For years now, cooking in Greek restaurant kitchens across the United States, I have worked with legions of skilled kitchen staff, most of whom, as anyone in the restaurant business can guess, are not Greek but Mexican.
These are the line cooks, grill men and others who fold hundreds of perfectly symmetrical phyllo triangles every week, and dolmades of exactly the same size. These are the folks who know how to season the meat sauce for moussaka just right, with the requisite cinnamon and allspice, wine, vinegar and bay leaves, and how to make a stable avgolemono sauce to order. They sear scallops or shrimp in ouzo and concoct taramosalata that is often far fluffier than any version a Greek home cook can whip up. (At least Juan, the chef at Pylos in Manhattan’s East Village, where I consult, does.)
Hybrid kitchen snacks supreme
Any experienced cook can execute a recipe consistently day after day, regardless of whether the dish is from his or her own cooking traditions. The real cook’s flair manifests itself on much less public plates. It shines in the stuff of staff meals and in the snacks we all wolf down while standing up in the heated, noisy, cramped space of a restaurant kitchen. It’s then that lines blur, ethnicities mingle, and the especial del dia becomes a polyglot dish that’s delicioso and exactly the kind of unselfconscious hybrid that evolves when people from different worlds cook and share meals together.
I like to call these fusion dishes Grec-Mex. I wish I had coined the term Mexiterranean, but someone beat me to it, a much more seasoned cook and restaurateur than I: Juan José Plascencia, whose son, Javier, and their Tijuana family empire were highlighted in a recent issue of the New Yorker. A bell sounded in the far reaches of my cook’s mind when Javier described a plate he had created for his restaurant, Mission 19: scallops with Greek yogurt, soy gel and lemon curd with salted nopales. Although a far more exotic combination of ingredients than we see at Pylos, the use of such an iconic Greek product as yogurt in the dish struck a cord. I suppose it does easily replace sour cream, a staple in the Mexican food we see Stateside.)
Happy marriage of chipotles and Greek yogurt
There is a certain simpatico in the marriage of Mexican and Mediterranean (in my case Greek) cuisines. Long before it was heralded in the New Yorker’s venerable pages, I used to pop open a bira, as we call cervezas in Greek, pull off the cap of a can of La Morena chipotles, chop ‘em, mix ‘em with thick Greek yogurt and dip my just-toasted pita wedges into this delectable junk food. I can’t share with you in print what inspired such culinary yearnings, but the munchies, at least as I interpreted them, required spice, crunch and an ice-cold beer.
There are a number of similarities in the cuisines of Mexico and Greece. Both share peasant roots; both have an affinity for sauces and condiments pounded in a mortar with a pestle; both rely on vegetable casseroles and use a fair amount of cheese. Mexican cooks wrap and grill in corn husks; Greek cooks do similar things with grape leaves and fig leaves. What is an empanada but a glorified boureki, and what is a boureki but a glorified empanada? Both are hand-held, stuffed, savory pastries. The spice palettes are totally different, of course, but many of the techniques are similar.
At Pylos, a Greek-style grilled chicken breast morphs into a hot and spicy delicacy that fits inside rolled up pita bread as easily as it does inside a soft tortilla, if any of the guys happen to have brought some for lunch. What might have been a chile rellenos, is transformed into a feta-chili stuffed and grilled sweet red pepper. Roasted eggplant “salad” — the classic melitzanosalata in Greek restaurants — is absolutely sabroso with those canned chipotles in sauce. It’s great, too, with spiced chicken or shrimp inside a flour tortilla or Greek pita. But by far the most harmonious marriage of flavors to have emerged from this unlikely Grec-Mex connection, at least to my palate, is a luscious combination of rich, buttery mashed avocado, Greek yogurt, chili peppers, lemon juice, and a touch of garlic. I have coined this one Grecamole. That sounds better to my ear than Avocado Tzatziki!
Makes 2 cups
- Mash the avocados with the peppers, hot sauce, and garlic either with a mortar and pestle or in a bowl with a fork.
- Mix in the yogurt.
- Just before serving, add the lemon juice and salt. Serve with toasted pita wedges. Enjoy!
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Top photo: Greek guacamole. Credit: Vassilis Stenos