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Shrimp, Tomato & Feta Cheese Bake (Garides youvetsi)
Serves 4 to 6
4 tablespoons olive oil
½ small onion, finely chopped
2 medium-sized cloves garlic, minced
3 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, chopped
¼ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
2. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat and stir in the onion and the garlic, cooking until soft. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir in the wine, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Cook for 10 minutes. Add the shrimp and the parsley and cook, stirring from time to time, until the shrimp begin to turn pink, about 2 minutes.
3. Transfer the mixture to a casserole dish or large cast-iron pan and crumble the feta cheese in chunks over the top. Place in the oven on the medium rack. Bake until the cheese has melted and the sauce has thickened, 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Serve with plenty of crusty bread to sop up the sauce.
Note: When tomatoes are not in season, substitute the fresh tomatoes and the tomato paste with 1 can of crushed Italian plum tomatoes.

A native of Greece who now makes Vienna her home, Marilena Leavitt has at least one aspect in common with her Greek contemporaries: She loves food. More than that, she loves to cook.

Not surprisingly, she got her first taste of the joys of the native Greek kitchen at home, in Greece. “My first experience was cooking Greek food,” she said. “Food plays a central role in daily life there. From that beginning, I branched out to explore Mediterranean cuisine.”

Those childhood food memories — particularly how her mother focused on meal planning and expressing her love for the family through her cooking — inspired her growing involvement with how to cook well. To bolster her skills, when she eventually moved to Italy from Greece, Leavitt attended a culinary school in Rome. And when she moved to the United States 5 years ago, she took an intensive 6-month culinary course—on classical cooking techniques and traditional French food—at Gaithersburg’s L’Academie de Cuisine.

Armed with practical culinary knowledge, Leavitt decided to launch private cooking classes in her own home. “When I moved to the States,” she says, “I found that many people use frozen food and face a big rush around 6 p.m. to put dinner on the table. As a result, there is not much meal planning, but it is so simple to plan ahead early in the day for easy and healthy meals.”

Leavitt’s small classes of six to eight students per session attracted people in her neighborhood. “I found out when people know each other and have friends, the classes are fun,” she said. “People are having a good time, and are learning along the way.” Eventually, and by popular request, Leavitt took these classes on the road, rotating them from house to house.

But about two years ago, Leavitt changed her primary venue, and became one of the teaching instructors at Vienna’s Culinaria Cooking School, with a program that features the healthful benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

Planning ahead certainly is important, she said, but providing healthful meals is central to Leavitt’s cooking philosophy. “The Mediterranean diet is really a lifestyle approach,” she said.

“What you eat and how you eat are priorities,” she said, adding that leisurely eating plus healthful ingredients are the core of the Mediterranean way of life. She notes that students are amazed at how simple it is to replace fast foods with healthier options, such as offering children fruit and nuts as between-meal snacks and substituting unhealthy fats with olive oil.

And what does Leavitt routinely serve her family? Typically, she uses whole-wheat breads, dark leafy greens, legumes weekly, fish routinely, and red meat only occasionally. “We always have fruit for dessert,” she said. “That is healthful and satisfying. We set aside time to savor every bit of food. Family time is very important.”