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Don’t be a phyllo-phobe. (VEGGIE CHEESE PIE)

October 11, 2008

phyllo_pie2

Back in early spring, I decided to sign up with a CSA organization in my hood. Each week through spring, summer and fall, a ‘local’ farm delivers individual boxes of organic produce to a meeting point where members can pick up their box. Genius! The box’s contents are always a surprise, a little bit of everything that was grown that week.

The restaurant where I cook has a similar routine on a larger scale. We get the majority of our stuff locally, so it is common to have a windfall seasonal item for a short time and then to not see it again for 11 months. The beautiful thing is that we have the opportunity to be creative with stunning produce yet something new shows up before anyone has a chance to get bored… cooks and diners alike. Not to mention how great we feel because we are being so earthy and green.

Right now both in the farm box and at the restaurant, it is raining eggplants. I have never thought of New York as such an eggplant producing region but just take a look in my fridge! Sometimes I think eggplant has a bad rep. My guess is that the skin can be unpleasant when it gets a little old. Peeling helps, but skin is not usually a problem if they are of a small variety or if they are super-fresh. To further avoid bitterness, I like to brown the little suckers in oil with a pinch of salt first, then add them to the recipe.

Oh, and what we’re calling ‘local’, in an agricultural sense, as accepted by the smattering of people I have asked lately is: within a day’s drive. But what if you drink a whole bucket of Ninth Street Espresso and drive for 20 hours straight? Hmmm, I don’t know if that counts, but the definition is kind of loose anyway. The farm that supplies my CSA in NYC happens to be out in Long Island, for example.

In addition to eggplant, still hanging around from last week’s box were cherry tomatoes and red peppers, an early-autumn combo that positively screams Mediterraneannnnnn! Sometimes it is difficult to keep up and to cook everything in the box before it bites the dust, but I say ‘no vegetable left behind’ and try to use up as much as I can in each dish. To emphasize the vibe that was radiating from the veggie drawer, I decided to pick up some frozen phyllo dough and feta cheese. It’s on!

phyllo_filling

I love working with phyllo sheets, especially when making tiny little hors d’oeuvre triangles or petit stuffed pastry cigars. But for dinner’s sake, there is an easy way to use it without needing a cocktail to go with. We’ll use a technique for making pitta, or savory stuffed pie, learned right at the source, in Greece! As an assistant culinary-tour guide to chef Aglaia Kremezi on the island of Kea (can you say par-a-dise?), I helped to make these party pies stuffed with meat or veggies or cheese or all that. What I mean by party pie is that you take any baking dish, layer a few sheets of phyllo in the bottom (oiling them as we go), lay down whatever your heart wants the pie to be filled with and drop a few more sheets on top. Bake, cut up, pour wine, listen to the goat bells and enjoy!

The recipe looks long, but I am being detailed with the process (phinicky phyllo!) so you can get it down and eventually incorporate the fillings of your choice. I’m warning you, unless you really want to learn to use this stuff, it’s a detailed read. The payoff is, phyllo can be stuffed in an endless assortment of shapes with savory or sweet flavors. It is pretty sure that if your filling tastes good, your phyllo-creation will be a success.

I’ll break it down to the top three rules to remember:

  1. let the dough thaw completely before you unroll it (or else it will break)
  2. always keep it covered once you have opened the package (or else it will dry up in a blink)
  3. grease in between every layer with melted butter and/or olive oil, especially the top (so that it is golden, crispy and light when you bake it)

Follow these guidelines and phyllo will always be your friend.

VEGGIE-CHEESE PIE
(Partyropita)
Hold the phone! I take it back. This veggie filling can be used in plenty of ways on its own! Try it over pasta or with polenta or rice, as a side dish to grilled meats, or you can dump a can of chick peas in there, get creative…

1 pound eggplant, peeled and cut into rounds (1/4 inch thick)
1/3 cup canola
2 red bell peppers, sliced into strips
1 large shallot, minced
1 healthy splash of red or white wine (1/3-1/2 cup)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
8 sheets phyllo dough, defrosted according to package instructions
1/3 cup olive oil
salt and pepper

Make filling:

  • Heat canola oil in a large skillet.
  • Add eggplant rounds and two pinches of salt. Saute until most are lightly browned. (Add a few extra drops of oil if needed, eggplants are like sponges!)
  • Remove slices from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil behind.
  • Let cool on a paper towel.
  • Add peppers and shallots to the hot oil and saute for one minute.
  • Carefully add the splash of wine and scrape browned bits from the bottom of your pan (that is deglazing you little chef you!!)
  • It is now safe to add the garlic with out the threat of burning it.
  • Add the tomatoes to the pan and continue to cook the mixture until the tomatoes collapse and split, veggies are soft and almost all of the liquid is gone. Stir occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Set mixture aside until showtime.

Prepare pie:

  • Preheat oven to 375F degrees
  • After you have thawed your phyllo, it should unroll easily. Lay the stack of sheets out flat and cover them with plastic wrap and a damp towel.
  • Place olive oil in a small bowl, and get your pastry brush ready (if you dont have a brush, my brilliant friend once dipped a folded up paper towel in the oil and lightly, quickly spread it over the phyllo…cooking MacGyver-style).
  • Paint the bottom of your chosen baking dish with a thin layer of olive oil (I used a 9-inch round pan, but square is cool too).
  • Carefully lift plastic wrap and towel from phyllo sheets and place one sheet on your work surface. Cover the unused sheets again!!
  • Paint the entire sheet with oil and place it in the bottom of the oiled baking dish.
  • Remove a second sheet (cover the stack!) and paint it entirely with oil.
  • Place it over the first sheet. Do this two more times. In a round pan, I put each sheet down in a different direction so it hangs over the sides of the dish. The goal is to have a stack of four greased sheets, with a little overhang. If you need to use more to cover the bottom of your baking pan, go for it. Do not worry about rips, just keep layering. You can also cut sheets to be the size you need. Even if it appears messy, it will still look great once baked…it is very forgiving.
  • On top of the bottom ‘crust’, place an even layer of eggplant rounds. On top of the eggplant, spread tomatoes/pepper mixture evenly.
  • Sprinkle feta over veggies, pressing a little bit to get it all slightly compacted and even.
  • To make the top layer of crust, do the exact same thing. One phyllo sheet at a time, oiled, in four layers until it is completely covered. The overhanging parts can be tucked into the edges of the pan. Again, it is going to look great baked.
  • Brush the top of the pie with oil and gently make four slits in the dough (about two inches each).
  • Bake for 45 minutes or until golden and crisp.
  • Cool slightly, slice and serve.

Hey! Let me know how yers turns out…

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