Once you’ve had Greek vegetables, you realize how important they are to a meal. Not a side dish or a last-minute addition to a menu. No, they steal the show. Once you taste them, you want to know how to make Greek vegetables at home.
For many of us–even those of us who like vegetables–we simply don’t give them their proper place in our diet. Sure, we have salads. We roast vegetables, add them to soups and stews. We put them out with dips, as an appetizer. But do we savor them? Anticipate them?
Greek vegetables, the authentic Taverna way
So let’s learn how to make Greek vegetables. I got my lesson from Eleni, who’s been cooking them since 1977. That’s when she and her husband, Dimitris, opened Bacchus Taverna and Pension in Olympia, Greece.
A taverna is a casual restaurant that serves simple Greek food. The kind you mother and grandmother make, with fresh ingredients…and love. The taverna is also where people meet, families go, and friendships are made. It’s not just the food, it’s a feeling. And it’s part of Greek culture.
Eleni only speaks Greek. Her son, Kostas, manages the restaurant and coaxed her out of the kitchen so we could applaud her magical way with humble foods. She’s shy, but grinned broadly as we thanked her. Then she scurried back to work.
You see, it was Lent, the time of the year when Greeks don’t eat meat–then, on Easter, they go wild, making up for the the six weeks they’re vegetarians. So vegetables must be hearty and satisfying…some Greeks told me they actually gain weight during Lent. Greek vegetables are that good!
Four easy foods to add to your vegetable repertoire
Tzatziki is what most people think of when you mention Greek food. The cool, refreshing yogurt dish is served with a meal, or as a starter. Greeks often add carrot, dill, or mint. It’s easy to make, so don’t buy it.
Tzatziki with Carrot: Serves 4-5
1 large cucumber
1 carrot, grated
Dill, finely chopped–plus a few sprigs for garnish
Green (spring) onions, sliced, for garnish, if you wish
8 ounces Greek yogurt (Tip: get the 5% fat kind, not fat-free.)
2-3 garlic cloves, grated or pressed
2 ounces olive oil
Splash of vinegar
Salt and pepper
-Peel the cucumber, slice it lengthways and remove seeds with a spoon. Grate it into a colander, sprinkle with a little salt, and let it drain for a few minutes.
-Squeeze the grated cucumber with your hands to remove as much liquid as possible. Place in a mixing bowl.
-Peel and grate the carrot. Add to the bowl.
-Add the yogurt, dill, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Stir everything together.
-Allow time for the flavors to blend. Two hours is good.
-Drizzle with olive oil. Garnish with dill and/or sliced green onions. Serve with pita bread.
Greek cabbage slaw is lighter than those we’re used to. Vendors at the outdoor markets grate and sell cabbage and carrot on the spot, to save you the bother. We can cheat a little and buy the bagged slaw. But never cheat on the best quality of olive oil!
Lahanosalata (Greek Cabbage Slaw): Serves 6
1 head cabbage, about 1.5 pounds, shredded
2 cups coarsely grated carrots (the big holes on a box grater)
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
1 garlic clove, finely minced (optional)
Feta cheese (optional)
-Prepare the cabbage and carrots, then place them in a large bowl. Toss well.
-In a small bowl, mix the olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic. Add salt to taste.
-Mix everything well. Top with crumbled feta, if desired.
I swear, no one does more with eggplant–aubergine in the rest of the world–than the Greeks. I was constantly dazzled by the transformation of this bland vegetable into something I wanted to devour as often as possible.
Melitzanes (Baked Eggplant): Serves 6
4-5 pounds eggplant
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons parsley, chopped
1/2 pound tomatoes, crushed (Okay to use canned.)
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup olive oil, plus some for frying the eggplant
2 cups water
Feta cheese for topping, as much as you want
-Wash the eggplants. Chop into thick chunks and fry in olive oil for 3 minutes, until they have a golden color.
-Drain on a paper towel.
-In a pan, combine the 1/2 cup olive oil, onion, parsley, and garlic. Sauté for about 2 minutes.
-Add the water and crushed tomatoes. Boil for 15 minutes, until you get a nice, thick sauce.
-Add the eggplant and sauce. Cook everything together for another 15 minutes.
-Transfer to a baking pan. Top with the feta cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for 5-10 minutes.
Greece has been through some tough times. People have often gone hungry. They learned how to make Greek vegetables more nutritious by adding beans. Wild greens picked in the mountains are similar to chard, kale, or turnip greens–loaded with vitamins. This recipe is flexible. Don’t have parsley? Don’t like dill? No worries. Toss in a little ham or bacon, if you have it. The Greeks would do the same.
Mauromatika (Black-eyed Peas and Greens): Serves 6
1 pound black-eyed peas
1 onion, sliced
2 heads greens, your choice, chopped
1 pound dill, chopped
3 Tablespoons parsley, chopped
2 cups water, plus water to cook the peas
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
-Place peas in a large pot and add enough water to cover them. Boil for 1 hour, or until tender. Drain.
-Meanwhile, in another pot, combine the olive oil, onion, greens, and 1/2 cup water. Boil for 50 minutes, until greens are tender.
-Combine everything together in the large pot. Season to taste. Stir and cook for another 5-10 minutes.
Ready to up your game? I admit, after my month of Greek vegetables, it’s hard to whip up much enthusiasm for this Thanksgiving’s green bean casserole. Canned beans, processed soup and “onion rings” seem pathetic in comparison. I can already see eggplant on our table this year…
More Greece? Here you go!