How important is olive oil to the Greeks? So important, Greek chef and cookbook author Diane Kochilas says, that a common wedding blessing references it (“may you always have bread, wine, and olive oil in your house”); that olives make appearances in the region’s religious iconography; and that nearly every Greek has access to a backyard olive tree, be it their own or a relative’s.
“It’s the absolute most fundamental ingredient in the Greek kitchen,” Kochilas says. “It’s the food of sustenance in this part of the world.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Greek culinary tradition includes an entire category of olive oil–based dishes, called lathera. Derived from the Greek word for oil, “lathi,” lathera dishes are typically vegan or vegetarian stews, cooked on the stovetop or in the oven in an abundance of olive oil, fortifying the vegetables with heartiness.
“It’s a really different approach to vegetable cooking,” Kochilas says. Lathera dishes are typically cooked slowly to allow the vegetables’ water to evaporate, rendering them meltingly soft and tender with hyperconcentrated flavor. By the end of cooking, Kochilas says, “The only liquid left should be the olive oil and whatever ingredients have been infused into it, so you can dip your bread into it at the end.”
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Take the dish called briam, for example, in which sliced tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers, onions, and potatoes become meltingly soft during a slow oven roast, or fasolakia, featuring green beans, potatoes, and tomatoes simmered on the stovetop until tender. Both dishes epitomize the lathera concept: plant-forward dishes with robust olive oil flavor that are so rich and satisfying that there needn’t be meat on the table, perhaps just some feta cheese and crusty bread. And a bottle of olive oil for extra drizzling, of course.