It’s all Greek to me

Learning how to cook and how to make your own luck in a Greek restaurant.

Warm Greek lentil soup topped with feta and herbs. —James Meaney

Many years ago, in the salad days of my culinary career, I worked in a restaurant owned by a Greek national named Kostas. He was one of those success stories that made you believe the American Dream could be reality. He emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970s, not knowing a word of English, and with $40 in his pocket. Ten years later, he opened his own restaurant, and had become a pillar of the Greek community in Syracuse, N.Y.

His oldest son, whom he had been grooming to take over the business when the time came, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 25, ending Kostas’ dream of a comfortable retirement. 

Soon after he opened his restaurant, a manager had stolen a large amount of money and skipped town. As a result, Kostas no longer trusted anyone to handle his business’ money, and was present at the restaurant from open to close, six days a week, well into his 60s. 

On top of that, he would help his increasingly debilitated son schedule doctor’s appointments, fill out applications for apartments, and, when his son was denied disability benefits, he hired a high-priced lawyer to represent him at the hearings.

All this would have been overwhelming for anybody, but Kostas wasn’t just anybody. Through it all, he never forgot who he was or where he came from — a small village in the hills of Greek Macedonia. He would use traditional folk remedies instead of more conventional, modern methods. A cold could be treated by heating tsipouro (a potent, clear brandy), and downing the scalding liquor while it was still hot enough to make your eyes water. If nothing else, it certainly took one’s mind off that troublesome cold.

Although he was more businessman than chef, he would recreate the simple, nourishing dishes of his homeland for friends and family. Whole roasted goat for Easter, avgolemono (a thick, velvety lemon-chicken soup), chicken thighs and halved lemons baked in orzo, and today’s recipe, a Hellenic version of classic lentil soup. This recipe is vegetarian, and can be made vegan by omitting the feta. It’s also hearty and substantial enough to win over avowed carnivores.

Although my days of wrapping gyros and crumbling feta over Greek salads are long behind me, my time under Kostas’ wing showed me that with enough hard work and strength of will, a man can make his own luck. 

I hope you enjoy this soup as much as I do. And, as they say in Kostas’ neck of the woods, kali orexi! 

Greek Lentil Soup

Serves 8-10, so invite your friends!

1⅓ cup olive oil
4 large white onions, diced
4 carrots, sliced into rounds
4 ribs celery, sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely diced
1½ cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 lb. lentils, soaked in water 2½ hours, drained, and rinsed
1 half-gallon (8 cups) water
3 cups vegetable stock
½ cup red wine vinegar
A generous pinch of each of the following:
dried oregano
dried thyme
dried basil
1 large bay leaf
2 lemons, cut into wedges and seeds removed
½ lb. crumbled feta cheese (optional but recommended)

Pour the olive oil into a large stockpot and set the burner to medium heat. Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and tomatoes. Stir frequently until onions are translucent and veggies are reduced in volume by roughly one third. At this point, add all remaining ingredients except the lemon wedges and feta. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low, and simmer for 2 hours.

Ladle into bowls and top with a small handful of feta cheese. Serve each bowl with a lemon wedge, to be squeezed into soup right before partaking.