Maria Sakellariou gave up mergers and acquisitions for moussaka.
That’s actually an oversimplification of Sakellariou’s diverse life. Part of her family – including an aunt who’s about to turn 100 — still lives on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea where Sakellariou spent some of her childhood and where she visited this summer. Another part lives in Pensacola, Fla., where Sakellariou went to high school while working at the family restaurant.
But after graduating from college in Florida, Sakellariou went to graduate school in Belgium and embarked upon a career in corporate finance that ultimately landed her in St. Louis. In 2000, she decided to escape the world of mergers and acquisitions and go back into the food business, eventually starting a personal-chef service called Culinary Odyssey in 2004.
In addition to her business, Sakellariou also teaches at Kitchen Conservatory and volunteers with several charitable organizations.
When we asked her to show us how to make “several” Greek recipes for this chapter in our Eat-In Ethnic series, Sakellariou translated that as “six” recipes.
She credits her tendency to make large, multicourse meals to the way things were served in her family when she was very young.
“My father always wanted 10 different things, but by the piece, for his meal,” she says.
But with a well-organized kitchen and a well-planned menu, a Greek cook doesn’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing a big meal.
Take spanakopita, for example — flaky layers of phyllo dough filled with spinach.
“The easiest way to do it is to set up an assembly line,” Sakellariou says. “And if the phyllo tears slightly, it’s not the end of the world — with butter and a brush, you can put it back together.”
Sakellariou points out that the number on boxes of frozen phyllo dough indicates the thickness: No. 4 is the thinnest, and her preference for spanakopita; No. 7 is thicker; and No. 10 is even thicker — “country weight, like it is when it’s made from scratch,” Sakellariou says. She also recommends holding on to the wax paper sleeves in which the dough is packaged.
When she takes the pastries out of the oven to cool, she puts them on a bed of chickpeas, which also makes a striking presentation on the table.
“Years ago, I once tried it using lentils,” Sakellariou says. “It looked absolutely beautiful, but the lentils stuck.”
One final tip: “Use the same recipe but change the filling to artichoke dip, or blue cheese, or something with fresh herbs. It’s a great way to take dips and such that you make and fancy them up.”
When using phyllo for desserts — such as Yianniotiko, a version of baklava that incorporates a shredded phyllo called kataifi — Sakellariou says that you must remember to use a cold syrup after cooking the hot pastry. This ensures that the phyllo remains crisp.
“You know you have it right when you pour it over and you hear this ‘shhhh’ sort of sound,” she says.
Staples she keeps in her kitchen include fresh lemons, garlic, feta cheese, Greek oregano and dried fruit, especially figs.
“If you have lemon, Greek oregano and feta, you don’t need salt,” she says.
And, of course, several types of olive oil — preferably cold-pressed extra-virgin.
“One thing I always try to buy is some olive oil from this year’s crop, for its peppery flavor,” Sakellariou says.
Maria Sakellariou will next teach a class at Kitchen Conservatory, 8021 Clayton Road in Clayton, on Sept. 13. Titled “Date Night for Couples: The Greek Pork-opolis,” recipes will include soutzoukakia (pork and beef sausages in a rich tomato sauce), chestnut and hazelnut-stuffed pork tenderloin with dried figs, Greek mashed potatoes with feta and Greek yogurt, and bougatsa, a cream dessert. More information can be found at kitchenconservatory.com or by calling 314-862-2665.