Marisa Churchill began her career as a pastry chef in the San Francisco area after graduating from culinary school in 2000. Her desserts have been widely praised and featured in publications such as Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and Details. In 2011, she wrote a cookbook, Sweet & Skinny, that gives cooks at home the recipes for delicious, decadent desserts without the guilt! Marisa was among the forty top pastry chefs invited by Food Arts two years in a row for their annual pastry conference. She was a competitor on Bravo’s Top Chef: Season 2, and continues to appear on Food Network Challenge. She is also an accomplished competitive swimmer. For more information, visit MarisaChurchill.com.
You don’t have to live in Greece to enjoy the healthy Mediterranean diet, but it might not be a bad excuse for a trip!
The Mediterranean diet, which consists of olive oil, fresh fish, fruits and vegetables, has been proven to improve your overall physical and mental health. I grew up eating these foods and consider it to be more of a lifestyle than a diet.
So when my friend Barbara Avdis asked me if I was interested in developing a healthy Mediterranean menu and cooking class program for one of the hotels she oversees, I was thrilled. I was excited because there are so many delicious and good for you Greek dishes that I want to introduce to the rest of the world. But aside from changing the world one palate at a time, I was excited because I knew where many of her hotels were located…..the Greek islands! Without a second thought, I packed my swimsuit and chefs coat. This particular hotel, part of Yades Historic Hotels and the Historic Hotels of Europe, is located on my favorite island, Santorini. It’s not a bad place to find inspiration for a Mediterranean menu!
Aigialos Hotel is an authentic Captain’s manor house. It’s strategically located at the edge of the cliffs in Fira, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Its bright red door makes the hotel stand out among the traditional white washed walls that are the signature of the Cycladic Islands.
I awoke my first morning to the clicking of hooves, as a parade of donkeys slowly made their way past the hotel and down to the caldera. As the sun slowly rose, and church bells rang, I put together my list of must have ingredients for the menu. These items were not only part of the Mediterranean diet, but items the island is famous for: white eggplant, caper leaves rather than the berries, yellow split peas known as fava, and “cherry tomatoes” which are actually regular tomatoes, dwarfed by the intense heat of the island. These are the sweetest most flavorful tomatoes you will ever eat!
It’s hard to get any work done when you’re visiting paradise, but luckily my work consisted of driving around the island tasting breads from local bakeries, and sampling the fruits, vegetables and fish of local purveyors. If work had to be done, eating your way around the island wasn’t a bad way to do it.
Back at the hotel, the menu came together effortlessly, a combination of top quality ingredients and perfect inspiration. Chicken thighs were slow roasted with a blend of Greek saffron, rose water and honey, and served with a warm lentil and tomato salad. Halibut was seared and served with a white eggplant custard and horta (wild greens) that were sautéed in lemon and olive oil. Dessert was of course a must, and included my Sweet & Skinny goat cheese cheesecake with fresh figs. Now this was my kind of “diet!”
Once the menu was complete, it was time to select some of the sites for our future cooking classes and culinary tours. At the top of my list were several Greek wineries that had to be explored. Many people are still unaware of the quality Greek wines that exist. They think Greek wines, and they still think Retsina! But Greece, and the island of Santorini, is home to some fantastic wineries that produce award winning wines. One of my personal favorites is a white wine produced by Sigalas. It’s called Assyrtiko. The Assyrtiko grape is indigenous to Greece. This wine produced at Sigalas made Wine Spectators list of top 100 wines in 2011. In my opinion Assyrtiko can rival all the whites, from Chardonnay to Vouvray. And if you are lucky enough to taste Assyrtiko in its home country, as the sun sets and the waves crash against the cliffs, it’s a wine you can never forget.
After a long day of cooking and exploring, I put my feet up for a moment to watch the sun set from the balcony of my hotel room. I wondered, is it the diet that brings mental health, or the tranquil life here?