Spanikopita American Style

Scott Louie Cooks

For a nice vegetarian dish, I turn to Mediterranean food and nothing beats a good spanikopita. So what makes a spanikopita “good”? It’s easy: you must use phyllo dough, rather than a plain homemade flour dough. This isn’t a calzone. Phyllo dough makes this dish what it is (a tasty treat) along with generous portions of spinach and feta cheese.

If a scan of the ingredient list makes my choice of vegetables seem odd, this is why I call my version “American Style”. There is nothing unusual here, it’s just not a traditional type of Greek recipe.

Ready to cook

This dish is vegetarian, but clearly not vegan with butter and cheese (and some phyllo dough contains egg yolks). Do note that I leave out the eggs as a binding agent—without the eggs, there is nothing in this dish that can’t be eaten raw with the possible exception of the dough, though that’s debatable. My cooking time is enough to brown the top while well heating the filling without baking all the moisture out.

And, yes, I’ve seen it spelled Spanikopita and Spanakopita. For my American Style dish, I prefer the former. Pour yourself some wine, don’t worry about it, and enjoy.

Ingredients

  • 24 oz Spinach (I use two 12 oz bags of frozen chopped spinach), thawed in refrigerator
  • 10 oz Feta cheese, crumbled
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • ½ medium onion, chopped
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 1 small bunch parsley, chopped
  • ½ cup diced cucumber
  • ¼ cup diced celery
  • salt and ground pepper
  • rosemary and sage
  • 4 oz unsalted butter (1 stick)
  • 8 oz Phyllo dough, thawed (1/2 of a 1 lb package)

Prepare the Filling

Preheat the oven to 325° F.

Over a fine strainer, squeeze the thawed spinach until the water is pressed out. Frozen spinach has so much liquid content that the dish will be a soggy mess otherwise. With your hands, squeeze out all the water you can. Then add to the bowl and separate.

With the spinach prepared, add feta, the cream cheese (in small chunks, or use whipped), onion, shallot, parsley, cucumber, and celery. Add your spices.

Assemble the Dish

Handling the phyllo is the trickiest part, but it’s not rocket science. If frozen, thaw your 8 oz package of phyllo in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. When ready, unroll (or unfold) the sheets and lay the whole package flat.

Melt the 4 oz. of butter in a pan. Coat the bottom of your casserole dish with a thin smear of melted butter. See the notes at the end for a word on the casserole dish.

Using two sheets at a time, lay the phyllo into the pan. Then coat with a smear of butter. Note that I tried using a plastic kitchen “brush” but that can tear the dough. So I use the back of a tablespoon. It’s easier to have a light touch and it spreads the butter as thinly as you want. Since there are a lot of layers, you don’t need to overdo it with the butter.

Keep adding two sheets at a time with a smear of butter in between until you’ve used half (or a little more) of your phyllo (about 8-12 sheets). Then evenly spread the filling over the phyllo.

Halfway through, with melted butter in skillet

Now add two more sheets and apply the butter, layering two sheets of phyllo at a time with a smear of butter in between until you’ve used up your dough. Spread the last of your butter over the top, and now you can be generous.

Tuck any excess dough along the sides (or cut it off if it’s too bulky) and it’s ready to bake.

Ready for the oven

Bake

Bake at 325° F for about 40 minutes, or until the crust browns and its bubbling gently around the sides. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes.

Right out of the oven

Enjoy!

I served it with green beans for a delicious meal.

A tasty dinner is served

Make it Your Own

Optionally, spanikopita can include garlic, but I would use roasted garlic. Unless you want to sauté the garlic in a little butter first, I find raw garlic rather strong. Roasted garlic is mild and delicious.

Instead of the shallot, you could use a whole medium onion, or even a leek, which, on current reflection, I plan on trying the next time I make this.

Do dice the cucumber and celery—you don’t want hunks of the vegetables interfering with the taste of the spinach. Still, I include them since I can’t think Mediterranean food without thinking of cucumber, and it keeps the dish moist, especially since it’s important to squeeze the water out of the spinach or it will be too soggy.

Many traditional recipes use dill, which is excellent, but I like to shake up my spices and try different things. I have found savory spices like sage and rosemary work very well in this dish. Try oregano, marjoram, thyme, basil, etc. The possibilities are many.

NOTES

Not to offend my Greek friends, but I believe people overuse Phyllo dough in their Spanikopita recipes. For the same amount of filling as above, most recipes call for an entire 1 lb package (½ on bottom, the other half on top), which I find makes the dish too bready. The star here is the spinach and feta, so let them shine. A half pound of Phyllo will make all the flaky goodness you need.

Note that I do not use eggs as a binding agent in my recipe. They are an unrequired filler, but use a couple of eggs if you want. I love eggs, and where fillings need binding I use them liberally, but not here. A little cream cheese (not to mention the feta) is all the binding required. Yes, the filling will be loose, but that will not be a bad thing in a casserole. It will be fine.

And while we’re talking about Greek dishes and wine, I am one of the few people I know that actually likes Retsina. This Greek white wine basically tastes like dirt, but its earthy qualities don’t bother me and I enjoy a bottle here and there. Probably an acquired taste. In the picture above, I’m drinking a malbec, so there you are.

On the casserole dish: I use my trusty #32 Le Creuset Au Gratin dish (~ 2 qts), but I believe the #34 (larger size, maybe ~ 3 qts) would work great. I don’t mind filling my dish to the very top (and even heaping) since I line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil in case any of the goods spill over. I rarely have much of a problem or clean up. Keep in mind, my recipe makes about 6 servings (great for 2 people with leftovers), so if you need more, you might want to increase the recipe accordingly. BTW, I make my lasagna with the same dish and have enough for several meals for 2 people.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

The Declining Value of Our Food: Another Step Towards Fascism

Remember day-old bread? I’m not saying it’s a fond memory, but if you’re old enough you can still see the carts of your childhood supermarket stacked with the day-old loaves of commercial bread priced at half off. My mother would buy a loaf or two of day-old if she was cooking with it, and buy fresh for her, my father, and the three boys (I was the youngest) for today’s meals and sandwiches.

I mean, seriously, half-priced loaves of bread that were only a day old. Was that better? I’m not saying so. Preservatives and advances in food preparation, processing, and delivery have been a godsend to the world, feeding those otherwise left to starve. In fact, I saw an article that said it wasn’t antibiotics, airplanes, automobiles, or the computer that qualified as the greatest advancement of the twentieth century: it was food processing, because it had the greatest impact on saving people’s lives.

Hard to argue. I can’t say my desktop pc has saved any lives lately. That’s flippant, since modern computing does its part in connecting us, securing resources, finding and delivery food, etc. Tangentially, the space program has done wonders for food processing, e.g., freeze-dried food is a direct result of research for the space program.

None of it is simple since food transport relies heavily on the speed and reliability of air transportation, communications, etc. But for saving lives, ok, the hated preservative has done its job.

Day-old bread got hard and crunchy. While good for turkey dressing, bread crumbs, bruschetta, and fillings, it was not ideal for a ham sandwich.

Preservatives changed that. Now bread lasts over a week, indeed two weeks or more and seems nearly indestructible. For a while, artisanal loaves were a throw-back to days of yore. A good Italian boule lasted about a day with a soft and fluffy interior and flaky, crusty exterior until the ravages of time (next day, that is) softened the crust and hardened the rest. In a couple of days, rigor mortis was evident and a day or two after that—the first signs of mold.

No longer. Artisanal bread (at least in the suburbs) has gone the way of all good, niche ideas that a majority discover, embrace, then immediately find impractical. The preservative strikes again.

I pulled a hamburger bun out of my bread drawer the other day that must have been three weeks old. It was stiffer, but not hard, edible but not savory, and had not one spec of mold apparent on its surface. How many preservatives does it take to do that?

And if I could say that was the only issue with the adulteration of our bread then that might be acceptable. But bread is as much water and sugar nowadays as it is wheat—if enriched, bleached flour can be called wheat anymore. I’m sure sugar adds taste (not that a good bread needed it) and the extra water adds bulk (to the detriment of flour). Add all the preservatives and binding agents (some of which are detrimental to human health by themselves) and it seems a slice of bread is a shadow of its former self.

I imagine I could place a slice of commercial white bread in a shallow dish of cold water and it would instantaneously dissolve like a breath strip on your tongue. It’s not quite that bad, but do you see how steamy bread gets out of the toaster? Take it out hot right away and lay it flat on a plate. It leaves a sweat behind of excess water about as appetizing as licking the arm of a weight-lifter.

Why? Well, we know why the commercial enterprises making our bread do it—to make more money. CEOs are under constant pressure to expand their companies and the quick and easy ways to do that are twofold: either reduce the cost per item made (make more with less) or if the market won’t bear that, sell at a higher price per unit of measure (by reducing the amount of inventory used per item) so that less sells for the same price.

In other words, make it smaller, but don’t reduce the price proportionately. That’s why all of our food products are shrinking. This affects even fruit where no apple, orange, or peach is allowed to grow to maturity and fully ripen on the vine when it can be picked pre-maturity and shipped to ripen in your refrigerator or on your countertop. It’s smaller, less tasty, but the yield to consumers is higher. That it’s inferior matters not. And consumers seem ok with this.

I see the clamor for organic and farm-fresh and produce bought fresher at farmer’s markets is on the rise. That’s good. But still, the great majority of Americans buy their produce at the supermarket and it’s unquestionably declined in quality from just a few decades ago.

Value for the consumer is not the riding concern of the commercial enterprises growing, processing, and shipping your food. But shouldn’t it be our government’s?

It seems that local, state, and federal agencies are complicit in this trend. I’ve talked before how there seems to be no truth in advertising when it comes to the commercialization of food. Why not? Did our government just give up? Is the chase for profit turning us into a nation of fascists?

We are barely a century removed from the rampart fascism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century big business. Carnegie, Frick, Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Ford—they all built empires and collected personal wealth on a scale still extraordinary by today’s standards. When Bill Gates crossed 60 billion dollars in wealth some years back, he was considered the wealthiest man on the planet. Rockefeller’s wealth (adjusted for today’s money) was 150 billion dollars. There are a few approaching this recently, where Jeff Bezos recently passed 200 billion while Bill Gates next trails at 116 billion.

Is this a good trend? I don’t begrudge the wealthy their riches. What we need to ask is not whether Mr. Bezos is worth his money but rather: is a company that makes its founder so wealthy under any control at all?

I’ve written before that I am rather anti-Socialist, but in the same way, I am vehemently anti-Fascist. And such wealthy individuals wield inordinate power over our elected officials. Case in point: the last four years under President Trump. He, his cronies in his cabinet and other high-ranking positions, et al (meaning those career governmental employees who didn’t resign out of disgust) bow to corporate America. The entire America First campaign was code for Corporations First, Consumers Second. The specter of Fascism rears its head.

I bring up Amazon since they are now (as of May, 2020 according to Progressive Grocer) ranked second only behind Walmart in food sales in the US. These two companies (Walmart and Amazon) offer differing delivery models, but both appeal to the convenience of choice, ease of purchase, and price satisfaction.

Two large retailers in my area (Giant Eagle and Shop N Save) offer remote shopping and food delivery. I love to cook and food shopping is one of my favorite ways to relax. Yet now, since about April 2020, I allow someone else to pick my apples, my oranges, my avocados—all of my fresh produce. Do they always pick the nicest and freshest out of the pile? No. They do well, but they aren’t perfect and I can’t expect them to be. I get what I’ve asked for.

This is another way our food delivery model is changing. Remote this and remote that is the name of the day. I remember once (years ago) a produce vendor in a farmer’s market chastised me for inspecting her apples before I purchased them. She expected me to pick two apples from the top of the pile and hope they were not bruised or unfit for purchase (some were). I took my business to the next stall.

Now I just take my chances.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

New World Cranberry Salad

Scott Louie Cooks

Cranberry salad was a staple in my house growing up. This is another of my mother’s recipes, but whether it came from my Polish grandmother or not, I can’t say, so I’m assuming it’s a new world recipe. You will need a food grinder. I use my mother’s old Osterizer Mixer grinder attachment, which has a plastic housing but steel workings and grate. This can be a bit tart, so add sugar to taste, but this is best made the day before so it sits in the refrigerator to blend and mellow.

Ingredients

  • 12 oz fresh whole cranberries
  • 1 apple, peeled, cored, and slivered
  • 1 orange, peeled (no pith at all should remain) and sectioned
  • ¼ – ½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (to taste)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar (or more to taste)

Grind the fruit

In your food grinder, grind the cranberries, apple slivers, and orange sections. The key to this: in my grinder, juice will back up all the way to the opening every “round” (1 round = a couple of apple slices + a couple of orange slices + a good handful of cranberries). Stop the grinder and pour off this excess juice (can save to drink or add to a smoothie or discard). Don’t add it to the salad or it will make it too soupy.

Complete grinding the cranberries, apple, and orange (pouring off the backed-up juice between rounds) until all the fruit is ground. I usually have to pour the juice off 4-5 times.

Finish

Add the ¼ cup chopped walnuts and 1 cup sugar into the bowl and stir the salad until well combined. Add more walnuts or sugar to taste. Cover and store in the refrigerator at least overnight (it helps to pull the flavors together and tighten up the salad).

mixing the ingredients

Enjoy!

cranberry salad

Make it Your Own

If it’s only my wife and I for Thanksgiving (like this year), this is plenty. Or if having a few guests, it can be doubled very easily.

I like walnuts in this dish, but certainly any chopped nut will do such as almonds, hazelnuts, or pecans, or a combo thereof.

NOTES: On Ingredients

This is a salad and not to be mistaken for a sauce or jelly. Use only fresh whole cranberries from your produce department (like Ocean Spray) or supplier.

I strain the leftover juice through a fine mesh strainer and add two teaspoons of sugar, mixing well. Very tasty. Add a little vodka for a nice drink.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

Spartan Roasted Potatoes Au Fromage

Scott Louie Cooks

Spartan potatoes are a favorite side dish that goes with any roasted meats, steaks, sausages, or chicken. The “Spartan” simply means a classic combination of SPinach and ARTichokes, to which I add roasted garlic and leeks. Plus I love cheese so any au fromage is a winner.

Ingredients

  • 2 russet potatoes, washed, skin-on, cleaned of eyes and rough spots
  • salt and black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil (as needed to coat the potatoes)
  • rosemary, chopped finely if fresh, or powdered if dry
  • ½ Tbsp unsalted butter
  • ½ cup chopped leek (can use a little more if you like the taste)
  • 3-4 cloves roasted garlic (or use 1-2 cloves of fresh minced)
  • 1 bunch spinach, cleaned and mostly de-stemmed (about 8 oz)
  • 1 14 oz can whole artichoke hearts, cleaned of tough leaves and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2-3 Tbsp sour cream (to taste)
  • 2 Tbsp grated romano cheese (or pecorino romano or parmesan, etc.)
  • chopped parsley
  • paprika
  • 6 oz grated extra sharp cheddar cheese

Roast the potatoes

Preheat the oven to 425° F.

Slice the potatoes in ¼ to ½ inch thick rounds, trying to maintain a consistent thickness between the slices. In a large bowl, wash the potato slices to remove some of the starch, and drain. Lightly salt, tossing to distribute. Drizzle olive oil over the slices and mix up the slices with your hands, coating them as evenly as possible on all sides.

Distribute the slices on a foil-lined baking sheet. Lightly dust with rosemary. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the slices are somewhat browned on top and soft to a fork, i.e., ready to eat but not overdone.

Make the spartan filling

Over medium heat, sauté the leek in the butter. When just soft (1-2 min—leeks cook quickly), add the roasted garlic and mash and mix into the leeks. Add half the spinach leaves and let wilt, then do the same for the second half. Add the chopped artichoke hearts and mix until all is combined and well distributed (spinach tends to clump together) and remove from heat.

Make the cream sauce

Whisk the sour cream into the heavy cream. When mixed, add the grated romano cheese and whisk until combined.

Assemble the dish

Preheat oven to 325° F.

Into a glass 10×6 inch casserole dish (or your near same size equivalent), add a little of the cream sauce to barely coat the bottom. Swish the dish around to coat. Then layer half of the roasted potatoes along the bottom, piling them up as needed (may make 2 layers). Then sprinkle a little salt and pepper (not too much, or omit this step entirely, as the cheeses add a lot of salt already). Sprinkle some chopped parsley over the potatoes, then dust with paprika as if coating deviled eggs.

Scoop in the spartan filling to create the next layer. Cover with the remaining half of the roasted potatoes, layering as needed. Sprinkle more parsley and dust with more paprika. Carefully pour the cream sauce all over the spartan potatoes, ensuring it goes down all the sides and into the middle. Top generously with grated extra sharp cheddar cheese.

Bake

Bake at 325 for 30-40 minutes, or until the top is crusty and golden. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes.

Enjoy!

Make it Your Own

Try substituting a hearty vegetable instead of potatoes for this dish, such as french endive or cauliflower. Instead of roasting, I would sauté the sliced endive with a little sugar to caramelize it. For cauliflower, you could simply steam the cauliflower if using florets, or sauté or roast the cauliflower steaks if using half inch slices.

To turn Au Fromage into Au Gratin simply mix the cheddar cheese with seasoned bread crumbs and distribute over the top of the dish before baking.

NOTES: On Ingredients

I keep an herb garden in the summer and I dry the leftover herb in my perpetually cool unfinished basement during the winter. Rosemary sprigs dry very nicely hanging by twine from a rafter. I also dry-hang thyme, sage, and oregano. If they dry properly, they will last forever (well, years). I take a few sprigs at a time, remove the dried leaves, and grind in a spice grinder (aka coffee bean grinder). Fresh is even better or if you have dried sprigs, grind them up.

I use Kerrygold unsalted butter for cooking and Kerrygold salted butter for the table. It’s just the best although Land O’Lakes does in a pinch. Never use margarine, which is oil that’s been emulsified to act like butter, but it gets the Razzie. Since trans fats are banned by the FDA, margarine is better for you than in the past, but still, butter wins the Oscar for taste every time. If concerned, use a little less or for a recipe with 2 Tbsp of butter, use 1 Tbsp butter, 1 Tbsp of a healthful vegetable oil like olive oil. I use this technique often anyway.

Leeks are a great onion substitute. When you want a mild but still very oniony flavor, leeks are best. If you want mild and less oniony, use shallots. If you want a full onion flavor, use an onion.

Roasting garlic is easy and tastes great. I use Jacques Pepin’s technique of slicing the whole garlic bulb through its middle, without slicing through and separating the halves. Then propping it open, I pour olive oil into its center, then shut the halves. I place the garlic bulb in a square of foil and wrap up all the edges so they meet at the top and seal it with a twist. Then roast in the over at 425° F for 30-40 minutes (careful—ovens vary, so at 30 minutes you might want to pull it out, carefully open the foil while minding the heat, and make sure it’s soft but not burning up). When done, let cool, unwrap and the gooey goodness can be squeezed out of the cut bulbs and used for a milder garlic flavor on toast, in dishes like this one, or any way you want. Wonderful.

Careful with cans of whole artichoke hearts, meaning they are not always ready to eat from the can (or jar). I prefer packed in water and not marinated. Drain off the liquid, then gently squeeze each heart to remove more liquid and test an outer leaf by pulling it off and seeing if the top is too tough to bite into (much less chew). Often the bottom half is soft and delicious while the top is still tough and unpleasantly chewy. Usually only one layer may be like that (or not at all). Check each one before quartering it and you have ready to eat artichokes in your fridge for salads and other dishes (like this one).

Stay Friendly and Healthy.