I bought one too many cookbooks.
It wasn’t immediately apparent when I added the little book to the end of the shelf but it turned out to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I walked away and then heard a sudden massive crash as if the roof was caving in, but no, it was only the shelves which refused to support the weight of my obsessive collection. The books stayed on the floor the entire summer and when I finally bought a new bookcase I realized something very strange……I had over 150 cookbooks but not one of them was Greek. I had French, Iraqi, Persian, Ethiopian, Yemenite, Alaskan, Moroccan, Romanian, Polish, Hungarian, Turkish, Thai, Chinese, ……but nothing Greek, how could this be? I decided it was time to make spanakopita, Greek spinach pie, and pay homage to my neighboring country.
It took a bit longer than usual to post this recipe because I was busy researching the subject of Greek cuisine. I recognize many Greek foods and their close relatives in adjacent countries such as Albania, Turkey and Macedonian but wanted to find more about specific Greek culinary developments. When I was in Anchorage Alaska, on my way to the airport the taxi driver was speaking in a language I did not recognized. He told me he was from Albania and as is usually the case with me the conversation swiftly turned culinary which was a topic he loved as well.
“Not many people know but Greek food comes from Albania” He told me with a certain pride as I was paying the fare.
“Just as Albanian food comes from Greece”, I thought. A national cuisine usually doesn’t stop abruptly at passport control. Countries bordering each other also share a similar climate, agricultural preferences and history so it is not surprising that their foods will reflect this.
Many Greeks take pride in their country’s thousands of years of culinary history, however, the ancient Greeks were not eating anything like what is eaten now. Even the most representative of Greek food, Mousaka with its cloud of white béchamel, layers of eggplant and lamb, was invented relatively recently by Nikos Tselementes, a famous Greek chef and cookbook author of the early nineteen hundreds. His inspiration came from the West, at a time when France was considered the center of culinary culture and what Tselementes strove to emulate.
The oldest Greek cookbook was written by a poet named Archestratos of Gela in 330 B.C, but he certainly wasn’t producing lovely stanzas about spanakopita because spinach did not grow there then. It would be another few hundred years before the Arabs introduced it to the Mediterranean.
What happened between ancient Greece and modern Greece? The single most important turnaround was the Turkish Ottoman conquest of Greece, which is a sensitive topic and the reason why Greeks once turned to France for culinary inspiration. On the positive side of being ruled by another nation, Turkey was the best you could get in culinary advancement at the time. They invested a tremendous amount of resources to perfect the culinary art and many of the recipes that exist today in Turkey and the lands they once controlled are from this era.
The origin of phyllo dough which is used to make spanakopita and other stuffed delicacies, is difficult to isolate but some culinary researchers believe that nomadic Turks should be given the credit. Of course, it is possible that this technique had two centers of origin and there is an ongoing discussion on either side of the Aegean Sea. The phyllo dough is hardly ever homemade anymore because it takes experience to produce thin, delicate sheets but one intrepid Greek Food blogger, Peter Kalofagas, was up to the challenge (of course with a Greek mother by his side, he could not fail)
The beauty of Greek food is its ability to integrate flavors, technique and ingredients into its cuisine making it one of the most exciting and developed of the area. They use the Mediterranean resources available to them, such as olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and wonderful bright sunny days to produce flavorful and memorable foods.
Northern Greece specializes not only in spinach and cheese pies, such as spanakopita but also use a combination of greens such as sorrel, nettle, swiss chard and dandelion which are often picked from the wild. During lent, when diary is not eaten, these pies are made without the cheese. This is also the way many Greek Jews prepare it so it can be eaten together with a meat meal (Jews prohibit mixing milk and meat).
600g spinach, washed
½ cup scallions, chopped (I used one onion, finely chopped)
½ cup parsley, chopped
½ cup dill, chopped
100 pecorino cheese, grated (my addition)
1 cup cottage cheese or ricotta
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp nutmeg
1 box phyllo dough, thawed overnight in fridge, left at room temp for 2 hours
½ cup melted butter or olive oil
Saute green onions until wilted and set aside.
In a large pot add spinach and cook over high heat until wilted, mixing occasionally to get fresh leaves to the bottom. Transfer to a sieve and press down to extract all water or squeeze the liquid by pressing hard between two hands. Roughly chop the wilted leaves.
Mix in all remaining ingredients and set aside.
Melt butter and grease a rectangle baking pan. Lay half of the phyllo in the pan one sheet at a time, lightly buttering each layer. Spread spinach mixture evenly over phyllo. Top with remaining phyllo leaves, lightly buttering each layer. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes so butter will set. Preheat oven to 170 C. Bake 30 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let stand 5 minutes. Serve hot facing the Mediterranean, or in my case, my 10 year old flying on a rope he tied to the second floor window.
This original recipe (which a few changes) was given to me by Emily Segal, head of the Holistic Health & Wellness center in Kfar Saba.
Origin of Spinach , by Clifford A. Wright
The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, by Paula Wolfert