Eating Well: Greece - #120

BURT WOLF: Eating Well in Greece, the home of the ancient civilization where Western cooking began. We'll find out why scientists feel that Greek cooking holds some of the keys to good health. We'll talk to Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis about her Greek heritage and the recipes that come along with it. We'll find out the 600-year-old story behind the chef's hat, and cook up some great tasting dishes. Join me, Burt Wolf Eating Well In Greece.

The golden age of ancient Greece began about 25 hundred years ago and had a fantastic 200-year run as the cultural and commercial center of the Mediterranean world. The glittering city of Athens became the mega-star metropolis. This was the place to be. If you wanted to do something, this was the town to do it in. The architects were here, the writers were here, the poets, the artists, the craftsworkers were here and, of course, the great cooks and the best foods. In Athens, Greece, 2500 years ago we find the first evidence of a group of people who said, “Hey, I can't take this hit-or-miss approach to dinner any more. I gotta know what's going on. One night there are a couple of appetizers and I end up starved. A couple of nights later there's course after course after course and I end up stuffed. I can't do this. I need to know what's going on.” So they were the first people to hire professional chefs to give form and structure to their meals. In the process they also developed the first true sauces. It was the ancient Athenians who developed mayonnaise. Very important -- that left them in a position to develop the first club sandwich and that may be the historical event that has sent so many Greeks to America to open up great restaurants. They also had cook books over 2,000 years ago and were really into good food. And these days scientists are telling us that we have a considerable amount to learn from that ancient cuisine. Ancient Greek cooking, as well as modern Greek cooking, had five things to teach about good food for good health.

First, there's the Greek use of olive oil as the main fat in their cooking. For thousands of years Greece has been a center for olive production and olive oil is used constantly. Olive oil is a mono-unsaturated oil and research indicates that if you are following a low-fat diet, olive oil is a hot healthy food choice within that low-fat diet. Basking in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, Greece has always been an outdoor society. As a result, a great deal of their cooking has taken place outside the kitchen, in the open air. The most common cooking technique is grilling or roasting, which is an ideal healthy way to cook, because if there's excess fat in the food that's being grilled, at least some of that fat will drip away. Many scientists feel that too much fat is the single biggest health problem in the American diet. The Greeks also love fruits and vegetables and use them to the utmost in great tasting ways. And there's a constant stream of scientific reports indicating how important fruits and vegetables are to our good health. Because so much of Greece is made up of island and coastal communities, they've also been lovers of fresh fish from the sea. And now we find that these fish are packed with omega-3 oil, which appears to help protect us from heart disease. And finally there are the Greek religious fast days, which allow and actually encourage the cooking of lentils. Lentils are members of the bean family and one of the nutritional treasures of Greek cooking. Lentils are one of our earliest foods. We've been cultivating them for about 8,000 years and they have had a long association with good health. As a matter of fact, ancient Greek actually recommended lentils as a medicine. They're high in iron, vitamin B, they contain lots of protein, they're low in fat and pretty low in calories. Only about 100 calories in a half cup of lentils. Today Chef Manoli is teaching me the recipe for Greek lentil soup. I don't speak any Greek and he only speaks a little bit of English so I am also getting a Greek lesson along with the recipe.

Gros! which means “let's do it!” First, two quarts of water are brough to a boil. A pound of lentils go in. Chopped garlic and chopped onions are added to the pot along with a few bay leaves. And then about a quarter cup of olive oil... two tablespoons of tomato paste... and you're set. Everything cooks for about an hour and you're ready to serve. Interesting story about garlic. During the 1300s, one out of every three people in Europe died of the Bubonic plague, which was also known as the Black Plague. They thought that the plague was spread by vampires. But they noticed garlicmongers who wore a big chain of garlic around their neck did not get the plague as often as other people, and assumed that the garlic scared off the vampires. What was actually happening though was the garlicmongers were eating enormous amounts of garlic and it was acting as a mild anti-biotic and protecting them. And that's where people got the idea that garlic would ward off vampires.

(MUSIC) .....It's true...

Religious beliefs had and still have a great effect on our eating habits. As a matter of fact, just about the first religious act was to offer food on a fire to the Gods. The theory was that if you were lucky enough to catch an animal for dinner, the God who helped you was entitled to the best cut and it had to be burned.

A kind of symbolic eating by the Gods. The ancient Greeks here in Athens were the first people to change those rules. The Greeks respected their Gods but there was no great love for them and pretty soon they decided to eat the best cut themselves and just... tell the Gods the dinner was in their honor. The technique was pretty simple. They just began to put less wood on the offering fire. Instead of coming out burned, the sacrificial foods came out perfectly cooked. Beef at 150 degrees. Chicken or turkey at 180 and pork at 170. The ritual religious feast started right here in Athens. So next time you go to a christening or a confirmation, a wedding or a wake, New Year's, Easter, a Christmas celebration, and there's good food, you owe something to the ancient Greeks.

The original food reporter was an ancient Greek named Archestratus. He lived here in the fourth century B.C. and his job was to wander around the world and find things that delighted his belly -- not unlike the job I have now. He was one of the first people to discover that the same food tasted differently when it came from different parts of the world. He also noted that the same food tasted better, at different times of the year. They were also the first people to have professional cooks doing home catering. They turned eating from a hit-or-miss affair into a serious business. The oldest cookbook that we have also came from ancient Greece. It was written by a man named Epicus. He organized the basic cooking methods of the time and taught his system. He gave great banquets to illustrate his points. In the process he spent millions of dollars, or sesterces, as they were called at the time. When he got down to his last 10 million he got depressed because he was worried he might not be able to eat the way he wanted to for much longer and so he took his own life. Too bad. I guess that can happen if you don't check on the specials in your supermarket.

The most popular food to come into the Western world from the Middle East is yogurt, a thick, tart, curdled milk product. Recently it's become one of the fastest selling foods in America. But it's been a big deal here in Greece for thousands of years. They use it as the base for soups, as a side dish, a sauce, in sweet tangy cakes, and lightly dusted with sugar, as a dessert. And you can even make a low-fat soft cheese out of it. Put it into a cloth and hang it over your sink overnight. The next morning you'll have something very close to cream cheese. Only there's a fraction of the fat of calories. I do that every once in a while and it's great. There's an old myth that eating yogurt will keep you younger longer. I don't have any proof of that, but there was an interesting report in the New England Journal of Medicine. The report confirms that people who have digestive problems with milk, because their body can't handle lactose, will have much less trouble with yogurt. The active culture that you read about on the label digests some of the lactose for you. Yogurt is also a good source of calcium which you need for strong bones as you get older -- and those are some strong bones too.

The people of Greece have been making and eating cheese for more than 2,500 years. And they're getting pretty good at it by now. Of all the Greek cheeses, Feta is the most famous. Feta is a soft light crumbly cheese that's tangy and salty. It's really prepared in a brine the way a cucumber soaks itself into a pickle. You could call it a pickle cheese. The longer it's cured or stored, the saltier and sharper it gets. If you found you've bought yourself a piece of Feta cheese and it's too sharp or salty, stir it in a container with milk overnight. The next day it'll have a softer flavor. The best way to store Feta cheese is in water. That'll keep its texture and freshness. It's excellent in salads, as a snack cheese and, since it melts quickly, it's a good cheese for cooking. The ancient Greeks didn't know about butter so they used a lot of cheese in their cooked dishes which is still a good idea. Feta is not a very high-fat cheese. The calorie content is in the neighborhood of 75 calories per ounce.

Only a 30-minute taxi ride from downtown Athens is the harbor of Microlimano. The anchorage of Microlimano is like a picture postcard of a small Greek seaside town. The name means “little port,” and it's a beauty. Filled with yachts and fishing boats that bring in the finest and freshest seafood that the Aegean Sea has to offer. And most of it is grilled. Here are a few grilling tips that can really help no matter what you're cooking. First, take your food out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature before you start your cooking. It'll make everything cook faster and help keep it tender. Choose foods that take about the same length of time to cook. Onions, green peppers, mushrooms and zucchini all take about the same length of time -- about 15 minutes. Tomatoes have so much moisture that they cook much faster. Don't clean your grill with commercial oven cleaners. They have poisons in them that can easily transfer to the food. Give the grill a light coating of oil before you put the food on. That'll keep your food from sticking to the grill. Marinades are excellent for grilled foods. They're made from oil, an acid, which could be wine, vinegar or lemon juice, and seasonings. It all helps hold in the meat's natural juices, keep it moister during the cooking and helps prevent sticking. The acid ingredient will break down the food's fiber and tenderize it. The spices add flavor. Grilling's dry heat tends to toughen lean meat, so 2 or 3 hours of marinating can really be a great help. Use skewers that are square, flat or have a ridged pattern. They tend to hold food on. Long ones tend to let it slide so when you turn it, it slips. When you're putting foods onto a skewer, thread the vegetables close together. That'll keep them moist. Give the meat or fish a little more space. That'll let the heat get around them and they'll cook faster. The cooking techniques of Greece have had a great influence on all Western kitchens. And not only in the recipes. On May 29th, 1453, the Turkish armies of the Ottoman Empire invaded Greece and overthrew the Byzantine Empire and the Greek Government. That happened to have been on a Tuesday and, since then, the people of Greece have thought of Tuesdays as particularly unlucky. Which is why we will never show this show on a Tuesday. As a matter of fact, all the month of May is thought of as pretty unlucky and kind of off limits to important events. Well, the Turkish army may have controlled Greek land for 400 years but they never controlled Greek hearts. What actually happened is right after the Ottoman invasion, the local church leaders took over the neighborhoods, preserved Greek language, Greek culture, the sense of family and family traditions. At the same time that the Ottoman Empire took over the land of Greece, many of the rich and famous went into the monasteries to hide themselves from the Turks. Well, they didn't know what to do while they were there and they had to earn there keep, so it was suggested that they do the cooking. They dressed just like the rest of the monks in the tall black hats and the black robes and so the Turks couldn't tell who they were. But then... neither could the monks and that became annoying. So at one point the monks decided that the people who were the cooks should change their uniform. Not a big change, they just insisted that the black uniforms become white. Including the high hats. And that's where the first high white chefs' hats are said to have originated. They have the advantage of being cooler in the kitchen because of the extra height above your head. And in some kitchens that extra height is used as a signal of authority. The highest hat is the head chef. I guess if you are very secure in your position, you can work without any hat at all. Like Chef Patarakis here, a master at the classic dishes of Greek cuisine.

Here comes a classic Greek spinach pie. First the basic ingredients are sauteed together. Chopped onion, some chopped dill, two pounds of cooked spinach, a little pepper, a half pound of Feta cheese broken in small pieces. And five eggs. Traditionally this recipe is made with whole eggs. Depending on where you are in your cholesterol standing your doctor will recommend either two to four whole eggs per week. What your doctor is concerned about is the egg yolk. Well, yesterday I made this recipe with egg whites only and it was fine. Finally a little grated parmesan cheese gets mixed in. Sheets of phyllo dough are given a light coating of butter or margarine and layered into a deep baking pan with the ends of the dough hanging over the edges of the pan. The spinach mixture is spread out over the dough, the dough is folded over the spinach. A few more sheets of the dough to complete the covering. A rough cut is made into three inch square and then into triangles. The pan goes into a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half. The dough develops into a light flaky crust and your molded spinach phyllo pie is ready to serve.

One of the easiest ways to understand what's cooking in the kitchens of a country is to visit some of its local markets. And Athens has some fabulous markets. This is the city's fish market, with hundreds of fish vendors, each presenting the unique selling proposition of their product.

When you come into a Greek market you come into the world epicenter of olive oil knowledge. Olive oil comes in three grades, extra virgin, virgin and pure. Extra virgin is the best. It is the first crushing of the finest olives. It has the most flavor and the most taste and it's really worth the money because you only use a little bit of it. The second is virgin. That's the second crushing. The second quality olives and it's... OK, not great. Pure is the least interesting, with the least flavor from the least quality of olive. So I always get extra virgin. When you get this home you should store in as close to an air-free environment as possible. There's an interesting trick that one of the shops taught me. When you pour some out of this bottle, then you pour water in. Since oil floats on top of water, the water just pushes it up to the top and puts you back into a generally air free environment. You should also store it in the refrigerator. It'll last six months to a year. I also picked up some chickpeas or garbanzo beans. The Greeks have been eating these for centuries. Actually the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, wrote about ‘em. He was kind of worried about the way that things were going in ancient Greece...mmmmmm..downhill and he thought that much of the problem was the result of the rich and fattening foods that they had in their diet. (LAUGHS) 2,000 years, not a lot has changed. So he recommended more chickpeas in the diet. Good idea. Low-fat source of protein. Excellent food.

Great acting was born in Greece and the torch has been passed on to Olympia Dukakis. A memorable role as a Southern grand dame in “Steel Magnolias” and her Academy Award- winning performance in “Moonstruck” established as one of America's most popular actresses. According to Olympia, creating drama in everyday events is just another great gift of her Greek heritage.

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: There's something dramatic and theatrical about creating a meal... and an event. And there's something very hospitable about it, so you put those two things together, the desire to be hospitable and the desire to create events and I think you have a Greek glendi know, or you have a Greek... church dance eh, or you have somebody doing a name day in their home. You know they just, those two things, they're very, there's a, a, a need in Greeks for a largesse. For a, for a sharing....

BURT WOLF: Tell me about the foods that you love from your Greek heritage.

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: Lamb... prepared the way my mother prepares it...

BURT WOLF: Which was?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: Which was, and is eh, after you put the garlic buds in all over, you bathe it in lemon and then you take the thyme, fresh thyme and you just plaster it like a blanket, thick blanket all over the lamb and then you put it in. It's that but it's that lemon juice that you put....first and then put the thyme and it makes it, you know, I love the vegetables, all the vegetables that we have. Spinach....pie. Greek hyptheris, the meat balls which I, I try to do now but I do it with like, turkey meat (LAUGHS). I like dalaktabutiko, which is the dessert. It's like a very custardy kind of dessert. I don't like the baklava, that's, that's too sweet but the dalaktabutiko... I like to say it as well (LAUGHS).

BURT WOLF: What are the foods from your childhood that you really love? Something your mother made that you really enjoyed?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: Well..she had a great way of making chicken. She would em...boil it but she would boil if with oregano and lemon. You know the Greeks put lemon in everything. The one that like came to mind immediately were those, something my grandmother used to do. And I would come home from school, she would take yogurt which she had made and put bread in it...with sugar...

BURT WOLF: What's the strangest thing you ever ate?

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: Ohhh, cod liver oil, every morning of my life in orange juice. An egg....every morning that was...I think because my mother comes from the southern part of Greece, where they have so few eggs, that for her, to give her children eggs was the height of motherly love and care. And so we had to eat an egg...I, you know, every morning and that cod liver oil did me in, let me tell you. People ask me a lot about that egg that I cooked in “Moonstruck” you know but...egg in the basket you know but...and of course I'd never cooked that before in my life and so....they would ask me Oh, do the Greeks do that, do they, how did you do that, you know so... and my mother did that, it was like, it was incredible how that egg in the bread, that had so much feelings and so many memories... for people you know.

BURT WOLF: Some of Olympia's own memories are filled with some sweet times and some not so sweet ones.

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: Now that I look back, my diet was not something I looked at intelligently. I'd been like, you know when you're young, you don't have to (LAUGHS). You can be a little more bravura about it all you know. But I was in..there was one time when I was very seriously... eh, impoverished and I had em (LAUGHS) just remembered it, for three days I had flour, Spry and powdered sugar. That's all I had and I would make kind of like pancakes from the flour and I'd fry them with the Spry and put the powdered sugar...

BURT WOLF: Sounds like a wonderful..


BURT WOLF: Tell me about your trip to Greece.

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: Oh, it was many years ago and I'm hoping that I can get there again. It was wonderful eh... the food, I remember the most, which I loved, I forgot to mention them before, I loved the stuffed tomatoes, you know with the rice and eh, we didn't have too much money my husband and I so we em, we found this inexpensive restaurant and...they would always have these stuffed tomatoes on special and, you know we would eat them...and the peppers I love those... I love it especially when the top gets a little burned (LAUGHS) you know, it's nice and of course I love dolma, my mother used to make it. We have grapevines and she would prepare it and they actually bought a grapevine from Greece to Lowell to Somerville, to Arlington and then when my parents moved to eh, New Jersey to be close to my brother and myself, they brought a slip of that and now it's like a runaway thing at my house, you know.

BURT WOLF: OK Olympia, now it's time to run away to the kitchen... and cook.

A six-ounce skinless, boneless fillet of salmon is steamed for about 6 minutes. Meanwhile, carrots are juiced in a juice extractor until you have about three quarters of a cup of juice. If you don't have a juice extractor, you can use canned or bottled carrot juice and low-sodium V8 juice works fine too. Pour the juice into a saute pan and turn the heat up to high. Then add in a half teaspoon of cinnamon and a teaspoon and a half of curry powder. Mix the seasoning in and let the sauce boil. The natural sugar in the carrots helps thicken up the sauce until it has an almost syrup like consistency. And the juice of half a lemon is added in and a little tarragon.

OLYMPIA: You know what always amazes me, when you watch chefs really work, they just sprinkle things all over the place, they use...he's using those tongs to mix it.....


CHEF: There is a method to our madness.

BURT WOLF: And now the method for completing the dish. While the sauce is finishing off, the chef takes some zucchini that is cut in strips so it looks like thick spaghetti. It's cooked in a little seasoned water. He also cooked some carrots in that water for about 2 minutes. Now you're ready to serve. A zucchini squash disguised as pasta goes on the plate, then the carrots, the steamed salmon an the carrot sauce. You know Olympia, this is an easy dish and you can do it.

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: I can do that.


OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: The point is will I do it?

BURT WOLF: Gee I hope so. It's good for us. When Olympia searched the memory of her childhood for the Greek foods that she loved, one of the first dishes that came to mind was stuffed tomatoes. So here's the recipe. Start by cutting off the tops of the tomatoes and spoon out the center. Be careful to leave a thick enough wall so the tomato will hold its shape. And cut the top off the peppers and clean out the ribs and the seeds. Peppers are packed with vitamin A and C. When you go to pick ‘em out in the market, you want one that's a bright green, smooth, no decay on the outside, even color, kinda shiny. You check the stem end here; if there's any decay that's where it would begin. This is actually a beauty. A little olive oil goes into a pot followed by a chopped onion. Some chopped flat parsley, a little garlic and the centers that we removed from the tomatoes. All that cooks together for about 5 minutes. A little water goes in, some dried oregano, a touch of tomato paste and the rice. Cook for a few minutes and then the mixture gets stuffed into the peppers and tomatoes. The only measurement that's important to remember is two cups of water for every cup of uncooked rice. All the other measurements are rather flexible -- very Greek recipe. A couple of slices of potato go in, throw it on top and into a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes...until the rice is fully cooked. Chef says that this dish is usually served at room temperature. How do you know whose room? This room is like an oven. I think what we're trying to say is that the internal temperature of the rice should be about 65 degrees and that'll give you the best balance of flavor.

Here's what the last 3,000 years of Greek cooking have to teach us. Olive oil is a mono-unsaturated fat and makes a good choice as one of your cooking oils. Grilling is a good way to cook because it lets some of the fat in the food drip away. Remember the less fat in your diet... the better. The fresh fruits and vegetables loved by Greek cooks make great sense. Because fruits and vegetables love you. Fish from the sea, high in omega-3 oil, can help protect against heart disease. And finally low-fat lentil recipes are lovely for good health. The ancient Greeks certainly left us with some food for thought. Its nice to know that a 3,000 year old culture still has something to teach us.

Join us next time as we travel around the world looking for something good to eat. I'll leave you with a final Greek word...Yasu! It means “to your health.” I'm Burt Wolf.