Just like his memo pads, Nick prefers his phyllo letter-sized NOT legal

I have a congenial feud with my staff over legal pads.

I have used the 8" x 11" ones for years, but my new firm stocks the longer ones. I can't stand them. I once made my poor former legal assistant, who accidentally bought the long ones, hack them down to size with a paper cutter.

She ingeniously turned the scrap into little notepads.

In much the same way, I found the trick to working with 13" x 17" phyllo dough sheets - I simply cut them in half for perfectly sized spanakopita. Snip! Snip! Or as the Greeks say, "Sneep! Sneep!"

"Spanakopita" is Greek for "Spinach Pie." Spanaka = spinach, Pitta = pie. It's essentially a mixture of spinach, onion, herbs, cheese and egg sandwiched between layered phyllo dough, and baked. Making it is a bit time consuming, but well worth the trouble. Spanakopita is delicious hot, room temperature, or cold; and for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack.

The trick is learning to work with phyllo dough. Phyllo is Greek for leaf. This dough is as thin as one, and will dry out quickly if you don't work fast, buttering each letter sized sheet individually, as you keep the rest of them covered with a damp towel.

You will buy the phyllo frozen. Place it in the refrigerator overnight and it will be perfect for working with the next day. I use Sahtein unbleached phyllo, 13" x 17" sheets. Cut in half, they are virtually letter sized and fit perfectly in my 9" x 12" pan.

The recipe that follows is a fairly typical Greek one. There are a couple of differences between Greek and Middle Eastern spinach pies. One is the use of butter rather than olive oil.

Greeks rarely use butter except in desserts, and paradoxically, with spanakopita. It gives it a richer taste. The other is in the use of cheese; Middle Eastern pies don't typically use it. Greek versions will omit the cheese and substitute olive oil for butter during Lent - but with Lent over, let's go crazy and use butter, cheese, and eggs, shall we?

A note on ingredients. Many cooks use frozen spinach. There is no excuse for that, with such an abundance of fresh greens in the spring. You can use 100 percent spinach, or a mix with arugula and delicate pea shoots.

If you use pea shoots, sauté a small garlic clove with the onion - the combination is sublime.

Others like to stretch the feta cheese with cheaper ricotta or cottage cheese. I never do this. I use a briny sheep milk feta, or a combination sheep/goat milk, which gets plenty creamy when mixed with three large, fresh farmer's market eggs. If you use goat milk feta, it combines beautifully with arugula.

You likely won't need to use salt, as feta is usually salty enough on its own; if you do, just a dash or two. But don't forget the nutmeg - it's a minor ingredient, but makes a major impact in balancing the bitterness of the greens with a touch of sweetness.

Spinach Pie

Ingredients:

1 1/2 lb fresh spinach, or a mixture of spinach, arugula, and pea shoots.

3 TB olive oil (for sautéing the greens)

1 small garlic clove (optional - if using arugula and pea shoots)

1/2 cup or more chopped green (spring) onions

1/2 cup or more chopped fresh flat leaf (Italian) parsley

1/2 cup or more chopped fresh dill

1 lb creamy feta cheese, preferably sheep milk and/or sheep and goat milk

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

salt and freshly ground pepper

18 sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed in the refrigerator

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted

Preparation:

Remove the stems from the spinach, chop the leaves coarsely, and rinse well in a salad spinner. Set aside.

In a large, deep pot over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the green onions and sauté until tender, about five minutes. Transfer to a bowl.

Add the spinach to the same pan and place over high heat. Cook, turning the spinach with tongs or a fork, until wilted, about 4 minutes. (The leaves will wilt in their own moisture.) Drain any excess liquid.

Add the spinach to the green onions, then stir in the parsley, dill and feta. Add the eggs and nutmeg and stir well. Season to taste with no more than a dash of salt, and pepper. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a pot over low heat. With a basting brush, butter the bottom and sides of an 9" x 12" x 2 1/2" baking dish.

Remove the phyllo sheets from their package, unroll them and lay them flat on a work surface. Cut them in half leaving two stacks of phyllo, each roughly 8 1/2" x 11" or 12". Roll one stack back up and re-freeze; cover the other with a damp towel or plastic wrap to prevent the sheets from drying out. You will have about 15 sheets.

Lay a phyllo sheet in the baking pan and brush the top lightly but thoroughly with the butter.

Top with 9 more phyllo sheets, brushing each one with butter. Spread the spinach mixture evenly over the phyllo layers. Then top with 10 additional phyllo sheets, again brushing each with butter, including the top one.

Cover and refrigerate the pie for 30 minutes so the butter will set.

When ready to bake, preheat an oven to 350. Using a sharp knife, cut the pie into 16 equal pieces about halfway down. (If you cut it after it bakes, the phyllo dough will crumble.)

Bake until golden brown on top, 30-60 minutes depending on the thickness of the spinach layer and the hotness of the oven. Watch carefully and remove from the oven when done, and let stand for several minutes before serving.

Serve with fat Greek olives and chilled ouzo, but before you finish cutting the pieces and removing them from the pan, take a moment to marvel at the letter-sized beauty of it all, while you contemplate how nice it would be to cut three inches off all your files at the office.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard and Walker, P.C., a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation.

He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine.

Published: Thu, Jun 2, 2011

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