Nancy Krcek Allen

Nancy Krcek Allen

When I was 20, I married a Vietnam war objector. My husband, four friends and I decided to travel to Europe so my husband could escape the draft. We followed Joni Mitchell’s lead and eventually ended up in Ierapetra, Crete, close to Mitchell’s beloved caves at Matala.

During my year in Ierapetra, which sits on Crete’s southeast coast on the Libyan Sea, food became central to my life. It’s where I was first infused with a passion for cooking. As locals invited us to restaurants, family gatherings and shared their expertise with me, I had taste revelation after taste revelation. Greek cooks showed me how to grow and prepare snails, beat octopus (tossed off their fishing boats for me) on the rocks until tender and butcher a baby lamb and spit-roast it.

We expats worked weeding vegetables in “thermo-cheapie-os,” our name for the visqueen-covered green houses, and came home with armloads of zucchini, peppers, potatoes, green beans, okra, tomatoes, onions and eggplant. The appetizingly pungent scent of onions frying in the island’s luscious olive oil is one of my favorite scent memories.

In the early 1970s, the social fabric of Greek culture was very much intact. Without television we spent most evenings with other expats sipping ouzo, wine or the fiery raki and noshing. The tavernas in Ierapetra followed the ages-old tradition of serving “mezedes” or small, intensely tasty appetizers, with alcohol. The ancients knew that drinking on an empty stomach was probably barbaric and decidedly dangerous. This practical precaution evolved into the culture of mezedes and became an integral part of Greek social life.

The addictive mezedes became important to us expats too. Everywhere we traveled (in our, yup, Volkswagen van) on the island we hunted out and delighted in new mezedes. I remember little plates of cooked, seasoned and pan-roasted chickpeas; tiny, plump new potatoes boiled and seasoned with olive oil and herbs; small squares of blissful, herbed omelets, cubes of feta, lamb meatballs, tiny sweet tomatoes and the ubiquitous marinated black olives. I discovered my favorite way of eating and entertaining — lots of small offerings full of big, contrasting flavor.

Local Marvine Stamatakis has “mezememories” from her two decades on Crete.

“One of my favorite memories of living in Greece was eating meze in the early evening by the lake in Aghios Nikolaos. The waiter would bring a carafe of raki or ouzo and a variety of small plates. While enjoying the view and people, in no hurry to leave, we’d share food with friends — giant beans baked in tomato sauce, strips of fried zucchini dusted with Cretan cheese, bits of grilled octopus, fried smelts, dried rusk with grated tomato and feta, olives, dolmades, Cretan cheeses like kefalotyri, anthotyros or graviera and tzatziki (cucumbers with yogurt) on bread. It is one of my best memories of living there.”

One key to easy summer mezedes is advance preparation. Prepare bean dip, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), meatballs or beans in tomato sauce and freeze. Quick-pickle the summery abundance of carrots, turnips, beets, bell peppers and young garlic separately.

For gatherings of four to six choose five to seven offerings, for larger ones choose seven to 12. Remember to keep it simple, this isn’t dinner, it’s a snack. Know your guests’ preferences — vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free, etc. and cater to their needs. Choose food that holds together so it may be easily cut and shared. Vary textures, flavors, temperatures, colors and types of food: crunchy nuts, Greek barley rusks and phyllo; creamy dips, salty olives and tangy pickled vegetables, rich cheeses, meat, seafood and baked things.

Greek food is deeply enticing because it is inspired by the natural bounty of the land and the unchanged Greek sensibility toward food, social connection and good health. Isn’t it what we all need?

Marinated Olives

— Adapted from “Flavors of Greece” by Rosemary Barron

Yields about 3 cups

1 lb. Kalamata olives

5 T. dried Greek oregano (leaves and flowers) or 3 T. oregano

1-1/2 t. dried thyme

1 t. dried marjoram

Zest of 1 small washed and dried orange, preferably organic

Extra virgin Greek olive oil

Drain olives and spread on paper towel; blot dry. Place in medium bowl and stir in herbs and zest. Pack into a glass quart canning jar or 3 cup jar. Cover with olive oil. Set aside in a cool spot for several hours before serving. Store up to a week unrefrigerated.

Salted Almonds

— Adapted from “Flavors of Greece” by Rosemary Barron

Yields 2 cups

2 C. unblanched almonds

2 lemons, juiced

3 T. kosher salt or coarse salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Combine almonds with lemon juice and rest 10 minutes. Cover a sheet pan with parchment. Toss almonds with salt and immediately spread on sheet pan in one layer. Place in oven and bake, shaking or stirring a couple times, until almonds are toasty-smelling, about 20 minutes. Cool. Store in airtight container in refrigerator up to a month.

Fava Me Lahaniká (Yellow Split-Pea Dip with Vegetables)

Double or triple this recipe and freeze in small containers for quick use.

— Adapted from “Recipes from a Greek Island” by Susie Jacobs

Yields about 1-1/2 cups, 6 to 8 servings

3/4 C. yellow split peas

1 t. kosher salt

2/3 C. finely diced onion

2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled

1 large lemon, zested and juiced

1/2 C. extra virgin fruity olive oil, more to taste

For serving:

Raw vegetables cut into sticks like zucchini, carrots, celery, baby turnips, fennel bulb, green onions and radishes

Place split peas and salt in a saucepan with 4 cups cold water. Stir in onion and whole garlic cloves. Bring to a boil (skim the foam), lower heat and cover saucepan. Simmer mixture until split peas are turned to a mashable mush, 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Stir split peas periodically and add a little water as necessary to keep them from burning.

Remove pan from heat to cool until lukewarm. Season with salt to taste. Mash and beat to a purée. Stir in lemon zest and juice and 1/4 cup olive oil. Pile purée onto a platter and pour remaining olive oil over the top. Arrange raw vegetables around purée for dipping. Serve.

Scorthostoúmbi (Pickled Garlic)

This is delightful prepared with young, fresh spring garlic that hasn’t yet dry-cured. Use the leftover vinegar in salads. The garlic is a staple in Greek households on soup or in salad, as well as a beloved meze.

— Adapted from “Recipes from a Greek Island” by Susie Jacobs

Yields 1 quart

7 to 8 oz. garlic, about 6 large heads, broken into cloves

4 sprigs fresh thyme, rinsed

1 t. black peppercorns

1 small lemon, zested and juiced

3 C. white wine vinegar

Optional: 1 small whole, fresh hot chili pepper

Pour boiling water into a 1-quart glass canning jar to sterilize. Drain. Layer garlic cloves, thyme, peppercorns and zest into jar.

Mix 1 teaspoon lemon juice with vinegar and pour over garlic in jar. Push chili pepper into garlic. Cover tightly and store in dark, cool spot (or refrigerator) 2 weeks before using.

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines.”

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