Coup de Greece

Alexandra Scarvelis offers the epitome of Greek hospitality. Upon entering her charming home, one is drawn instantly into a true sensory experience: a blending of sights, style and aromas – the tastes soon follow. This woman has style.

Alexandra credits her culinary capabilities to her mother, Emily, and grandmother, Alexandra, from Sparta, as well as the Greek ladies at the local church. “My mother and grandmother laid the strong foundation for my cooking, and the Greek ladies here taught me the special techniques and nuances,” Alexandra explains. Going mostly by smell, Alexandra has a tendency not to measure ingredients or go by taste alone. “I use lots of lemon, garlic, oregano and olive oil in my cooking when preparing lean meats, fresh vegetables and salad, which gives it that ‘stamp of authenticity,’” she says.

Often, the ingredients Alexandra uses come from friends or family who have just returned from a visit to Greece, or a special spice that her mother might send her from the Bay Area. Locally, many ingredients can be found at the Italian and Greek Deli or Trader Joe’s. The Mediterranean diet that is so popular now has always been a way of life in the Scarvelis home. Without a doubt, Alexandra’s Greek cooking is “genetically encoded.”

As a young woman of 17, Alexandra moved from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara, where she attended UCSB, majored in art history and met her soon-to-be husband, George. Alexandra recalls her early days with George: “I remember cooking Greek food all day long – for anyone that came by our house. Tom Poulos (Montecito Fire Department firefighter) would show up at our doorstep at five in the morning with a bucket of fish he had just caught. Naturally, I had to cook it up for him!” Alexandra also became involved with the Greek Festival, often helping prepare 4,000 tiropitas (filo pastry filled with feta cheese) and spanakopitas (little filo spinach pies). Catering jobs and special events soon followed.

The Scarvelis family includes children Steven, Nicholas and Stamatia, who attended Cold Spring, Marymount and Crane schools. Alexandra and George have raised their children with all the Greek traditions that were instilled in their own lives. Particularly at this time of year, Pascha, the Greek Easter, is of utmost importance. A typical Easter feast includes specially seasoned lamb, manestra (a type of orzo), tiropitakia, keftedes (lamb meatballs with yogurt sauce) and kourabiedes (Greek butter cookies). There is also the breaking of Easter bread and the cracking of the eggs – cracked to symbolize Christ emerging from the tomb and dyed red to represent Christ’s blood.

Alexandra donates her skills in the kitchen regularly for Greek dinner parties (one for Marymount School is coming up at the end of April!). Yassou!

Spanakopita – Spinach Pita

Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour

4 boxes frozen spinach or use three 6-ounce bags fresh chopped spinach or two bunches fresh spinach

4 bunches chopped green onions

2 bunches parsley chopped

1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed

1/2 teaspoon mint (optional)

1-1.5 pounds feta

1 small carton small curd cottage cheese or ricotta

4 slightly beaten eggs

2.5 -3 tablespoons cream of wheat

1/2 pound filo

1/2 pound butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Sesame seeds (optional)

If using frozen spinach, drain and squeeze out any excess moisture. If fresh, clean and dry well. Chop. Place in large bowl. Add chopped parsley, sauté chopped onions, add to spinach.

Add cheese, dill, beaten eggs, cream of wheat, salt (not too much) and pepper. Butter a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan and place 8-10 sheets of filo on the bottom of the pan, brushing between each sheet with butter.

Spread half the spinach mixture in pan, add two sheets of filo, butter between, add last half of mixture, layer with remaining filo dough. Don’t forget to butter the filo sheets, brushing each. Score top layers of filo before baking. An optional step: Sprinkle sesame seeds on top before baking. Bake until golden brown. Let sit about 15 minutes, cut and serve.

Keftedes – Greek Meatballs

1 pound ground chuck

1 medium onion, chopped fine

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 teaspoons dried mint leaves

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/2 cup chopped parsley (or 3 tablespoons dried parsley)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 egg

1/2 cup dried bread crumbs

Flour

Oil for frying

Mix all ingredients except flour and oil, until well blended. Form into balls, roll in flour and deep fry until golden brown and cooked through.

Note: If desired, substitute ½ pound ground lamb with half the ground chuck.

Petite Greek Salad

Small pear-shaped tomatoes, red and yellow (available at Trader Joe’s)

Cucumber – seeds removed

Red onion

Red, orange and yellow peppers

Greek kalamata olives (pitted)

Feta cheese

Fresh basil

Oregano

Olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing

2 parts extra-virgin olive oil

1 part balsamic vinegar

Squeeze of lemon

The key to this fresh, colorful dish is to cut all ingredients into petite pieces. Start with the torpedo tomatoes, cut in half and dice everything else accordingly. Cut feta and basil last. Dress and toss before serving. Can be made a day in advance.

Avgolemono

The recipe for this chicken, egg and lemon soup can be found on page 35 of “Greek Feast,” a cookbook published by the Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church.

– This article was written with special thanks to Peter Phillips.

(If you know a cook who deserves attention, please e-mail your suggestions to news@montecitojournal.net)