Mom cooks from Craig Claiborne
The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne was the first “gourmet” cookbook I ever owned, back in 1972 or so, a Christmas present from my Uncle Tony and Aunt Barbara Dutton, and for several years was only one of about 2 or 3 cookbooks in my kitchen, the others being the red and white plaid Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, the 11th edition of the Fanny Farmer Cookbook, and a funny little tome entitled something like The Impoverished Students’ Book of Cookery, Drinkery, and Housekeepery. My mother gave me that one when I first went off to college and it was quite useful. I look at my bulging shelves of cookbooks today and think back to those times a bit wistfully—I certainly got my money’s worth out of those volumes.
I must have had the original 1960 edition of the NYTimes book; my husband gave me the revised version a few years back, but it still has most of the same recipes in it, with Craig’s comments and captions. As such it is a time capsule of an era when Americans were just starting to experiment with “foreign” cooking. Arroz con pollo, for instance, is helpfully defined for us as “chicken with rice”. I made a lot of the recipes out of this book; probably more than I have cooked from any other cookbook I have ever owned. Paging through it tonight I happened upon a lot of my old favorites, like the cream of curried pea soup, which is worth bookmarking if you like to serve soup as a first course. There’s an appetizer I used to make for parties called Mushrooms à la Grecque, beneath which Craig says, “The isles of Greece where burning Sappho loved and sung have contributed a splendid hors d’ouvre.” If that doesn’t convince you to try a recipe, I don’t know what would!
Craig calls this “Spinach-Feta Strudel”, but most of us know it as spanakopita these days. It still holds up as a very good rendition of this dish, but when I first made it back in 1973 or so it was a revelation, as I had never heard of spanakopita, or ever used filo dough before, or eaten or cooked anything like this. If you can put yourself in my shoes, or my mouth, or something, and imagine what that was like, it was thrilling, and this dish became a staple, and something I often brought to potlucks to amaze my friends and wow strangers.
note: The recipe calls for 2 pounds of fresh spinach, washed, chopped, cooked in oil, then drained. You can skip a lot of that by using 2 boxes of chopped frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed in a strainer, then added to the onions.
- 1 box filo dough
- 2 pounds fresh spinach (see note)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onions
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 5 eggs, beaten
- 1 lb. feta cheese
- 1/2 cup chopped scallions, green part included
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh dill, or 1 tablespoon dried or to taste
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
- salt and freshly ground fresh pepper
- 1/4-1/2 lb. melted butter
Remover filo dough from refrigerator at least 3 hours before using. Wash spinach thoroughly and chop. Cook in oil until wilted. Drain. Saute onions in butter. Or use frozen spinach as in note above, adding to sauteed onions in same pan.
Mix the onions, eggs, scallions, crumbled cheese, herbs, and parsley. Add the spinach and season with salt and pepper. Preheat oven to 350º. Cut filo dough in half, or to fit 9X13 inch pan, keeping half of dough covered with towel. Place one sheet of dough in pan and brush with melted butter. Repeat with 11 more sheets, brushing with butter after each addition. Spread the filling over the dough after you have placed 12 or 13 sheets in the pan, then repeat the process with 12 or 14 more sheets. You may need to melt a little more butter.
Bake 1 hour or until brown and very puffy. Let sit for 5 minutes and then cut into squares with a very sharp knife. Serve as an appetizer or main course.