The Greek Cook
by Rena Salaman
Published by Aquamarine
160 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Les Liaisons Culinaires
by Andreas Staikos
translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife
Published by Harvill
105 pages, 2001
Buy it online
It's All Greek...
Reviewed by Adrian Marks
On preparing to write reviews of two cookery books with a decidedly Greek bent, I contemplated the possibility that there would be those among my readers who would have had no experience with Greek food. It was difficult to think about: What would it mean to me? To have lived my life thus far without becoming intimate with a delicately seasoned taramasalata or a perfectly prepared moussaka. To be unable to differentiate between a spanakopita and souvlaki. To have never dipped Greek-style pita into hommus. After severe contemplation I determined that all of this imagining was too difficult for me: Greek food is -- to state it most simply -- quite wonderful. Much of it is healthy by most standards and a great deal of it is highly accessible to North American and British palates. One consolation: If you've never tried Greek food, you have a delightful treat in store.
Greek food is best understood when you think about Greece's location on the map. A relatively small country bordered by the Mediterranean on the Balkan peninsula, seafood features prominently in many dishes. The influences of nearby Italy and the Middle East are prevalent in the food of Greece, although it is precisely like neither of them. As Rena Salaman writes in The Greek Cook: Simple Seasonal Food:
The Greek culinary tradition has its origin in antiquity, and classical authors describe a number of vegetable-based dishes that are still popular today.
Salaman, however, wastes little time or space discussing either the history or desirability of Greek food. Instead, she saves her energy for simply stated recipes of both well-known and not-so-well-known Greek dishes and includes both illustrative and instructive photographs by Martin Brigdale.
The Greek Cook is broken into seasons rather than courses: not always an organization method that I enjoy, but it works quite well here, in this book that is intended to be a chef's introduction to the wonders of a culinarily diverse country. We begin at the beginning:
You can tell that spring is in the air, not only by the riot of roses on every fence and the enchanting scent of the blossom on the orange and lemon trees, but also by what is going on in the kitchen.
And what's going on in the kitchen? Braised Artichokes and Fresh Peas look as though they'd be a perfect accompaniment to Potato and Feta Salad. (Although Salaman advises that the latter is fit to be a meal on its own.) Lamb dishes show up in the section on spring, as well, including the perennial Greek favorite, Roast Lamb with Potatoes and Garlic.
Each season begins with a brief but informative introduction dealing with some of the key ingredients that will be found in that season's section. For example, the winter section includes notes on lentils. chickpeas, beans, squid and cuttlefish (they share an entry), Kefalotyri cheese, Graviera cheese and allspice. Many of the recipes that follow include some of these ingredients. Chickpea Soup looks golden and glorious in its bowl and ends up being amazingly easy to make. Braised Beans and Lentils provide warming nourishment. Also in the winter section, look for Cauliflower with Egg and Lemon. Cauliflower is one of those vegetables you always think you should have more recipes for. Here the combination of the vegetable cooked just until crisp combined with a simple lemon sauce is quite divine.
Though the French title is deceptive, its really the only thing French about Les Liaisons Culinaires. Part of the movement to get cookbooks out of the kitchen, Les Liaisons Culinaires is a tough book to classify: you might find it filed under fiction, art and culture or cookbooks because, while it does include working recipes, those recipes grow straight out of a plot. Sort of.
Here's the story: Two neighbors, Dimitris and Damocles discover that they are having an affair with the same married woman; the mysterious and irresistible Nana. Nana arrives for her tryst with either man expecting to be well fed and loved. Nana must be pampered, her every whim catered to and, separately, Dimitris and Damocles rush to do her slightest bidding. And a lot of this bidding involves food. In every chapter of the slender book, the three characters discuss, prepare and consume food. Each chapter ends with recipes for the food so recently discussed. It's a good thing it's a very slender book. If it were longer, the constant food chatter ("Dimitris had been in the kitchen since morning, making tiny, bite-sized stuffed vine leaves to delight Nana's Epicurean palate. Vine leaves stuffed with long-grain rice, onion, a hint of garlic and fresh herbs, all luxuriating in the firm caress of the cool, green leaves.") would get extremely irritating.
The story of two love-drunk swains involved in a food duel for the affections of the woman they both adore is somewhat charming, if not quite stellar. However, the food is exquisite: many of the recipes included are real Greek classics, described with the efficiency of Larousse and backed by the conversational introduction that forms itself through the prose portion of the chapter.
Does Les Liaisons Culinaires work? More or less. If learning to cook Greek food was your single goal, this would likely not be the text you chose for accompaniment on that journey: There are 17 (very brief) chapters in Les Liaisons Culinaires and there are two to four recipes included with each chapter for a total of about 50 recipes. What works in Les Liaisons Culinaires' favor as a cookbook -- especially for those not entirely familiar with Greek cuisine -- is the fact that the recipes are included in context within the body of the story. Also, the recipes themselves are gloriously simple. For instance, I've seen many recipes for the great Greek classic Moussaka, a lasagna-like dish made with eggplant where noodles would be in the Italian version. Quite often the instructions are convoluted and complicated, requiring pages of description and instructional photographs. In Les Liaisons Culinaires, however, the entire process is described in four concise paragraphs.
Interestingly -- and, I'm sure, coincidentally -- almost all of the recipes included in Les Liaisons Culinaires are among those in The Greek Cook. With the two books side-by-side it's almost like seeing Dimitris' and Damocles' concotions spring to life. As a result, the two books would make ideal companion pieces in your own mini library of Greek cooking. | February 2002
Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.