As the pine-green tour bus wound its way through the tree-laden mountains of central Greece, I had to bite my lip and focus on deep, cleansing breaths. No, I was not hyperventilating from the height, and our driver was a model of road decorum. I was attempting to restrain myself from inquiring of my seat mate what on earth had possessed her to travel all the way to Greece"”the land of olive oil and antiquities"”to order the duck.
I mean"”under other circumstances"”duck has remained a favorite of mine. Peking duck is a staple of Chinese American restaurants. In Paris, there are certain places that marinate their duck in such delicious sauce, that one can only sob and lament the smallness of an exquisite fowl. I'm sure that duck in olive oil is akin to a new religious experience, but I have not seen it on one family table in Greece"”it's just not traditional Greek cuisine. So what is?
Scouring the countryside from the breadbasket of Thessaly to the olive and citrus fields of Laconia, I always encounter variations of these essential and scrumptious concoctions: pastichio, mousaka, youvetsi, yemista, and dolmades.
Pastichio is my all-time favorite Greek food. Sauteed ground beef with onions and spices is skillfully spread between two layers of the longest macaroni I've ever seen. The uppermost layer is then drizzled with a rich cream sauce and a dash of cinnamon is sprinkled on top. Fresh from the oven, pastichio is the ultimate pasta experience of all my trips to Greece. The only time I steer clear of it in a restaurant is when some unfeeling kitchen aide has left it out to dry.
Mousaka is the runner up in the creamy foods department. It is similar to pastichio but substitutes slices of baked eggplant and potatoes for the pasta layers. However, I prefer my eggplant baked in fresh tomato sauce with herbs and a bit of feta cheese on the side. This tomato and olive oil based approach is good for everything from giant snap green beans (fasoulakia) to baby okra. Either is an excellent companion dish for any cream-topped main course.
Youvetsi is a traditional meat dish made from saucy stew meat and rice-like pasta called manestra. The test for youvetsi is the meat"”the tenderness of the meat can be judged by whether or not it is already falling apart in the sauce. My preference is to be able to separate a piece of that succulent meat with a flick of my fork.
A boon of visiting Greece in the summer is all of the fresh, organic produce that makes its way into Greek kitchens. Shiny red tomatoes that ooze juice when sliced open are perfect for making yemista. Tomatoes, green peppers, and green squash are hollowed out and then stuffed with either rice or a combination of rice and ground beef. Naturally, the tops are restored and the whole thing is cooked in the same pan with the original innards"”making for a real treat when digging into the finished product. Sometimes, yemista will be made exclusively with giant stuffed squash and covered with a lemony white sauce. This is avgolemono sauce and might well be classified as nectar from the gods. The avgo (egg) is whipped to a frothy peak and then splashed with freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Dolmades are comprised of deep green grape leaves wrapped around rice and meat (or just rice) and are usually slathered with avgolemono sauce. They are often classified on menus as an appetizer but can be consumed as a main course. I am generally careful enough to ask if avgolemono sauce is included"”as without it, I lose the joy of savoring these delectable hors d'oeuvres.
One of the secrets to eating superb food in Greece is to go to a place where they invite you to make your selection by looking at the actual food. I have never been disappointed by a meal, where I got to gaze through the glass and scope out the freshest, most mouth-watering dishes on display in their steaming pans. Indeed, this is how I typically make my lunch selections from traditional Greek cuisine"”and I have yet to see a cooked duck.