Day 48: Greece
What the hell is with this country’s fanatical devotion to putting lettuce where it doesn’t belong? It doesn’t belong on a burrito and it sure doesn’t belong in a Greek salad or on a souvlaki pita. Greece is one of the few countries I have been to and have any accurate memory of, so when I sit down with MamaBites at Papa Cristos to a lamb souvlaki pita (skewered grilled meat), the first thing I notice is that it is absolutely buried in lettuce. Allow me to explain. Souvlaki is probably the most popular food in Greece. On every island and in every city, you are no more than an antiquated drachma’s throw away from a souvlaki joint. They serve them at souvlaki stands, at street cafés and just about any restaurant anywhere. I’m pretty sure the Chinese restaurants even serve sooovraki. They are offered as pork, lamb, chicken or beef and when you get it in pita form (as opposed to a plate with sides) they lay the meat on your warm, flexible pita (allowing the juices to soak into the bread), toss on some tzatziki (cucumber and yogurt sauce), add tomatoes and onions, wrap it up and hand it to you. It’s simple and absolutely delicious. So what could shredded iceberg lettuce possibly add to the equation? Nothing. Nothing at all. And don’t get me started on what’s supposed to be in a Greek salad.
After my bite of souvlaki, I wash it down with a sip of the refreshing Greek beer Mythos, which single-handedly floods my brain with memories of waterside cafes and gooey, fresh feta drizzled with deep, rich olive oil. Back in reality, I look down at my order of saganaki, which in no way resembles the luscious, crispy and tender fried cheese of my memories, or even the fully passable version I make for myself at home from time to time. The plate of feta with olives, eggplant salad, tomatoes and dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) are an acceptable replacement for the real versions back in Greece, but the best thing on the table may be the little plastic cups of sides available by the front counter. Green olives marinated with oil, lemon and garlic are a briny pleasure and the browned garlic cloves tossed with green chilis are a pungent delight. The spanakopita, a pastry of philo dough stuffed with spinach and feta is flaky, appropriately salty and will get the job done. In the end, the meal was only a mush-mouthed articulation of what the original food actually tasted like and makes me wonder how many false versions of a country’s true cuisine I have been eating over the past couple of months. But the saddest part of all of this? It was, by far, the best Greek food I’ve had outside of Greece.
The true positive of the afternoon? The market. Shelves lined with Greek wines, such as the oft disliked retsina, rows upon rows of olive oil and even a section of frozen goods. My mother falls for the bars of olive oil and honey soap as I am drawn to a bottle of the powerful Greek brandy called Metaxa. I go for the five star bottle (at the cheaper-than-in-Greece price of $23) as opposed to the slightly more expensive and further aged seven star. In Greece, I always drank three star, but the varieties go all the way up to sixteen star. So today I’ll meet somewhere in the middle. The great find of the whole market, however, may be their cans of Italian salt packed anchovies, which are getting harder and harder to come across. Most markets sell their anchovies packed in oil, which mellows the flavor significantly. Rinse some salt packed anchovies, chop them up and saute them at the beginning of whatever pasta or vegetable dish you were already going to make and I promise, you will understand their absolute glory.
Now, rather than offering a summation of further elitist comparisons between Greek food in the United States and the stuff back in Greece, I will instead present a delicious recipe for a simple dish, fried saganaki, as taught to me by the chefs at Nikos Turbo Service on the island of Folegandros. It may not be exactly like the real thing, but unless you want to buy a plane ticket, it’ll have to be close enough. Enjoy.
*Kaseri cheese (for those in Los Angeles, it is available at Bay Cities Italian Deli)
- 1/2 cup of flour
- 1-2 eggs (depending on how much cheese you want to fry)
- Sunflower oil (vegetable oil would work fine as well)
- 1-2 lemons
- Italian parsley, washed, dried and finely chopped
- 1 plate lined with a paper towel
- Pour some flour onto a plate. The amount doesn’t matter, since it’s for dredging— so just use enough to coat the bottom of the plate. If you need more, just pour more.
- Crack an egg, beat it, then pour it on another plate. Once again, if you end up needing more, just repeat this step.
- Depending on what shape the cheese is when you buy it, you’ll want to cut it differently. But basically, you want a piece that is roughly 1/4”-1/2” thick. At the taverna it is usually one large square, but it’s hard to find kaseri in shapes other than wedges, so I usually end up cutting big triangles.
- In a medium pan or iron skillet, pour enough oil to fill the pan up about 1/4”-1/2”.
- Bring the pan over a medium heat.
- Dredge both sides of your cheese in egg, then flower, then egg again, then flour again. That’s right. You’re double breading it. So that’s egg, flour, egg, flour.
- Carefully lay the dredged cheese into the pan. If you have a big pan and your cheese pieces aren’t too big, you can fry two at a time.
(Basic cooking technique will tell you that you want the oil hot enough so that when you place the object inside the oil, it will bubble immediately, but not be so high that it burns. That is certainly true, but at Nikos Turbo Service, they actually put the cheese in the oil and then turn the heat on. Is it the way you would be taught in cooking school? No. But I’ll tell you it comes out damn fine this way too.)
- Once it’s bubbling, you want to leave it be for a minute, then check the bottom. Once it is turning golden brown and crispy, you can turn it over and start to fry the other side.
(The nice thing about frying cheese is that all that matters is the crust. With meat, you have to worry that the food is cooked properly inside. With cheese, once the outside is crispy, the inside will be gooey.)
- Once both sides are golden and you have a crumbly, crispy crust, you can lay it on the paper towel lined plate.
- Transfer the fried cheese to a clean plate and sprinkle a little chopped parsley on top.
- Serve with a halved lemon and instruct yourself or your guests to squeeze its juice over the top. Like anything fried, it is best consumed soon after preparation.
- Eat and enjoy.
2771 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90006
Food Breakdown: 2 alcoholic beverages, 3 appetizers, 1 entree
Distance From My House: 6.9 miles