The first thing you should know, if you’re planning to attend a traditional Greek celebration, is that there won’t be anything small about it.
“They just love to have a good time. They love to do things big ... So don’t be afraid to eat” when you come to a Greek event, said Shaina Galinsky.
And you’re about to get your chance.
Galinsky spent much of her Monday rolling hundreds of grape leaves, dolmades, at Best of Crete, the tiny, perpetually packed Greek restaurant on Charleston’s West Side where she has worked for well over a decade.
They’ll be stored and then cooked just in time for Hellenic Night at the end of the month. The long-standing, annual evening of Greek culture is hosted by the Order of American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association to benefit St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church in Kanawha City.
“Greek food is very simple. We don’t use a lot of ingredients. They love lemon, they love garlic, they love olive oil. If you have those three things you can pretty much make any Greek dish,” Galinsky said.
On the steel counter in front of her were imported grape leaves, laid out like napkins, and a large bowl of ground beef, rice and seasonings. As she talked, she grabbed a handful of the beef mixture, rolled it into an oblong lump and placed it in the center of a leaf.
Casually, she grabbed a shiny corner and folded it inward, then another, wrapping the meat neatly in its deep green casing.
One counter over, another long-time employee, Rosie Holloway, was working on Greek wedding cookies, also for Hellenic Night. There’s a similar rhythm of rolling and shaping, rolling and shaping. But first, “We take out all the salt out from the butter, and we toast the almonds and put them in a blender,” Holloway said.
The one thing you won’t find anywhere around: a cookbook, or anything remotely resembling a recipe. Not even a scrap of yellowed paper with scribbled notes.
But how do you know how much of anything you need? How much butter, how much sugar? Holloway smiled at the question and shrugged.
“We work with our hands and blend it all, and add the flour so it’s not sticky,” she said.
The ingredients she knows by heart.
The measurements, though, come from experience.
“You just cook ‘em until they’re done,” said restaurant owner Mike Birurakis, whose family comes from the island of Crete.
“Every oven cooks different, every shelf on the over cooks different. So you have to check and take ‘em out when they’re done,” he said.
He shared the recipe from memory, and said home cooks would come to know the right consistency with a little practice.
As for the traditional, crescent moon shape of the cookies?
“That’s the way my mom always rolled ‘em,” he said. He grabbed his phone and called Mom, just to be sure there’s not some reason he’s never heard, then shook his head.
“A lot of places, like Russian wedding cookies, they’re in a little ball. The half moon, the crescent moon, that’s just the way the Greeks make ‘em,” he said.
They’re covered in confectioners’ sugar and — along with baklava and other Greek goodies — will be part of the dessert offerings.
The night is festive, he said, and reminds him of some of the parties and good times in his family’s homeland.
“It’s about going and having good camaraderie with your friends. And the dance — it’s everybody together. It’s all about getting up and celebrating and having a good time,” he said.