“Cooking with Loula” is the beautiful cookbook-slash-memoir of Alexandra Stratou, Athens native and classically trained chef, that centers on the recipes of Kyria (Mrs.) Loula, her grandmother’s cook. Kyria Loula had worked for several generations of the Stratou family, creating dishes that nourished the physical body as well as sustained family traditions and memories.
I first discovered this title on NetGalley (where I’ve been a reviewer for the past couple of years); as a huge fan of all things Greek, I was eager to dive into the galley (and later the physical copy). As I work full-time and have very little time for cooking during the week, I was hoping that the recipes would be on the simple side; luckily this is so, with short ingredient lists yet delicious results.
I love that not only does Ms. Stratou include pantry staples, but also includes other essential tips, my personal favorite being “Bless your food when you reach the point where it could turn into a success or a failure.” A lovely illustrated guide to essential tools and a guide to cooking with the seasons rounds out the introduction. The seasonal chart will help you choose recipes based on what is in season at the moment (and of course, if you can support your local farmer’s market if you have one, your recipe will turn out all the better for it).
And here is the major difference between Greek cooking and our modern lives: In Greece (particularly Crete), meals still revolve around seasonality. A tomato should only be consumed when in season, unlike the plastic tasteless varieties available year-round at American grocery stores. I subscribe to a biweekly organic CSA box from Nagano, and each week get to cook with sometimes new and novel ingredients (this week’s box included huge okra, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, and red shiso), many of which also feature prominently in Greek cuisine.
Recipes are arranged with the home cook in mind; weekday recipes are specifically geared towards the harried modern cook, featuring dishes that can be on the table in half an hour or less. These include spanakopita, gemista, pastitsio, tomato-stewed chicken with orzo, stuffed zucchini, and oven-baked sea bass. “Sundays” includes more ambitious recipes with longer cook times, designed to let you linger over the table with family. Standouts include Hunkiar Beyendi (beef stew with smoked eggplant puree), chicken pie, stuffed cabbage leaves, beef stifado, roast pork with apple and onion, and galaktoboureko.
“Summer Holidays” includes lighter fare like kaiki tuna salad, black-eyed pea salad, mini cheese pies, octopus marinated in vinegar, and dips. Fried fish, oven-baked eggplant, grilled fish, potato salad, baklava and chocolate mousse round out the chapter. “Traditions” captures major Greek holidays, beginning with New Year’s (vasilopita), deep-fried salt cod (served on March 25), koulourakia (Easter butter cookies), Tsoureki (Easter bread), oven-roasted lamb (served on Holy Saturday), and Christmas cookies and cakes will all brighten your holiday table. “Essential Recipes” includes stocks, sauces (béchamel, avgolemono, mayonnaise, kimas), and pastry cases (crusts). The book closes with beautiful dedications to Kyria Loula and Giagia Sofia.
I’ve made several of the recipes from “Cooking With Loula,” beginning with the gemista (stuffed vegetables). My mother used to prepare stuffed peppers, but I was never a fan of green peppers in particular, so for this recipe I substituted the sweeter orange, red, and yellow bell peppers. In Japan it is difficult to find large tomatoes (heirlooms are apparently unknown here), so I used all peppers for stuffing, fitting them snugly into my Emile Henry pie dish. The end result was a delicious blend of rice (I used Arborio), raisins and pine nuts that thankfully also freezes supremely well (I had the leftovers for lunches the following week). Fellow vegetarians and pescetarians will be in heaven, as Greek cuisine is tremendously vegetarian-friendly (aided by the large number of fasting days in the Greek Orthodox calendar).
In Alexandra’s words, “This cookbook is as much about my family as any other. We all have our own stories, our own tastes, our own memories, but no matter what they are, when talking about them we speak the same language. The places of the past we travel to are highly personal, but the journey is universal. I hope you hold this book in your hands and take some time — not only to cook, but to think about your past and what it means to you.” “Cooking with Loula” will send you forward on a delicious journey, not only to discover Loula’s recipes, but to reconnect and create your own lasting food memories (glass of Greek wine and Greek soundtrack in the background highly recommended but optional). Happy cooking!