Easter Preview in Washington DC

Invited by José Andrés and his Think Food Group I took part in Zaytinya’s Greek Easter events and worked for six days in the restaurant’s dream kitchen!

Before opening Zaytinya–more than ten years ago–José Andrés came to see me in Kea, introduced by our mutual friend Mark Furstenberg. He wanted to get my opinion and discuss ideas about the Greek meze he was planning to include in the menu. From the moment he stepped out of the ferry, an early summer day, we started to talk as if we were old friends, almost finishing each other’s sentences, as we shared our common passion for authentic food.

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He had one of the first iPhones I had seen, and while he talked enthusiastically about his vision for the Eastern Mediterranean meze restaurant, he showed me snapshots of the dishes he served at Jaleo and Oyamel. I don’t remember exactly what we cooked, or what we tasted at the various taverns in Kea, but he was constantly taking notes and pictures of everything, and he certainly accepted as true my conviction that he needed to roll phylo in his kitchen and not rely on the packaged stuff.

When Zaytinya opened, in 2003, he served incredible dishes, among them ethereal, chickpea-sized manti, ‘fried potatoes Aglaia Kremezi’ (with my favorite thick yogurt), and unique avgotaracho drizzled with fruity olive oil, a brilliant touch no one has thought before. The puffed pita that comes to the tables steaming hot is baked in the kitchen from scratch, and of course the phylo for the spanakopita and the delicious kleftikotriangles (with spiced lamb filling) is rolled daily in the kitchen.

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I visited the restaurant several times these passed years ‘to check that the food is up to my standards,’ as Michael Costa–Zaytinya’s very talented chef–told the participants of the Greek Easter events. José has chosen me as ‘the Greek grandmother,” like Diana Kennedy is ‘the Mexican grandmother’ of Oyamel. The title startled me at first. I have no children therefore no grandchildren. But I feel honored to play grandmother for this wonderful restaurant, and I enjoyed every minute I spent in the kitchen, trying new dishes with chef Costa and his dedicated stuff. We prepared the special menu for the Greek wine dinner, which, besides my mother’s rengosalata, started with bites of green chickpea hummus topped with caviar. It took almost a whole morning to shell one by one the fresh chickpeas, but the result was incredible, well worth the effort!

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Chef Costa took his time to sharpen his knives properly, before cutting and preparing the wonderful squab he served with eggplant and kefalograviera puree, making a stifado with the bird’s legs and grilling the breast to pink perfection.

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After the spit-roasted lamb with my potatoes roasted with olive oil, garlic and oregano, for dessert we made small individual galatopites (milk pies), serving them warm, with fresh strawberries and lemon-mint sprigs.

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José Andrés has won all major awards and is one of the most creative and talked about chefs in the US. The Think Food Group he created “is committed to fostering future generations of innovators and activists changing the world through the power of food.” Besides brilliant traditional restaurants likeJaleo, Zaytinya and Oyamel, he has created minibar “a study in avant-garde cooking and one of the nation’s most exciting dining experiences. The creations combine art and science as well as tradition and technique.”
In his interview with Anderson Cooper for CBS’ 60 Minutes, José declares that
“Eating has to be fun!”
Invited to partake in this unique experience with my friend Maxine who came from New York, we certainly had a wonderful time and enjoyed the playful, incredible minibar bites.

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With chef Michael Costa we did a special cooking class that started with a stroll through the nearby Farmer’s Market where we got apples to bake, and apple wood for smoking the olives Zaytinya serves with horta(boiled greens’ salad). These delicious olives we offered as meze, and we also used as flavoring for the hearty October (or cranberry) bean stew we prepared with beans from the market, following my late mother in law’s recipe. Then we braised lamb’s neck and the wonderful tender kale we got from the market and made a variation of the traditional recipe for meat and greens with avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce).

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Chef Costa gave a lesson on how to cut the neck into portions–this delicious, often overlooked part of the lamb. He then demonstrated an easy way to de-bone cooked meat with two forks, while I showed how to make the traditional avgolemono. The 25 participants devoured the finished dishes and seemed to have really enjoyed the class–about half of them bought my Foods of the Greek Islands that is sold at the restaurant, along with José Andrés’ books.

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Sunday morning, before I boarded the plane to return, I spent some time at the Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market where Zaytinya offered an authentic Greek Easter preview, roasting a whole lamb over charcoal fire. It was a sunny, chilly morning,  and the smell of smoke and roasting meat startled shoppers as they approached the first vegetable stalls, quite far away. Chef Joe Raffa–culinary operations director for Jose Andres’ Think Food Group–with chef Michael Costa got the lamb turning at the crack of dawn, so that it was perfectly cooked before noon. Then came the tedious job of unhooking and carving the spit-roasted lamb, something chef Costa did expertly, while answering questions and explaining the entire process to spellbound, and hungry, onlookers. Unfortunately I had to leave for the airport before the meat was plated and offered to the waiting crowd, complemented by fragrant, creamy tzatziki.

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In three weeks’ time, during our Easter Sunday (May 5), each family in Greece will go through a very similar process.  Families will rise early to prepare their lambs for the spit, each with their own recipes and knowledge cultivated over generations. Very traditional families eschew modern, mechanical methods for turning the lamb, distributing the Easter ritual among children and adults who slowly and methodically, from dawn until early afternoon, turn the lamb by hand with a lever.  Everyone will have touched the Pascal lamb in some way before all sit together, celebrate, and eat.

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