Early on Maria Loi learned to appreciate the bounty of her Greek homeland. She foraged for the aromatic oregano which, caressed by the sunshine, grew wild and flavorful in the nearby mountains. With her grandfather, she harvested the black honey they found in forests that had stood, almost untouched, from ancient times.
In Thermo, the small village in southeastern Greece where she grew up, Loi cooked from her parents and grandparents, not sparing in the use of the golden oil pressed from olives after they had ripened under the hot sun. She raised both vegetables and chickens, and cooked the freshest of fish that came from the waters around her home. Loi’s passion for the foods of her country which she shared in her 36 cookbooks earned her the title of Ambassador of Greek Gastronomy an honor awarded by the Chef’s Club of Greece.
Now Loi, now chef/owner of two restaurants– the award-winning Loi Estiatorio in Manhattan and Kouzina Loi in the port town of Nafpaktos in Western Greece, is takes us further into the culinary treasures of Greek cooking in her 13-part national public television series The Life of Loi: Mediterranean Secrets which premiered on December 31.
The ever enthusiastic Loi takes us on a series of adventures–island hopping from Athens to Naxos to Evia, exploring the olive groves that produce the olive oil she so values as essential to our health, visiting a mushroom farm on Evia Island, cooking on a boat moored in the beautiful Aegean Sea, and in the kitchen of her Manhattan restaurant.
Beyond using the best ingredients from her native country, Loi is also about easily accessible recipes. She certainly makes it look like a breeze on her TV series. But beyond authenticity and ease, Loi is all about healthy eating.
It started, she says, when her grandfather fed her two tablespoons of olive oil—Greek olive oil of course—not that stuff from Italy or Spain–every morning and a teaspoon of black honey every night–the honey she and her grandfather had harvested together.
“He told us the olive oil would flush out the toxins from our body and the honey would kill the germs from our day,” she says.
It’s become such a mantra that patrons seeing her at Loi Estiatorio confide they’re taking their daily dose of olive oil just like she recommends. Her staff has lost weight following her Greek dieta or diet (think Mediterranean but the Greeks really invented it she tells me) and she is healthy as a horse.
“Of course you should always talk to your doctor,” she says with a broad smile, most likely because she believes that any doctor would back up her claims. “Even the FDA has adopted now that we have to do two tablespoons of olive oil every day.”
After a quick search, I find that Loi is correct. According to WebMD, the FDA has approved a new qualified health claim for olive oil based on studies showing that consuming about two tablespoons of olive oil a day may reduce the risk of heart disease.
This, of course, is not news to Loi who has learned from the land and her ancestors about the wonders of eating.
Oh, and not only does she cook and consume olive oil, but she also puts some on her hair at night and shampoos in the morning. Her hair looks great and so does she. Obviously I should put olive oil on my grocery list.
Named one of the top Women Makers by Whole Foods Market and one of the best female owned and operated brands/suppliers with whom Whole Foods Market works, Loi was also selected as one of the Top Women in Food Service & Hospitality and is called the “Julia Child of Greece.”
With her distinctive blonde bob, oversized dark rimmed glasses, wide smile and engaging, friendly manner, Loi comes across as my new best friend. This after an hour Zoom chat. That’s how easily she connects.
Or at least that’s the impression I get after spending an hour chatting on Zoom.
“Oh these are great questions,” she tells me, looking over the list I’d sent her publicist a few days prior to the virtual interview.
“Oh thank you, that makes me feel so good,” she says, when I tell her that after watching her cook on the terrace of the historic Hotel Grande Bretagne, a luxury hotel in Athens that overlooks the Acropolis that I am totally ready to buy every one of her 36 cookbooks and learn to make the dishes of her native country.
“I feel healthy already,” I say, after listening to her extoll the virtues of eggplants, tomatoes, and especially Greek feta.
But when we talk about feta, she becomes much more serious. Loi doesn’t like the idea of us buying inferior ingredients. You can buy feta crumbles in the grocery store to sprinkle over your salad but don’t say that to Loi who is repulsed by the idea. Greek feta, made from either sheep or goat milk or a mixture of the two is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product as is Champagne (France), spaetzle and sauerkraut (Germany), and such cheeses as Parmesan and Asiago (Italy). PDOs are products that are produced, processed and prepared in a specific geographical area, using the recognized know-how of local producers and ingredients from the region concerned.
“People say they’re buying feta and you know what it is,” Loi asked. But she doesn’t stop long enough for me to answer. “It’s cow’s milk. It’s not feta, it’s just white cheese. Feta comes from Greece because the climate affects the soil, and the production is unique.”
I silently swear to myself that I will never buy anything but Greek feta again. It’s not a hard promise to make. I remember my Aunt Daneise, who was Greek and a great cook, making sure that she always had a block of feta sitting in its liquid so that it didn’t dry out. It glistened when she took it out and cut it into slices which by the way, Loi tells me, is what feta means in Greek—slice. Who knew?
I ask Loi which of her cookbooks she would recommend to readers who want to cook Greek but she says she really doesn’t want to sound like she’s plugging her products. The same goes with her line of foods that includes (and I only know this because I went online and looked) olive oil, black honey, wild thyme and flower honey as well as Greek pastas, and smoked eggplant. There are jars of such items as her Feta-Yogurt Pougi—a concoction that can be served hot or cold and used as a spread, dip, or sauce and her Garlic Potato Dip (Skordalia in Greek), a vegan product that not only is a dip but can also be used for marinating and sautéing.
“How can I make suggestions to readers if you won’t give me some ideas?” I ask. I finally get her to talk about “The Greek Diet,” one of her cookbooks. Oh and she did mention that she’s working on another cookbook that will be out soon. Yes, really. I think that will be number 37.
But what Loi wants to talk about are her charities.
According to Total Food Service’s digital magazine, Loi has become one of the nation’s leading chefs, philanthropists, brand creators and ambassadors. During the pandemic, she turned her Manhattan restaurant into a soup kitchen, feeding the homeless and also prepared thousands of meals for first responders and patients at many area hospitals. She co-founded the Elpida Foundation to help fight childhood cancer. Her Loukoumi Make A Difference inspires kids to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others.
I ask Loi if she’s having as much fun as it looks like she is on her show.
The answer is yes and it boils down to this.
“I’m passionate and driven,” she says. “If you’re not, what is there?”
For more program information, visit: https://www.pbs.org/food/shows/life-of-loi-mediterranean-secrets/
To view recipes featured in the series and more, visit Chef Loi’s social media platforms @ChefMariaLoi (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter).
The following recipes are courtesy of Maria Loi.
Garides Me Kritharaki / Shrimp with Orzo
“This quick and easy take on a Greek classic will have dinner on the table in 20 minutes, from start to finish,” says Maria Loi. “The timeless flavors of tomato, lemon, oregano, and olive oil paired with the delicate sweetness of the shrimp are married perfectly with the tart, creaminess of the feta garnish.”
- 8 ounces orzo pasta
- 1 medium red onion, chopped
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 12 cherry tomatoes
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 8 pieces of shrimp, peeled and deveined
- Dry Greek oregano, to taste
- Feta cheese, for garnish
Preheat oven to 375ºF.
Add orzo to a large pot of salted boiling water, and allow to cook for 7 to 9 minutes, until desired texture. Strain, and reserve.
While orzo is cooking, add the chopped onions, lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and 7 cherry tomatoes to an oven safe dish, season with salt to taste, and stir to combine. Add shrimp on top of the mixture, and top with the remaining 5 cherry tomatoes: season with pepper and Greek oregano, and top with 1 tablespoon of olive oil.
Bake for 4-5 minutes, or until the shrimp turn pink and opaque, and tomatoes have a slight char.
Serve over a bed of orzo, topped with crumbled feta and dressed with olive oil.
Greek Honey Cheesecake (Melopita) – from The Greek Diet Cookbook
“Melopita translates as ‘honey pie,’ but this dish is my healthy version of a ricotta-style cheesecake,” writes Maria Loi in the introduction to this recipe from “The Greek Diet Cookbook.” “Light and fresh with a hint of lemon, this cake has the perfect tang from the yogurt. Drizzle with some honey to keep it classic.”
- Olive oil, for the pan
- 1 pound anthotyro (ricotta cheese)
- 1 cup 2% plain Greek yogurt
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1⁄2 cup Greek honey, plus more for garnish
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1⁄4 cup sugar
- Ground cinnamon, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat a 9-inch springform pan with olive oil, line it with a round of parchment paper, and lightly oil the paper.
In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, yogurt, eggs, 1⁄2 cup honey, lemon zest, flour, and sugar. Beat thoroughly, either with an electric mixer or a whisk.
Pour the batter into the pan and gently rap it against a hard surface to release any air bubbles.
Bake the melopita for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the filling sets. Remove the cake from the oven and let cool. Refrigerate the cake for 2 or 3 hours.
Run a knife around the inside edge of the pan and release the sides. Invert the cake onto a serving plate.
Carefully remove the bottom of the cake pan and the parchment paper.
Serve the cake sprinkled with some cinnamon and drizzled with a little honey.
Based on a similar article that appeared in the Herald Palladium.