Greek Village Food

As Diane Kochilas makes clear in "The Glorious Foods of Greece: Traditional Recipes From the Islands, Cities and Villages" (William Morrow; $40), there is what everybody thinks is Greek food--moussaka, stuffed vegetables and so on, mostly dishes made fashionable in the Greek mainland 80 years ago by immigrants from present-day Turkey. And then there is the real, down-home traditional Greek food. The latter is as earthy as the Italian cucina povera that foodies have recently discovered, complete with gathered wild herbs and lots of olive oil (very good olive oil; Greece is the world's largest producer of extra-virgin).

In fact, the Greek cucina povera is more povera than the Italian. Even the most impoverished parts of Italy are lush compared to those photogenic Greek islands, where drought is a serious, ever-present problem, or the mountains where Greek shepherds still live largely off their flocks. A lot of the character of Greek rustic cookery comes from having to deal with a limited range of choices.

Of course, when it comes to Mediterranean fish and wild greens, we are the ones who have fewer choices. But Kochilas retains a sense of the dire need behind this kind of cooking and always suggests alternatives when a recipe calls for a wild plant. It's in Italy, where gathering nettles is no longer such an urgent necessity, that foodies are likely to insist that you have to use some all-but-unobtainable weed.

This is an eye-opening book. Kochilas has really done a lot of research, and you learn a lot about the highly regional cuisines of Greece in its 465 pages. It's also one you can cook from, and I think a lot of people will. Maybe not for company dinners--this is mostly quite humble food--but when they need easy, inexpensive, wholesome everyday dishes with character. When something like yogurt and bulgur soup with cilantro, or fish baked with spinach, or warm cauliflower salad with tuna and olives fits the bill, this is where to go.

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