I simply fell in love with Mykonos, the tiny Greek island set like a sparkling jewel in the sun-dappled Aegean sea. Approaching from the water, Mykonos, bathed in brilliant sunshine is fairytale enchantment.
The year-round population is 6,600; in season, the numbers swell to more than 100,000. But the island is refreshingly unspoiled. Tiny storefronts leading into bakeries, confectioners, artisan jewelers and art galleries are tucked into narrow alleyways winding steeply uphill. Don't be surprised if you get lost in the maze.
Half-a-dozen windmills tower over the village - the islander's landmark. During 19th-century Turkish occupation, 28 windmills were in operation, making Mykonos an essential stop for passing ships to load up on bread.
Today, the remaining mills have been converted into private homes. Flat-roofed houses, rise tier upon tier up the mountainside, resembling a haphazard pile of dazzling snow-white sugar cubes.
From Mykonos, you can see the sacred islet of Delos, one of the religious centers of ancient Greece and the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Once there was a large Jewish population in Delos, and the islet was a stopover for Jewish sailors on trading routes. Today, you can still see the remnants of one of the synagogues.
But it's the food - simple, fresh and rustic - that makes me yearn to return.
Mykonians are warm and hospitable and fiercely dedicated to preserving the traditions of previous generations.
Recipes have been handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, so that whatever is served is authentic and has stood the test of time. The voluptuous combination of robust olive oils, salty cheeses, crusty breads, cakes dripping with honey, freshly caught sardines fried to a delicate crisp - all are difficult to resist. And vegetarians will delight in the abundance and variety of cheese dishes.
Our American cousin, Roz Apostolau, who, with her husband Mikale own the Hotel Adonis, laughingly and lovingly explained: "Mykonians love to eat; we'll sit at the table for hours. When one dish is taken from the table, it's immediately replaced with another."
And so it was as we basked in the sunshine at the Ruvera Café, savoring the many courses of a memorable meal. Each dish - based on the enormous variety of dairy products, fresh produce and fruity olive oil - was sensational.
Olive oil is an essential ingredient. Roz informed us that "at the Adonis, we buy olive oil by the gallon. It's used for everything - cooking, baking and au natural on salads, sandwiches and such."
The concoction called mostra - thick barley rusks slathered with spicy kopanisti cheese, and heaped high with slices of juicy-red tomatoes and large basil leaves - was drenched with a robust olive oil. Besides being Mikale's favorite breakfast, mostra is the traditional accompaniment for ouzo drinking.
Wild greens called horta grow in the fields and are used for simple, refreshing salads.Frikanos, or wild chicory, which grows on a thorny bush in Delos, is a rare delicacy. Boiled and refrigerated, Mykonian housewives keep it on hand to cure stomach ailments and to "clean the liver."
Among the specialities, we tasted roka, peppery arugula topped with shavings of a hard, sharp, Parmesan-like cheese glistening under an olive-oil sheen. Louvia, fresh tender string beans, were steamed and bathed in scordalia, an olive oil-and-garlic sauce similar to the aioli of southern France.
Pies are baked with sweet and savory fillings. The dough of our onion pie was homemade, and filled with eggs, fresh dill and soft tirovolia, a Mykonos cheese.
Baby zucchini stuffed with smooth cottage cheese - seasoned with fresh basil and scallions, and baked in a cream sauce - proved irresistible, as were tiganites (soft pancakes even toothless old ladies can enjoy), little honey pies (tsibita), and almond cookies soaked in rosewater, which left a dusting of confectioners' sugar on shoulders and lips
Urged on by Roz and an enthusiastic waiter, we sampled it all. The finale was strong Greek coffee and small glasses of mastic, a clear, sweet liqueur produced from the gum mastic, which oozes out of the lentisk tree. What a magnificent way to begin to understand the age old Mykonian culture!
The following recipes will bring an exciting element to any table. To make it easy and user-friendly, some American supermarket convenience items are used. Prepared frozen pastries make short work of pies, and toasted slices of grainy artisan breads provide the base for mostra. Ricotta and cream cheeses are acceptable substitutions for cheeses not available in the United States.
"Mostra" is a thick barley rusk with toppings that may be dairy or pareve. Kopanisti cheese is not available in the United States. Instead, substitute cream cheese and lemon juice as in recipe below.
1 slice multigrain bread, about 3/4-inch thick
1/4 cup low-fat cream cheese
1 tsp. lemon juice
pinch white pepper and salt
1 ripe medium tomato
extra-virgin olive oil
Toast the bread in 300-degree oven for 30 minutes, or until completely dry like a rusk.
Sprinkle with a little water. Do not soak.
In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese with lemon juice, pepper and salt. Spread over the bread. Cut the tomato in half, and squeeze the juices over the cream-cheese mixture. Cut up tomato and place on top. Drizzle generously with olive oil.
Variation: Use whole-grain bread baked as above. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and shredded fresh oregano. Squeeze with tomato juice, and top with cut-up tomato. Drizzle again with olive oil.
Serve with black olives.
Approximate nutrients per piece: calories, 583; protein, 13 g; carbohydrates, 52 g; fat, 39 g; cholesterol, 34 mg; sodium, 429 mg.
This may also be baked in a 9-inch pie dish, but, traditionally, the pie is square. Pinching the edges as in recipe below, seals in filling while forming into square shape.
1 package (15 oz.) refrigerated pie crusts (2 crusts for 9-inch pie)
3 cups ricotta cheese
6 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/2 cup snipped fresh dill
1/4 tsp. white pepper
salt to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Spray a 9-inch-square baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.
Place one of the pastry sheets on the bottom of pan, allowing the extra pastry to come up the sides. Don't worry that the pastry doesn't fit the square dish. Set aside.
In a bowl, mix together the cheese, eggs, scallions, dill, pepper and salt to taste. Spread over the pastry in baking dish. Top with remaining pastry sheet, pinching edges to seal.
Make several 1-inch cuts with a sharp knife to allow steam to escape.
Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until pastry is golden and knife comes out clean when inserted in center. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 339; protein, 13 g; carbohydrates, 23 g; fat, 23 g; cholesterol, 87 mg; sodium, 480 mg.
6 baby carrots
1 medium onion, cut in 6 pieces
4 small red potatoes, scrubbed and cut in quarters
11/4 lbs. flounder fillet or other white fish, cut in 6 pieces
1/2 cup low-fat mayonnaise
3 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1/3 cup snipped fresh dill, loosely packed
salt and pepper to taste
Place carrots, onion and potatoes in a saucepan. Cover with boiling water.
Return to boil and cook for 15 minutes, or until vegetables are still crisp.
Add flounder. Bring to simmer. Cook 10 minutes longer, or until vegetables and fish are cooked. Drain well. (Save this stock for soup base or freeze until needed).
Place fish and vegetables in a bowl with scallions and dill. Cool slightly.
In a small bowl, mix mayonnaise and lemon juice. Pour over fish mixture. Toss gently to mix.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 221; protein, 28 g; carbohydrates, 17 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 68 mg; sodium, 402 mg.
Little Honey Pies ('Tsibita')
1 package (7.5 oz.) farmers cheese
2 Tbsps. ricotta cheese
2 Tbsps. beaten egg
1/4 cup honey
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsps. grated orange rind
1 package (17.3 oz.) frozen puff-pastry sheets, thawed
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a bowl, place the cheeses, egg, honey, sugar, grated orange rind and one-quarter teaspoon cinnamon. Mix well.
Roll out one sheet of puff pastry to 10-inch square.
Using a 4-inch cookie-cutter or saucer, cut out 4 rounds. Place about 2 tablespoons cheese mixture in center of each round, pressing mixture down lightly with a spoon. Using thumb and index fingers, flute pastry edges to form a rim around the filling.
Sprinkle with cinnamon and confectioners' sugar.
Place on an ungreased cookie sheet at least 1-inch apart.
Repeat with remaining pastry sheet and cheese mixture. (You will need a second cookie sheet.)
Bake for 20 minutes or until pastry is risen and golden.
Approximate nutrients per pie: calories, 488; protein, 11 g; carbohydrates, 40 g; fat, 32 g; cholesterol, 39 mg; sodium, 341 mg.
Almond Cookies ('Amygdalota')
These are formed into shape of large almonds. When baked, they are rolled in confectioners' sugar until snow-white.
11/2 cups ground almonds
3 Tbsps. sugar
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 egg white, stiffly beaten
2 tsps. rosewater
1/2 cup powdered sugar
rosewater for dipping
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spray a large baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
In a small bowl, mix ground almonds, sugar and cornstarch. Add the egg white and rosewater. Mix well.
With moist hands, roll into shape of large almonds. Place on prepared baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes until crust is firm.
While warm, brush with rosewater. Cool and roll in powdered sugar to coat thickly.
Makes 2 dozen cookies.
Approximate nutrients each cookie: calories, 57; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 6 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 2 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman is a cookbook author and a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Reach her at: www.kosherfoodconsultants.com