Maria Loi has had a wonderful career as a celebrity chef with such accomplishments as cooking for President Obama, owning her own cookware line, and most recently releasing a book and opening a new Manhattan restaurant. In addition, she is deeply involved with charity funds for children and has a vested interest in sharing the culture and benefits of Greek Food with the world. This past week she held a seminar and luncheon “I Love European Fine Food”, showcasing the benefits and quality of feta cheese and saffron, both essential ingredients to Greek cuisine.
Krokos Kozanis, commonly called Saffron, is the most expensive spice in the world, and for good reason. Krokos Kozanis is cultivated in only one part of Greece “Kozanis” and has been producing saffron for 300 years. Saffron is actually the dried filaments of the Krokus plant and in Kozanis, the plants are all hand-picked and separated by a family owned business. They are then dried by hot air, as opposed to fire which diminishes their shelf life and quality.
The benefits of this bright orange herb are both medicinal and therapeutic. Krokos Kozanis is an antioxidant, an anticoagulant, and it improves brain function. It also can be made into a tonic which is good for reducing cholesterol levels, improving digestion, reducing the inflammation that asthma causes, relieves nausea, and finally, saffron is an aphrodisiac.
There are many ways to use saffron in every day life. Krokos Kozanis makes beautiful tea in many different and unique flavors. It can also be made into lemonade and even bread. At the seminar they made a delicious saffron risotto. The key to using saffron and unlocking its benefits is to let it steep in water until the water turns the same orange-red as the herb itself. Then that water can be added to a dish like the risotto, giving it that signature orange color and earthy flavor.
The feta cheese presented at the seminar was from a family owned company that has been making cheese, milk and yogurt in the mountains of Greece since 1960. Kourellas takes pride in the way they take care of their animals and process their products; everything is done within the company, from packaging to marketing. What sets them apart are their strict quality standards.
All of their products fall within the PDO/PDI guidelines in Europe. PDO, Protected Designation of Origin, is a label for products that both come from a specific region as well as use a method specific to this region. PDI stands for Protected Geographical Indication and certifies that the product is closely related to that specific area, and at least one of the stages of preparation took place there.
It seems confusing, but it is their version of being FDA certified. Anyone from Europe will tell you they believe it is a better way of verifying natural and local products and are trying to bring these guidelines to the USA.
Feta is dense and tangy and it great just by itself, tossed into a salad, or even fried. This salad is a salad of roasted portobello mushrooms, oven roasted tomatoes, pickled shallots, deep fried feta cheese and a berry vinaigrette. It was absolutely amazing; both refreshing and rich.
Chef Loi opened her new restaurant Loi Estiatorio with enthusiasm and vigor, showcasing the Mediterranean dishes and ingredients she grew up eating. She uses fresh ingredients and cooks them authentically in a way that makes them both delicious and healthy. Her new book, The Greek Diet, reflects those same principles, structured around the “twelve Pillar Foods” of the Greek Diet, including olive oil, wine, yogurt and nuts.
In addition I had the pleasure of sampling other Greek inspired dishes:
To try your own Greek food recipes at home, here are some simple recipes to make using saffron and feta cheese.
Steamed Mussels in Saffron Broth
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1 bulb fennel, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 pinch saffron
3 tablespoons fresh or canned tomato puree
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups fish stock or chicken stock
2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 pounds mussels, preferably small ones, scrubbed and debearded
Crushed red pepper to taste
1. Heat the oil in a heavy 3 quart saucepan. Add the onion, fennel and garlic. Cover and sweat over low heat until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the saffron, tomato puree, wine, stock, thyme and bay leaves. Simmer uncovered for one hour. Strain.
2. Just before serving, reheat the tomato mixture to a simmer. Add the mussels, cover and
steam until the mussels open, about 10 minutes.
3. Using a slotted spoon, divide the mussels among four soup plates. Season the broth to
taste with pepper flakes and pour over the mussels. Serve at once.
Refreshing Watermelon Feta Salad
35 oz Watermelon, diced
9 oz Feta cheese, cubed
A bunch of mint, chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
4 oz kalamata olives, chopped
1/4 olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp brown sugar
salt and pepper to taste
1. Toss together all ingredients.
2. Whisk together ingredients for dressing and pour over the salad.