Chef Pano Stathakis returns to his family’s home village, keeping the fare fresh in his mind
Chef Pano Stathakis often returns to his family’s home village in Greece in order to keep his Greek-inspired recipes fresh. Because of these visits, Stathakis is able to maintain an ever-changing vibrancy of flavor in his cooking and reconnect with friends and family. In fact, the chef recently spent six weeks in Karyae, about 35 miles from Sparta, with his loved ones.
“We are having a big family reunion there. We will have like 20-something people in two of my family’s homes in Greece,” he said during a cooking demonstration several days before his departure. By and large, many of the Greek favorites he and Kiki Couchell prepared are available at Greek festivals across the nation. In particular, these events are great opportunities to sample Greek treats, though the dishes may not taste exactly like they do in Karyae.
Staying attuned to the tastes
Stathakis said his trips to Greece help keep him connected to family and cultural traditions. But these excursions also play a significant role in his cooking as well. After all, the original flavors of Greek cuisine depend on the native soil. Subsequently, only the fish of the Mediterranean and the Greeks’ commitment to fresh, unadulterated ingredients will suffice for Stathakis.
When his parents emigrated to the United States from Greece in the 1950s, it was in the wake of the Greek Civil War. Between then and now, “food has really changed a great deal,” Stathakis said. “When my parents came over here, truly, there wasn’t a lot of stuff being imported into the United States. So whatever they used in cooking was grown in the United States.”
Subsequently, through his trips to Greece, Stathakis has tasted how big a difference the source of ingredients can have on a dish. For example, he mentioned “a lot depends on your terrain” when it comes to the intensity of flavor in oregano or basil.
Couchell agrees. When she was growing up, her mother taught her traditional Greek cooking. Now, Couchell grows her own herbs so she can have fresh ingredients available. With that being said, she also often finds the ingredients she truly wants at stores such as Whole Foods Market and Lidl.
Keeping in touch with traditions through Greek inspired recipes
Before he left for Greece, Stathakis gave a cooking demonstration along with Couchell, preparing several appetizers, entrees and desserts. In September, Stathakis will act as chair for a Greek festival where there delicious dishes will be for sale.
Such festivals are now popular from coast to coast and can become giant events in cities such as Boston and New York. However, at the smaller Greek festival Stathakis oversees for St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, visitors experience Greek-inspired recipes and home cooking. Moreover, these recipes are often traditional, handed down from parents to children who were coached in the kitchen.
Stathakis notes that the festivals are an opportunity for young and old members of the Greek community to work together and reinforce cherished traditions. “It is a great social event, and it’s good for the community,” he said. “It broadens horizons on what Greek culture is.” While he loves returning to his roots on occasion, reconnecting with relatives, experiencing their lifestyles, and savoring their foods, Stathakis is an American through and through.
As songwriter George Cohan put it in “Yankee Doodle Dandy, he’s “a real live nephew of his Uncle Sam.” Subsequently, Stathakis notes “We are excited about our culture, and we are happy that we are here in America too. I am first generation here. I was born in the United States. My parents came over on a boat; my grandfather came and worked on the railroads, then he went back and got married in Greece. So we’re proud to be Americans. This is our country too.”
Check out these Greek Inspired Recipes and Get Cooking!
Greek Inspired Recipe: Dolmades
Rice and ground beef rolled into a grape leaf
1 pint jar of grape leaves (Stathakis recommends Orlando California grape leaves)
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 grated onions
1 cup rice
Juice from 1 1/2 lemons
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill OR 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
4 tablespoons melted butter
2 cups chicken broth
First, rinse leaves, then simmer for 10 minutes in boiling water until soft.
Then, mix beef, salt, pepper (to your preference), oil, onions, rice, lemon juice, parlsey and dill (or mint). If needed, add 3/4 cup water to make mixture soft.
Next, lay out leaves and cut off stems with scissors. Place each leaf ribbed side up, and spoon 1 tablespoon of beef/rice mixture into the center of each leaf.
After, fold over the sides of each leaf and roll up tightly. (Dolmade will resemble a small Chinese egg roll.)
Then, line a deep saucepan with grape leaves and place dolmades close together in a circular fashion on top of each other. They should be packed together tightly. Pour on broth and melted butter.
Next, put a heavy plate (bottom-side up) over the top layer of the dolmades to prevent them from unrolling.
Finally, cover and put over low heat for about one hour.
Serving suggestion: Top with hollandaise sauce or fresh lemon juice.
Greek Inspired Recipe: Pasticho
Traditional Greek baked lasagna
2 pounds ground beef
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 chopped onion
1 small can tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
1 1/4 pounds large elbow macaroni
1 stick melted butter
4 cups grated parmesan cheese
First, sauté ground beef and onions and 4 tablespoons of butter. Fry until meat juices are absorbed, then add the tomato sauce and season with salt and pepper. Add the water and simmer about 30 minutes. Stir several times throughout so everything cooks evenly and does not stick.
Next, cook macaroni in salted boiling water until al dente (about 10 minutes). Rinse, drain and combine with the remaining 4 tablespoons of melted butter.
Then, coat baking pan with non-stick cooking spray.
Finally, spread half the macaroni into pan. Sprinkle with cheese and cover with meat mixture. Top with remaining macaroni and parmesan cheese.
1 quart milk
8 tablespoons flour
1 stick butter
First, melt butter and add flour to make a rue. Add milk gradually, stirring constantly until slightly thickened.
Then, slowly add beaten eggs into the warm milk mixture and continue stirring over very low heat until thickened. Season with salt to taste.
Next, spread sauce slowly over macaroni and then sprinkle cheese on top. Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
Finally, let cool for 30 minutes before cutting and serving.
Greek Inspired Recipe: Loukoumathes
Doughnut-hole-shaped fluffy pastry puffs
1 packet dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
4 cups of White Lily self-rising flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Peanut oil (enough to deep fry)
First, mix active yeast and sugar in 1/2 cup of warm water. Let it rise for 10 minutes covered in a cloth.
Next, combine flour and baking powder. Add the yeast/sugar mixture, vegetable oil and remaining water and stir until all lumps in the batter are gone. Allow to rise for 10-15 minutes. Beat down mixture with spatula. When it rises again, the mixture is ready.
Then, dip spoon into hot peanut oil to keep batter from sticking, then drop batter into oil 1 tablespoon at a time. Tip: If batter starts to stick to spoon, dip back into oil.
Next, cook puffs about 3 minutes or until golden. Remove from oil with slotted spoon.
Let cool slightly before placing in honey mixture. Dip in warm syrup-honey mixture (see below). When you take them out, sprinkle with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Finally, sprinkle with chopped walnuts (optional).
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
First, mix sugar and water. Next, boil for 10 minutes. After, pour in honey and stir, keeping at low heat. Finally, dip loukoumathes in the warm honey mixture.
Written by Phil Randall