Dining with Dionysus

A cooking school in the Greek islands shows that simplicity plus necessity equals great cuisine.

Also see:

Slideshow: "The Grecian Formula"

Corby Kummer reveals the secrets of Greek cuisine in a narrated photo tour from his Aegean island cooking class.

Cooking classes change the way you look at the world—or certainly the way you look at what’s on supermarket shelves and in your refrigerator. Thus the logic of cooking vacations, which put you in literal touch with another culture and make you want to try things, once you see up close how easy and sensible they are. Most cultures, after all, evolve cuisines that require minimal equipment and technique (unless, of course, they are French).

Aglaia Kremezi and Costas Moraitis offer cooking courses on the Cycladic island of Kea, the closest island to Athens, that are true vacations. The couple welcomes and entertains students, making them feel like friends (and sending reassuring personalized logistics e-mails beforehand; the Web site is www.keartisanal.com). In just a few days, students come to understand Kremezi and Moraitis’s love of the island and what grows there. The couple’s approach, based on letting what is in the garden tell you what to make, is so flexible that you go home with a new impetus to visit the farmer’s market.

   MED SPREAD: Kea's bread, yogurt-custard
   pies, fresh anchovies, and tomato salad

Many courses are intensive and technique-heavy. This one isn’t. Instead, it is designed as a week that will give you a very enjoyable view of a culture, and demonstrate the equation every cook should know: simplicity + necessity = great cuisine.

I was surprised by Kremezi’s relaxed approach, because I have long known her as an intellectual firebrand—on top of every piece of nutritional (and political) news, the kind of researcher who won’t hesitate to go to an obscure regional festival to find the one old woman or man who still makes a rustic pie with phyllo layers, and then consult Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking, on why they put raki, the traditional liqueur, in the dough. (The answer: to keep the crunch. Her substitute: vodka.)

Both Kremezi and her husband spent time at English-speaking universities: she studied photography and cinema in England; he, biblical texts at Yale. The house where students spend the week (and can check their e-mail) is filled with reference books on art and modern Greek culture, and with folk art Kremezi collected while researching her own books on the cooking of the Greek islands and the Mediterranean (her Mediterranean Hot and Spicy will be published next spring).

A great advantage over other cooking experiences abroad is that Kremezi is so attuned to the tastes, available ingredients, and habits of American cooks. Five of her nine books have been written for the U.S. market (the others were for Greece), and she is a hands-on consultant to two leading East Coast Greek restaurants, Molyvos, in New York City, and Zaytinya, in Washington. Her recipes can require some adjustment at home, but they are likelier than most to work the first time. And anyway, the point of any cooking class is to make you trust your hands and eyes over a printed page or computer screen.

More than long kitchen sessions, convivial meals on the stone terrace under a grape arbor and long afternoon hikes and boating excursions are the order of the week. American friends who live on the island join most meals, and the excursions are led by the American-educated Kostis Maroulis, the third partner in Kea Artisanal. Maroulis came back to Kea to revive a family farm and sail his soultana, a very rare traditional wooden boat he commissioned from a craftsman on the island of Lesbos. It is his pride, and he always take students in it for a sail.

Classes are in the morning, and start with a general discussion of the ingredients being featured in the day’s menu. Students participate at will, assisted by two women, both sharp cooks, who give notes on technique and keep the pace moving toward getting lunch on the long table. Touching, working with, and often picking ingredients in the garden gives students a new confidence. I came back resolved to make my own fresh cheese using nothing more than milk, cream, and lemon juice, and to pick grape leaves as wrappers for transcendentally good and simple stuffed grape leaves. I even wanted to tackle octopus, if it could taste anything like what Moraitis—the organizer and general fix-it guy, who claims indifference as a cook—achieves on his grill. And I knew that one dish would become a kitchen staple: risotto made with orzo and thickened with a common Greek ingredient that magically reveals its power to make an instant, creamy sauce.

Kea, a brief ferry ride from Lavrion, a port near the Athens airport (though a long drive from downtown), is standard- issue Greek island: dramatic hills and mountains descending straight to the sea, Mediterranean bushes and trees and vines blooming everywhere, towns looming high in the mountains like enchanted cities, crescent-shaped fishing villages appearing suddenly around a bend. It is exceptionally dry, and so a distinguishing architectural feature is meticulous dry stone walls that shore up streets, buildings, and the steep terraces that make practically every bit of land tillable. The island traditionally lived on dairy and meat farming; now the economy is based on tourism and construction, and the road along the water is lined with stucco-walled condominiums for which Athenians pay startling prices. White wooden hives can be spotted on seemingly every terrace: honey (and yogurt) on Kea, like everywhere in Greece, is just better.

The course begins with a walk around the garden, which Kremezi and Moraitis have made flourish in the eight years since they decided to live full-time on Kea. Kremezi’s grandfather grew up on the island and taught her how and when to pick wild greens, an essential Greek skill. (Surprisingly, the diet on Greek islands includes anything that can be grown or found on land but very little from the sea: fish that can fetch a price goes to mainland markets. The disinclination toward fish is reminiscent of Sardinia, where the sea was associated with invaders.) We picked grape leaves on the first morning—young, soft, matte- surfaced ones, as Kremezi instructed, not shiny older ones—to blanch for wrappers around a rice stuffing freshened with fennel bulb, parsley, dill, mint, and lemon.

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.