Living off the land is something Greeks do as a matter of course and wild greens (horta) are some of the most sought-after food items in nature’s larder. This is a lesson we too can learn, especially right now when fresh greens are sometimes hard to come by (I’m writing this during the Covid-19 lockdown). In the UK, foraged foods are a free nutrient-packed local food source that adds diversity to our diet for no cost. Nettles and dandelions, in particular, are two wild ingredients that are easy to identify; they’re abundant, unbelievably delicious and rich in iron and vitamins. When gathering nettles, be sure to wear rubber gloves to avoid any stings and then then drop them into a pan of boiling salted water to remove the sting. This is the best recipe for the classic spanakopita I know – believe me when I say I have tried dozens of them during my lifetime. This recipe is inspired by my friend Elena whom I met on the tiny island of Paxos one hot and sultry evening. She used to run a teeny tiny little taverna with just four tables covered in waxed gingham cloths around which sat 16 beautiful old white chairs with faded rafia seats. This pie is all she made – in vast quantities I might add – day in and day out. She was justly proud of it and served it with a toothy grin, crisp roast potatoes, a generous bowl of Greek salad, tzatziki and jugs of ice cold retsina. This is my very favourite menu for a Sunday dinner with family and friends.
Makes four individual pies or one large one
800g tender green leaves, including spinach, rocket, nettles (stings neutralised, see note above) and dandelion, thoroughly washed in plenty of free-flowing water
A bunch of spring onions or one medium leek, trimmed and finely sliced
2 large free-range eggs, beaten
400g feta cheese
250g Greek anari cheese (you can also use good quality ricotta but make sure to drain it first)
Grated zest of a lemon
Small bunch of mint, leaves picked and finely chopped
Small bunch of dill, finely chopped
Half of a whole nutmeg, finely grated
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper, to your taste
250g filo pastry (I love JR Feuilles de Filo, available at Waitrose)
30g French butter, melted
Pul biber and chopped dill for garnishing
For the sauce:
4 plump garlic cloves
3 tbsp tahini
2 lemons, juiced and zested
Sea salt flakes, to your taste
How I make it
Heat an oven to 180C.
First make the sauce by crushing the garlic with a good pinch of sea salt and finely chopping it. In a bowl, mix the garlic with the tahini using a whisk. Then slowly add the lemon juice until the mixture comes together and thickens (keep the zest aside for garnishing the pie). Let the sauce down slightly with tepid water, taste and add a little sea salt if you want to. Transfer to a sealed container and place in the fridge where it will keep for around a week.
Heat up a large frying pan, add a generous glug of olive oil with a pinch of sea salt and sautée the spring onions or leek for a minute or two. Remove from the pan and set aside.
In the same pan, add the greens in batches, cover and leave to wilt slightly but not entirely, the trick is to retain some of the fresh texture of the greens. Remove from the pan and place into a colander to drain. Set aside to completely cool then squeeze out as much of the liquid as possible.
Then, in a large mixing bowl, mix the eggs and crumble in the feta and anari cheese. Add the cooled spinach, lemon zest, herbs and nutmeg. Mix everything together very gently and season to your taste.
To make individual pies, place one sheet of filo on a floured surface and brush it will olive oil. Place another sheet over the top at 180 degree angle and brush with oil. Finally, place a third sheet on top to match the original one and brush with oil. Place a quarter of the pie filling in the middle, arrange into a square shape and wrap the pastry around it as if wrapping a gift. Repeat three more times to make four pies and turn them over to hide the folded edges. Place on a baking tray lined with baking parchment, brush with olive oil and scatter the nigella seeds over the top.
To make one large pie, arrange the filo sheets on a large round pie dish brushing each layer with olive oil, making sure that you cover the bottom and leave plenty hanging over the edge of the tray. Tip the greens and feta mixture onto the pastry and spread it to the edges using a fork, then gently fold the overhanging layers over the top, brushing each layer with olive as you go. Brush the top of the pie with olive oil and sprinkle the nigella seeds over the top.
Bake the pie(s) for around 25 minutes until the pastry turns golden and the top feels firm. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for 15 minutes before serving – it should never be served piping hot – drizzle with the tahini and lemon sauce and garnish with chopped dill, the remaining lemon zest and pul biber. Serve it as Elena did with lemony roast potatoes garnished with wild oregano, a crisp Greek salad and a bowl of freshly made tzaziki.