Food: Greece is the word

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
August 14. 2018 11:58PM
Moussaka, a layered dish of lamb, eggplants, and potatoes topped with a bechamel sauce, is show above. At right, honey is poured over baklava, which is a traditional Greek dessert. (Ryan Michalesko/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Yes, the recipe for moussaka has 25 ingredients. No, I never run recipes that long, because who has the time?

To be honest, when I decided to write about the food of Greece I wasn’t even thinking of including a recipe for moussaka, because it is too obvious a choice. Most everyone who wants to make moussaka already has a recipe for it.

But then I saw that the recipe came from Molyvos, a restaurant in New York City. And suddenly I could not wait to try it.

Greek food is one of the world’s great cuisines, and no wonder. The civilization has been around for thousands of years, and for all of that time they have been perfecting ways to cook with the wonderful, fresh ingredients they have on hand: fish, lamb, olives, lemons, cinnamon, garlic, honey, goat cheese, yogurt and oregano.

And wine, too. Don’t forget, the ancient Greeks had a god of wine, Dionysus.

So for my culinary tour of Greece, the birthplace of democracy, I determined to make the Molyvos recipe for moussaka — even though it has 25 ingredients. But it could be worse. I could have gone for the grilled octopus.

Moussaka is essentially a layered casserole, with slices of potato on the bottom topped with slices of eggplant. This being a restaurant recipe, the potatoes and eggplant are both fried before layered. You could save calories by baking them (though that would take time) or sauteing them (though that would save fewer calories), but if this is the first time you make the recipe, try frying them. You won’t regret it.

The next layer is ground lamb spiced with cinnamon, ginger and allspice cooked in a flavorful tomato sauce. Think of it as a sloppy joe, only exponentially better and considerably less sloppy.

The top layer, and this is where restaurant cooking really comes into play, is a ridiculously rich bechamel sauce. Bechamel is a thick white sauce made from butter, flour and milk, but this version dials up the amplitude by adding egg yolks and Greek yogurt.

The result is pure ambrosia, to use a Greek term. It’s definitely Molyvosian.

I also made a true Greek salad, which is to say the way they make it in Greece, not America. In Greece, the traditional salad called horiatiki does not have lettuce. At all.

It’s practically the law: In Greece, what we think of as a Greek salad consists only of tomatoes, onions, cucumber, parsley, olives and feta cheese, topped with oil, red wine vinegar and dried oregano, plus salt and pepper. Sliced green pepper is optional.

Put it all together — at the last minute, please — and it is an incredibly fresh dish, bursting with well-balanced flavors and wholly satisfying.

For dessert, I thought that because I had already made moussaka, I may as well make baklava. In for a drachma, in for a euro, as they say.

Like moussaka, baklava takes some time to make (though not as much). Like moussaka, the result is worth it.


1/4 c. dried currants

1 (28-oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained

4 T. olive oil, divided

1 lb. ground lamb

1 tsp. cayenne

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp. ground allspice

Salt and black pepper, to taste

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped

1 red bell pepper, stemmed, cored and finely chopped

1 c. red wine

1 1/2 c. canola oil

1 1/2 lb.eggplant, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices

1 large russet potato, about 1 pound, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices

6 T. unsalted butter

1/2 c. all-purpose flour

2 1/4 c. milk

1 bay leaf

Freshly ground nutmeg, to taste

1/2 c. plain Greek yogurt

3 egg yolks

1 c. grated Parmesan

Put currants into a small bowl and cover with boiling water; let soften for 30 minutes. Drain and set aside. Puree tomatoes in a blender and set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a 6-quart pot over medium-high heat. Add lamb, cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring to break up the meat, until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer lamb to a large strainer set over a bowl and drain; discard any liquid left in the pot.

Return pot to the heat and add remaining olive oil along with the garlic, onions and bell pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost evaporated, 10 to 15 minutes. Add reserved tomatoes, currants and lamb, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Heat canola oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, add the eggplant slices and fry, turning occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer slices to paper towels. Working in batches, add potatoes and cook until tender, about 5 minutes, and transfer to paper towels.

Make a bechamel sauce: Melt butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, until pale and smooth, about 2 minutes. Whisking constantly, add the milk in a steady stream until incorporated; add the bay leaf and cook, whisking often, until reduced to 2 cups, about 15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and discard the bay leaf. Let sauce cool for 5 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and egg yolks and whisk into the sauce until smooth.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place reserved potato slices in the bottom of a 3-quart baking dish and season with salt and pepper. Put eggplant slices on top, season with salt and pepper, and cover with the meat sauce. Pour bechamel over the top of the meat sauce and spread evenly with a rubber spatula. Sprinkle Parmesan evenly over the top and bake until browned and bubbly, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Recipe by Jim Botsacos of Molyvos restaurant, via Saveur
Horiatiki is a Greek salad of tomato, cucumber, onion, feta, parsley and olives tossed with a vinaigrette. (Ryan Michalesko/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Greek Salad (Horiatiki)

2 T. roughly chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish

2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, cut into 1{-inch pieces

1 small cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces

1/2 medium white onion, thinly sliced

3 T. extra-virgin olive oil

1 T. red wine vinegar

1/8 tsp. dried oregano, plus more for garnish

Salt and pepper, to taste

6 oz. feta, cut into thick slabs

8 kalamata olives

Combine parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in a bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar and oregano; season with salt and pepper and pour over cucumber mixture. Toss. Transfer salad to a serving bowl and top with feta and olives. Garnish with more parsley and oregano; season with pepper.

Recipe from Saveur

Honey is poured over baklava, a traditional greek dessert with honey and nuts. (Ryan Michalesko/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)


2 c. plus 2 T. granulated sugar, divided

2 T. honey

Juice of 1/2 small lemon

1 strip of lemon peel

2 or 3 small cinnamon sticks

1 c. almonds, chopped fine but with some texture

1 c. walnuts, chopped fine but with some texture

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

22 sheets phyllo pastry (one roll of frozen phyllo)

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted to golden brown

About 30 whole cloves, for decorating

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make syrup, put 2 cups of the sugar, honey, lemon juice, lemon peel and cinnamon sticks in a saucepan with 1 cup water and bring to a boil, stirring. Lower heat to simmer for 5 to 6 minutes; take off the heat and cool.

Mix almonds, walnuts, the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and cinnamon together in a bowl. Have the phyllo sheets ready, covered by a dishcloth to prevent them from drying out. Brush base of an 9 x13-inch baking dish with butter.

Lay 1 sheet of phyllo on a clean work surface and brush with butter (use a pastry brush with soft bristles). Cover with another sheet, brush it with butter and continue in this way until you have a neat stack of 10 sheets. Place these on the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Spread half the nut mixture over the phyllo, patting it down firmly and leveling the surface.

Cover with 2 more sheets of phyllo, buttering each one. Scatter the rest of the nuts over evenly and press down gently. Lay down the last 10 sheets of phyllo, buttering each one, and finish with the last layer buttered on top.

Using a small sharp knife, cut diamonds on the diagonal. Cut all the way through the layers of phyllo. Flick just a little cold water over the top to prevent the layers from curling up. Stud the center of each diamond with a clove.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until gently golden on top. Gently pour half the syrup all over the baklava. Wait for it to be absorbed, then pour over the rest. Leave to cool totally before serving (remember to tell guests to remove the clove before eating).It will keep, unrefrigerated, for at least a week, covered with a dish cloth or foil.

From “Food From Many Greek Kitchens,” by Tessa Kiros


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