Greece’s Northern Bounty

Greece's Northern Bounty

The cuisine of Greece seems almost synonymous with images of grilled fish from the Aegean Islands and a crisp glass of Assyrtiko. But gourmands know that to head north on the mainland of this ancient expanse is to discover additional culinary riches that reveal the country’s ethnically diverse past. From the mountain towns of Epirus to the chic, French Riviera-style coastal towns and fertile valleys of Alexander the Great’s Macedonia, northern Greece offers hearty, complex dishes that pair perfectly with the serious, ageable wines produced there.

Immigrant culture has played a significant part in the evolution of northern Greek cuisine, a delicate blend of indigenous, Turkish and Middle Eastern influences. Sweet and spicy elements like fenugreek, chilies and cinnamon reflect close ties to centuries of settlers, conquerors, seafarers and merchants who brought the flavors of their own countries with them. Traditional flavors (lemons, capers, olives) plus a natural bounty of game, meat, fish and dairy create a perfect partner to these far-flung seasonings.

“The region is a true melting pot of flavors and is flooded with an array of different agricultural products,” says Jim Botsacos, cookbook author and chef/partner of Manhattan’s Molyvos and Abboccato restaurants. “Everything from saffron from the western part of Macedonia in Kozani to Florina peppers in the northwest. It’s what sets that area of the north apart…its diversity.” Making the most of these products through seasonally minded dishes is second nature to chefs in the north, Chef Cat Cora.says Iron Chef Cat Cora. “Using what’s freshest throughout the year is a hallmark of northern Greek cuisine,” she says. “It’s also a matter of specificity. Each separate region has its own traditional, delicious dishes that it’s renowned for, and northern Greeks are very proud of the foods that are unique to each of them.”

The wines of northern Greece offer equal diversity and quality, and they pair perfectly with the sweet and spicy character of local cuisine. Macedonia is famed for the elegant whites and powerful reds produced in regions like Naoussa, pioneered by the Boutari family and acclaimed for its indigenous Xinomavro, known for its structure and tobacco, spice and dark berry flavors.

The region is also growing Merlot and Cabernet and successfully blending them with local varieties. In mountainous Epirus, sparkling and still wines made from the indigenous Debina are refreshing and versatile. Drama’s rosés, Chardonnays and Sémillons are lush and layered.

“Unlike the Southern Islands that consist of a drier soil and more intense sun, Macedonia’s climate is more conducive to the growing of agriculture products such as fruits, vegetables and grains,” says Botsacos. “It also lends complexity and personality to the regional wines. And essential foods grown together, go together.”

Whole Fish Roasted with Fennel, Olives & Chilies

Aromatic fennel and thyme meet the kick of chili and pepper in this spirited seafood dish from Cat Cora (pictured).

4 whole snappers, about 1½ pound each, cleaned and gutted
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper
1 cup Cat Cora’s Kitchen by GAEA extra virgin olive oil*
1 medium fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 cups fish or vegetable stock
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
4 teaspoons Calabrian chilies, or 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, chopped
½ cup black olives, pitted and halved
½ cup flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 450ºF.

Rinse the fish in cool water and pat dry with paper towels. Rub each fish with ¾ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Heat ½ cup of the olive oil in a 12-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 of the fish to the pan and sear on each side until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes.

Roast, covered, until the fish is cooked through, about 20–25 minutes. Warm 4 plates during the last few minutes of cooking. Remove the pan from the oven, carefully set the fish aside and divide the fennel into four servings. Spoon a serving onto each of the warmed plates and place a whole fish on top of the fennel. Transfer the liquid from the roasting pan to a saucepan. Add the thyme, chilies and olives and bring to a simmer. Pour over the fish and garnish with the parsley. Serves 4.


The cherry, red berry and cigar box flavors of the 2007 Alpha Estate Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro match the spice and gamy richness of the rabbit dish.

Kouneli Stifado (Rabbit Stew with Red Wine & Pearl Onions)

3 rabbit loins, rib bones and fat removed
4 rabbit legs and thighs
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup olive oil
3 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
1 whole allspice
2 medium red onions, peeled, trimmed and thinly sliced crosswise
2 sliced garlic cloves
2 cups dry red wine, such as Alpha Estate Xinomavro
1 cup Mavrodaphne wine
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped
2½ cups rabbit stock (recipe available online)
Caramelized pearl onions (recipe available online)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter at room temperature
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Season the rabbit with salt and pepper to taste. Heat the olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the rabbit loins and sear, turning frequently, for 8 to 10 minutes or until nicely browned on all sides. Sear the legs and thighs in the same fashion, in batches if necessary, to keep from crowding the pan. Transfer the rabbit to a plate and discard half of the oil remaining in the pan.

Combine the cloves, bay leaf, cinnamon stick and allspice in a 6-inch-square piece of cheesecloth. Gather up the ends and, using kitchen twine, tie the bag closed. Set the sachet aside.

Return the pan to low heat. When hot, add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until lightly colored and wilted. The onions will take on the color of the browned bits in the pan. Add the garlic, stir to combine, and cook for 1 minute. Add the wines, raise the heat, and bring to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape all of the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the liquid has almost fully reduced. Add tomatoes, raise the heat to medium-high, and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.

Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the reserved sachet and return the rabbit to the pan along with any juices that have accumulated on the plate. Taste and, if necessary, add salt and pepper (season carefully, because the salt from the stock will concentrate as the liquid reduces). Transfer the covered pan to the preheated oven and braise for 35 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and add the caramelized pearl onions. Cover and return to the oven, allowing ingredients to braise for another 25 minutes, or until the rabbit is easily pierced with a sharp knife.

Remove from the oven. Using tongs, carefully remove the rabbit from the pan and place it on a warm serving platter.
Place the pan on the stovetop over medium heat and bring to a boil. Whisk in butter and fold in parsley, seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Spoon sauce over the rabbit, garnish with parsley and serve. Serves 4.


The cherry, red berry and cigar box flavors of the 2007 Alpha Estate Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro match the spice and gamy richness of the rabbit dish.

Arnisia Pita Me Baharika (Spicy Lamb Pie)

The sweet and savory flavors of northern Greece meet in Jim Botsacos’ warming lamb dish, cut into little pies.
1 cup plus 6 tablespoons extra virgin
olive oil, divided
1½ pounds lean ground lamb
1½ cups onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon dried Greek oregano
¼ cup dry red wine, such as Amethystos
1 cup chopped canned Italian plum tomatoes with juice
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper or cayenne
½ cup lamb or chicken stock
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
6 sheets frozen #10 phyllo dough, thawed as directed on package
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

To prepare the lamb filling:

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Working in batches, season the lamb with a pinch of salt and add to the pan without crowding. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until well browned. Do not stir until the meat begins to brown. Remove from the heat and scrape into a colander placed in a bowl.

To prepare the pies:

Preheat the oven to 350ºF.

Line at least 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and place a wire rack on each one. Set aside. Hold the phyllo under a damp towel so that it does not dry out.

Lay one sheet of phyllo out on a clean surface, and using a pastry brush, lightly coat the phyllo with some of the remaining olive oil.

With a small, sharp knife, cut the oiled phyllo lengthwise into 5 equal strips. Working with one strip at a time, place about 2 tablespoons of the lamb mixture in the upper corner of the dough. Fold the top end of the dough over the lamb to meet the right edge of the dough, forming a triangle. Continue folding the triangle shape until the entire strip has been folded, placing the finished pies on the prepared baking sheet.
When all the pies have been made, place the baking sheets in the preheated oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and serve hot. Serves 5.

Wine Recommendation:

Botsacos prepares this recipe with the 2008 Amethystos Red, which is also a delicious pairing for the dish. Made of Cabernet, Merlot and the indigenous Limnio, its blackberry and red fruit flavors and dry finish complement the spice and sweetness of the pie.

Northern Greek Wine Hit List:

Check out these producers for diverse and delicious sips.

Alpha Estate (Amyndeon): Cabernet, Chardonnay
Boutari (Naoussa): Xinomavro
Nico Lazaridi (Drama): Limnio, Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc
Domaine Gerovassiliou (Epanomi): Malagousia, Syrah
Domaine Porto Carras (Halkidiki): Syrah, Malagousia, red blends
Katogi & Strofilia (Metsovo): red blends, rosé, sparkling, Traminer
Kir-Yianni (Naoussa): Xinomavro
Pavlidis (Drama): Agiorgitiko, Cabernet, Limnio, Chardonnay
Tsantali (Mount Athos): Assyrtiko, Athiri, Cabernet, Limnio

The cheeses:

A delicious array of goat’s and cow’s milk cheeses of varying textures and flavors from
northern Greece adds dimension to local dishes. They’re also superb eaten plain with
bread and olives. Many of these cheeses are available online for American consumers.
While some are made throughout Greece, specialties like Metsovone originate in the north.

Batzos. Sweet-sour, semi hard cheese made from sheep’s or goat’s milk.
Feta. Salty, crumbly, slightly tangy cheese made from goat’s or sheep’s milk.
Kasseri. Semihard cheese. that’s slightly tangy, made from sheep’s milk.
Kefalograviera. Tangy, pale yellow, hard cheese made from cow’s or sheep’s milk. Manouri. Mild, soft sheep’s milk cheese.
Metsovone. Smoked hard cheese. Petroto. Hard cow’s milk cheese pressed between two stones.
Telemes. Like feta, but made from only cow’s milk.

For more Greek wine picks from Executive Editor Susan Kostrzewa, click here.

Published on September 19, 2011
Topics: Food RecipesPairingsWine Recommendations