Aglaia Kremezi: The Foods of the Greek Islands

In sticking to basic ingredients and techniques, and thereby avoiding the frill of modern restauraunts, Aglaia Kremezi's  "the Foods of the Greek islands" offers a unique perspective on Greek food and traditions.

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The food of Greece is every bit as appealing as that of its famous Mediterranean neighbors -and historical rulers- Italy and Turkey. But Americans have not known much about Greece's food, for good reason. Visitors don't see even a hint of the rich variety and freshness of Greek cuisine in restaurants, which serve the same tired retinue of a few disastrously meaty dishes (kebabs, moussaka) that became universal as a way to vaunt postwar affluence.


Beans and greens are too humble to offer to people willing to pay good money, caterers to tourists assume, and nowadays they're also too time-consuming to find and prepare. As for Greek chefs working in American restaurants, they're almost too good at adapting their native palate to more fashionable Mediterranean dishes.

Now Aglaia Kremezi has come to the rescue of those unlucky enough not to have a Greek grandmother. Her new "Foods of the Greek Islands" goes far beyond the cuisine of the mostly clement and paradisal islands of the title to offer a short course in how Greeks cook for themselves. It's revelatory.

Kremezi is an experienced journalist and tireless researcher. I'm fortunate to count her as a friend, one who has led me and colleagues to the markets of Athens, where she was raised, and introduced us to greens-gathering cooks on the hillsides of Crete. Nothing prepared us for this book, though. The food is inherently interesting and extremely tempting, and much simpler than those hillside women -who cannily prefer to keep secret ingredients secret- would have you think. This is a book that will have the impact of Elizabeth David's paeans to sunny food from sunny lands in cold, gray postwar London.

That's because Kremezi has generally avoided calling for hard-to-find ingredients and has stuck to basic techniques. Her simple food is uniquely satisfying: lentil soup with pasta and mint, with the unexpected appearance of crushed red pepper and Kalamata or another sweet vinegar. Baked chicken with orzo is seasoned with cinnamon stick and dried oregano, the herb that even when used alone is enough to identify a dish as Greek. Veal stew with quinces gives adventurous cooks a chance to indulge in a favorite (and rare) ingredient—quinces, which turn a beautiful ruby when cooked. There are plenty of stewed greens, of course, since they kept families alive for millennia and as recently as the postwar period.

Our nomination for immortality goes to roasted potatoes with garlic, lemon, and oregano, little cubed potatoes baked until tender and baked some more, until they are dark and crisp.




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