My family and I recently visited our good cousins to the west, the Barony of Axemoor at their Pax Axe event. We arrived in time to enjoy a wonderful Middle Eastern lunch put on by the Sea Doggies. The hospitality was wonderful; it was so good to visit with everyone who had come together for the day. I spoke to the Baron at length about Greek food as he watched me prepare some Zahtar pita and set the dolmas to simmer for the feast. His knowledge of Greek food was extensive and I giggled as he told me stories of his boyhood days growing up amongst many Greek families. When he began to tell me about meze dishes he adored, I couldn't stand it any longer, "Enough of it!" I said. "It's time to climb on my trusty old carpet and fly over to Greece for a little adventure." "Hurry up!" I shouted, "Climb aboard and hang on to the tassels for this adventure is about to begin".
I closed my eyes and envisioned the right kind of destination, a small island in the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean. My carpet read my mind and whisked us off in a blink of an eye. We landed on a narrow street where we wandered through the village looking for a perfect seaside taverna. Our quest was to enjoy the meze (appetizers) we had talked about. On the outer edges of town, we followed our noses to a scent of grilled food being prepared. Ah, the perfect seaside taverna, complete with a view of the harbor down below. Birds screaming as they soar through the air, a fresh breeze is blowing through the taverna; what more could we ask for?
We chose a large table inside next to a window. A waiter arrived almost instantaneously with ouzo and small plates of olives, cucumbers and cheese. He announced that today's main course is grilled squid. We enjoy our meze first as we take in the sights and smells. Sir Merwyyd asked if there is any spanakopitta (spinach pie) available today. Sadly, our waiter made apologies that they had run out already for the day, as it is a very popular dish. We groaned with discontent as we were hoping to enjoy some.
As the good baron fell into a comfortable conversation about his love of spanakopitta, his eyes twinkled with the memory of one particular birthday. His birthday was fast approaching and his best friend's mother offered to bake him a cake of his choice. When she asked him what kind of a cake he desired for his birthday, he laughed as he told her he could have cake any day, but what he really wanted was a spanakopitta. Well, the birthday day arrived and before he realized it, there was a visitor at the door bearing a large piping hot pan of spanakopitta. She also announced that there was another pan of equal size at her home for him to enjoy when he dropped by later on. Needless to say, he savored the pie, making his family members drool and wait as he enjoyed it first.
We learned later that the taverna we chose to first sit down in was run by sea farers and of course, they were more likely to serve up the catch of the day rather than greens from a garden. Having eaten the meze and drunken our ouzo, we decided to pass on the squid as our quest for Spanakopitta was not complete. Horror stories of chewing on rubber bands can turn off most folks who try cooking squid themselves, but I assure you, I'll share squid with you another day, for when prepared correctly, it melts in your mouth.
We wandered about the island with little in our stomachs, determined to fulfill our quest for spanakopitta. Our attempts at other tavernas were beginning to leave us tipsy on all the ouzo we were consuming. Surely, we'd find a kitchen with a pan full of pie sooner rather than later. The sun was beginning to go down and lunch was long past being served, when we stumbled around another corner. Our ears perked up to the sound of a lively band with a wild bouzouki player. Following our ears instead of our noses, we came upon a well packed taverna. The life of the village, surely all the seats were taken. My male guests peered in the windows to catch a glimpse of the party inside when they grabbed me and insisted on pressing inside just to stand. They saw many dancing women; how could they leave when the fun was just beginning? We squeezed inside and managed to find a cozy table against the wall. When what to our wondering eyes should appear but a waiter with a huge tray of spanakopitta and of course more Ouzo!!! Our quest was fulfilled but my guests begged that we stay to enjoy the life and spirit of this establishment. Many hours passed and before we knew it, the sun was about to come up and I realized we were the only patrons left listening to the band. The dancers had long since quit dancing, so we stumbled out of the taverna in search of a room to sleep off the ouzo. Will I be able to make them leave this enchanting island of ouzo, women and song? Check in next month and see what has become of us.
A few new words to share with you from our little Greek adventure: Meze is a Turkish word, but the Greeks use it as well. It refers to a tidbit of food which may consist of a few olives and salted slices of cucumber or a slice of spanakopitta served with a glass of ouzo. Ouzo is the clear liquor with a licorice taste. I can clearly remember my first time sampling ouzo and it wasn't in a taverna with a little meze either. As for the spanakopitta, another dancer friend invariably provided our parties with a large tray to sample. It is too good to stop at one piece, as its crispy layers of dough resembling leaves are very delicate and delightful to enjoy. Pitta, which refers to savory pies in Greece, are as common as pasta is in Italy. It may be eaten as a main course or as an appetizer, served either hot or cold, cut into bite sized squares or triangles. Phyllo is the Greek word for leaf. In preparing the classic Greek Pitta, spinach pie or spanakopitta, many layers of thin phyllo dough are brushed with olive oil and melted butter. In between the layers of phyllo is a layer of greens and cheese such as feta and ricotta cheese. When baked, it comes out flaky, slightly crispy and golden brown. The Greeks have been wrapping their food in grape and fig leaves for millennia. The ancient Greeks loved cheese pie wrapped in fig leaves better known as Tyropitta. Dolmas, which I introduced to you, are stuffed grape leaves.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Filling: Cook onions in 3 Tbsp. butter until soft, add the fresh spinach leaves to wilt drain off excess water. If using frozen spinach thaw and squeeze out the excess water. Combine remaining ingredients with onion and spinach. Mix the melted butter and oil together and oil the baking dish (9"x 13") or a jelly roll pan. I prefer to prepare this large batch in a jelly roll pan which creates a thinner filling and more appropriate for appetizers. When prepared in the baking dish it will be thicker and more appropriately served as a main dish. Note: Keep the phyllo from drying out by wrapping in a damp tea towel while you are working. Each layer of phyllo is laid down in the pan and brushed with the butter/oil mixture before laying down the next phyllo sheet. When layering in the baking dish the sheets will be overhanging the edges of the dish, which will be neatly tucked into the pan at the end to make tidy corners. If using the baking dish, lay down 8 layers of dough and spread 1/2 of the filling then layer 8 more layers of phyllo and the remaining filling, then top with another 8 layers of phyllo. If using the jelly roll pan Lay down about 8 layers of phyllo then spread all of the filling then continue to layer another 8 layers of oiled phyllo dough on top. Bake 45 min. or until golden. Cut into squares or diamonds and serve.