Inspired by Greek appetizers while dining out recently, I planned to prepare melitzanasalata, eggplant salad, mom’s flamed cheese and spinach/feta phyllo pie. Of Sephardic Jewish ancestry, my Greek born mother, sustained a cooking tradition that reflects their unique, historical experience. The Spanish empanada, for instance, translated to using phyllo for their pies rather than a pastry crust. I remember mom spearing cubes of hard cheese, probably a kefalotyri or kasseri, with a fork, holding it over a gas flame at arm’s length until the corners crusted and blackened, and I remember how meltingly delicious it was. Today the taste is rediscovered in Saganaki, which is simply cubes of cheese “fried” in butter and seasoned with lemon juice. As good as this dish is, I kind of like mom’s way!
I think my mother had hundreds of eggplant recipes, it seemed so. Her deliciously piquant eggplant spread makes a wonderful appetizer.
Spanakopita is a familiar hors d’oeuvre in the shape of little triangles. But mom had a short cut; the entire recipe was baked in a Pyrex dish, with golden puffs of crisp phyllo rising up when it emerged from the oven. The pie is then cut into squares for serving as a breakfast or brunch dish. I didn’t know it as an hors d’oeuvre when I was growing up, it does make a perfect “break fast” supper dish for those observing Yom Kippur, celebrated this weekend and culminating in the 10-day holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The dish has all the components of a light, satisfying repast, spinach, briny, crumbly feta, and crisp leafy pastry, after a day of fasting.
Greek spinach and cheese pie
Allow frozen phyllo to defrost overnight in the refrigerator before using.
1 10 oz. bag frozen spinach
2 eggs beaten
3 to 4 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/2 pound Greek feta cheese, crumbled
8 ounces ricotta cheese, preferably fresh
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground pepper
3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1/2 pound phyllo leaves
Have on Hand:
Vegetable oil in a small dish
Goose feather or thin brush
Pyrex lasagna dish
Preheat oven to 375°F.
1. Defrost and drain frozen spinach, and squeeze dry before using. Place on a board and chop coarsely.
2. Beat eggs in a bowl, add scallions, spinach with feta, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses, pepper and dill. With a wooden spoon stir to mix to thoroughly incorporate ingredients.
3. For the pie preparation: Lightly grease a Pyrex or earthenware baking dish. Cut phyllo leaves in half lengthwise and cover phyllo with a lightly dampened, not wet, tea towel to keep the leaves from drying out. Working with one sheet at a time, dip tops of fingers or feather brush into the oil and sprinkle each sheet lightly with a flick of oil over the phyllo sheet, as you arrange a base of 5 to 6 sheets. Be careful not to moisten with too much oil.
4. Place the spinach mixture over the base and smooth to an even layer. Top with 5 to 6 additional sheets sprinkling between the layers as above. Cut 2 to 3 sheets of phyllo into 3-inch squares. Drop each one like a hankie, next to each other, to cover the top layer of phyllo and flick with a bit of oil. Bake in preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes until crisp and golden brown. Cut into squares for serving.
Note: Spanakopita can be prepared up to one day ahead, cooled and refrigerated with a tent of foil. Bring to room temperature, reheat to serve.
MEDITERRANEAN EGGPLANT CAVIAR
Pile rustic eggplant appetizer into an attractive pottery bowl and serve with pita toasts. For a savory antipasto platter add little dishes of bocancini, olives and caper berries.
Yield: about 1 1/2 cups
1 large or 2 medium eggplants (1 to 1 1/4 pounds)
2 sweet red peppers
1 medium red onion, cut into tiny dice
2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
4 to 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat grill or broiler.
1. Slice eggplant and peppers in half lengthwise or leave whole if grilling. Prick eggplant skin with fork and place vegetables cut side down on a foil lined cookie-sheet.
2. Grill or broil vegetables 4 to 5 inches from the source of heat. Peppers will cook in approximately 6 to 7 minutes or longer on a grill, until skin chars. Transfer to brown paper bag. Close tightly and let stand several minutes to capture the steam before peeling. Eggplant is done when the skin shrivels and flesh is soft.
3. Remove skin, seeds and membrane from peppers while still warm and trim well. Cut into strips then into small dice and set aside. Cut eggplant in half lengthwise and scoop out flesh into a mixing bowl. Mash with a fork until chunky.
4. Meanwhile, soak chopped onion in a bowl of cold water for 15 minutes. Drain well, transfer to a clean kitchen towel and squeeze dry.
5. Add onion and red pepper to eggplant and stir to mix. Stir in garlic, vinegar, oil, salt, pepper and parsley, and toss to mix. Taste to adjust seasoning if necessary. Spoon into a serving dish and mound neatly. Garnish with sprigs of parsley and serve with crisp crackers or pita toasts.
Note: Eggplant appetizer can be completely prepared up to several days ahead. Refrigerate covered in a suitable container. Bring to room temperature and serve with crackers or pita toasts.
Pita Toasts: Preheat oven to 350°F.
1 package pita bread, cut into wedges and placed on a baking sheet. Drizzle wedges lightly with olive oil then brush to coat. Season wedges with a sprinkle of fresh thyme, garlic powder and cayenne, and bake in preheated oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Can be prepared ahead and stored in a wax-paper lined tin.