A Greek in the woods
I answered the phone to hear a man speaking loudly, not in an angry way, more excited with anticipation. I had trouble understanding him, his accent heavy and exotic, then heard the words, “Zenon Taverna” and realized he had first said, “It’s Stelios.” Then I knew who he was.
Over 20 years ago, my sister, Janet, and I had stumbled upon his Greek/Cypriot restaurant in Astoria, Queens. We soon began frequenting Stelios Papageorgiou’s taverna often enough that I wrote two reviews of the place, and we gradually befriended each other when Stelios would stop at our table to discuss his preparation of various dishes we adored or to talk about the joys of having a country haven in upstate New York.
On our final visit to Zenon before we moved upstate full-time, we exchanged phone numbers. Stelios said, “You must come see my property.” I was surprised when he actually called to invite us to visit. “I’ll be hunting in the morning, so it will be good if you come between 11 and 2,” he said. I grabbed a bottle of the only Greek wine we had in the house before we headed out. When we arrived, having driven down a winding road, we found Stelios in rustic, bare bones surroundings in khaki shorts and a heavy top, a knife in a leather sheath at his belt. It was a cool, brisk morning, but sunny enough to sit outside at a little table in the midst of his wooded acreage after we met his visiting friend, Costos, and had a tour of his enormous garden.
There were lettuces, cabbage, corn, fava and green beans, carrots, knobby kohlrabi, grapes, peaches, pears, sweet and hot peppers, squash, chard and the most gorgeous hefty, deeply hued beefsteak tomatoes I’ve ever encountered. Stelios walked us past a large table heaped with the ripe bounty he had already picked and motioned for us to sit at a little table across from where Costos was comfortably ensconced.
“What were you hunting this morning?” I asked as Stelios motioned for us to dig into the wedges of glistening tomato and sliced raw kohlrabi on two paper plates in front of us. “I sat 20 feet up in a tree for two hours waiting for a bear,” he said, adding, “They have been giving out permits because the bears are coming dangerously close to people’s homes.” We knew this first hand, having had a bear on our back porch just days earlier. “Have you eaten bear?” Janet asked him. “Of course; I eat everything I hunt.”
With a beer in hand, Stelios sat on a big cooler that abutted an enormous grill and Costos brought out a bottle of ice cold ouzo he’d gotten from one of the two small structures on the property, the only ones on the 50-plus acres. “We eat the kohlrabi raw with a little ouzo before a meal,” Costos instructed. It was crisp-textured and crunchy, reminding me of jicama. And the tomatoes, which were totally unadorned, were out of this world.
After Stelios told us how he had made his way to this country from Cyprus, he moved over to the giant grill and proceeded to cook. First he brought over tender octopus, glistening with olive oil and lemon juice, then halloumi cheese, blackened with grill marks and slightly tangy in taste. “Do you like porgy?” he asked, holding up a whole scaled fish and then placing it over the hot coals. He served us slices of good bread he had grilled, then drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with a cut lemon half. “I’m making chicken souvlaki,” he called over. Janet and I looked at each other, eyes popping. Soon came rounds of pork tenderloin, pork ribs and homemade sausages brought from the restaurant.
We had not expected to be fed and were overwhelmed. Costos smiled as Stelios worked contentedly. “I don’t garden, I don’t hunt, I don’t cook,” he said, “I just come to relax and be with my friend.” “More ouzo?” “No, no, thank you,” I said, “we really should be going, and we’re stuffed.” To our surprise, Stelios set to quickly packing a take-out container with the entire porgy, then another with huge chunks of chicken kebob that had been skewered with onions, tomatoes and peppers. He set them before us. “Come, come, you must take from the garden,” he insisted, gesturing toward the laden table a few feet from us. He prodded me to take more and more as I packed bags with his produce while he strode over to our open car trunk with a bucket filled with Swiss chard and a bag he’d filled to the brim with green beans, throwing a couple of ears of corn and a few carrots on top for good measure.
We hugged goodbye and thanked him for the treat of being with him in his paradise. I had not retrieved the camera I keep in the glove compartment of the car. I had not taken a single photograph. I wanted to remember the magic of that day forever, just as it had been.
When we arrived home I placed all the fruit and vegetables on the picnic table on our back porch, grabbed my camera, and captured the full scope of Stelios’ largess. During the following week, Janet and I relived that idyllic day as we fed from his garden and grill and, most strikingly, from his generosity and big-heartedness.
Green Beans in Mustard Tarragon Vinaigrette
¾ pound green beans, ends snipped off
1 teaspoon honey Dijon mustard, preferably stone-ground
1 Tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add green beans and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender. Immediately drain and refresh in a large bowl of ice water. Drain well after 30 seconds and dry well with paper toweling. Let cool about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Place dry beans in a large serving bowl and add vinaigrette. Toss well to combine. Chill, refrigerated, for 1 hour. Toss again and taste for seasoning. Serve immediately.