Greek menu keeps favorites yet evolves


Every time the Mediterranean diet is in the news, Nick Koulouris feels vindicated. “He tells us, ‘It’s what I’ve been saying for years,’” said his son George. The elder Koulouris is the founder of Grecian Gyro, now a group of five metro Atlanta restaurants in locations from Johns Creek to Forest Park.

Articles published in scientific journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal suggest the Mediterranean diet promotes heart health.

The diet focuses on eating mostly plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Butter is out and olive oil is in. Red meat is an occasional indulgence, and fish and poultry are the proteins of choice. The diet also emphasizes the importance of enjoying meals with family and friends.

It’s a plan the Koulouris family lives all the time. “I like to make soups and stews. There’s always a big pot on the stove. It could be Greek lemon chicken, a veggie soup or my lentil soup. My mom loves to cook. She cooks for every single holiday. We get all the family together, including the in-laws, and mom cooks for us,” George Koulouris said.

Greek immigrants Nick and Chrisoula Koulouris met working at the Zesto’s in East Point. They married and in 1982, opened the first Grecian Gyro in Hapeville. “My dad always had the idea of opening a gyro shop using a gyro sauce he created that was different from anything else in the market. It took every penny he had to turn a closed-down diner into his restaurant. Dad did all the cooking and mom was the cashier,” Koulouris said.

The menu was simple: gyros, salad, Greek potatoes and baklava. Soon there were lines out the door of the 900-square-foot restaurant. Brother Pano was born the year after the restaurant opened, and the two boys grew up in the restaurant. “There are customers to this day who remember my brother crying and if my mom was busy, they’d change his diaper. It was truly a family restaurant,” Koulouris said.

Sister Maria came later when the restaurant had grown enough that mom could stay home. Now George and Pano are owners and store managers, and Maria manages the store in Tucker as well as serving as franchise trainer. “It’s a full family effort,” Koulouris said.

The Mediterranean diet has inspired new additions to the restaurant menus like their veggie wrap. “We have a lot of vegetarian customers, and there’s a huge demand for items like falafel. And customers are looking for a lighter meal, one without potatoes,” he said.

Greek yogurt is another Old World item that is now in big demand. “I can remember when our customers didn’t want to have anything to do with Greek yogurt. Now they want it because they’ve learned about the health benefits,” Koulouris said.

These days Koulouris can often be found in the kitchen of the newest Grecian Gyro location in Dunwoody, experimenting with new items for the menu. He’s thinking watermelon and feta salad and Greek yogurt with local honey and walnuts.

RECIPES

Make your own Greek yogurt? Yes, you can. Serve up Greek-style baked fish and green beans? Easy. A veggie wrap? A bowl of lentil soup? it’s all here.

Grecian Gyro’s Mediterranean Veggie Wrap

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Serves: 4

At the restaurants, the vegetables are marinated in Grecian Gyro’s top-secret Greek dressing. Since the recipe isn’t available, George Koulouris suggests using your favorite Greek or Italian dressing, either homemade or store-bought. The restaurant also serves the wraps with a full pita. We’ve cut the pita in half to reduce calories. At Grecian Gyro, the vegetables are cooked on the flattop grill. If you have a griddle, use that and cook all the vegetables at once.

1 small eggplant (about 1 pound)

2 zucchini, cut into 12 1-by-3-inch sticks (about 1 pound)

1 medium onion, thinly sliced (about 1/2 pound)

4 tablespoons Greek or Italian salad dressing

2 (6-inch) pitas, split into 2 rounds each

4 teaspoons olive oil, divided

1/2 cup 1/2-inch sliced roasted red peppers

1/4 cup crumbled feta

1/4 cup Tzatziki (see recipe)

Cut top off eggplant and slice in half lengthwise. Cut each half into 1-inch-wide strips and cut strips in half widthwise. Put in large bowl.

Cut top off zucchini and slice in half lengthwise. Cut each half into 1-inch-wide strips and cut strips in half widthwise; add to eggplant. Add onions and salad dressing. Toss to combine and let sit 20 minutes.

Preheat a large skillet over medium heat. Arrange an equal number of eggplant and zucchini sticks in skillet. Cook until brown on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. Do not overcook. When eggplant and zucchini are almost done, add 1/4 of the onion slices and saute. Remove cooked vegetables and keep warm. Repeat until all vegetables are cooked. Keep warm.

Wipe out pan and return to stovetop. Turn heat up to medium-high.

Brush one side of pita round with 1/2 teaspoon olive oil and place face down in pan. Brush top side with 1/2 teaspoon olive oil. When bottom is browned, about 15 seconds, flip pita and brown second side. Remove from skillet and keep warm. Repeat with remaining pita rounds.

Place warmed pita on serving plate and top with 1/4 of the red pepper strips, 1 tablespoon feta, 1 tablespoon Tzatziki and cooked eggplant, zucchini and onions. Roll pita around filling and serve.

Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 3 more wraps.

Per serving: 287 calories (percent of calories from fat, 44), 8 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 15 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 9 milligrams cholesterol, 400 milligrams sodium.

Grecian Gyro’s Tzatziki

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes, plus 2 hours for resting

Makes: 2 1/4 cups

George Koulouris says “the more garlic, the better!” so adjust the amount to your taste. The cayenne is optional. Tzatziki will continue to develop its flavor as it sits. Koulouris recommends making it at least a day ahead of time.

1 cucumber, peeled, cut in half and seeds removed

2 cups Greek-Style Yogurt (see recipe)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 tablespoon fresh chopped dill

2 cloves garlic, chopped

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Pinch granulated sugar

Pinch cayenne pepper

Using a grater with large holes, grate the cucumber onto a paper towel or piece of cheesecloth. Wring out the towel or cloth to remove all water from the cucumber. Put cucumber in a medium bowl.

Add yogurt, olive oil, lemon juice, dill, garlic, salt, pepper, sugar and cayenne. Stir to combine, cover and refrigerate. After 1 hour, taste for seasoning and add more lemon, garlic or salt as needed. Refrigerate at least 1 more hour before serving.

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 26 calories (percent of calories from fat, 65), 1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 2 grams fat (trace saturated fat), 1 milligram cholesterol, 49 milligrams sodium.

Greek-Style Yogurt

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 2 hours, plus cooling and draining time

Makes: 4 cups yogurt after 12 hours draining (1/2 cup serving)

Greek-style yogurt is traditional yogurt that is strained so excess liquid is removed and the yogurt thickens. Use milk of whatever fat content you prefer. George Koulouris generally uses 2 percent. It’s traditional to keep some homemade yogurt to use as a starter for the next batch. If this is your first homemade batch, you’ll need a Greek yogurt with active cultures for your starter. Koulouris prefers Fage.

1/2 gallon 2 percent milk

1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt

In a large saucepan, bring milk just to a boil. Immediately turn off heat and allow to cool for 1 hour, or until milk reaches 120 degrees. Stir in yogurt and allow to cool. Mixture will thicken. Transfer milk mixture to a colander lined with cheesecloth and placed in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate at least 12 hours. The longer it drains, the thicker the yogurt. For Tzatziki, George Koulouris likes to drain the yogurt for 2 days.

Per 1/2-cup serving: 129 calories (percent of calories from fat, 33), 9 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, no fiber, 5 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 19 milligrams cholesterol, 133 milligrams sodium.

Grecian Gyro’s Psari Plaki (Baked Fish)

Hands on: 20 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Serves: 8

1/2 cup olive oil

2 large onions, cut in half lengthwise and sliced (about 3 cups)

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 pound chopped fresh tomatoes (about 2 cups)

Granulated sugar, salt and pepper to taste

2 pounds cod fillets

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Saute onions until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and rosemary and cook 5 minutes. Stir in wine and bring to a boil. Cook until mixture reduces slightly, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, sugar, salt and pepper and simmer until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes.

While sauce is cooking, arrange fillets in baking dish. Pour sauce over fish, cover and bake 20 minutes. Remove cover, bake for 10 minutes or until dish just begins to brown. Serve immediately with Greek-Style Green Beans and rice pilaf or roasted potatoes.

Per serving: 247 calories (percent of calories from fat, 55), 21 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 14 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 49 milligrams cholesterol, 68 milligrams sodium.

Grecian Gyro’s Greek-Style Green Beans

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Serves: 4

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup chopped sweet onions

4 cloves garlic, finely minced

2 tablespoons fresh chopped dill

1 pound fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

2 cups water or chicken stock

1 pound chopped fresh tomatoes (about 2 cups)

Salt and pepper

In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Saute onions until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and dill and cook 1 minute. Add green beans and saute 4 minutes or until beans turn bright green. Add water or chicken stock and bring to a boil. Cook beans 15 minutes or until they are tender. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper, reduce heat and simmer until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm.

Per serving: 308 calories (percent of calories from fat, 77), 3 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 28 grams fat (4 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 17 milligrams sodium.

Grecian Gyro’s Fakes Soupa (Lentil Soup)

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Makes: 12 cups

This very traditional Greek soup is the dish to serve on Holy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. It’s so delicious George Koulouris serves it all year around. Adding crusty bread and a salad makes a complete meal.

1 (14-ounce) bag dried lentils

6 cups water, plus more to precook lentils, divided

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for serving

1 onion, chopped

2 bay leaves

3 carrots, chopped

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1 pound chopped fresh tomatoes (about 2 cups)

Salt and pepper

White or apple cider vinegar, to taste

Wash lentils and remove any small stones or imperfect lentils.

In a large saucepan, add lentils and cover with water. Turn heat to medium high and bring water to a boil. Boil lentils 5 minutes. Drain lentils and discard cooking liquid.

Wipe out saucepan and add olive oil. Add onion and bay leaves and saute until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add carrots and garlic and saute 5 minutes or until onions begin to brown and carrots begin to soften. Add drained lentils, remaining 6 cups water, tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Bring mixture to a simmer and cook 30 minutes or until lentils are tender and soup has thickened. Add more water if needed.

Serve soup with olive oil and vinegar so each diner can add to taste.

Per 1-cup serving: 151 calories (percent of calories from fat, 16), 10 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams fiber, 3 grams fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 13 milligrams sodium.


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