The Baklava Trail At Greek Festival

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You’ve got to respect a meal that’s been in the works for not minutes or even hours but for months. So it is enjoying lunch or dinner at the Original Greek Festival in Houston, which opened to an ever-hungry public last night and continues through Sunday afternoon.  As I figured out pretty quickly, the honey-soaked and buttery phyllo dessert called baklava that’s baked and frozen, baked and frozen for months by volunteers for Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church is only the tip of the Opa! iceberg.

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A gyro (sometimes called a “gyro sandwich”) may well be the most “Greek” dish on the face of the earth – which is kind of funny considering it was invented in America using then-new American food technology. Today, if you travel to Greece – as I do every chance I get – you can hardly pass a street corner or read a casual menu that doesn’t feature the gyro. I crave the damn things, with that cooling tzatziki yogurt-cucumber sauce, and the version dished up at the Greek Festival is certainly one of the best I’ve had in Greece or here, in its native land.

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Still, if you want something substantial at the heart of your Greek Festival experience, and especially if you plan on drinking lots of excellent and fun Greek wine, you need to order a Dinner Plate. Other than the styrofoam, everything about this collection of pastitzio, tiropita, spanokopita, meatballs (keftedes, if you prefer) and salad speaks of being handmade by tireless church ladies. The flavors might say a mouthful about centuries of interaction among Greeks, Turks, Venetians and North Africans. Or you might just shut up and eat.

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Greeks love to cook meat (or fish, on islands or along the coasts) on skewers. The general notion is known as souvlakia or simply souvlaki. In Greece, the preferred meat tends to be lamb or, more and more each time I visit, pork. In Texas, it of course tends to be beef. These Texas-sized skewers are made of beef tenderloin (“more or less filet mignon,” I heard somebody call it) that’s been marinated in red wine, herbs and spices, then grilled over coals in a production line. This being Texas, souvlakia is one of the few things at the Greek Festival that’s cooked by men.

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Speaking of wine, the theme song of the industry in Greece might well be “You’ve come a long way, baby!” While ancient Greece probably didn’t invent wine (thanks, archaeologists, for bursting MY bubble), it was certainly the first place in history to develop a wine culture. After generations of faring poorly and apparently caring about little except alcohol, Greeks are now making some of the more exciting vintages on the planet. Don’t think about that, though: just pull a bottle of crisp white moschofilero from the ice, and enjoy!

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Greeks are born with some serious sweet tooth, which means that in Texas (where the words “too sweet” share dusty shelf space with “too rich” and “too thin”) Greeks have made themselves at home. In addition to the baklava at the center of so many Greek dessert fantasies, there are cookies like these finikia. You can get boxes of any one pastry from the nice Greek ladies, or mixed boxes, or just indulge in the beignet-like fried doughnuts called loukoumades, pictured below. Unlike in New Orleans, these are dipped in warm honey before being coated with powered sugar. And the sugar is sifted with ground cinnamon. In the spirit of Greeks living anywhere and talking or thinking about anything, the idea seems to be: Why on earth have less when you can possibly have more?

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