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Thursday, 8 August 2013

Dolmadakia with The Kitchen Table in Athens

I've never really written anything about microwave ovens in my blog. But a microwave sits on my kitchen benchtop, not because I ever thought I'd want one, but because it's convenient. My husband particularly fell in love with it since the first one (it died a few months ago) entered his life as a wedding present; I can't say it isn't helpful when we come back to a full stove-pot or oven-tray of cold food. I don't actually cook a meal in it - it is only for heating things up; I don't think I can cook anything in it that would resemble our regular daily food.

But microwaves are the norm in the restaurant trade. Tourists like their meals hot, even though many Greek dishes taste good at room temperature, especially those known as λαδερά (la-the-RA, meaning 'oily food'). The problem is that tourists to Greece are generally used to hot meals in their own cooler climates, and it's hard to convince them to eat certain meals at room temperature.

Greek ladera dishes are often slow-cooked and sitting in the pot on the stove or in the oven tray in its own heat which slowly dissipates over the day. But there are also the cheats' methods of making ladera: restauranteurs can just open a can of gigandes, fasolakia or dolmadakia (all considered ladera), pour the contents on a plate, heat it up in the microwave, and voila, you have a hot Greek meal ready in a jiffy. This would probably never happen in a taverna which serves mainly locals as opposed to mainly tourists. Locals' locals are also most likely to remain open throughout the year, without closing in the summer, except for a month before/after Christmas for a break.
Giorgos (right) at The Kitchen Table
Why do tourists like their food hot? I was speaking about this topic with Jeffrey from The Kitchen Table - Athens, who, with his friend and business partner Giorgos, is involved in one of the many new and alternative food projects to hit the Greek market since people started to search for novel business approaches: "One of the best ways to experience Greek food is to be invited to someone's home, but this is not always the case for most tourists and visitors to Athens. We created The Kitchen Table to offer an alternative. It's a small,  private space on Thiseos St near Syntagma where Giorgos and I (both food professionals passionate about Greek home cooking; Jeffrey trained as a chef in New York City) serve either a lunch or dinner family style that we've prepared ourselves for a group of 4 to 10 people using local products (most come from the Agora). We use the tried and true recipes of friends and family that we've come to love over the years. We prepare the meals by hand,  from scratch. Nothing canned, or prepackaged. Everything fresh, honest and wholesome. We even make our own filo daily. Our oil comes from a family friend's small grove in the Peloponnese. We begin each meal with a chat about the basic elements of Greek cooking, how Greek people like to eat, seasonality and regional cooking, similar things to those you discuss in your blog. We keep that part brief because we feel the best way to learn about Greek cooking is to eat Greek cooking!  So in summary, we're not a restaurant, and we're not a cooking school... we're something different.
varvakeios meat market athens
Athens Central Market
One reason - a rather obvious one - why tourists probably view hot food as better when it's hot is the Western world's aversion to germs, Jeffrey says: "I think there is an aversion by tourists who don't know any better to eating food that's at room temperature. It's a germ-a-phobe thing I think. They just don't know about the beauty of the flavor of ladera dishes once they've cooled down to room temperature after cooking, and that the oil is a preservative. They think they'll get sick from eating room temperature food, even if it's handled correctly. But microwaving ladera kills the flavour dead. I cringe in any taverna when I start to hear the "beep, beep, beep" of microwaves going off in the kitchen. Having said that, I know I could never serve the kind of ladera dishes the way I'd want to at a restaurant in New York City (Jeffrey's from New York) because of the somewhat insane health department codes..."  
Jeffrey and a Cretan yiayia, making dolmadakia
One of Jeffrey's favorite Greek meals is dolmadakia: "I was taught a lovely, simple recipe by a friend's mother from Crete.  We used fresh-frozen ambelofila (grape vine leaves) which she had frozen herself the year before. Practically speaking, at the Kitchen Table, we didn't have the freezer space nor the time to pack the amount we would need away for the entire summer. So, when we were at this food expo, we thought we'd check out one producer of brined vine leaves from Thessaloniki that was recommended as a good alternative to fresh leaves. This producer of jarred leaves is now also well known because they have "perfected" a way to freeze packaged pre-made dolmadakia which they sell to tavernas - you simply defrost the whole package in the microwave! I tried some of their dolmadakia at the expo. They tasted kind of OK, not repulsive, but not like home-cooked dolmadakia. With the sales rep standing before me I started reading off the ingredients on the back of the package of pre-made dolmadakia. I was horrified - they were made with... vegetable oil! I looked up at the sales rep over the top of my glasses and he could not understand for the life of him what the problem was! Anyway, we haven't found any brined leaves of the quality we want to use, so for now, we only serve dolmadakia when we can get the fresh leaves at the laiki in season."
While Jeffrey was in Istanbul on a visit, he went to Ciya Sofrasi, a restaurant run by Musa Dağdeviren  who was featured in Yotam Ottolenghi's Mediterranean Feast: "Meeting Musa was an amazing experience - he doesn't speak a speck of English! Musa makes kolokithoanthoi (zucchini flower parcels) in a similar way to Greek  dolmadakia (the meat filled ones), but with a twist: he places unripe green grapes in with the slices of tomato for flavoring. One of my yiayia friends who grew up in Crete told me that in summer when there were no lemons in her village they used unripe green grape juice for a sour taste to replace lemon in dishes."   
Stuffed zucchini flowers by Musa Dağdeviren, Istanbul

Jeffrey likes his Cretan friend's mother's dolmadakia recipe: "Kiria Maria's recipe is the one we use at The Kitchen Table. It's very simple, and typically Cretan. We don't precook the filling: onion chopped finely in equal mass to the amount of raw rice - the Karolina variety; it's very important with the amount of onion. It might seem like too much, but it's one of the things that make this recipe.  One cup finely chopped onion, one cup rice. Then loads of chopped parsley and mint (not to be confused with spearmint), a grated tomato stirred into the rice and herbs, a few tablespoons of oil proportionate to the rice, and the juice of one whole lemon, salt and pepper. I always taste for seasonings before I roll the dolmadakia. Then I pour a wine glass of olive oil over that and add very little water, just to the halfway mark of the first layer of dolmadakia, some more salt and pepper, and cook them as usual. The trick is the lemon in with the grated tomato for the filling, as well as making sure you have plenty of chopped onion. The taste of the finished product is amazing, especially the next day when all the flavours have blended.
I was quite proud to hear Jeffrey talk about Cretan cooking: "Of all the regional cuisines in Greece, Crete has to be my favorite. I love the simplicity and brilliance with which they combine the minimum amount of ingredients for the maximum of taste and nutrition. A friend just recommended a recipe for kolokithokeftedes (zucchini patties) from Crete that uses ONLY mint. No onion, no cheese, no egg, no other herbs. Of course it's lenten, but it actually lets the flavor of the zucchini come out and not be overwhelmed by herbs, breadcrumbs etcetera." 

As a food professional, Jeffrey has his own ideas about Greek food: "I'm absolutely in love with the food here and have been since I first arrived here six years ago. I'm talking about the real Greek food that yiayias have been making for eons out in the villages without any fanfare, following the rhythm of the seasons."

I think he's summed up my own ideas about the kind of cooking I enjoy too. 

If you'd like to try some Greek home cooking while in Athens at The Kitchen Table, Jeffrey and Giorgos can be emailed at ktathens@outlook.com or call +306942780190Bookings are needed at least 24hrs in advance.   

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