What does it mean to redefine a cuisine as old as the cuisine of Greece? Chef Maria Elia spent a summer cooking and experimenting at her father's taverna in the mountains of Cyprus (he's a Greek Cypriot). The collection that was born of that summer is a thoroughly modern take on the traditional flavors of Greece. Elia is the author of Smashing Plates.
Dorie Greenspan: I was fascinated in reading your book to learn just how important cheese is in Greek cuisine.
Maria Elia: There are so many cheeses in Greece.
One particular to me is halloumi, a Cypriot cheese. (Cypriot is when I refer to Cyprus; Cyprus is a small island where my dad is from just off the coast of Greece.) I had the good fortune that some of the villagers invited me to make some halloumi with them. Traditionally it's made with goat's milk, but most people make it with a mix of sheep's and goat's milk now, and some even with cow's milk.
It's such a great cheese. People always go, "It makes your teeth squeak." But fresh halloumi doesn't really make your teeth squeak so much. It tastes incredible.
If you just grill it lightly, it's like, wow, cheese like you've never tasted before. When you warm it, it doesn't melt, it just kind of softens. It's springy, but there's a texture that's almost a little bit meaty about it.
It's got guts, but it's not strong in flavor; it's just really mild. It likes other flavors being put with it. You could squeeze some lemon over it, put some chile with it, throw some capers with it or fresh herbs.
Then of course there's feta. That's not a Cypriot cheese; that's a Greek cheese. It's made with a mix of sheep's and goat's milk. It's a wonderful cheese.
Most people just associate it with Greek salad, don't they? But if you were to bake Greek cheese in a little bit of olive oil and some chile flakes, it's amazing. It totally changes the texture. It doesn't melt, but it just softens like when you have warm pecorino.
Then my other favorite cheese -- there are so many -- is kefalotyri, which is a sheep's milk cheese predominantly. That's more like a pecorino Parmesan. You can shave that or grate that. It's kind of salty and a little bit sour.
DG: It was interesting to me that cheese finds a place in every part of the meal, from starter to dessert. It's similar with honey in Greek cookery also, isn't it?
ME: Yes. Honey is a fantastic ingredient. You can use a little bit in a stifado, like a red wine stew, to sweeten it. Or just honey poured over warmed feta -- two simple ingredients that just give so much.
You think about the land of Greece, its islands, and Cyprus. It's so rich in its flora. If you were a bee, that's where you'd want to live -- you'd want to hang out with the orange blossoms, the chestnut flowers and the pine trees. There's a wealth of feeding, and it's all so different. That's why honeys from all around Greece vary so much. It's about which one you pick to put on what ingredient. If I were a bee, that's where I'd want to be.
DG: Why did you call your book Smashing Plates?
ME: Every Sunday when I was a child, my dad would drag me to a Greek wedding. The only part of the Greek wedding that I loved was the tables of mezes filled with amazing food -- you get stuffed vine leaves and meatballs, and that was great.
I was telling a friend about my book, that I was writing about my Greek heritage. I was going on about Sundays, when I went to Greek weddings, and the fun part was the food and also the smashing plates. She said, "You have to call it Smashing Plates."
But then I was worried because in England, when something's great, we call it "smashing." I was like, "Oh no, that's really egotistical that I'm calling my book Smashing Plates."
DG: It's a great double meaning. Were the plates truly smashed?
ME: Yes, at Greek weddings you smash plates. It's like the new beginning. At Jewish weddings they stamp on glasses.
DG: It was so interesting to me, as I read your wonderful introduction, how you reconnected with your father and his homeland. I would love to hear the story of how you came to write this book.
ME: He's a chef, so I grew up in his restaurant just outside of London. Then on Sundays were the Greek weddings. If there wasn't a wedding, we went to his sister-in-law's house, and she'd cook this huge array of food.
Then my parents got divorced. Suddenly, I lost connection with the Greek side of my family. When you lose connection with family, it's not just the relatives; it is also the food.
To me as a kid, I knew I wanted to be a chef since I was 4. The food was a major part of my life. I think that was probably one of the major things I was upset about. I didn't eat Greek food anymore. My dad moved away, and then went eventually back to Cyprus.
Throughout my training, it was classical French. Then I worked abroad and looked at Asian cuisine. Then I worked in a restaurant that was British cuisine. I couldn't really play with Greek ingredients.
Then I changed to a new job, which was kind of Mediterranean. I was like, "I'm going to contact some suppliers that I hadn't used for years." One was a Greek supplier. I remember eating some feta and some vine leaves, and I suddenly went a bit quiet. Everyone thought, "What's wrong with Maria?"
I was like, "Oh my god." Food is really, really emotive. Suddenly it was a flashback to all the years I'd been missing eating the Greek cuisine and the connection. When you eat with Greeks, you share; it's like everybody comes together. It was so nostalgic.
I was like, "This is what I need to reconnect with." So that's what I did. I phoned my dad, who was living in Cyprus in a small taverna in the Troodos Mountains. I said, "I want to come and cook with you." He said, "What do you want to do that for?" I was like, "Come on, come on, Dad."
I went to Cyprus for a month and hung out with him in his taverna. We cooked together and embraced Greek life. I've been to Cyprus twice in my life before; the first time when I was 9 years old, and that was a massive experience, and the second time when I was about 20. Then I went back last year.
Elia's recipe: Carrot Keftedes
DG: You've done so much in the book to give us traditional recipes, very modern takes on recipes and your own interpretations. Do you have one recipe that you think I should start with, that would give me a real feel for what you've done, how you've redefined these Greek flavors?
ME: The best interpretation may be the Carrot Keftedes. Keftedes are a Greek meatball, and this is a vegetarian version. In essence, it uses all the fresh herbs that you would associate with Greek cuisine like dill, mint and parsley, along with the cheeses. I use kefalotyri and feta. By using carrot, it brings them all together. The carrot is a little bit sweet because I chose to roast it.
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Dorie Greenspan's 10 cookbooks have won a total of six James Beard and IACP awards, including Cookbook of the Year. She is the author of Around My French Table and Baking Chez Moi (October 2014).