Meat: How Greeks Prepare It
Greeks enjoy a dubious claim to fame as the EU's largest consumers of red meat, and that in a country, where until just a generation ago meat was an expensive rarity, savored at best once a week, but more likely even less frequently, a few times a month and on holidays. Affluence has changed the healthful traditional diet, and even now, in the face of so many food scares, Greeks continue to indulge in red meat.
Large roasts -consider the feasts of Greek heroes- have been part and parcel of Greek culinary lore, since time immemorial. Today, Easter would be incomplete in most parts of the country without its ritualistic lamb or kid on a spit, or its kokoretsi, innards sausage, skewered and grilled outdoors.
On the everyday table, skewered meats are also prominent, in the form of souvlaki, sold in countless holes-in-the-wall all over the country. Souvlaki is basically made by skewering small chunks of meat, usually pork or lamb, and grilling them over coals. There are two basic forms -kalamakia, which refers to small wooden skewers with no additions such as vegetables, grilled and served individually, sometimes with a piece of bread, and generally eaten as street food, on the run; then there is the merida, or whole portion, which basically refers to a more embellished skewer, with bigger chunks of meat interspersed with slices of peppers, tomatoes and onions and often served with French fries. Souvlaki pita refers to the small skewer, removed, and wrapped in grilled pita bread together with tomatoes, tzatziki, and onions.
Like souvlaki pita, usually served wrapped in grilled pita bread with one difference: giros, which means round, is made by stacking very thin slices of meat on a vertical skewer and grilling the whole thing rotisserie-like (hence its name) for hours, until all the slices meld together. To serve it, the giro maker slices off thin pieces and wraps them in pita bread with tomatoes, onions, tzatziki etc.
There are countless stews and stovetop meat preparations in the traditional Greek culinary repertoire, and there is a reason why. Until a few decades ago, many home kitchens did not have an oven; the oven was outdoors and required lots of wood and fuss to ignite, and so it was used for only the necessary tasks of baking bread and roasting holiday meals. The hearth, and later, the simple gas burners were the tools most often used to cook on. Meat was expensive, and so used sparingly, most often in combination with other ingredients, such as vegetables, beans, and rice or pasta, so that there was enough food to fill a whole family's bellies. As a result of both the dearth of fuel and ovens,, as well as the expense of meat itself, a whole bevy of stovetop casseroles and stews developed that could be prepared easily and were both cheap and filling.
All kinds of meats are cooked in stews: beef and veal, lamb, goat, chicken, other fowl, and game. Some of the classic preparations include:
• Chicken and okra stewed with tomato sauce
• Lamb or pork with greens and avgolemono sauce
• Pork with celery and avgolemono sauce
• Beef with white beans or with chick peas
• Beef or veal in aromatic tomato sauce
Ground Meat Dishes
Ground meat -kimas in Greek- is a favorite in many preparations. Greeks grind lamb, pork and beef for use in the kitchen. Among the best-known dishes are:
• Keftedes: small Greek meatballs, usually fried bifteki -akin to a small burger
• Soutzoukakia: oblong nuggets made of ground meat, usually cooked in a spicy tomato sauce
• Giouverlakia: one of the great Greek recipes, made with ground meat, kneaded together with rice and cooked in a thick lemon sauce
• Rolo: greek meat loaf, oftentimes stuffed with whole eggs and whole carrots
• Kreatopita: savory pie, filled with ground meat or with finely hand-chopped meat
Two regions stand out for their meat pies: Kefalonia is home to one recipe that calls for a trio of ground pork, lamb and veal and Ipiros is home to a festive ground meat pie, sometimes baked with bechamel that is often served at Christmas or New Year's Day.
When the first European meat bans took place a few years ago, forbidding the sale of offal because of mad cow fears, Greeks took to the streets. Their beloved kokoretsi, or Easter innards sausage, was being threatened with extinction, because of the decision of bureaucrats in Brussels. The Greeks won out, and kokoretsi remained legally edible, but something surely has been lost. Offal, once savored all over the country in many unusual dishes, is quickly disappearing from the table. Nonetheless, for posterity's sake, we mention it here, listing and describing some of the classics:
• Kokoretsi: the innards sausage roasted on a spit that is a classic of the Easter table.
• Magiritsa: another Easter specialty, this one a soup, made with offal, shredded lettuce, herbs, rice and avgolemono.
• Patsas: tripe soup. The night bird's cure for a bad hangover! Tripe soup is usually served in rather rough-and-tumble venues, in and around the central markets, in various cities throughout Greece.
• Pihti: aka head cheese; another one of those acquired tastes, this one made by slowly boiling pork trotters and/or head so that the gelatine is released. What results is a jelly-like treat, seasoned with various spices. This is a specialty of Christmas and New Year's. Not for the faint-hearted!
• Sikoti: liver. Greeks love lamb's liver, which they saute with rosemary and season with vinegar, or which they pan-fry and serve with a little lemon juice sprinkled on top. There are many recipes for liver, too many to list here.
• Glikadia: sweetbreads. A delicacy to be sure, but one that may go the way of the dinosaur, only because the meat supply worldwide is truly questionable.
A Pheasant on Your Table
I was all prepared to spend this column basting the humble turkey with encomia. After all, the bird with the pop-up thermometer is the one most of us dress for the Christmas table. But Fate intervened in a phone call. It was my friend Vangelis in a culinary quandary.