Greek Cypriot cooking with hard-to-find ingredients
Globe-trotting restaurant and TV chef Maria Elia has landed in the US, where she runs the new, Greek- and Californian-themed Jimmy’s at the Landing Resort & Spa in Lake Tahoe. Elia’s last book, “Full of Flavor,” laid out a freewheeling approach to the kitchen. But the new book, “Smashing Plates,” like the new restaurant, is a return to Elia’s Greek Cypriot roots.
This approach turns out to be more structured and less intimidating than the previous one, even though many recipes have traditional ingredients (as in loukanika and soutzouki sausages, and the port-like mavrodaphne wine) that are just plain hard to find.
Gnocchi studded with Kalamata olives are the extra-pillowy kind you get from baking rather than boiling the potatoes. Even my 7-year-old, who hates olives, cleared her plate. A version of paella, full of mussels, shrimp, and saffron, flaunting dill and feta, was good even without loukanika sausage, which I could not find. Lemon and dill braised fava beans fall to pieces gently in the mouth, with that undercurrent of sweetness that makes favas the legume equivalent of a pistachio. (Buy the favas frozen, if you can, to eliminate half of the tedious shelling process.)
A thick base of anchovies and fennel starts things off boldly in slow-braised pork belly with wilted chard and spinach; astringent green olives and capers set off the unctuous layers of meat, and would be even better if I’d been able to procure some dandelion greens. A similar bracing hint of sour, from lemon and capers, enlivens a roast chicken smothered with oregano-garlic paste beneath its golden skin.
The pairing of green beans and tomatoes informs a number of recipes, like a lamb braise that’s the kind of stewy, stick-to-the-ribs fare that seems like it should be served in an earthen tureen, with frost on the ground. A tomato-and-bean baklava is all dressed up in phyllo, drizzled with honey and cinnamon, studded with dates. It seems like a savory dish playing, only partly successfully, at being dessert.
A number of other dishes fall into the easy and basically pleasing, if not dazzling, category. Salmon cured in ouzo thrums with anise, more than a suggestion of it. It’s not my favorite gravlax. “Pourgouri” is Cypriot for bulgur, and Elia’s version is simple and quick; mint and parsley make it smell like spring, and walnuts give you something to chomp on. A baked green bean snack is one of those recipes where baked means “mock fried” — breadcrumbs, adhered with beaten egg, transform into an addictive, tempura-like crust.
But the crust for a chocolate tart seems like twice as much dough as necessary; it’s hard to roll and thick on the tongue. While the chocolate filling has a ganache-like, satisfying heft, with flavor from star anise and orange, I couldn’t help thinking how much better it would be minus the anise (even though the anise is also what sets it apart).
One thing that you can say about Maria Elia is that she never seems to run out of ideas. So if culinary improvisation and Greek-influenced fare don’t appeal to you, her next book might well. She is bound to bring something new to the table.