Spanokopita! Spanokopita!

Spanokopita, the savory pie one authority praised as the ultimate Greek “soul food,” might be the first word I ever tried to understand when arriving in Greece coming up on half a century ago.

Surely I heard a few other words, enough to climb off the overnight ferry from Italy, find a late dinner of pastitzio (“Greek lasagna,” the cafe owner assured me, lifting lids from pots on his stove) and a decent bed in Patras – plus, enough to grab a cup of Nescafe in the morning and track down the train to Olympia. But the scene I think of most often happened on that train, as a vendor pushed a rickety cart up the aisle calling out something that did not register as human language. Only later did I realize what he was calling out with all the lightning speed of a tobacco auctioneer.

“Spanokopita! Spanokopita! Spanokopita!

I even bought one for my breakfast that morning, a not entirely fresh square of multi-layered pastry, with some sort of thick green and white slab of lukewarm filling inside. I wasn’t a food professional in those days, or even the lover of all things Greek I became. But I had a solid hunch I was munching on something filled with spinach and feta cheese as the train rumbled through the countryside toward the sun-splattered sacred grove where history’s first Olympic games were held.

As years and then decades went by, and my ungrammatical Greek improved only slightly, I came to understand that “spano” predictably refers to spinach, making spanakopita a spinach-upgrade on “tiropita,” filled with only cheese. The “pita” was confusing to me for a long time, since I was thinking of the bread of that name. Yet pita in this Greek sense means”pie,” making the dish nothing more but nothing less than spinach pie.

The pastry that delivers all this goodness to our mouths has the usual tangled origins. Hardcore Greeks claim phyllo goes back to their glory days, to the Parthenon and Plato and all that; but development somewhere between today’s Turkey and India seems more likely. The same thin “leaves” of pastry are, after all, what gives us baklava all over the Middle East. It would then have made it to Greece during the centuries-long and, for Greeks, shameful Ottoman occupation.

Today’s Greeks almost never have spanakopita as their dinner, since in the evenings it’s a mere pre-meal snack with a glass of wine. They might have it for lunch, especially if (like people everywhere in today’s world) they are eating on the run. I won’t think about that, though. Or even about the better, fresher and more creative versions I’ve sampled through all these years. I’ll always remember spanakopita as the true Breakfast of Champions on that train to Olympia.

BACON & TOMATO SPANOKOPITA

Besides being an appetizing spin on the Greek classic, this recipe runs on the logic that if bacon and tomato are amazing in a spinach salad, they’d be at least that amazing in a spinach pie. Beyond that, all the ingredients and techniques are traditional. Be sure to work as quickly as possible with the thawed phyllo dough – it gets dry and starts cracking and tearing with frustrating speed.

3 slices thick-cut bacon

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 bunch green onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 box frozen spinach, thawed and drained

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

2 eggs, lightly beaten

½ cup ricotta cheese

1 cup crumbled feta

Additional olive oil

8 sheets frozen phyllo, thawed but refrigerated

½ cup Mom’s brand Spaghetti Sauce

1 ripe tomato, sliced

Cook the bacon until crisp in the olive oil, then drain on paper towels. Lightly caramelizes the onion and green onion in the mix of olive oil and bacon fat, then stir in the garlic for 1 minute – do not burn. Drain all this with the bacon on the paper towels. In a mixing bowl, thoroughly combine the bacon and onion-garlic mixture with the spinach, parsley, eggs, ricotta and feta. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Coat the bottom and sides of an 8 x 8 baking pan with olive oil. Working very quickly, gently lay 1 sheet of phyllo across the pan with it pressed against sides and bottom, tucking softly. Brush with olive oil, add a second sheet of phyllo and brush – building up to 4 sheets in all with extra phyllo hanging over the sides of the baking pan. Spoon and spread the spinach-feta filling until fairly even, then dot the top with Mom’s sauce and spread the tomato slices.

Fold the extra phyllo over the top to form the beginnings of a packet. Brushing each sheet with olive oil, add 4 more sheets of phyllo one at a time, then tuck the extra phyllo down the sides of the pan. Bake until golden brown, 30-40 minutes. Let sit for about 10 minutes before cutting into squares. Serves about 8.

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