Greek Recipes From a Rising Star

Psilakis Collage.jpg

Photos Courtesy of Little Brown

To try recipes from How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking click here for fried calamari and whitebait and here for grilled rabbit confit.

Some cookbooks I find so irresistibly charming I have to buy them, although I know I probably wouldn't have the time to skim through their pages, let alone read or cook from them. Other books, although they may be very interesting and important, are overlooked because they come across as dull and unappealing, a grave problem during these very difficult times for food writers. With an abundance of free recipes only a few keystrokes away--good, bad, and plain silly--people need more than cooking instructions to make them spend money on a book.

Michael Psilakis's How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking (Little, Brown and Company) is a particularly charming book. The cover, of course, contributes greatly to any book's instant appeal, and here the simple-looking picture of olive oil, lemon, garlic, oregano, and olives works perfectly to draw the reader or bookstore browser into a beguilingly nostalgic and homey Mediterranean mood. The rest of the equally beautiful food pictures by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton--seemingly straightforward but in fact very difficult to execute--work towards the same goal.

This is far from a down-to earth-homey recipe collection, though. It is the book of a very successful self-taught chef-owner of four Manhattan restaurants: the "Thomas Keller of Greek cuisine," Time Out New York called him; The New Yorker characterized him "the Greek-American Mario Batali." No wonder the author sounds so sure of himself when he decides to divide the recipes into chapters following his own memories rather than the usual order of a meal.

"I have created a book of soulfully integrated chapters," Psilakis writes. "This makes for a seemingly haphazard compilation with appetizers, entrées, fish, vegetables, and meat recipes within any given chapter."

"In following my muse," he writes, "I have created a book of soulfully integrated chapters...This makes for a seemingly haphazard compilation with appetizers, entrées, fish, vegetables, and meat recipes within any given chapter." He explains that in the introductions for the book's 11 chapters he narrates "memories, emotions, and insights that transpired throughout [his] childhood and into early adolescence ...and [are] vital to the path that led to my destiny in the kitchen." If you buy the book mainly to cook from, you may find that division confusing, though Psilakis' chapters make perfect sense if you want to read the book as a memoir with lots of recipes.

The general introduction recounts the fascinating story of the Greek immigrant boy laughed at on his first day at school because he wore black socks and his best clothes "as if he were going to church." Caught between his old-world, high-principled Greek family and the American way of life, Psilakis, like most young men and women, had his share of rebellious years. But he continued to live in his parents' house during and even after college, as is the custom in Greece. He wasn't sure what he really wanted to do with his life when he landed a job as a waiter in T.G.I. Friday's thinking he could earn enough money to go to law school in California. He quickly realized that he loved being in a restaurant, serving people, and being close to where food was prepared. From T.G.I. Friday's he moved to Café Angelica, a "creative" Italian restaurant in Garden City, Long Island owned by Greeks. He became manager and then majority owner of the restaurant, but still held his post at the front of the house. He had to occasionally give a hand in the kitchen, though, and then he was forced to become his restaurant's chef when the young man who cooked for him abandoned his job.

He found his true calling. The renamed Ecco featured "a blend of Greek-Italian-Mediterranean cuisine," and his dishes started to be talked about, and the very influential Gael Greene wrote about it in New York magazine. During this time he met Donatella Arpaia, a successful New York restaurateur, who invited him to work with her in Manhattan. He sold Ecco and decided to realize his dreams--"onera" in an imaginative Greek transliteration--creating his first restaurant, Onera, in Manhattan, a half-story below ground level on the Upper West Side.

The first months, in the fall of 2004, were particularly difficult. No one seemed to understand what he was doing with Greek cooking, Psilakis writes. Desperate for a controversial idea to get media attention, he created an eight-course offal tasting menu. It got him into a few magazines, and Anthony Bourdain predicted that Psilakis would one day be a star. But it was Frank Bruni's rave in the New York Times and the two stars he gave Onera in December 2004 that put Psilakis on the gastronomic map of this most competitive city. Onera's success led Psilakis to open his midtown Anthos, which received one Michelin star in both 2008 and 2009.

"Mr. Psilakis treats Greece the way many New York chefs have long treated Italy or Southeast Asia: as inspiration rather than doctrine, a set of seasonings, ingredients and ideas to draw from and disregard," Bruni wrote in his review of Onera. I can't find better words to describe the book's recipes. Psilakis's salad of wild bitter greens, roasted peppers, grilled onion, oil-marinated dried tomato, and kefalotiri is a perfect example. The salad, far from traditional, ingeniously combines frisée--poetically called "wild bitter green"--with sweet peppers, salty cheese, and smoky-sweet onion, together with sprigs of parsley, dill, and mint leaves, dressed in "red wine and black pepper vinaigrette"--a very sophisticated dressing with 11 ingredients.

Starting from his "father's garden" Psilakis' book moves to "open water" and returns home for "dinner family-style" followed by his "first recipes." Then we come to "the hunting trip"--a coming-of-age ritual of sorts for the male members of his extended family. I wonder if the rabbit his father, uncles, and cousins killed in that first hunting adventure made such a lasting impression on them as it did on the chef: His grilled rabbit confit is a truly brilliant dish. The slow-braised pieces of meat come out of the garlicky aromatic olive oil perfectly succulent after three hours, and the brief final smoky char makes the meat irresistible--by far the best rabbit recipe I have tried.

Holding a baby lamb while his father slit its throat for the traditional Greek Easter feast was a traumatic childhood experience for the author. He writes that from it he learned to respect the butchered animals, as he was taught by his is father--originally from Crete--to love every part of the lamb, especially organ meat. In "a lamb and a goat" he gives recipes for lamb's tongue and heart, along with the roasted leg of lamb, and braised goat.

In his introduction for "Anthos--the new world," the author goes overboard with "Greek pride", and I admit to tiring of the repetition of the theme, particularly near the end of the book. It is probably my problem, having spent my life in Greece; I certainly know many Greek-Americans who genuinely feel the same way Psilakis does. The organization is likely to frustrate many people expecting something of a standard cookbook. But it's a beautiful book to look at, and aside from that brilliant rabbit I found the dish I so much enjoyed when I dined at Anthos and was hoping was here: Skordalia potato-garlic soup with crispy bacaliaro confit and beet tartar. I seem to have tried an earlier version of the dish, though, as I remember my soup perfectly white, not tinted from the "quenelles" of beet-caper-mustard-horseradish "tartar". I am very tempted to try making it soon.