NEW YORK – Irini Tzortzoglou, MasterChef UK champion 2019, spoke with The National Herald about her upcoming cookbook, Under the Olive Tree: Recipes from My Greek Kitchen.
Originally from Crete, Tzortzoglou moved to London in 1980 where she worked in banking for over 30 years. Her hobbies and activities included acting for the London Greek Theatre Group, being a member of the Committee of The Hellenic Bankers Association, and participating in cultural and community events. In 2010, she moved to the small village of Cartmel in Cumbria where she continues to live with husband, John.
In Cartmel, she found an appreciation for food, cooking and entertaining reminiscent of Crete. Tzortzoglou decided to participate in MasterChef in 2018 and clearly demonstrated her tremendous culinary skill with each dish she prepared on the show which led to her being crowned the 2019 champion.
After completing a course in January 2020, she is also an olive oil sommelier, “keen to promote” Greek olive oil, she told TNH.
Under the Olive Tree: Recipes from My Greek Kitchen by Irini Tzortzoglou (£25, Headline) is due out on July 23.
The beautiful cookbook features Tzortzoglou’s delicious recipes and wonderful photography by David Loftus. Tzortzoglou said of Loftus, “so lucky that David is a staunch Grecophile and loved photographing my book as he is acknowledged as the best food photographer in the UK.”
Among the recipes in the book is the grilled manouri cheese with toasted walnuts, grapes and pears which appears in the cover photo, as well as spanakorizo, moussaka, varvara, loukoumades, and a citrus fillo syrup cake with vanilla custard and pistachio praline.
TNH: How long did the book take from idea to publication?
Irini Tzortzoglou: If the book gets published as planned (23rd July) it will be a year exactly. It took nine months from start to proof reading stage.
TNH: How did you decide which recipes to include?
Tzortzoglou: From day one and in this my first book it was important to me to include recipes of food I love. As it was important to tweak them a little to make them more relevant to the 21st century cook and to give them the “Irini” mark, as I did on MasterChef.
TNH: What are some of your favorite foods to make on a busy weeknight or for special occasions?
Tzortzoglou: I have always loved fish, vegetables, and pulses and so will always go for something like that during the week. I also love soup and in the winter months there is nothing like a delicious trahanas and vegetable soup or chicken avgolemono. For entertaining it is another matter. I take my time, plan, often make accompaniments to dishes and keep them in the freezer so as to make something look very enticing visually and delicious in the combination of flavors and textures.
TNH: What are some of your favorite Greek ingredients?
Tzortzoglou: When I am in Crete and they are in season, I love cooking with wild greens. They enrich casseroles, the make delicious pies and of course they are full of nutrients and free! But I also love Greek virgin olive oil (I think we have some of the best olive oil in the world) and have started replacing butter even in desserts. It is amazing how good kataifi tastes if cooked with extra virgin olive oil and drizzled with warm honey.
TNH: What was the experience like on MasterChef UK?
Tzortzoglou: MasterChef was a whirlwind. You were whizzing from task to task not having the time for what was happening to sink in. It also felt that higher forces were at play as I could not explain how I kept going through the various stages when I knew that I was making mistakes and that sometimes my food was not as good as it could be. Even now, watching the current series and seeing how easy it is to be knocked out I can't believe that I reached the end. Perhaps it was the right time for Greek cuisine to shine!
TNH: How has your family reacted to your success and your book?
Tzortzoglou: My mum was still alive then and she was switching between laughing and crying every time she saw me giving an interview on Greek TV. My husband, stepchildren and step-grandchildren are still in awe of what happened and continues with various projects I have on and in Cartmel, the village where John and I live, held parties the night of the final!
TNH: Do you have any upcoming projects we can look forward to, another cookbook in future, perhaps?
Tzortzoglou: It is funny that while writing this book, I was saving recipes that were springing up in my mind under different titles. I think that I have a good 3-4 books still in me, but for now, I want a little break as writing a book is much harder work than I ever imagined. Hoping also that a couple of ideas that production companies are pitching to broadcasters come to fruition. Of course, right now, I, like the whole of humanity pray that the coronavirus does not cause irreparable damage to our plans, hopes, and dreams.