There is something very satisfying about eating pie in any of its various forms. It’s comforting, usually easy to eat, and often, but not always, better with some saucy bit on the side. The variations are endless; what you put in, the type of pastry you use and how you encase it. Any delicious mixture is only going to be improved by wrapping it in some form of pastry.
A road trip is incomplete without a pie, and sometimes they are just a cure-all. There’s a pie often on the menu at Ester that is a take on focaccia di recco, an Italian dish with thin flaky pastry, oozing with cheese and filled with whole cloves of roasted garlic, and whenever I eat it, I am restored. A special mention though to my Greek friends, who have a particular way with the pie. Galaktoboureko speaks to my heart, but it’s the classic spanakopita that has been my lifelong companion.
The recipe here is a culmination of my love of what I now simply call a green pie. It is a staple at our home and, while the idea is always the same, the filling is malleable. I love having a recipe like this: within its structure there are no rules, so you should feel free to pluck greens at whim. It keeps for days, freezes extremely well and the freeform way you make it means there’s no need for tins and it looks impressive without any fiddly pastry work.
Despite the pastry and butter, I always feel healthful eating this pie, with its wild, bitter greens and herbs. Chicory and rocket are great additions, as is dandelion. Any of the chards work well, as do fennel tops, cabbage, grated zucchini and of course the obvious one, spinach. I tend to use a balance between soft and bitter leaves and herbs. When substituting, the only thing you need to figure out is what is better blanched before going into the mix and what would work best cooked off with the onions. You need to consider that the amount in bunches varies from shop to shop, but this recipe is very forgiving. A little more or less won’t make too much of a difference.
The method, baking and construction of this pie is simple and can be done in stages. The only time-consuming bit is preparing the greens. I strongly suggest you do that as your first job. If you get them all picked and blanched and chopped before you start with the onions, the rest is a breeze. Even better if you are on a Greek island, on a mountainside and can go foraging the greens yourself.
Time: 40 minutes preparation + 1 hour baking
- 1 bunch cavolo nero
- 1 bunch silverbeet
- 2 bunches dill
- 1 bunch flat leaf parsley
- 1 bunch thyme
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 2 brown onions, sliced
- 1 whole head of garlic, peeled and the cloves broken apart by firmly bashing with the flat of your knife
- 2 eggs
- zest of 2 lemons
- 150g grated parmesan
- salt flakes and black pepper
- 200g ricotta
- 120g butter
- 16-18 sheets filo pastry
- First prepare your leaves. Have a large saucepan of boiling salted water on a high heat and strip the cavolo nero and silverbeet leaves off their spines, keeping them separate at all times. Cook the cavolo nero until the water comes back to the boil (about four to five minutes) and the silverbeet leaves a little less (three to four minutes). Once out of the saucepan, run under cold water and squeeze dry into a few balls. Use a knife to slice through the balls and set aside, making sure to keep the two greens separate.
- The dill and the parsley both need their leaves picked and roughly chopped. They can be kept aside in a bowl together, and the thyme leaves just need to be picked off the stalk and set aside, or, if your bunch is not too woody, just finely chop the lot, stalks and all.
- Place a wide-based saucepan over a high heat, warm a little and then add in the olive oil. Once hot, add in the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for about seven minutes. Season well. You want the onions to become translucent but you don’t want too much colour on them.
- Add the thyme, give it a stir, and then add the cavolo nero and continue cooking for another four minutes. At this stage add the silverbeet and cook for a final two minutes before removing the saucepan from the heat. Transfer the mix to a mixing bowl and then stir through the herbs.
- Allow this mixture to cool to room temperature before thoroughly mixing through the eggs, zest and parmesan. Have a taste for seasoning and then stir through the ricotta. You can do this gently as it’s nice to discover some little pillows of ricotta in your finished pie. Once you are happy with the taste, set the filling aside.
- Preheat your oven to 160°C.
- Melt your butter and find a pastry brush.
- Place a large sheet or two of baking paper on a large, flat baking tray. Lie one sheet of filo lengthways across the tray, brush generously with butter and then lie a second sheet from top to bottom so they cross. Again, brush well with butter before lying your next sheet of filo diagonally across one way, brush, and then the next sheet along the other diagonal. This will form almost a circle with all pieces intersecting to form a solid middle base. Repeat this two more times, using 12 sheets of filo in total.
- Take your green filling and spoon it onto the filo base so it forms an even flat circle shape about three centimetres within the edges of all the filo. Use your fingers to then scrunch the filo up and slightly over the edges of the green mixture, distressing and separating the pastry layers. You don’t want it to be too neat, as part of the beauty of cooked filo lies in its crisp messiness. Using your hands you should be able to form a nice round pie shape. Take the remaining filo sheets, scrunch them up and lie them in batches across the top of the pie to completely cover in a ruffled fashion. Use the remaining butter to drizzle and brush over the top sheets.
- Bake the pie for an hour. It can be eaten hot or at room temperature. It also freezes and reheats very well.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "The value of pie".
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