Chez Dining Room: Mount Athos Monastery and Spanakopita

Sunday August 30, 2015

Now this is what I call the ultimate dining room. Its not in a home. Nor is it a restaurant. Nor is it a resort. It is the refectory dining area of an elaborate church complex. It is in the Eastern Orthodox Mount Athos Monastery in Greece, one of the pilgrimage spots that bears profound symbolic spiritual imprint for any man who is called by the life of austerity, contemplation, and searching for the divine within and without himself.

Simeonpetra

I remember one of my high school friends went on an around the world jaunt with her then boyfriend within a few years of graduating. This was our era of being privileged young intelligentsia who became weary of being in civilized city, suburban, and university society and set out to escape it in remote places. The story told is that in the desert of Morocco, her traveling companion decided he had to leave her and immediately go to Mount Athos to do meditation. So there she was, left just like in a chapter from Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, in the north of Africa, to grind a philosophical axe of the essential coldness and isolation of humans. The frisky antics of youth quickly turned into a startling adventure.

Mount Athos (Greek  Άγιο Όρος, “Holy Mountain”), is a mountainous peninsula in northern Greece. Mount Athos is the oldest monastic republic still in existence. Athos has seen Spartans, Alexander the Great, the Roman-Greco empire, Constantine’s early Christianity, the Byzantines, the Ottoman Empire, the Crusades, Nazis the Greek Civil War,the EU and NATO, and now the Greek debt crisis. The Athonite monasteries possess huge deposits of invaluable medieval art treasures, including icons, liturgical vestments and objects (crosses, chalices), codices and other Christian texts, holy relics etc. It is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries and forms an autonomous state under Greek sovereignty. Only monks are allowed to live on Athos and the current population numbers around 1,400. In addition to the monasteries there are 12 sketes, smaller communities of monks, as well as many (solitary) hermitages throughout the peninsula. Visits to the peninsula are possible for men who aren’t monks or even Greek Orthodox, but they need special permission in advance. Cruises around the peninsula are available to all, providing both men and women a glimpse into the secluded life of the monks of Mt. Athos.

The food of Greece is wholesome regional and seasonal peasant food. One of the main foods is the pitta, or savory pie. Vegetables of all types, olive oil, herbs, grains, the famous thick yogurt, feta cheese are wrapped in phyllo, Greek for leaf. Greek cuisine, influenced by both Eastern and Western cuisines is considered one of the healthiest on the planet.

This is a version of the Greek pie Spanakopita. The Greeks are great for using all manner of fresh leafy greens in their cuisine, everything from chard and spinach to turnip greens, fennel and dill fronds, dandelion, wild mustard, sorrel, even the green leaves of the poppy plant.  Instead of a regular pie dough, they use tissue-thin pastry sheets called filo, and create the crust by layering a stack of them to make delicious cheese and egg pies, called pittas. The crust ends up shatteringly crisp.

While it is a basic skill to make the delicate filo from scratch, I admit I have never mastered the art, finding that store-bought pre-made filo is not only handy, but just as delicious as the homemade. It is available in the freezer section of most supermarkets (freezing preserves its pliability), but fresh is available in a market specializing in Middle Eastern foods. I hear there is even a whole wheat filo now available. Defrost the filo in the refrigerator in its plastic wrapper before using.

This version is made in a 14-inch deep-dish pizza pan instead of a rectangular pan. It is a fabulous meatless dish for entertaining and very impressive looking. Since this recipe serves 12, if you need to serve more, you must make additional tarts; I have a 12-inch layer cake pan (leftover from making wedding cakes) which I use; just double the ingredients. While this version is made with eggs, you can omit them if you need to for special diners, or use a pasteurized egg or vegetarian egg substitute.

Filo Green Tart with Fresh Dill and Feta

Serves 12

Serving Equipment: One 14-inch deep dish pizza pan, serving spatula

Ingredients

1 bunch green onions, whites and part of green, finely chopped, or 2 thin leeks, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound 6-ounces feta, rinsed, drained, and crumbled

1 pound large-curd cottage cheese

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature

6 large eggs, lightly beaten

4 10-ounce packages frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

Pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cups (1 1/2 sticks) butter, melted and cooled for the solids to sink to the bottom, or butter flavored vegetable cooking spray

2/3 cup olive oil, or olive oil cooking spray

1 pound filo pastry leaves (you will use 16 sheets, wrap and re-freeze the remainder)

2 tablespoons milk

1 tablespoon sesame seeds, optional

Instructions

Cook the green onions or leeks until limp in the olive oil; set aside to cool.

In a large bowl with a wooden spoon or with an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the feta, cottage cheese, and cream cheese; mash together. Add the eggs and mix well.  Add the spinach, green onion or leeks, parsley, and dill. Season with some salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 350º. Brush the bottom and sides of a 14-inch deep pizza pan, cake pan, or paella pan with olive oil. Pour off the clarified butter and add the olive oil (you can also use cooking spray or all olive oil). Lay the unfolded filo on a work surface and cover with a damp clean tea towel to prevent drying out.

Arrange 8 sheets of filo in the pan in a circular overlapping pattern to cover the entire bottom of the pan with a quarter of each sheet laying over the rim of the pan, laying in one sheet at a time. Dipping the tips of a natural pastry brush into the butter-oil mixture, lightly brush each sheet before placing the next sheet on top. If your filo has holes or gets torn, don’t fret, lay another sheet over or patch with scraps and brush with oil or butter. If your filo sheets become stuck at the edges and you cannot separate them, just use the stack and brush with some extra oil.

Scrape the spinach filling into the lined pan and spread in an even layer. Brush another sheet of filo with butter or spray it and place on top of the filling, again leaving a quarter of the sheet overhanging the rim. Repeat with 7 more buttered leaves to create the top crust.  Brush the top with butter. With your fingers, tuck the overhanging in around the edges so they will be underneath the entire mixture to form part of the bottom crust. With a paring knife, score the pastry almost to the filling, to portion the 12 wedges. Place the milk in a small bowl. Dip your two middle fingers into the milk and gently trace around the rim of the tart and along the scored lines (this keeps the crust from thrusting up and curling during baking), pressing gently to adhere them to the layers below. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired, as a decorative touch

Immediately place in the hot oven and bake 45 to 50 minutes, until golden and crisp. Remove from the oven and cool at least 30 minutes.  Serve warm or room temperature.

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2015

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.


Spanakopita with Vegan No Egg Filling

This is a version of the Greek vegetarian spinach pie, baked in a large pan and individual servings are cut out, filled with fresh greens and salty feta cheese, but omitting the egg normally used to hold the filling together. It doesnt need it. There is a “fasting”, or vegan, version of spinakopita, eaten during the Great Lent and other religious fasts, and comprising of spinach, green herbs like dill, parsley or celery, and olive oil, but without eggs or dairy products. I vary this version with crumbled firm tofu substituted for the feta, or add some ricotta cheese to the feta to make it cheesier. Defrost the filo in the refrigerator in its plastic wrapper before using. Here I use olive oil, but you can use melted butter, which is tradition, for brushing the layers. You can also make a combination of olive oil and plain yogurt for brushing the layers as well.

Ingredients

3/4 to 1 cup olive oil

3 bunches fresh spinach, well washed, or 2 10-ounce packages frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

1 bunch flat leaf parsley leaves, chopped

8- to 12-ounces crumbled soft tofu or feta, rinsed, drained, and crumbled (if you want cheese anyway)

1 pound filo pastry leaves, defrosted overnight in the refrigerator

2 tablespoons dairy or nondairy milk

1 tablespoon sesame seeds, optional

Instructions

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large saute pan, add half of the spinach and saute until spinach wilts, tossing with tongs, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove spinach and squeeze out excess liquid, then chop roughly. Repeat with remaining spinach, then combine with the parsley. Cook over low heat for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from heat to cool. (This part can be done ahead and kept refrigerated). Add the feta.

Preheat the oven to 250º. Brush the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch rectangular ceramic or Pyrex pan or a 14-inch deep pizza pan with olive oil. Place the olive oil in a small bowl.

Lay the unfolded filo on a work surface and cover with a damp clean tea towel to prevent drying out and becoming brittle. Arrange 3 sheets of filo in the pan in an offset, overlapping pattern to cover the entire bottom of the pan with a quarter of each sheet laying over the rim of the pan, laying in one sheet at a time. Dipping the tips of a natural pastry brush into the oil, lightly brush each sheet before placing the next sheet on top. If your filo has holes or gets torn, don’t fret, lay another sheet over or patch with scraps and brush with oil. If your filo sheets become stuck at the edges and you cannot separate them, just use the stack and brush with some extra oil. Layer 2 sheets of filo at a time, until half of the filo is used.

Scrape the spinach filling into the lined pan and spread in an even layer. Brush another sheet of filo with oil and place on top of the filling, again leaving a quarter of the sheet overhanging the rim. Repeat with the remaining filo sheets, brushing each one, to create the top crust.  Brush the top with remaining oil.

With your fingers, tuck the filo overhanging around the edges so they will be underneath the entire mixture to form part of the bottom crust. With a paring knife, score the top 3 layers of pastry, to portion 8 squares. Place the milk in a small bowl. Dip your two middle fingers into the milk and gently trace around the rim of the tart and along the scored lines (this keeps the crust from thrusting up and curling during baking), pressing gently to adhere them to the layers below. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired, as a decorative touch.

Immediately place in the oven and bake 60 to 70 minutes, until golden and crisp. Remove from the oven and let stand 20 minutes.  Serve warm or room temperature. Serves 8

Individual Spinach Triangles

There is another fabulous recipe with filo and and spinakopita filling, which is also classic Greek. The green filling is wrapped in layers of filo pastry with the butter-olive oil, then folded into individual triangular servings. It is really tasty snack and fabulous appetizer!

Using a sharp knife, cut the filo into 3- by 11-inch strips, and recover with the towel.You can make with one layer or two. Use a pastry brush to brush a strip of filo with melted butter. Place a small spoonful of spinach filling 1 inch from the end of the pastry. Fold the end over the filling to form a triangle, then continue to fold up the strip in triangles, like folding up a flag. Continue with remaining strips of dough, placing filled triangles on a baking sheet and keeping them covered with a towel until all are ready to bake.

Brush the triangles lightly with the butter-oil, then bake at 300º for about 25 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Serve hot. (These may be frozen before baking, layering waxed paper between layers of triangles to keep them from sticking. Bake frozen triangles an extra 10 minutes.)

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2015

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.


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