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Mediterranean Classics with the Yayas of Tilos

Several years ago, Mr. Mike Ballard and I rented a yacht and took the boys on a sailing trip through the Dodecanese Islands of Greece.

It was entirely Gwyneth Paltrow’s fault and not nearly as glamorous as one might imagine, but it was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

One of my favorite memories from this adventure happened on Tilos. I’d heard about the island’s Eristos Beach, where self-proclaimed “hippies” from all over Greece and beyond descend upon the shoreline to camp in a makeshift commune for the summer.

As we dropped our yacht’s anchor and rowed the dinghy ashore in search of dinner, I was expecting to find a sort of Greek island Coachella; instead, we found absolutely no one.

Perhaps we were too early for camping season or maybe everyone was just around the island out of sight, but there was literally not a human to be seen. There were plenty of goats — they far outnumber the 800 or so human residents of Tilos — but none could point us to a taverna.

Luckily, a sign popped up to show the way. The designated restaurant was actually a small resort, with balconied guest rooms and a beautiful swimming pool you crossed by an arched bridge. Lush bougainvillea climbed the arbors and shaded the dining pavilion, which was as empty as the beach. On our way to a table, we passed through the kitchen, which was manned by three little grandmothers — two Greek, one Italian — who asked us what we’d like for dinner.

“What do you have?” Mike inquired. “Anything you like,” replied the yaya who spoke the best English. “You tell us what you like, and we’ll make you a feast.”

Ben and Zack chose lamb, Mike requested pork, I wanted salad, and captain Max ate half of everything.

Our food came, and it was everything the yayas promised and more. Tiny, hand-rolled lamb meatballs in a savory tomato sauce, beautifully-grilled pork souvlaki with cool tzatziki sauce for dipping, Greek village salad with chunks of feta as big as your thumb, and perfectly crispy garlic bread flecked with oregano.

As we left the Eristos Beach Restaurant, the yayas presented us with a bottle of freshly-pressed oil from olives grown on the island. It was a magical meal that felt it was from another era, and I dream about it often.

I’m still working to master those meatballs, but my rendition of the grandmothers’ pork souvlaki happily brings that memory to life with a fair degree of accuracy. And with grilling season upon us, it’s the perfect time to make a Greek feast of your own and pretend you’re a yaya — or a beach hippie — enjoying the quiet island life on Tilos.

This week’s subscriber exclusives: While the smoky, juicy souvlaki is delectable on its own, it’s even better when dipped into cool Tzatziki Sauce, made with tangy Greek yogurt and bursting with fresh cucumber and herbs. In fact, the tzatziki is so good you’ll find yourself spreading it on your morning everything bagel, spooning it on ripe tomatoes, and scooping it up with pita chips on its own.

If you’re putting lettuce in your Greek salad, then it’s not Authentic Greek Salad, known as horiatiki. You’ll want to keep this recipe handy for all those vine-ripened tomatoes and cucumbers from your garden and local farmers market this summer.

Subscribers to Around the World in 80 Plates have exclusive access to these delicious Greek staples.

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Grilled Pork Souvlaki

While this recipe calls for pork, you will also find souvlaki made with chicken in Greece. The word souvlaki actually refers to the skewer, not the meat. Larger pieces of meat are typically grilled on metal skewers and sometimes interspersed with chunks of tomato, onion, and bell pepper, while smaller pieces of meat are grilled on wooden skewers and then eaten in pita bread as a sandwich. If you use wooden skewers, be sure to soak them in water before you use them to keep flare-ups to a minimum.

Feel free to substitute minced fresh herbs for the dried versions, particularly when your garden is in season. I double the amount I use of each, since dried herbs tend to be more potent than fresh.

1–1/2 pounds pork tenderloin
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried mint
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 whole lemon

In a medium bowl, add the olive oil, garlic, red wine vinegar, parsley, oregano, mint, and black pepper. Add the zest and juice from the lemon, whisking to combine. Cut the pork into one-inch cubes, trimming away any fat or skin, and add the cubes to the marinade, tossing to combine. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours, preferably overnight. Stir occasionally to keep the marinade evenly distributed.

Preheat your grill to medium or approximately 350–450°F. Thread the pork cubes onto skewers, reserving the remaining marinade. Grill the skewers directly over the flame, turning them to cook evenly on all sides and basting them frequently with the reserved marinade. The souvlaki is done when the outside is browned with a bit of char and the internal temperature of the pork reaches 145°F. Allow to rest for five minutes before serving. Makes four servings.

For $5 a month, you can get an additional weekly issue of Around the World in 80 Plates that includes bonus recipes not available to the public.

This week’s subscriber exclusives:

  • Tzatziki Sauce: While the smoky, juicy souvlaki is delectable on its own, it’s even better when dipped into cool tzatziki sauce, made with tangy Greek yogurt and bursting with fresh cucumber and herbs. In fact, the tzatziki is so good you’ll find yourself spreading it on your morning everything bagel, spooning it on garden-fresh tomatoes, and scooping it up with pita chips on its own.
  • Authentic Greek Salad: If you’re putting lettuce in your Greek salad, then it’s not an authentic Greek salad, known as horiatiki. You’ll want to keep this recipe handy for all those vine-ripened tomatoes and cucumbers from your garden and local farmers market this summer.

Subscribe now

Food and folklore from my travels to over 100 countries.

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