THE CALIFORNIA COOK
For one Greek American family, the hunt for greens is deeply rooted
Alexandra Panousis passes down her passion for the wild mustards and other plants of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
THREE GENERATIONS: Elaine Panousis, left, Alexia Haidos, right, and Alexandra Panousis, seated. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Alexia says one of her favorite parts of family dinners is the postgame show, listening to her grandmother analyze everything that was served. Even at 96 (her birthday is April 15), Alexandra is acute in her food observations. She has a satellite dish that brings her Greek television stations, including a Greek version of the Food Network. And, her granddaughter laughs, Alexandra sometimes confides that she's amazed the chefs somehow learned her cooking secrets.
"Oh my God, she's a tough reviewer," says Elaine. So tough, in fact, that Elaine says she didn't really start cooking until she was 28, and then only from diet guru Adelle Davis. "I guess I lived on wheat germ and soy flour for years. It was like my mainstay."
Like mother, like . . .
In fact, it was only fairly recently that she began cooking Greek food. But when her mother had her first bout of ill health five years ago, Elaine decided, "I've just got to do it and we just went through it."
When Alexandra got out of the hospital, she moved up the street from the house she'd shared with Elaine, to the home of Alexia's mother and father, Christine and Alek Haidos, because it was more wheelchair accessible.
And Elaine began cooking her Sunday dinners. "I'll take her something Greek that she loves. It's a lot easier now," she says. "She's been on my side for quite a while.
"It didn't take that long, actually. In the beginning, I was always on the phone with her, asking her, 'OK, what do I do now?' These days, it's kind of sad because I don't have to ask her that many questions and I kind of miss it."
Indeed, Alexandra even goes so far as to tell visitors that Elaine has mastered many of her old dishes. "She was interested when she was younger, but she was a little rebellious," her mother says. "But now she's a good cook. Now she has my own taste."
One of those dishes is a wonderfully subtle dessert called koliva, which in the Greek Orthodox tradition is served as a memorial to the departed. Made simply from wheat berries that have been boiled until they are tender and chewy and then mixed with chopped nuts and dried fruit, it is spiced with cinnamon and anise seeds and blanketed with ground graham crackers and powdered sugar. The final dish is a complex mix of earthy, nutty, spicy flavors delivered with a very delicate hand.
Elaine has even become a good example, something that might not have seemed possible to her when she was young.
Alexia sometimes makes a dish of gigante beans stewed until they're buttery and smooth in a spicy tomato sauce. "You know what? I use canned tomato sauce. I just don't have the time" she says. "But I'll bring it to yia-yia and she'll say, 'Well, you know, your aunt uses fresh tomatoes,' and I'll know she's just not digging that tomato sauce. Not at all."