As the season for outdoor grilling is upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere, I decided to post one of my favourite Greek grill recipes. I know you are going to enjoy this one.
Greeks have a reputation for grilling. From the hecatombs of the Greek host encamped on the shore before Troy in Homer’s Iliad, to the family-run diners of New York City, the association between Greeks and grilling is the stuff of culinary legend and lore. Indeed, if we were to believe some people, we might expect upon visiting Greece to find a charcoal grill set up every 50 square metres or so; with a smiling, apron-wearing and mustachioed Greek man sending smoke signals up into the Mediterranean sky. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, Greeks enjoy grilled foods, but rarely do they prepare them at home; it is simply not part of the everyday food culture, most of our home-cooked meals come from the stovetop. This is not due to the high cost of barbecues, but rather, when they are meeting or entertaining friends, Greeks prefer to go out on the town for some grilled viands.
Although there are plenty of establishments serving up grilled and spit-roasted foods throughout Greece, we do not generally consume as much meat as the rest of our European cousins. Meat, for Greeks, usually means lamb, goat, pork, chicken and sometimes veal. In point of fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a steakhouse after the North American model in Greece. There are some, but steaks and ribs are not what Greeks think of when it comes to grilling. There is precious little space for domestic cattle grazing in Greece. What beef they do import is cut differently than is customary in North America. So, looking for a T-bone steak in a Greek butcher shop is likely to end in disappointment.
If you do happen to find steak on a menu in Greece, and you actually order it, don’t be surprised if it arrives well cooked when you ordered it medium rare. Greeks, like Jews, have an aversion to blood in cooked meats, so they cook meat in one of two ways: well done or well-done. Any Greek who tells you they have a penchant for blood in their meat, likely picked up the preference outside of Greece.
Now, Greeks grill everything from fish, to meats and vegetables. Souvlaki, especially pork souvlaki, is the most popular grilled item in Greece. It usually consists of small chunks of pork butt/shoulder on bamboo skewers (kalamakia), and is served up drizzled or brushed with ladolemono (lemon, olive oil, oregano) sauce, and only rarely with tzatziki unless it is in a pita sandwich.
Along with souvlaki and assorted sausages, another popular item that you will find on the menu of every proper Greek taverna (a restaurant that serves only Greek food) is “bifteki”, which is the singular form of the plural biftekia. Biftekia are essentially minced meat patties, something akin to burgers but thicker, and without the bun and condiments of the familiar American sandwich. Biftekia may be made with minced lamb or veal, or a combination of the two. The primary difference between biftekia and burgers lies in the herbs which impart their flavours to the former. The use of oregano and thyme, along with fresh parsley and grated onion, sets biftekia apart from the rather bland meat patties which are their popular counterparts in North America.
Now, for a taverna story...
In July and August 2007 my wife and I travelled through northern Greece and spent a few days in Thessaloniki. We wandered afoot throughout the town and both of us found it a charming and refreshing antipode to Athens with her teeming, bustling streets. Thessaloniki is a port city and the sea forms a continual foreground along its shoreline. It is a pleasant town for walking, especially at night along the quayside after a meal at an open air taverna.
One of the most memorable meals we had in that city was at a little taverna in the historic "Ladadika" ('Oil Shops') district of the city; the shop was called "Ladokola sta Ladadika" (Λαδόκολα στα Λαδάδικα) which translates as “Parchment Paper among the Oil Shops”. Along with the other dishes we sampled there that night; we were served a selection of grilled meats that was brought to us on some parchment paper spread over a wooden cutting board. This rustic manner of service is a common practice in the Greek countryside, especially during festivals. Nothing pretentious about being served in this fashion, and boy, was it ever tasty!
We had a superb leek & pork sausage, a couple of tasty pork souvlakia, and two very excellent biftekia served to us in the outdoor evening air of the trendy district. At some point during our dinner, a trio of young boys showed up with their musical instruments. Sitting on the edge of the square’s fountain, they played a couple of small sets to entertain the dining audience at the numerous restaurants around the edges of the square. Appreciative listeners responded with tips for the young ensemble, which the percussionist dexterously deposited into the open bottom end of his Toumberleki drum. Our table happened to be near the fountain and the whole affair had such a charming quality that I had to record it for posterity's sake. You can find the video of this impromptu performance appended to the Greek Food group on Facebook.
This recipe for cheese-stuffed, grilled biftekia is a favourite in our household and it makes for a tasty start to a summer grilling season. When it comes to the cheese used for the stuffing, I recommend either Kefalograviera (which is the cheese that is usually served as a “flaming saganaki”) or some real Greek feta cheese. I usually serve biftekia with a side of either rice cooked in a mushroom stock, or fries done in olive oil; and I round the meal out with a refreshing and simple cucumber salad.
2 lbs ground lamb or veal (or a combination of the two)
1 lb. Kefalograviera or Feta Cheese
2 medium-sized onions, grated
1 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon dried Greek oregano
2 tablespoons dried Greek thyme
1 tablespoon Greek extra virgin olive oil
Small bunch of fresh parsley, finely chopped (approx. 3 tablespoonfuls)
Fresh ground pepper
Pinch of salt
- In a large bowl, use your hand to combine the minced meat, grated onion, eggs, bread crumbs, parsley, seasonings and olive oil. Take care to mix everything together until thoroughly mingled into a single cohesive mass.
- Take up a tennis ball sized piece of the meat mixture, roll it between your palms to form a smooth, compact ball.
- Spread a piece of parchment paper over a cutting board; flatten the meat ball into a thin patty, about 1/4 of an inch thick or so. Try to ensure a uniform thickness to the patty.
- Place a piece of Kefalograviera or Feta cheese on one side of the flattened meat patty (as depicted below). Be sure to leave space around the edges of the cheese to ensure that you can pinch the meat closed around the cheese.
- Take up the further edge of the parchment paper, bring it up and towards you to fold the meat patty over the cheese. Pinch the overlapping edges of the meat together well; use the parchment paper to form the patty around the cheese. This will result in a uniform shape to all of your biftekia.
- Brush or spray the outside of each patty with a little olive oil before placing them over a medium-high heat. Grill the biftekia for about 6 - 7 minutes on each side or until done.
NOTE: A sprinkling of fresh lemon juice always completes preparation for service as the biftekia are removed from the hot grill.
This type of wine has been produced in Greece since Classical antiquity. The taste for the resin in the wine is definitely an acquired one; it is a direct gastronomic holdover from the ancient Greeks who sealed their wine amphorae with pine resin to ensure airtight and waterproof stoppers. Over time the resin seeped into and flavoured the wine which was stored in this fashion. With the passing of millennia, the methods of storing wine changed, yet the Greeks had developed a taste for resinated wines and the flavouring was subsequently added by intent; the practice continues into our own day. As the Malamatina brand of Retsina is produced in Thessaloniki, I thought it would be a fitting accompaniment to a grilled Greek food recipe that included a description of a typical meal in one of that city's tavernas.
Ladies and Gentlemen, light your grills and let the BBQ season begin!
Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit!)
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.