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I don’t know if it’s just me, but in the '90s, I saw a lot of spanakopita. I had never eaten it before, and yet for an entire decade it somehow became my go-to appetizer. Phyllo and spinach always lived in the freezer, allowing me to fold up a few triangles in a flash. The spanakopita I knew was brimming with watery spinach and overwhelmed by cheese, but it was easy and cheap, and it filled a buffet, so I kept making my guests suffer through it.
It wasn’t until a recent trip to Greece that I realized what spanakopita could be. At a farm up in Mount Pelion, we were served a pie made with layers of just-rolled sheets of phyllo, generously bathed in extra-virgin olive oil and loaded with mixed greens from the farm. This pie was complex and earthy, and tasted of summer. This was not the spiritless pastry I'd peddled at so many dinner parties. I realized I didn’t know spanakopita at all.
Surprisingly, giving this dish a makeover doesn’t require much extra effort—it’s all about the ingredients. Using a combination of tender greens and herbs gives the pie subtle complexity, while making the upgrade from frozen to fresh greens ensures the best flavor. Good olive oil adds richness and depth, giving heartiness to this vegetarian dish. I also like to use a true Greek feta, which is made with all sheep's and goat's milk—never cow's milk—and that little hit of funk goes a long way in a simple dish like this.
I chose a mix of fresh spinach, rainbow chard, arugula, and watercress for this pie, but feel free to keep it simple and use all spinach if you prefer. Any combination works, but I especially like the peppery arugula and watercress against the sweet, vegetal flavors of spinach and chard. This recipe is a great way to use up whatever tender greens and herbs you have in the fridge, allowing you to mix and match. Just be sure to avoid hearty greens, like kale and collards, which require a longer cooking time.
I stick to tender varieties for the herbs, such as the dill and parsley I’ve used here. Tender herbs have delicate aromatics, which won’t overwhelm this pie; woody herbs, like rosemary and thyme, are too strongly flavored, resulting in a soapy taste if used in the large quantity that’s called for in this recipe.
Because greens are made up primarily of water, they lose a ton of volume once cooked. In order to get a nicely stuffed spanakopita, many recipes call for precooking the greens before adding them to the pie, so they don’t further shrink in the oven and collapse the pastry. To keep things simple, I instead massage the raw greens, which sufficiently wilts them and allows me to skip the precooking step. This also means I can fully brown the phyllo without worrying about overcooking the greens.
After chopping up the greens and their tender stems, I add extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. I then gently massage the greens with the seasoning until everything is evenly mixed and the greens begin to wilt, reducing in volume. There’s no need to fully wilt the greens at this point; they'll continue to wilt as they sit.
Next, I sweat sliced scallion and garlic scapes in olive oil over medium heat. I would normally use sliced garlic cloves, but I couldn’t resist tossing in a couple of seasonal scapes instead. The goal of sweating these aromatics is to cook them enough to make them tender and fully bring out their flavor without browning them. Once they're sweated, I add the warm aromatics to the greens, which wilts them further. I then add an egg and trahanas to the greens, evenly mixing both in before finishing the filling with large curds of Greek feta.
Trahanas is small, pebbly crumbles that look like grains or small pasta. It's made from a fermented porridge of grain and dairy, which is then dried and broken up into small, rice-sized pieces. Originally a way to preserve dairy in Greece, the Balkans, and the Middle East, it's still a popular addition to soups and savory pie fillings to absorb moisture and hold them together. Trahanas can be made from yogurt or buttermilk, for the tangy “sour” variety, or unfermented milk for the mild “sweet” style. Here, I’ve used sour trahanas to absorb any excess moisture from the greens. Once cooked, the flavor of the sour trahanas mimics that of the feta, giving the filling an extra cheesy zip. If you don’t have trahanas, you can swap it out for bulgur, rice, or couscous.
With the filling squared away, I turn my attention to the phyllo. If you've never worked with it before, phyllo is tissue-thin sheets of delicate pastry, layered and baked until they're crisp and flaky. Working with phyllo can be frustrating if you expect to preserve the gossamer leaves; I roll with the punches instead, fully prepared to break, tear, and crack the pastry. Luckily, phyllo is more beautiful when it’s crumpled and scrunched.
After fully thawing the pastry, I unroll the sheets and cover them with a barely damp kitchen towel. Phyllo will dry out right before your eyes, so even for a quick dish like this one, I keep it covered while I work. I brush my pie pan with olive oil before layering on the phyllo, one sheet at a time, brushing each with more oil. Once the pie plate is lined, I fill it with the greens before folding up the overhang and draping more phyllo over to top the pie. I drizzle it all with more olive oil to help it bake up golden and light. To finish the spanakopita, I cut the pie into portions before it goes into the oven—phyllo bakes up so crisp and brittle that the only way to cut clean slices is to score it in advance of baking.
I bake the pie until the phyllo folds become shatteringly crisp and golden, with touches of deep brown on the wayward pleats. The greens will grow tender and succulent, while their moisture plumps up the trahanas. Pops of briny feta run through the minerally greens, giving the spanakopita a creamy contrast to the crunchy phyllo crust. It’s best to allow the pie to rest a few minutes before you dig into the steamy dish. It can also be served at room temperature, and I even like it cold, straight from the fridge and eaten with my hands, like a slice of leftover pizza.
As with a lot of stuff from the '90s, I’m happy to have this oldie back in my life. This is more than just a dusted-off version—it's fully revamped and ready for a new decade.
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