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There's nothing like a warm, home-cooked meal to bring everyone to the table. And in her new cookbook Carla's Comfort Foods, Chef Carla Hall celebrates the meals that unite us — no matter where we're from.
Hall is one of the hosts of ABC's talk show The Chew and was a finalist on the reality TV show Top Chef. She invited NPR's David Greene over to bake spanakopita — a Greek dish, and just one of the many recipes she loves from around the world.
Hall says her book follows common threads of flavor through different cultures; she believes food connects us. When it comes to cooking techniques and flavors, cultures are never too far apart, she says — the kitchen is a place where in many ways, we're all the same.
"Your nose doesn't have to look like mine. Your skin doesn't have to look like mine, but I can still celebrate you," Hall says.
Spanakopita is basically spinach and feta cheese tucked into a flaky filo pocket. Hall also adds lemon because she loves a "good pucker": "I love anything sour and tart," she says. "You just can't get too tart for me."
Instead of making those little pocket hors d'oeuvres, Hall shows us how to make spanakopita the traditional Greek way — as a big casserole. Click the audio link above to hear Greene and Hall's culinary adventures. And you can find Hall's recipe for spanakopita below.
Every Greek restaurant has a version of this savory greens and cheese pie. My little twist is to spike the mixture with lemon zest; it adds a level of freshness. I experimented with this dish many times, trying to prevent the filo from getting soggy by the time the whole thing cools, and this recipe comes pretty close. I switched from a cake pan to a shallow one, added an egg to the filling, drained the cheese, and squeezed every last drop of liquid out of the spinach. The real secret, though, is to eat it when it's still hot so the top is all shattery, the center creamy and the bottom crisp.
Olive oil cooking spray
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch scallions (green onions), trimmed and thinly sliced
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds baby spinach
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup ricotta cheese, drained
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Ten 18-by-13-inch sheets filo dough, thawed if frozen
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly coat a 13-by-9-by-1-inch baking pan with olive oil spray.
2. Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the scallions, shallot, garlic and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until softened and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the spinach, parsley and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until the spinach wilts, about 2 minutes. Drain in a fine-mesh colander, squeezing the spinach as dry as possible. Finely chop the spinach.
3. In a large bowl, stir together the egg, feta, ricotta, lemon zest and nutmeg until smooth. Stir in the spinach mixture until well-blended.
4. Lay 1 filo sheet in the prepared pan, aligning one short edge with the length of the pan. Spray the sheet, then fold it in half so that it covers the bottom of the pan. Repeat, laying, spraying and folding 4 times, so that you've used 5 filo sheets total, forming 10 layers. Spread the spinach evenly over the filo stack. Then repeat the laying, spraying and folding with the remaining 5 filo sheets.
5. Fold any overhanging edges of filo over the filling. Use an offset spatula to tightly tuck the folded edges against the filling by placing the spatula's edge where the ends of the sheets meet the edge of the pan and gently pressing the sheets toward the bottom of the pan. Repeat all around the perimeter of the pan to encase the filling. Coat the top with the oil spray.
6. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes. Cool slightly in the pan on a rack, then cut into pieces and serve hot.
You may not be able to fit all the spinach into the skillet at once. If you can't, add half and stir until it wilts, then add the rest. It's amazing how such a huge amount of spinach will shrink!
Be sure to squeeze the spinach dry before layering it. If it's too wet, it'll make the filo soggy.
From Carla's Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World by Carla Hall and Genevieve Ko. Copyright 2014 Carla Hall. Excerpted by permission of Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.