Cooking in Greece

At Home with Michalis and Nikos

While in Greece in summer 2017, Brent and I took a cooking class with Michalis S., our Airbnb host for two nights in Athens, and were so thrilled with the experience, I have to share Michalis’ creativity here. He’s a chef trained in classical Greek cuisine, and he’s one of the nicest people we’ve ever met. Ever!

With an overhead announcement that we’re arriving in Athens, Brent and I grab our luggage, walk the length of the ferry and step onto a frozen escalator. With the belly of the ferry packed with travelers, we stop on the bottom rung and wait for the giant ramp to lower and the crowd to disembark. 

“Michalis said he’ll have a sign with my name on it,” I tell Brent, grinning. I can’t wait to meet Michalis. Communicating with him via the Airbnb app has been a joy, and we’re grateful he also offered to pick us up at the port (and take us to the airport for a flight to Kefalonia island the next day).

Halfway down the ramp, I spot Michalis with a white piece of paper over his head. He’s cute, wearing sunglasses and eyeing the crowd. When he looks our way, I wave and smile. I don’t want him to see me limping. Boarding the ferry in Paros, four hours earlier, people were frantic to get aboard and we were swept along like Lemurs. As we climbed five short flights of stairs, I struggled to keep apace with my heavy suitcase. Close to the top, I missed a step and smashed my big toe into the tread, nearly falling down. Soon, my foot swelled, turned black and was killing me, but I elevated it with a cold water bottle on it and kept bending my big toe and walking around, to make sure it wasn’t broken.

We reach Michalis and shake his hand. He comes in for a kiss on the right side, then a kiss on the left, repeating the greeting with Brent. Michalis is a true sweetheart. He’s quite masculine with dark hair and a little 5 o’clock shadow on his broad jawline, but he’s very gentle in his manner, smiling and insisting on carrying our luggage. Piraeus port is crowded with people and vehicles, but we’re in a world of our own as we slip into the back seat of Michalis’ car. We relax.

It’s hot in Athens and the air conditioner is blasting. He makes sure we’re comfortable.

It’s only a 10-minute ride to his apartment, which is on the third floor of a tall building in a neighborhood of tall apartment buildings with restaurants and shops at street level. We all squeeze into the tiny elevator and then enter his apartment’s foyer, lit up by a large fish tank. With the luggage set aside, he cheerily shows us the brand new guppies, born just the night before.

We step into his living room, painted deep red, and sit on the couch. Michalis baked two types of cookies the night before (one is a sandwich cookie with a chocolate center) and they’re sitting in pretty rows on a white plate on the wooden coffee table. While we snack, he runs to the kitchen and brings back glasses of homemade lemonade. He waits for us to drink it, to make sure it’s okay. It’s delicious!! 

“My mother sent lemons from my home on Lesbos Island,” he says, smiling. 

“Well, please thank your mother when you talk with her,” I say. “This is excellent, and so good with the cookies.” Quite humbling to know his mother sent the lemons. Plus, Lemonade if my favorite beverage!

I can’t help but smile when talking with Michalis. He has that gentle air of wanting to please, and laughing easily. 

He tells us about Lesbos, where most of his family still lives, and we tell him about our home in the U.S. desert Southwest. His English is very good, though he had messaged me through the Airbnb app just after we booked, saying his friend, Nikos, was helping him write messages in English. 

We have a great conversation and he has nothing to worry about. How much Greek can Brent and I speak? Not. A. Word.

Nikos arrives. He’s a strongly built man with a sense of calm, also handsome, who we insist must sit and relax a minute.

When I originally asked Michalis how much the cooking lesson would cost, he said we must wait until we experience his class before deciding how much we feel it’s worth. Wow. I tell him we’ll naturally pay for the food in addition to the course fee. Brent and I are grateful for this opportunity to enjoy an authentic Greek meal with local people in a home setting.

Michalis and Nikos consult constantly in Greek. I hear Nikos say Michalis’ name, and it sounds like “Meek-hail.” I repeat it to myself over and over, so I’ll say it correctly. 

“Michalis wants you to know he has arranged to give the cooking lesson at a friend’s apartment,” Nikos says. “There is more room there than here.”

“Also,” Nikos continues, “I know you asked if we could have an early dinner because of your early flight to Kefalonia. You know, we usually eat around midnight,” He laughs. They’re normally up until 2 a.m., enjoying a social meal. 

“We want to make sure a 9 p.m. dinner is okay with you both,” Nikos says.

“Of course,” we say.

IMG_0159
Athen’s vegetable, fruit and nuts marketplace

When they return from grocery shopping, we all pile into Michalis’ car and drive five minutes to Daphne’s apartment, which is on the fifth floor. When we enter, her miniature pincher, Evita, is adamant about how much she does not like being disturbed. Daphne’s apartment is lovely with two sets of french doors in the living room leading onto a narrow balcony filled with potted plants, veggies and herbs. 

Michalis organizes his ingredients for the recipes and Nikos pours wine. He hands me a black apron with the words “The Lord of the Grill” and I tie it on. They expect, because I’m the woman, I’m most interested in the cooking lessons. I am interested in seeing how Michalis makes authentic Greek dishes, but Brent is the real foodie and chef in our household. 

Because my foot is hurting, I sit on the couch holding my glass of white wine with my foot up, apologizing for being rude, saying I wouldn’t ordinarily put my feet on people’s furniture. My water shoe helps protect my foot, but they sure are ugly!

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Chillaxing (with injured foot up) and making friends with Evita

I get up and move toward the kitchen for a front row view when Michalis gets started. He has prepared a lovely menu and presents us with a 3-ring binder of recipes in English!

We will prepare Stuffed Eggplant (or Aubergine, as they call it), Orange Pie, Tzatziki, Dakos (Cretan salad with barley rusks) and fried calamari, which Michalis’ father, a fisherman, also sent from Lesbos specifically for this meal! Obviously Michalis’ family is as sweet as he is.

We start with the eggplants and Michalis has me cut, core and score them into boats, then he brags about how quick I am. Stuffed eggplant is also called “Imam baildi,” Nikos says, and relays an old story about an Imam, a holy Islam leader, who ate and ate and ate so much of it that his stomach soon exploded. Or he exploded. At least Nikos thinks “baildi” translates closest to “explode.” The name then means exploding Imam, or something like that.

The fun part about stuffed eggplant is grating the tomatoes. Yes, grating the tomatoes and leaving out the skin! Then all ingredients, including sliced onions, tomato paste, bay laves, yellow and feats cheese, etc., are eventually cooked in a big pot, and then scooped into the eggplant boats for baking.


Grating Tomatoes
Brent photobombs us as Michalis grates tomatoes for the Stuffed Eggplants.

Stuffed Eggplant (Imam Baildi)

Ingredients

  • 4 eggplants (6 or 7 inches long)
  • 6 big onions, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 ripe tomatoes (grated without skins)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 shote white wine
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 dash nutmeg
  • 1 dash pink (not sure what this is)
  • 1 dash cinnamon
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • 100 g grated yellow cheese (optional)
  • 200 g feta cheese
  • 2 cups vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Directions

Wash the eggplants well. Cut the steam ends off each eggplant. Then, cut the eggplants in half lengthwise. Carve a cross in the flesh of each piece. Salt the eggplants and soak them in water for five minutes to remove bitterness. Drain them well afterwards.

Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Fry the eggplants until brownish. Remove and place them in a strainer or on paper towels to drain the oil.

In a saucepan, sauté the garlic and onions in olive oil. Add the wine, tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaves, parsley, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, pink and sugar, and cook the mixture until the onions soften. Remove the sauce from the heat. Remove the bay leaves.

Break the feta cheese into small pieces and add to the mixture. Optionally, you can also add some yellow cheese. Check if salt is needed.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the eggplant in a baking dish, one next to the other. Press them on the flesh side with a fork to prepare the surface for the tomato mixture. Fill each eggplant with a heap of tomato mixture. Add a cup of water to the baking dish. 

Bake the eggplants for 40 minutes uncovered. 

Serve warm. 



Before we arrived, Michalis had already prepared, from scratch, grape leaves stuffed with rice, Spanakopita, and mixed meatballs (minced meats mixed together with spices, rolled into balls, floured and fried). 

Next, we prepare the Orange Pie. An orange syrup is cooked using 5 or 6 glasses of water (Michalis doesn’t use a measuring cup, he actually takes a regular-sized drinking glass from the cabinet and fills it up six times), 500 grams of sugar and the zest of one orange. Usually, the syrup is prepared in advanced and chilled. We cook it for about 10 minutes then allow it to cool.

While they syrup is cooking, Michalis shows us how to take large sheets of the Phyllo pastry, dip them in the orange batter, wad them up, and put them in a glass baking dish along each other. Brent and I both dip and wad dough pieces and carefully arrange them in the baking dish. The idea is to bake them for 40 minutes and then pour the cooled syrup over the baked dough. 



Orange Pie

Ingredients

  • 400 g strained yogurt
  • 1/2 kg pie crust (phyllo sheets)
  • 500 g sugar
  • 6 – 7 eggs
  • 1 glass of vegetable oil
  • 1 sachet of baking powder (about 2 teaspoons)
  • zest of three oranges
  • 2 sachets of vanilla (about 1 tablespoon)

Syrup Ingredients

  • 5-6 glasses of water
  • 500 g sugar
  • Zest of 1 orange

Directions

First, prepare the syrup several hours before the pie so it is cold when you use it. Put the water, sugar and zest in a saucepan. Boil the mixture for 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, then refrigerate.

Put all other ingredients for the piece (except the pie crust) in a large bowl and stir gently with a balloon whisk for 1 minute until smooth.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Unfold the pie crust and dip each piece (sheet) separately into the batter. Loosely scrunch up the pie crust, as though wadding up a piece of paper. Place it in the baking dish, each piece next to the others

Bake for 40 minutes. 

When the pie is out of the oven, slowly pour all of the syrup over it.

Preferably, put the pie in the fridge and serve cold. You can also add cinnamon if you wish. Can be nicely combined with ice cream.


Daphne arrives in a flurry of Evita barking and jumping! Daphne is fast. She changes clothes quickly, takes Evita for a quick walk and then spends the rest of the evening pulling serving dishes out of drawers from all over her apartment to set the table. She also cuts up several large potatoes and deep fries them to perfection while Michalis is deep-frying the calamari. 

I try to keep my left foot out of the way as everyone rushes around. Daphne wastes no time setting her large table with plates, silverware, glasses.

Evita barks and jumps when someone knocks on the door. It’s another friend, Christos, a very large young man, tall with broad shoulders, thick hair and a constant smile. He speaks a little English but seems shy about it. I reassure him his English beats my Greek any day, because I’m having difficulty just saying “hello” and “thank you” in Greek. 

Christos is a huge sports fan and is well aware of NBA teams. He works for Mino, an elevator company, and pulls out his phone to show a recent elevator unit they just installed. It took them a week. The video shows the work space and materials and the guys on his crew. They seem relaxed and proud of their work. He is such a happy man.

Nikos is most excited about a fried goat/sheep cheese recipe. The cheese is round, about 5 inches in diameter, and Michalis cuts 1/4 slices, wets them and then drags them through flour before placing them in shallow oil in a frying pan. Christos, too, is anticipating the fried cheese and they seem like teenage boys in their anticipation. 

Daphne has plated all the food and somehow found a way to make it all fit on her table. It’s 10:30 p.m. when we sit down, salute with our drinks and start to pass the dishes around. 

We had told Michalis via the Airbnb app to please invite his friends, since we anticipated a lot of food. As I look around the table, I appreciate Michalis for his sincerity, and Nikos for his patience, and Christos for his enthusiasm, and Daphne for her generous sharing of her space. It’s hard for me not to be moved. They include us like family, and when we’re not chewing on all the delicious food, we’re talking about food.


IMG_4057
Daphne, Christos, Michalis, Cindi and Brent feast (Nikos is the photographer).

How can we repay Daphne for everything she’s done, including cooking and dirtying every dish in her house? I tell her how grateful we are, tell them all how grateful we are to be with them, to share the food. 

As we’re finishing up, I start to collect plates, to take them to the kitchen with the intent of washing up. They won’t have it! Instead, Michalis asks me to sit back down next to Brent. He leaves the room and returns with a large, colorful gift bag.

“What?!” I say, now thoroughly embarrassed at how gracious they are with their hospitality. He puts the gift bag between Brent and Me. Inside are two scrolls tied with red ribbon. Mine unfurls to read in English, “Certificate of Achievement is awarded to Cindi Brown for successful completion of Greek Cuisine Cooking Class.” How precious. It’s dated and signed by Michalis, who is listed as the “Chef Tutor.”

I want to cry but am shy with them looking on. Also in the bag is a small wooden crate with bottles nested in raffia. “That’s olive oil,” Michalis says, “and honey from Lesbos.”

Then he hands us take-way containers filled with meatballs, Spanakopita, fried calamari and other goodies. “This is to take on the plane with you tomorrow,” Michalis says.

Their generosity undoes me. 


BONUS RECIPE!

Tzatziki

Ingredients

  • 1/2 large cucumber
  • 2-3 garlic gloves
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 500 g strained Greek yogurt (Fage is an authentic Greek brand available in the U.S.)
  • 1/2 shot of vinegar
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Directions

Slice the cucumber in half lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds. Grate the remaining cucumber.

Place the grated cucumber in a strain, rest it on a bowl and add some salt. Give it a stir and let it drain for a few hours.

Chop the garlic and mix it with the oil and vinegar in a large bowl.

When the cucumber has drained, add it in the garlic mixture. Then add the yogurt and stir the mixture until evenly distributed. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

2 thoughts on “Cooking in Greece

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