BEING CYPRIOT, Ritsa Christoforou already had her mint garden planted and was ready to entertain 35 people for dinner within the first month of her arrival in Washington. Her husband, Charalambos Christoforou, had settled in as head minister of the Cypriot Embassy, her three sons were settled into school, her mother had settled in for a long visit from Cyprus. So by Oct. 1, the 21st anniversary of Cyprus' independence, the Christoforou home in McLean had the family collection of paintings and sculpture in place, its small galley kitchen spotless, and tables that had been set in the dining room and glassed-in porch. The ambassador was about to arrive.
Hidden in the oven and cabinets, ready to fill the buffet table, were the results of three days' labor that displayed the culinary history of Cyprus: grilled halloumi cheese that is purely Cypriot but tastes like a hybrid of Greece's feta and Italy's mozzarella; houmous, an olive oil-enriched version of the typically Arabic dish; the stuffed vine leaves and grilled minced lamb so familiar in Greece and Turkey; the wine-braised pork reminiscent of ancient Roman cooking; ravioli, a reminder of Venetian rule; and sharlotta, which translates into English trifle. Certainly, it shows on the table that this 8,000-year-old culture has been traded back and forth among the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, British, Venetians and Turks, that it was ruled by Alexander the Great and Richard the Lionhearted, and that it was "a gift of love," as Ambassador Jacovides called it, to Cleopatra.
The cuisine's independence shows, too, in the smoked hams cured in red wine, the wine-cured and sun-dried pork loin, and most particularly in halloumi cheese, which forms a theme in Cypriot food. Every household makes halloumi, Christoforou explained, as she extracted huge pans of mezedhes (appetizers) from the oven and arranged them on trays. Halloumi is traditionally kept in large vases, where it grows drier throughout the year. "Every Cyprus house has halloumi and bread for breakfast," she said, adding that the cheese -- whether eaten plain, fried or broiled -- appears on the table at all other eating occasions as well. And Christoforou had already found that halloumi, which is made from sheep's and goat's milk and therefore inconvenient to prepare in Washington, is available at Aphrodite market in Virginia and undoubtedly at other local Middle Eastern stores. In Cyprus, her mother makes her own, cooking the milk with rennet, putting it in baskets and weighting it, draining the whey and recooking it with more milk, draining and cooking again, and finally sprinkling it with mint and salt. It is a twice-cooked cheese, noted Christoforou, and thrice-cooked if you serve it broiled or fried. She also combines it with eggs and mint to stuff ravioli, which are boiled in chicken broth and served with -- as one might guess -- grated halloumi.
If halloumi is the primary theme, wine is a secondary theme in Cypriot cooking. One of the national dishes is afelia, pork marinated in wine, fried in plenty of oil, then simmered in the oil, wine and coriander, covered, for nearly an hour, so that the oil and wine blend into a sauce. Cypriot smoked sausages are marinated in wine, and both smoked and air-dried pork are cured in wine. Even colocasi, a root vegetable unique to Cyprus and similar to sweet potato, is cooked in wine.
And then there is garlic, so revered that mothers still hang it in their babies' clothes to keep malice away, and so prevalent that a Cypriot cookbook asterisks the recipes containing garlic "for easy reference."
Finally, as elsewhere in the Middle East, Cypriot food is well-lubricated with olive oil, though native cooks go so far as to substitute freshly squeezed olive oil, not more than a couple of days old, for butter. Oil threatens to become more than a cooking medium, but rather the whole message: Houmous uses one cup of olive oil to one cup tahini. For three pounds of afelia, the wine-cooked pork, a cook uses one cup of corn oil. The Cypriot phyllo pastry, diples -- also called pites or bishides -- is not baked like baklava, but fried in oil.
Christophorou, tall, slim, with red hair bordering on gold, and wearing a fragile-looking beige crocheted dress, looks far from the image of a home economist, which she has been, or an art restorer, which she has recently become. Nor does she look as if she had rolled out and formed the paper-thin dough for 80 diples in two hours. When did she start to learn that skill? "I think I knew it since I was a baby," she answered.
The table was covered with dishes, the mezedhes that serve as appetizers in Cyprus as well as throughout the Middle East, the lamb and pork, liver, sweetbreads, pilaf -- here called pnigouri -- and vegetables. Cypriot guests looked as if they were greeting long-lost relatives as they speared a fluffy minted meatball or bit into a homemade lamb sausage wrapped in pana, a fatty lamb membrane. It was the Christoforous' first embassy dinner party, their country's anniversary, a gathering of friends from Cyprus and Washington. But there was one complaint, boldy voiced: "The plates are not big enough."
Following are some of the selections from the Christoforous' buffet.
TALATOURI (Tzatziki) 2 to 3 cloves garlic Salt and pepper to taste 1/3 cup olive oil 1 1/2 pounds yogurt 2 cucumbers, peeled and finely chopped 2 teaspoons fresh or dried mint
In a bowl, crush garlic with salt and pepper. Add olive oil. Beat yogurt and add to garlic mixture, along with cucumbers and mint. Stir until ingredients are well-blended, then chill. Use as a side dish or dip with pita bread.
HOUMOUS 3 cups dried chick peas, soaked overnight in water to cover 1 cup tahini (sesame paste) 1 cup olive oil 1 cup lemon juice 1 to 3 cloves garlic, mashed Salt and pepper to taste 4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Drain chick peas, then spread on a cloth and remove husks by rolling a bottle over them. Boil in water to cover until soft, about 1 hour. Drain the chick peas, reserving some of the liquid, and beat in a mixer, gradually adding tahini, then olive oil and lemon juice. Add garlic, salt and pepper. If too thick, add a few ounces of the hot water in which chick peas were cooked. Stir in parsley and serve when cool, with pita bread for dipping.
PNIGOURI (Pilaf) (6 to 8 servings) 1 small onion, finely chopped 1/4 cup corn oil 1/2 cup thin noodles 2 1/2 cups water 2 cups pnigouri (cracked wheat or bulgur)
Saute'onions in oil. Add noodles and saute' them until golden. Add water and let boil for 1 minute. Add pnigouri and simmer about 10 minutes, covered. Turn off heat and let sit, covered, 15 to 30 minutes before serving.
SHARLOTTA (6 to 8 servings) 5 ounces spongecake 2 to 4 tablespoons jelly or jam, any kind 2 tablespoons brandy 3 cups milk 1 1/4 tablespoons cornstarch 2 egg yolks 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar Fruits and nuts for decorating
Slice cake and arrange in the bottom of a 1 1/2- to 2-quart bowl, preferably glass. Dilute jelly or jam with 2 to 3 tablespoons water and brandy. Pour over cake. Warm 2 cups milk in a saucepan. Stir remaining cup of cold milk into cornstarch. Beat egg yolks well with sugar and stir in the cold milk mixture. Pour into the warmed milk and cook, stirring, over low heat until slightly thickened. Pour custard over cake and let cool, then decorate with fruits and nuts.(Christoforou uses preserved cherries, citron, apricots and honey-preserved walnuts from Cyprus.) Refrigerate until serving time.
An interesting variation on phyllo dough, diples is a complicated pastry to make, but is worth the trouble for cooks who are interested in pastry techniques. The recipe can be successfully halved or doubled, in which case it is easier to roll out one small portion of the dough at a time.
DIPLES (Makes about 25) Syrup: 3 cups sugar 1 1/2 to 2 cups water 1 tablespoon orange blossom water 1-inch cinnamon stick
Dough: 3 cups flour 1 cup lukewarm water 1/4 teaspooon salt
For assembly: About 1/2 cup solid shortening, melted Oil for deep frying 1/2 cup each walnuts and almonds, crushed and mixed with 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar
To make syrup, combine 3 cups sugar, water, orange blossom water and cinnamon in a saucepan, bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and simmer for 10 minutes, until it thickens to a syrup consistency. Allow the syrup to cool thoroughly before using.
To make the dough, combine flour, water and salt and knead well, about 15 minutes. Divide dough in half and roll out each half to a rectangle as thin as possible, and about 18 inches long.
To assemble, fold over 1 inch down the long side and brush it with warm melted shortening. Fold over again and brush with shortening, continuing to fold and brush until you reach the middle. Start from the opposite side and fold over 1 inch of dough. Brush with shortening and fold again, continuing until you reach the other folds. You will have a long 1-inch wide strip of dough. Twist the entire strip, then cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths. Take one piece and twist it again, pinching the ends slightly to seal. Stand the piece upright on the table and flatten it with your hand. Then roll it with a rolling pin into a circle measuring 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Repeat with each piece of dough. Then roll out other half of the dough and shape in the same way. In the meantime, heat 1 inch of oil in a skillet until hot enough for a cube of bread to brown slowly. Have cold syrup ready in a wide bowl, sugared nuts in a small bowl and rack over a bowl to catch drippings.
Fry each circle in hot oil slowly until lightly browned, turning to cook both sides evenly. It will not take more than a few minutes for each; do not let them get too brown. Quickly drain on paper towels and put the hot pastry in the cold syrup for a moment, then transfer to rack to let the syrup drain. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with sugared walnuts and almonds. Repeat with remaining diples.