Culture shop: Where to find Greek food, ingredients in Baltimore

For The Baltimore Sun
If it's all Greek to you, these Baltimore food markets can help.

Greek food has had a home in Charm City for many years. Though within the past decade, the Greek population in Greektown has declined and the Latino population has increased, Baltimore's love affair with the country's cuisine has not wavered. Greek restaurants remain some of the most popular in the city.

Baltimore residents have their pick of several great Greek restaurants, but the cuisine is also not overly intimidating for home cooks. The country's food features lots of seafood and lamb served in sandwiches or alongside vegetables. Great dips, like tangy tzatziki, made with yogurt and cucumber, and the eggplant spread melitzanosalata are used as condiments or with pita bread for dipping. Salty feta is sprinkled on a variety of dishes. Olive oil is also incorporated into many dishes; its inclusion helps bolster the cuisine's reputation as heart-healthy.

The core ingredients used in Greek cuisine, from olives to lamb, are available in most regular grocery stores, but shops that specialize in these foods offer some advantages in terms of variety and quality.

"A lot of these ingredients, like Greek yogurt and feta, you can find in Whole Foods or other spots, for sure," says Konstantinos Kontogiannis, executive chef at Atlas Restaurant Group, which owns Ouzo Bay in Harbor East. "But the advantage of buying from a Greek market is that the flavor you will have is usually more authentic. And you'll find a better rotation of things. It's not just feta — you can go and discover other things, like halloumi [a Greek cheese that is often fried]."

Kontogiannis says Greek products are often more intensely flavorful than their domestic counterparts. "Feta that is geared toward Greek immigrants is a little more robust," he says.

Gus Bouyoukas, the owner of Prima Foods, says the difference between domestically produced feta and feta imported from Greece lies in the milk.

"The first ingredient is the milk. Imported feta is sheep's and goat's milk, domestic is cow and whey — milk powder. Depending on how the market is, if the milk is cheaper, they use more milk. Quality-wise, to me, the import is hands-down better."

Prima's stock includes large wheels of feta and other cheeses, stored in refrigerated cases and cut to order for customers. Feta from different farms differ in terms of texture and taste — some are creamier, some more crumbly, and some saltier.

In addition to cheeses, Bouyoukas imports a wide variety of goods, from olives and hard-to-find fish to grape leaves, dry goods and spices.

Kontogiannis waxes poetic about Greek spices. "Pick up a branch of dry oregano. It's priceless to me," he says, adding that he frequently uses Greek oregano to season meats and fish at Ouzo Bay. "We take it right off the branches and use it. It's so much better than commercial oregano."

Using oregano still on the branch helps the chef connect his cooking here to how he ate as a child in Greece.

"At home, oregano is in such abundance, especially in the mountain areas. You would pick it and dry it yourself — I grew up in a family that did that," he says. "To me, the way we were doing it back home is the way we should be doing it here."

For olive oil, Kontogiannis loves the one made with olives from Dimitri Olive Farms in Greece and sold at Devoo Greek Deli & Specialty Food Market in Midtown Belvedere. The farm is owned by Dimitri Giannakos, who opened the market in Baltimore with his stepson Dimitri Komninos earlier this year.

"Commercial olive oils tend to be more light and fruity. Then you have people like Dimitri, here in Baltimore," says Kontogiannis. "His olive oil is more pungent. It will punch you in the face with flavor. This is what I like and how I grew up."

Komninos is proud of his oil and the olives marinated and solds in their shop.

"We source those olives from local farmers around our farm in southern Greece. They are completely different from grocery store olives," he says, adding that not only does he have control over the olives, but he is also able to limit the amount of sodium in the brine, since olives sold in his shop don't require the same shelf life as those sold in most grocery stores.

To find the most authentic Greek ingredients, check out these markets in and around Baltimore:

Agora Organic Market

803 S. Caroline St., Baltimore; 443-681-6316, agoraorganicmarket.com

Located in the lobby of the Inn at the Black Olive, this small shop doubles as a restaurant. Shoppers hoping to grab a few ingredients — like olive oil, garlic, tomatoes or Greek wine — will find what they need on the artfully arranged shelves.

Devoo Greek Deli & Specialty Market

1 W. Biddle St., Baltimore, 443-869-4933, dimitriolivefarms.com/store

Stepping inside this small Midtown Belvedere shop is a delight for all senses. The staff is usually busy baking or marinating something, and the scent of garlic permeates the air. In addition to house-marinated olives, spinach pies, stuffed grape leaves and other Greek goodies, the shop carries a handful of carefully chosen products. The olive oil, both plain and infused with spices, is made from olives harvested on the owners' farm in Greece.

Greek Town Bakery

4705 Eastern Ave., Baltimore, 410-276-8052

In the heart of Greektown, this small shop carries the basics of Greek cuisine, including feta and olives behind a case, spices hanging from the ceiling and a variety of tasty pastries. After shopping, hit one of the local restaurants — this is the neighborhood where you'll find some of the best Greek food in the city.

Prima Foods, Inc.

51 Kane St., Baltimore, 410-633-5500, primafoodsinc.com

Greek food enthusiasts will be in heaven at this midsized shop, which is packed full of products imported straight from Greece. Barrels of olives, huge wheels of cheese, wine, jars and cans of specialty items, and a wide variety of meats, fish and breads fill every corner of the space. Don't be afraid to ask for advice or direction — the friendly staff will be more than happy to answer questions and offer suggestions.

What to cook

Dimitri Komninos, co-owner of Devoo Greek Deli & Specialty Market, suggests making a simple, but powerfully flavorful, meal of roast leg of lamb served with potato wedges and tzatziki.

Roast leg of lamb

Yields 8-10 servings

1 leg of lamb

8 garlic cloves, peeled but kept whole

2 tablespoons dried oregano

1 bunch fresh rosemary

1/3 cup Dimitri extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 2 lemons

Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Arrange a few sheets of parchment paper on a work surface. Set the leg of lamb on top of the paper and cut small slits. Nestle the garlic and pieces of rosemary in the slits.

Put the olive oil in a small bowl with the lemon juice and rub it all over the lamb. Season the lamb with salt, pepper and oregano.

Wrap lamb with the parchment paper put it in the pan. Put 1 cup water in the pan.

Bake the lamb for 21/2 hours. While cooking, add more water to the pan if necessary.

Take it out of the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes. Komninos cooks his leg of lamb to well done (170 degrees). 9. Unwrap and carve to serve.

Greek oven-baked potatoes

Yields 8-10 servings

8 large Russet potatoes, peeled, cut into large wedges (about 5-6 wedges per potato)

6 garlic cloves

2 cups Dimitri Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 cup water

3 tablespoons dried oregano

Juice of 2 lemons

Sea salt and black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Place the potatoes in a baking pan. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Add the oregano, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and water, and mix together.

Cover the pan with parchment paper and aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes.

Unwrap and bake for an additional 15 minutes until a nice golden brown crust has formed on the potatoes.

Tzatziki

Yields 8-10 servings

1 pint FAGE Total Greek yogurt

1 English cucumber

1/3 cup Dimitri extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon Greek red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon minced fresh dill

3 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste (optional)

Salt and pepper

Peel and grate the cucumber. Add a little salt and squeeze between the hands to remove all the water.

Put the yogurt in a bowl, add the cucumber and extra virgin olive oil, and mix everything together until blended.

Add the red wine vinegar, dill and garlic (optional). Add pepper and taste for seasoning, adding salt if you think it's necessary.

Refrigerate 30 minutes before you serve.

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Culture shop

Fifth in a series in which we explore grocery stores in the Baltimore area, finding the best shops that cater to specific types of cuisines.

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