As a child, Maria Benardis had a secret hideaway: a magical fruit and vegetable garden in the mountains, overlooking the sea.
The garden was hidden in the mountains of Psara, Greece, a small, remote island to the northeast of Athens—about five hours by ferry—where Benardis and her sister were sent to live with their grandmother when Benardis was 3 1/2 years old. On a solo walk one day, she stumbled upon a small, enclosed area and decided to make it her own.
She made the deserted space bloom with color: small tomatoes and zucchini, wild greens, chamomile leaves, flowers and herbs. She often brought her harvested treasures to her grandmother, claiming they were from the family garden so she could keep her own a secret.
“There were times when she could not understand how the zucchinis had grown so big, given that the day before they had been half the size,” Benardis recalls in her book, “My Greek Family Table.” “I would tell her that I had sung the songs she had taught me and I had given them a kiss to let them know that I loved them. They had responded by growing quicker.”
On Psara, Benardis remembers, her grandmother and the other women were obsessed with using the freshest organic produce in their cooking. Ingredients were always handled with love and respect, food was blessed before being eaten, and cooking was a shared celebration complete with song and dance—which made for tastier and more nourishing dishes. During those formative childhood years on the island, Benardis saw the start of her passion for doing the same.
Use Fresh, Clean Ingredients
In her cooking today, Benardis uses only fresh, organic ingredients. The healing foods so cherished by the ancient Greeks were always clean, wholesome, and treated with respect—only then were they able to truly heal and nourish the body.
The Greeks held that everything contained energy, including food. When eating, we absorb the energy of the foods we choose to put into our bodies.
“Where is that chicken [you’re eating] coming from?” Benardis asks. If it was raised in a cramped factory and pumped with unnatural chemicals, “what kind of energy will that carry?”
Benardis urges people to make conscious, responsible choices in the kitchen, and respect their food, how it’s grown, and where it comes from. The ancients believed in a connection between all things, and a constant flow of energy between people and their environments, through the universe as a whole.
“Every decision we make in the kitchen has an impact on our environment,” she says. “When you put kindness into your cooking by using wholesome ingredients, your dishes will return kindness back to you and the environment.”
Embrace Simplicity and Harmony
Quality ingredients in hand, Benardis favors simple dishes that highlight their flavors. Like the ancient Greeks, she steers away from complicated recipes—“It’s almost like they’re trying to mask something,” she says.
But simple is by no means boring. Archestratus, the father of gastronomy, emphasized a balance of sweet, salty, and sour in ancient Greek cuisine, evident in popular combinations of honey, vinegar, and garos (Greek fish sauce). Together, the flavors excite the palate and awaken the senses, ensuring there’s never a bland bite.
Benardis grounds her cooking in the same ancient principles. Take her barley pomegranate salad, for instance, a colorful medley of grains, greens, and bright pops of pomegranate-based on an original ancient Greek recipe. Sweet honey and herbs, salty feta, and tart pomegranate hit each note of the Greek flavor trifecta, dancing together in perfect harmony.
Trust Your Intuition
In the kitchen, Benardis never measures; intuition is her trusty guide.
For the salad dressing, she crushes garlic into a bowl and tops it with a generous free-pour of olive oil, followed by honey, glugs of red wine vinegar, and cumin. “Is it balanced enough? Do I need to put more?” she asks aloud, tasting as she goes. To adjust, a splash here, a pinch there—it’s the old way of cooking, guided by taste and trust and years of experience.
“Allow your senses to do the cooking and decide how much of an ingredient you wish to use in a dish,” she says. “Don’t be governed by what recipes dictate the measurements to be.”
Her approach reflects a broader philosophy: Always listen to your inner voice. The ancient Greeks knew well the importance of introspection—Benardis points to the famous Greek aphorism, “Know thyself,” inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and Socrates’ claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
“Just be your true, authentic self,” Benardis says.
That means trusting yourself in your cooking, too. Dubbing herself an intuitive chef, Benardis turns to her own body for guidance, asking it each day, “What would you have me eat today?” Some days she’s led to grab the greens; others, to reach for reds.
The ancient Greeks recognized that nutrition was highly personal. Rather than one single, universal diet, as modern fast-fixes may purport, there were as many diets as there were people. Needs varied by the individual, as well as by ages and seasons, and chefs were trained to recognize them.
Benardis wants to empower people to connect with themselves and create their own diets, quoting Hippocrates: “Everyone has a physician inside him or her; we just have to help it in its work.”
“Talk to your soul and ask what it requires for nourishment, energy, peace, and comfort,” she writes in her book, “Cooking and Eating Wisdom for Better Health.” “When you connect with yourself and trust yourself, you have the potential to create and receive your own wisdom and to be guided to cook dishes full of love.”
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