There’s nothing like writing a food blog to complicate your shopping experience. I used to go into my favorite Greek markets (Titan and Mediterranean in Astoria, NY) in the morning with a list and on a mission. First, I'd make a B line for the cheese counter before the hoards arrive—this is the busiest gotta-have-feta line and you don’t want to be at the end of it! Next, head over to the olive bar before a crowd gathers—you can taste before you buy, and while people are picking and eating, the conversations start (of course they do, they’re Greek!)…blocking passage to the olives! If I need anything from the bakery section—like decadent, freshly-baked tyropites in puff pastry—this would be my next stop. Once done with these sections, I’d hit the aisles for the remaining items on my list before heading to the cashier to check out. Then I’d head home and get cooking.
When I started writing this blog over two years ago, I decided it would be a good idea to take my camera along for my Greek-market outings. With my list in hand, I’d make my first stops, pausing in between ordering to snap some photos of the cheese varieties, the countless imported olives, and the mouthwatering pastries. When I finally hit the aisles, I started checking out (and photographing) the seemingly-endless Greek items on the shelves that I previously overlooked because I basically had no use for them—these were mostly prepared canned, jarred, and boxed foods that we make from scratch. As I perused and snapped I discovered items that made me say “Wow, that comes in a can?” or “You’ve gotta be joking!” or “There’s no way I’m buying that in a box.”
Canned Vs. Kouzina Made
I’m writing a cookbook and we’re testing recipes for all of the foods I discovered (or should I say “uncovered”) so I’m admittedly a bit—okay, a lot—of a Greek foodie snob, and we all know that nothing beats homemade when you have a killer recipe, right?! But I gradually came to terms with the fact that there are times when people don’t have room in their schedules to cook or bake, and prepared foods can, and do, come in handy…and why eat Lean Cuisine when you can have Greek?!
The canned aisle called me first since there was one thing here that I usually buy for Lent, meatless dolmadakia made with rice. Canned is nowhere near as good as homemade (the filling is kind of mushy) but squeezing some lemon juice over warm or room-temperature dolmadakia makes them taste pretty good (for canned that is). While taking a picture I spot araka (peas in tomato sauce)…I’m thinking OMG, when did they start canning this?? Our Thia (Aunt) Elly made THE best araka with lamb or beef for my birthday so this is bringing back some fondly delicious memories—the can lands in my cart. Next I see gigantes (giant beans in tomato sauce)…I love our mom’s recipe but soaking the beans takes a while so I thought I’d try this too.
I soon became the kid in the candy store…there were cans of bamies (baby okra in tomato sauce), spanakorizo (spinach and rice), imam (eggplant), and stifado (pearl onion stew) that we usually make with rabbit or chicken. These were all pretty much acceptable for a Greek stand-in, especially if you embellish them with a little herb/spice, olive oil, and/or lemon juice, but my favorite was the gigantes. I baked them until hot, then crumbled some Arahova feta over the top, reheated until the cheese just started to melt (about a minute), and I had a seriously tasty side dish. This took semi-homemade to a whole new level!
The confections aisle is home to my favorite spoon sweet, kydoni (quince)—time consuming to make but with jarred spoon sweets as good as these, without the fuss, we always had a few varieties in our home growing up (for when guests stopped by).
If you want ready-made desserts without lifting a finger (besides lifting a few to put them in your cart), there are imported raisin biscuits, freshly baked tsoureki, and numerous cookies and pastries in the bakery section.
Since we make many of these sweets, and our family recipes are to die for, I will only purchase the ones we don’t make (like moustokouloura, grape-must cookies made with freshly pressed grape juice) so I can enjoy them and not try to compare.
The frozen-food section was filled with goodies like spiral spanakopita, tyropita, moussaka, pastitsio, herbed calamari, and mini peinirli (cheese-and-ham-filled bread boats).
There was even mbougatsa (sweet custard-filled phyllo packets). I liked the spanakopita from this selection but my favorite was the package of frozen homemade dough sheets for making pita (like spanakopita)—one thick sheet lines the bottom of a tray, you add your filling next, then top with another sheet, brush with olive oil, and bake. If you can’t handle phyllo, this is a dream come true.
For an inside look at a Greek market, check out this Feta kai Psomi (feta and bread) YouTube video from So Tiri. It’s a cool and funny Greek-rap spoof filmed in Titan Foods and around Astoria that’s had almost two million hits.
So the shopping that used to take me 30 minutes tops, now takes me over an hour (because of the exploring and picture taking) and it’s seriously cramping my style—it leaves me with less time to cook so I guess it’s a good thing that I have some canned Greek food on hand (ha ha). I’m still a bit of a foodie snob when it comes to Greek—what can I say, I’m spoiled having been blessed with our mom’s, aunts’, and yiayia’s cooking and baking—but it’s comforting to know that there’s a fast track to a Greek-meal fix when there’s no time to spend in the kouzina. That said, we do encourage you to cook when you can and enjoy the process. Engage your kids to help and learn. The memories and lessons that result will last a lifetime, for them and for you. These are moments that will be truly cherished…they are for us!
Got Greek in a Can?
The following in-store and online options will have you saying “YES”!
If you’re in the New York City area you can find these Greek foods in cans, jars, and boxes (and more) at the following markets (they do phone orders and ship as well):
25-56 31st Street
LIC, N.Y, 11102
Mediterranean Foods (2 locations)
30-12 34th Street
Astoria, NY 11103
23-18 31st Street
Astoria, NY 11105
If you don’t live near these markets but have a Greek Orthodox Church nearby, chances are they know of a Greek/Mediterranean shop in the area.
Online shopping is the next best thing but you won’t find the selection that’s available in-store. Here’s where you can find Greek in a can, etc., as well as other foods and items:
Greek Internet Market
I hope you enjoyed Greek Kouzina in a Can. The original homemade recipes for these foods will be featured in our upcoming cookbook. Stay tuned for more uniquely Greek and Karpathian foods that you can add to your kouzina pantry.
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Kali orexi! Good appetite!
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