Greek cooking binds families

For the past 55 years, our region has benefited each September from the willingness of the folks in Dayton’s Greek Orthodox community to open the doors and the grounds of their beautiful Byzantine-style church and share their Eastern Orthodox religious traditions as well as their culture at the annual Greek Festival.

This year’s event is slated for Sept. 6-8.

In addition to the festive folk music and dancing, highlights are the fascinating church tours and the variety of Greek products for sale. But the biggest draw — let’s be honest! — is always the great food: pastitsio (the Greek version of lasagna), moussaka (eggplant casserole), dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), slow-roasted lamb and chicken dinners.

“It makes a messy, unforgettably good wrapped sandwich,” says committee member Dee Fricioni, referring to the gyro sandwiches made from a beef/lamb combination, and served on grilled pita bread with fresh sliced tomatoes, sliced onions and tzaziki sauce — a mix of cucumbers, Greek yogurt, a little dill, olive oil and lemon juice.

Fricioni says other Festival favorites are the spinach and cheese pies in phyllo dough, meatless pastitsio and Greek salads topped with feta cheese and Kalamata olives. At the top of the dessert list are honey puffs and baklava.

“Baklava is our most popular dessert, and although it is very time-consuming to make, the ingredients are few,” explains Fricioni. “We use two pounds of phyllo dough for each tray — layering each sheet brushed with melted butter, and sprinkle in a filling of ground walnuts with spices such as cinnamon, and topped with warm home-made syrup.”

The yummy dessert is always cut into diamond-shapes for serving.

In the kitchen

For months before the festival, dozens of parishioners are busy in the church kitchen contributing their time, energy and cooking/baking skills to prepare the goodies that will be sampled and sold over the special weekend.

Among those you’ll find in the kitchen are sisters Charrie Tolliver and Kathy McAlpine. Charrie, a resident of Springboro, has three grown children. Kathy lives in Centerville with her husband, Jay, and has four grown sons and seven grandchildren.The women’s mother and two grandmothers all emigrated to this country from Greece.

We invited the women to share some of their thoughts about cooking and their Greek heritage.

Q. How did you become interested in cooking?

Kathy: Watching my mother and my two grandmothers. My sister and I would be given the task of stirring the soup. And also my grandfather owned a restaurant in Middletown called The Parrot.

Q. Who taught you?

Charrie: We would watch our mother and grandmothers and as we got older we were always asking for the specific ingredients — they were good at putting in handfuls of this or a pinch of that. We finally managed to write everything down. We could always call our Aunt Nikki for questions about pastries.

Q. What early memories do you have of meals or cooking?

Kathy: Every Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter — driving from Indianpolis, three little girls in the back seat of our old Ford, headed to our grandparents’ house. Not only would they have the traditional turkey, but there was always pastitsio, moussaka and avgolemono (egg-lemon soup with chicken broth, rice, eggs and lemon juice.)

Charrie: Certain dishes my mom was preparing brought me to the table fast. When I got older, I would often call her for recipes and techniques.

Q. What ingredients are most important in Greek cooking?

Kathy and Charrie: Olive oil, lemon juice and oregano. That combination enhances everything they touch, from chicken to soup to potatoes. It is a wonderful marinade.

Q. What tips do you have for new cooks?

Kathy: Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Some times that mistake turns out to be better than the original recipe!

Charrie: If you’re trying something more difficult, such as working with phyllo dough, do it with someone who is more experienced and can show you the techniques.

Q. What are some of your favorite dishes?

Kathy and Charrie: Our father’s lamb ka-bobs, Greek salad, rice pudding, spinach and cheese pies, chicken-and-rice. A staple and always on the table is feta cheese and Kalamata olives.

Q. How does cooking tie you to your Greek heritage and how important is that heritage to you?

Kathy: It’s just who we are. We want to preserve our traditions and carry them onto our children. I have two small granddaughters, ages 4 and 3, and already they are helping me cook on the days I babysit. They love to stir.

Charrie: Life revolves around food and our Greek culture. Our heritage is really important to us. It binds us together no matter where we may travel. My daughter got married this past June, in Greece, and in the same church where her husband was baptized.

Oddly enough, when we meet a stranger who turns out to be Greek, we have an instant and mutual bond.

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