Ancient yet modern at once, Greek cuisine radiates with sunshine and bright, fresh flavors. Succulent lamb enlivened with rosemary and garlic, a classic dish, is as redolent of Greece as it is of springtime. And as is true of anywhere with a shoreline, seafood is center stage. Always present are plates of local feta, stark-white and salty, and olives whose depth of flavor will keep you from ever opening canned olives again. For dessert, honey forms a sinful pact with walnuts and cinnamon, or yogurt made in-house just that morning cozies up to macerated cherries.
A Greek dinner is lovely to prepare and a joy to eat. Many of the ingredients are staples you probably have in your kitchen, such as lemons, herbs, eggs and olive oil. Here are some ingredients you might want to try.
The Basics: Olives and Feta. Olive oil is central to Greek cooking. The essential Greek olive is kalamata. They should be deep black and packed in an olive oil and vinegar brine; a taste should reveal a distinctive, fruity flavor and a firm bite without mealiness. Here's a great recipe for using these beauties. There are other Greek cheeses beyond feta, but this standard should be available in every cheese case. The cheese should be pure white with a gently pocked surface, lounging in a clean bath of salt-water brine (never buy dry feta).
Greek Sea Salt. Greek sea salt, along with freshly ground black pepper, is wonderful on a salad (see dandelion greens, below) or as the crowning touch on grilled fish. This is table salt in Greece, and with its reasonable price tag and superior quality you will rely upon this ingredient as a secret weapon in your kitchen.
Dandelion Greens. Gardeners call it a weed, but this herb has a long culinary and medicinal history. Dandelion greens should be available among the lettuces and fresh herbs In the grocery store or at the farm stand. The greens might even be sold with some of the roots intact; hack these off and thoroughly clean the greens before preparing them. Dress the cleaned greens with a simple wash of lemon juice and olive oil, sprinked with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, or saute the greens in olive oil, garlic and oregano, just until wilted and serve immediately. The sauteed greens make a lovely bed for giovetsi, a stew of lamb, orzo and tomatoes.
Fenugreek. In Asian cuisine this spice is known as an ingredient in curry, but it was also used in the Mediterranean, where its culinary and medical history goes back to ancient world. You may still find it in its medical office as an ingredient in teas, but this spice lends its distinctive heat to food. For this reason, use fenugreek sparingly. Add one-half teaspoon of this mustard-colored spice to marinade for souvlaki or add a few seeds to the ouzo with which you steam your shrimp. For Sunday dinner, try kota kapama -- chicken braised with tomatoes, in which cinnamon adds to the unmistakable savory quality of the sauce, especially if you sneak a few fenugreek seeds into the pot.
Fig Jam. Figs have a history almost as sacred as grapes and olives, and were also among the first foods to be processed and preserved. These dusky fruits are preserved as a jam, as much a staple on Greek tables as strawberry is in America. There are two varieties of fig jam: dark and green. For both, the prevailing characteristic is a musky sweetness, but green jam has a lighter, tarter character than the dark. They provide a nice change of pace for your morning toast or as a surprise tucked into pockets of French toast for brunch. The jams shine as an ingredient in mezes, the Greek equivalent of tapas. Offer dollops of jam with cheese and olives or use dabs of the jam to harmonize with bitter greens (see dandelions, above) and salty feta on a pizza crust.
If you can get to a Greek market (even if online), by all means do, but note that most modern grocery stores have a wide enough selection that these ingredients are available. Dandelion greens are in season now, so you can start Going Greek immediately.