Dining at an ethnic restaurant often occasions a sense of adventure and sophistication. Anyone’s savoir-faire, however, can be immediately dashed by a menu that begins with caricofo arrosto and trota affumicata. Or deshebrada and campechana. How about kaniashi to kyuri sunomono? Or banh xeo dac biet and banh mi bo nuong? No matter how valiant the attempt, your thick, American, fun-with-phonics tongue will likely get in your well-intentioned way. In such cases, smiling and pointing almost always works.
Employing that method, however, you’ll leave the restaurant as ignorant as when you arrived. I find that simply asking“How do you pronounce ca chim sot chu angot?” etc.usually prompts the happy assistance of your host. Also, indicating that you are eager to learn can establish a relationship most helpful for further navigations in unfamiliar culinary territory.
When confronted by the not-easily-understood, we often say “It’s Greek to me”; yet most Greek menus aren’t nearly as intimidating as Vietnamese ones. Even so, the Greek’s most famous dish is commonly mangled. Practice saying this: MOOS-a-ka, with an emphasis on the first syllable. Not, moo-SA-ka, the common mispronounciation. Here’s another one: span-i-KO-pi-ta. And also this: pas-TICH-o. You’ll want to master these words before you visit the Greek Groceria on Charlotte Pike, because these are the dishes you will be ordering at the little market, bakery and take-out restaurant. The owner Renée Bischoff and her primary chef Russell Mayneither of whom are Greekmake the most authentic moussaka you’ll find in Nashville outside of Demetria Kaladimos’ kitchen, so you should at least learn how to say it.
Bischoff bought the three-year-old Groceria from Angelia Duncan in June. Before handing over the keys, Duncan taught Bischoff and May how to make the items that comprise the backbone of the selections. What Bischoff brought to the table was a background as a caterer and the developer of a line of gourmet pizzas sold at H.G. Hill’s and other local outlets. The pizzas and other Italian specialties are available at the Groceria, but it’s the moussaka that will make the trip worthwhile.
The name of the dish is not the only thing distorted when other nationalities get their hands on moussaka: I’ve seen pretty weird versions in my day. Some, oddly enough, leave out the eggplant, one of the main ingredients. Some add tomato sauce, though none is called for. (Tomatoes, yes; tomato sauce, no.) Some substitute, of all things, mashed potatoes on top rather than the classic béchamel sauce. I have even tasted one version that used Velveeta cheese. Most leave out the fresh grated nutmeg, key to a genuine moussaka.
Greek Groceria’s version is free of these sins, both those of commission and those of omission. Their moussaka, available by the single serving, or in aluminum casserole pans to feed six ($14.95) or 14 ($30), consists of ground beef; sliced rounds of eggplant, cooked in olive oil and devoid of any of the bitterness that sometimes mars this Mediterranean vegetable; onion; cheese (probably kefaloteri, similar to parmesan); and a rich layer of homemade béchamel sauce, where you’ll find the grated nutmeg.
As the comfort-food season runs right into the stressed-out, too-pressed-for-time-to-cook season, this moussaka is the perfect solution, as welcome on a family dinner table as for inviting a group of friends over for Greek night. For the latter, you may want to add, as we did, an order of the fabulous fresh dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with herbed rice and doused in oil and lemon juice, $4.75 for six), a tray of puffy cheese-stuffed phyllo trianglestiropita, or equally delicious ones filled with tangy spinachspanikopita ($6 for a tray of eight). A big Greek salad, some pita bread from Baraka bakery, a loaf of crusty Tuscan bread, and a bowlful of kalamata and green olives from Provence completed the feast. If you can’t end a meal without something sweet, Greek Groceria also carries baklava and other pastries; or, if you want to go for the gusto, throw back a glass of ouzo. Resist, if you can, shattering your dinner plates against the wall.
Other Grecian specialties at the Groceria are the pastichio, which tops ground beef and long, hollow rounds of macaroni with béchamel sauce; or the Greek chickenbig chunks of tender breast meat with green beans, onions, tomatoes, and béchamel.
Martha Phelps Stamps’ cookbooks need no translationthey’re as familiar and comfortable as whipping up dinner with friends in your own kitchen. Her new book, first of a series of The Southern Seasons published by Cumberland House Hearthside here in Nashville, is Fall Harvests. If you have avoided the heat in the kitchen all summer long but are finally feeling the chill, you’ll want to warm up by the stove with these recipes, menus, and suggestions for casual entertaining.
Stamps is an honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, but more importantly, she hails from here and not only knows our food, but she also knows us.
One of the things I really love about Martha’s cookbooks are her recollections and stories about family and friends. Fall Harvests is chock-full of them; you’ll read about her father’s food predilections before digging into a menu that includes biscuits with country ham, green tomato chutney, mashed lima beans with fresh goat cheese, and Damson plum upside-down cake. You’ll learn about her sisters Sallie and Mary and then invite your own siblings over for a simple supper of chicken and potato potpie, toasted brussel sprouts, and applesauce with cranberries.
The Steve she frequently mentions is Steve Scalise, chef and her cooking partner at the Corner Market, where she spent six years. (John Reed is her love interest, and they wed just a couple of weeks ago.)
One of the most irresistable menus is Lunch for Meryl: marinated fall mushrooms, crab pie with green tomatoes and parmesan sesame crust, bitter green salad with peanuts, bacon and dried peach vinaigrette and warm figs with honeyed yogurt. Mmmmm. I can picture Martha and Meryl enjoying this repast as they selected the photos for the book; photographer Meryl Truett contributed her impressive talents to this volume.
Fall Harvests is $16.95 and available at local bookstores and The Corner Market.