Greek Independence Day is March 25 and though some celebrations wait until after Lent, sampling the savory Mediterranean fare from this sun-drenched land is a treat any time of year.
From simple gyro stands to diners and full-service restaurants, Greek cuisine offers everything from gyros, souvlaki, moussaka and spanakopita (spinach pita) to delicately grilled chicken and fish, lamb dishes, veggies and the ever-popular Greek salad. Note: Greek salads served in Greece generally do not come with lettuce. They are usually a simple mix of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and feta cheese, sprinkled with good olive oil.
Many believe the simplicity of ingredients and the emphasis on olive oil play a key role in the highly touted Mediterranean diet. We spoke to three venues that are proud to share their Greek culinary heritage. Kalí óreksi!
Mediterranean Diner, Bellmore, 516-221-8721
The Mediterranean Diner is loaded with charm and good food, both Greek and American. Owner Ron Tsempelis is very proud of his homemade tzatziki sauce. “It’s our claim to fame,” he says, adding that they go through at least 15 gallons of the thick and delicious yogurt-based sauce per week. Though usually served with Greek dishes, tzatziki is asked for constantly by his regular customers. Try some with their gyro (correct pronunciation: year-row) which consists of thin slices of a special meat and spice mixture, served with lettuce, tomatoes and onions on a fresh pita bread. When asked about healthy Greek cooking, Tsempelis says he thinks it is all about the olive oil, which is a mainstay at the diner.
Greek Town, Rockville Centre, 516-678-4550
Leonnora Kotzavekiaris has been serving her special mix of Greek favorites for 15 years, including her popular Greek Goddess Salad with grilled chicken shish kebab. Her father came from the Greek island of Crete, where she says people are seasonal eaters of simple foods. “You eat what the land gives you—a lot of veggies in the summer, potatoes in the winter and lots of whole grain bread.” She offers that only a handful of ingredients are needed to bring Greek cuisine into the home -- olive oil, lemon, oregano and a little feta cheese. “With those you can make anything,” she said.
Gyro Palace, Merrick, 516-868-4550
Most of the Mediterranean dishes served at Gyro Palace cannot be easily replicated elsewhere, says owner George Katsoulakis, because they need his special marinades to create authentic Grecian flavor. This is particularly true of his top selling chicken souvlaki. “You can’t just take a chicken breast, cut it up and call it a souvlaki - you have to marinade it,” he said. Katsoulakis believes the secret to healthy Mediterranean-style cooking is good olive oil, which he uses for “just about everything.”
Greek Chicken (Grilled)
1/2 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
2 lemons, juiced
1 (4 pound) chicken, cut into pieces
In a glass dish, mix the olive oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme, oregano and lemon juice. Place the chicken pieces in the mixture, cover and marinate in the refrigerator eight hours or overnight. Preheat grill for high heat. Lightly oil the grill grate. Place chicken on the grill and discard the marinade. Cook chicken pieces up to 15 minutes per side, until juices run clear. Smaller pieces will not take as long. Serves 8.