Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Easier Way of Entertaining--With Spanakopita

Over the years I've adapted my approach to entertaining. Raised by parents who constantly had people over, whether it was family or friends or entertaining for business, I learned from an early age that "the right way" to do it was to make everything yourself--except for Thanksgiving, which is the official potluck holiday. My mom would slave for days to perfect every dish. The meals were always delicious, the table always beautiful. As proud as she was in the achievement, I often wonder, though, if she enjoyed the gatherings themselves.

Nevertheless I adopted that approach and for years took pride in crafting--okay, controlling--meals that I alone made. It was both exhilarating and exhausting--and often very expensive. I was an entertaining snob who looked down at potlucks. My experience with them--from college through book clubs well into middle age--was that those not as particular about food would contribute dishes that were either, well, crappy, or parsimonious. (Yep, that old saw that the food was terrible and there wasn't enough of it.)

That was then. Much as I still love to create an entire meal, I pick and choose my solo ventures. And since so many of my friends are chefs or in the culinary industry, why wouldn't I want them to help create a meal? But, even on my own, I've learned--and my mom eventually evolved to this, too--to pick just a couple or few dishes to make myself and then buy the rest.

This is just what I did a couple of weekends ago when I invited her and three of her friends to lunch. It's spring, my garden is reaching the height of prettiness, puppy Casper at a year old is now ready for prime time, and I thought we'd all enjoy some fresh air and home cooking.

What I decided on was a Mediterranean-style meal. At its heart would be a large spanakopita, filled with spinach, leeks, feta, and plenty of herbs. A large Greek salad with homemade lemon dressing would accompany it. And, for dessert, a berry pie topped by a crumble.

That's what I would make. After all, I also had a living to earn and the days leading up to lunch were working days for me. Everything else would come from Balboa International Market--the pita, the baba ganoush, the tzatziki, and the tabbouleh. I bought a container of mixed olives with garlic, dolmas, a half dozen baklava, and Persian pastry that looks like mini churros but are infused with honey and rose water. (One of the idiosyncratic things about the market is that they don't label their pre-packaged deli or dessert items.)

It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon. The sun was shining and comfortably warm. The patio table was overflowing with food--and no flies descended on it. The ladies spoiled the dogs with attention. Best of all I could sit down, relax, and enjoy the meal with them. And then everyone got to take home leftovers.

So, my lesson in all this? Plan a beautiful meal but just pick a few dishes to make yourself and either welcome contributions from others or pick up the rest at your favorite market. That way you can enjoy the gathering, too.

(printable recipe)
Serves 8 to 12

So, why spanakopita? First, it's delicious and easy to make--yes, even with filo (just defrost overnight in the fridge, unroll it, and keep the stack of leaves covered with a damp towel while working with it). It's also vegetarian and I didn't know if anyone had any meat issues. Finally, it's easy to build a meal around and looks beautifully rustic. You have a choice of olive oil versus melted butter to brush the filo leaves. I used olive oil but butter will add a rich flavor to it. And a tip here: Cooking down 2 pounds of spinach requires some skillet space. I use my wok because it gives me the cooking elbow room it needs. This part also just takes the most time. Once that's done the rest will go by fairly quickly, even with the filo. Don't worry about tears in the filo. It's all very forgiving, thanks to all the layers.

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, preferably Greek, or melted butter, plus a lot extra for brushing filo
3 leeks, white and light green parts, chopped and rinsed
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds fresh spinach, well rinsed and dried
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ pound Greek feta cheese, crumbled or diced
½ cup fresh dill weed, minced
½ cup fresh mint, minced
¼ cup fresh oregano, minced
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 pound filo, defrosted overnight in refrigerator

Preheat oven to 375° and place rack in middle of oven.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add leeks and garlic and sauté until fragrant and soft, about 4 minutes. Add spinach in handfuls, stirring in as you add each batch. Let it wilt and cook down before adding the next handful. Once all of the spinach is in the pan, season with salt and pepper.

Remove from heat and spoon mixture into a colander. Place over sink and, using the back of a large spoon, press down to release excess liquid. Set aside to cool.

Once spinach mixture is at room temperature, add feta cheese, dill, mint, oregano, and eggs. Fold together until well incorporated. Set aside.

Brush the bottom and sides of a 9”-by-13” baking dish with olive oil. Keep ½ cup of olive oil (or melted butter) nearby. Unroll the feta and lay flat. Carefully pull the top sheet and place it into the baking dish with ends hanging well over the sides. Brush lightly with oil. Continue placing sheets one at a time into the dish at different angles so the entire pan is lined with sheet ends hanging down over the sides. Do this until you have only 3 sheets left.

Pour the filling into the dish, then fold over the hanging ends to cover the filling and brush with oil. Layer the remaining 3 sheets on top, brushing each sheet with oil. Fold the excess into the sides of the pan.

Use a sharp knife to cut through the layers to the filling in a few place. Brush the top with oil or butter and bake for 50 minutes until the top is puffed and golden brown. Let sit on counter for 10 minutes. Then cut into squares and serve warm.

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