Spanakotiropita with a Twist

I’m a novice when it comes to Mediterranean cooking. I have never traveled to Greece or Italy or Southern France; I have only the romantic notions of the region instilled through literature and my experiences patronizing Mediterranean restaurants in Chicago. Last year I fell in love with a beautiful Greek cookbook that practically winked at me from the library shelf, Vefa’s Kitchen. The book inspired me to try a few things for myself with its excellent writing and gorgeous photographs.

I settled on spanakotiropita, the classic spinach and cheese pie of Greek legend. My first go went remarkably well for an initial effort. I have to confess, I cut a few corners. There is simply no way, in my pint-sized kitchen, where there exists a meager one square foot of available counter space, and a moderately sized, wobbly kitchen table to do all my chopping and mixing, that I can roll out footlong sheets of phyllo. I used frozen phyllo, but the recipe still required that each layer be painstakingly brushed with olive oil. The spinach was cleaned, chopped, boiled, strained and squeezed of excess liquid, the dill was washed and chopped finely, mixed with thinly sliced scallions and slowly folded into the egg and feta mixture for even distribution.

The end product supported the authenticity of the recipe. The phyllo flaked perfectly, the spinach was soft without being spongy, the feta dotted the filling in even striations. The seemingly simple, rustic dish took far more effort than anticipated, but darn if it didn’t pay off.

It has been nearly a year since my last spinach pie, so a week ago I went ahead and bought phyllo dough, spinach, feta, dill, and scallions with the intention of recreating the magic. Exhaustion and hunger got the better of me by the middle of the week and I decided to make a frittata variation instead. This crustless wonder retains the spirit of the original with about half the work and is just as delectable and filling. Added bonus: it’s gluten free!*

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Spanakotiropita Frittata
Two cups spinach, either frozen or fresh will do, chopped, Boiled a few minutes until softened, drained and squeezed of excess moisture.
2-3 thinly sliced scallions
2 Tbsp chopped, fresh dill
1/2 cup crumbled feta
4 eggs
3-4 Tbsp milk
salt and pepper to taste

Combine eggs and milk and whisk until blended. In a separate bowl, combine spinach, feta and herbs. Slowly fold in the spinach mixture to avoid clumps. Pre-heat oven to 375.
In a lightly oiled 9×9 baking dish or small cast iron skillet, add the mixture and cook over medium high heat for 5mins to brown the bottom. Then transfer pan to the oven and continue cooking for 10-15mins, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

This is truly divine and delicious. It makes for an elegant brunch or a quick dinner.

*I do not have any allergies or problems with gluten, but I’ve heard that too much gluten is a bad thing. I personally try to cut back on wheat.

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Surviving the Winter with Black Bean Soup

The winter doldrums have officially set in. My tiny apartment chills to freezing due to my inability to invest in insulated curtains for the many large window panes surrounding the living room. I spend my days off from work shivering on the couch, clothed in thermals and wrapped up in a blanket. Someday, I swear, I’m going to get curtains. The Chicago cold finds its way into every nook, every conceivable crevice, every chattering bone; which is why firing up the stove and cooking up a pot of hot, simmering soup is almost a necessity.

I grew up in the sweltering heat of Phoenix, Arizona, the parched desert, the valley of the sun, a place devoid of humidity and perpetually sunny.
I absolutely hated it.
The summers would be so arid and sweltering that I would almost collapse from heat exhaustion on the way to the mailbox and back. During college I moved to the high mountains, where snow fell in abundance during the winter months but quickly melted with the ever present sun. My time in the snowy mountains, however, did not prepare me for the kind of cold found in the Midwest. The cold here is unwavering, blistering, unforgiving. It’s a good thing I know a thing or two about soup. The cold here requires a body to rigorously heat from within just to maintain homeostasis. Soup to the rescue!

I prefer a spicy soup to get my blood flowing and clear out the nasal passages. My time in the Southwest has certainly influenced my tastebuds. I love and miss the robust flavors of Sonora, chili, lime, garlic, cilantro. One of my best friends, Maribel, used to bring me plates of her mother’s delectable tamales steamed in banana leaves. I still crave the zippy, salty-sour Mexican candies flavored with tamarind and chilies.

In the dead of the Midwest winter, this soup whisks me back to a sunnier, warmer time that makes the gray of winter a little more tolerable.

Southwest Black Bean Soup with Fried Plantains
4 cups black beans (equiv. to about two cans, I cook the beans from dried in a pressure cooker)
Approx. 10-12 cups stock (I always wing it and add stock until the soup is the right consistency)
1-2 Tbsp
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1-2 carrots, sliced
1 small onion, diced
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1-2 poblano peppers (scorch the skins and peel before dicing)
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 small jalapeno (leave the seeds in for kick)
1-2 heaping tblsp of chili powder

2-3 plantains
Plantains are related to bananas, but are starchy and savory. You can add them directly to the soup and cook them as potatoes.
I like frying them and serving on the side. They have a faint banana flavor and crisp up nicely.

In a large soup pot, saute the vegetables in the oil with the chili powder until slightly browned. Add the black beans, stock and lime juice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and then simmer for 45mins to an hour. About ten minutes before serving, add the cilantro.

When the soup is ready, peel and slice the plantains at an angle. Plantains are more starchy when unripe, so buy them when green for this dish. I don’t like to deep fry foods, so I add just a tablespoon of safflower oil to a pan and cook over medium high heat until the plantains are crispy and brown.


A Happy New Year

Happy second day of 2011. I’ve been lounging mostly, traveling for the holidays and letting other people feed me rather than attempting much cooking by myself. I spent Christmas in Washington and indulged in some local salmon, even though I try and maintain my vegetarian façade, it’s hard to pass up local food when traveling. The smoked salmon was the most delicious I have ever had, it retained the flavor of the sea so perfectly each bite brought forth the memory of visits to the coast. My in-laws in Washington are quite adept in the kitchen and I enjoyed several delicious meals at their table over the holiday.

Chris and I spent most our time off indulging in our meal of choice: bread, cheese, wine, olives and pickles. Of all the things we could eat, something about this simple combination provides the utmost pleasure. Few foods can rival a quality loaf of bread. So many giant supermarkets sell paltry, air filled, bleached loaves of baguette, that hunting for a good bread can turn into quite the venture. I have never been skilled with breads. How I wish I could produce the perfect, crispy loaves that the French know as a birthright. Which brings me to resolutions. We all know that New Year’s resolutions so often fall by the wayside at January’s end, but I have a simple hope for my new year.

I would like to cook from scratch more often, using whole, natural ingredients, and try new recipes.

I have no official way of going about this besides reading the new cookbook Chris gave me for Christmas (“La Cuisine” by Francoise Bernard), and trying to write up new blogs about my cooking experiences. I am eager to try my hand at soufflé, baking breads with yeast (yikes), and maybe pickling some vegetables (sauerkraut and homemade pickles). The new year is brimming with possibilities, I just have to make time for it to happen.

Salut!