With the Athens Olympics looming, it's time to discover the Greek dishes that score a perfect 10, says Mark Hix

There's no getting away from Greece this year. Even if you're going nowhere near it on holiday, there's been the football (way down my list of social activities, but even I got to hear about it), the film Troy - oh, and the Olympic Games. Terry Durack, restaurant critic for The Independent on Sunday, has been out there a few times scouting for talent and found it at the Athens Hilton. And closer to home, Theodore Kyriakou, whose London restaurant The Real Greek has been changing our perceptions, is rolling out his simpler souvlaki bars with great success. His new book, The Real Greek at Home, written with Charles Campion, and with photos by none other than this magazine's own Jason Lowe, shows how much more there is to Greek food than moussaka. For decades the Greek taverna has been known more as somewhere to go for a knees-up than a decent feed. But now it's high time we chucked out the broken plates.

There's no getting away from Greece this year. Even if you're going nowhere near it on holiday, there's been the football (way down my list of social activities, but even I got to hear about it), the film Troy - oh, and the Olympic Games. Terry Durack, restaurant critic for The Independent on Sunday, has been out there a few times scouting for talent and found it at the Athens Hilton. And closer to home, Theodore Kyriakou, whose London restaurant The Real Greek has been changing our perceptions, is rolling out his simpler souvlaki bars with great success. His new book, The Real Greek at Home, written with Charles Campion, and with photos by none other than this magazine's own Jason Lowe, shows how much more there is to Greek food than moussaka. For decades the Greek taverna has been known more as somewhere to go for a knees-up than a decent feed. But now it's high time we chucked out the broken plates.

More and more quality Greek produce is creeping into supermarkets and shops, and I'd sooner pay double the money for a good feta than the salty dross that most supermarkets sell - much of which actually comes from Denmark. Neal's Yard Dairy sells an amazing barrel-aged feta made in the Peloponnese from unpasteurised sheep and goats' milk. It's matured in brine-filled oak barrels for more than six months, and if you go to the shop at Borough Market in London they'll cut out the amount you want from the barrel. I also came across jars of caper leaves quite by surprise one day in Sainsbury's after eating them the week before in The Real Greek. They are delicious as snacks but beware of the little thorns that get thrown into the jar with the leaves.

Another Greek delicacy I'd recommend is pastourma - cured spiced beef. It's delicious and completely different from any other type of charcuterie you will have tasted. While you're about it, why not fill up the larder with jars of goodies from Odysea, who import meze-type treats like dolmades, red pepper purée and melitzanosalata, smoky roast aubergine, and baked gigantes beans. These little dishes make perfect mezedes, which is the Greek version of tapas. I love trying out these snippets of different tastes.

Dessert-wise, the yoghurt makes a great alternative to crème fraîche. And look out for Greek honey which is the perfect match. Spoon fruits, in thick sweet syrup, are beginning to be imported here and also, as you'd expect, make a heavenly combination with the yoghurt.

Taramasalata

Serves 4 as a starter or about 12 as a meze

If you're wondering why I'm giving you a recipe for that disgusting pink stuff you buy in supermarkets or see dolloped out in most Greek restaurants, first ask yourself when you last saw pink smoked cod's roe. Once you've made your own with proper smoked cod's roe you'll be converted. Even if it isn't pink.

30-40g white bread, with the crusts removed
200g smoked cod's roe with the skin removed and broken into small pieces
100ml olive oil mixed with 100ml vegetable oil
Juice of 1 lemon
A pinch of cayenne pepper

Soak the bread in water for a couple of minutes then squeeze out the water and put it into a food processor with the cod's roe. Blend to a purée then gradually add the oils until well mixed in. Add the lemon juice, cayenne pepper and a tablespoon of water and continue mixing. The consistency should be spreadable, a bit like houmous, if not add a little more water. Serve with warm flat breads.

Theodore's Real Greek souvlaki

Serves 4-6 or more for kids

Give this to the kids instead of boring old sausages, and I guarantee they will love it. Especially if you do it on the barbecue. And also because you don't need plates. Children, though, aren't the only ones who prefer eating with their fingers. You can also use pork, shoulder or leg, or even the lamb under fillets. Serve your souvlaki rolled in Greek flat breads or if you can't find them, soft tortilla, with some sliced tomato and pickled dill cucumbers. If you fancy knocking up some tzatziki it will go perfectly. Peel, seed and dice some cucumber, and mix it with crushed garlic, Greek yoghurt, chopped mint and olive oil. There's your tzatziki. It's a treat with meat - or as a dip anytime.

1kg boned shoulder of lamb, trimmed of fat and sinew and cut into rough 2cm chunks
2tbsp chopped thyme leaves
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
Finely grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
300ml olive oil
100ml red wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

to serve

Flat breads or soft tortillas

Put the meat into a non-reactive bowl with the thyme, garlic, lemon zest, 100ml of the olive oil and red wine. Mix well and season. Cover with cling film and leave overnight in the fridge.

Half an hour before you want to serve the souvlaki, drain the meat and reserve the juices. Mix the juices with the lemon juice and remaining olive oil in a jar or in a bowl with a whisk. Thread the pieces of meat on to metal skewers and brush with some of the marinade, lemon and oil mixture. Pre-heat a barbecue or grill and cook until slightly pink or medium if you prefer. This should take 4-5 minutes depending on your barbecue. Put the pieces of meat into a bowl and leave to rest for about 10 minutes.

To serve, brush the flat breads with some of the marinade mixture and dip them into some of the cooked meat juices from the bowl. Put them on to the barbecue for 30 seconds or so but don't let them become crisp.

Arrange the meat on the flatbreads with some pickles, tomato and tzatziki.

Grilled red mullet with potato skordalia and pickled samphire

Serves 4

Good fresh red mullet is delicious cooked on the bone. It has a flavoursome, slightly oily flesh and goes perfectly with this traditional garlicky potato dip. Cook the fish on a barbecue only if you have one of those wire fish clamps - without one, the fish will stick. Skordalia is rather like an aioli, rich and silky with the olive oil. Try to buy new-season garlic as it's not quite as harsh and much sweeter. Serve some simply grilled vegetables or a strong salad leaf, such as rocket, with it. As salad, the Greeks eat wild, bitter greens, and rock samphire, though I don't know how that compares to the samphire that grows on the East Anglian coast. Anyway, once pickled, samphire will play the same role in this dish as pickled caper leaves would.

4 red mullet weighing about 300-350g each or large ones cut in half, scaled and gutted
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Olive oil for brushing
1 lemon, cut into 4 wedges

for the skordalia

250g floury potatoes, washed
3 medium garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
150ml olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
2tsp white wine vinegar

Boil the potatoes with their skins on in salted water until cooked. Drain and leave to cool for about 10 minutes. Remove the skins with a small knife and cut the potatoes into small pieces. Put them through a potato ricer or mash them smoothly in a mixing machine with the paddle attachment. Add the garlic, seasoning and lemon juice and vinegar, then gradually beat in the olive oil until you get a smooth purée, as if you are making mayonnaise. Re-season if necessary.

Meanwhile pre-heat a grill, season the mullet and brush with a little oil, then grill on a piece of foil for about 4-5 minutes on each side, basting with oil every so often.

Serve with the warm skordalia and a few salad leaves and lemon wedges.

Pickled samphire

100-120g of prepared samphire should be enough for four people

You can buy pickled samphire in jars but I find it's normally pickled beyond recognition and a horrible grey-green colour. As samphire is in season now, simply pour some good-quality wine vinegar over fresh, trimmed samphire and leave it for 24-48 hours in a plastic container or non-reactive bowl firmly covered with cling film. Give the samphire an occasional stir. If you're not eating it immediately, store in a cool place in a sterilised Kilner jar.

Figs with Metaxa and honeyed Greek yoghurt

Serves 4

If you have ever been to Greece you probably still have a bottle of Metaxa in a cupboard somewhere. Like lots of those drinks specific to certain countries, it seemed like a good idea at the time and never quite tastes the same at home - unless you've run out of brandy.

Make sure your figs are ripe and by that I mean they almost explode when you touch them. They should have a sticky skin and be really soft in the middle. There is nothing worse that those bland furry-textured things.

6 large or 12 small ripe figs
200g thick Greek yoghurt
1tbsp clear honey

for the syrup

250g caster sugar
200ml water
100ml Metaxa

Put the sugar, honey and about 200ml water in a saucepan, bring to the boil, stirring well, and simmer until it's reduced by one-third. Add the Metaxa (of course you can use brandy if you haven't been to Greece lately) and simmer for another 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Cut the figs in half, put them on to a large flat plate and pour over the cooled syrup. Leave for 1 hour.

To serve, drain any liquid from the yoghurt and carefully mix in the honey. Put the figs into serving dishes with the syrup poured over and serve with a good spoonful of the yoghurt.

Comments