It was a quiet start…a tiny operation called Meco & Elia that Maria Elia ran with her partner. Meco handled front of the house (mainly opening the door) while Maria created the menus, took the orders, cooked the food, and presented the bill (cash only).
Not bad when you consider that Maria was six, Meco was Mitzi her half Jack Russell/half Poodle dog and the customers were Maria’s parents. And not surprising that Maria knew she wanted to cook from an early age. She grew up in the restaurant business (her Greek father ran his own restaurant in London) and remembers being four years old and standing on a stool so she could toss potatoes into the rumbler (“It wasn’t exactly health and safety,” she says with a laugh.).
Today, Maria is one of the most exciting chefs and food writers on the scene. She lives in London but has cooked around the world and published two great books (a third is due out in the Fall). What makes her food so exciting is that she takes interesting ingredients and gives them a completely fresh and unexpected twist.
I loved her first book – The Modern Vegetarian – because unlike some veggie books you genuinely don’t miss the meat. The vegetable is the hero and the recipes are amazing. Take miso – a Japanese staple – which goes Greek in her Miso-marinated kataifi-wrapped eggplant. Or how she pairs sweet strawberries with bitter radicchio for her Griddled Radicchio and Strawberry Risotto. The combinations are unusual but they’re not way out – they work.
Maria likes to start with an ingredient – maybe one that evokes a strong memory for her – and then take it on a flavor journey to see where it can go. She often creates a mind map on paper to explore the different connections that a single food can make. In her second book, Full of Flavor: How to Create Like a Chef, she takes 18 different ingredients and spins out lots of different flavor combinations for each one. The results are dazzling.
Chile Roasted Feta and Watermelon Slab
The contrasts in this recipe are wonderful; I love the warmth of the feta and the heat from the chile against the cold sweet watermelon. The dressing is great with white beans, crumbled feta and some lettuce leaves. Or, if you prefer to keep it simple, just use a little lemon-infused olive oil to dress the watermelon. Perfect as an appetizer or light lunch.
4 evenly sized blocks of feta cheese (approximately 2 ½ oz each)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp chile flakes
1 container cilantro sprouts (optional)
1 container shiso sprouts (optional)
1 ½ – 2 oz mizuna or baby salad leaves
3 Tbsp toasted pine nuts (optional)
Raisin and Oregano dressing
4 pieces watermelon, cut into slightly larger rectangles than the feta, each approximately ½” high and chilled
olive oil for drizzling
Preheat the oven to 375°. Cut a large piece of foil and put it on a baking tray. Place each piece of feta on top, drizzle each piece with olive oil and sprinkle with a few chile flakes. Put another piece of foil on top and fold the foil edges together to form a loose parcel. Place in the oven and cook for 8 minutes, by which time the feta will be soft and warm. (You can prepare the feta in advance but if you take it straight from the fridge you will need to double the cooking time.)
Remove from the oven and assemble immediately; snip the cilantro and shiso sprouts (if using) and mix with the baby leaves and pine nuts (if using). Dress with a little of the Raisin and Oregano Dressing and pile neatly on top of the chilled watermelon slabs.
Open the parcel and place the roasted feta on top of the salad leaves. Drizzle with the olive oil and serve immediately.
Raisin oregano dressing
2 oz raisins
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 small shallots, finely chopped
¼ cup Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
5 drops of green Tabasco sauce or 3 of red will do
Finely grated zest of approx ¼ of an orange plus 1 Tbsp of juice
¼ cup olive oil
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ Tbsp finely chopped oregano
Soak the raisins in hot water till plump approximately 10 minutes. Drain and place in a bowl. Add remaining ingredients and pulse one-third with a hand blender/liquidize. Mix together stirring in the orange zest and juice and season with a pinch of sea salt
Store in the refrigerator until required.