It was a chilly evening when eight students met at CoCo Mat in New York’s Soho district to try their hand at Greek cuisine under the tutelage of Maria Benardis, chef and founder of Greekalicious. Fortunately for us, this was a class about intuitive cooking — Ancient Greek Wisdom for Your Kitchen. There were no strict measurements or exact ingredients to use in the class, about which to obsess. It was about cooking with your senses, and more importantly, your nose.
Maria told us that perception of flavors relies first on our sense of smell, and then taste. Lemon smells acidic and its tartness makes mouths pucker immediately, honey doesn’t cause the same reaction. Sight is also important. Is the sight of the ingredient pleasing, the way fresh greens, dill, parsley and green onion look? “We should start with small amounts, sweet, salt, sour, and use our “gut” to trust ourselves,” said Maria, “then we can build our dishes.”
After washing our hands and gathering around the long wood table we were divided into teams.
Maria mixed yeast, flour and warm water in a bowl, covering and setting it on a warm counter to rise. The thick mixture would become our Loukoumades (Ancient Greek donuts) for dessert.
Being impatient, I’d always found it difficult working with tissue thin, unleavened filo dough. (Filo means leaf in Greek and is an integral part of Greece’s culinary tradition.) The trick is to thaw it thoroughly. Maria cut a filo roll into four equal pieces and then cut the long strips into large squares.
“Eggs and cheese are the main ingredients used for a pie,” she said. “Then we can use caramelized onion, tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach and herbs,” adding, “you can fill them with ground meat or fruit as well.” Maria concluded by saying, “Every region and island in Greece makes its own pie, resulting in hundreds of different varieties.” My team-mate Max and I chose parsley, caramelized onion, green onion, mushrooms and feta cheese, “binding” the mixture with a beaten egg.
After placing several layers of filo brushed with olive oil in a lightly oiled muffin pan, we filled our pie with the mixture. The pans were placed in a 355-degree oven until they were brown and crisp.
While they baked, half the table prepared the souvlaki (originally long swords were used) by alternating chunks of lamb, red pepper and cheese, while the other side (where Max and I were) prepared the watercress salad.
Maria explained that around the end of the 4th century BCE on the island of Kos, Hippocrates provided a wealth of information on biomedical methodology, which included using watercress to treat blood disorders.
True to Maria’s formula of sweet, salt and sour, we used tissue-thin slices of sweet pear with crumbled salty feta cheese and crunchy pine nuts. We made the vinaigrette dressing by squeezing fresh, sour lemon and chopped parsley into a shallow dish, adding olive oil and a light sprinkle of salt. The result was beautiful.
Once the pies and souvlaki were taken from the oven, we served ourselves and brought all our creations to the dining table. Happily supping while drinking a light, white Greek wine, we talked about our trips to Greece. I remembered my trip to Athens and Crete and the sumptuous dishes I selected in the kitchens of homes, where the aroma of breads mingled with lamb or fish stews was a constant draw. Breaking from my reverie, I realized the evening’s dinner wasn’t complete.
The dough that Maria had let set earlier had risen. In a deep frying pan, she scooped spoonfuls of the mixture into hot olive oil. The Loukoumades “honey tokens” became prizes to victorious athletes in the Olympic Games of 776 BCE.
Fried to a golden brown, the Loukoumades were spooned onto a paper towel to absorb the excess oil, drizzled with honey, sprinkled with cinnamon and into our eager mouths.
Thanks to Maria’s Greekalicious classes, a group came together, worked together and enjoyed the evening, having learned that cooking is an intuitive process, one where the nose does know.
“A Greekalicious Feast” is available on Amazon for Kindle, Barnes & Noble for Nook and the Apple iBook store for iPad. In 2014 Maria Benardis moved from Australia to New York City to expand the Greekalicious brand and to share her wisdom and passion about Greek cooking across America. She is author of two cookbooks titled “My Greek Family Table” (Penguin/Australia). Her March Greekalicious classes at CoCo Mat will take place on March 9th and March 30 and April 6th and April 27th. Visit greekalicious.nyc