The phrase "Greek food" is practically synonymous with hospitality. As the vivacious Bakopoulos sisters, authors of the multiple award-winning cookbook Three Sisters Around the Greek Table, proclaim, "entertaining, Greek-style, should make your guests feel truly welcome and show them how delighted you are to cook for them."
Gathered in youngest sister Samantha's leafy, welcoming Manor Park back yard, Betty and Eleni join her in explaining that traditional Greek dinners are not formal affairs.
"There is usually more of a grazing approach, with platters of food appearing constantly for hours. Guests will often arrive mid-afternoon and the nibbling begins right away, with dinner served at 6 or 7 p.m. and lasting for five or six hours. By the time dessert appears around midnight, you're hungry again. If a Greek dinner has gone well, by the end, everyone is dancing!"
Greek food can be described as seasonal and simple. "It's refreshing and light on the palate," say the sisters, who are currently working on a second book of traditional, easy-to-prepare dishes. "It's not fussy or overly sauced - more like good, honest peasant food." A typical Greek meal will not feature a lot of starch; vegetables are much more prominent. In fact, the famous Mediterranean Diet should actually be called the Greek Diet, given that the study which spawned interest in the healthy lifestyle was actually conducted on the Greek isle of Crete.
"Greek food is not very labour intensive as each dish typically has a simple list of ingredients," they add. "You can feed a lot of people quite inexpensively and many dishes can be prepared ahead of time. Our cookbook includes make-ahead instructions and a few shortcuts as well. It's truly not a cuisine to be afraid of either making or eating."
Good quality ingredients are essential to Greek cooking because most recipes are designed to let just a few simple elements shine. This includes lots of fresh herbs and Greek olive oil, which has a very distinct buttery flavour. Look for oils from Kalamata or Crete for top quality, and buy bunches of dried oregano which has a much more pleasing and pronounced flavour than packaged leaves.
The hallmark of a true Greek meal is a greater abundance of food than most Canadians are probably accustomed to. "If you are serving chicken breasts, for example, plan on two per person. You want to make your guests feel comfortable having more and it is the hostess' job to continually urge people to refill their plates."
The grazing begins with a generous selection of mezedes or appetizers. These can be presented one at a time over several hours. "You should bring out food right away to accompany drinks. Start with a little ouzo, served in a highball glass with ice. Because of its high sugar content, ouzo is meant to be served with food and sipped in moderation." Suggestions for appetizers include parsley and mint meatballs with tzatziki, marinated olives, shrimp and ouzo, kefalotyri cheese and feta with sliced bread, and spanakopita bites.
For the main course, it's common to present all the remaining dishes on large platters, placed in the centre of the table and passed among guests. A typical meal would include two salads, several vegetable dishes such as moussaka and grilled or stuffed vegetables, two meat dishes, a fish or seafood dish and a pastisio (baked penne with béchamel). The tzatziki, marinated olives, cheeses and bread would also stay on the table throughout the meal.
Dessert usually consists of a large platter of seasonal fresh fruit and Greek pastries or homemade baklava, as well as the quintessential Greek closer of thick coffee and spoon sweets - colourful preserves made from cherries, grapes, quince or other fruits, prettily presented on porcelain spoons.
To add to the atmosphere of your Greek dinner, consider a complementary décor. Blue and white are the most typical colours, but you can think beyond that and work with pale colours associated with summery islands, including off-white. "Olive wood serving pieces are very traditional, as is placing a pot of bush basil on the table, rather than flowers. Guests will enjoy rubbing it with their fingertips to release its delicious aroma." Candles and carafes of water and wine will finish the table. If you think your guests might get unruly and want to follow the Greek custom of smashing plates and yelling "Opa," consider mismatched thrift store china and keep the broom handy.
As befits their culture, Greek food is very family-friendly in its flavours and its attitude. Children are always welcome and they are not seated at a separate table from the adults unless there are too many of them to have everyone at one table. "Greek dinners are all about sharing time and lively conversation with the people you love, eating and laughing. That's what life is all about."
Greek entertaining is an art that takes style and flair, but the effort makes for memorable occasions.
Aroma Meze's executive chef Michael Tatsis recommends a 2008 Moschofilero Mantinia, a fresh white with intense flavour and a long, aromatic aftertaste. A suitable red would be a 2005 Nemea Boutari, with its rich velvety taste and good structure.
Don't forget the tunes!
It wouldn't be a Greek dinner without music, played a little loudly. The sisters suggest ?visiting iTunes for tracks from Mikis Theodorakidis and George Dalaras.
Places to shop for Greek ingredients:
Larger grocery stores will carry many of the items needed for a Greek feast, but for specialty ingredients, check out Sultan Supermarket at 2446 Bank St. and Olympia Market Centre at 590 Gladstone Avenue, where you'll find a good selection of spoon sweets. Greek pastries are available by order from Aroma Meze restaurant at 239 Nepean Street or 1335 Wellington Street.