recipes + photography BILLY DOUKAS

Sorry you didn’t get your Greek food fix this summer. It is unfortunate that the annual full-scale Greek festivals held in Portland, Saco, Lewiston and Bangor were postponed because of COVID-19. The dedicated, energetic and talented festival workers, mostly members of the Greek Orthodox churches, say they will make next year’s events even better.

However, it’s never too late to try your hand in your own kitchen to create a few of the stars of Greek cuisine; such as gyro (YEE-roh) sandwiches, stuffed grape leaves or dolmades (dowl-MAA-duhz), cucumber-yogurt  tzatziki (tsah-SEE-key) sauce and horiatiki (hor-YA-tee-kee) salad. (We’ll save the real stars—the pastries—for another time.)

“We really miss operating our Greek Festival this summer,” says Thanas Budri, worker at the Portland Greek Festival.  “But more than that, we miss connecting with our community, and visitors, who appreciate Greek food, music and dancing at least as much as we do.”

Ann Robinson, coordinator for the Lewiston Greek festival, says, “The Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Lewiston parishioners have always looked forward to this yearly event as it brings many folks from the community together. The traditional dishes are always very well received along with the music and dancing.

“In fact, we have decided to conduct a one-day “mini-festival” during the scheduled Festival weekend on September 12th, which is the Saturday after Labor Day weekend. It will have an abbreviated menu and work as a drive-through for to-go Greek dishes. We look forward to presenting our full-scale popular Greek Festival next year.”

Anna Nashi, President of Saint Fotini, Saint Demetrius Greek Orthodox Church of Saco, shared her thoughts: "This summer, our community decided to cancel our festival in light of health concerns but also because we didn’t want to compete with local businesses fighting to stay afloat. We did hold an online sale of our baked goods, which was very successful. We plan to repeat this for our November Bazaar. We all missed connecting with our neighbors and visitors, not to mention working together for a worthy cause. Keeping everyone in our prayers and hoping that we can all get together again next year.”

. . .

As a second generation Greek-American, I know Greek recipes may vary from region to region, town to town, neighborhood to neighborhood, house to house, room to room…

These four items are not the traditional festival fare, but are my personal recipes that have evolved over time.

Chicken Gyro Sandwich

Replacing the classic gyro meat (a combination of lamb, beef and pork) is a crispy skinned, marinated chicken breast, chopped and spiced so that the gyro flavor is present. Added to the chicken in the folded pita are diced tomato, onion and tzatziki sauce (recipe follows), a cucumber-yogurt mixture, this time enhanced with shredded parsnip.

Serves 6
Total time: 45 minutes plus 30 minutes prior prep

Chicken breasts and marinade
3 chicken breasts, bone in, with skin
1 cup lemon olive oil
¾ cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons oregano
1 teaspoon of sea salt

Dry spice in a shaker
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

Sandwich ingredients
6 naan or pita bread
3 medium fresh ripe tomatoes, diced coarsely
2 medium yellow onions, diced coarsely
1 to 3 tablespoons Parsnip Tzatziki Sauce (recipe follows)

In this recipe the chicken breasts are treated like duck breasts, but marinated before being pan-seared. Cooked chicken breasts can be dry and somewhat ordinary. These are boned, flattened to a ½-inch thickness, poked 30–40 times on the skin side and marinated for 3 or more hours.

Shake off the excess marinade and place breasts skin side down in a cold cast-iron pan*, apply weight (metal press) and set heat to medium. I have borrowed French and Italian techniques for this Greek sandwich, which could be trouble with some purists. By allowing slower heating, the skin renders enough fat for good searing without overcooking the meat; pinning the breast evenly against the pan it will result in a crispy skin.

After 8 minutes, remove weight and continue cooking for another 6 minutes. Shake dry spices over the poultry, flip, season the other side and cook for another 3 minutes. (For an elevated spice level, return cut chicken to the searing pan briefly and shake on additional dry spice.) Transfer meat to cutting board and slice into ¾-inch-wide strips.

Although nontraditional, my favorite bread is Indian naan (Stonefire**); Cedar Bakery’s pita also works very well. Heat bread for 2 or 3 minutes on each side in a cast-iron pan. Fill with cut chicken, tomato, onion and a spoonful or 2 of Parsnip Tzatziki Sauce.

Roll and serve with plenty of napkins.

*I buy my much-treasured cast-iron pans at Now You’re Cooking in Bath.

**Stonefire brand available at Hannaford and Shaw’s Supermarkets. Cedar Bakery brand available at Sindbad’s Market, 710 Forest Ave., Portland.

. . .

Parsnip Tzatziki Sauce

Makes enough for 6 gyros and 30 dolmades
Total time: 30 minutes

8 ounces plain, whole-milk Greek yogurt*, strained
3 small cucumbers, peeled, seeded and shredded
1 pinch salt
1 medium parsnip root, peeled and shredded
1 tablespoon dill
2 teaspoons onion powder
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon lemon olive oil
1 teaspoon black pepper

*I have sampled dozens of Greek yogurt brands to get the best taste and consistency. Fage, Open Nature and Milkhouse Dairy are my choices for this sauce.

Place shredded cucumber in a colander, drain and add pinch of salt. Peel and shred parsnip and combine remaining ingredients. Mix thoroughly and chill. This sauce is used inside the chicken gyro and accompanies the stuffed grape leaves.

. . .

Dolmades (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

The traditional stuffed grape leaf recipe includes ground lamb, whereas this version consists of a blend of ground chicken, beef and chourico—a Portuguese or Spanish sausage—tightly rolled with rice, garlic scapes, habanero pepper and onion. It still maintains the traditional cinnamon and tomato flavors.

Stuffed grape leaves, served with tzatziki sauce is one of the most popular appetizers in Greek cuisine, and often served as an entrée.

Makes 60 small grape leaves
Total time: 45 minutes prep plus 70 minutes baking time

1 large sweet yellow onion, chopped very fine
1 bunch fresh garlic scapes, chopped fine
1 pound ground chicken
1 pound ground beef
½ pound chourico sausage, chopped fine
½ pound hot sausage
2 small habanero peppers, minced
1 cup long-grain rice
6 ounces tomato paste
2 tablespoons lemon olive oil
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon dill
½ tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 (12-ounce) jar  grape leaves (in brine)
4 cups chicken stock

In a large bowl, thoroughly mix the ingredients above (minus the jar of grape leaves and chicken stock). Select a large cutting board for the rolling effort and a 10- x 14-inch high metal pan to place finished grape leaves.

Lay out a single grape leave (stem side up) and trim the stem. Place 1½ ounces of mix at the base of the leaf. Fold over the edges on each side. Once again fold the new edges over, establishing the length of your stuffed grape leaf. Roll the leaf in the same direction so it sticks to itself and place in the pan. Once the bottom layer of the pan is filled, begin a second layer.

Heat oven to 350°F.

Fill the pan with chicken stock, short of covering the dolmades, and dust the top with salt, cayenne and black pepper. Cover pan with foil and punch a few small holes for the steam to escape. Bake for 70 minutes. Remove foil, pour off the remaining stock, and cover to keep warm.

. . .

Horiatiki Salata (Greek Village Salad)

This Horiatiki Salata is the original version of the dish, which omits lettuce but highlights the flavors of tomato, cucumber, feta and olives with a simple oil, lemon, salt and oregano combination. It’s worth a trip to the farmers’ market to gather the needed ingredients.

Serves 6
Total time: 30 minutes

4 medium fresh ripe tomatoes, cored, cut into ½-inch wedge chunks
2 tablespoons sea salt, divided
4 small cucumbers, peeled, cut into ½-inch-thick discs and halved again
2 medium red onions, sliced and quartered into ¼-inch-wide strips
1 cup kalamata olives, pitted
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ pound block of Greek feta cheese, sliced into ¼-inch-thick small triangles
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 avocados, cut into small chunks (optional)

Place cut tomatoes in colander, sprinkle 1 tablespoon sea salt and allow tomatoes to drain for 15 minutes. Whisk olive oil, lemon juice, black pepper and 1 tablespoon of sea salt in a bowl. Combine cucumbers, onions, olives and tomatoes in larger bowl and toss with prepared dressing. After servings are placed in individual dishes, set several feta triangles on top of each and sprinkle with oregano.

. . .

Greek wine recommendations

Nasiakos, Moschofilero, a distinctive Greek white with balanced acidity, made with grapes of the Peloponnese, with aromas of honey and peach ($18, my first choice).

Xinomavro, Thymiopoulos, translating to “sour or acid black,” playing a key role in the renaissance of Greek wines, offering dark fruit, tobacco and black olive flavors ($14).

Omikron, Roditis-Moshcofilero, another Peloponnese wine, from two indigenous grapes, pale yellow with crisp acidity and aromas that hint of apple and citrus fruits ($10).

. . .

All of these recipes and wines pair very well with music, dancing and good conversation!

I hope you will be able to visit the Lewiston mini-festival for a takeout meal.

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