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May 22, 2012

RIVIERA IN GREECE: Great Local Restaurants & Cooking Tips from Chef Cat Cora

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Continuing on her historic Maiden Voyage, Riviera now explores the storied coasts of Greece. Today Riviera arrived in Santorini, one of several island gems on this aptly entitled Pearls of the Aegean itinerary. Guests were treated to stunning cliffside views of whitewashed villages, iconic blue domes, charming churches and colorful bell towers.

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As Blogger-at-Large, I’ve had the privilege of visiting Santorini on three previous occasions, and I never tire of meandering the cobblestone streets lined with shops, cafés and restaurants. Even a completely inept photographer can’t help but capture beautiful shots here. The villages of Fira and Oia seem to burst with charm, color and contrast.

Greece17Anyone who loves Greece knows that the only thing that can compete with the stunning scenery and historic icons is the delicious cuisine. One of my favorite pastimes in Santorini is to sip a local wine and enjoy lunch at one of the delightful cafés perched on the cliffs of Fira, where you can admire the view of Riviera in the bay set against the backdrop of the caldera. Some friends and I dined at a restaurant called Archipelagos where the food was as fantastic as the view. We started with a beautiful Greek salad with Kalamata olives, feta cheese, red onion, cucumber, and fresh tomatoes bursting with flavor.  Greece08

Next were the mezes, which are essentially the Greek counterpart of Spanish tapas. (Or tapas are the Spanish counterpart of Greek mezes, depending on your perspective I suppose.) I have to say that
Europe as a whole has a far greater appreciation for the appetizer than we Americans do. Greece, Turkey, Greece15Spain and other Mediterranean countries often make meals of an assortment of delicious small plates. I’m especially fond of this tradition because it gives me a chance to try everything put in front of me.

There was pita bread with tzatziki made of cucumber, yogurt, garlic and mint, plus stuffed grape leaves, lamb meatballs and one of my favorites – saganaki. While saganaki sounds very exotic, it is actually just fried cheese. But really, what could be better than fried cheese? Besides, this ain’t your average mozzarella stick. Saganaki is made with Kefalotyri, or one of a few other cheeses unique to Greece, all of which have a rich, delicious flavor. The dish is named for the small frying pan in which it is prepared.

Tomorrow Riviera continues her exploration of the Greek Isles with a call in Aghios Nikolaos, Crete – another port where I’ve enjoyed a lovely lunch at a local café with a view of the sea. If you get off the ship and walk along the beach, you’ll find several little restaurants on the opposite side of the bay, one of which is Ofou To Lo. Talk about fresh fish! We chose our own fish from several presented to us right off the boat. After disappearing into the kitchen, Greece12the owner returned with the prepared fish, which strongly resembled the fish in its original form. It was deliciously seasoned and seared, but we soon realized that we’d have to do all of the deboning ourselves.

Luckily, we were up to the task. The fish was so good we picked it clean, and one of my friends even threatened to devour the bones!

We also enjoyed some scrumptious moussaka, a dish not to be missed in Greece. It is popular in Turkey as well, but the Greek version somewhat resembles a lasagna and is made with layers of eggplant, meat and béchamel sauce. Opa!!

Needless to say, guests onboard Riviera are in for a cultural and culinary treat as they continue exploring Greece on the Maiden Voyage. And they even have an expert on Greek cuisine onboard with them. Followers of the blog know that Chef Kelly of the Bon Appétit Culinary Center spends a great deal of time exploring European markets and tasting local cuisine, and she has enjoyed several forays to the markets and restaurants of Greece, including Corfu, Zakynthos and Athens. She teaches guests onboard how to make these fabulous Greek recipes (and many others) in the culinary center. I especially enjoyed her class on Mediterranean fare in which we made grilled lamb and feta cheeseburgers with a Greek salad, plus gazpacho for a touch of Spain. My final dish didn’t turn out nearly as pretty as Chef Kelly’s did, but it sure tasted delicious!

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It is perfectly apropos that Riviera is exploring Greece on her Maiden Voyage, because Chef Kelly and I aren’t the only fans of Greek food that have been onboard. Riviera’s godmother, Chef Cat Cora, is also an aficionado of Greek cuisine, as her grandmother came to the U.S. from the Greek island of Skopelos. Many of Chef Cora’s delicious recipes put a Greek spin on traditional favorites, such as her Greek-style nachos in her latest cookbook, Cat Cora’s Classics with a Twist.

Greece A1Chef Cora recently shared some of her culinary history and secrets with guests onboard Riviera during a “Chat with Cat” that was hosted by Cruise Director Leslie Jon. She said that her greatest personal mentors have been her family members, such as her grandmother, godfather, mother and father. “My father was incredible. He could smoke meats and marinate meats and grill meats like nobody else. He taught me all of that growing up, which was wonderful.”

At a very young age, Chef Cora learned Greek cooking techniques from her mother, who taught her how to roll grape leaves and work phyllo dough. The best advice she ever got from her mom? “The only piece that needs to be perfect with phyllo dough is the top piece!”

Another good tip on working with phyllo dough is that you don’t have to clarify the butter. “In fact, if you clarify the butter, you’re taking out the milk fat which adds flavor,” said Cora. “It also helps with the browning and the caramelization of your pastry…so don’t worry about clarifying.”

Chef Cora’s professional mentor, Julia Child, was famous for saying, “You can never have too much butter.” Leslie Jon asked Chef Cora what Greek ingredient she cannot get enough of.

In Cora’s opinion, “You can never have too much garlic. I mean, you probably can…I can think of situations where it’s probably too much, but…as long as the other person also has too much, you’re okay!”

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Chef Cora’s sense of humor and down-to-earth nature were evident as she described the challenges she faced coming up as a young chef in a profession that was largely dominated by men, especially in the French restaurants where she first interned as a sous chef. She credits her success to perseverance and passion. “I always remember hearing Oprah Winfrey say, ‘If you can stay passionate about what you do, the rest will come.’" 

Leslie Jon responded with his own apt quote from George Bernard Shaw, “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”

“Yes,” Chef Cora smiled, “I think we can all agree with that.”

Comments

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In August of last year, our daughter's wedding took place in Disney World. The reception was held at the Boardwalk Inn, and on the boardwalk was Chef Cat Cora's restaurant. We had an opportunity to dine there and the atmosphere and culinary experience were delightful.

Pan forward to today. On Saturday the 26th of May I wrote a story about the Riviera, one of the most amazing ships afloat. It has been published on my blog and in the travel section of USAToday.com.

Chef Cora and the Riviera, what a wonderful combination!

Andy K. - Cruisin Susan, a cruise & travel blog, http://cruisesuz.com

What a wonderful story, Andy! Thank you so much for sharing.

Ah Greece! I miss the feta!

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