In the middle of June, in the middle of Lanham, we found a wonderful taste of Greece at St. Theodore Greek Orthodox Church's 26th annual spring festival. There was authentic food, a wonderful band, children's games and a variety of items for sale--from straw hats to cooking videos. But it was the atmosphere that made it such an enjoyable experience. From John Chiperas, festival chairman, to Maria Mitrakas, who took me on a pastry tour, to Danae Morakis, who shared a few recipes, to Nina Smith, who has promised me a hands-on Greek cooking lesson, the sense of community spirit and camaraderie was obvious.
The menu included Greek casseroles, roast lamb and chicken and specialties wrapped in phyllo, a light flaky pastry. The moussaka was a sliced eggplant and potato casserole baked with ground beef and tomato sauce, with just a hint of cinnamon, covered with bechamel sauce and topped with cheese. The dolmades (grape leaves) were stuffed with ground beef, rice and herbs (parsley and mint) covered in a deliciously creamy lemony sauce. Another hearty Greek casserole was pastitsio--baked macaroni with ground beef and tomato sauce, topped with bechamel sauce.
My vegetarian daughter loved the manestra-- Greek pasta (similar to orzo) cooked in a seasoned tomato sauce--and the excellent Greek-style peas, stewed with onions, dill and tomatoes. The chicken souvlaki (available in a sandwich or on a stick) was flavorful, with a hint of oregano, and perfectly grilled. The three combine to make a simple and delicious Greek meal.
I loved the gyro sandwich, which was plump, hot and delicious--fresh warm pita bread, layered with feta cheese, sliced spiced grilled beef and lamb, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and homemade tzatziki (cucumber, garlic and yogurt dressing). I also enjoyed the phyllo-filled specialties--spanakopita (phyllo layered with spinach and feta cheese) and the slightly sweet tiropita (phyllo layered with feta, cottage cheese and cream cheese).
The vast assortment of Greek pastries included cookies, fried dough pastries, cake, rice pudding, breads. My boyfriend's favorite was the plump, flaky, nut-filled flogeres (lightly buttered phyllo pastry rolled with a mixture of walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a honey syrup). The kataifi (shredded phyllo pastry filled with a mixture of walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts) was moist, not too sweet and the shredded phyllo created a wonderful texture. The galaktoboureko (lightly buttered phyllo filled with custard, baked until golden brown and topped with a honey syrup) was an incredibly rich, slightly sweeter treat. And of course, the traditional baklava (lightly buttered phyllo layered with a mixture of walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a honey syrup) was easily two inches high. There were three different types of cookies: finikia (a soft cookie dough wrapped around a chopped walnut center, dipped in a honey syrup and sprinkled with walnuts), kourambiedes (butter cookie with ground almonds shaped like half moons and covered with confectioners' sugar) and koulourakia (shaped butter cookies). Still more! There were two types of fried dough pastries dipped in honey syrup, depending on whether you preferred them sprinkled with cinnamon (loukoumades) or walnuts (diples). The karithopita (walnut cake with honey syrup) was deliciously straightforward.
After enjoying the food, listening to the music and spending an evening with such warm and friendly people, I was happy to learn that St. Theodore hosts a Fall Festival (this year: Sept. 10-12). I'll be returning for another taste of Greece.
St. Theodore Greek Orthodox Church, 7101 Cipriano Rd., Lanham, Md.; call 301-552-3540.
CAPTION: Nina Smith, right, serves gyros at St. Theodore Greek Orthodox Church's 26th annual spring festival.