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Food: Greek Revival – US Food Trends

07 May 2008

The light, fresh flavors of Hellenic cuisine offer both classic and contemporary menu inspiration.

This article first appeared in the 1 May 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I,visit its website here >>

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

As the culinary tide shifts toward light, fresh and approachable flavors, Greek influences and ingredients offer kitchens a route less traveled. Stocked with consumer-friendly components such as savory dips, grilled seafood and healthful accents ranging from olive oil and herbs to citrus and yogurt, the underappreciated Mediterranean cuisine can satisfy just about any palate.

"When you combine this idea of healthy food with something new, with clean flavors and, for the most part, recognizable ingredients, you have a budding interest that has really blossomed," says Michael Psilakis, chef and co-owner of contemporary-Greek restaurant Anthos in New York City.

Witness French-Italian bistro Lilette in New Orleans, where guests begin meals with breaded eggplant crisps spread with skordalia, a garlicky dip thickened with potatoes and toasted almonds. At upscale restaurant-sports-bar Blackstone in Iowa City, Iowa, diners share slices of warm flatbread laden with Roma tomatoes, kalamata olives and mild, salty kasseri cheese.

Meanwhile, customers at Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo's business-and-industry accounts find a healthful lunchtime choice in grilled salmon on country bread with hummus, cucumber-tomato relish and tzatziki sauce.

"Cooks and chefs are excited because Greek food has opened up a door of new ingredients and flavor profiles they can go out there and play around with," Psilakis says.

Expanding Menu Horizons

In quick-service and noncommercial venues, reimagining familiar favorites using common Greek ingredients is a popular approach.

Students at Albion College in Albion, Mich., make nachos-style plates using the well-recognized components of gyros. From a self-serve station, they can choose thin, seasoned slices of grilled chicken (more cost-effective than lamb) and extras such as olives, tomatoes, shredded lettuce and tzatziki to spread over deep-fried mini pita wedges.

At Dogma Grill, a three-unit upscale hot-dog stand based in Miami, Athens dogs are topped to order with diced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, kalamata olives and feta cheese marinated in red-wine vinaigrette.

"When you're eating shawarma or pita in the streets of Athens or [other regions of] the Mediterranean, you always have this great medley of ingredients, so we thought, why wouldn't that work on a hot dog?" says owner Jeffrey Akin, noting that the Greek-medley choice is a favorite among vegetarians as garnish for the soy veggie dogs that account for about 20% of sales.

Upper-end dining rooms find chefs shaping their own innovative recipes around Greek flavors and ingredients. Colleen Grapes, pastry chef at modern-American restaurant Irving Mill in New York City, says that when she decided to create a twist on panna cotta by replacing the traditional custard with Greek yogurt-richer and less tangy than its American counterpart-it made sense to look to the region to shape the rest of the recipe, as well.

Stewed apricots and tea-infused dates lend sweet-tart notes to the dessert, which is garnished with crunchy toasted pistachios and flax seeds and drizzled with acacia honey. The yogurt is combined with sour cream, sugar, salt and lemon juice; mixed with gelatin dissolved in heavy cream; and spooned into rocks glasses to chill over a dollop of jallab, a Middle Eastern syrup made from dates, rose water and grape molasses.

James Porter, chef-owner at Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar in Scottsdale, Ariz., says injecting Greek influences into dishes works in operators' favor in three key ways.

"People are always trying to expand their menus; they're looking for healthy ideas; and they're looking at cuisines from other countries, and Greek fits the profile," he says.

Serving a local clientele often wary of unfamiliar fare, Porter chose a well-known fish as foundation for a recently introduced dish. Halibut fillets are lightly crusted with dehydrated ground olives, fresh basil, oregano and olive oil, and then baked and topped with cucumber-and-Greek-yogurt relish.

More-adventuresome diners can sample a traditional Greek recipe, grilled octopus. Whole baby octopus is peeled, tenderized, and marinated in olive oil and lemon zest before being grilled over charcoal. The octopus is then served over chunky tomato stew with saffron, onion, garlic and fingerling potatoes.

Fertile Ground for Exploration

Contemporary Greek restaurants offer operators especially extensive blueprints for updating classic Greek preparations and ingredients.

At Dio Deka in Los Gatos, Calif., Chef-partner Salvatore Calisi perks up a first course of sautéed mussels in a spicy broth of tomatoes, white wine, dill, anise liqueur and Aleppo chiles with house-made loukaniko, a Greek sausage flavored with orange zest.

His plevrakia, typically a dish of lamb riblets with lemon and oregano, substitutes mesquite-grilled pork riblets seasoned with a rub of nutmeg, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, allspice, anise liqueur and lemon juice. The pork is steamed until tender and grilled for a charred finish, and then finished with quince-and-pistachio relish.

At Anthos, Psilakis' signature "raw meze" is a riff on Italian crudo that uses pristine seafood as a platform for complex layers of flavor. In one recipe, an updated skordalia made with smoked potatoes and Greek yogurt decorates slices of raw fluke, which are garnished with brined, fried grape leaves, crisp-baked garlic chips and pickled grapes.

"You have the smokiness of the skordalia; the garlic, which is so natural to the skordalia, represented in the form of a chip; and the grape leaf, which is so intrinsic to Greece, being looked at in a different way for texture and flavor; and ultimately, the pickled grape, which brings an acidity and yet natural sweetness at the same time," Psilakis says. "When you combine all these things, it captures the identity of Greece."

Make-Your-Own Moussaka

Already familiar to many American diners, moussaka, the traditional Greek casserole of ground beef or lamb layered with eggplant and béchamel, is a prime candidate for reinvention.

At Dio Deka in Los Gatos, Calif., the dish is reinterpreted with braised veal cheeks, zucchini and potato, while a version at Anthos in New York City calls for braised goat and cinnamon-dusted fried eggplant. Chef-owner Peter Ballarin of French restaurant The Hungry I in Boston shares his adaptation, featuring ground turkey and Gorgonzola cream sauce, in the recipe below.

Turkey Moussaka

3 lb. Turkey legs and thighs, skin removed
1 qt. Â Turkey stock Â
1 Large sweet onion, choppedÂ
- ½ head  Celery, leaves removed, chopped Â
Large portobello mushrooms, stems removed, choppedÂ
Garlic cloves, chopped Â
Large eggplant, sliced ¼-in. thickÂ
- Sea salt as needed Â
½ tsp.  Ground cinnamonÂ
- Fresh rosemary, chopped, divided use pinch and to garnish Â
- Nutmeg, freshly grated pinch Â
- Ground ginger pinch Â
- Salt to tasteÂ
- Black pepper, freshly ground to taste Â
- Olive oil for frying Â
- Breadcrumbs as neededÂ
1½ cups Gorgonzola cream sauce (recipe follows)Â
 - Poach turkey in stock with onion, celery, portobellos and garlic until turkey falls away from the bone. Cool; reserve poaching liquid and vegetables. - To prepare eggplant, season slices with sea salt and spread over large baking sheet between layers of parchment paper; let stand at room temperature about 30 minutes. Drain; pat dry with paper towels. - Remove bones from cooled turkey. In processor, combine turkey with poaching vegetables and a little liquid; blend well. Stir in cinnamon, rosemary, nutmeg, ginger, salt and pepper. - Heat olive oil to 350F; fry eggplant slices until lightly browned. Drain. - Sprinkle breadcrumbs in 4-in. ramekins or soufflé cups; fill with alternating layers of eggplant, turkey mixture, Gorgonzola cream sauce and breadcrumbs. - Place ramekins on tray; bake at 400F for 20 minutes or until bubbly. Garnish with fresh rosemary. Gorgonzola cream sauce
2 oz. Unsalted butterÂ
1 cup Heavy cream Â
2 oz Gorgonzola, crumbled Â
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste Â
Melt butter in heavy, small saucepan over low heat. Gradually whisk in cream; simmer 1 minute. Add Gorgonzola; whisk until cheese is melted and sauce is reduced to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
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