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Greek Traditions, with Little Twists

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Mary Cuclis, Scott Gilliland, Owen Gilliland, Addie Gilliland

KRITI KITCHEN Kriti chef-owner Mary Cuclis lives in West University with her husband, Scott Gilliland, and their kids, Owen and Addie. (Photo: Jake Eschelman)

Kriti Kitchen satisfies your Greek food cravings, but also caters to your need for convenience. 

In March, I found myself bi-weekly in this diminutive Minoan fresco-adorned space, stocking up on moussaka, bone broths, beef keftedes, spanakopita, and various Hellenic offerings in the frozen and cold sections. My oldest stepdaughter, Shelby, just had her first baby, and we kept her and my brood fed on a steady diet of ready-to-eat food from Kriti Kitchen (4010 Bissonnet Street) and Tres Market Foods (2620 Joanel Street and 12699 Memorial Drive).  I was able to feed two families and keep sane.  

Various dips

Various dips – pomegranate tahini, tzatziki, and parsley pine nut – with handmade flatbread. (Photo: Jake Eschelman)

Like some folks, I might roast a chicken but prefer to leave the sides to the experts. When short on energy, I’ll leave the entire meal to Kriti chef-owner Mary Cuclis. Why not, when her food tastes delicious, and her uniquely crafted dishes consist of carefully chosen ingredients? Take keftedes, or meatballs, made with traditional ground beef and served with dill yogurt sauce; or the gluten-free, vegan-version, comprised of quinoa and sweet potatoes with parsley pine nut dip. With Kriti, I’ve had the chance to sample almost all the items on both the menus of its counter-service café and its convenient “Heat & Eat” section. This dual concept allows me to grab a lamb or chicken wrap on tender, homemade whole-grain flatbread for lunch and an eggplant moussaka from the refrigerator for dinner, all in one visit. Mary’s moussaka doesn’t contain potatoes. I’d always assumed they were required in the Greek version. “Not always,” she says. I always learn something new about Mediterranean cuisine from Mary. I’ve come to appreciate her deeply rooted understanding of home-style Greek cooking specifically. 

Anita Jaisinghani – Mary’s former boss and James Beard Award-nominated author – doesn’t hesitate telling people that Mary was her all-time favorite employee. “She was the only female who became a tandoor cook and did it cool as a cucumber. Do you know how much we struggle to find someone to work the tandoor? People are so scared of it,” says the chef-owner of Pondicheri, a modern Indian restaurant. 

Grilled lamb chops

Grilled lamb chops with tzatziki yogurt sauce and lemon potatoes. (Photo: Jake Eschelman)

In 2022, Mary left Pondicheri to open Kriti. Here, the 37-year-old Lamar High School graduate talks about the concept, her stint with one of China’s most famous chefs, and how food became a lifelong journey. 

You once worked for the El Bulli of Hong Kong, Bo Innovation chef-owner Alvin Leung, who is the “Demon Chef” because he deconstructs traditional Chinese dishes and gives them a modern, if somewhat futuristic, interpretation. How did you end up in the kitchen of this world-acclaimed toque?  

My parents lived in Hong Kong for eight years. When I was off from Trinity University in San Antonio, I would go to Hong Kong and try the most amazing food. At the time, I majored in marketing and art, but I also loved cooking, so one summer, I got an internship at Bo Innovation, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong. I worked 12-hour shifts six days a week; I learned a lot. The first week, they trained me in pastry, then told me that the pastry chef was going to leave for a week for vacation, and I was in charge. And, ‘Oh, the Michelin star guy is in town, so make sure you do everything right.’ 

Talk about high pressure. Bo Innovation is known for molecular cooking, right? 

It was fascinating, meshing science with food. Everything had to be very precise. I remembered having to debone fish, very, very small fish. He also asked me to cut strawberries into squares. I remember thinking, ‘How do I do that?’ But I learned. I also learned about plating and presentation. 

Quinoa keftedes

Quinoa keftedes with smoked eggplant dip and cucumber-tomato salad. (Photo: Jake Eschelman)

Fast-forward to 2012, when you graduated from college and are back in your hometown, Houston. 

I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I always loved food, and every career I ever had was tied to food. My favorite restaurant at the time was Indika, Anita’s first place. I loved how she could transform vegetables; to this day, it's amazing. I applied to work at Indika, but Anita said she didn’t need me there. She was about to open Pondicheri. She asked if I would like to work there. I said, ‘Yes!’ 

I was part of the founding crew there, and what I thought would be a six-week endeavor to figure out my life ended up being my life. I was there for 10 years. Anita was an incredible mentor, both personally and career-wise. She pushed me in the best way to come out of my shell. I was very shy. 

Do you still collaborate with Anita?  

Anita helped me with the baklava cookies. She’s a cookie master. I told her I wanted a baklava, but I wanted it to be a cookie, so she suggested a shortbread cookie on the outside and baklava filling.

Greek avgolemono soup

Greek avgolemono soup with seasonal salad. (Photo: Jake Eschelman)

Your time with Anita clearly impacted your approach to food. But your food is unique because it’s rooted in your Greek heritage. Take, for instance, your Cretan mountain tea blend, which contains dittany, a therapeutic and aromatic marjoram-like perennial that grows wild only on the mountainsides and gorges of the Greek island of Crete, aka Kriti. You opened Kriti Kitchen, inspired by the idyllic summers you spent visiting Chania on the island of Crete. Can you give us more background about your inspiration? 

My grandfather came from Crete, the largest of the Greek islands. When I visit my relatives, you don’t get the Greek food you get in the U.S. In America, it’s more like street food. When I visit my relatives, I have this kind of homestyle Greek food that I could never find in the U.S. And I was like, ‘Why don’t people have this? This is so good.’ So, the idea was to bring that homestyle Greek food here. 

Give an example.

When you travel to Greece, a lot of times, you’ll visit tavernas, local places where they’ll be cooking stifados, which are stews. Often, they’ll be open kitchens, almost like someone’s home kitchen. And they’ll say to you, ‘Come, smell these stews. Which one do you want?” They’ll have chicken stifado, vegetable stifado, pork, all different kinds. I loved that. And they’ll have vegetable accompaniments, like horta, which we have as a side. Horta is a variety of wild greens picked off the side of the mountains. Ours are seasonal greens from the market and may include dandelion and amaranth.

You don’t often see stifado on U.S. Greek menus. You offer several stifados, including a white bean version. You also shared the recipe for the chicken stifado, a popular freezer item. Why choose this dish? 

There’s an ingredient in here called carob. It’s a pod. It’s a naturally sweet pod, similar to cocoa powder. But it isn’t bitter in its raw form.  Six years ago, when I brought my son to visit my relatives in Crete for the first time, there was an archaeologist who specialized in ancient foods, specifically of Minoan times. He said carobs were used in stews; it was a commonly used ingredient. That got me thinking. When I add it to the stifado, it adds a richness, almost like a mole, a depth that you wouldn’t expect. That, in combination with the rosemary, is just a really fun, unique flavor. It’s not the easiest ingredient to find, but you can get it at nuts.com, or you could use cocoa powder. It just might be slightly more bitter. 

Kriti’s Chicken Stifado

For marinade: 1 pound chicken thighs
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon yogurt
½ teaspoon salt

For stew:  1 tablespoon olive oil 
1 medium onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
½ cup tomato puree
1 tablespoon carob (see note
2 cups chicken stock or water 
1 cinnamon stick 
1 chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and ground black pepper to taste 

Cut chicken thighs into 1 ½-inch cubes. In a mixing bowl, prepare the marinade by combining paprika, black pepper, garlic, olive oil, yogurt, and salt. Toss in chicken thigh, coating the meat evenly with the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or overnight. 

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place chicken on a sheet tray and cook for 10 minutes; set aside when done. 

Add olive oil to a medium-sized pot over low heat. Sauté onions on low heat until caramelized and brown. Add carrots, celery, and garlic. Cook for about 2-to-3 minutes. Pour in tomato puree and carob, then chicken stock, then cinnamon, rosemary, pepper, and salt. Cook until reduced and slightly thick. 

Add the chicken and cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve with sautéed greens and nice, crusty bread. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Carob powder can be found at Nuts.com, or cocoa powder can be substituted. 

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