COLUMBIA — For many Columbia residents, the salivating images that spring to mind at the words “Christmas dinner” include baked ham, casseroles and eggnog. For many members of Columbia’s Greek Orthodox community, however, the flavor of Christmas is distinctly Mediterranean.
Kala Christouyenna (Merry Christmas)
For the Greek Orthodox community, the Christmas season begins on Dec. 6 with the Feast of St. Nicholas and culminates on Jan. 6 with the Feast of Epiphany, although Christmas itself is still celebrated on Dec. 25. During that time, carols are sung, gifts exchanged, and families gather around tables piled high with the traditional Greek holiday delicacies.
In Greece, pork dishes have long been associated with winter festivities because the annual Greek hog slaughter occurs during the winter, making large amounts of fresh pork available. Traditional favorites include leek and ham stew and yiaprakia (pronounced yah-PRAHK-yah), made from ground pork and vegetables wrapped in cabbage leaves.
Many Greek Orthodox families also serve Christopsomo, or “Christ’s Bread.” It is traditionally made on Christmas Eve with the sign of the cross carved into the top. At Christmas dinner, the head of the household distributes the bread to each person at the table.
Meet the master
“If you want to know about good Greek food, you need to talk to Georgia Pardalos,” said Father Michael Monos of St. Luke the Evangelist Greek Orthodox Church.
Pardalos, who moved to the United States in 1963, seemed right at home in the kitchen of her son, John Pardalos, as she directed platter-laden family members to a long table in the next room.
“It takes all morning to cook all this,” she said as John passed by with a bowl of kritharaki (orzo pasta with chicken).
Once the table for 14 was set, the thievery began.
“Greek children have such chubby cheeks because they are always full of Grandma’s food,” Pardalos said, laughing as her grandchildren Komini and Georgia snagged squares of flaky spanakopita from their platter. Pardalos said she enjoys cooking holiday meals for her family.
“Melomakarona (spiced cookies with nuts) are always very popular. My favorite is the stuffed cabbage leaves, though,” she said.
Make it yourself — yiaprakia
In this simplified version of the traditional yiaprakia, stuffed cabbage with ground beef and rice are covered with an egg and lemon (avgolemono) sauce.
- 2 pounds of ground beef (ground one time)
- 2 whole eggs
- 3/4 cups of short-grain rice (or risotto)
- 3 stalks of fresh dill, snipped
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 3/4 cup of olive oil
- 1 onion, sliced in rings
- 2 medium carrots, sliced in thick rounds
- Leaves only from 2 stalks of celery
- water or chicken stock
- 2 cabbages (total of 10 pounds)
FOR THE AVGOLEMONO EGG-LEMON SAUCE
5 egg yolks
1 tablespoon of water
7/8 cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon of corn starch
Mix the ground beef, two whole eggs, rice, dill, one of the onions, a little oil and water, and knead to mix thoroughly. Add more water or oil if needed. Form into 34 to 35 round pieces.
In a large soup pot, bring salted water to a boil. Remove the core of the cabbage, and stick a large fork into the center. Immerse the cabbage, leaving the fork in. When the outer leaves turn bright green, lift using the fork and remove softened leaves. Return to pot and repeat until all cabbage leaves have been removed.
Using the large outer leaves, place the meat mixture in a leaf and roll.
Line the bottom of a lidded pot with the carrot slices, remaining onion, celery leaves, and the smaller cabbage leaves that were too small for rolling. Lay the stuffed cabbage rolls, fold side down, on top in snugly packed layers. Place an inverted plate on top to hold them down when cooking.
Add water or chicken stock to cover, and bring to a boil. When boil is reached, turn down the heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour.
A few minutes before the cabbage is done, make the avgolemono sauce:
Whisk the egg yolks and a tablespoon of water. Stir in 1/2 cup of liquid from the pot, lemon juice and corn starch, whisking until smooth. Remove cabbage from heat, remove the plate and pour in the egg-lemon sauce. Hold pot by the handles and shake gently to distribute.
Serve warm with a few spoonfuls of the sauce over the cabbage.
Yield: 34 to 35 cabbage rolls