It was the lushness of heaps of collard greens that opened my eyes. The bracing, unapologetic bitterness of mustard greens, and the taste of sun in the tomatoes.
It had been more than a decade since I left the Greek island of Crete, where l lived for 14 blissful years, but I still pined for it. In the years that followed, back in my rainy native Holland and, later still, in the even rainier Pacific Northwest, there was little consolation for my nostalgia. Then I moved with my family to Atlanta, where I found to my delight many similarities, obvious as well as subtle, to that beloved Greek island. But let me start with the collard greens.
I gasped when I took my first bite of a steaming bowl of collard greens — the leaves patiently cooked to a silken lusciousness, the deeply layered flavor, built with good fats, and onions, and garlic, and the tang of vinegar to bring the whole dish in just the right balance. I appreciated it immediately for what it was: a dish strongly rooted in tradition, honed and perfected over a long time, made solely with the ingredients the surrounding land brings forth. It was a powerful reminder of the good food of Greece.
The Greek cuisine is Mediterranean pur sang. For me, being a food writer, living and eating in Greece was heaven on earth. Every day, from the Greek coffee, barley rusks and fresh sheep’s cheese in the morning until the midnight ouzo with mezedes (small plates, such as pickles, grilled sardines, vegetable fritters and olives) was a feast of beautiful, healthy, delicious food.
Home-cooked food turned out to be wildly different than what is usually presented as Greek in restaurants abroad. No gyros, souvlakia (meat skewers), hummus or grilled pita bread. That is street food. At home, people cook gorgeous savory pies, vegetable casseroles, all manner of shell beans, stews and roasts of chicken, meat or fish, and delicious soups. It is a vegetarian’s wonderland, and a paradise for pescatarians. A very special place in the Greek heart is reserved for the many varieties of wild greens, which are eaten as a salad or stewed with some fish or lamb, often prepared in a tart and creamy avgolemono (egg-lemon sauce). A fun snack or appetizer is vegetable fritters, which basically can be made of any plant known to man.
Savory pies are made in every region and on every island, in a dizzying number of variations. There are pies topped with a cornmeal crust, layered pies built with thin phyllo pastry, chicken pies, pies with greens, zucchini or pumpkin, cheese pies, and even pies with snails, salt cod or octopus.
Good, crusty bread and a salad accompany every meal. Generous amounts of excellent olive oil and fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, dill, mint, wild fennel) are ubiquitous in many dishes. In the fish tavernas you will feast on fresh grilled octopus doused with green olive oil and lemon juice, or battered, deep-fried calamari, and stewed cuttlefish in its own ink or a perfectly grilled sea bass.
Greek food is unforgettable in that it is both simple and exquisite, clean and complex and supremely flavorful. I thought I’d never find that again. But then I had the revelation with the collard greens.
Months of exploration in the Southern foodways followed. I ate my way through a plethora of fried chicken and biscuits, pulled pork and cornbread, shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese, chicken pot pie, fried and pickled okra. I could not get enough of the decadent cakes (Hummingbird, caramel, coconut), the intensely fruity cobblers and addictively sweet pies (pecan, sweet potato). I realized how lucky I was to have stumbled upon another truly magnificent cuisine — different indeed from the Greek in its flavor profile, its final touches, its execution, but very similar in philosophy, generosity and excellence.
Here’s where the Southern and Greek kitchen are alike: Both stem from a culture with a strong agricultural backbone, and are based upon what’s locally grown, harvested, gathered, raised or fished. Greeks and southerners alike will insist on only the freshest and tastiest products, everything in its own season and at the peak of its flavor. Both sprout from a fertile, rich ground and a hot climate with many hours of sunshine and enough rain, which is why so many of the crops are the same: tomatoes, okra, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, peaches, onions, potatoes, shell beans, green beans, pumpkins, tree nuts and cabbages.
It is no huge surprise, then, that preparations are quite similar too, and it boils down to this: Keep it simple. With glorious, delicious ingredients at hand, all a chef really wants is emphasize all that deliciousness and bring the pure flavor of each ingredient to the limelight.
Furthermore, in both cuisines nothing goes to waste, no matter how bountiful the crop or how fat the pig is. Every last bean, cucumber, peach and okra will be pickled, salted or preserved in another way.
With all those similarities it is a seductive step to take a good classic dish from either cuisine, and give it a little twist. Here I substitute collard greens and kale for spinach in the classic spanakopita (Greek spinach pie).
And while Greeks will turn any herb, bean or vegetable into their beloved fritters, sweet potato isn’t one of them, simply because it is not widely used. All the more reason to turn these southern beauties into a delicious snack, fragrant with oregano, mint and dill. The sweet potato fritters are actually not deep-fried, but pan-fried in a good amount of olive oil.
Karydopita (walnut cake) is a well-known Greek pastry, a moist, airy cake, chock full of walnuts and sweetened by a spiced honey syrup. Using Georgia pecans instead makes for a lovely variation.
So if you ask me which at which table I’d rather sit, I am unable to give you an answer. But one thing is sure. Both the Southern and Greek tables will be groaning under the sheer amount of dishes, to which everybody — family, friends and anybody who happens to drop by — is invited.
Make classic Greek recipes with a Southern twist: Phyllo Pie with Kale and Collard Greens, Sweet Potato Fritters, and Spiced Pecan Cake with Honey Syrup.
Phyllo Pie with Kale and Collard Greens
Extra-virgin olive oil is excellent for any preparation, from cold to hot. Phyllo dough comes in different thicknesses. The thicker one, sometimes called “country style,” is easier to handle. Serve this pie as an entree, with a scoop of thick Greek yogurt and a tomato salad.
Sweet Potato Fritters
Makes 16-20 fritters
This makes a nice snack or side dish. For authentic flavor, use dried Greek oregano and mint, available online or at International Bakery (2165 Cheshire Bridge Road, Atlanta. 404-636-7580, rhodesfamilybakery.com).
Spiced Pecan Cake with Honey Syrup
The honey can be replaced by sorghum syrup. This recipe asks for finely ground bread crumbs. If not using homemade bread crumbs, I recommend the bread crumbs from Your DeKalb Farmers Market (3000 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-377-6400, dekalbfarmersmarket.com).