Did you eat your spinach?
This summer, Zuzana and I are gearing up for the adventure of a lifetime. I’m taking her to my father’s homeland of Greece to see the beauty of Thessaloniki and the historic city of Athens. Then we’re off to her native Slovakia with some side trips to Vienna (Austria), Prague (Czech Republic), and possibly Poland.
Already I’ve been thinking about ideas on adding entries while I’m away, but in thoughts about the warm weather and strolling the Plaka, my mind is racing over the food and drink of the old country. I wanted to share with you what is my most favorite dish in all Greek cuisine – Spinach and Feta Cheese Pie, aka Spanakopita (spah-nah-ko-pee-tah).
Some of you might have grown up detesting it when your mother placed that helping of spinach on your plate, and some of us didn’t mind. I’ve personally known of spanakopita mostly from Easter, as it would be served either as an appetizer or side dish with the roasted lamb. You’ll see many different variations of the dish, but this is the one my father perfected. I like to nickname it “crack”, simply because I can’t resist his spinach pie when he makes it or even when I make it. My own mother would laugh at how I’d eat it even cold.
Ok. enough. Let’s go to the Plaka and try one:
Spanakopita (Spinach and Feta Cheese Pie)
- Olive oil
- 1 large Spanish onion, chopped
- 1 (16 ounce) package of chopped spinach, defrosted if frozen
- 1/4 cup of fresh dill, chopped
- 1/4 cup of fresh flat Italian parsley, chopped
- 1 tbsp of granulated garlic
- 1 tbsp of oregano
- 2 eggs
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 pound of domestic feta cheese
- 1 box of #7 phyllo
Making the Filling
- In a large saucepan, heat up 2 tbsp of olive oil on medium heat.
- When hot, add the onion and cook until it turns soft and starts to brown.
- Add the spinach to the onions, and cook until hot.
- Turn off the heat. If you see a lot of water in the pan, then place the filling in a strainer and allow it to drain before moving on.
- When you’re ready, add the dill, parsley, granulated garlic, oregano, and eggs. Stir thoroughly.
- Crumble the feta cheese into the mixture and stir it all together. Add more seasonings, salt, or pepper until you are happy with the flavor of the filling.
Folding the Pies
You’ll need to keep a small bowl of olive oil and a brush handy for this part.
When working with phyllo, its important to keep things slightly moist. You can’t let phyllo sit for too long because it will dry up and become brittle. The best way to keep it moist is to lay it on the table, then place a layer of plastic wrap over it, then a layer of damp cloth or damp paper towels. Keep the phyllo you’re not using covered until you need it.
As you’ll see in Variations, you’re not obligated to folding the pies like this, but this is how we do it at home:
- Lay out three sheets of phyllo stacked and brush them with olive oil. Use an ice cream scoop or large spoon to add 1 full scoop of filling near the one end of the phyllo.
- Fold the end of the phyllo closest to the filling over to cover the filling. You may want to gently press down a bit to spread the filling around.
- Fold the two long sides over like saloon doors.
- Roll up the thicker end until you have a nice pie. Brush the finished pie with olive oil before placing it in the pan.
Baking the Pies
Bake the spanakopita at 375º for 45 minutes to an hour. You want the phyllo to become golden brown and flaky.
I highly suggest going simple and using frozen chopped spinach. Most of the reason is that you want the filling to be bits of spinach and not whole pieces, or else it will be difficult to eat. If you want to use fresh spinach, then at least run it though a food processor or chop it very well.
I mention domestic feta cheese because it’s pointless to spend bigger money on imported cheese for this. You have many more flavors happening in this dish, so you’re better off going for the inexpensive cheese over the nicer stuff you would cut and serve on its own.
You might not have access to all kinds of phyllo, but if you can get it, use #7 phyllo. It’s thicker than what you would use for croissants or a strudel. For this dish you want a thicker phyllo. Best place to get phyllo are the local fruit markets and European-style delis.
Be careful with the salt. Feta cheese is very salty, and you won’t need to really add any more. I simply put it in the ingredients list because there isn’t an exact science to the filling. You need to add and taste until you’re happy with the result.
The olive oil on the phyllo is very important. You need to brush it before and after simply because the oil soaked in the phyllo is how you end up with golden brown pies as opposed to dried up crumbling pies.
As I’ve said, there are many variations to this dish. Outside of these bigger pies, most people will cut the sheets of phyllo in half lengthwise and make smaller triangles to serve as appetizers. Many restaurants and tavernas will simply place three layers of phyllo at the bottom of a large pan, place all the filling in, then top it all with three more layers of phyllo. Some use a full pie crust as opposed to phyllo. Some might use less seasonings or not even add any feta cheese at all.
In Greece, the pies are not even limited to spinach and feta cheese. There’s meat pies, chicken pies, vegetable pies, fish pies, etc. I will definitely show you more on this in the future.