Making the Greek dish briam feels like a magic trick. A rainbow of summer produce—tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers, onions, potatoes—enters the oven simply sliced, seasoned, and bathed in olive oil and emerges a meltingly soft and velvety melange, each vegetable an amplified version of itself. Heaped onto a plate alongside a hunk of crusty bread and a crumbly slice of feta, it’s a dish that makes an inarguable case for vegetables as a main course.
Olive Oil: Greece's Liquid GoldOlive oil is so important to Greek cuisine that it includes a entire category of olive oil–based dishes (called lathera) featuring vegan or vegetarian stews like briam that are cooked on the stovetop or in the oven in an abundance of this richly flavored fat. Read more about the topic here.
“Natural sweetness and good fat—there’s something very crave-able about that,” Greek chef and cookbook author Diane Kochilas told me over a call from her home in Athens. In speaking with Kochilas and other Greek chefs about briam, I quickly learned that, while there are few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to the dish (some recipes call for the vegetables to be thinly sliced and meticulously shingled; others, breezily chunked and mixed together before going in the oven), the desired result is universal: vegetables that are meltingly soft but not soggy, with hyperconcentrated flavor. In a successful briam, Kochilas said, the only liquid left at the end of cooking should be olive oil, perfect for sopping up with bread.
In my take on the dish, I sliced about 4 pounds of vegetables ¼ inch thick, large enough to keep them from turning to mush but thin enough that they’d cook up tender. When it came time to arrange the slices in my baking dish, I opted for a simple but strategic approach. I placed the potatoes in first, to serve as a sturdy base, tossing them with minced garlic, some salt, and ⅓ cup of olive oil. Next came the other, more delicate vegetables: half the onion (cut through the root end so that it would maintain its shape), 2-inch lengths of green bell pepper, the rest of the onion, sliced garlic, and a layer of zucchini coins. I topped the briam with tomato rounds, overlapping them to cover the entire surface like a quilt. This way, the tomatoes could develop some flavorful browning; plus, their juice would trickle down through the layers of the dish during cooking, infusing all the vegetables with their brightness. I topped off the (very full) dish with another ⅓ cup of olive oil and sprinkles of salt and pepper.
With the layering settled, it was time for me to finesse the cooking method. Simply sliding the baking dish into a 400-degree oven dried out the tomatoes on top before the rest of the vegetables could cook through, leaving them shriveled and leathery at the edges. So, in my next batch, I loosely covered the dish with foil for the first 30 minutes, leaving the sides open to allow some moisture to evaporate. After that, I uncovered the dish for the rest of the cooking time to encourage browning. This time, the tomatoes were perfect: slightly collapsed, concentrated, and caramelized but still bright, moist, and tender.
I scattered some chopped fresh parsley over the top and scooped a portion onto my plate. Peering at the shallow, gleaming olive oil left behind in the baking dish, I knew even before I dug in that it was right. The vegetables were tender, luxurious but not greasy, and substantial. As I swiped up the warm, garlic-infused olive oil with a hunk of bread, I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of eating my briam again the next day, when, I was told, it would be even better.