"Food was such an important and integral aspect of Greek daily life, even the great philosopher Plato debated on how fish should be prepared," nutritionist Elaine Gavalas writes in her cookbook "Secrets of Fat Free Greek Cooking" (Avery Trade, 1998).
Greek cuisine has not changed all that much since ancient times. American cooks who want to emulate the flavors can find specialty ingredients ranging from reduced-fat feta in the dairy case to frozen spinach in the freezer section.
Spinach is a key ingredient in Greek cuisine, but it's rarely used raw. Instead, the leafy green is the filling for spanakopita, a Greek spinach pie made with layers of phyllo dough, or it is added to rice casseroles such as this Greek Chicken and Spinach Casserole.
Frozen spinach is high in vitamins and minerals, as well as the powerful antioxidants beta carotene and lutein.
Boneless, skinless chicken breast serves as a lean protein, while quick-cooking brown rice adds fiber without fuss. Feta cheese is high in calcium and protein but also high in saturated fat, so we opt for reduced-fat feta and use it sparingly.
For a quintessentially Greek finish, the casserole is garnished with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of almonds.
Tip: There is no need to thaw the frozen chopped spinach for this dish. Frozen chopped spinach is now available in a bag so you can pour out what you need. Add the frozen spinach to the skillet and cook until thawed and wilted.
Greek Chicken and Spinach Casserole
2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 cup frozen, chopped spinach
1 cup quick-cooking brown rice, uncooked
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted chicken stock
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons reduced-fat feta cheese
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 2-quart casserole dish with nonstick spray.
Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a medium, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in mushrooms and cook until vegetables are tender, about 3 to 5 minutes more. Stir in spinach and cook until spinach is thawed and wilted and any moisture evaporates. Remove from heat and pour into prepared casserole dish. Stir in rice and seasonings.
Return skillet to medium high heat and add remaining teaspoon of olive oil. Add chicken and cook, stirring frequently, 5 to 6 minutes or until chicken is lightly browned. Spoon chicken into rice mixture in casserole and stir. Pour chicken stock over all.
Cover and bake 30 minutes. Uncover. Drizzle with lemon juice and sprinkle top with feta and almonds. Bake uncovered 10 minutes or until fully cooked and almonds are toasted. Serves 4.
Per serving: 387 calories (20 percent from fat), 9 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 68 milligrams cholesterol, 43 grams carbohydrates, 36 grams protein, 160 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.