Between her last name and the lack of garlic and oregano in her dishes, you might not suspect Christina Schweitzer was actually Greek.
Then you walk in her front door and smell a bowl of warm loukoumades -- golf ball-sized fritters drenched with honey syrup and cinnamon -- and you know you're in the right place.
Schweitzer, The Buffalo News' December Cook of the Month, will be quick to tell you there is much more to Greek cuisine than predictable spices.
"I'll put it over my feta, the oregano," said Schweitzer, a health care consultant who lives in East Amherst. "But not everything. I want flavors to stand alone. I want a clean profile, not to taste the same things all the time."
Born Christina Grigoriou in Belgium, Schweitzer learned to cook at her mother's side in their apartment in Frankfurt, Germany, where her parents had moved to become guest workers.
Since she was an easily distracted 9-year-old, her mother, Vassilliki, needed to make sure she didn't disappear when it was time to cook.
"She used to literally lock me in the kitchen, with her inside, and put the key in her apron," Schweitzer said. "Then I was her sous. Otherwise it was, 'I'm going to check something,' and go watch television ... or be in my bed reading a book."
One of the dishes her mom taught her was a casserole of meat with celeriac, or celery root, a winter classic that is a traditional Christmas dish, "especially with the pork," Schweitzer said, "because pork is a traditional Christmas meat."
"We slaughter our pork in the winter, and we slaughter our lambs in the springtime," she said of Greeks. "We don't have a lot of beef, of course, because we don't have the pastures to maintain them."
The casserole, which also works well with lamb or chicken thighs, is finished with a version of avgolemono, a classic Greek sauce that is much simpler than other types. She beats eggs, whisks in lemon juice, warms it with a little cooking liquid from the pan, and pours it back into the casserole.
"I've been making avgolemono since I was a child," she said, beating the eggs with a fork. "I never use a whisk. I use a fork, because that was the way my mother taught me. We didn't have a whisk -- we're not French," she said with a laugh.
The only way you can mess it up is to put in hot stuff too fast and cook the eggs, causing a grainy result, "which is not the end of the world," she said. "But you want a nice creamy texture and a nice, flawless, creamy sauce."
If you have made avgolemono before, the stuff she pours back into the casserole dish seems thin. But here's the secret: She places the casserole back in a warm oven, where the egg mixture thickens. She stirs the dish carefully before serving, to spread the sauce over its contents.
Bottled lemon juice is not a substitute, she said. If it's all you have? Don't bother. "If there was a blizzard outside, and I had no fresh lemons in the house?" She ponders. "I've used lime."
> Lamb with Celeriac in Avgolemono Sauce
2 large leeks
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3 to 4 pounds leg of lamb, trimmed and cut into 2-inch cubes (or use pork shoulder or skinned chicken thighs)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 pound celeriac bulb, peeled and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces (see celery-only option below)
1 medium onion, diced
4 large celery stalks, with leaves, cut into 1 1/2 -inch pieces (instead of celeriac, you can use 8-10 large celery stalks with leaves, cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces)
2 cups chicken stock or broth
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 large eggs
3/4 cup lemon juice, about 2 lemons (strained)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Split leeks open lengthwise and wash thoroughly. Cut off and discard roots, and all but 2 inches of green. Dice leeks.
In a deep, large, ovenproof saute pan or Dutch oven, heat oil and butter together over medium high heat. Season meat with salt and freshly ground black pepper and brown on all sides. Remove the meat and keep warm.
If you are using the celery bulb, add that next to the same pot, with drippings, and saute for 5 minutes, until tender. Then add the leeks and onion and saute until tender, about 5 minutes.
Next add the celery stalk and chicken stock and bring to a low boil.
Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes. Return meat (with juices) to pot, add parsley and simmer, covered, for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for salt and pepper. Transfer covered pot to preheated oven for 30 minutes.
For avgolemono sauce: Beat eggs in a medium bowl until frothy. Slowly whisk in lemon juice. Turn off oven. Remove pot from oven and ladle one cup of the hot liquid, little by little, into the egg-lemon mixture. Whisk gently. Pour sauce into casserole.
Return pot to oven for 10 minutes or until sauce thickens and is heated through. Using a spoon, gently mix up casserole to cover everything with sauce. Serve with crusty bread.
Cook's Note: Take care not to allow the sauce to boil or the eggs will curdle, which, by the way, will only affect the texture and appearance, not the taste.
> Yiayia's Tzatziki
2 cups of full-fat Greek yogurt, strained
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and diced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, or other vinegar
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
Fresh dill sprigs, for garnish
Place peeled, seeded and diced cucumber into a sieve and weight down (I use a dessert plate) to release some the water.
Combine olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper in a bowl. Mix until well combined. Slowly blend olive oil mixture into the yogurt. Add the cucumber and chopped dill. Chill for at least two hours before serving.
Just before serving, drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and garnish with a sprig of fresh dill. Serve with lightly toasted pita, baguette points, or fresh seasonal vegetables.
> Name: Christina Schweitzer
Residence: East Amherst
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to instant meal: Grilled chicken or steak salad
Guilty pleasure: Daughter-in-law's "Sunday sauce" with pasta
ON THE WEB: More of Christina's recipes, including spanakorizo (spinach rice), at blogs.buffalonews.com/hungryformore