Small but Mighty
TIP 1 > The parmesan and red pepper flakes are not traditional, but I think they add pizzazz.
TIP 2 > If a recipe calls for melted and cooled butter, just melt it 75% of the way in the microwave and the stir the unmelted portion into the hot portion until it’s completely melted.
TIP 3 > There is dill weed, and then there is dill weed. Be sure to taste-test your dried spices and herbs for flavor. If they don’t have much flavor, either buy fresh ones, or use more than indicated in recipes.
TIP 4 > nstead of making spanakopita from scratch, you can cheat and buy the frozen ones from Trader Joe’s. If you do this, brush them with melted, salted butter and then bake until the phyllo is a medium dark brown (darker than merely golden brown). Most people follow the instructions on the box and end up serving anemic-looking ones that lack true phyllo flavor, not to mention the insipid filling it contained. Or it might just be Trader Joe’s fault for sourcing an inferior product.
TIP 5 > The filling can be swapped out for another filling such as brie with cooked apples or chopped figs, or blue cheese with cooked pears and walnuts.
TIP 6 > My mother and one of my aunts used to deep-fry wonton triangles filled with brown sugar, coconut flakes, and chopped peanuts as a treat, and this would work well as a dessert stuffing for this recipe.
TIP 7 > If you buy the phyllo dough frozen, cut it in half and keep one half well-wrapped and frozen for another time unless you have to make a large quantity all at once.
My most popular and most requested appe-tizer for parties is spanakopita.
When Patricia Wrobel Strickland and I were young, idealistic, impecunious school teachers renting an apartment on the San Rafael canal, I used to frequent a tiny Greek restaurant down the street even though I could afford only an appetizer or two. This recipe is my effort to recreate the delicious spanakopita made by the Greek chef.
This is the most ambitious of all my recipes, but it’s the most rewarding because you can’t buy quality spanakopita. I’ve only had good ones at Greek restaurants, and even then, they’re not always as good as the ones you can make yourself.
Yes, this is a time-consuming recipe, but it’s really worth the effort. Richard says it’s my best recipe, and that commercial ones don’t begin to compete with it. I do know that it completely disappears whenever I make it for my dinner parties or bring it to a potluck. It’s not complicated, but there are two tricky elements: buying phyllo dough that is fresh (so the sheets aren’t stuck together) and folding them quickly enough so that they don’t dry out in the process.
I like to fold them into little triangles, like folding a flag, but you can roll them up like a burrito or egg roll into tiny cigar shapes, or line a pie plate with the phyllo and enclose the filling into a big spinach pie.
Technique alert: over the years, I developed a very unusual, lazy and quick method for handling phyllo dough. Most recipes tell you to cover it with a damp towel to keep it moist, but if it gets even slightly damp you can’t separate the layers. I used to insert a sheet of wax paper between the filo and the towel to keep it moist but dry. Recipes also tell you to take off one sheet of phyllo, cover the stack, etc., and repeat, but eventually I thought – why go to the bother of covering and uncovering the phyllo? Why not just butter the top sheet, fill and wrap it there, and then butter the next exposed sheet as you go? In other words, use butter rather than a towel to keep the stack of phyllo from drying out as you progress down the stack. This technique works if you move quickly, and experience will help you with that.
1 pound cooked chopped spinach, liquid all wrung out. (You can buy frozen chopped spinach and defrost it, and squeeze dry by wringing it inside a dish or paper towel.)
½ small onion, minced, or ¼ cup dried onion flakes
¼ cup ricotta cheese (or small-curd cottage cheese)
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese (optional)
3 tablespoons dill weed
3 tablespoons dried or minced oregano
2 teaspoons each salt and pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon dried pepper flakes (optional)
1 stick salted butter
1 If the phyllo dough is frozen, let it defrost in the fridge overnight.
2 Mix together the filling ingredients.
3 Taste your filling before using it by micro-waving a small amount in a dish, tasting it,
and adjusting the seasonings as you see fit. (If you are going to take it to a potluck where it will not be served hot, be sure to season it a bit more strongly since the flavors will be muted when it’s cool or cold.)
4 Preheat the oven to 375°F.
5 Melt butter in a small dish and let cool. Have a small basting brush handy.
6 Unroll the phyllo dough on a flat surface
and work quickly. Using a sharp knife, cut the phyllo into approximately 3” by 11” strips. (Different manufacturers might make your phyllo a slightly different size, but it won’t matter.) Stack them together to minimize their exposure to air.
7 Brush the top phyllo sheet with melted butter and fold it lengthwise. To continue, you can either leave this sheet where it is, or move it just below the stack and butter the next exposed sheet to keep it pliable while you continue with the filling for the previous sheet.
8 Place a small spoonful of the spinach filling
1” from the end of the pastry. Fold the end of the pastry over the filling diagonally to form a triangle, then continue to fold up the strip in triangles, like folding up a flag.
9 Continue with the remaining strips, placing the filled triangles on a Silpat or parchment-lined baking pan and keeping them covered with plastic film or waved paper until ready to bake.
10 Brush the triangles lightly with butter, then bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden. Serve hot. (These may be frozen before baking, with waxed paper between layers of triangles to keep them from sticking. Bake frozen triangles an extra 10 minutes.)