Food of the Gods

The traditional Greek meze was originally meant to precede lunch or dinner, but over the years became a meal in itself. And what a feast it is

"Every Friday afternoon, when Father came home from work and went to bathe in honor of Shabbat, they would immediately set a special table for him on the balcony. The biggest table in the house. But they put only one chair there, because on Friday afternoon, when they set a table for him, the father eats alone. Everyone can help, bring things, watch how he eats, but nobody is allowed to taste. It interferes with his enjoyment. Even before he finished bathing, the table was already full of mezedes. At least 50 plates."

(From "Sights and Knights of Jaffa," Menahem Talmi, Sifriyat Maariv ).

Athens, Greece Oct. 28, 2010 (AP)
AP Photo / Petros Giannakouris

First the strong colors catch your eye: purple octopus cooked in vinegar and wine; the silvery flash of fresh sardines; the pinkish gold skin of fried red mullet; red grilled tomatoes and peppers; and the regal black shine of Calamata and Thassos olives. The sight is captivating and appetizing. And the music: mournful songs by Tsitsanis and Kasantzidis, the dance rhythms of the Zeibekiko and the Sirtaki, Haris Alexiou belting out words of love - all contrast dramatic sadness with exuberant joy. Both moods are appropriate to romantic drinkers and fools.

You pour a first glass of ouzo, sprinkle coarse salt on a fresh summer cucumber and bite into it. The simple, perfect combination of the crisp vegetable and the taste of the sea invites memories of Greece - long, relaxed sunny days, a turquoise sea and a sweet film of perspiration accompanied by the scent of anise. You take a black olive, whose sharp, bitter taste is the essence of Mediterranean flavor, dip a slice of bread in olive oil and the juice of fried octopus and begin to savor life.

You eat and drink, drink and talk, talk and eat. Someone pours a shot of ouzo and the other remembers Jorgas, his Greek friend, who knows only one sentence in broken English: "Great meze wis ouzo!" And that sentence is always true, anytime and anywhere; it brings people together with no need for clever witticisms. Someone takes a big forkful of tender crab and raises Charlie from the dead. Charlie is Menahem Talmai's appetite-arousing hero, who as a child was tortured by a table of 50 mezedes - small plates of delectable morsels - without being allowed to taste a single crumb. Someone else claps his hands and dances over to the grill for some lamb ribs. Life is fleeting, but right now, sitting with friends at a table spread with a Greek meze, you've never felt more alive.

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Greeks live to eat, and at the high point of their sensual, intuitive, passionate cuisine is the meze table, a selection of appetizers to tempt the appetite and accompany drinks. There is a dispute about the origin of the word "meze." Some say it came to Greek from Turkish, while others believe it originates in ancient Persian. Whatever the case, the roots of this pleasant custom go back to the famous Greek banquet table, which is characterized by a necessary balance between eating, moderate drinking and civilized partying.

The Greek meze, like the Russian zakuski, was designed to precede a meal, but over the years turned into a meal in itself. After 50 types of mezedes and a few drinks, one tends to skip the main course. As opposed to zakuski, where the table is full of pickled and preserved foods, the Greek meze is based on hundreds and thousands of recipes made with fresh seasonal ingredients.

In a land of eternal winter, one must preserve and pickle, but on sunny islands blessed with fertile soil, food can be served without masks. The fresh raw ingredients, always used while in season, undergo the least possible handling, sometimes being served with just a sprinkle of salt or olive oil. In autumn, the Greeks have a meze of anchovies baked with fresh twigs of oregano, roasted cubes of Halloumi cheese and potato croquettes; in winter they eat a meze of meatballs with spinach, stuffed leeks and pork sausages with hot chili peppers; in spring there are snails from Crete, grilled Langostinos, stuffed grape leaves and artichoke hearts; and in summer they devour small fried fish and octopus and fill squash and eggplant with everything good. There are vegetable mezes, fish and seafood mezes and meat mezes, and the mezedes served on the Aegean islands are not like those served in the hill or plains districts.

The key word is simplicity, including etiquette. The meze table is often placed outdoors, making it possible for a small grill to be set up next to it s. A Greek meze table is not laid with tablecloths or fancy serving plates. Individual saucers are a rarity; you pick up the food with your fingers or use toothpicks or plastic forks. The time period is flexible: A meze table can be open at any time, but the most popular are the late morning hours before lunch, or at sunset, before supper. Below is a small and not necessarily representative example of a proper meze table.

MEZE RECIPES from chef Hedai Offaim

1. Drinks. Bottles of water, buckets of ice and especially, ouzo, a drink that is good for cooling off body and soul. Alcoholic drinks seasoned with anise have been common all over the Mediterranean basin for thousands of years. In Greece the villagers would distill drinks seasoned with anise at home, but ouzo became the national drink only in the late 19th century. Until then the most common drink in Greece was retsina, the Greek equivalent of Italian grappa, which is distilled from grapes left over from wine making.

2. Fresh cucumbers in olive oil and salt. The perfect and most important meze. Those who cannot afford to place 50 mezedes on the table can always observe the commandment of meze with fresh cucumbers. Saucers of other fresh vegetables, such as tomatoes, fennel, scallions and radishes, are also placed on the meze table, seasoned simply with olive oil and salt.

3. Olives. Calamata, Thassos and Aegean olives (similar to the local Suri olives ). Lawrence Durrell, a writer who was good at capturing the elusive concept of "Mediterranean" in words, wrote that the olive has a more ancient flavor than meat and wine; that it is as ancient as cool water. The olive tree, which shaped civilizations in the region from ancient times, is the uncontested king of Greek and Mediterranean cuisine.

4. Grilled peppers. Greek pickled peppers, roasted on a charcoal grill, have a wonderful, unforgettable scorched flavor. They are available at specialty delicatessens such as Obermento and Haim Rafael in the Levinsky market in Tel Aviv.

5. Stuffed grape leaves. If the olive tree is the king of Mediterranean flora, the vine is its beloved queen. Grape leaves stuffed with rice, nuts and dried fruits are one of the most popular types of meze.

6. Tzatziki. Yogurt with thinly sliced cucumbers, garlic and olive oil. A poor description of a dish whose taste is the embodiment of summer. The Greeks use the slightly sour sheep's yogurt with 5 percent fat or more. Rarely do Israeli cucumbers recall the strong flavor of their overseas relatives. If you can't find small, solid cucumbers, you should at least remove the seeds (slice the cucumbers lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon ).

7. Kolios. Large anchovies preserved in salt and imported from Greece in large tin cans. Rinse off the salt and pickle the fish a second time with lemons, including the zest, and olive oil.

8. Keftedes. Fried meatballs, Cyprus style. See recipe below.

9. Taramosalata. Taramo are fish eggs, and are made into a salad with the scent of the sea. Greek taramosalata is a relative of the Romanian ikra, a spread produced by whipping roe with oil. The Greeks use salted rather than fresh roe, usually mullet roe.

10. Greek olive oil.

11. Pickled palamida. Because sometimes you have to compromise. Real lakerda, which today is worth its weight in gold, is very hard to find these days in Israel or anywhere else.

12. Okra in avgolemono sauce. See recipe below.

13. Bread. Slices of white bread that beg to sop up the juices, sauces and various spreads and dips, and loaves of round black country bread.

14. Asparagus omelet.

15. Pickled octopus salad. Oktopodi, affectionately known as oktopodeki , is one of the first words a food-loving tourist learns in the land of the Greeks. Anyone living in a country surrounded by the sea learns to love all its gifts; the interesting shape of octopus and squid, and their tasty meat, have fascinated the Greeks since ancient times.

16. Fresh octopus on the grill.

17. Red mullet in red sauce. Life is simple in the language of Greek recipes. There is red sauce, which is tomato sauce; there is white sauce, the Greek version of bechamel; and there is yellow avgolemono sauce, based on lemon and eggs. With these three sauces you can be creative and improvise with a variety of fresh fish and seafood.

18. Stuffed calamari. Filled with a mixture of kefalotiri cheese (a popular Greek cheese whose flavor and texture is reminiscent of Italian provolone ), sheep's feta cheese and scallions.

19. Blue crabs baked in olive oil, white wine and garlic.

20. Calamari and meat salad.

21. Greek salad. A concentrated essence of Greek cuisine that included the Hellenistic "four species": vegetables, olives, mutton and a salty sea seasoning. Every self-respecting Greek villager raises vegetables in his home garden for preparing the freshest of salads.

22. A skillet "quiche" of small fried sea fish. See recipe.

23. Shrimps fried in sage butter.

24. Lamb chops on the grill. In a country surrounded by the sea, people ate meat only on holidays and special occasions. Among popular dishes are lamb chops and suflaki skewers.

25. Calamata olives roasted on the grill with feta cheese and fresh figs. Take a needle and thread, make a nice necklace of alternating pitted Calamata olives and cubes of feta and place on the grill for a few seconds. A treat.

Cyprus-style keftedes

Keftedes means meatballs in Greek, and these tasty meatballs were originally prepared in Cyprus from mutton or goat meat. Bread provides an airy texture and wine adds a typical sour taste to a tender dish that caresses the palate. The meatballs can also be roasted on the grill, but it is more fun to fry them and eat them hot from the skillet. Along with a glass of ouzo, of course.

1 kg. ground meat (preferably from cuts that are marbled )

4 thick slices of day-old, without crusts

1 egg

1 cup red wine

1 cup white wine

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

some dry oregano or thyme

a handful of chopped spearmint

salt and pepper

1 cup olive oil

olive oil for frying

Cover the slices of bread with water or milk and soak them for half an hour. Squeeze the bread thoroughly and crumble into a bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and mix well until a uniform mixture is formed.

Make meatballs the size of ping pong balls and flatten them a little with your palm. Heat olive oil in a skillet, add the meatballs and fry on both sides until brown. Remove and transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper. Serve immediately along with sourish tzatziki yogurt.

Okra in avgolemono sauce

The Greeks love okra. They like it soft and cooked for a long time in tomato sauce, crisp and lightly fried with olive oil and lemon, and they combine it with avgolemono, the most famous Greek sauce. Avgolemono sauce, as its name implies, is a simple sauce of eggs and lemon, and it lends a fresh and wonderful taste to many Greek dishes.

3 cups okra, rinsed and with stem ends cut off

1 cup olive oil

1 roasted red pepper (you can use the imported Greek roasted red peppers )

juice of 2 lemons

2 eggs

salt and pepper

Pour the olive oil into a pot and let the okra steam in it for 10 minutes, until it softens a little but still remains chewy. Tear the roasted pepper into small pieces and add to the pot.

In a separate bowl beat the eggs until they have an airy texture. Add the lemon juice to the eggs slowly and gradually, beating constantly.

Lower the flame, add the egg mixture all at once and mix well so the eggs won't harden and turn into an omelet. Turn off the flame, mix again and serve.

Skillet 'quiche' of sea fish and onion

1 kg. small sea fish (red mullet, anchovies, sardines, or a mixture of fish ) 1 onion, thinly sliced

1 cup flour

1 tsp. salt

1 cup olive oil

Rinse the fish and dry with absorbent paper. Tiny fish, like anchovies, can be left whole but the skeleton should be removed from larger fish. Place the onion in a strainer, sprinkle it with a little salt and set aside for half an hour. Rinse the onion in running water and squeeze the water out with your palms. Place fish, onion, flour, salt and black pepper in a plastic bag. Close the bag and shake until the fish and the onion rings are completely and uniformly covered with flour. Remove from the bag and shake off extra flour.

Heat olive oil in a Teflon skillet and arrange the onion and fish in it, closely packed together. With a spatula, flatten them uniformly, so that the layer of fish and onions will be no thicker than 2.5 cm. Fry for 8-10 minutes and when the bottom becomes brown carefully turn the "quiche" over. The best way to do so is to place a large plate over the skillet, turn the skillet over the plate and gently slide the contents back into the skillet to brown the other side. Serve immediately with fresh lemon halves or avgolemono sauce. And ouzo of course.

Meet the chef

Hedai Offaim Born in Haifa, 1979, lives in Ein Karem. Owner of the Kayema Farm for sustainable agriculture. He specializes in the production of organic goat cheeses and other farm products. A gourmet cook and great lover of Greek and Mediterranean cuisine.