Kukla’s Kouzina is clearly a labor of love for creators Kelly Salonica Staikopoulos, Joanne Staikopoulos Marzella, and Jacqueline Maria Marzella. The website, cookbook series, and YouTube channel are all inspired by the original Kukla, Mary Halkias Staikopoulos, Kelly and Joanne’s mother and Jackie’s grandmother, who was affectionately called “Kukla,” the Greek word for doll.
The family’s recipes, passed down through the generations, using ingredients and cooking techniques from the Dodecanese island of Karpathos, are now available in a cookbook series, a wonderful addition to any cookbook collection. The first two books, Meze and Spreads & Dips, feature delicious recipes and beautiful photos, and are available online in paperback and Kindle format. Author and editor Kelly Salonica Staikopoulos spoke with The National Herald about Kukla’s Kouzina, the cookbooks, and what the team is working on next.
TNH: What is your particular favorite dish to make from Karpathos?
Kelly Salonica Staikopoulos: We have a few but here's one savory and one sweet, both beloved on the island and by us: Spanakopites Karpathikes (Karpathian spinach pies)
Savory Spanakopites Karpathikes do not mimic the well-known spanakopita but exhibit their own distinctive, undeniable charm. Spice-scented homemade dough half-moons are filled with a spinach, rice, and onion mixture that is lightly flavored with lemon juice and herbs (no cheese in these, and you won’t miss it!). These individual pies are baked until risen, golden, and seriously aromatic. On the island, especially in Olympos, baking is done in stone or brick communal ovens outside of the home. This keeps the house cool… important when it’s warm-to-hot most of the year.
Mbaklavas Karpathikos (Karpathian baklava)
Unlike mainland Baklava, Mbaklavas Karpathikos is made with an olive oil-based pastry dough that is rolled into a spiral of thin layers, then sliced, and deep fried. Once drained and cooled, the diamond-shaped, flaky slices are drenched in a fragrant, spiced honey syrup and sprinkled with walnuts. Made for special celebrations, these extraordinary treats are piled high on trays, wrapped in colorful cellophane and tied with elaborate bows. When dining on the island, you can find these at just about every restaurant and it’s the first thing on the menu at bakeries.
TNH: How long did it take to put together the website and the cookbooks?
KSS: The website took about three or four months with many 18-hour days and 4 AM bedtimes. Much of the text on the website was created for the cookbook series. We celebrated seven years of the launch of the website and blog last April.
The two cookbooks took three years, which included translating recipes from Greek, to editing, testing, and formatting them, as well as the book design. In between, there were photo shoots for the books, in tandem with blogging and establishing a Social Media presence. We actually spent the last 15 years translating, testing, and editing all of our mom's and grandmother's Karpathian recipes, over 300 (from appetizers to desserts), that will eventually go into a complete cookbook and specialty books to follow.
TNH: What has been the response so far from family, friends, visitors to the site?
KSS: Everyone loves the site and we've gotten some amazing feedback. Just this week a subscriber from Arkasa in Karpathos commented on how much she loves the blog and looks forward to receiving our newsletter every Monday. We did a blog on the tavernes of Karpathos and a number of islanders contacted us with their favorite places, asking if we could add them to the blog. Those that checked out were inserted on the page. Another subscriber asked us to do a blog on food from the horio, and Greek Village Eats (http://www.kuklaskouzina.com/blog/greek-village-eats#.X0gDVC2z0_V) was born. These comments and so many more from our followers and subscribers over the past seven years have kept us energized and on our toes!
TNH: How did you decide which recipes to include in the cookbooks?
KSS: For Meze, we chose a few of our mom's that fit the category, then created a few of our own to fill out the chapters. One of our non-Greek friends who lives in Las Vegas is on a mission, preparing each recipe and posting photos and her reviews on Social Media, making everyone seriously hungry. This is just one example of the response to Meze.
For Spreads & Dips, we expanded on this category with an addition of two recipes we created, Warm Artichoke-Salad Spread (Zesti Aginarosalata) and Zesty Feta Dip (Tyrokafteri). Both of these were tested on unwitting family members at Christmas and when we saw (and heard) their reactions, we knew they passed and went in the book. This book is a particular favorite of people who are simple cooks and want easy recipes that can be made for special occasions, as well as casual mealtime.
TNH: Do you visit Karpathos often?
KSS: We try to go every couple of years and were hoping to visit this year but then the pandemic hit. Hopefully next year!
TNH: What is your top tip for those just beginning their journey into Greek cooking at home?
KSS: We have three that are equally helpful:
1. Greek cooking comes down to some basic staples, Greek oregano, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic, sea salt (a complete list is on our Greek Herbs, Spices, and Flavorings blog- http://www.kuklaskouzina.com/blog/greek-herbs-spices-flavorings#.X0gEyS2z0_U). Always have your pantry stocked.
2. Have your ingredients prepped and lined up in the order they're used in the recipe. Being organized is half the battle and makes cooking so much more enjoyable when you're not looking for the next thing you need to add to a recipe.
3. Bring your kids and family into the kitchen to cook with you and have fun. Jackie has been cooking with us since she was 2 1/2 and now loves to create her own Greek dishes. She actually gets angry if we cook without her. It's all about bonding and sharing traditions that enrich life, filling it with kefi!
TNH: What are you working on next and where do you see Kukla's Kouzina in the future?
KSS: Next month (starting Monday, September 7) we'll be launching our first cooking series on our YouTube channel that will feature myself (Kelly), Joanne, and Jackie (Joanne's daughter and third generation of Kukla's Kouzina) called "Flippin' Greek!", four episodes per week, Monday through Thursday, that will transform familiar everyday dishes into Greek-island style using ingredients and cooking techniques found in Karpathos. Each episode runs 2-15 minutes, the perfect length for viewers to quickly learn how to recreate foods and beverages/cocktails. Many think that everyday Greek cooking is made up of dishes like spanakopita (spinach pie), moussaka, and pastitsio. These are classics for sure, but too time-consuming to make on a regular basis. During our time in Karpathos, we learned that the locals’ quick meals made from the island’s ingredient staples like fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs, spices, and protein, prepared using certain methods, came out tasting Greek-island delicious. So we thought this would be a great way to bring our hometown flavor into everyone's kouzina, adding some spicy variety to life while keeping it simple and fast. Recipes for each week will be posted on our blog with links to the episodes. Our hope is that we inspire those who are afraid or don’t feel confident enough to cook, and actually show them that, yes, they can, and they'll have fun doing it. Plus they'll enjoy eating the fruits of their labor following every episode.
In the future: This cooking series will be the subject of our next cookbook. We also look forward to publishing our complete cookbook (with the Spanakopites Karpathikes and Mbaklavas Karpathikos) and we see Kukla's Kouzina producing a network cooking show. In addition, we're hoping to plan an annual cooking camp in Karpathos that will visit local farms and demonstrate how we incorporate fresh ingredients into the island's cuisine. Our Kukla's (mom's) Karpathian cuisine is extraordinary and we're excited to share it!
More information is available online: http://www.kuklaskouzina.com.