Last night we went to a big New Year’s Eve party–a rarity for us; we’re usually with family one coast or the other. Of course, getting to go to a party means rushing around the house a few hours ahead to find an outfit that fits, is clean, looks about right, doesn’t require very high heels or an engineering degree to figure out how to put it on. Luckily most of our friends are low-key that way.
The party was potluck–the hosts provided a couple of solid main dishes and we and the other guests brought the side dishes and accoutrements. A pretty good division of labor, I think. So I offered to bring spanakopita, which is pretty easy. Or at least, I figured out an easier way last week to get the spinach squeezed out than by doing three pounds of spinach handful by painful handful, and it was pretty good for the Chanukah party, so why not do it again?
But our hosts’ family, all five of them, have a cluster of serious food allergies–primarily eggs and dairy, but a couple of other odd ones like cinnamon as well, and not all of the allergies match up from person to person. It’s a testament to their bravery and sociability (which I admire and wish I had greater stores of) that they throw big parties and let other people bring food.
I decided to do spanakopita anyway and just leave out the dairy–butter isn’t a big deal if you have olive oil for the fillo leaves, and I don’t make it with eggs in the filling. So far, so good. But what should I substitute for the feta? Feta’s usually a big part of the show.
Tofu might have been easy, and it’s a protein source, but one of the kids can’t do soy, and it doesn’t really taste right. Nuts–don’t know. Nondairy cheese substitutes–I haven’t tasted these myself and they have so many ingredients plus loads of salt that it wasn’t worth chancing without consulting the family.
My best options to add to the spinach came down to:
1. Greek olives, pitted and chopped–right on the saltiness, but maybe odd-looking. No one else I know has ever paired up spinach filling with olives.
2. Cooked and drained mushrooms–I would do this, but my daughter confesses she doesn’t like them when I make spinach quiche. And she does like my spanakopita. So…
3. Marinated artichoke hearts–they have a little saltiness, but mostly lemon and garlic, which is just about right. And artichoke hearts pair pretty nicely with spinach and are a familiar enough combination that most people will probably be okay with them. You just have to remember to drain them well so they don’t make everything soggy.
I thought I’d go with the artichoke hearts alone, but after tasting the spinach and artichoke heart filling, adding more lemon and garlic (because you can never have enough) and herbs and scallions, I decided what the heck and threw in a handful of Alfonso olives I had in the fridge–12 big purple, winy olives, pitted and slivered, did not look weird after all and they gave just enough distinctive tang and salt for the big salad bowl worth of filling to satisfy without overpowering it.
I figure, when you try something new or off-beat with a substitution, you have to test-taste to know if it’s worth doing again or recommending to anyone else. Maybe no one will agree with you, or maybe they will, but if you don’t like the result to start with, you’ll feel bad serving it up. Or maybe you’re made of tougher stuff than I am and it depends on who you’re serving it to and what have they done for you lately?
So anyway, if you can’t have feta or other dairy, this is definitely a good way to go. The olives and marinated artichoke hearts are authentically Greek enough not to taste or feel like fakey or second-rate substitutions. The spanakopita ended up tasting pretty good, and got eaten up amid some serious competition.
Also, I’ve decided this is also a good time for a slideshow. For a while now I’ve been meaning to do a step-by-step post on setting up a round tray of spanakopita or baklava, because I think it’s simpler and quicker than a plain rectangular casserole, and it looks more impressive and party-ready too. So I took some pictures as I went along (note to self: wipe olive oil thumbprints off camera grip), and actually the spanakopita didn’t take very long to put together and stick in the oven. The longest step was just making the filling (three pounds of spinach at a time is kind of a lot, but the microwave helps enormously). I’ve given more detailed instructions and ingredients lists below.
Here’s the general scheme: You’re going to lay out 8 or so doubled-over sheets of fillo in a pinwheel formation on a large 16″ or so diameter pizza pan, pat the filling on, then make another pinwheel over top of it, tuck all the edges in, slice into small servings, and bake.
1. Thaw the fillo dough ahead of time. You need one roll (20 sheets) of fillo dough per pizza-sized pan fully and gradually thawed–that’s several hours on the counter or overnight in the fridge, not “take a roll out of the freezer and let it sit half an hour and then wonder why it cracks or sticks together.”
2. Make (or buy if you like) marinated artichoke hearts. You need 1-2 cups per pan, well-drained. I made a double batch of artichoke hearts in the microwave for this, because I might want some left over for home, and I wasn’t sure how much I’d want in the spanakopita. I only used about half, though, so a single batch is fine if you don’t want leftovers for salads and fish and other fun things.
Microwave marinated artichoke hearts, double batch:
- 2 12-oz packages of Trader Joe’s or similar frozen artichoke heart quarters
- juice of 2 largeish lemons
- 3-4 T olive oil
- 1/2 t kosher salt
- 1 fat (>1/2 inch thick) or 2-3 medium garlic clove(s), grated, minced or mashed
Mix the ingredients as best you can in a microwaveable container, put on a lid, microwave 4-5 minutes, stir, check doneness, put the lid back on and probably microwave another 3-4 minutes or until the artichoke hearts are steaming hot and cooked through. Stir again, particularly if the garlic shreds have turned aqua–it’s harmless in this case but kind of weird-looking. Stirring any blue-green shreds back into the salt-and-lemon juice marinade at the bottom seems to correct this, at least mostly. You can let this sit to cool.
3. Make the filling. Per ~16″ round pan, you need:
Spinach Artichoke Filling
- 3 lbs. loose-frozen “cut leaf” or “chopped” spinach
- 3-4 scallions, cleaned
- 2-3 fairly big garlic cloves, minced/mashed/grated
- medium (red in this case, but doesn’t really matter) onion, diced
- good handful of fresh dill or 1-2 T dried
- a sprig or two of thyme or za’atar (1 t dried)
- a handful of fresh basil or a few sprigs of mint, if you have it and like it
- half the double batch or 1 1/2 c. drained marinated artichoke hearts–squeeze the marinade out with your hands before adding to the food processor
- juice of 2 large lemons
- drizzle of olive oil
- a handful of Alfonso, Kalamata, or other Greek-style olives–12 Alfonso or 20 Kalamata is about right. Pit if not already pitted and cut in thin slivers.
- Obviously, if you’re not staying away from dairy, an 8-oz package of feta, crumbled, would be pretty terrific too, but then omit the olives–overpowering salt.
Microwave the spinach for 4 minutes a pound on HIGH (1100W oven or better) on a large microwaveable plate (do this in 1-lb. batches). Line a colander with 3-4 round paper coffee filters or a large square (12-16 inches each side) of cheesecloth, sit it on top of a mixing bowl or pot to catch the liquid. Put the next batch of spinach in the microwave while you drain the first.
Dump the just-cooked plate of spinach into the lined colander and place another paper coffee filter over the mound of spinach (or just close the cheese cloth tightly over it). Press down gradually but thoroughly using a soupbowl (spinach will be too hot to grab with your hands when you start). Fold the edges of the coffee filters or cheese cloth over the spinach as you go and keep pressing. You can fold the partly pressed bundle in half and press down further. Squeeze as much spinach out as possible–you want it very, very dry. Then empty the packet into a large salad bowl. Make sure to pick out all the coffee filters! Set the colander up again with fresh coffee filters (or reuse the cheesecloth) and do the next two pounds of spinach as they come out of the microwave.
Wilt the diced onion quickly on an open plate for 1-2 minutes in the microwave before adding it to the spinach.
Drain the artichoke hearts well (squeeze with your hands). Chop together coarsely with the herbs and scallions by hand or in a food processor, pulsing a few times just to shred the mixture lightly. Mix into the spinach thoroughly with your hands. Add the lemon juice, garlic, and slivered olives and mix again. Set the mixture aside while you set up the pan for fillo.
4. Preheat the oven to 375 °F.
5. Layer the fillo:
Wash your hands and dry them very well–any dampness will ruin the fillo sheets. Line a large cutting board with plastic wrap that extends well over the edges–very key if you don’t have a large counter available in your tiny kitchen and have to lay everything out on the stove top. Keeps the fillo sheets clean and dry and makes it less painful to clean up afterward. Remove the package of fillo from its sleeve and unroll it carefully. Cover it with another sheet of plastic wrap. Line your pizza pan with foil and oil it–if you’re using disposable pizza pans, double up so it’s strong enough to bear the weight and doesn’t buckle. Pour about 1/4-1/2 cup of olive oil in a soup bowl. Put a baggie over your hand.
Uncover the fillo stack and dab oil (use your baggie’d hand) gently on the first sheet. Fold the sheet in half crosswise to make a “book,” then lift it off the stack and place it on the pan with one corner in the center of the pan and the rest sticking out to the edge (one corner will extend an inch or so over the rim). Repeat with the next sheet–dab, fold in half, lift, and put it down on the pan overlapping the sheet that’s there. Do this six or seven more times so you have a pinwheel arrangement that goes all around the pan. Dab oil generously on the fillo in the pan and cover the unused stack with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.
Pat the spinach mixture onto the pan of fillo layers as evenly as possible. Press down to get it all the way out to the edge of the pan without gaps. Wash and dry your hands again.
Make another 8-sheet pinwheel on top of the filling. Tuck in all the little corners that are sticking out top and bottom, and oil the top of the spanakopita, particularly around the outside edges.
6. Before you bake any big fillo tray, you have to pre-cut it. Use a sharp thin paring or steak knife (a pizza wheel really won’t do for this) to cut the spanakopita into pieces.
Start by cutting a vertical dividing line down the middle of the tray, then two or three other vertical lines on each side, spacing about 1 1/2 inches apart. Hold the fillo layers down in place with your other hand as you cut with small sawing motions through the top all the way down to the bottom layer of the spanakopita. Try to keep the spinach filling inside and the fillo layers in place.
Then make the diamonds: starting at the top of the middle line at one edge, make a diagonal cut (45 degrees or so) and follow it to the edge of the pan on the side. Make parallel cut lines about 1 1/2 inches apart for the whole pan. This is a pretty way to cut baklava, and you can leave the tray cut in diamonds if you need only 20 or so pieces.
If you want about 50 smaller pieces, you can then cut the diamonds into triangles with a third set of parallel cuts that connect the corners of the diamonds and cut them in half. The top layers of fillo will probably slide around a little as you cut smaller pieces, but try to hold them or slide them back into place.
7. Bake at 375 °F for about 35-45 minutes, or until golden brown and smelling good. If you’re using a doubled disposable pizza pan, use a cutting board underneath for support to transfer it onto and off the oven rack. Let cool.
8. How to pack for travel to a party elsewhere: Put another pan or a good tight double layer of foil on top of the baked spanakopita, and stick the whole pan in a big, flat square cardboard box if you have one. Or wrap foil well around the entire pan and put it sideways into a big shopping bag and tie the handles.
For serving, you’ll need to recut the dividing lines down to the bottom layer and then dig out the individual pieces.
Do try some version of this yourself at home and let me know what you think!