By ANAHAD O’CONNOR New York Times DECEMBER 5, 2014 1:37 PMDecember 5, 2014 1:37 pm 55 Comments
Maria Loi’s Greek yogurt is much thicker than the store-bought variety.Credit Yiannis Lois, Studio L Photography
Greek yogurt, with its beneficial probiotic bacteria, high protein content and rich flavor, is one of the most popular health foods in America, comprising a billion dollar market.
But few people have as much appreciation for Greek yogurt – or expertise in making it – as Maria Loi, an acclaimed chef, author and host of television cooking shows that have aired in her native Greece and on PBS.
For Ms. Loi, Greek yogurt is far more than a snack or breakfast item. It finds its way into nearly all of her recipes. She uses it in place of butter when baking cakes, cookies, brownies, pie crusts and quick breads. Where other chefs might use milk, cream, mayonnaise or sour cream, Ms. Loi’s recipes call for Greek yogurt instead.
Ms. Loi finds that the yogurt keeps these foods moist and flavorful, and as an added bonus it gives them a boost of protein. But don’t mention the commercial varieties of Greek yogurt found in many supermarkets. Many of these are loaded with sugar and stripped of their natural fats, which Ms. Loi considers sacrilege. She only trusts one or two brands, and usually prefers to make her own yogurt using a family recipe, as she has since she was a child.
Born and raised in Nafpaktos, about three hours west of Athens, Ms. Loi has owned gourmet restaurants in Greece and in New York City, where her homemade yogurt is used to make everything from parfaits to cheesecake and even ice cream. She is the author of “Ancient Dining,” the official book of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Recently she published her latest cookbook, “The Greek Diet,” with recipes rich in yogurt, nuts and olive oil. We caught up with Ms. Loi to talk about her new book, her love of Greek cuisine, and why she considers real Greek yogurt one of the pillars of a healthful diet — and even a beauty product.
How did you learn to cook? Did you learn from your parents?
I have to confess: My mother didn’t know how to cook. But she used to make the best yogurt ever. That’s how I got the recipe. My grandmother, and my great-grandmother, they were amazing in the kitchen. They could make 10 different dishes in half an hour. That’s a talent that I got from them. As a child I would cook different foods every day, and my grandmother would help me. But as I got older, I left Greece, stopped cooking and started eating bad foods.
I became a lobbyist, and I had to travel a lot. I thought this kind of life would be better for me. But I was always on the road, and I was eating more Americanized foods – lots of packaged snacks, chips and prepared food at airports. I gained so much weight – 40 pounds in two and a half years. I tried dieting and would lose a few pounds, but then it would come back.
Then one day I said to myself, “Enough! I’m changing my life. I’m going to cook!” People thought I was crazy. “How could she leave her career to do this?” But thank God I did, because cooking makes me happy.
What happened after you gave up life as a lobbyist?
I closed the book on that career and I went back to Thermo, my village in Greece. I wanted my life to be simple again. I started growing tomatoes, a lot of herbs, making yogurt again. And I went back to eating olive oil. I lost so much weight and I wasn’t as hungry anymore. That was almost 15 years ago.
I didn’t have the expertise as a chef back then, but I had the expertise to cook. And all of my friends would come over to eat. I’d have 30 people in my house for dinner. Then one day my friend, who was an anchorwoman, said “Maria, come cook on TV with us. You have to have a show!” The show became very popular. Eventually I came to New York and opened a restaurant, and here I am. I love this town.
What’s your favorite recipe in the new book?
I love things with yogurt and olive oil. If you cut my vein, olive oil will spill out. But my favorite recipe in the book is the black-eyed beans with spinach and Swiss chard. You can have it with two or three tablespoons of yogurt. It’s tasty and so easy to make.
In the book, you say that yogurt was a big part of your childhood. How so?
When I was growing up, we always had a big bowl of homemade yogurt in the kitchen. When my siblings and I complained that we were hungry, my parents didn’t give us junk food. There were no potato chips, cookies or packaged foods. They would tell us, “Go eat yogurt!” My grandmother used to say it was the food for everyone in our family, from babies to the very old.
Greek yogurt is a staple in your recipes. What do you think of the commercial varieties in stores?
When I was growing up in Greece, I never saw my mother or grandmother making zero percent yogurt. I’m sorry, but that’s not Greek yogurt. That’s another kind of yogurt. These yogurts have a lot of sugar and if you look at the small print on the labels, they add thickeners to them. Greek yogurt for me has to be strained and it has to have fat. With real Greek yogurt, you don’t have to eat a lot. You can eat three tablespoons and that’s enough. You’ll be full and you’ll love it.
Where can people find real Greek yogurt?
I’ve seen real Greek yogurt in some supermarkets. In New York, you can find one at Zabar’s. The brand name is “Keso.” It’s very good, full-fat yogurt. It doesn’t have thickeners in it like the other yogurt, or sugar. If you put sugar in there, it changes everything.
Do you always replace butter with Greek yogurt?
For me, Greek yogurt works with everything, and it’s better for food and life in general – as long as it’s 2 percent fat and up. I never cook with butter, so I don’t think about yogurt replacing butter, as I usually replace butter with olive oil. But in some of my cakes I do use yogurt instead of other fats.
That being said, I believe in appropriate fats for appropriate foods. What I mean by this has to do with location and availability. In Greece, we have lots and lots of olives, and therefore lots of olive oil. If we were to use butter, it would come from goat’s milk because goats are much more prevalent in Greece – and goat butter is different, both in flavor and in its health benefits.
In your book, you mentioned using Greek yogurt as a beauty product. How so?
Greek yogurt isn’t only for eating. When I was a child, I learned from my grandmother that it helps hydrate your skin, making it soft and smooth. My grandmother would use it as a beauty mask when all the men were working in the field. She said it was better for you than any other beauty remedy. And on very sunny days in Greece when I got sunburned, my grandmother would use a thick layer of yogurt to coat my skin, soothing it and cutting the healing time. I still do this today, and it still works perfectly for me.
What’s your favorite dessert?
I love yogurt with some sesame and some honey, or pomegranate seeds. It’s fantastic. And I always have Greek coffee for dessert. I can drink it at 12 o’clock at night and still go to sleep. That’s exactly like my grandfather used to do. He used to say I never did anything bad to anyone, that’s why I can sleep. It’s not the coffee that is keeping you up – it’s whatever you did that day.
In your book, you talk about the health benefits of eating Greek. But obesity rates have climbed in the Mediterranean as people eat more processed foods. Have you noticed these changes in your village?
This happened because people started eating a more westernized diet. But now, with the bad economy in Greece, people in my village have gone back to eating the way they did in the past. They’re eating more beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and eggs. They’re growing more herbs, fruits and vegetables. They’re eating yogurt that they make every day. And they drink their own wine.
Young people now know what to eat. They’re eating the way they’re grandparents ate. They’re eating healthy again. Not just in my village but throughout Greece. So the bad economy is actually improving people’s health — least something good came out of it!
Maria Loi’s Tzatziki
Maria Loi’s TzatzikiCredit Yiannis Lois, Studio L Photography
Maria Loi’s Tzatziki
Tzatziki is one of the most well-known Greek condiments available, and for good reason — it pairs perfectly with most foods, and adds a healthy, herbaceous kick to anything it touches. Serve as a sauce for vegetables, chicken, pasta, or eggs, or as an appetizer with crudités or grilled whole-grain pita.
16 ounces 2% plain Greek yogurt
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 to 4 sprigs of fresh dill, stems removed and roughly chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried dill
1. Peel the cucumbers. Using the large holes of a box grater, grate them into a sieve or colander. Lightly salt the grated cucumber (this helps draw out the moisture), cover the sieve with plastic wrap, and allow the cucumber to drain overnight. (Note: Placing a heavy plate or glass on top of the covered cucumbers will help the draining process.)
2. In a large bowl, combine the drained cucumber and yogurt. Mix very well. Using a Microplane grater or a small, sharp knife, grate or mince the garlic. Stir the garlic into the yogurt mixture. Stir in the olive oil and vinegar and mix well. Cover the bowl with plastic and refrigerate for about 1 hour.
3. Stir in the dill and refrigerate until serving.
Maria Loi’s Baked Apples
Maria Loi’s Baked ApplesCredit Yiannis Lois, Studio L Photography
Maria Loi’s Greek Baked Apples
These baked apples are my ode to the Big Apple! Served warm with a dollop of Greek yogurt or chilled with a hot cup of tea, these apples are a satisfying sweet treat with a fiber kick.
½ cup raisins (dark or golden)
6 firm apples, such as Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, or Braeburn (see Cook’s note)
1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
½ cup almonds, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, plus more for garnish
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup honey, warmed
½ cup Greek yogurt, for serving
1. The night before you plan to serve the apples, place the raisins in a small bowl, add apple juice to cover them by about 2 inches, cover, and set aside.
2. The following day, use an apple corer to remove the cores from the apples. Don’t cut all the way through the core, though, as you will be stuffing them. Wash and dry them. Peel them if you like, and set aside.
3. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line the bottom of a baking dish with parchment paper.
4. In a medium bowl, combine the walnuts, almonds, cinnamon, cloves, and 2 tablespoons honey. Fill the hollowed-out center of each apple with some of the nut mixture. Arrange the apples in the baking dish. Pour the remaining honey over the apples.
5. Bake the apples for 25 to 30 minutes, until they have softened and cooked through.
6. Drain the raisins. Combine the raisins with the yogurt. To serve, place an apple on a serving dish. Top with a dollop of yogurt and sprinkle with some cinnamon.
Cook’s note: You may leave on the apple skin or peel it — it’s your choice. Firmer apples are better candidates for leaving the skin on. Softer apples are more likely to lose their shape and crumble from the steam if not peeled.
Yield: Serves 6