Washington Cooks: Greek food love

No dill in the tzatziki!

Spend a Sunday with the Tsipianitis family, and that will be the extent of any culinary deprivation. Once Demetri, Vicky and their sons, Panayioti, 17, and Pavlo, 14, return to their Rockville home from Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church on 16th Street NW, they get busy in the kitchen.

By the time they sit around the table, they’ve all had a hand in preparing a small feast. Shredding cabbage, getting plates and napkins and drinks, preparing the grills because, yes, there are three of those. Whisking drained bits of cucumber, vinegar, garlic, salt and olive oil into Greek yogurt to create that herbless, cool accompaniment for sizzling meats and soft pita bread. The vibe is warm and genuine. They are a poster family for the cause of Eating Together.

Demetri, 45, and Vicky, 43, grew up in different parts of Silver Spring, in homes where the dads cooked and the mothers and aunts commanded car pit stops to gather dandelion greens from the side of the road. Every religious holiday gathering was, and remains, a multi-relative, multi-protein affair. Much of that tradition has been passed on to the couple’s generation of cousins, who now host Easter parties that feed 250.

“We move it from house to house,” Demetri says. “Some bring the tables. Some take care of the lambs.” In April, there were six 45-pounders on spits in the Tsipianitises’ back yard.

“We don’t need caterers,” Vicky says.

“I know it sounds cliche, but Greeks show their love through food,” Demetri says.

Next-door neighbor Elizabeth Morra feels the love on a regular basis. “We like to joke: If you sit in our back yard long enough, the T’s will bring you something to eat,” she says. “People up and down the street will request Vicky’s french fries. They’re world-famous.” Hand-decorated aprons (“Thank You Mr. T!!!”) from recipients of Tsipianitis-baked largess hang on a butcher’s rack not far from Demetri’s stash of digital thermometers.

Cliche is not a bad way to go. “Big Fat Greek” stereotypes come to mind: You know, from the 2002 movie with the dad who uses spray cleaner as an all-purpose elixir.

“The Windex thing was the only bit we’d never seen or heard,” Demetri and Vicky say, pleased to verify much of what was portrayed in the film. “But we do use red wine vinegar for lots of things, including stings.”

As the couple explain the origins of their specific Greek food influences — the north-central area of Greece where Vicky’s family is from, and the Peloponnesian peninsula of Demetri’s heritage, neither of which uses dill in tzatziki — minor bones of contention arise. Now cooking for company with a photographer in tow, they’ve never had to work out whose technique is better. Should the meatballs be grilled or fried? This does not escalate to the level of public disagreement. They simply do both.

She’s in charge of dinner Mondays and Wednesdays. He handles Tuesdays and Thursdays. Depending on their sports schedules, the boys will field calls to get things going from their mom at her mortgage office job, or from their dad, who’s a sales rep for various business systems. “I do not cook on Fridays,” Vicky says.

Further evidence of their kitchen divides: Demetri’s cookbooks are doorstops full of technique, such as the Culinary Institute of America’s “The New Professional Chef” and “La Cuisine: The Complete Book of French Cooking.” Hers are self-constructed ring binders of recipes she has written and clipped since she was 18. He likes to plunge both hands into the bowl of ground beef and lamb, eggs, onion, bread crumbs, parsley, Greek oregano and lemon juice to ensure the meatball mixture’s proper texture. Vicky uses a fork to keep it tender.

He’s a gadget man, thrilled with the 12-slot meatball grill basket he found at Williams-Sonoma and prone to prepping french fries with a gridded vegetable cutter. Vicky cuts her famous fries by hand. She buys only Yukon Golds, which she says are most similar to the potatoes used in Greece, dispatching 10 to 20 pounds’ worth at a time. It sounds like a lot until you start eating the fries, presented cleanly on a paper-towel-lined plate and freshly salted. They are not twice-fried, as pros’ potatoes often are, but patiently elevated to a golden state in a 2-to-1 ratio of vegetable oil to corn oil.

Demetri keeps pushing to upgrade the frying vessel. Vicky won’t give up the homely, no-name enameled metal pot she has used for at least 15 years, even though both of its plastic handles are no longer functional.

“The two of us are a little dangerous together in the kitchen,” Demetri says with a smile. “But we make a good team.”

Their preparation of a special dish demonstrates how seamless their combined efforts can be. “We wanted to make something you won’t be served in any restaurant,” Vicky says.

It’s called Pita, from her side of the family, but it would never be mistaken for plain pockets of bread. Although a thicker-than-baklava (No. 7) , store-bought filo dough can be used, Vicky makes her own, which drapes and wrinkles like raw silk. In between her delivery of a total of 13 layers, kept under moist wraps until she deposits them one at a time via a dowel into a 15-inch round pan, Demetri drizzles melted butter, cooked and oiled rigatoni, ribbons of frothy beaten eggs and crumbles of feta cheese.

When it emerges from a 350-degree oven more than an hour later, the layers have fused into a wide, glorious pan of crisped sunshine. Demetri waits until it cools a bit, then inverts it (no feat for the timid) and cuts it into baklava-style diamonds for serving.

It’s the last element of the savory lunch spread: grilled sausage and grill-rotisseried marinated souvlaki; grilled meatballs and fried meatball patties; cooked dandelion greens dressed with lemon juice and olive oil; a fresh cabbage salad; a freshly made Greek salad and a finer-chopped relish using salad ingredients; kalamata olives; the fries. Greek beer, Greek wine.

It’s not for show. Leftovers will be taken next door or down the street.

Pulling out all the stops, Demetri then reveals a bowl of yeasty batter for making loukoumades, the honeyed dumplings that are always a hit at their church’s annual festival in September. The boys acknowledge that this is indeed a treat.

Panayioti, nicknamed P.T., sighs. He has been looking at colleges out of town.

“My cousins who’ve experienced it already tell me I’ll be in food withdrawal,” P.T. says. “I can understand that.” He and his brother realize they enjoy a life envied among their friends. Especially those fries.

RECIPES:

Pita

Tsipianitis Tzatziki

Greek Meatballs

Cabbage Salad

The 51st annual fall festival at Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church of Washington, D.C., will be held Sept. 16-18. See www.schgoc.org/events for details.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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