Homemade phyllo and spinach filling, perfect for Lent, and anytime
Growing up we lived close to our grade school, and so lunches were eaten at home after a short walk down one street and one lane. Our mother, who worked at different periods either at home, or in the evenings, was available to meet us at the school and walk the short distance home with us. Once there we would very occasionally be treated to our parents’ newly discovered convenience food; the TV dinner. We loved those surprise lunches, from the compartmentalized courses to the odd looking sauces and vegetables which were less than vibrant. We especially loved returning to school and, on those days only, asking our friends “what did you have for lunch?”, knowing that they would probably ask us the same. Then, we could nonchalantly, but with a quiet glee, say, “Oh, you know, a TV dinner”. Our non-Greek friends would nod their heads with approval and understanding. Our Greek friends would look bewildered.
The truth is however, these TV dinner lunches happened at most 2 to 3 times a year, probably when our parents’ found them on sale or when they were overcome with busyness and couldn’t bear the thought of making one more pastitsio, one more pot of spanakorizo or one more youvetsi. These were our typical lunches, and the foods we were so happy not to have to eat in a school cafeteria. Looking back, we think, how silly! But as kids, one of the most important things is fitting in, and we desperately wanted to do that.
Imagine our horror then, when one day, one of us was heading to a school field trip, with our mother as one of the parent monitors. The bus was leaving very early and so breakfast at home that morning, just wasn’t going to happen. No worries, there was a plan. Our mother, never one to allow any of her children, or any other children for that matter, to go hungry, had come prepared. Approximately 30 minutes into the bus ride she pulled out a container as large as a bread box, filled to capacity with spanakopita. There were enough pieces in that container to feed every child and teacher on that bus for days. She set aside a few pieces for us, and then proceeded to walk around the bus
offering forcing spanakopita on everyone. In her heavily accented and somewhat broken english she kept repeating, “it’s good, it’s spinach” as if that was going to sell it to a bunch of third graders. After she sat back down, pretty proud of herself, she asked why the pieces she had left behind had not yet been touched. Seriously! Unable to talk because of a lump in the throat and on the verge of tears, eating the spanakopita which had ruined any chance at fitting in, was unlikely to happen. It would have been bad enough if she had been passing out cookies, but spanakopita!!?! There was no coming back from this. But then, Jack came to our mother, and with spinach in his teeth, shyly asked for another piece.
Our parents have many, many versions of spanakopita, including one made with store-bought phyllo and one which is technically a spanakotyropita, because of the inclusion of feta. This version is vegan and perfect for periods of lent. We love it so much that we enjoy it year-round however.
The breadcrumbs in the filling are essential to help absorb any excess moisture. Use unflavoured breadcrumbs that you purchase or make yourself.
Use the freshest spinach you can find, and be sure to remove any wilted leaves and all of the hard stems. Tender stems are fine to keep.
Vegan spanakopita (Νηστίσιμη σπανακόπιτα)
For the spinach filling
- 1/2 cup long grain rice
- 820 grams spinach
- 1/2 head curly, or romaine, lettuce
- 3/4 cup fresh green onions, chopped
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup dill, chopped
- 2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
For the phyllo
- 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour plus 1 1/2 cups, if needed
- 55 ml olive oil
- 40 ml vegetable oil
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp red wine vinegar
- 2 tsp olive oil
To make the spinach filling
- Place your rice in a bowl and add 3 cups of cold water. Set aside.
- Prepare your spinach by removing any hard stems and cutting any large spinach leaves in half. Place your spinach in a large bowl and wash several times using cool water.
- Wash your lettuce and cut it into bite sized pieces.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and once the water has boiled, add the spinach, lettuce and spring onions. Allow the vegetables to sit in the water for approximately 30 seconds and then drain. Allow your spinach mixture to drain in the colander for as long as you can. Then, transfer the spinach to another clean bowl, squeezing out the excess water with your hands. Alternatively you can use a cheesecloth or clean piece of tuile to squeeze out the excess water.
- Drain the rice and rinse it.
- To the spinach add the olive oil, dill, salt, pepper, bread crumbs and the rice. Mix well until combined and set aside.
To make the phyllo
- In a large bowl sift the flour and then add the rest of the phyllo ingredients. Mix by hand and knead well for approximately 5 - 7 minutes. If the dough is too sticky, you will need to add more flour, up to an addition 1 1/2 cups. Add additional flour 1/4 cup at a time. Watch video here, to see consistency of dough.
- Make a large ball with your dough and divide it in half.
- Take one half of the dough and rub the surface with 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough as thinly as you can to cover your baking pan. We use a 12 x 17 pan which is 1 inch high. Your bottom layer of phyllo needs to come up the sides of your pan, and hang over a little bit. This is needed in order to attach the bottom and top phyllo layers.
Assemble your spanakopita
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- Grease your pan lightly with olive oil and then add the bottom layer of phyllo. Place the spinach filling on the dough and use a fork to spread it evenly across phyllo.
- Repeat the procedure used to roll out your first half of phyllo to now roll out the second half of your phyllo dough.
- Place this phyllo on top of the spinach filling. Crimp the bottom and top layers of phyllo together.
- Using a sharp knife, score the top layer of phyllo, marking the dough in the way that you would like to cut your pieces.
- If desired, you can brush a thin layer of olive oil on the top layer of phyllo.
- Bake your spanakopita in the middle rack of your oven for about 1 hour to an 1 hour 15 minutes. When done, remove from oven and allow to cool slightly before cutting it.