One side of my family arrived on Ellis Island from Greece in the early 1900s, which seems like a really long time ago, and I usually feel very American. After all, we’re all a bunch of immigrants– it’s just that some of us are more recent than others. But sometimes when I eat at other peoples’ houses or read about the “Mediterranean Diet” I see how Greek I still am. This list isn’t meant to instruct anybody in how to follow a certain diet– it’s just what I’ve noticed that collectively is more Greek than not.
Olive oil is pretty popular right now, but my family has always taken it rather seriously. In fact, I didn’t have a green salad with vegetable oil on it until I was 18! I always get the darkest, fruitiest oil I can find and I use it on everything. Frying meat, sautéing vegetables, drizzling over vegetables and pasta, for bread-dipping– it’s my go-to oil. If I’m baking something spicy or chocolatey and the recipe calls for vegetable oil, I use olive oil. Before you judge, check out Smitten Kitchen’s Grapefruit Olive Oil Pound Cake.
I also use a lot of dried spearmint, especially in Greek meatballs (along with oregano, garlic, and white wine). Spearmint and oregano also go well on green salads. Don’t use peppermint, though, or your meatballs will taste like tea! Spearmint grows like a weed (because it is) so it is often easier to grow and dry your own, especially when you need more than a pinch of it at a time.
And yeah, I know kale’s a thing right now, but Greek moms and yiayias have been force-feeding kids leafy greens for years. Kale, collards, chard, spinach, dandelion greens– we’ve even sautéed wilted herb salad mixes in a pinch! Sometimes I dress them up with tomatoes, garlic, and shallots, but steamed greens with olive oil and lemon is the standard. Every dinner has greens of some sort. I was so sick of greens as a kid, and it’s funny to see them popular now, with heirloom varieties available and everything. Yay, hipsters!
I rarely have Parmesan in my cheese drawer, but I always have Mizithra. It’s tangier than Parmesan because it’s made with either sheep’s or goat’s milk, and is a bright white. Also, it hardly ever gets moldy– probably because it’s so salty. One time, I accidentally carried around a chunk of Mizithra in my purse for several days (it was a big purse!) and it was still fine. Powdery Mizithra and browned, salted butter on pasta are quite possibly the best thing ever.
In another post, I confessed to being a lemon hoarder, and not without reason. I squeeze lemon on pretty much every vegetable. In my family, you only use vinegar in a dressing if you can’t get your hands on an actual lemon, and my mother gives me a lecture about the evils of those bottled lemon juices in produce sections every single time she sees one. Every single time.
Almost every day, I eat either full-fat, nonfat, Greek style (9 grams of protein in a serving!) or regular yogurt— as long as it is plain. I like to add my own fruit and honey, or garlic and dill. That frou-frou flavored stuff? I only like it if it’s frozen and covered in sprinkles, when it owns up to being a dessert. And then well, let’s face it, I love it.
I’m hardly the best hostess, but I’ve learned to always keep shortbread (kourambiedes) ingredients handy, as well as coffee and wine. My grandmother instilled in me the idea that if you have company, you need to feed them some combination of sugar, caffeine and alcohol to get them to talk. I’m not entirely sure if this is a Greek thing, or if this was just my grandmother’s sneaky way of getting all the good neighborhood gossip.
And when I’m a guest, I can’t arrive empty-handed without feeling like a real jerk, even though I don’t apply this to my own guests. What a double standard! I’ve been trained to bring homemade cookies, a bottle of wine, or at least a plant or some fruit. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want you on their doorstep if you brought these things? Again, I’m not sure if this is cultural or just good manners.
It’s hard to tell sometimes what has simply evolved in my own peculiar family, and what is genuinely Greek, and I’m always on the lookout for similar signs in other families. My husband’s Swedish family eats outside whenever they have the chance, even in the cold, just like the hosts on New Scandinavian Cooking! It’s time we stop taking our cooking heritages for granted, don’t you think?