It’s August, and most of my friends and relatives in Serbia have either joined the caravan of cars and buses heading south to Greece, or they are ensconced at their desks editing the photos from another fabulous family vacation to Greece. For me, Greece is as elusive as Antarctica right now, and it hurts to know that I took for granted Yugoslavia’s southern neighbor while I was growing up and before I made the U.S. my new home.

So these days I visit Ellada vicariously through my friends’ photos on Facebook, music, and food. The sound of “bouzouki” through my wireless headphones mixed with a pinch of crumbled dry Greek oregano works better than any sci-fi movie teleporting apparatus, so good that I instantly feel the breeze of scirocco envelop me like a comforting, tropical cocoon.

I’ll take any chance to escape to the Mediterranean and a Greek feast in Vernon, California, hosted by fine people of Melissa’s Produce, was an event I did not want to miss. We gathered there to celebrate OPA! Healthy Greek Cookbook,* written by Christina Xenos, Los Angeles based personal chef and writer, and Theo Stephen, who owns an olive farm in Santa Ynez Valley.

While Theodora Stephan could not attend, Christina Xenos delighted us with her presentation. We all tend to cling to nostalgic memories of food which make us feel protected, safe, and loved, but as the world, in general, is changing, so is the world of food, in any region and any culture. Christina and Theo’s goal was to preserve the tastes of traditional Greek cuisine while introducing healthier, easier, and more modern techniques, as well as new ingredients that are quickly becoming staples in the Mediterranean diet.

They both emphasize the benefits of sharing locally grown, seasonal, sustainably grown food with friends and family and taking time to savor each delicious bite without rushing out of the door.

For the appetizer round, Melissa’s Produce chefs made these perfectly seasoned and full of flavor dishes:

  • Roasted Red Pepper and Feta Dip, flavored with garlic and lemon and served with pita triangles
  • Avocado Garlic Skordalia with lemon, almonds, and olive oil
  • Zucchini Keftedes, baked zucchini patties with scallions, feta and kefalotiri cheeses, garlic, and eggs

There were several main dishes, plenty for omnivores and vegetarians to choose from and feel sated:

  • Greek Country Salad with heirloom tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, olives, feta, olive oil, and Greek oregano
  • Arugula Salad with Blood Oranges, Pomegranate, and Fennel, tossed with a dressing of shallots, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar
  • Shrimp Saganaki (or Santorini), with sauteed onions, garlic, tomatoes, olives, Greek oregano, feta, pepper, and parsley
  • Braised Chicken with Tomato Sauce flavored with Hatch sweet onions, garlic, carrots, and cinnamon

All three desserts disappeared within minutes and if it were not for the generous spirit of my kind table-mates, I would not have had a chance to sample Christina’s mother-in-law’s special baklava recipe, which uses four different nuts.

  • Zucchini Lemon Olive Oil Cake with cream cheese frosting
  • Baklava with walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, and almonds,
  • Shortbread Cookies, made with olive oil rather than butter

Christina was showing us how to make Shrimp Saganaki, which breaks the culinary rule of not using cheese with seafood

We used to share a border with Greece while Serbia was a part of Yugoslavia, but there are so many everyday details that we have a common, from religion to common superstitions to traditions to dances to coffee… I have not been to Greece yet, but I feel that one glorious September, pretty soon, when I find myself on one of many islands of the archipelago, I will feel at home, like I always belonged, letting the scirocco caress my skin while I inhale with full lungs the familiar briny smell of the Mediterranean.

*Opa! is an exclamation mostly associated with Greek traditions, but we use it in Serbian as well, to show surprise or admiration, and in folk songs and dances.