Diane Kochilas Shares the Secrets to Longevity in Ikaria
Author and Molyvos collaborating chef Diane Kochilas
All photos courtesy Wagstaff Worldwide
Molyvos (871 Seventh Avenue; 212-582-7500) collaborating chef Diane Kochilas grew up in Jackson Heights, where she lived a typical immigrant childhood. She was surrounded by a community of other expats from Greece. Maps of the family homeland, Ikaria, adorned the living-room wall. Her hardworking parents pushed her to do well in school, to go to college, to marry a nice Greek boy. She did all of the above. "It was sort of My Big Fat Greek Wedding without the plastic wrap on the furniture," she says.
At the age of twelve, however, Kochilas finally got the chance to visit the island on which her father was raised. She immediately fell in love, and she explores that passion in her latest volume, Ikaria: Lessons on Food, Life, and Longevity From the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die.
When she first traveled there in 1972, Kochilas found that Ikaria was a world apart from her Queens home. The roads were a mess. Electricity had just been installed. She had to contend with strange creatures like scorpions. At night, she'd run through the town with other kids, ripping down Coca-Cola signs and other symbols of capitalism seen as representative of the oppression experienced by most Greeks during the military dictatorship, which was in power at the time. (Twelve-year-old Kochilas had no idea what was going on; to her, it was just fun.) Where most city kids would be put off by the vastly different way of life, Kochilas thought it was an adventure. "It was so exotic," she says. "It was a complete weird place for a little American kid."
Since then, Kochilas has returned to the island every summer. She ran a restaurant there for several years, and now offers Ikarian cooking courses during the season. The author and chef now lives in Athens, and visits New York frequently in her role as Molyvos's collaborating chef. But it took years of back-and-forth to get there.
After spending a couple of post-college years working in the corporate structure of New York, Kochilas decided that wasn't the life she wanted. At 22, she packed her bags and moved to Greece, soaking up the culture and learning to cook. After a short while, she moved back to the U.S. and took a job as an assistant editor at MD News. She edited the food column as part of her role; columnist John Mariani took her under his wing. Kochilas would go to press junkets with him, sampling delicacies like caviar for the first time. They struck up a friendship. When Kochilas mentioned that there hadn't been an English-language Greek cookbook published in a decade, Mariani helped her get her first book deal.
With a meager advance, Kochilas and her husband, Vassilis Stenos, moved to Greece for the research. The couple had little money, so one of Stenos's friends helped them get a job conducting market research for a big pharmaceutical company. The company needed people to travel around the country examining a chemical it wanted to release. They weren't much interested in the work, but for Kochilas and Stenos, it was the perfect opportunity to explore the food and culture of rural communities throughout the backcountry. "We'd go to the local phone company in town, opening the phone book, filling in people's names, and filling out the forms," says Kochilas. "But...I could start up conversations with the guy at the pesticide store and ask the guy, 'By the way, does your wife cook? What does she cook? What's the specialty in the area?' Life is funny sometimes; doors open when you least expect them."
Kochilas now has over a dozen books under her belt, but her latest work is closest to her heart. She knows Ikaria and its traditions like the back of her hand. So when she stumbled upon a passage on her beloved island in Dan Buettner's book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest (a volume documenting pockets of longevity), she felt it was time to explore the way of life from an insider's perspective.
Through years of experience and research, Kochilas believes she has attained a deep understanding of the island's key to longevity. The nonagenarians living there grew up eating very little, sustaining themselves mostly on wild greens and produce from their gardens. (She's introduced several traditional plant-based dishes to the menu at Molyvos.) But food isn't the only component. There's little stress on the average Ikarian — most locals disregard the clock; there's no such thing as being late. Instead, people spend time tending their gardens late into life. They also have a deeply rooted sense of community. You won't see old people sitting alone on benches, as you do in Central Park. Rather, they get together for hours on end in coffee shops. "There's a sense of contentment," says Kochilas. "It's not about the rat race."
It has changed significantly over the years: The beaches now get packed, Western food is all over the place, and it's not uncommon to see city slickers traversing the rocky streets in six-inch heels. Even so, Kochilas feels most at home there, and she watches visitors fall to the same deeply relaxing and liberating force when they come for her cooking courses. It's a place where, she says, "I've felt the most free as a human being."
In Ikaria, Kochilas explores the island's traditions and food as well as her own personal experiences, to shed light on the secrets to living a long and happy life. Because to her, "Ikaria is a state of mind; it's not just an island."
Longevity Greens And Pumpkin Pie Hortopita tis Makrozoias There is no one recipe for this pie. Instead, there are seasonal variations depending on what one picks in the wild or, for a less peripatetic U.S. cook, on what one can find either at the greengrocer, in Asian markets, or via professional foragers and/or specialty produce websites.
The greens in this recipe represent what is available from the fall to early spring on the island. There is only one rule when it comes to selecting which edible wild or cultivated greens to use in pies: They have to be sweet.
The amount of olive oil I use in my greens pie, having learned the recipe by watching many Ikarian women make it, is undoubtedly more than most American or non-Greek cooks are used to. But the copious amount of olive oil is really what makes this dish. Inside the filling, the olive oil lends both flavor and just the right silky texture that makes so many Greek vegetable dishes delicious and easily palatable. I douse the phyllo with olive oil, approximately two tablespoons (when I make this I really just eyeball it, as we say in restaurant-kitchen lingo) per layer. The result is that the pie is almost oven-fried. The layers of phyllo are crisp but the filling is soft and comforting.
You could very well use commercial phyllo for this, and I explain how to substitute at the beginning of the chapter, but it really does pale in comparison to a greens or other savory pie made with homemade pastry. You'll be surprised at how easy the pastry recipe actually is to work with.
Makes six to eight servings.
2 pounds pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and coarsely grated Coarse sea salt 1 ¼ cups Greek extra virgin olive oil 1 leek, tough greens trimmed and discarded, whites and pale green parts rinsed well and chopped 2 large red onions, finely chopped (about 2 cups) 1 pound (500 g) spinach, coarsely chopped, washed, and well drained 1 pound (500 g) Swiss chard, preferably green-stemmed, coarsely chopped, washed, and well drained 1 bunch sweet sorrel, washed and coarsely chopped 1 small bunch chervil or bur chervil, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups) 1 ½ cups snipped fresh dill 3 small bunches wild fennel, leaves only, chopped (about 2 1/2 cups)* 1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped 1 small bunch fresh oregano, chopped 1 small bunch mint, leaves only, chopped Freshly ground black pepper Basic Homemade Phyllo Dough (page 103), at room temperature Flour or cornstarch, for rolling out the phyllo dough
Place the coarsely grated pumpkin (or squash) in a colander. Salt lightly and toss. Place a plate on the pumpkin and weights, such as cans, on the plate, and leave to drain for about 1 to 3 hours.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°F (160°C). Lightly oil a 15-inch (39.5 cm) round baking or paella pan or a shallow, rectangular roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet (16 × 12 inches [40 × 30 cm]).
Squeeze the pumpkin with your hands to get rid of as much liquid as possible.
In a large skillet or wide pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the pumpkin and cook until it wilts and most or all of its liquid has evaporated, anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the water content of the pumpkin. Transfer to a large bowl.
Wipe the same pan clean (or use a separate pan) and heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the leek and onions and cook until wilted. Transfer to the bowl with the pumpkin.
In the same pan, heat another tablespoon or two of olive oil and wilt the spinach and chard. Add to the bowl.
Add the sorrel and all the other chopped fresh herbs to the bowl. Season to taste with a generous amount of salt and a little pepper.
Set aside 1/2 cup of the olive oil for brushing the layers of phyllo and pour the remaining oil into the filling. Stir to blend.
Divide the phyllo dough into 4 equal-size balls. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the first dough ball, using the shape of your pan as the guide. For round pans, roll out to a round about 18 inches in diameter; for rectangular pans, roll out to a rectangle about 3 inches larger than the perimeter of the pan. Place the dough inside, leaving about 2 inches (5 cm) hanging over the edge. Brush with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Brush that, too, with olive oil.
Spread the filling evenly inside the pan, over the second layer of phyllo.
Repeat the rolling process for the third sheet, placing it over the filling and pressing down gently. Brush generously with olive oil.
Finally, roll out the last piece of dough to a slightly smaller piece and place it over the surface of the pie. Join and fold in the bottom and top overhanging dough, rolling it decoratively around the perimeter of the pan to form a pretty rim. Brush the top of the pie generously with olive oil.
Score the top of the pie into serving pieces, taking care not to draw the knife all the way through to the bottom of the pan.
Bake until the pastry is golden and crisp and the pie pulls away from the edges of the pan, 40 to 50 minutes. Remove, cool in the pan, and serve.
Variations on a greens pie depend on the seasonal availability of greens and the personal taste of the cook. Pumpkin and greens such as the ones in this recipe, with the exception of wild fennel, which is wild only in the spring but cultivated in the fall, too, not on Ikaria per se but in Greece at large, are typical of cold-weather pies. Other greens you could include (and it's a more-the-merrier, or rather, "more-the-healthier" approach that every home cook on Ikaria takes) are:
Sweet dandelion All sorts of sorrels and docks (they're related) Mediterranean hartwort Fresh marjoram Grated carrot Mallow leaves Stinging nettles (they need to be cut and handled with gloves and blanched before use in the filling) A little bit of lavender A few fresh sage leaves, finely chopped Scallions and all manner of onions may be used, too
In the spring, other great greens grow wild on Ikaria, including poppy leaves, wild fennel, wild carrot, and lemon balm, all highly prized and aromatic additions to hortopita.
In summer, when the land dries up, Ikarians make greens pies with amaranth, parsley, dill, mint, and grated zucchini.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.
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