For Greeks, olives on the table, in the kitchen and as a part of life in the Mediterranean are revered. Olives are regularly placed on the Greek table as an appetizer usually served, with a little bread, cheese and wine or ouzo. Olives are essential to any meze and are often served as a side dish to any Greek main meal. Where space affords it, many Greek people grown their own olives and it is common to see Greek cooks brining their own olives. If there is no olive tree in the garden – they are always able to grab a big crate of olives from the market! Interestingly, while olive oil is restricted on some days during the Greek Lenten period (Wed & Fri) – olives can be consumed the whole time. In the kitchen, olives do not feature much in cooked dishes, however they do take a starring role in baking! They are used in a number of different breads and pitas.
Olives are packed with vitamin E and zinc (zinc contains enzymes which are said to help break down alcohol). Again, research suggests that the antioxidants found in olives can help to prevent against a number of conditions, including cancer, heart attacks, strokes and gastrointestinal disorders. Olives are also said to assist with conditions such as asthma and arthritis. If you are on a low salt diet – it is always best to drain olives from their brine and wash them off with fresh water.
Take a look in any Greek pantry and you will always find a jar of honey – it may be dark and scented with pine/fir or a lighter in colour and filled with the flavours of wild thyme, orange blossoms, other wildflowers or chestnuts. While honey takes a starring role in many delicious Greek pastries, baking and other desserts, like the classic melamakarona (orange and honey macarons), it also takes a similar place in cooking. Particularly, pork stews or other dishes cooked with fruit. Mr K even uses honey as a marinade for his classic grilled octopus. For the simplest and most delicious dessert – serve the honey of your choice over thick strained yoghurt, a crumble of crunchy biscuits and fresh fruit – or if you have a real sweet tooth, a dollop of orange spoon sweets.
Since ancient times, honey has been known to contain powerful antioxidants with antiseptic and antibacterial properties. The vitamins in honey depend on the actual variety. However, it has been used in modern times to treat everything from soldiers with the flu during WW1, to more recently being used in the treatment of certain strains of bacteria.
Thick, strained yogurt is indispensible when it comes to Greek cooking. It is used in everything from classic dips, sauces and desserts to baking, salads and more. One of my favourite Greek salads is fresh summer beetroot, with yoghurt sauce, garlic and capers. In Australia, it is very hard to find a product similar to that which you will find in Greece. Some lucky countries close by to Greece do have access to the luscious “Total” yoghurt. To achieve a product similar to that which you find in Greece, it is best to break out the muslin and strain your favourite brand of Australian “Greek” yoghurt. You probably only need to strain the yoghurt for a few hours – or overnight. If you leave it too much longer you are on your way to making cheese.
Speaking of cheese, it is another essential for classic Greek cooking. If you thought the people of France were the world’s biggest consumers of cheese, then think again. Research suggests that in Greece, people eat more cheese per head of population compared to any other country in the world. There is a wide variety of cheeses made across Greece. By far the most common cheese you will find in every Greek kitchen is the classic Feta (meaning slice). It is a handy standby to have to quickly make up a batch of dacos, or like olives, it is often served on the table as a side dish with many main meals. However, be warned! As a Greek taxi driver recently informed me, Feta is not always feta. In Greece, feta is made from a blend of sheep and goats milk, with a minimum of 70% sheep milk. In Australia, the European union’s protection of “feta” does not apply – so if you are not buying feta made in Greece, you might not be getting Feta at all!! Other classic Greek cheeses include Kasseri, Halloumi, Kefalotyri, Myzithra and next to feta, Kefalograviera is probably one of the more common cheeses to be found in Greek kitchens. If you can’t get your hands on any kefalograviera and it is called for in a recipe – parmesan is probably the closest match.
Beans, peas and lentils, both dried and fresh, are a staple of traditional Greek cooking. They feature in winter soups, salads, dips and classics such as gigandes plaki (giant baked beans) and they are extremely filling and economical. Popular types of legumes include chickpeas, lima beans (also known as butter beans), yellow and green split peas and brown lentils. In terms of fresh or frozen legumes, broad beans, green peas, green and continental beans are all very common and can be made into Arakas me Aginares (peas, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, green onions and dill) or Fasolakia (green beans in a rich tomato sauce with feta).
The health benefits of legumes and pulses are significant. They are low fat, high fibre, no cholesterol, low GI and high protein. Research indicates that legumes and pulses are excellent to eat if you want to reduce your risk of heart disease or diabetes.
While Rigani is listed as one of the “top ten” essentials of Greek cooking, there really is no one herb or spice, in particular that defines Greek cooking. Dill, mint, dried chilli, thyme, cloves, bay leaves and nutmeg are all very popular but probably one of the most commonly used spices is cinnamon. Mahlepi (ground wild cherry seed) and mastic (plant resin or gum, native to the Island of Chios known as "tears of Chios") are also special and unique to Greek cooking, used in specialties such as Tsoureki, an Easter bread. Herbs and spices are used with a cautious hand by Greek cooks and most recipes call for restraint on the spice front. While there is a careful approach to the use of herbs and spices in the kitchen, herbs such as thyme, rigani, chamomile and spearmint can be found growing wild and in generous proportions in fields and on the budding on the roadside. I am convinced that is why Greek lamb and goat tastes so good – the animals have been grazing on a bounty of beautiful herbs.
Spices are used in both sweet and savory dishes – cinnamon is intrinsic to many a good red sauce, just as it is to rizagolo (rice pudding). The health benefits of using herbs and spices have been known since ancient times, when they were used in particular for medicinal purposes. Research suggests that one of the spices most loved by Greek people, cinnamon, can help to lower blood sugars and total cholesterol helping to both prevent and regulate diabetes.