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Secrets of Fat-Free Greek Cooking by Elaine Gavalas

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Although not a new cookbook, my interest in "Secrets of Fat-Free Greek Cooking" was piqued by its title (this is one in a series of cookbooks on fat-free cooking). Fat-free Greek cooking seemed to me to be an oxymoron or even a Greek myth. Was I right?

A Greek Paradox?

When I think of Greek cuisine, I think of succulent lamb dishes, creamy moussakas and pastitsios, lots of olives, and heavenly Greek yogurt containing an alarming amount of saturated fat. The Greeks also use liberal amounts of olive oil in their cooking—pretty much measuring it by the cupful rather than the tablespoon, making Rachael Ray’s use of her EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil in Rachael-speak) on the Food Network seem miserly. But a secret lurks somewhere, as the Greeks are a healthy bunch, with much lower instances of diet-related illness and obesity than the United States, and a longer life-expectancy, too. We do know that olive oil is considered a heart-healthy fat that can counter the harmful effects of saturated fats in our diets. But a fat is still a fat in terms of calories, and needs to be used sparingly. There must be something else. (See more below ...)

Secrets Revealed

So what are the secrets to fat-free Greek cooking? Well, the book’s title, which is one in a series by the Avery Publishing Group, is slightly misleading. While the recipes are undoubtedly low fat, they are not, in most cases, strictly fat free, as defined by the "less than 0.5g per serving" labeling rule, which appears in an early section of the book. Really, we’re looking at the secrets of low fat Greek cooking, entrenched in the rural Greek diet, which the author, Elaine Gavalas, explains in her book and also in an interview, very well.

The rural Greek diet is quite different to what we see in prime tourist spots. It emphasizes whole grains, beans, fruit, vegetables, fish, some dairy, and actually very little meat, making it naturally low in fat. Here are just a few examples from Ms. Gavalas’s recipes:

  • Eggplant Salad
  • Stuffed Grape Leaves
  • Lemon Chicken Soup
  • Spinach Phyllo Pie
  • Shrimp with Orzo
  • Shellfish Stew
  • Chicken Souvlaki
  • Village Cucumber Salad
  • Orzo Salad

And where she features recipes that usually require heavy inputs from high-fat foods, Ms. Gavalas has quite a few workarounds to lower the fat in those dishes, without compromising their authenticity. See her recipe for Pastitsio, a beef and pasta dish, for example.

The Wisdom of Pericles

Ms. Gavalas is guided by the two golden rules of Pericles: "In all things, moderation is best." and "Know thyself." Balance is the key. If you use fat in one place, reduce it in another. She advises us to budget our fat intake, but she also reminds us that it’s actually unhealthy to take in less than 20 grams of fat a day. Some fat in our diet is necessary for optimal health. Ms. Gavalas lists common Greek ingredients, explaining their use and how to substitute them if necessary. She reminds us that even when there’s no real low fat version of a particular ingredient, it’s ok to use sparing amounts of the full-fat version. Kefaloteri cheese is one example she uses. It has a strong flavor, so a little goes a long way. And if you’re really set on a low fat substitute that will yield authentic results, she offers quite a few acceptable alternatives.

Mythbusting

Throughout the book, we learn snippets of Greek culture, and how foods are tied in with it. We find out which foods are reserved for holidays and which ones are never eaten on particular occasions. I discovered that my assumptions about traditional Greek cuisine were indeed largely misplaced. The lamb dishes, moussakas and pastitsios that I referred to in the beginning are not everyday foods, at least in rural Greece. Meat tends to be eaten on Sundays or on special occasions, and sparingly. According to religious custom, it’s never eaten on Wednesdays and Fridays, nor during Lent. Pastitsio tends to be a holiday dish, and Nancy Gaifyllia, About’s Guide to Greek Food, who lives on Crete, says she makes moussaka perhaps once every six months.

Ms. Gavalas has written a practical and engaging low fat cookbook, with lots of tips and suggestions, and plenty of insight into Greek culture and tradition. The illustrations are fun (and some are informative), and there are enough photos to showcase her many recipes. If you have an interest in Greek food or in low fat cooking in general, this book would make an interesting and useful addition to your cookbook library.

Published by Avery Publishing Group ISBN 0-89529-862-7

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