Roasted chicken from a smoky grill infused with aromatic herbs and a sweet trace of cinnamon and honey greet you upon entering the AHEPA House. Guests gravitate towards the rows of steaming dishes and Greek women buzzing around the prep tables, chopping fresh vegetables, buttering filo and crumbling Feta. The choreography in the kitchen is as mesmerizing as the aromas.
Each year, during the Norfolk Greek Festival, the ladies of the Hellenic Women’s Club gather to share their devotion to preserve culinary traditions in “Cooking with the Greeks,” a make, bake and taste class featuring classic Greek recipes. The class is a popular attraction during the annual celebration held under one of Hampton Roads’ biggest tents on the grounds of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Norfolk, Virginia.
Helen Emmons, Cooking Class Co-Chairman and manager of Mike’s Pizza (Norfolk), said the group is very passionate about cooking, all of the women want to hold onto traditions and help others discover the joy of Greek cuisine. Hosting the class is a way for them to connect with the community and rediscover their own passions in the kitchen, though having cooks from various Greek regions is not always harmonious.
“Greek cooking is very regional,” said Emmons. “We often argue about the correct way to make a dish!”
The diversities are clear in the Hellenic Woman’s Club’s “Come Cook With Us*” cookbook where you’ll find multiple variations of common recipes including three versions of Souvlaki, a shish kebab style meat dish featured in the class.
The in-class version, Chicken Souvlaki, may not be correctly prepared by every region’s standards, but the tender morsels marinated for two days in a brine of olive oil, garlic, oregano, red wine vinegar and lemon juice were certainly delightfully Greek to the students.
“Good, quality extra-virgin olive oil is a crucial component of Greek cooking,” said Emmons. “And of course, we think olive oil from Greece is the best choice!”
One dish that was slightly “Americanized” for the class was the salad, which contained plenty of greens. The instructors explained that it’s difficult to find lettuce in Greece, so a traditional Greek Salad would be primarily tomatoes with maybe a little bit of greens tossed in. Most importantly, they agreed, a good Greek Salad must have quality Feta cheese and olives.
The preparation of Spanakopita, a Greek-style spinach pie, offered the class valuable insights on handling the paper-thin filo pastry. Instructors informed the class that the pastry may often be labeled “Strudel Pastry” at the grocery store and is most commonly found in the frozen section. When working with filo, a lightly damp towel should be kept over the unused sheets to keep them from drying out. Each layer of filo is ideally buttered as you are putting the layer in, not ahead of time.
Of all the culinary treats prepared, Kataifi was a crowd favorite. The classroom grew quiet, students were riveted as the instructor demonstrated how to press Kataifi pastry into the pan and layer it with a sweet nut mixture. The silence in the room was quickly broken, though, when samples of Kataifi arrived at the tables. “Oohs” and “ahhs” permeated the room with each flavorful bite of this delectable dessert.
Complementing the feast was a bottle of Moschofilero Erasmios (Kotrotsos Winery,) a dry robust white wine made from the Moschofilero grapes primarily grown in the Peloponnese region of Greece. Moschofilero Erasmios is commonly paired with fish or fruits and compliments Greek desserts quite well. Take good note of this tip: Judging from the clean plates and empty bottles at each table, the Moschofilero Erasmios wine was an equal crowd-pleaser to the Greek cuisine!
“We were a little surprised by how well our classes have been received by the community,” said Emmons. “I think we need more access in Norfolk for farm to table initiatives and bringing cooking back into the kitchen.”
As long as the community shows interest, Emmons said the Norfolk Hellenic Women’s Club will continue to share their traditions, tricks and love of Greek cuisine at the festival each year. As evidenced by the full classroom and crazy-long lines at the outdoor food tents, there’s no shortage of interest in Greek foods. We should expect to see “Cooking with the Greeks” return next year.
The Norfolk Greek Festival, is Tidewater’s oldest and largest ethnic festival. Hosted annually in May, it features traditional Greek cuisine, arts, crafts, entertainment and tours of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Find more information at http://norfolkgreekfestival.com