Maria Loi loves her homeland. As the official Ambassador of Greek Gastronomy, as designated by worldwide culinary organization the Chef’s Club of Greece, she makes frequent TV appearances and has authored more than 36 cookbooks and 150 articles in magazines — and her work on ancient Greek dining was the sole official volume of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Since migrating to NYC, she’s opened Loi Restaurant (203 West 70th Street; 212-875-8600) and has cooked for President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and 250 White House guests. The sassy chef, who’s sometimes called the “Martha Stewart of Greece,” recently released her latest treatise, The Greek Diet: Look and Feel Like a Greek God or Goddess and Lose up to Ten Pounds in Two Weeks with health journalist Sarah Toland.
The book and the diet were inspired by Loi’s life. A former lobbyist for companies like Texaco, Nokia, and ITT Sheraton, Loi was consumed with the fast-paced lifestyle of working for multinational corporations; she worked excruciatingly long hours and traveled all over the place. As a result of being separated from her Greek traditions of family, food, balance, and nature, she was exhausted, and she gained 40 pounds. “It’s not a good thing to feel bad in your body,” says Loi. “It was the worst thing for me.”
Loi tried all sorts of diets in an attempt to get back to health, but she felt dissatisfied with meals and, at times, disconnected from her friends. Most regimens fixated on set meals on set times and days, with a large emphasis on eliminating food items like booze and coffee.
To Loi, it’s more important to focus on creating a happy and healthy lifestyle. “The other diets you just suffer,” says Loi. “It’s like a yo-yo; you go back and forth, back and forth.”
She returned to her bucolic hometown in Nafpaktos, and started reconnecting and cooking with friends and family. Loi threw herself into studying food, nutrition, and the origins of Greek cuisine. In 2002, she opened her first restaurant, Kouzina Maria Loi, and used it as a place to experiment with ancient ingredients and styles of cooking. Through the process, she lost her excess weight and regained her depleted energy. The following year, she was asked to write the official cookbook for the 2004 Summer Games, and she’s been spreading the gospel ever since.”I had to change my life,” says Loi. “I went back to diaita, the Greek word for diet — it means the way of creating the lifestyle. I said, ‘I need to help my friends. I need to show them how I lost my kilos, or pounds.’ ”
Similar to the Mediterranean diet, Loi’s tome trains its gaze on using Greek ingredients to burn fat and prevent disease. It focuses on combining science with the pleasures of enjoying food. There’s no need to eliminate carbs, caffeine, or alcohol (or wine, at least). It does, nonetheless, reject anything processed: packaged breads and snacks, generic oils, frozen foods, sodas, juices, etc. The diet incorporates what Loi refers to as the 12 pillar foods (which are loosely based on the 12 great gods in classical mythology): olive oil, yogurt, vegetables, beans, seafood, whole grains, wine, herbs and spices, fruit, coffee and tea, nuts and seeds, and chicken and eggs. “It’s easy to find this food,” says Loi. “You can go to Whole Foods. Take a salad, take some beans, take some yogurt, take a glass of wine, with your friends. You’ll enjoy it. You don’t even have to cook.”
The regimen isn’t just about science and nutrition; for Loi, it’s just as important to enjoy the process of eating and cooking. The recipes are full of flavorful ingredients. According to the book, “Research has shown that the key to long-term weight loss is feeling happy, healthy, and good about yourself and what you eat — not hungry, miserable, and deprived.”
Loi is unapologetically full of nationalistic pride for her birthplace. She’s elated with Americans’ newfound interest in time-honored Greek foods, like octopus and full-fat strained yogurt. She wants to see as many people to turn to the Greek way of eating (and ingredients) as possible. She touts the benefits and superlative nature of products from the Hellenic, specifically the wine, olive oil, and sea salt. “Even my aspirin has to be Greek,” she says with a laugh. “I steal from my sister.”
Grilled Octopus (Htapodaki Stin Schara)
“The all-time bestseller at my restaurants is the grilled octopus. Though it doesn’t get beaten against a rock before cooking like we do in Greece, in this recipe, by cooking it low and slow we ensure it is tender and juicy on the inside; by grilling it, we give it the perfect char and slight crispness on the outside. Don’t be afraid, it’s delicious!”
Serves four to six
2 pounds octopus tentacles (see Cook’s note), thoroughly cleaned
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup red wine
10 whole black peppercorns
4 bay leaves
Olive oil, for rubbing on the octopus tentacles
Ladolemono Sauce (see below)
Chopped fresh chives, for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 170°F.
2. In a heavy Dutch oven or a brasier (a pot that has a thick bottom, making it ideal for slow cooking and braising), arrange the octopus tentacles. Pour in the vinegar and wine. Stir in the peppercorns and bay leaves.
3. Cover the Dutch oven either with a lid or with foil. Bake for about 6 hours, or until the octopus is tender. Remove from the oven and set aside, covered, for about 30 minutes. Uncover and let the octopus rest for another 15 to 20 minutes.
4. Preheat a large grill pan over medium-high heat. Rub each tentacle with a little olive oil. Working in batches if necessary, grill the tentacles, turning once, until they have grill marks on both sides. Remove them from the grill.
5. Serve the tentacles dressed with the Ladolemono Sauce and sprinkled with chives.
Cook’s note: When shopping for the ingredients to make this dish, keep in mind that it
all starts with the octopus. The larger the octopus and the bigger the tentacles, the
juicier the finished dish will be.
“Ladolemono is the most ubiquitous sauce in the Greek culinary arsenal. Used for everything from salad dressing to a finishing sauce, from integral to optional, this simple sauce pairs perfectly with pretty much everything!”
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
1/3/ cup fresh lemon juice (2 to 3 lemons)
1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. In a tightly resealable container, combine the lemon juice, mustard powder, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and shake vigorously until fully combined.
2. Add the olive oil, cover the container, and shake vigorously until the sauce has emulsified.