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Trademark tastes of Greek food


At the Greek Orthodox Cathedral near where I live, volunteer cooks, kitchen managers, engineers, advertisers and entertainers, to name only a few, pool their resources, time, energy and expertise to pull off a four-day food festival year after year. Something like 25,000 diners usually attend. This means you're looking at 14,000 grape leaves, 10,000 squares of spanakopita and 10,500 pieces of baklava.

Looking well-satisfied, everyone leaves saying, "I love Greek food."

What makes Greek food Greek? In every culture, a handful, or rather a basketful, of foods makes up its national table. These foods define a cuisine, reflect its geography and are the essence of its distinctive flavors.

Here are some of the essentials in the Greek food basket. Look for them in supermarkets or any Middle Eastern grocery store.

Cheese. Feta is the best-known Greek cheese. White, semi-soft and packed in brine, it's usually made from sheep's milk. Feta can be peppery, salty or mellow, but it's never boring. It's delicious by itself, starring in grilled-cheese sandwich, crumbled on salad or simply marinated in olive oil and sprinkled with herbs.

Herbs. Oregano is the quintessential Greek herb, and it's a must with lamb, fish and salads. Mint is to Greeks what basil is to Italians. It often flavors meatballs and cheese pies. Where you find herbs, expect to find lemons, also an essential ingredient.

Honey. Dark and thick, honey is used mostly in syrup-drenched sweets. It is excellent mixed with yogurt and walnuts, and is sometimes used to sweeten tomato-based stews.

Lamb, fish and seafood. In the traditional diet, meat is used sparingly. But when meat is used, it is most often lamb. In Greece, the sea is never far away. Fish and seafood are often served whole. They can be baked, grilled or fried.

Nuts. Almonds and walnuts star in many honeyed desserts, but they also find their way into savory dips, such as the pungent garlic sauce, skordalia.

Olive oil. Greeks may have been using olive oil longer than anyone on Earth. It is as essential to Greek cooking as salt. Olive oil is used for frying and drizzling, but it is more than a cooking medium. Like salt, olive oil is a powerful flavoring. Greeks are the world's largest per capita consumers of olive oil and have among the world's lowest rates of heart disease.

Olives. The olive tree could very well be the symbol of Greece. Of the many varieties, the best known is the dark brown Kalamata. Wrinkled, black and chewy olives are the Thassos variety. "I ate bread and olives with him" is an expression that denotes friendship.

Orzo. Orzo has been a fixture in the traditional Greek pantry for centuries. It is Greece's signature pasta. It looks like slightly chubby long-grain rice. Because of its shape and nutty texture, people often mistake it for a grain. You've probably eaten it in avgolemono soup, the egg and lemon soup.

Pita. Of all of the hearty shapes and sizes of breads, pita is the most versatile. In the oven, round circles of pita dough puff and brown to make a pocket. Warm, it makes a good dipper for savory spreads. Cooled and filled, it makes a seamless sandwich.

Spices. Cinnamon, allspice and cloves perfume both sweet and savory dishes. These exotic spices cross the flavor boundaries to season meats, stews, sauces, baklava, cakes and cookies.

Baked Greek Lamb Shanks

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 to 6 lamb shanks

Salt, pepper

Flour, for dredging

1/3 cup olive oil

2 carrots, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, whole

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 cup (1 8-ounce can) tomato sauce

1/2 cup red wine

1/2 cup water

Grated rind 1 lemon

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Trim lamb shanks of as much fat as possible. Salt and pepper generously. Place flour in clean paper bag, toss in shanks 1 at time and shake to coat. Remove from bag.

Heat half of olive oil in Dutch oven. Working with 1 or 2 shanks at time, brown lamb on all sides. Remove from pan when browned, about 5 minutes. Add more olive oil as needed.

In same pan, saute carrots, celery, onion and garlic until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes.

Stack lamb shanks on bed of vegetables in pan, crisscrossing bones to fit. Sprinkle with oregano and thyme. Stir together tomato sauce, wine and water in measuring cup and pour around and over lamb. Cover with tight lid.

Bake at 325 degrees until meat is brown and tender, about 2 hours. Using slotted spoon, gently remove meat and vegetables to serving dish and keep warm. Skim excess fat from sauce. Stir lemon zest and parsley into sauce and simmer 5 minutes. (Or you can sprinkle zest and parsley over finished dish at serving time.) Serve shanks and vegetables with some of sauce spooned over each. Accompany with cooked orzo.

Since the oven does all the work in this super-easy dish, even a beginner will have delicious success. A good heavy Dutch oven with a lid ensures even cooking and browning. It's a very good dish to make in advance and reheat.

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