Maria Panagou is a very talented cook and food photographer from Lesvos island. Her book “Cook like a Greek” was published in 2016 and is a great resource not only of Greek recipes but also of beautiful images of the Greek cuisine and its ingredients.
In the following interview she talks about her story, her great love for cooking, the treasures of Lesbian cuisine and her book.
What made you fall in love with cooking?
Greek cuisine for me is love at first bite. Everything happened around a magical, superb kitchen, starting with a grandmother with her arms open for her grandchildren and delicious scents that spread into the house. Grabbing snacks from her kitchen on the way to school was like bringing a piece of our home together with me, something so intimate, so lovely, so heart-warming. This was my comfort food.
Greek food has all the properties of comfort food, it’s food and medicine together.
Greek food has all the properties of comfort food, it’s food and medicine together. Its base is the olive oil which improves people’s health. Cooking for friends and family is not an obligation. It’s giving back, it’s love and joy. You can feed your soul by sharing good food with those you love. I adore the Greek gastronomy because it gives me back love. It is a proper diet with rich flavours. I started cooking very timidly at first. My grandmother, who taught me how to cook, was never strict, but it was really challenging for me to cook in her kitchen. At the age of 15 I was the assistant of the wonderful brunches at her house. I was part of a group that scheduled the event in every single detail, two weeks before it happened.
Cooking is art. The materials you choose, how you respect their seasonality, how you food-style your plate, how you offer it.
She would double-check all the linens to be properly ironed and cleaned, the silverware polished, set the menu according to seasonality and availability of fresh vegetables, meat and fish. Two days before the kitchen was becoming a vibrant and fragrant food festival. And yet she would always stick to her program and absolute respect for seasonality. This is the biggest inspiration and challenge for a creative cuisine: counting seasons by the fruits and vegetables and every year trying to bring a new flavour, a new course, a new way of using them. And at some point the roles changed and I had the leading role in her kitchen, her kingdom. I touched her culinary respectfully. The casseroles, the pans, the dishes (my God!) her platters. There would never be a negative criticism from her on my cooking skills when I was a beginner. I just knew. I knew that when she had eaten the last bite and she had that smile with her last sip of wine. I knew that I did it!
Cooking is art. The materials you choose, how you respect their seasonality, how you food-style your plate, how you offer it. I cannot imagine my kitchen without colour, without the music of my pots. I cannot imagine someone entering a kitchen smelling a delicious sauce and not smiling. We have dismissed from our minds how it is to eat together. During a crazy routine it only takes one hour. One hour to cook something magic, to relax and to share. Cooking is therapy. And if you use appropriate materials, it is an intensive healing balm.
Your blog’s title is “Tzetzeres”. What does the word mean and what is your blog about?
My food blog is named Tzetzeres after the Greek name of an old pot. My grandmother used this word for all her pots. My blog is about Greek cuisine, local products and inspiration for everyone who wants to cook like a Greek.
Tell us about your book “Cook like a Greek”. What was the idea behind it?
My book was published in 2016 and it was the result of my food photography work and the recipes from my blog. The idea was again to introduce the urban Greek cuisine to the world through fine photos and presentation.
You live in Mytilene and many of your recipes come from Lesvos’ cuisine. What is special about it?
Lesbian cuisine has a super power, a very special ingredient, a local product that I am very proud of: the olive oil. There is not a single dish or recipe that olive oil isn’t used. The culture behind Lesbian cuisine is also the “marriage” of ouzo and its famous meze. Meze is the name of ouzo appetizers and they are also a true treasure of our gastronomy heritage. The salted sardines, the ladotyri cheese (a cheese aged in olive oil for at least 3 months – exclusive product of Lesvos) the eggplant salad, the sougania (stuffed onions) and almost anything local and seasonal cooked in small portions big enough to taste with ouzo.
What is your favorite recipe from your book?
My favourite recipe is Skafoudes, stuffed eggplants, and it reminds me a lot of my childhood in a small village just a few kilometres outside Mytilene, where my great grandfather used to plant all kinds of greenery.
Do you have a favourite spice?
My favourite spice is pimento. Its used in all kinds of red sauces and it’s my favourite smell during winter time. I love the smell of it in my kitchen when I cook stifado (a stew with onions), or giouvetsi (a beef stew with orzo). It’s a comfort Greek food and the best smell in the winter kitchen.
Is there an ingredient that you love using?
If I exclude the olive oil, my next best ingredient is flour. I love making dough for pizza, for pita, all kinds of phyllo. It’s really relaxing to knead dough. It gives limitless options to create.
What would you cook for a romantic dinner at home?
I would cook seafood risotto accompanied with fine ouzo and the view of the Aegean Sea.
What do you cook for Christmas?
The traditional dish for Christmas in Lesvos Island is Selinato, pork slowly cooked with celery and avgolemono sause (egg and lemon sauce).
Are you planning to write another a book in the near future or are you working on a new project?
My plans for the future is to expand my food photography portfolio, create a studio specialized in food photography and food styling. I wish 2018 brings me inspiration, tasteful products, health for me and my family and many happy tables!
For more information about the book “Cook like a Greek” click here to visit the publisher’s website.