Most people don’t know that Greek regional cuisine is full of delicious dishes made with iconic American fall ingredients: pumpkin and other winter squashes, sweet potatoes, peppers and corn. Other ingredients, like chestnuts and apples, figs and raisins, that have been part of the American table seemingly since its inception, are also inherently part of the Mediterranean tradition.
Many New World ingredients made their way to the Mediterranean and eastern Aegean via the formidable merchant navies of yore, especially the Venetians, whose empire brought them in touch with many New World foods, which they in turn disseminated throughout the Mediterranean. Foods also traveled up to the Balkans via the extensive trade and political networks established by the Ottoman Turks during their 400-year reign in Greece and throughout the Balkan peninsula. The Turks encountered New World ingredients in the parts of their empire that stretched across North Africa and disseminated them all the way up to the Rodopi Mountains that border Greece and Bulgaria, and beyond.
Peppers and corn most likely traveled this route and were embraced by country cooks and itinerant shepherds throughout the mountainous mainland. Corn, called aravositaro or “Arabs flour,” is the stuff of sweet and savory breads, polenta-like dishes and pie crusts, especially for traditional shepherd’s pies made with the plethora of wild greens that are still available in the lands traversed with flocks. Peppers became so popular and were so well-suited to the northern Greek climate that there is still a town called Piperia, the Greek word for pepper, in Macedonia. When under Ottoman rule, the same town was known as Karatzova and it vied with Hungary for top title in the production of ground red pepper.
But in an uncanny historical twist, many of these ingredients have come full circle in the global Greek kitchen, making their way back to Greeks in America, who rely on their ancestral cuisine to celebrate that most American of holidays: Thanksgiving.
I have spent most of the last 20 Thanksgivings re-creating an American feast in Greece, replete with pumpkin soup laced with Greek honey and the thick Greek yogurt that has conquered the Unites States; cornbread (studded with feta and fresh oregano); my mom’s chestnut-, olive- and fig-stuffed turkey recipe; mashed potatoes enriched with fresh Greek olive oil and soft feta; fried sweet potatoes, the way they do them in Corfu; and more — much more. My guests are a potpourri of American ex-pats who travel from Berlin and Tel Aviv, and Greeks who have lived in the U.S. and understand (and miss) the holiday.
For the last 10 years, though, I have also created a Greek feast in America at Pylos restaurant in New York City where I am consulting chef. The restaurant’s Greek-American Thanksgiving is always a sellout. The food is rustic, real and comforting, but also elegant and refined.
What I love most about the menu is its melting-pot harmony. Greeks first started coming to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century. They helped build the railroads and highways, maintained major public works such as bridges, and soon ended up in large numbers in the restaurant business. Their contribution to the hospitality industry in this country is arguably their greatest legacy so far.
The truth is, Thanksgiving or not, Greeks need little reason to feast around a table laden with great food. That they have Hellenized pumpkins and sweet potatoes is just proof of their adaptability as a people and their ingenuity as cooks.
Pumpkin-Sweet Potato Moussaka
[Adapted from my forthcoming book, "The Country Cooking of Greece" (Chronicle Books, 2012)]
Greeks are obsessed with moussaka; it’s their culinary flag, a patriotic symbol of all that’s Greek. This obsession with moussaka is expressed by modern cooks in endless searches for ways to change as well as better it.
This dish is one of my contributions to the moussaka archives, a recipe I first developed for Pylos, where I have a small stake and a lot of freedom to experiment. I then adapted it for use in my home kitchen. It has become a favorite in late fall, when pumpkins and sweet potatoes are easy to find, and is a standard on our Thanksgiving menu at the restaurant.
Sweet potatoes, while not native to Greece (no potatoes are) have been around for a few hundred years and are cooked in myriad ways throughout the Ionian islands. Pumpkins have not been around quite as long, but Greeks love to use them in the fall in savory dishes.
For the cheesy béchamel:
For the vegetables:
To make the béchamel:
- Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat and add the flour.
- Pour in the milk slowly, whisking constantly, and continue whisking until the sauce thickens, about 10 to 12 minutes total.
- Remove from the heat and pour in the eggs, whisking vigorously.
- Stir in the cheeses. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the nutmeg. Set aside.
To prepare the vegetables:
- Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook slowly until soft and lightly caramelized, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- While the onions are cooking, put the flour in a shallow bowl and heat about ¼ inch of olive oil in a second large frying pan. Dust the pumpkin slices very lightly with flour, shaking off the excess.
- Sauté pumpkin until lightly browned, turning once, and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the yellow squash. Pour off the oil and wipe the frying pan clean.
- Add a little more oil and sauté the yams, turning, until lightly colored around the edges. Remove and drain on paper towels.
To assemble the moussaka:
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Lightly oil a 12-by-8-by-2-inch baking pan/tin. Layer the yams in the bottom of the pan. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with one-third of the mint and a little parsley.
- Spread a scant layer of caramelized onions on top.
- Pour about one-third of the béchamel over the onions, patting it down to spread out evenly.
- Repeat with a layer of pumpkin, salt and pepper, herbs, onions and a little béchamel.
- Repeat once more with the yellow squash, topping that, too, with salt and pepper, herbs, onions, and the final coating of béchamel.
- Bake for about 35 to 40 minutes, until the béchamel is puffed and golden and the vegetables tender. Remove and let rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
Bobota (Spicy Greek Cornbread)
- Heat oven to 350 F.
- Heat the milk over medium flame.
- Place the cornmeal in a large mixing bowl. Slowly pour in the hot milk, whisking til smooth.
- Stir in remaining ingredients, whisking til smooth.
- Pour into buttered deep rectangular pan and bake until solid and firm, 50 to 75 minutes.
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.
Photo: Pumpkin-Sweet Potato Moussaka. Credit: Vassilis Stenos.
In a story earlier this year for Zester Daily, Kochilas wrote about her throwdown over moussaka with Bobby Flay on the Food Network.