Years ago I took an Indian cooking class with my mom at our local community college. Although none of the recipes from the class became my favorites, the instructor said something which I found wonderfully liberating – use what you have. If a recipe calls for one vegetable or spice you are out of, just try it with something similar or something you think will taste good. Sometimes, especially when you are cooking something from a culinary tradition other than your own, it can be easy to think you have to have exactly everything the recipe calls for, in exact quantities. However, that’s, um, never actually true!
I have been thinking about this lately and wondering how to talk about it here, especially since reading this truly stellar piece about everyday cooking on The Yellow House. One of the true keys to this kind of culinary freedom and weekday luxury is being able to make something with what you have on hand.
For example, the other day I had chard (thanks to my aunt Barbara, who brought some from her garden all the way to Flagstaff in her cooler!), and phyllo dough, but no kind of cheese I would normally use to make spanakopita. But I did have a large chunk of Beemster Graskaas (creamy Dutch cheese), and a bit of leftover sharp cheddar. Hmm, I thought, this may not come out so great, but I think it’s worth a shot (embracing the possibility of failure is essential here).
Well, after a couple of bites, I looked at Bryan and asked, “What do you think?”
“I think I like it better than regular spanakopita.” he said. So did I! Keep in mind that our normal spanakopita recipe has been a staple in our house for years now. This one definitely has more of an American comfort-food feeling, deliciously so.
Chard Phyllo Pie
Makes one 9 x 12 pan, or similar size
Preheat oven to 375° F
1 bunch spinach, kale, chard, or un-identified green from CSA (as long as it’s the kind you cook)
Wash and stem this, my favorite method is to grab the stem with one hand and pull the leafy stuff off with the other hand. Put the stemmed greens in a pot with a steamer basket and some water in the bottom. Bring the water to a boil and then turn it down to medium – low heat, let the water simmer until the greens are bright green and relaxed.
Meanwhile, finely chop ½ of one yellow onion and 2 medium garlic cloves
Saute the onion in a litle olive oil over medium heat in a small skillet or pan until it just starts to have a golden color. Add the garlic and stir and cook for about another minute.
Scrape onion and garlic out of the pan into a bowl.
When the greens are ready, turn off the heat and let them cool for a couple of minutes. Use tongs to transfer them to a food processor and pulse until pureed (or how you like them). Add them to the onion bowl.
Also add to the bowl:
- About 8 oz creamy Dutch cheese (the whole point of this post is to try whatever cheese you like/have!)
- A little sharp cheddar cheese, or another kind that will add a little more punch to the cheese flavor
- 4 eggs
- A few grinds of black pepper
- A pinch of salt
Mix this all together.
Melt (I like to just drop it in the onion pan) 2 Tablespoons butter
Get out your thawed frozen phyllo dough
You may need to cut the phyllo sheets in half. If so, tightly wrap what’s left and put it back in the fridge. Working quickly, brush a little butter in the pan, lay down a sheet, lightly brush it with butter, lay down the next sheet, etc. until you have used 8 – 10 sheets or half your stack. Spread on the filling, then repeat with the rest of the phyllo sheets. If you have some butter left, spread more on the top sheet or two. Cut the spanakopita into pieces through the top layer of dough, then put in the oven and bake until the top is golden and the filling looks solid where you cut it, about 40 minutes. With this version the filling will be a little more moist & creamy, definitely let it cook until the top is a rich golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes, cut through the bottom, and enjoy!
Not every culinary experiment will produce results you want to note down and make again. But, with just a little practice cooking with what you have & what you can find, every day can be fresh, wholesome, creative – in other words, a small miracle of food at your fingertips.