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Wednesday, June 4, 2008 11:31 pm

Opa!

St. Anthony’s to host its first Greek festival

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From the outside, St. Anthony’s looks like hundreds of other small churches built in the 1950s and ’60s: simple design, blond brick, window-sized panes of stained glass in primary colors. It could be a cousin of my childhood Methodist church. Only after you’ve seen the sanctuary and met some of the folks who make up its close-knit congregation does it become evident that there’s something different and very special about St. Anthony’s. St. Anthony’s is Hellenic (a.k.a. Greek) Orthodox. The beautiful, stylized, exotic — at least to me — murals at the front of the church speak of the Orthodox religion’s ancient history. Under the umbrella designation “Eastern,” the Orthodox Church is the second-largest Christian denomination worldwide. Its followers believe that their rituals and beliefs can be directly traced back to Christ and his apostles. According to Nick Xamis, president of St. Anthony’s parish council, because of that link Orthodoxy is one of the fastest-growing faiths in America. Led by bishops instead of a single head, as is the case with the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodoxy is organized into ethnic/cultural sects. Russian, Armenian, Syrian, Ukrainian, Antioch . . . the list is extensive. Assyrian Orthodox Christians in Iraq have endured persecution both during Saddam Hussein’s regime and the current war; Xamis says theirs is the untold story of Iraq. Each has slight nuances in religious beliefs and practices, but differences are primarily cultural. In the U.S., Orthodox churches are not only places where immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Western Asia gather to practice their religion; they’re also where those immigrants can socialize with others of similar heritage and celebrate and keep alive their ethnic traditions — not the least of which are culinary. Like others in the area, I first became acquainted with St. Anthony’s — and Greek food — at the original ethnic festivals in the ’70s. The food was fantastic, and even though everyone behind the counter was working furiously they all seemed to be having a great time, from the Rev. Anthony Tzortzis (who still serves as priest) to the parishioners young and old who were loading plates and grilling souvlaki (shish kebabs) out back. St. Anthony’s, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, continues to participate in Springfield’s ethnic festival and holds annual Christmas bake sales of Greek cookies and pastries, as well as occasional dinners open to the public.
This year St. Anthony’s begins a new tradition. On June 14, the congregation will hold the first OPA Festival. The family affair, under tents at the church, will feature traditional and contemporary Greek music and, of course, wonderful Greek food: spit-roasted lamb dinners, souvlaki, gyros, spanakopita (spinach pie), and Greek salad and pastries, all served with a healthy helping of exuberant Greek spirit.
The OPA Festival is scheduled for 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, June 14, at St. Anthony’s, 1600 S. Glenwood, 217-522-7010.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@comcast.net.
Longtime St. Anthony’s parishioner Lily Christofilakos’ recipe for moussaka is a classic rendition of that delectable dish, very similar to the version I make. It’s as customary to use lamb as it is to use beef; I’ve used both, often in combination. Frying the eggplant slices is also customary. However, because eggplant is quite absorbent and soaks up a lot of butter or olive oil when fried, a few years ago I began baking the slices instead, brushing them very lightly on each side with olive oil, placing them in a single layer on a baking sheet, and then covering the sheet and baking it in a 375-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until they’re cooked through. It’s still not a diet dish, but the baking does cut down on fat and doesn’t make a discernable difference in the end product. Christofilakos doesn’t say whether she peels the eggplant. I prefer it unpeeled; otherwise, remove the skin with a vegetable peeler before slicing. I also sprinkle the top of the dish with additional breadcrumbs and cheese.
If you’ve only experienced cinnamon in sweets, you’re in for a treat. Cinnamon is a common flavor in savory Greek dishes, distinctive and aromatic yet more mellow than it is in desserts.
Lily Christofilakos’ Moussaka

Meat sauce 1 1/2 pound ground beef Two medium onions (about 2 cups), finely chopped 2 tablespoons tomato paste 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter Two eggs, well beaten 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese 6 tablespoons breadcrumbs Salt and pepper to taste
Eggplant Two to four firm purple eggplant (the large Mediterranean
  type as opposed to long thin Asian varieties), sliced crosswise
   approximately 1/3 inch thick 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter a Cream sauce 6 tablespoons butter 6 tablespoons flour 1 quart milk, warmed Four eggs, beaten 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese
Brown the onions and meat in one stick of butter. Add the parsley, tomato paste, and cinnamon and cook the mixture over low heat for about 30 minutes. Set aside it to cool for about 15 minutes, then stir in the eggs, cheese, 3 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs, and salt and pepper to taste. While preparing the meat sauce, fry the eggplant slices in the remaining butter, browning them on each side. Drain the slices on paper towels, and set them aside. Make the cream sauce: Melt the butter over medium heat and stir in flour to combine. Cook for about one minute, then slowly begin adding the milk. Whisk until no lumps remain. Cook until the sauce has thickened, stirring constantly. Remove the sauce from the heat and let it stand for about 15 minutes to cool. Stir in the eggs and Romano cheese and mix well. Sprinkle the bottom of a buttered 9-by-13-inch pan with the remaining breadcrumbs. Place a layer of eggplant slices (about a third of them) over this. Spread half of the meat sauce over the eggplant. Lay down another layer of eggplant slices, then spread the rest of the meat sauce evenly on top. Add another layer of eggplant.
Pour the cream sauce over the top and spread it evenly. Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour.
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