I always make a big tray of Spanakopita to take to the Skemp’s Easter party. It’s the perfect time of year to make this dish because the ingredients come straight from the garden–the last of the winter leeks, chard or spinach, fresh herbs…and the chickens provide the eggs. I learned to make this delicious spinach pie with a crust of filo pastry in Greece from the formidable Spitidoula, who ruled over a massive indoor wood fired oven and brazier of glowing coals. Her kitchen was filled with the smell of bubbling stew, heady with the aroma of lemons and herbs gathered from the rocky hills. We made Spanakopita at Easter time, when it was all right to use eggs and cheese again. In the weeks before during the fast of lent, she and other village cooks made hortopita, a version of the pie made only with a mixture of wild greens and herbs. I remember them foraging beneath the olive trees as I forage in my own spring garden, looking for early volunteers and the fresh growth of over-wintered greens and herbs.
Ingredients for Spanakopita: extra virgin olive oil, 2 lbs. washed spinach or chard leaves, 1 1/2 cups chopped onion or leeks (white and tender green parts), 2 or 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1/3 cup chopped fresh dill, chervil, or parsley, 1/2 cup chopped arugula, 2 or 3 eggs, 8 oz crumbled feta cheese, a pinch of red chile flakes, and salt and pepper to taste. A cup of ricotta or other soft fresh cheese is optional. This recipe calls for 1/2 package frozen filo sheets. Thaw them at least 2 hours before assembling the Spanakopita.
To make the filling, heat 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet with the onions or leeks over medium heat and sauté 5 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. If the pan is big enough, the chopped spinach can be cooked with the onions. If not, steam the leaves until wilted, drain and chop, and add them to the skillet. Season lightly with salt and black pepper and a pinch or red chile flakes. Remove from the heat and drain any liquid from the vegetables. In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the vegetables to the bowl and stir to combine. Add the herbs and cheese and mix again. Check the seasoning.
Assemble the Spanakopita: Unwrap the filo sheets and cover them with a damp towel to keep them from drying out. You will need a 9 x 13-inch pyrex baking dish or a larger baking pan at least 1-inch deep. In a small bowl, combine 3 Tbs melted butter and 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil. Brush the bottom of the pan with the butter/olive oil and spread one layer of filo in the pan. Brush the filo lightly with butter/oil. Repeat this step until you have used one half the filo sheets (six to eight layers). Spread the filling over the filo. Layer on the rest of the filo, brushing each sheet with butter/oil. Cut through the pastry to the bottom of the pan to make 3-inch squares, then diagonally into diamonds. Bake the Spanakopita in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven for 40 to 45 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.