When many people think of Jewish food, they think of heavy recipes – and trust me, there is a place for those delicious kugels and dumplings.
But I love cooking lighter, Mediterranean-based recipes. Jews always have lived throughout the Mediterranean coastline, in Israel, Syria, Turkey, and North Africa, as well as throughout coastal Southern Europe. I both appreciate and crave the fresh herbs, spices, salads and meals that emphasize vegetarian/fish courses as well as grilled meats.
Here is my mother’s recipe for spanakopita, also known as spinach pie. This actually doesn’t take much more prep time than chopping vegetables and preparing shish kebab, and it makes a great dairy-based meal.
A lot of great cooks are intimidated by phyllo pastry, but don’t be. Phyllo is very forgiving. If it tears, you brush it with butter and move on to the next layer. Once cooked, the mistakes can’t even be seen.
You can make this in a rectangular casserole, enjoy it hot or cold, and it goes so well with a simple Greek salad with easy homemade dressing. Leftovers make a fantastic side dish to serve with fish. You will have a restaurant quality meal, but to be honest, I think that home cooking is even more enjoyable for both you and your loved ones.
This may not be a 15-minute recipe, but the results are well worth it. Prep time is about 35 minutes.
This makes a large 9”x13” tray of 6 large squares or 12 smaller triangles.
1 ¼ sticks of butter
1 large onion
1 bunch of scallions
1 pound of feta cheese
1 pound of cottage cheese
4 10-ounce packages of frozen spinach
¼ cup of rice, cooked ( I freeze leftover cooked rice to use in recipes like this)
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 bunch of fresh dill
fresh or dried mint
Defrost spinach overnight in your refrigerator. An hour before cooking, place defrosted spinach into a colander and let drain. You will need to press it down in a colander/mesh strainer until the water is completely drained. If the spinach is too watery, the filling will not set.
Chop onion and the green part of the scallions, and sauté in 1 stick of butter, over medium heat, until onion is translucent. Add the scallions to the onion/butter mixture in the last few minutes. Remove from heat.
In a large bowl, beat 6 eggs. Add cottage cheese, 1 pound of broken feta cheese, cooked rice, 1 teaspoon of pepper, ½ teaspoon of nutmeg, 1 bunch of chopped dill (remove larger stems) and mint. You can use 1 tablespoon of fresh mint or 2 tablespoons of dried mint, and 1 teaspoon of black pepper. Hand mix until combined with a spatula.
The trick to working with phyllo is to thaw it first in the refrigerator overnight and then to keep a damp towel covering it as much as possible. Unroll it onto a large cutting board, then cover with the towel. Remove a piece or two, and quickly re-cover to keep the pastry from drying out.
I recommend using a rubber/silicone brush for the next part. Melt ¼ cup of butter over low heat, then brush the bottom and sides of your casserole pan. Add 2 pieces of phyllo at a time, brush with butter, and repeat. The pastry should be covered with a thin layer of butter, but not saturated. Use half of the package in this manner before adding the filling. It is OK if the phyllo comes up the sides of the pan. It is also OK if you need to fold in half and stagger the layers in order to fit your dish.
Gently add the spinach filling, pat down, and repeat the phyllo/butter process with the remaining half package of pastry. If you find that you need more butter, just melt a little more. I often brush 1 tablespoon of milk on the top layer to help create a lovely golden color.
Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for one hour, at 350 degrees.
Trust your nose, your gut, and get to know your oven. Ovens are finicky. I personally don’t have a gourmet oven, so a recipe may say one hour, but sometimes it really needs an extra 15 minutes. If the top color is a nice, medium golden brown, and your kitchen smells divine, you will know it is done.
Let cool for 20 minutes before serving.
While the spanakopita is cooking, wash and prep your salad vegetables.
romaine lettuce, 2 heads
¼ red onion, sliced thin
grape tomatoes, 1 cup, halved
English cucumber, sliced
good quality black olives, like kalamata, ⅓ cup
olive oil, cold pressed, good quality
red wine vinegar
fresh lemon juice
fresh garlic or Dorot frozen garlic cubes
honey or sweetener (I often use monk fruit)
salt and pepper
If you’re like me, you know a little extra feta cheese never hurt anyone.
Canned vegetarian grape leaves can make a really nice addition to this salad if you are serving it on a platter. Placing them around the edge of the platter makes a lovely presentation.
1 cup of olive oil
½ cup vinegar
juice of half a lemon
2 cloves of crushed garlic, or two cubes Dorot frozen garlic
2 tablespoons of honey or sweetener of your choice
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon of dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste, typically in a 2:1 ratio
Whisk together ingredients, drizzle over salad and top with olives. It is really important to trust your senses. If you like less garlic and more honey, then go for it. Meals should be satisfying and suit your taste.
I very rarely cook from a recipe more than once, and I often make notes so that I remember what worked best for my family. It’s important that you create meals that make you happy, so have fun, especially if you’re trying something new. Enjoy and eat in good health! PJC
Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.