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Fresh from Greece

A traditional Greek dinner may last several hours. But the cuisine’s key ingredients — lemons, olive oil and fresh produce — come together quickly with a few kitchen tricks, say local chefs.

“It’s not a long time spent in the kitchen,” says Medford chef Braden Hitt.

The “raw aspect” of Greek food was at the fore of recent classes Hitt hosted at Downtown Market Co. in Medford. The menu’s freshness foreshadowed the growing season’s new fruits and vegetables, says Hitt.

“Everybody walked away loving what we did.”

Greek cooking also appeals to Jacksonville chef Constance Jesser, who laments the lack of local restaurants dedicated to fare so common in her hometown of Chicago. Her Sunday class at Jacksonville Mercantile stays true to the cuisine’s most critical components while highlighting some Oregon specialties.

"It’s Mediterranean, but it’s got its own twist,” she says.

Jesser advocates for Greek olives, Greek oil and Greek feta — not Italian, Spanish or French — to achieve an authentic Greek salad. If in doubt about products’ provenance, ask the purveyors, she says, adding that many of the items are available at her specialty-foods store. Downtown Market Co. is another source, says Hitt, citing phyllo dough, in particular.

The paper-thin pastry, most commonly sold frozen, can challenge cooks, says Jesser, who plans to show several “easy tricks” for working with it. Although phyllo is paramount in Greek baklava, the nutty filling, she says, is flexible.

“You want to do it with cashews,” she says. “Go for it.”

Jesser’s baklava showcases Oregon hazelnuts, rather than walnuts, which she finds too bitter. The crunchy bites have been a hit at several parties, she adds.

“Every time, I bring a hazelnut baklava, there’s not a crumb left.”

Just as indispensable to Greek fetes is lamb, says Platon Mantheakis, manager of The Jacksonville Inn, who also hosts private cooking classes. A whole, spit-roasted lamb often is the centerpiece of Mantheakis’ Greek-themed meals, served several times annually, including this summer at Central Point’s Hanley Farm, which recently paved the way for wood-fired cooking on the historical property. Email platon@jacksonvilleinn.com for details.

Because “a lot of people don’t like lamb,” Jesser will omit it from her Greek menu, focusing instead on chicken soup with egg and lemon. The soup is rich with a “beautiful, silken mouth-feel,” although it contains no cream, she says.

“It’s so easy to make … when you’ve got the right eggs and Meyer lemons,” she says, explaining that she uses eggs laid on a small, local farm.

Locally raised lamb also is easily obtained from ranchers and retailers. Having cooked with lamb “forever,” Hitt says he was a bit surprised that a lot of his class participants had never tried it.

“This is the stuff that I like.”

Hitt’s quintessential kebab recipe calls for forming ground lamb onto a skewer, grilling it and serving it in pita bread with the classic Greek yogurt-cucumber sauce, tzatziki. It’s one example, he says, of dishes easily replicated in the home kitchen with the introduction of just a few new foods and techniques.

“They were kind of blown away.”

Basic Greek-Style Vinaigrette

3/4 cup Greek extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup good-quality red-wine vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed Greek oregano

1 teaspoon salt

Pinch of pepper

In a bowl, whisk the ingredients together, or place them in a tightly covered jar and shake to combine. Dressing will turn a light color with a creamy texture as oil and vinegar combine.

Makes 1 cup.


1 cup whole, plain, Greek-style yogurt (may substitute low-fat or nonfat)

1/2 English cucumber, unpeeled

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh dill

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Fine sea salt, to taste

Put the yogurt in a large bowl.

Grate the cucumber into a separate bowl and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Add squeezed cucumber to yogurt, along with the oil, garlic, dill and lemon juice; fold to combine and season lightly with salt. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving, to allow flavors to combine.

Makes about 1-1/4 cups.

Greek Eggplant Dip (Melitzanosalata)

3 large eggplants

1 medium red bell pepper

Canola oil, as needed

1/4 cup finely chopped red onion

1/2 cup barrel-aged feta cheese, plus more for garnish

1/2 cup toasted walnuts pieces, plus more for garnish

3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton), optional

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh mint leaves

Pita bread, for serving

Prepare a gas or charcoal grill for medium-high heat. For cooking indoors, preheat oven broiler and set rack so vegetables will be a few inches from flame or element.

Pierce the eggplants and bell pepper all over with a knife. Rub them with the canola oil, and place them directly on grill or on a rimmed baking sheet under broiler.

Turn pepper every few minutes, until skin is lightly blistered all over, for 10 to 15 minutes total. Transfer to a bowl and cover with a plate to steam.

Cook eggplants, turning as needed, until they have thoroughly blackened and burned to an ashen crisp on each side and completely collapsed, for up to 1 hour total. Let cool.

Once pepper has cooled, discard stem, ribs and seeds. Cut flesh into 1/2-inch dice. Slice into each cooled eggplant and scrape out flesh. You need about 1-1/2 cups total.

In a bowl, combine eggplant and pepper with the red onion, feta cheese, walnuts, vinegar, olive oil and salt; mix thoroughly. If you have used a gas grill or broiler, stir in the smoked paprika. Taste and add vinegar, salt and/or paprika if needed.

Scrape into a serving bowl and garnish with more walnuts and feta and the mint leaves. Serve with the pita bread.

Makes 8 servings (about 2-1/2 cups).

Anna's Greek Potatoes

1/4 cup olive oil

2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

1 tablespoon honey

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon curry powder

Juice from 2 lemons

Juice from 1 orange

1/2 cup no-salt-added vegetable broth or water

35 ounces small, waxy potatoes, scrubbed, each cut in half

Salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 fresh rosemary sprigs

Preheat oven to 350 F. Have a large baking dish at hand.

In a blender jar, combine the oil, mustard, honey, wine, paprika, curry powder, lemon and orange juices and the broth or water; puree to form a thin, emulsified sauce.

Transfer to a large mixing bowl along with the potatoes. Season lightly with the salt and pepper; toss to coat evenly, then distribute potatoes and sauce mixture in baking dish. Place the rosemary sprigs on top. Cover with aluminum foil; bake for 1 hour, then remove foil and bake for 30 minutes or until potatoes are fork-tender and lightly caramelized.

Discard rosemary sprigs, if desired. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 12 servings.

This plate of hummus and pita chips were prepared last Wednesday by chef Braden Hitt at Downtown Market Co. in Medford. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell
Greek salad prepared by chef Braden Hitt for a class at Downtown Market Co. in Medford. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell