On a recent Sunday, Despina Economou welcomed six students to her Queens home with a lunch of salad, roast chicken, lemon potatoes, and cups of mountain tea. She also set out a plate of olives and cubes of feta, noting that these are always on the table when a Greek meal is served.
Economou hails from Euboea, the second-largest of the Greek islands, after Crete. A registered nurse, she first came to the U.S. in the 1970s, when there was a shortage of home-grown nurses; she stayed for five years before moving back to Greece with her husband. Later, she returned to the U.S. and has lived in Queens ever since, working at area hospitals, raising her daughters, and cooking for her family. Her finesse with food seems to be genetic: one of her children is the owner of Boubouki (120 Essex Street; 718-344-4202), a Greek bakery in the Essex Street Market.
After she retired, a friend of one of her daughters recommended she sign up with League of Kitchens, an organization that taps into New York’s immigrant communities — and their culinary riches — by facilitating classes led by home cooks from places like Argentina, India, Trinidad, and Lebanon. The lessons are immersive: cooks invite students into their homes for afternoon workshops, in which they share lunch and then prepare multi-course dinners together. Along the way, participants master recipes and techniques they may not otherwise have encountered, as well as learn about markets where they can pick up authentic, quality ingredients.
Economou leads her classes twice a month; she said that most of her students are young people who are eager to expand their cultural horizons, which she finds inspiring. Equally inspiring was the afternoon’s menu on our visit, which yielded a feast: students made Greek salad, spanakopita (spinach pie), keftedes (Greek meatballs) with tzatziki, garides me to rizi (shrimp with tomato and rice), and kourampiedes (almond cookies.)
Each dish was eminently doable for the casual home chef, made with fresh, simple ingredients that added up to flavorful, even decadent, results. The most labor-intensive preparation was for the spanakopita, which involved brushing thin, delicate sheets of phyllo dough with olive oil and then draping them in a pan, but even this was forgiving; Economou noted that wrinkles in the dough were totally acceptable. She also shared methods that made each dish shine, like using a mixture of both cooked and raw spinach in the spanakopita, dusting the keftedes with flour before frying for extra crispness, and grating the flesh of fresh tomato for the garides me to rizi.
She also shared her favorite spots for fresh ingredients: Titan Foods (2556 31st Street, Queens; 718-626-7771) and Mediterranean Foods (23-18 31st Street, Queens; 718-721-0221) in Astoria. Economou avoids packaged foods at all costs, and even the breadcrumbs for the keftedes were made by chopping Greek toasts in the food processor, and then soaking them in milk. Her favorite local Greek restaurant, she said, is the beloved Taverna Kyclades (33-07 Ditmars Blvd, Queens; 718) 545-8666), where she recommended trying the grilled calamari.
The results of the afternoon were quickly devoured, and the kourampiedes made for a particularly addictive dessert. Made with two sticks of butter and dusted with powdered sugar, the traditional Christmas cookies melt in the mouth, and make for an impressive holiday gift.
KOURAMPIEDES (ALMOND COOKIES)
Recipe courtesy Despina Economou and the League of Kitchens
Traditionally a Christmas cookie, kourampiedes can be found in bakeries year round. Despina learned her recipe 20 years ago from her husband’s niece. Some versions add orange zest, but she prefers the simple flavors of butter, sugar, almonds, and vanilla. This recipe can easily be doubled. Measure the flour by spooning it into the cup and leveling.
3/4 cup slivered almonds, coarsely chopped
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 1/2 cups (10 3/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
About 1/2 cup powdered sugar, for coating
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Spread the almonds in an even layer on a small baking sheet and toast until lightly brown, about 3 minutes. Reserve. Lower the oven to 350°F.
While the nuts are toasting, cream the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 6 minutes. Turn off the mixer and scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Whisk the flour and baking powder in a small bowl and then add to the creamed butter all at once. Turn the mixer back on to low speed and mix until just incorporated, about 1 minute. Add the vanilla and toasted nuts and mix about 1 more minute.
Take about 1 1/2 ounces of the dough and roll between your hands into a ball, and then into a fat log about 3 inches long and 1/2-inch thick. Put on an ungreased baking sheet and gently bend each side a little to create a shallow half moon shape. Repeat with the remaining dough. Bake until lightly golden brown, for 20 to 22 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet. When cool, gently toss each cookie in the powdered sugar until evenly coated.
Makes 16 to 20 cookies
Prep: 30 minutes, plus cooling time
Cook: 25 minutes