Olive Oil is the Essence of Traditional Greek Dishes on Christmas Eve

Olive oil is an essential cooking ingredient in Greek cuisine all year round, and the Christmas season is no exception.

Athens, Greece
By Costas Vasilopoulos
Dec. 29, 2022 12:26 UTC
Athens, Greece

It is the time of the year again when fam­i­lies gather to cel­e­brate Christmas, and plans get under­way in each house­hold for a feast befit­ting the occa­sion.

In Greece, the French word réveil­lon (which trans­lates to wak­ing’) refers to the cel­e­bra­tions and fes­tive din­ners that take place on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

My grandma used to heat the olive oil and then pour it over the baklava before putting it into the oven for bak­ing. The char­ac­ter­is­tic siz­zling of the pas­try sheets is the best Christmas melody.- Dina Nikolaou, owner, Evi Evane

Christmas Eve réveil­lons across the coun­try always include a lav­ish meal fol­low­ing the culi­nary tra­di­tion of each place, with extra vir­gin olive oil under­pin­ning the dishes served.

According to Greek cus­tom, pies, sweets, meat, bread and pas­tries – all typ­i­cal prepa­ra­tions for the occa­sion – invoke God for abun­dance and suf­fi­ciency through­out the rest of the year.

See Also:From Milan to Puglia, EVOO Lies at The Heart of Christmas Cooking in Italy

Additionally, many Greeks may fast for sev­eral days before Christmas for reli­gious rea­sons, eat­ing no meat dur­ing that period. The Christmas meals mark their return to the reg­u­lar eat­ing rou­tine and pro­vide an oppor­tu­nity for a stim­u­lat­ing din­ing expe­ri­ence.

Everyone in Greece has tasted tra­di­tional meals on Christmas Day or the day before as they were pre­pared for the fam­ily tables in rural areas of the coun­try,” Dina Nikolaou, an award-win­ner Greek chef and owner of the Evi Evane restau­rant in Paris, told Olive Oil Times.

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Dina Nikolaou

From grand­moth­ers to daugh­ters and grand­chil­dren, these recipes were passed down until they reached urban areas and became cus­tom­ary,” she added. They were straight­for­ward prepa­ra­tions with a few but high-qual­ity ingre­di­ents, even­tu­ally becom­ing the back­bone of the Greek cui­sine.”

The basic ingre­di­ent was, of course, olive oil,” Nikolaou con­tin­ued. Olive oil, along with wheat, were the essen­tial ingre­di­ents of every kitchen and the bases of vir­tu­ally every dish.”

For Christmas Eve din­ner the tra­di­tional Greek way, Nikolaou sug­gested refrain­ing from prepar­ing mul­ti­ple dishes.

Instead, she pro­posed a fes­tive three-course meal: a tra­di­tional Greek tra­chana soup with a veg­etable pie as the appe­tizer, roasted pork with orange as the main dish and the tra­di­tional Greek baklava made with olive oil instead of but­ter as a dessert.

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Trachana soup

A tra­di­tional Greek soup made with tra­chana [a type of cous­cous] can serve as a great appe­tizer for the Christmas Eve din­ner,” Nikolaou said.

To pre­pare the soup, the chef first uses a pan to sauté finely chopped onion in olive oil. She then adds the tra­chana and a liter of veg­etable stock or water and brings the mix­ture to a boil. After, Nikolaou lets it sim­mer for about 20 min­utes until reduced.

The next step includes sautéing the veg­eta­bles (chopped pep­pers and mush­rooms, cour­gette and the finely-chopped green part of a leek) in olive oil before adding salt and bal­samic vine­gar.

Finally, the boiled tra­chana is served in bowls with sautéed veg­gies and some pep­per. An essen­tial last step is to driz­zle a gen­er­ous amount of extra vir­gin olive oil on the soup for extra fla­vor.

See Also:EVOO Shines in Michelin Star Chef’s Traditional Christmas Eve Dinner

The tra­chana soup is accom­pa­nied per­fectly by a tra­di­tional veg­etable pie made with spinach, chard and spring onions, all wrapped in hand­made dough made with flour and extra vir­gin olive oil.

This recipe comes from Zagorohoria, a group of moun­tain­ous vil­lages scat­tered around the city of Ioannina,” Nikolaou said. They are famous for their pies and the sim­plic­ity of the fla­vors.”

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Nikolaou received train­ing in French gas­tron­omy in her early years as a pro­fes­sional but has become an afi­cionado of the Greek culi­nary cul­ture.

Her restau­rant in the French cap­i­tal is widely acknowl­edged by Parisiens as a top des­ti­na­tion to savor Greek and Mediterranean dishes. In 2017, it was awarded for best for­eign cui­sine in Paris by the Pudlo restau­rant guides.

For the main course of the Christmas Eve menu, a two-kilo­gram pork shoul­der is placed on the kitchen bench­top. Marinate the meat for three to four hours in a mix of olive oil, orange juice and zest, crushed gar­lic, sweet wine and some herbs.

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Roast pork with orange

Meanwhile, put a kilo­gram of diced pota­toes or sweet pota­toes, a sliced, unpeeled orange and some sun­dried toma­toes in a bowl with olive oil and figs — sea­son with salt and pep­per and mix.

Place the mar­i­nated meat in a large bak­ing tray. Add the mari­nade to the bowl with the pota­toes, mix again and then pour every­thing into the tray. Sprinkle bread­crumbs on the pota­toes and bake every­thing in the oven at 180 ºC for about two hours. Let the meat rest for 10 min­utes before cut­ting into it.

For a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day din­ner, noth­ing is more fes­tive than pork with orange,” Nikolaou said.

A Christmas Eve din­ner is incom­plete with­out a proper dessert. Chef Nikolaou’s tra­di­tional baklava, a per­fect make-ahead dessert for Christmas Eve, is all about child­hood mem­o­ries and rec­ol­lec­tions of the past.

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Baklava

My grandma used to heat the olive oil and then pour it over the baklava before putting it into the oven for bak­ing,” she recalled. The char­ac­ter­is­tic siz­zling of the pas­try sheets is the best Christmas melody.”

Baklava is made with lay­ers of crispy pas­try phyllo dough filled with crushed nuts, sugar, clove and cin­na­mon and sprayed with heated olive oil before bak­ing.

When the phyllo has turned golden and crisp, sug­ary syrup and honey are poured over the dessert to com­plete the prepa­ra­tion.

Both the olive oil from the pre­vi­ous har­vest – pro­vided it is appro­pri­ately stored – or the season’s freshly pro­duced olive oil can be used for prepar­ing the Christmas Eve menu.

Extra vir­gin olive oil with a twist can also be added for fla­vor dur­ing the fes­tive sea­son.

See Also:Chefs in France Bring Extra Virgin Olive Oil to Christmas Dinners

Experts advise mix­ing three-quar­ters of a cup of extra vir­gin olive oil with a cup of blanched herbs such as basil, oregano or rose­mary. Then, sub­merge the blanched herbs in the oil (mak­ing sure they are com­pletely cov­ered) and let the mix­ture sit for a few days for the aro­mas to meld.

The infused olive oil can then be used to pre­pare Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals to sur­prise the din­ers.

Olive oil, and essen­tially extra vir­gin olive oil, is not just an edi­ble fat used in cook­ing and bak­ing,” Nikolaou said. It is an invalu­able sta­ple food boast­ing a vari­ety of ben­e­fi­cial ingre­di­ents and healthy monoun­sat­u­rated fats.”

The Greek writer Athenaeus in his famous work Deipnosophists of the 3rd cen­tury A.D., [a col­lec­tion of ban­quet con­ver­sa­tions on food, lit­er­a­ture and arts over din­ner] describes recipes for a sesame cake baked with olive oil, pies of wild veg­gies and olive oil and meat from hunt­ing pre­served in olive oil,” she added.

We Greeks pos­sess all the accu­mu­lated culi­nary wis­dom from cen­turies ago,” Nikolaou con­cluded. By exploit­ing the ingre­di­ents to the fullest with­out wast­ing any­thing, but also with­out sac­ri­fic­ing fla­vor, we can pre­pare a boun­ti­ful Greek tra­di­tional din­ner to per­fectly suit the Christmas Eve occa­sion.”



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