Chef Maria Loi wants to teach the world how to live healthier, happier, and longer. The key to doing that, she says, lies in Greek cuisine and its more than 2,000 years’ worth of wisdom.
Loi is a passionate ambassador for Greek food and the Mediterranean diet, which has increasingly gained the spotlight as one of the healthiest in the world. She’s authored several cookbooks on the subject, including “Ancient Dining,” the official cookbook of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and the best-selling “The Greek Diet.”
At her restaurant Loi Estiatorio, in Manhattan, New York, she continues to spread the gospel of Greek cuisine, along with her longtime corporate chef Dara Davenport (who, she jokes, “is becoming Greek”).
Loi draws upon her childhood in Nafpaktos, Greece, granules of wisdom passed down from her grandmother and grandfather, “the doctor in the house” despite never having formally studied; and farther back, to the teachings of the ancient Greeks, who believed, as Hippocrates famously said, that “food is medicine.”
In her latest project, she’s teamed up with Harvard professor and nutrition expert Dr. Stefanos Kales to research and further spread the health benefits of the Greek diet. Their findings, she said, have only confirmed the wisdom of the ancients.
But Loi’s mere presence is compelling evidence enough: she’s endlessly warm and spirited, eyes always sparkling behind her glasses, and prone to breaking out in song and dance mid-conversation, sashaying and twirling her arms to the music playing on the speakers in the middle of her restaurant. If you are what you eat, Greek food must be pure joy.
“This kind of food that we’re eating, it’s very good, it’s very healthy, and it doesn’t have side effects,” unlike more processed foods that may contain hidden toxins, Loi said. Greek food is based on simple, seasonal, and high-quality ingredients, including an abundance of fresh produce and wild greens, herbs and spices, fiber-rich beans and pulses, and heart-healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, and seafood.
Balance is key—that’s another piece of ancient Greek wisdom Loi pulls from: “Métron áriston,” “everything in moderation.”
“It’s everything together, it’s a mixture of all these foods. That’s what gives you the good life, the healthy life,” she said.
In the spirit of spreading that good life, she and Davenport shared their essentials for stocking a Greek kitchen, from olive oil to Greek yogurt—the building blocks for making healthy, nourishing food for both body and soul.
“This is knowledge that goes from one to the other, that’s how I got it as well,” Loi said. “And now, I’m lucky enough to give it to many people… I’m really so happy to do that. Because we have to teach the world how to eat healthy.”
Greek Olives and Olive Oil
Dubbed “liquid gold” by Homer and “the great healer” by Hippocrates, olive oil has long been a cornerstone of Greek culture and cuisine. As a Greek myth goes, the olive tree was a gift to humanity from Athena, the goddess of wisdom, presented in a competition with Poseidon for patronage of the then-unnamed city of Athens. (You can guess the victor.)
Extra-virgin olive oil—good olive oil, the kind that’s a fresh, vibrant green in color and makes the back of your throat tingle when it goes down—forms the foundation for the much-lauded, heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Many of the diet’s health benefits can be traced back to its generous use of olive oil.
Many of olive oil’s health benefits can be traced, in turn, to its concentration of polyphenols, naturally occurring compounds that act as powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. They’re the compounds responsible for that peppery, throat-tickling sensation you’re after.
Olive oil is also full of the antioxidant vitamin E, as well as monounsaturated fats—the healthy kind—which can help lower blood cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. As Davenport put it, “they’re the good fats that fight bad fats.”
“I use olive oil in everything,” Loi said—stirred into soups and stews, drizzled over vegetables and fish, even baked into chocolate cake. “My desserts, they use olive oil. People don’t believe that,” she said. (She never uses butter, she adds emphatically.)
When it comes to cooking, good quality, extra-virgin olive oil has a high heat resistance and a smoke point—the temperature at which an oil starts to burn, smoke, and degrade—of somewhere between 390 and 405 degrees Fahrenheit, Davenport said, making it suitable for anything from light sautéing to even deep-frying. (The key to safely frying with olive oil, or any oil, she adds, is to keep your oil temperature consistent, and generally no higher than 380 degrees F.)
Olives, meanwhile, are a great way to add salt to a dish; or, simply enjoyed on their own, a satisfying, savory snack.
Market Tip: An Award-Winning Olive Oil From Crete
When asked how to identify good olive oil, Loi is quick to answer: “First of all, it has to be Greek.” Her newest product, Loi Ladi extra-virgin olive oil, provides a worthy option—it was just crowned winner of the Specialty Food Association’s 2019 sofi award for “Best New Product” in the olive oil category.
Cold-extracted and unfiltered, the olive oil is made from koroneiki olives harvested from a small family grove in Crete. Loi Ladi is available at Whole Foods Market, joining pasta, dips, and two types of honey in the Loi product line.
The Greek name for oregano, perhaps the cuisine’s most beloved and essential herb, translates to “joy of the mountains,” or “brilliance of the mountains.” It was believed to have been created by the goddess Aphrodite, grown in her garden on Mount Olympus, to bring health, happiness, and joy to the people.
“Greek oregano is completely different from other oregano you find over here,” Loi said. Grown wild in the mountains of Greece, and recognizable by its distinctive white flowers, the herb has an incredibly bright, citrusy, woodsy aroma. It’s dried directly on the branch in bundles, concentrating the oils and thus the flavor, and broken off as needed to add to just about any savory dish.
The ancient Greeks recognized the preventative and curative benefits of oregano early on: Hippocrates used it as an antiseptic for cuts and skin infections, and a cure for digestive and respiratory problems, from stomachaches to asthma. Now, studies have shown oregano to have powerful antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties; some research has also pointed to its potential in fighting cancer cells.
Oregano tea has also long been a home cure and preventative measure for colds and coughs. Loi is an ardent ambassador: “Make oregano tea and you’ll never have a cold again!” she proclaimed. Davenport is also a reluctant supporter: “I do not enjoy oregano tea. It is not delicious to me. But it works—it is an amazing expectorant. It also helps decrease inflammation in your lungs.”
In Loi’s cooking, dried Greek oregano is second only to olive oil in ubiquity; few dishes are spared at least a sprinkling. Add it to salad dressings or atop salad greens themselves; stir it into soups and stews; use it to season any variety of meats and fish.
To make oregano tea, simply add a spoonful of the dried herbs to cold water and bring it to a boil. Drink a cup every two or four hours, “the way you would take DayQuil or NyQuil,” Davenport said. She and Loi suggest making a big batch of tea to store in the fridge, pouring out a cup to heat up whenever you’re in need of a boost.
Barley Rusks (Dakos)
Greek rusks, also known as paximadia, are a frugal peasant food turned beloved pantry staple. The hard, crunchy, twice-baked biscuits (“like the biscotti of Greece,” Davenport said) are made in a variety of different shapes and sizes, using a variety of flours, across different regions of Greece. Cretan barley rusks, or dakos, are one of the country’s most famous versions.
Dakos were born from practicality: After making a loaf of bread, home bakers would cut it into slices and bake them a second time to dry them out, thus preserving them for months ahead. They only needed to be softened slightly in water, oil, or wine before enjoying.
Fishermen often packed the hardened biscuits with them on long seafaring journeys, along with olive oil and canned tomatoes. Along the way, Loi said, “They would dip the dakos into the sea, and then add some olive oil and tomatoes, and it was like a full meal.”
Made with whole grain barley flour, dakos are high in dietary fiber, especially beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that has been linked to lower cholesterol and lower blood sugar. They’re also a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B1, selenium, calcium, phosphorus, and chromium.
Dakos are most commonly used to make a Cretan salad of the same name, consisting of dakos briefly softened in water, drizzled with olive oil, and topped with freshly grated tomato, tangy feta, and briny capers or olives. The olive oil and tomato juices further soften the rusks.
Davenport, long obsessed with dakos for their supreme crunch and nutty, earthy flavor, puts them “in everything, on everything”—as croutons for her village salad, for instance, or as thickeners at the bottom of a bowl of soup.
Beans are “severely underrated,” Davenport said, despite their star qualities: they’re versatile, inexpensive, easy to prepare, and extremely good for you. Greeks have traditionally made them into soups and stews, Loi added, as an economical way to stretch ingredients.
In Loi’s kitchen, they’re heartily embraced as the powerhouses they are. She and her restaurant staff essentially run on fasolada, a simple but nourishing Greek soup made with creamy cannellini beans and a healthy pour of olive oil. (“I had it for breakfast this morning,” Davenport revealed; Loi flagged down a passing waiter for confirmation, and he confessed he was headed to the kitchen for a bowl right at that moment.) Full of satiating fiber and protein, the beans keep them full, without feeling heavy, throughout their busy days.
Beans are an excellent source of plant-based protein and iron, especially helpful for vegetarians. Their high concentration of both soluble and insoluble fiber keeps your digestive system running smoothly, makes you feel full while eating less, and helps lowers cholesterol.
Beans also have a low glycemic index score, meaning that the carbohydrates in them are digested and absorbed more slowly into your bloodstream, helping to regulate blood sugar levels.
The culinary uses for beans are as varied as the types of beans available: chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, and so on. Cooked dried beans are better than their canned counterparts, in terms of both taste and texture, but canned beans work just fine in a pinch, so long as you thoroughly rinse them before use, to wash off excess sodium.
Then, eat them on their own as a hearty side; toss them into salads to add protein and heft; use them to thicken sauces; or cook them into luscious soups. They’ll release starch while cooking, adding richness and creaminess without a drop of dairy.
Thicker and tangier than regular yogurt, and packed with protein and gut-friendly probiotics, Greek yogurt has become known as a nutritional darling. In Greece, it was traditionally made with sheep’s milk, though cow’s milk is now more common.
“Good yogurt, when you turn the spoon [upside-down], it doesn’t fall down. That’s good yogurt,” Loi said. Her Greek yogurt, strained of almost all its whey until thick and creamy—the way her grandmother made it—passes the test with flying colors; she serves it in a bowl in three proud, perfectly spherical mounds, one stacked on top of the other two like scoops of ice cream.
Loi has another requirement for her yogurt: it has to be full fat. Davenport recalled that when she first saw Loi making Greek yogurt and asked about the fat percentage of the milk, she was met with a blunt response: “My grandmother never met a skim cow.”
Greek yogurt has less sugar, due to lactose being strained out with the whey; and double the protein of regular yogurt, which helps you fill up quickly and stay full, and can contribute to healthy weight loss. It also contains a host of other nutrients, including calcium, iodine, potassium, and vitamin B-12.
Most notably, Greek yogurt is full of probiotics, good bacteria that keep your gut and digestive system balanced, healthy, and happy. A healthier, happier gut means a healthier, happier body overall—the ancient Greeks surmised as much (“All disease begins in the gut,” Hippocrates said), and recent studies have suggested links between gut health and immune, heart, and even brain and mental health.
Though traditionally used as a base for tzatziki dip, or eaten as a snack or dessert topped with honey or other sweet or savory toppings, Greek yogurt is extremely versatile, especially as a healthy substitute in cooking and baking.
Its creamy texture and pleasantly tart flavor make it a great swap for mayonnaise in sandwiches and chicken salads; for sour cream atop baked potatoes and tacos or in dips, creamy sauces, or cakes; and for buttermilk in pancakes and other baked goods. Try mixing it with your favorite herbs and spices and using it to marinate and tenderize meat, especially chicken or lamb.
Outside of the kitchen, Greek yogurt can be used as an all-natural, moisturizing face mask or soothing cream for irritated or burned skin. “In the summertime in Greece, we never had anything like cream when we [got] sunburned, so we put yogurt,” Loi recalled.
In Loi’s book of sweeteners, honey reigns supreme; she casts white sugar away with the same disdain as she does butter.
“When I was a kid, every night, our grandfather used to give us a spoonful [of honey] before we went to sleep,” she said, like natural antibiotics. “It balances the system before you go to sleep, and it relaxes you.” (For mornings, he prescribed a spoonful of olive oil.)
Honey is rich in antioxidants and may help lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood triglycerides, a risk factor for heart disease in high concentrations. The ancient Greeks used it as a topical treatment for wounds and burns, effective due to its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.
Loi uses honey instead of sugar in all of her desserts. Since it’s sweeter than sugar—just half a tablespoon of honey is equivalent in sweetness to a tablespoon of sugar—you can use less of it. For a classic Greek treat, drizzle it in sticky ribbons over mounds of thick Greek yogurt, and top with crushed walnuts.
Here’s a bonus beauty tip from Loi: Thanks to its antibacterial properties, honey works great as a spot treatment for skin blemishes, especially mixed with a bit of olive oil. Rinse it off with warm water after about 15 minutes.
Greek Mountain Tea
Mild and fragrant, with a long-lasting sweetness, Greek mountain tea is an herbal infusion made from the stems, leaves, and flowers of the sideritis plant, a hardy perennial native to mountainous regions across the Mediterranean. Greek shepherds would brew tea from the plants while tending to their flocks in the mountains, earning the drink its other common name of “shepherd’s tea.”
Though the healing tea is especially fitting during cold season, Loi drinks it every day.
Sideritis has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial properties, and has been used since ancient times as a panacea for a wide range of ailments, including the common cold, digestive and respiratory issues, and allergies. Yet another one of its names, “ironwort,” is related to its past use for treating wounds inflicted by iron weapons. “Malotira,” the name of the variety of mountain tea specific to the island of Crete, literally means “to extract a bad thing.”
Greek mountain tea also works as a calming sleep aid; Loi prescribes a cup every night for better sleep.
Greek mountain tea is packaged as whole, dried stems, with leaves and flowers attached. To brew, break a few stems into small pieces and add them to a teapot, fill the pot with cold water, and bring the water to a boil—you want the tea to steep from the beginning, to enhance the flavor. The longer you let it simmer, the stronger the tea will be.
Serve the tea strained or with stems and all, adding honey and lemon or milk if desired. Loi suggests letting it cool, then refrigerating it for at least an hour and enjoying it cold.
See also: Chef Maria Loi’s Essential Greek Recipes
Please consult your doctor before making any major changes to your diet.