Oh, don’t worry. I’ll explain the title in a minute.
The 1990s was my decade for travel. Accompanied with my best friend, aka my Traveling Companion, we toured places that I had previously dreamt of visiting but never thought that I’d actually see in person. One such place was Greece. We arrived in Athens, spent the night, and then headed out into the Aegean for some island hopping. This trip had a little something for everyone: a modern-day metropolis; ruins of ancient civilizations; beautiful beaches; thriving nightlife; far too many picturesque settings to mention here; and the food. Oh, the glorious food!
As you know, my love of pasta knows no bounds, so, you can rest assured I had my fair share of pastitsio, with a little moussaka thrown in for good measure. Surely, my holiday in Greece would not have been complete unless I had my fill of lamb nor, for that matter, could I be expected to go from island to island without at least sampling the seafood — repeatedly. And I can assure you that any gyros bought from any street vendor anywhere on those islands will put to shame any gyros you can buy on this side of the Atlantic, hands down. Even so, Man does not munch on gyros alone and, since each island has its own wine, cheeses, olives, & olive oil, it would have been an insult had we not tasted them all, usually with a chunk of crusty bread. Similarly, it was a surprise to learn that each island also prepared its own version of spanakópita, the Greek spinach pie. Now, I truly enjoy spinach pies and my family makes the Italian version of these tasty treats. (Called cacioni, you can see our recipe here and a recipe link supplied by my blogging friend from Le Marche, Mariano Pallottini, can be found here.) So, I needed no further encouragement to taste each island’s unique take on spanakópita. I soon learned that although the basics to each were the same (a spinach filling covered with phyllo dough) there was a surprising variety.
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First off, some spanakópita were actually pies and each serving is a wedge just as if it were some fruit-filled dessert. Others were prepared on baking sheets and you’re served a rectangular piece like you would if it were baklava, only larger. Still others were prepared with individual servings in mind and could be self-contained, triangular or burrito-shaped pies. Beyond their form, the stuffing mixtures contained primarily the same ingredients but in differing proportions. Virtually all contained spinach, a little onion, lemon (either zest, juice, or both), dill, and a binding agent, eggs I presume. As you can well imagine, changing the amount of lemon zest or dill to be used can greatly affect the overall taste of the pie. In some cases, a little mint or parsley was also added to the filling, each adding their own distinct flavor to the mix. So, with so many variables at play, I never knew what I would be served when I choose spanakópita from a menu — and I enjoyed the surprise almost as much as the pie.
Normally, this is where I’d dive into the recipe but one more thing needs mentioning. One night, while on Mykonos, we asked our hotel proprietor for a local restaurant, a taberna, far from the tourist crowds. He obliged, sending us to a great little spot where, coincidentally, a family group was holding some sort of celebration, as I recall. It’s been some time since that evening and I’ve grown unsure of many of the specifics but I do remember 3 things: 1) we were sent ouzo shots from the management and the celebrants; 2) we ordered the house specialty, gardoubes, lamb offal that’s wrapped in caul fat and grilled; and, 3) we were sent ouzo shots from the management and celebrants. What does any of this have to do with spanakópita?
Well, I was so impressed with the dish — or, in retrospect, was it the ouzo? — that I was determined to find out how to prepare it. To that end, I eventually located a cookbook that contained a recipe for a version of gardoubes and I immediately ordered it, sight unseen. Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment. Originally written in Greek, the translation was apparently word-for-word, without considering context, rendering parts of some recipes nonsensical. Gardoubes was one of them. I decided that I wasn’t meant to make gardoubes and moved onto other things — but I kept the cookbook. Move ahead now, to a couple of weeks ago. I had just posted my instructions for making feta cheese and I had a fridge full of jars containing feta in brine. Growing tired of Greek salads, I decided to make spanakópita with feta added to the filling.
Thus began the Great Search of 2012. I’d not seen, let alone used, that recipe in years. More notes than formal recipe, I had scribbled them on a piece of paper as I watched a Greek woman prepare spanakópita on a cooking show, most probably broadcast on PBS. Well, midway into my search, I located the long-forgotten cookbook. I thought I had hit pay dirt. Why look any further when I had the “real deal” right here? Guess again. Its version of spanakópita was of the pie variety and didn’t contain any cheese. It did include a recipe for triangular-shaped pies but these were filled with cheese and called tyropitákia. They even had a lovely photo of the little triangles, so golden-brown and enticing. Also pictured with the tyropitákia was a platter of “cigars” that were phyllo dough wrapped around a filling of what looked to be spinach and cheese. In the caption, they were identified as spanakotyropitákia. What luck! I found exactly what I needed — except that I didn’t. Yes, the cookbook included a picture of spanakotyropitákia but not the recipe. I went through the book page-by-page, twice, to make sure. (And of course, there is no index nor glossary for the book either.) So, although I received a great title for today’s post, I was back to looking for my recipe.
It wasn’t very long after that I found my old recipe. It was pretty straight-forward — just how complex can a few notes scribbled on a piece of paper be? — and easily adapted to include feta cheese. The result was just what I had in mind. You’ll find these spanakotyropitákia have a pronounced lemon flavor, which I prefer. In fact, I’ve often been served spanakópita with a lemon slice/wedge as garnish. If, however, you’re unsure about the lemon flavoring, begin by adding the zest of a half-lemon to the spinach mixture. Taste it and let that determine whether to add the rest of the lemon’s zest. Use that tasting to also decide whether more dill is needed and if you want to add more feta. In short, taste the filling and let your palate be your guide as you make this recipe your own.
This all sounds well and good but what if you want more? You know. You can’t put your finger on it but you just crave more. Well, my advice is to check out Tanya’s recipe for Salmon Spanakópita. The name says it all.
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- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped fine
- 20 oz (2 bags, 566g) leaf spinach
- 3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped (1 tbsp dried dill weed may be substituted), more to taste
- 8 oz (225g) feta, crumbled
- zest of ½ to 1 whole lemon
- 1 stick butter, melted
- phyllo (fillo) dough sheets
- Remove any large, thick stems from the spinach and coarsely chop the leaves.
- Over med-high heat in a large, non-stick frying pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onion until translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes.
- Add the spinach, season with salt & pepper, and sauté, turning the leaves frequently, until cooked. Remove from heat.
- Once cooled, place the pan’s contents in a clean kitchen towel and wring out as much liquid as possible.
- Place semi-dried spinach into a large bowl, add feta, zest, and dill. Mix thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Cover and refrigerate until ready for use. This may be done a day or two in advance.
- When ready to proceed, add an egg to the spinach and mix until well combined.
- Open and unfold a package of phyllo dough, remove one sheet, and cover the remaining sheets with a damp kitchen towel.
- Lay the sheet of dough on a clean work surface. Fold it, lengthwise, so that 1/3 or the sheet remains uncovered. Use a sharp knife to cut off that section and place it with the rest of the unused phyllo sheets. (A & B, click on image to enlarge)
- Unfold the remaining 2/3 sheet and brush half of it with butter (C) before re-folding it lengthwise. Brush the entire length with butter. (D)
- Place 2 – 3 tbsp of spinach filling in the bottom corner of the strip. (E) Fold the dough up and over to the side, creating a small triangle in the process. (F)
- Fold the triangle up and over to the side again, and do this repeatedly, as if folding a flag. (G) When you’ve reached the end, place the pie, seam-side down on a baking sheet (H), and repeat the process with a new phyllo sheet.
- After you’ve finished your 2nd pie, you will have two strips that resulted from trimming the previous two dough sheets. Lay one flat, brush it with butter, and then lay the 2nd on top of it. (I) Repeat steps 10 & 11 above.
- Once all of your triangles are filled and folded, you can either bake or freeze them.
- To bake: pre-heat oven to 375˚F (190˚C) . Brush each triangle with melted butter, place seam-side down on a baking sheet, and bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes.
- To freeze: brush both sides of each triangle with butter, place them in a single layer on a baking sheet, place the sheet in the freezer overnight, and then store for later use. To cook, follow baking instructions but allow an additional 10 minutes to bake.
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Work as quickly as possible when using phyllo dough. If the sheet dries. it will become unusable. Be sure to keep the rest covered with a damp kitchen towel until needed.
By varying the width of the dough strips, you can change the size of the pies and, therefore, their intended use. Larger pies could be considered part of a light lunch, the perfect starter, or an unusual side. Smaller pies make great appetizers and could even be served as one of many snacks on game-day.
Although I’m aware that these pies can be fried, I’ve never done it and I’m hesitant to advise doing so. As it is, I’m quite satisfied with the results when the pies are baked. If it ain’t broke …
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I returned home this afternoon bearing Zia’s greetings to you all. Normally, when I’m with her, I show her a number of your blogs — but not this time. For some unknown reason, internet service in her area was even more abysmal than usual. Pictures wouldn’t download and even the simplest of tasks — hitting the “like” button — weren’t possible. This just means that there’ll be more for me to show her next time — and I’ve got dozens of your posts from the past week to read in the meantime.
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