Growing up, my family was all about food. My parents would drive us 3 hours to New York City to eat “real” Pakistani food. On the weekend, we were travelers in search for the next delicious meal. My sister and I would be ever so excited to explore new places and see the hustle and bustle of different cities. Our eyes were always wide-open, ready for these experiences. Whether, we went to Newport for fresh, straight from the ocean seafood, or to a little hole in the wall Mexican restaurant that we still frequent to this day, we were set to feast. We learned about other cultures this way, too. What better way for parents to expose their children to different cultures than through their food. Food welcomes you into a new culture. The tastes of the cuisine transports you to a new place, somewhere less familiar than what we are used to, but at the same time we are ready to embrace the novelty.
Tucked away in the back seat, my sister and I would peer out of the windows with utter enthusiasm waiting for a new exploration. If you remember, we were the two sisters who played in the woods and pretended we were pioneers, Indians, French, you name it-we pretended it (the joys of childhood!). These excursions took our make-believe world into reality.
I have very fond memories of attending the Greek Orthodox festival in Rhode Island. As many of you are probably aware, Greeks (like most of us) are completely immersed in their cuisine and take great pride in hospitality and serving their traditional dishes to others. There was food galore. Souvlakis would be sizzling on hot coals, my sister and I would stare in awe at the roast lamb spinning on a spit with the juices dripping down and coating the lamb with deliciousness, and flaky phyllo pastries such as baklava and spanakopita. This festival was overflowing with sensory delight. We would also watch the Greek dancers in amazement. My sister and I would “choreograph” Bollywood dance skits at home, so the Greek dances piqued our interest as well.
We would walk around just take it all in and we loved every minute of it. Our main purpose was eating, of course. Our favorite thing to indulge in were the spanakopitas. To this day I love them, no matter how introductory they are to greek cuisine. The flaky and paper-thin phyllo layers were (and still are) so fun to break off layer by layer and in the middle you would meet the spinach filling full of feta, parley, and olive oil. This is one way to get your kids to eat spinach. I make spanakopita from time to time and each time I do I am reminded of the Greek Orthodox festival and every time I think it would be so nice to go again.
Spanakopita with Kalamata Olives and Pine Nuts
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
crushed red chili flakes, to taste
2 shallots, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
12 ounces spinach leaves, stems removed and chopped
4 scallions, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped dill
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped mint
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/4-1/2 cup grated kefalotyri cheese
1 tablespoon sour cream
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup kalamata olives, chopped
2 tablespoons roasted pine nuts
salt and black pepper, to taste
16 ounce package of phyllo dough, if frozen defrosted overnight in the refrigerator
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a sauté pan on medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the shallots. Allow the shallots to cook for 2-3 minutes or until they become to soften and add in the garlic and red chili flakes. Once the garlic perfumes the oil, add in the chopped spinach. Let the spinach wilt and cook down. Add some salt, black pepper, and the pinch of nutmeg. Once the spinach is all cooked, set it aside and allow it to cool slightly. In the meantime, grease a 9″ by 13″ baking dish.
Once the spinach has cooled, add in the remaining ingredients (except the phyllo and remaining olive oil), there is no rhyme of reason to the order. Mix to combine all the ingredients, make sure they are well incorporated.
Next, take the phyllo dough (make sure to cover it with a damp kitchen towel so that it doesn’t dry out) and cut the sheets so that they would fit into the baking dish. I had to simply cut the sheets in half. Once the sheets are the right size, divide the phyllo into two equal stacks. One stack will be for the bottom layer, one will be for the top layer.
Take the phyllo dough two sheets at a time and layer into the baking dish. Every second sheet should be brushes generously with olive oil. Once the first stack of phyllo is finished layer all of the spinach mixture over the phyllo. Then, repeat the process so that the spinach is covered and in the middle of the two stacks of phyllo dough. Make sure the phyllo layers are well oiled so that they become crispier.
Bake the spanakopita in the oven for 45-50 minutes, or until the phyllo is golden brown. Once slightly cooled, cut into squares or diamonds. Serve warm or at room temperature.