Dining with Dionysus

A cooking school in the Greek islands shows that simplicity plus necessity equals great cuisine.
AGLAIA KREMEZI and the author stuff grape
leaves with rice and herbs.

Even bad stuffed grape leaves are good, but these were better than any I’d had, for the vivid and cooling flavors; Kremezi made a version with ground meat, too. Stewing the stuffed leaves in water mixed with a good amount of olive oil and lemon juice is key, and they’re better the second day. (The recipe is in Kremezi’s Foods of the Greek Islands, on the short list of books every cook should own.) Stuffing and wrapping the leaves is not as easy as it looks, we learned as we took turns. We became sufficiently competitive that we tried to keep track of where ours had been placed beneath the upside-down plate that keeps the packages from coming apart as they simmer.

Grape leaves in brine are fairly easy to find, frozen whole leaves (a better substitute) harder, but with some ingenuity you might discover a source for fresh ones in your own neighborhood. Friends from the course came home and scouted (and purloined) fresh grape leaves growing on the trellis of a café in downtown Washington. I’m looking for a local gardener myself—and for a fig tree. The milky substance inside the fleshy leaves protects and moistens fish as it grills, and charred fig leaves make a great side snack.

Some of the food we ate with such pleasure would be hard to duplicate at home, like the lamb chops from a neighbor’s animal, rubbed with a Middle Eastern spice mixture and grilled over a wood fire (always a good way to grill lamb; single-cut chops are the best to grill, for easy lifting and plentiful burnt bits). And it would be a challenge to find octopus as good as what Moraitis bought from the island fishmonger, which Kremezi marinated overnight in oil, wine vinegar, red wine, garlic, oregano, and red pepper. I’m up for a try, though, given that the vinegar in the marinade obviates the usual pounding, and given the number of converts to the chewy, charred, meaty tentacles.

It will likely be impossible, sadly, to find the sweets Kremezi enterprisingly had shipped from neighboring islands for us to taste, including baklava filled with nuts and a sweet olive mixture, which is surprisingly good (you can order it from demeterspantry.com). The syrup-drenched baklava we know, made with paper-thin dough, is generally left to professional cooks (three bakeries and cafés sell competing baklavas in the small port near the couple’s house; no matter how well fed, by the end of the week each student had managed to hit every one of them). Instead we rolled Kremezi’s pasta-thin, vodka-laced phyllo dough on cornstarch, and layered it with several fillings for the rustic savory pie called pita, which is more like lasagna than like baklava.

Other dishes are encouragingly doable: roasted halves of tomatoes, eggplants, and bell peppers stuffed with a rice mixture similar to the one for grape leaves but with currants, pine nuts, and grated cheese; yellow-split-pea mash, lush and sweet and pleasantly floury, with a caper-and-onion stew flavored with sweet red wine like Marsala or the Greek Mavrodaphne. (Wines are overlooked but important Greek products. The Mavrodaphne was one of several that struck the group during an evening wine-and-cheese tasting led by an expert the couple brings in from Athens.) And even reluctant bread makers wanted to try the fast, versatile flatbreads Kremezi served at almost every meal. She proudly calls the recipe “Aglaia’s Bread,” because it took her so long to master the proportion of semolina, all-purpose, and whole-wheat flours for the dough, which can be topped with whatever leftovers are lying around.

The recipe that exemplified the week, and Kremezi’s style, was one she tossed off on the last day and says she makes all the time: risotto with orzo, the pasta shaped like ovoid grains of rice, and grated zucchini, lemon, and feta. It’s foolproof, and can be adapted to any number of vegetables you find at the farmer’s market or (overgrown) in your garden. It shows how crumbled feta becomes a thick, creamy sauce that absorbs and amplifies other flavors—and what a difference the two cornerstones of Greek cooking, olive oil and lemons, can make to a seemingly familiar dish.

To serve six as a main course or eight as a side dish, heat seven to eight cups of chicken or vegetable broth or, if you don’t have broth, water. In a large skillet, heat 1/2 cup of olive oil and add four or five cloves of peeled and thinly sliced garlic and four cups of diced or grated zucchini or yellow squash. Sauté, stirring, for 10 minutes over medium-high heat; the squash will exude a good deal of liquid. Add 1/2 cup of white wine, a pound of orzo, and salt and pepper to taste, and stir to coat the pasta with oil. Pour in three cups of broth and continue to cook for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently and adding more liquid as needed. The pasta can be al dente, for the risotto effect, or cooked completely through, as you like.

Remove the cooked orzo from the heat and add 1/4 cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice, three tablespoons of grated or shredded lemon zest, and 1 1/2 cups of feta cheese, mashed with a fork (and now: magic sauce). Buy the least salty feta you can find (if you get the feta fetish, as you should, order several of the barrel-aged fetas from www.zingermans.com), and save some of the crumbs for garnish. Snip over the risotto whatever combination you like of fennel fronds, fresh dill, and mint. That is, let the garden tell you how to season an irresistibly Greek, and simple, dish.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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