being featured at the festival (both to savor while you’re there and to carry out) so go, immerse yourself in the culture, and then pick up a little taste of Greece to take home.

Greek-Style Baked Chicken

Adapted from a recipe from Irene Purdy.

Serves 4-5

Ingredients:

1 3- to 4-pound chicken, cut up as for frying

Olive or vegetable oil

6-8 medium waxy potatoes

Juice 1 lemon

4 ounces (1 stick) butter or margarine, sliced

Chopped fresh or crumbled dried oregano, to taste

Garlic salt

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

Directions:

1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F. Wipe chicken with paper towels. Rub large, heavy-bottomed roasting pan with oil. Put in chicken pieces, skin up.

2. Peel and thinly slice potatoes and scatter around chicken. Lightly drizzle chicken and potatoes with oil. Sprinkle with lemon juice and evenly place slices of butter over chicken. Sprinkle chicken and potatoes generously with oregano, garlic salt, regular salt and pepper.

3. Bake in center of oven, basting every 15-20 minutes with pan juices, until chicken and potatoes are cooked through and tender, about 1 hour. Let rest 10-15 minutes before serving.

Dolmathes (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Adapted from a recipe from the Asselanis family. They can be served plain warm or cold, or warm with Avgolemono Sauce (recipe follows).

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

1 pound ground beef or lamb

½ cup raw long-grain rice

1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 cup (½ of a 16-ounce can) canned whole tomatoes, crushed

1 teaspoon dried dill

1 teaspoon minced parsley

1 teaspoon crumbled dried mint

Flour

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

1 jar grape leaves

4 ounces (½ cup or 1 stick) butter, cut into bits

Lemon juice to taste

Chicken broth or water

Directions:

1. Crumble meat into mixing bowl. Add rice, onion, tomato, dill, parsley, mint and light sprinkle of 1-2 tablespoons flour. Season with salt and pepper and lightly but thoroughly mix.

2. Choose large, heavy-bottomed pot. Using any torn leaves from jar, cover bottom with layer of grape leaves. One leaf at a time, place tablespoon of filling in center of remaining grape leaves, fold sides over filling, then roll leaf over to make neat package. Put each into pot until bottom is covered. Dot stuffed leaves with butter. Repeat with remaining leaves, filling and butter.

3. Sprinkle lemon juice over top layer of stuffed leaves and invert small plate over top of stuffed leaves. Add enough chicken broth or water to cover plate. Turn on heat to medium and cook about 45 minutes, frequently shaking pot to prevent scorching of bottom layer. Broth can be used to make Avgolemono Sauce (recipe follows).

Avgolemono Sauce

Makes about 2 cups.

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups hot broth from Dolmathes, strained

Juice 1 lemon

2 large eggs at room temperature

Directions:

1. Bring broth to boil in heavy-bottomed saucepan. Turn off heat. Break eggs into heatproof mixing bowl. Whisk to mix. Add lemon juice and whisk until eggs are very frothy and nearly twice their volume.

2. Whisk in 2-3 ladles of hot broth, one at a time. Off heat, whisk into remaining hot broth in saucepan and continue whisking very frothy. Pour over hot dolmathes and serve immediately.

Spanakopita (Spinach Pie)

Adapted from recipes from Antigone Donkar, Stamata Karfakis and John Nichols.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

2 10-ounce packages frozen spinach, thawed

Olive oil

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

1 cup finely chopped scallions or green onions

¼ cup chopped parsley

¼ cup chopped fresh dill or 3-4 teaspoons dried dill (to taste)

2 cups crumbled feta

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 pound filo pastry, thawed overnight in refrigerator

½ pound (2 sticks) butter, melted

Directions:

1. Squeeze excess moisture from spinach and set in colander to drain. Film bottom of large heavy pan with olive oil. Turn on heat to medium and add yellow onion. Sauté until softened, about 2-3 minutes, then add green onions, parsley, fresh or dried dill to taste and spinach and cook, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and mix in feta, then mix in eggs, stirring well.

2. Rub a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan or dish with butter. Lay 1 sheet filo on bottom and lightly brush with butter. Add 9 more sheets, brushing each with butter, then spread spinach filling evenly over pastry. Cover with sheet of filo and brush with butter. Repeat with 9 more sheets, brushing each with butter. Put in refrigerator while oven heats, at least 10 minutes. This will harden top layers of filo so they can be cut.

3. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F. Remove pan from refrigerator and cut top pastry into squares with very sharp knife. Bake until set and browned, about 30-45 minutes. Let stand 20 minutes before serving.

Baklava

Though a little time consuming, baklava is one of the simplest of Greek pastries for filo dough novices to accomplish. Adapted from a recipe from Helen Scumas, who suggests using a yard stick to ensure even cuts: cut horizontally the width of the stick, then cut on diagonal using width of stick as a guide.

Makes about 30

Ingredients:

For the pastry:

1 pound finely chopped walnuts or combination of walnuts and pecans or almonds

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 pound filo pastry, thawed overnight in refrigerator

1 pound unsalted butter, clarified (see below), melted

For the syrup:

2 ¼ cups sugar

2 cups water

Juice of ½ lemon

4 whole cloves (optional)

Directions:

1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 325 F. Mix together nuts, sugar, and cinnamon. Be prepared to work quickly. Unwrap filo and lay flat on sheet of wax paper. Cover with towel. Butter a 9-by-13-inch pan.

2. Place 6 sheets filo in pan, one at a time, brushing first 5 with butter. Sprinkle top sheet evenly with 6 heaping teaspoons of nut mixture. Top with 4 more sheets, brushing first 3 with butter and sprinkling top sheet with 6 more teaspoons nut mixture. Repeat until only 6 sheets of filo remain. Place these on top, brushing each with butter. Put pan in freezer 10 minutes to make cutting easier, then cut through on horizontal then diagonal with very sharp paring knife to make individual portions (see note above for cutting).

3. Warm remaining butter and pour evenly over entire pan. Bake 1 hour and 10-15 minutes, or until slightly brown. Raise temperature to 400 F and bake 10 minutes longer.

4. While pastry bakes, make syrup: put sugar, water, lemon juice, and cloves in heavy-bottomed stainless steel-lined pan, stirring until sugar dissolves. Bring to boil adjust heat to even boil and cook until pale gold and lightly thickened, about 45 minutes. Turn off heat, remove and discard cloves. Let cool.

5. When pastry is done, remove from oven and immediately pour syrup over. Let stand until completely cooled. Cover with wax paper and foil and let sit in cool spot overnight. Can be transferred to zipper-locking storage bags and frozen. To serve, cut through again with sharp knife and if liked place pieces in individual foil cups.

IF YOU GO

What: Savannah Greek Festival

When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Oct. 12-14

Where: St. Paul’s Hellenic Center, 14 W. Anderson St.

Cost: Free until 4 p.m. Oct. 12-13, with a requested $2 donation after 4 p.m. A $2 donation is requested all day Oct. 14.

Info: savannahgreekfest.com

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