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The first time I tasted spanakopita, I was 10 years old and eating at a buffet lined with trays of leathery mystery meats, swamped in gloppy, gray-brown sauces. I remember finally coming upon one dish that looked different, in a good way. The top, not yet cracked, was a sheet of flaky golden pastry, stretched atop what appeared to be a fresh-from-the-oven pot pie. I smiled as the server pressed a big spoon down into it, the pastry sheets softly crinkling as they shattered and separated. And then, in an instant, my smile collapsed under the weight of crushing disappointment as a spinach-loaded scoop was lifted out and heaved onto my plate. Luckily, that feeling didn't last long. After a very hesitant bite, I actually had a new favorite food.
I still love it today, but one thing I don't love is how much time and effort it takes to make, especially considering that it's generally eaten as an appetizer or snack. In my ideal world, I'd be able to regularly cook and eat spanakopita on a weeknight and let that be dinner, but in its traditional form, it just doesn't lend itself to that purpose. With a few simple tweaks, though, it's entirely possible. And with that, I'd like to introduce you to the creamy, garlicky chicken spanakopita skillet.
Spanakopita is typically made in a rectangular baking dish with a filling of spinach, feta cheese, scallions or onions, eggs, and dill, covered with several layered sheets of butter- or oil-brushed phyllo dough. This riff, however, is cooked entirely in a cast iron skillet, with a whole lot less mess and fuss. It merges the Greek classic with elements of chicken pot pie, delivering a creamier, heartier, dinner-worthy recipe.
Just like the old tried-and-true spanakopita, this dish begins with a hefty helping of spinach. I wilt it in my skillet so that it releases its water, which would otherwise leach out during baking. Then I transfer it to a colander and gently press to rid it of any excess liquid, making sure to get as much out as possible (lest the saucy spanakopita end up more like a strange spinach-flavored soup).
Next, I pan-fry chunks of chicken in butter until the outer edges turn golden. The browning of the milk solids in the butter speeds up browning on the chicken, and the less time it takes to brown the exterior of the chicken, the juicier the meat will remain on the inside. I set the chicken aside, then turn to the sauce.
I start with a garlic-spiked roux—butter and flour cooked together—and then add cream and chicken stock. As it is, this sauce is a much more garlicky version of what you'd expect when you make a chicken pot pie. However, the recipe is still missing some essential spanakopita ingredients: feta, dill, and green onion. I mix in a generous amount of each and stir until no large chunks of feta remain.
Feta doesn't have the melting properties of other cheeses, but when it's combined with the liquids in the sauce, the extra moisture is enough to break down the cheese and distribute it throughout. The flour from the roux, meanwhile, helps emulsify the mixture, so that you get a tangy feta- and garlic-flavored sauce that won't separate, even after you add the chicken back along with the moist spinach.
Once the spinach, chicken, and feta-garlic sauce have been tackled, the only thing left to do before baking is add the much-loved and much-dreaded phyllo top. My biggest issue with phyllo dough is that it's so thin and fragile that it often tears when handled, making it difficult to work with. Knowing that sometimes the best way to deal with a fussy ingredient is to work with it rather than against it, I crinkle up the sheets of butter-brushed phyllo like tissue paper and place them over the filling, creating a textured, elevated top in which any tears are camouflaged by the many folds and exposed edges.
After baking, it's ready to scoop into big spoonfuls on your plate, with the creamy spinach and chicken filling sending steam up and over the phyllo.
It's a funny thing: When I first met spanakopita, I was hoping it was chicken pot pie, but I fell in love with what it actually was instead. Today, with this one-skillet creation, I get both at once. My 10-year-old self would be jealous.
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