Succulent slow-roasted lamb, seasoned with Greek spices. Grilled goat burgers. Gyros drizzled with tzatziki sauce. Fried calamari. It’s no secret that the New Orleans Greek Festival is a mecca for outstanding Mediterranean food.
But you can enjoy the vibrant flavors of this festival throughout the year, in your own home, with a little help from the festival’s pop-up Greek Grocery.
Launched nearly 40 years ago by Billie Andersson, the Greek Grocery is packed with fine cheeses and olives imported from New York City, pita bread from Chicago, oregano from the mountains of Greece, and — perhaps best of all — an assortment of homemade goods prepared by local volunteers from all walks of life.
“There are wonderful ladies and gentlemen who devote their time to helping the church do this,” said Andersson, who makes 250 loaves of Greek bread for the event each year. “When it runs out, it runs out, because it takes a long time to make that bread.”
The collection of homemade treats is available only during the weekend of the Greek Festival. They include a potato and garlic spread known as skordalia, feta cheese balls, a cucumber yogurt dip called tzatziki, and melitzanosalata — an eggplant salad.
“If you were to have a party and wanted to have a couple of mezzes — those are little tidbits, like Greek tapas — you wouldn’t have a party without tzatziki, skordalia, eggplant dip, and Greek fish roe (taramousalata),” said Andersson, noting that her mother made a first-class fish roe spread.
The store is stocked with pre-made orzo and rice mixes, along with local and Greek honey. Other popular items include Greek vinaigrette, olive oil soap, and stuffed grape leaves (dolma) — a crowd favorite.
“They go so quickly, I can’t keep them in stock,” said Andersson. And the stuffed dates? “If I don’t have them every year, people go crazy.”
Although the grocery offers items that may be unfamiliar to some American palates, they sell traditional Greek hummus. As for desserts, Andersson recommends the rice pudding called rizogalo, and a sweet treat that she describes as “yogurt, with a light flavor that people adore.”
Packets of dried herbs are a dollar apiece. For an extra 50 cents, guests can buy the herbs and the grocery’s signature Greek seasoning. Andersson boasted that this is “the best deal in the city,” as far as dried herbs go. Some folks, she said, buy a yearly supply. And, a variety of live plants, like olive trees, will be available for purchase.
Olives play a substantial role in Greek cuisine. So this year, the grocery is focusing on the Kalamata olive, which is grown in the Greek city of Kalamata.
These eggplant-colored olives will be the star ingredient of several dishes, such as bread biscuits and olive tapenade.
Many shoppers enter the store with a recipe in mind. But newcomers to Greek cuisine are encouraged to ask questions and watch the cooking demonstrations taking place throughout the day.
Andersson’s husband, a lawyer who loves to cook, will show guests how to prepare a Mediterranean dish, in under 20 minutes, using ingredients available in the shop.
Additional recipes can be found in the grocery’s collection of cookbooks, which includes “The Festival of Greek Flavors,” prepared by a Greek Orthodox church group in Denver, Colorado.
“We managed to find this little gem last year,” said Andersson. “Our idea is to share whatever we have with the people who come. You’ll hear us talking, explaining and showing everybody what everything is, because we think that Greek food is something that everyone should have a taste of.”
As much as Andersson enjoys visiting with her fellow volunteers each year, and sharing the cuisine of her heritage with guests, she is especially eager to savor the other aspects of the Greek Festival.
“I try to sneak out, because they have fantastic music and I love to Greek dance,” said Andersson.
The scene of festgoers relaxing on the banks of Bayou St. John, with a drink in their hand while listening to the music, is one that she treasures. “It’s as if they’re on an island. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”