Country cook
Michael Psilakis is changing public perceptions about his native Greek cuisine

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

HERAKLION, CRETE -- Michael Psilakis needs a goat. He reserved one, but there was confusion about when the famous chef from New York would pick it up, and the village butcher sold it to someone else. Without it, Psilakis could not make the braised goat, the moussaka, the pasta with goat ragu or the traditional Cretan wedding rice, which is cooked in goat broth. Most of the menu he has planned to show me would be ruined.

"Typical," Psilakis says as he winds his way past fresh seafood, vegetables, local honey and touristy T-shirts in the central market of Heraklion, Crete's largest city. He lights a cigarette and inhales deeply. "This is so Greek."

Psilakis, 40, is one part irritated but two parts amused. He has spent his entire professional life evangelizing about and explaining Greek food, so anything typically Greek, even a typically Greek mistake, gets a pass. His haute establishment Anthos is the only Greek restaurant in the United States to have received a Michelin star; his more rustic Kefi helped establish Manhattan's Upper West Side, long a culinary desert, as a dining destination. This past spring, he was invited by the White House to cook for a Greek Independence Day celebration. Now Psilakis has a new cookbook, "How to Roast a Lamb" (Little, Brown, 2009), that tracks his culinary development from the souvlaki and cheese pies called tiropitas he watched his mother make when he was growing up on Long Island to the smoked octopus with fennel puree and lemon confit that is a signature dish at Anthos.

Psilakis (pronounced see-LAH-kees) is serious about wanting Americans to understand Greek cuisine. In part, it's because he is, like all good chefs, reverent toward food, particularly its power to evoke memories and its ability to unite the family at the table. (Psilakis often compares his childhood to a scene from the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" in which the protagonist describes her family this way: "You never just have a minute alone just to think, 'cause we're always together, just eating, eating, eating!")

In part, though, it's because Psilakis has something to prove: that Greek food deserves the same respect among Americans that French and Italian cuisine receive. Greeks were making wine centuries before the first vines were planted in Burgundy. The Mediterranean diet was born in Crete, where Psilakis's father grew up, not in Italy. Yet France had Julia Child. Italy has Marcella Hazan. "How many times has someone asked me if this is really Greek food?" he says of the sophisticated dishes at Anthos. "They don't get it."

"How to Roast a Lamb" aims to define Greek food. But the book is also a love letter to Psilakis's family. The recipes are a tribute to his mother: her spanakopita, stuffed baby eggplant and pastitsio, a kind of Greek lasagna scented with nutmeg. Many of the stories focus on his father, Gus, who died in September 2007. Indeed, the book's title stems from one of Psilakis's formative food memories: the first time he watched his father slaughter a lamb and understood where meat actually comes from.

Food was at the center of his family life. But Psilakis did not decide to cook until -- wait for it -- he began working as a waiter at T.G.I. Fridays, he said. Making people feel welcome and feeding them was what he had always done at home. It felt right. Soon, friends invited him to help open a small Italian restaurant. Later, Psilakis took over, working some days as both chef and waiter to make ends meet. In 2004, he opened Onera, Greek for "dreams," in Manhattan. His mission to promote Greek food had begun.

* * *

Greeks don't like change, Psilakis tells me as he carries the goat we eventually found at another butcher into the kitchen at the Boutari winery outside Heraklion. The building is a blend of yellow stucco and glass that reflects the surrounding hills, planted in vineyards and olive groves. Even this nod to modernity is an affront to some Cretans, who with varying degrees of success have fought off invasion by the Romans, the Venetians, the Turks and, during World War II, the Germans. To Psilakis, however, the building embraces the soul of Greek wine, and interprets and elevates it.

That is Psilakis's goal for Greek cuisine. The meal he has planned uses local ingredients, such as the goat and wild oregano (which has a lemony finish "that you simply cannot find in the States"), and the way Greeks employ them. Psilakis's goat, for example, will go into several dishes. The meat will be braised with aromatic vegetables and tomatoes; some of the sauce will be reduced to dress homemade pasta called hilopites. The bones will be used for stock, which Psilakis will in turn use to cook the rice. If there's any leftover goat, he'd like to make moussaka.

Psilakis knows this is not the way Americans cook. He also knows most of them are unfamiliar with or afraid of goat and octopus, the base for another dish on his menu. "I know Americans don't make this to then make that," he said. "But I wanted to show how it was done."

We start with the goat. Psilakis and Harris Sakalis, one of his former sous-chefs who now lives in Greece, make quick work of butchering the animal into recognizable cuts. Goat, Psilakis says, is lean like lamb. Rich cuts such as the tenderloin can be roasted, but much of the meat is best braised to avoid drying it out.

In his classic braise, Psilakis is cooking the leg in red wine and tomato. First, he sears the meat until it turns golden brown. The meat comes out of the pan and in go carrots, onions and celery -- a classic mirepoix -- plus garlic, because he likes it. He deglazes the pan with red wine, returns the meat and covers it with water. At the restaurant, Psilakis would cook with stock to intensify the flavor. Water is what his mother and many home cooks use. "The beauty of this dish is it requires only one pan," he said.

Psilakis's recipe calls for dried oregano, thyme and rosemary, but he encourages home cooks to use whatever spices they like. For his part, he puts cinnamon sticks and bay leaves in almost everything. Cooks who don't want to use goat can easily substitute another lean meat, such as chicken, pheasant or rabbit.

With the goat simmering on the stove, we move on to the octopus and chickpea salad. It's a dish I requested. Octopus is transcendent when it is cooked well, which it usually isn't: Instead of being tender and meaty, it arrives like octopus jerky. The chew is enough to put many Americans off octopus for good. (Also off-putting, I learn upon my return, is that Mediterranean octopus is considered unsustainable by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. Squid is an acceptable substitute in this recipe, though cooking procedures and times will need to be adjusted.)

The mistake cooks make with octopus, Psilakis says, is that they think of it as seafood, most of which is best lightly sauteed or grilled. But octopus, like goat, is a braising meat: brisket of the sea, if you will. For his family members, who appreciate a chewy texture, he'll grill octopus. But in every dish at the restaurant, the octopus is braised first to break down the fibrous meat.

Preparing octopus right turns out to be easier than I expected. One slice removes the head, then I pop out the pointy beak and cut apart the legs. (Most octopus is sold frozen and already prepared.) We heat a skillet and sear the meat, being careful not to crowd the pan. When the octopus turns a brilliant violet, we add a whole garlic clove and bay leaves. (The recipe calls for crushed pepper flakes, but we don't have any.) Then, we cover the pan and put it in the oven. The heat pulls water from the octopus to create the braising liquid.

While the octopus cooks, we prepare the salad. The chickpea confit calls for dried beans to be cooked, then cooled and drained and cooked again in fruity olive oil and spices. But Psilakis says it's fine to use canned chickpeas to save time. He does recommend the extra confit step, which adds richness and a layer of flavor from the aromatics. As with a braise, Psilakis is happy for cooks to replace the garlic, cumin and mustard seeds he calls for with whatever they like; fennel, star anise and cardamom all work well.

* * *

Dinner is served under an arbor crawling with vines and shiny white grapes. We start with the octopus and chickpea salad, flecked with plump sun-dried tomatoes and fresh herbs. Alongside the braised goat is the rice, cooked in the goat stock and finished with a pat of goat butter, and quick-pickled beets served with Greek yogurt and a generous glug of the winery's olive oil. "There's a beauty in rustic food that you can never capture in haute cuisine. It takes you on a journey," Psilakis said. "I know you've had a meal, probably in Italy, that takes you somewhere."

That I indeed had that meal in Italy seems to frustrate Psilakis. It's not only that people think first of Italy. It's that Psilakis doesn't believe food should be treasured only when it is exotic. His dearest food memories are these: making his parents poached eggs and blueberry muffins and serving them in bed, pitting cherries for preserves with his mother, growing tomatoes and hunting rabbits with his father. Food marks special occasions, Psilakis said. "But the point is, you don't have to go on a vacation to have a moment like that. You can have it at home."

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