Cooking in the flat and open


As a child I took for granted the bounty of seafood available in New Orleans. I do not actually remember appreciating the local seafood until I was old enough to travel to places where it was unavailable. I remember that during the Lenten fast before Greek Easter, meat was a scarce commodity on the dinner table in our home. As Easter drew nearer, meat, dairy and even fish had completely vanished. Before we would reach this point of strict abstinence (read utter starvation), my grandmother would return to us from one of her seasonal exiles in Northern Louisiana.

She was quite adept at exiles and returns. As a child her family abandoned their fishing village across from Istanbul in the massive Greco-Turkish population exchange. Later, married and with children, living in a seaside village outside of Athens, she would once again leave it all behind escaping the ravages of a Nazi occupation, a famine, and civil war.

Returning to us from northern hinterlands of Louisiana, a land where the only seafood anyone recognized was catfish served fried with hushpuppies, her first impulse was to reacquaint herself with the local gifts of Poseidon, which included blue crabs, flounder, speckled trout, redfish, crayfish, gulf shrimp, oysters and much more. The most memorable of her seafood specialties, however, was a stewed flounder dish of her childhood called plaki.

The Greek word plaki is an old form of the word plati meaning flat or open. It is also the origin of the word plate. In Greek cuisine, it is used to describe a flat griddle used in ancient times. Typically, plaki is prepared with a combination of onion, peppers, tomatoes and sometimes potatoes. Aside from fish as the star ingredient, plaki can also feature chickpeas, gigandes (giant beans) or other dried beans. My grandmother's version was almost always with whole flounder, no doubt adapted to the gulf variety plentiful at that time. When I make plaki for my friends I usually try to find red snapper or branzino.