My Big Fast Greek Feast
At a new cooking school on the Greek island of Ikaria, a renowned cookbook author and her painter husband teach students how to make fast dishes like feta-stuffed zucchini blossoms, grilled lamb chops splashed with ouzo, and more.
The small Greek island of Ikaria, which lies across the eastern Aegean Sea from the mainland and within sight of Sámos and Chios, is shaped like the gracefully outstretched wing of a bird. The image seems especially appropriate since Ikaria is named for Icarus, the mythological youth who flew too close to the sun and fell into the sea when the wax that attached the feathers to his wings melted from the heat.
Nearly untouched by tourism, Ikaria is a collection of fishing villages, ancient spas, hot springs and a few not terribly distinguished classical and Byzantine ruins. On the northern side of the island, the mountain village of Christos Rahon sits high up and far back from the sea. Three years ago, food writer Diane Kochilas and her husband, Vassili Stenos, a painter, established Villa Thanassi restaurant and the Glorious Greek Kitchen cooking school here. Kochilas supervises a kitchen that turns out spectacular renditions of dishes from all over Greece, and she teaches the various cuisines to her students—mostly Americans but also some English and a few Greeks who are curious about their culinary heritage. The restaurant and cooking school are open only in the summer, when Kochilas and her family are on Ikaria; the rest of the year, she teaches classes in her Athens apartment.
The village has a reputation as a place where everyone stays up all night, Kochilas told me when I visited. Strolling through Christos Rahon at close to 9 p.m., on my way to Villa Thanassi, I find I am pretty much alone—not because it's so late, but because it's so early. Shopkeepers, the pharmacist and the dry cleaner are just beginning to open their doors after the afternoon siesta, and at the outdoor cafés the sole patrons are a few tourists like me, begging ouzos from waiters who look like they've just gotten out of bed. But when I come back through the village after midnight, I see children playing tag, old folks having quiet after-dinner coffees with tsípouro, the traditional grappa-like liqueur of the Greek islands, and friends and neighbors greeting each other as if it were the middle of the day.
When I return to Villa Thanassi the next afternoon, I sit out on its broad stone terrace. The villa walls are painted a warm apricot with yellow trim, colors that have faded to pink and cream in the intense sunlight. A miniature estate, Villa Thanassi is built into a hillside of old olive trees, where cicadas pulse through the afternoons and the air is fragrant with the scent of holm oaks and stone pines. During the day, cooking classes are held outside; the restaurant—more like a private dining room, really, available to groups by reservation—opens at sundown a few days a week.
Both children of native Ikarians, Kochilas and Stenos have spent summers on the island since they were small children. He came from Athens; she was born and raised in Queens. (Kochilas's father emigrated from Greece in 1937 and never returned.) Now, having met and married on Ikaria, they spend the school year in Athens with their two children, 11-year-old Kyveli and three-year-old Yiorgos, but escape to the island as soon as the summer holidays begin.
Kochilas, who writes a weekly food column for Ta Nea, a daily Athens newspaper, has published four cookbooks in the United States, including, most recently, Meze: Small Plates to Savor and Share from the Mediterranean Table. Many people in the food world consider her book The Glorious Foods of Greece, which came out in 2001, an indispensible reference. "Greece is a small country," she says, "but the diversity is impressive. Trying to make sense of it is what keeps me doing this." Like an anthropologist, Kochilas digs into why the Greeks cook and eat the things they do. That attention to detail is demanding; it took her eight years, for instance, to complete Glorious Foods. So why did she take on a restaurant and cooking school as well?
"We fell into it," Kochilas says. "We rented this beautiful house from a cousin a couple of summers ago. And—foolishly, maybe—we said to ourselves, Gee, this place would make a great restaurant. And before we could think about what we were getting ourselves into, that's what we were doing." The restaurant was also a natural venue for cooking classes. Students at the weeklong sessions might fry zucchini blossoms stuffed with feta cheese, a dish from the island of Lesvos, or steam mussels in a fragrant and spicy tomato broth. Or they'll try a fresh translation of a diner classic, Greek salad with pickled peppers and capers. Students also learn to cook with ouzo, marinating lamb chops in the anise liqueur before grilling them, infusing shrimp with it before sautéing them. One thing's for sure: At some point, students will roast the juicy meat of small Ikarian goats—rubbed with rosemary, oregano and garlic, bathed in olive oil and lemon juice—in the wood-fired oven until it's crusty on the outside and tender within.
The classes, like the restaurant, use vegetables and herbs from Stenos's garden. He grows many varieties of tomatoes and peppers, cucumbers, arugula, parsley, mint and rosemary, as well as a leafy green called blito, a member of the amaranth family, which Greek cooks treasure. Kochilas blanches blito, dresses it with olive oil, then garnishes it with plump olives.
But there's no need to garden as far as purslane is concerned—the fleshy weed, which Kochilas folds into potato salad with tomatoes, mint and parsley, springs up between the rows. (Purslane is one of the few vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acids, the beneficial fat found in some fish.)
Class excursions include visits to the baker Nicos Kouvdos, who's known as Kollia. Handsome and taciturn, he raises his dough daily from a sponge of heroic ancestry, then bakes it in a vast, smoky cavern of an oven, just as island bakers have done for centuries. Kochilas and Stenos also bring students to the stone cottage in the hills where Nicos Vitsarás, a mustachioed distiller, fires up his copper alembic every few weeks to produce tsípouro, raki and other liqueurs.
One morning Kochilas leads a small group on a visit to Diamanto Plaka, an elderly but still vigorous woman who keeps a small herd of goats and—almost casually, as if she were washing the breakfast dishes—makes cheese each morning. Her technique is simple: She boils the milk, cools it, adds rennet, cuts the curd, heats it again in the whey, then drains and salts it. It's ready a day later—a fresh cheese that's a bit bland when it's eaten alone but perfect, Kochilas points out, for layering in a pie or tart.
To taste with the cheese, Plaka offers us walnuts drenched in spiced syrup and served in a pretty saucer with a tiny spoon balanced on the side. Old-fashioned homemade sweets like these—cherries or green walnuts or sliced bitter oranges, preserved in sugar or honey syrup flavored with cinnamon—are often served to guests along with a demitasse of strong Greek coffee and a glass of cool water, a tradition of hospitality so ancient it feels positively Homeric. Kochilas pauses as she lifts the spoon, dripping with syrup, to her lips. "You know," she says, "there are layers and layers of history here. Times like this, it takes my breath away to think about it."
Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of the award-winning cookbook The Essential Mediterranean, writes often for F&W.