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!*
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
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.
Growing up, I didn’t know the slightest thing about Mediterranean cuisine. I had never heard of dolmas, there was no knowledge of falafel in my house and had no idea what hummus was or what it even could be. In fact, the word “hummus” sounded like something akin to the plaster used in drywall. The word “tahini” sounded like an exotic, Caribbean island. When I got to college, my very first roommate (and I would have to say best) Rachel, taught me a thing or two about international dining. I had my first taste of pita and falafel at a tiny restaurant in Flagstaff called “Mountain Oasis.” Not a top notch restaurant, but their famous “Mediterranean Plate” was the beginning of a very long love affair. I immediately fell head-over-heels for the spices and flavors of the Mediterranean. Luckily, I was not alone.
As we were smart, inquisitive young women, we did what any nerdy scholar would do when faced with a new obsession: we read books. This was the time when I began my cookbook collection and unlike so many people who flip through and drool, we actually cooked from the cookbooks. Well, Rachel cooked from the cookbooks and I mostly ate whatever she cooked.
Rachel learned to make every possible Mediterranean dish she could find. I remember coming home to a giant bag of fermenting dough in the fridge, waiting to be patted out into pita, and dolmas steaming on the stove and filling the apartment with the smell of lemon and grape leaves. Our other roommates decided to throw a “Greek” party and instead of a blow-out, drunken, college rager the likes of Animal House, we researched Greek dishes, lounged around in our togas made from sheets and gorged on pita and feta (and I think at this time me and Rachel were vegan and I had made fake feta from frozen tofu dressed with balsamic). Oh the times we had in the kitchen.
I still have not learned to make pita from scratch. I generally shy away from making my own breads. I know I’m not supposed to admit that on this here food blog, but making bread from scratch is my idea of hell. The same way that I wouldn’t want to grind my own sesame seeds for tahini, or pick my own sugar beets, boil them down and process them into granules for my own sugar. Some things are better left to other people. I love a classic pita and I have to say that homemade pita is the most delicious bread possible, soft and chewy. I would even say that Rachel’s homemade pita is better than French pain au levain. Seriously. But if you don’t have several hours of free time, or the inclination to deal with that strange biological mass known as yeast, then just pick up some quality pita at the grocery and don’t think too much about what you might be missing.
Roasted Vegetables for Pita:
1-2 zucchini, I like to slice on the diagonal
1 red pepper, sliced into strips
1/2 red onion
2Tbsp olive oil
pinch of salt and pepper
Pre-heat oven to 450. High heat is necessary to carmelize the vegetables. Toss the veggies in a 9×9 baking dish and coat with oil and spices. Cook for 18-20 mins until browned. (Honestly, I don’t think a recipe is necessary for this, but I feel obliged).
1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
3 gloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Mix tahini, garlic and salt. Add olive oil, lemon juice and parsley. I find this is better made in a food processor or blender. You can thin with a bit of water but be careful, water will make the oils in the tahini coagulate and turn into a lumpy mess.
You can add feta, shredded lettuce or cabbage, pickles, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, sprouts, just about anything to your pita. It never gets old.
Pita sandwiches are still a reliably healthy, quick meal. Even after arriving home from the dirty, smelly, Chicago subway at 8:30 in the evening, I can still muster the strength to roast some veggies and whip up a bowl of tahini sauce for a satisfying pita pocket. It’s true that I have never actually been to the Mediterranean, and for all I know my pitas are on par with the American PB&J. I honestly don’t get too hung up on authenticity. When it’s good, it’s good. There will always be a place in my heart for (Americanized) Mediterranean.
When my husband and I were first in the throes of wooing each other, he invited me over to his place for dinner. He already confessed that most of his meals consisted of ramen and jell-o, and I had surprised him with a vegetarian cookbook to help him improve his kitchen skills. We were about a month in to our relationship and there had already been several well planned homemade dinners at my place. I will always remember arriving that night to Chris, sweating profusely and running between his cutting board and a few steaming pots on the stove, seemingly an anxious wreck. He served me a glass of wine and a bowl of salad, which consisted of salad greens from a bag and ranch dressing. I found his fussing outstandingly cute. He was beaming with pride when he finally placed before me the plate of spaghetti in marinara tossed with cucumbers. The recipe, I later found out, called for zucchini, sauteed and carmelized. Chris had mistakenly picked up cucumbers instead and of course, left the peels on. Years later, I still tell the story of how I picked leathery cucumber skins out of my teeth all night while we laughed at his goof.
Now Chris is in school and I work, yet the meals are still overwhelmingly my responsibility. We’re all about equality in our house, so I have decided it’s about time that he step up to the plate and learn how to make a few dinners. In my humble opinion, everyone can learn to make a basic casserole and even the most obstinate kitchen klutz can make a casserole from three to four pre-made ingredients.
The always popular, housewife-friendly, cream of mushroom soup concoction provides just the right amount of ease. Since the 1950s, families everywhere have enjoyed the combination of condensed soup and noodles baked under a breadcrumb crust. This is the kind of meal perfect for a cozy night in a Cold-War bunker, served up with other post-apocalyptic fare such as Tang and Velveeta cheese. Back then, casserole was the future of food. Someday, we would all have meals that never spoiled and that could provide nourishment even after a nuclear winter. Sure, some loyal foodies would claim that in today’s market, saturated with shelf stable, chemical saturated foodstuffs, what we need is a return to natural ingredients. They would admonish me for providing a recipe that does not require actual cooking. For the most part, I am in agreement with these aspects of contemporary foodie thought, but I am trying to introduce basic food prep to someone who is terrified of kitchen failure. You simply can’t go wrong with good ol’ casserole. It is nostalgia in a baking dish, greasy, fat laden nostalgia that feels downright good.
I don’t really use a recipe for this one, as the ingredients are so basic that a recipe would only slow you down. Here’s the gist:
Basic Casserole Ingredients:
About 2 cups pasta of choice (I like ziti noodles)
2 cans of condensed mushroom soup
1 1/2 cans milk (or water or soy milk)
1 onion, chopped
2 cups of ground meat (in our case, soy burger alternative)
1 cup of peas (canned or frozen, take your pick)
1 tsp of sage
2 Tbsp paprika
1 tsp oregano
2 cups of bread crumbs (of course they’re pre-prepared)
pre-heat oven to 425. Cook the noodles for about 8mins, remove them while they are still a bit tough as they will continue cooking and absorbing liquid in the oven. In a hot, oiled skillet, sautee the onion and garlic until soft (approx. 2-3mins). Add meat and spices. Cook until browned (in our case, until hot as the soy burger comes dyed brown). Add peas if using. I always use frozen peas, these just need to be heated through. As meat browns, dump out the soup into a large mixing bowl and add the 1 1/2 cans of liquid. Whisk until smooth.
The next step requires minimal assembly. Noodles first into a 9×9 baking dish, then the meat mixture and finally the soup. Fold to not break the noodles. Top with crumbs and cover with foil. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes until brown and bubbly, this will condense the soup into a thick, hearty gravy that will stick to your ribs and put hair on your chest.
For Chris, the most difficult moments of assembling the casserole included chopping the onion and folding the noodles gently so they did not fall apart. These are really the only two times when actual cooking skills come into play. I stood over his shoulder and guided him through every step. And wouldn’t you know, when it was all said and done, he made some decent casserole.
This is proof that anyone can make casserole. Today we conquer casserole, tomorrow, the world.