The problem with spanakopita is that it’s a large, flavorless lump of cooked spinach in a soggy phyllo crust … can you tell I really don’t like it? Spanakopita triangles are often great, but usually just because they’re mostly phyllo. If you want a spinach pie that is actually good and still tastes like spinach, you need to add a few other flavors, even if you REALLY like spinach.
I’ve already mentioned my weird teenage obsession with spinach pie. While it hasn’t totally gone away as an adult, I’ve moved on to other greens for the most part – like most other white millennial women, I love kale – so I thought it was worth revisiting my original beloved green. I think the trouble with spinach is that it gets really slimy. This can be a good thing, like in soup, and plenty of Japanese dishes have embraced the sliminess, but for the most part the American palate is not really oriented toward slimy. The taste of spinach can also be pretty uninteresting. There are two important things I do in spinach pie to help both of these problems. The first is I use mature spinach and I chop it fairly small, so it’s a bit firmer and the pieces are smaller and easier to chew. The second thing is I add a few intense but complementary flavors. Feta already helps with this – the salty and sour cheese really enhances the spinach, and if you use a good feta that gets creamy, it makes a little bit of a sauce. To keep going with this idea, I add a spice blend similar to za’atar (but not za’atar because I was out), including a generous portion of lemon zest. Za’atar often has a strong lemony flavor from sumac, so an herb blend with lemon zest has a similar effect.
To break up the spinach I also threw in my customary bunch of parsley, as well as a few stalks of kale because it was in my fridge and I thought it would add more texture, but I think this would also be great with mustard greens, dandelion greens, collards, or swiss chard. Even a bit of arugula wouldn’t hurt. My last effort toward diversifying the flavor was to use a combination of leeks and white onion in the aromatic base, again because I had leeks in my fridge. The great thing about leeks is that they work as both an onion/allium and as a green, because they are leafy, not too crunchy, and have a substantial but not sharp flavor. I could see this blend working with just leeks, and of course just onions is classic, so again this idea is flexible.
I should add that I don’t make spinach pie in a pan. I decided a while back that unless I’m making a pie with a very loose filling, like a custard, I don’t really care for the perfect shape of the pan, plate, or dish. Instead, I make most pies as what Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perleman would call a galette, which is a fancy French term for a free-form, slightly open-faced pie (ok, maybe it’s just more efficient than using that description). I love the ratio of crust to filling in a galette, which is to say high, but not overpoweringly crusty. You can really pile in the filling, and you get a variation in textures from part of the filling baking uncovered. It also requires no precision, since the galette looks artfully messy even if it’s completely uneven, so it’s perfect for people like me who are weirdly inept when it comes to making neat crusts. For the crust itself, I go with my trusty no-recipe dough, which is flour, butter, salt, cold water, and an egg white. I memorized it a decade ago and I use it for sweet and savory pies.
Until now I’ve largely skipped over what some people would consider the most important part: the cheese. Spinach pie needs feta. Similar cheeses will also work, as long as they are equally briny. Paneer is not really flavorful enough and queso fresco is a bit too crumbly. Ideal feta for spinach pie is very salty, because its salt is basically going to season the whole thing. You also want it to be a little creamy, but not watery or soft. I don’t think Bulgarian feta is great for this because it melts too much and kind of disappears. Very cheap feta is fine and what I typically use – just don’t do what I initially did by accident and buy fat free feta. I don’t know why fat free cheese exists, but it ruins the point of cheese. Even vegan cheese is full of fat.
With all of these considerations, I was delighted to discover on my first bite that this is the best spinach pie I’ve ever made. The lemon zest brightened up the spinach, the blend of greens made the texture substantial and easy to chew, and the crust made every bite a little different. It’s been an excellent lunch throughout the week, especially paired with some soup.
For the crust:
For the filling:
Lower the heat on the pan with the aromatics and add the spinach and kale.
Cover and allow the greens to wilt, 3-5 minutes. If you are using frozen spinach, add it fully thawed and drained after the kale has cooked down.
Assembling and baking: