It may have been snowing in New York, but that didn’t stop Chef Argiro Barbarigou from bringing bright food and a breezy island spirit to the James Beard House for an exclusive one-night-only dinner celebrating the Southern Aegean Greek Islands on March 13.
Barbarigou, also known as the “first lady of Greek cuisine,” is also celebrity chef, restaurateur and cookbook author. She has devoted her life to sharing the secrets of the Hellenic kitchen though cuisine served at her restaurants and on television. She also brings the food of her heritage to the world by serving as the culinary ambassador to the Southern Aegean Islands, which is what brought her to New York. The region has been named the culinary capital of Europe for 2019, and Barbarigou wanted to give eaters a taste of what her homeland has to offer. To officially kick off this distinction, she conjured up an indulgent 8-course meal, and collaborated with members of her team and prestigious international female culinary organization Les Dames d’Escoffier to pull off this delicious night.
“I believe that Aegean cuisine deserves her own high position in the world’s gastronomy,” says Barbarigou. “Aegean cuisine is so much more than souvlaki and tavernas. Our cuisine is as pure and refined as our spirit, not unlike our philosophy or theatre. I am determined to share my love and knowledge of it throughout the land. My motto, when I first started out, was that there are NO SECRETS in cooking.”
When you dream about the quintessential vacation in Greece, you are most likely starting somewhere in the Southern Aegean. It’s one of 13 regions in the country and is comprised of the Cyclades (where Mykonos and Santorini are located) and Dodecanese island groups in the central and south-eastern Aegean Archipelagos — 50 unique inhabited island paradises in all. Because of its location, the diet and food of the region is one of the healthiest and most delicious in the world. Residents and visitors who land there savor quality, locally grown non-gmo ingredients, fresh fish from the deep blue sea and local olive oil. And while each island has its own personality and gastronomic delights, Barbarigou gleaned the best of them to incorporate into the menu.
The evening started off with passed appetizers of Salatouri (fish salad with lemon–herb sauce); fava bean purée with caramelized onions, capers, olives, and extra virgin olive oil; and Htypiti (spicy feta–red pepper dip) with pita and extra virgin olive oil). Wines from the region also accompanied every course.
When guests sat down at their table, they were greeted with Fouskoti Bread, a deep delicious brown bread from the island of Paros that gets its color from carob flour and is filled out with saffron, anise, and flax seeds. A tomato salad complemented the bread, set on a bed of black-eyed peas — a traditional fixture of island cuisine — with caper leaves, Cycladic samphire, and cheese.
Barbarigou continued to finesse the traditionally rustic cuisine of the region with her Kakavia. The ancient fisherman’s stew was given a modern makeover with delicately manicured baby zucchini, potatoes, and carrots set around think roasted halibut filets dressed with a rich fish stock.
With her Revytha, she piled deeply flavored stewed chickpeas on top of taramasalata and garnished the dish with a spicy saffron sautéed ship.
Stifado is a traditional dish throughout Greece, traditionally made with rabbit, but for the island menu Barbarigou created the dish with nautical flare using octopus as the focal point, teaming it with crispy shredded potatoes.
Lamb and veal took center stage as the two main dishes. The first was Lamb Fricassee, with stewed lamb and artichokes in a rich broth with whipped avgolemono sauce. After that, if diners still had room, they were able feast on braised veal cheeks with Brousko Island wine, Mirmitzelli pasta, and Anthotyros goat cheese.
Finally, Michelle Tampakis, owner of Whipped Pastry Boutique in Brooklyn, NY finessed the dessert: a Baklava Mille-Feuille with caramelized phyllo, thyme honey, Mastiha liqueur, walnuts, and Greek yogurt.
If you didn’t make it to the James Beard House for this dinner, you can feast on Barbarigou’s cooking at Alfa Pie House in Washington DC, or at Papadakis, an upscale restaurant in the Kolonaki neighborhood of Athens, Greece.