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Back to the Classics

"Greek Cookery," a 1956 cookbook Tselementes wrote in English commemorating his stint as chef in the restaurant in New York's then-fashionable St. Moritz Hotel, reflects that same attitude. Although recipes for classic Greek dishes such as baklava and many kinds of lamb are included, the emphasis is on distinctly un-Greek recipes for canapes, bouillabaisse, onion soup, a cheese omelet, hollandaise and bechamel sauces, cauliflower au gratin, meatloaf, chipped beef in cream and raisin bread.

Traditional cooking, with its emphasis on fresh, flavorful local ingredients, is back in favor in Greece just as it is in other countries. Meze restaurants, which feature small plates of traditional and regional dishes as well as olives, cheeses, sardines, pickled peppers or eggplants and fried fish, are increasingly popular. "The publicity the Mediterranean Diet has received and the success of upscale Greek restaurants abroad has helped enormously," says Kremezi, "making people look back at foods their parents have dismissed."

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For her current book, Kremezi spent eight years collecting such regional recipes and culinary lore from home cooks, fishermen and bakers throughout the Greek islands. She found foods inspired by both availability and necessity. "Each cook went to the garden for seasonal ingredients -- sometimes three months' worth -- and had to find ways to use what was in abundance," she says. People had to be frugal and economic, says Kremezi: "They had to find ingenious ways of using up things." So there are many recipes for the fruits and vegetables that are plentiful: the zucchini, lemons and tomatoes of summer; the wild greens, pickled vegetables and dried fruits of winter.

Although many of the dishes in "The Foods of the Greek Islands" have been in family repertoires for generations, including foods often prepared by Kremezi's mother, grandmother and aunt, overall the selection is geared toward contemporary tastes and kitchens. From meats to meze to savory pies and pitas to seafood to all kinds of sweets and breads, in this book there is no reflection of the foods popularized by Tselementes.

Kremezi's approach is a testament to changing times -- and pride in her Greek legacy. "It started with Crete, where they didn't abandon the old ways," she says. "Then, when tourists started coming, they appreciated the old dishes. And now there are very interesting local restaurants, and co-ops where people produce homemade pastas and savory biscotti. And other islands have started to follow."

Regional foods are increasingly appreciated. Young chefs have started to experiment with traditional recipes and do dishes inspired by them. "We're ready to start redoing the old things," says Kremezi.

Wouldn't Tselementes be surprised.

Find more information about traditional Greek foods in "Little Foods of the Mediterranean," by Clifford Wright (Harvard Common Press, 2003) and in "The Olive and the Caper," by Susanna Hoffman (Workman, 2004).

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