When Sophia Simon Zervos talks about cooking, you constantly scribble notes. The dishes sound so good you want to try them at once.
They reflect Zervos' Greek heritage, but they're Greek recipes that you wouldn't find just anywhere. Age-old food traditions like these survive only in the hands of those dedicated to preserving them.
In Zervos' home in San Clemente, over coffee and syrup-soaked pastries--melomakarona--you listen to family history that stretches back to Smyrna and the island of Rhodes on her side and to the island of Kalymnos on her husband's side.
"My mother was a great cook," she says. "She was so friendly. Everybody just adored her." Zervos' parents were married in Europe before emigrating to the United States. Here her father went into the restaurant business, first in New Jersey, then in Nevada, where he worked as a chef to copper mine personnel. Finally he moved the family to Santa Barbara and opened a restaurant called the Busy Bee on State Street.
"I was always fascinated with cooking," Zervos says.
Her mother-in-law too was a noted cook. "She would bake, and I would watch. It was wonderful. It was fascinating," Zervos says. Her husband's grandfather, from Cyprus, had been a renowned baker and owned bakeries on several Greek islands. His photograph hangs on the wall in a gallery of family portraits.
Married at 17 to Simon G. Zervos, now a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain, she incorporated the best techniques from both families into her own style.
Sometimes, the difference between one cook's recipe and another's seems infinitesimal. Zervos' mother-in-law made melomakarona dough with Greek olive oil. Her mother preferred American vegetable oil. Her mother-in-law added orange peel. Her mother left it out.
Zervos bakes her own melomakarona in three styles: pale, the way some Greeks like these pastries; toastier, as others prefer; and, for her husband, a crunchy, barely sweetened version appropriate for his low-sugar diet.
Zervos had stayed up until midnight baking this day's batch, placing each pastry in a gilded wrapper. Not only does cooking like this have no shortcuts, it may require an extra step. Baking a test pastry first ensures against a spoiled batch, Zervos says. The pastry should hold its shape. If it spreads, the dough requires more flour.
Sometimes the difference between one cook and another is in the shape of a pastry. Zervos' mother rolled baklava. Her mother-in-law cut it into triangles. One used a sugar syrup; the other bathed baklava in honey.
Seasonings, too, can change the character of a dish. Zervos' mother used lots of fresh herbs, which she grew herself. Her mother-in-law seasoned more lightly.
In any dish, the quality of the ingredients is the foremost factor. Zervos makes sea bass baked in wine only with sea bass caught in the summer months off Northern California, Oregon or Washington. It most closely resembles the Aegean fish called synagrida (sheatfish).
Like most Greeks, she has baked her share of lamb legs. She marinates the meat overnight with garlic, oregano, lemon juice, salt and pepper. But she also does an interesting Kalymnos-style stuffed lamb shoulder. The meat is marinated with lemon juice and oregano, then roasted with a stuffing of ground beef, rice, pine nuts, chestnuts, cinnamon and cloves. She prefers American spring lamb, over imported lamb for its flavor. Delicious with lamb, the stuffing can also be used for cabbage rolls, stuffed grape leaves or peppers or even in turkey.
For a party, Zervos serves the lamb shoulder or a lamb leg with a salad of lettuce, cucumber, tomato, onion slices, feta cheese and Kalamata olives. She either sprinkles the cheese over the salad or arranges it in a slice alongside the olives, which she may top with anchovies. She might also serve roasted potatoes with a lamb leg, or the small pasta Greeks call manestra (we know it as rosamarina) cooked in a mixture of the juices from roasting the lamb, water, tomato sauce and tomato paste. The vegetable might be stewed zucchini. There would be Greek red wine with the meal and perhaps butter cookies to finish.
"Greek families don't eat a lot of sweets after a meal," Zervos says. "The salad is eaten afterward, then fruit and cheese."
There's a division of labor in the Zervos household that simplifies Zervos' cooking. "I'm the one who does the shopping," her husband says. "Sophia does the cooking." And Sophia gets some help with that from daughter Irene, who, her mother says, "is quite good at it."
Speaking for herself, Irene Zervos says: "I can brag a little bit, but I still consider myself a novice. To develop a style of cooking such as Mom's takes years of practice."
SEA BASS WITH WHITE WINE
10 (6-ounce) sea bass steaks
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 bay leaves
10 tomato slices
10 lemon slices, optional
2 tablespoons canned tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 cup olive oil
1 cup water
2 tablespoons chopped parsley