Spanakopita

Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, and her cookbooks are already a source of guidance for basic recipes but her show serves as my inspiration for more adventurous culinary efforts.  I’ll follow along with an episode of the Barefoot Contessa and choose a recipe to try in my tiny New York kitchen. We’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

Episode: “Go Greek (at the Greenwalds')”

The Set-up: Ina’s friends, Frank and Laura Greenwald, just finished building a (sure to be fabulous) new house and Ina’s bringing them a Greek-themed housewarming dinner.

The Menu: Spanakopita, Marinated Lamb Kebabs, Tzatziki with Pita Crisps, and Greek Salad, Fresh Berries with Yogurt & Honey

  Spanakopita  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Spanakopita | Image: Laura Messersmith

0:19 – Before we get to the cooking, I have to point out that Ina continues her trend of having the coolest friends  – Frank Greenwald is an architect and I will bet you one chocolate chip cookie that the new house will be absurdly gorgeous.

1:10 – Ina starts by making Spanakopita inspired by the appetizer-sized spanakopita rolls she used to make as a caterer. I love when entrees are made miniature, why not reverse it?

2:19 – Wikipedia tells me that “spanakopita” roughly translates to “spinach pie” so guess what the main ingredient is….

2:42 – Ina suggests using defrosted frozen spinach, rather than fresh, and then manages not to be grossed out when she squeezes out the excess water. An important step that keeps the filling from being too wet.

3:53 – I’m realizing as I watch her mix the filling that this is very similar to a meatloaf or crab cake mixture (main ingredient + seasonings, egg, breadcrumbs) but with spinach + feta cheese standing in.

4:10 – Ina says that she prefers the feta to be in big chunks, I think I’m the opposite. Please note this date and time: I actually disagreed with my heroine. I might need to lay down for a moment… I’m better now.

4:39 – A quick break to check in with Ina’s friend Dwyer. She finishes her shopping for the Berries with Yogurt & Honey. with a twist on a classic Ina-ism, “How stress free is this?” We also get a quick peek at the Greenwalds prepping for their guests – the house does look amazing.

6:09 – Back to Ina assembling the Spanakopita with sheets of phyllo dough which get rolled up into little triangle shapes. The best way I can describe this is to think back to the little paper footballs from study hall – same folding method.

11:48 – Onward to the Lamb Kebabs. I’m not a huge fan of lamb, but the marinade (plain yogurt, lemon zest, and rosemary) looks like a really fresh, summery combination.

13:15 – I have to give props to Ina assembling the kababs herself instead of getting someone else to do it off camera – I love eating kebabs, putting them together, not so much.

14:31 – Tzatziki Time! Also the name of my new, non-existent, Greek Diner.

18:39 – Next, Ina’s making the Greek Salad. She doesn’t mention this, but I notice several ingredients – cucumber, garlic, red onion, greek yogurt, feta – are used in more than one dish. Definitely a benefit of a “theme” meal.

19:19 – Usually Ina is all fresh herbs all the time, but because oregano is very strong she makes an exception and uses dried. Pro Tip #1: crush the leaves gently between your palms to release the oils before adding dried oregano to a recipe.

21:08 – As she tosses the vegetables for the salad together she offers us Pro Tip #2: cutting the salad components in similar sizes gives the final dish a more finished look.

22:14 – We’re back at the Greenwald’s where Ina oohs and ahhs over the gorgeous, modern pool & patio. I can’t blame her; I would take a deck chair there any day.

26:35 – Final preparations are underway. Ina pops the Spanakopita into the oven to bake while Dwyer makes the Berries with Yogurt & Honey for dessert. Ina asks if it was easy – umm, yes? – and Dwyer laughs that it was just “a little shopping and chopping.”

27:42 – With the menu theme revealed – “Greek!” – everyone eats golden triangles of Spanakopita while Ina works the Lamb Kebabs and pita bread on the grill. A cook’s work is never done!

28:36 – Dinner’s ready! This really does look good – nice grilled kebabs with the cool Tzatziki and Greek Salad – mmm…..

29:30 – Laura Greenwald asks if anyone knows the Greek plate-breaking tradition and earns a shocked squeak of “No! They’re your plates!” from Ina before everyone dissolves in laugher. The End.

Final Thoughts:

A surprise, themed dinner sounds really fun – especially one that’s a little unexpected like Greek.

I don’t think I’ve ever made anything Greek before and now I have a great excuse!

Can you picture Ina breaking anything, let alone a plate on purpose?

  Spanakopita  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Spanakopita | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:

I have eaten Spanakopita  a handful of times, but I’ve definitely never made it myself, and I generally find any recipe involving pastry kind of stressful, so I was a little nervous about making these. Ina makes everything look easy, but I’m glad to say that making individual spanakopitas is easier than I expected.

First things first – I can’t stand soggy dough and I didn’t want to risk it here with such delicate pastry, so I squeezed as much water as I could out of the thawed frozen spinach without turning it into mush. As a result my spinach mixture was fairly firm (which I prefer) and the entire phyllo package held together nicely. I mentioned in the live commentary that I think the same principles of wet/dry balance apply here as they do in meatloaf and crab cakes, and getting the hang of the right consistency will be a key to success.

Working with the sheets of phyllo dough is a little tricky, but once I stopped trying to make them line up perfectly (unnecessary) it went a little more smoothly. I will say that the breadcrumbs make all the difference – don’t skip them, they help the pastry sheets to slide and I think help with the crispy-ness of the final product.

Small Kitchen Friendly?

This recipe is moderately small kitchen friendly, but it does assume you have counter space for two separate piles of phyllo which are approximately 10” x 14” as you assemble, which is nearly the sum total of all the counter space I have. You could use a second cookie sheet or large cutting board over the stove or sink if you need to stretch out a little more. I used a small sauté pan for the pine nuts, a medium sauté pan for the onions/scallions, a medium bowl, two cookie sheets (one for baking, one for assembling), a cutting board, a chef’s knife and a few basic kitchen tools like measuring cups and spoons,

The Verdict: I made these one night when Mike was traveling, so you’ll have to take my word alone that the flavor and texture of the Spanakopita is really quite good. I liked how crispy the phyllo got in the oven and the spinach filling was surprisingly spicy – the nutmeg and black pepper I assume? These do take a little effort, but it’s an easy recipe to size up or down depending on the numbers. I’d definitely make these for anyone who’s a fan of Greek food. 

  Spanakopita  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Spanakopita | Image: Laura Messersmith