Hortopeta made with Swiss chard.

A Taste of Greece

Global Local Cuisine

In the 1920s my great-grandmother and her new husband came to this country from Greece. As a young woman, my proyiayia spoke no English and carried very little to start her new life. A few dear possessions, like her Greek coffeepots and cuttings from her treasured fig tree, were all she had to begin life in America. That and her recipes, which she knew from memory.

Thank goodness for that, because she was an amazing cook and talented gardener. I remember as a small child watching her roll phyllo—the paper-thin pastry used in baklava and peta—by hand, making bread from scratch and preparing hearty and delicious meals for our family. She taught herself English over the years, and I in turn learned Greek from her little schoolbook, brought across the ocean. When she finally wrote down her recipes they were a mixture of Greek and English, which my grandmother (yiayia) and I deciphered over the years. She was a strong, brave woman who valued family, and she is one of the reasons I so love cooking and working with food today.

I have always felt that Santa Barbara’s fresh produce, seafood, citrus, olive oil and wine lends itself to Greek cuisine. On the Greek islands, seafood is obviously very prominent, and in the mountains of Karpenisi, where my family originates, heartier food such as lamb and cheese is prevalent. I love both cuisines, but for the purposes of this article I’ve focused on my family’s recipes, which are perfect for cooler weather.

In Greece, peta is a staple on the mainland and it is found in many different forms: rolls, sheets and made into hand pies. In my travels I’ve seen all different shapes and sizes, so when I visited our family’s village for the first time, I was thrilled to see it served the way my proyiayia did it: beautiful, thick, buttery sheets. To this day it is my family’s comfort food, and it is the perfect side dish to any Greek meal. Working with phyllo can be a challenge, but it is absolutely worth it for the mouthwatering result. I have made peta using yellow squash, spinach or mixed greens and the result is fantastic each time.

Certainly, you can’t talk about Greek cuisine without the essential ingredient that is in every dish: olive oil. Luckily, here in Santa Barbara County we have a fantastic local source: Theo Stephan’s farm stand in Los Olivos carries quite a variety, including Koureiki, a type of olive brought over by Theo from Greece decades ago. She is the only one who grows this type of olive locally, and therefore the only one who can produce this bright and vibrant oil here in California.

Greeks love to eat, so our meals are hearty. They say that the Mediterranean diet is the key to a long life, and that the healthiest component is actually the abundance of dark leafy greens. Horta, which are mixed greens that grow wild all over Greece, are great for salads but are my favorite in hortopeta. You know this as spanakopita in the United States. Instead of spinach I used Swiss chard, so it’s a little more robust and perfect for cooler weather. I could eat this dish every single day: the salty cheese, buttery crispy phyllo and rich greens are a wonderful combination.

I am certain that every Greek grandmother has her own version of our family’s meatballs, called keftethes. I use a combination of lamb and beef for maximum flavor, and I finish them with a little red wine and spritz of lemon. The secret here is the grated onion, which makes sure the onion flavor and juice are distributed throughout. It keeps the meat really tender, too.

Lastly, one of the first recipes I learned to make was my proyiayia’s sweet bread. She kept the recipe in her head, and we didn’t write it down until a few years ago. I’m so glad we did. This bread is served at Easter, and its slightly sweet flavor makes it perfect for morning coffee, dessert or just a treat any time of day. My family adores this bread and once you make it you’ll understand why. It’s just a lovely blend of sweetness, yeast and a hint of orange. Toasted or plain, its flavor always reminds me of my grandmother and great-grandmother

The Greek culture is warm, hospitable and welcoming, just like Santa Barbara County. Perhaps that’s why I felt so at home when I moved to Santa Barbara 13 years ago.

•Click here for the recipes.

Laura Booras is the general manager at Riverbench Vineyard & Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. She lives on the vineyard, where she regularly hosts food writers, celebrity chefs and wine critics for unique meals prepared with locally sourced ingredients.

Categories Category: Food