Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Cooking spanakopita 6,000 miles from its home

I am not Greek, although Luiz and I have had the joy of spending a couple of weeks exploring several cities in Greece, as well as several Greek islands in the Mediterranean. I have also been to Greek Cyprus and Luiz and I have been to Turkey as well. While the Greeks and the Turks have not gotten along very well in recent history (given that whole unresolved Turkish invasion of Cyprus thing starting back in the 1970s) they share some common ground in their culinary traditions. But – I don’t want to poke a stick at that sleeping lion. I just want to share my recent adventure cooking spanakopita, a delicious spinach pie that I have eaten in various forms over many years and in many countries. This time – in Brazil.

Cooking ethnic foods at home is an ongoing theme among expats in Brazil. So many of us have cravings for international dishes that we just can’t find in restaurants. (Those living in São Paulo have better luck in this regard.) About a week ago I was combing the aisles of Pão de Açúcar, a high-end supermarket near our apartment, looking for Sriracha hot sauce. I didn't find the hot sauce but I did spot phyllo dough (or philo, or filo; fillo in Portuguese) in the freezer section. Eureka!

Living the strategy of getting while the getting is good, I bought a box and started dreaming up the possibilities.

I still use the cookbook I bought in the early 1980s. I've had to put it into a binder but she still gives me what I need.

Spanakopita was the obvious choice. I’ve got a super delicious recipe I learned over 30 years ago and have been pleasing crowds with ever since. Time to break it out and introduce some folks to a Greek favorite.

Like I said, I am not Greek. My recipe, which I LOVE, is not one passed down to me by someone’s Greek grandmother nor was it coaxed out of a family restaurant chef after a three hour meal with new friends on the Greek island of Samos. This gem of a recipe is a proven fabulous Greek spinach pie suitable as a main dish published in the Moosewood Cookbook (plus my personal tweaks). Given the realities of shopping in Niterói I had to make a few modifications. But the end result was just as I remembered it and EVERYONE loved it.

Here we go. Heads up – you will need a pastry brush to get the job done.

This recipe takes about 1.5 hours to prepare (incl. baking) and makes 8 adult servings as a main dish. It is a generous, “double-decker” pie. It could be halved, made in a single layer, and be served as a side.


- 2 cups (about 275g) crumbled feta cheese. [I have only once seen feta cheese in a store in Niterói and it was sold in a tiny quantity packaged as a crumbled salad topping. Price prohibitive. Others in Rio have had better luck and mention Apetina feta made by Arla (imported) as an affordable and tasty option when it can be found in finer grocery stores. It runs about R$95 per kilogram. The less affordable Brazilian-made feta runs more than R$225/kilo. So – no surprise here – I substitute a firm but smooth ricotta. Choose wisely. Some Brazilian ricottas can be very dry and firm beyond what is right for this recipe. Pick a ricotta that gives a bit when you gently squeeze it.]
- 5 medium eggs, slightly beaten
- 2 Tbs. flour (as needed, to help make a dryer filling mixture)
- 3 Tbs. butter for sautéing
- 1.5 cups chopped onions
- 1.5 cups chopped fresh mushrooms (I know, nobody puts mushrooms in their spanakopita… but I do.) Cremini would be great if you can find them. I cannot. So I used shitake.
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups cottage cheese (500g)
- one bunch of scallions, chopped
- 2 lbs. fresh spinach (1 kilogram) Frankly, you could double the spinach and it would still look like too little after you gently steam it down. I err on the side of going overboard. It is a spinach pie after all, not a cottage cheese and feta/ricotta pie. But there is the cleaning and stemming thing you have to deal with. So just make sure you use at least the minimum. Note to the cooks in Brazil – I’m sure you have noticed the spinach here can be significantly tougher than what you may have had elsewhere. That means you really do want to remove the stems. So if you are buying handy bags of ‘cleaned’ spinach (which here is another silly over statement) you want to go through it and pinch off those tough stems.
- Some fresh basil, chopped [I also added some chopped mint, not too much, to bring a bit of zing. I was worried the lack of feta was going to make things too bland.]
- ½ tsp. oregano
- 1/4 tsp. nutmeg (my secret ingredient when making things like this with ricotta)
- Salt and pepper to taste [Note: I added a bit more salt than usual because I did not have the salt in the filling coming from the feta. Be sure to taste.]
- 1/8  cup sesame seeds (25g or so)
- 1 lb package of phyllo dough, defrosted – Note that the package I found was a 300g quantity, so you will need two of them. More about this early mistake on my part later…
- 1.5 lb melted butter (a 200g pkg will do the trick) for assembly


Preheat your oven to 375° F (190° C or more depending on your oven)

Clean, stem and tear or chop the spinach. Salt it slightly and cook it, adding no additional water, for just a few minutes to wilt it. This is brief. Do not cook it down to a dull green mush. Let it cool some and then squeeze out the excess liquid. Carefully fluff it back to individual bits of spinach (do not leave it in clumps).

Sauté the onions and garlic in butter, salting lightly. Add the chopped mushrooms and cook minimally, but get their wonderfulness into the mix. When it looks and smells perfect remove from heat and combine with the rest of the ingredients. Add the fluffed up spinach. Stir lovingly.

See how that spinach cooks down dramatically?
Mix it all together.

So now you have a big bowl with the sautéed stuff, the spinach, the cheeses, beaten eggs, herbs and spices all mixed together and ready to go. Taste it and correct the seasoning to your preferences.

Here’s my pep talk regarding the use of phyllo dough: Be brave. Be confident. Don’t freak out. It’s all gonna be OK. This stuff looks like a pain (and it is, a little) but it is not as delicate as it looks. It can take a little manhandling. Yeah, it can tear a little and straight-out-of-the-box dried edges which were not your fault can make your job harder than it should have been. Just put on some music, pour yourself some wine, and take it all in stride. Ultimately, in terms of the final product, this dough is VERY forgiving. The layers can be a mess, but with just one intact leaf on top you have a picture perfect spanakopita. How you got there can be your little secret. And who knows – maybe you will get a really cooperative batch and sail through the whole procedure glitch free. It happens.

After your dough has returned to room temperature, open the package and unfold the sheets/leaves of dough so you have one stack. Lightly and evenly wet a tea towel squeezing out all the water. This is your humidifier that is going to keep your dough from drying out while you assemble this amazing pie. Place the towel over the stack of dough leaves when you are not otherwise fiddling with them. If your towel is too wet and you fear it will add moisture to the dough place a sheet of parchment paper (papel manteiga will do) over the stack first, then the towel.

Arrange your work space so the dough, the melted butter and brush, your filling, the 9x13 baking pan and your wine are all close at hand. Breathe. You can do this.

Brush some melted butter on the bottom of your pan. Place one leaf of the dough, centered, in the pan. It will outsize the pan, just let it climb the sides. Brush this layer of dough with butter, including up the sides of the pan. Repeat this placing of layers and spreading with melted butter until you have 6 or 8 layers down. I say 6 or 8 because you want to use a little more than 1/3 of them on the bottom, then the same amount in the middle and then a few less for the final, top layer. So if you are having trouble with the dough and have had to scrap a leaf of so – don’t panic, just adjust your number of layers so as to keep enough to complete the task.

When your first set of dough leaves is complete spread ½ of the luscious filling all around. Continue with another 8 or so layers of dough. Don’t skimp on the melted butter and don’t worry about the corners that are now getting a little crowded with pleated dough – they are going to be the super-buttery areas of the pie for those who like that sort of thing.

Sometimes the dough will begin to tear when you try to separate one sheet. This is usually because it hits a dry spot/edge or a spot where one layer has been pressed too firmly into the other and they are stuck together. Stop pulling immediately and try to work around the spot from various angles to free it. Tears will only continue and get worse once they start. If separating the layers is impossible without things tearing into two or more pieces – no sweat. Just remove the sheet in bits and reconstruct the sheet in your baking pan. Spread it with butter, sip your wine, and carry on. No harm done.

After your second set of leaves spread the remaining filling over the whole thing. Continue placing layers of dough and butter until you have three sheets left. IMPORTANT: that last one or two layers in the stack are probably NOT going to be flawless. They have been offering up their perfectness to the benefit of the entire stack since the factory. By now they are likely to be a little worse for wear. So – remember I suggested you save a perfect leaf for the top? Plan ahead, because it is not likely to be your last leaf in the stack.

Ready to bake.

When you are about three or four layers from the end, carefully fold over all that excess dough you have spilling out over the top/edge of the pan. Use your butter brush to wet it down. Now use your last few perfect leaves to delicately finish off the pie. Trim to the outside pan size if necessary. Brush butter over the whole top and sprinkle evenly with sesame seeds.

Place the pan into your preheated oven and bake for about 45 minutes – until golden.

Smile. Sip your wine. You did it.

My particular tale this time around, on the other hand, took a bit of a left turn halfway through. Not noticing that the box of phyllo dough contained only 300g and seeing as I bought only one package, I had only enough dough to make one layer of the pie. It’s all good – one layer is probably more common a format anyway, plus my Brazilian friends and family didn't know the difference. But I was stuck with ½ of my filling mixture.

So I returned to the store the next day and bought another package of the dough. This time I made those cute little spanakopita triangles you have probably seen at cocktail parties. Easy-peasy.

Just pull off one leaf of the dough, cut it into three strips, brush the dough with butter, place a small spoon of the filling off to one side at the end of a strip and then fold in triangles like a flag. Place on a baking sheet, brush the tops with butter and bake for about 20 minutes. It’s a little bit of work – but they are so cute! And they taste just as wonderful as the whole pie version.

In addition to those I baked immediately, I put 8 triangles in two layers separated by parchment paper into Ziplock bags and placed them in the freezer for later use.

There you have it. Let me know what you think. Tell me your secret tips for success with phyllo dough. And definitely give this a try on your own.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Two hidden mountain towns near Ouro Preto

Workers on break enjoying the view in Catas Altas.

Taking the back roads is hands down our favorite way to see Brazil in all its humble glory. Discovering tiny towns with their simple beauty, historic architecture, local pride, living history – and occasionally some fresh cheese or fresh sausage drying in the air to round it all off, count me in.

During our recent visit to Ouro Preto (OP) in Minas Gerais we identified two nearby towns worth exploring: Lavras Novas and Catas Altas.

Just 17 kilometers outside of Ouro Preto is the little town of Lavras Novas. It is sufficiently tiny and located sufficiently close to OP that for governmental purposes in modern history it has been incorporated as a “district” of OP, essentially a far flung neighborhood. But its history tells a much more rich and interesting story.

Founded in 1717 this mountain village served to shelter early gold miners. Historical reports indicate that gold was discovered in this area prior to it being discovered in neighboring Ouro Preto. The central chapel was erected in 1740. Over the years the gold supply dwindled and most folks relocated to nearby towns such as OP. But many stayed behind and worked farms and honed crafts like basket weaving and wood carving. Town representatives would take fabricated goods to Ouro Preto for sale and return with purchased essentials for living. Word is that the town was a rather insulated, hard to reach village living out a rather socialist/collectivist communal strategy.

One tale about the town that many dispute is that by the late 18th century the town operated as a quilombo. Quilombos were towns and villages (even some cities) in Brazil that were refuges for freed and escaped African slaves and their allies. Most were located in remote, defensible locations that offered maximum safety and security for residents from those who would seek to capture and re-enslave them. Given the (then) remote and difficult to access nature of Lavras Novas and its long-time majority black population this tale took root. But others suggest that it was simply too near to Ouro Preto to have been an effective location for a quilombo and that its black residents were freed slaves choosing an alternative, more appealing community to OP.

Whatever the case may be, this present day town of about 1,500 people remains a majority black community that still sports a ridiculously, seriously rugged access road (which, unbelievably, sees daily bus traffic to and from Ouro Preto).

Our casual day trip took us to town just to look around a bit. The town has developed a pretty good tourist infrastructure with pousadas and several eco-tourism adventure services. The surrounding area is great for hiking and includes several beautiful waterfalls.

We just wandered around the central area and took pictures.

Always on the lookout for the unexpected, I spotted an artisan basket studio where we stopped in and bought a few dried gourd cabasa plant holders that Luiz envisioned as creative containers for flower arrangements. Out of the car window while leaving town I caught a glimpse of a sign on the front of a rather worn house that advertised fresh goat’s milk for sale.

Carlos was good enough to stop so we could inquire if they might have any goat cheese for sale. There was a little bell thingy at the front gate with a sign that read: “Ring bell and wait!” Luiz gave it a go and we waited. Rang it again. Then again. We were just about to return to the car when a young man appeared at an open window and called out. After some friendly chatter he offered to take a look in “the laboratory” to see if they had anything firming up.  Then… bingo – we scored. He only had one cake of cheese but he offered to sell it to us for R$15, a quite reasonable price. The next morning over coffee we discovered it was really yummy, a bit too fresh and mellow perhaps, but yummy all the same.

It was thanks to a tip from a fellow back roads traveler on a gringos Facebook group I frequent that I discovered the other nearby town of Catas Altas.  He had posted a link to these terrific images of the town. Carlos assured me it was a brief 70 kilometers drive from OP to get there, so we planned another day trip of discovery.

This place was/is beautiful. It’s plunked on top of the mountains with views in every direction. Typical for the region, Catas Altas was originally an outpost housing gold miners working lucrative mines (or rather, excavations) way up at high altitudes. Thus the name Catas Altas (high excavations). Local records date the original settlement to 1694. The first baptism recorded at the original town chapel was dated in 1712. Construction of the larger church that replaced the original chapel began in 1729. That building, occupying the main town square, still functions today and (in typical showy church fashion) sports a glorious interior that outstrips any other structure  in town in terms of extravagance.

The historic church in the central square.
Dogs in repose at church entrance.

Once we arrived in town we parked near the church and walked to various points in search of further exploration information. You know, the typical stuff: we talked to the lady at the bakery, chatted up the woman at the register at the little market, tried to get some useful information from the woman guarding the church entrance (and insisting on R$2 to enter – even if you just wanted to say a prayer), asked a few questions of the man selling aluminum pots and pans on the curb around the square, checked in with the gals at the pharmacy, and eventually spoke with the woman cleaning the local school library.

As the tourist office was unexpectedly closed (folks said they were surely exhausted from the Carnaval weekend and probably would be open again in a few days – haha), we had to shake down the locals for directions to the nearby waterfall we had heard of. With just one false start out of town and then two wrong turns past the water pipe filling the cows’ drinking pond we finally found the dirt trail of a road that took us to within a short walk of the waterfall.

The view back down to town from the waterfall spot.

 Aside from the waterfall, the town was pretty stingy with its treasures. I am often accused of chasing rainbows when I insist on looking around every corner in these small towns. But my experience has resulted in way more hits than misses in this regard. The really cool stuff (like the fresh goat cheese place) don’t just jump out and grab you. You gotta do some work, especially in places that don’t have a big tourism budget to help visitors find the residents’ art studios or the local historical society (if it even exists).

Public water fountain.

I did find a fresh loaf of sweet coconut bread sitting at the grocery checkout counter for just R$3. That counts as a good find in the absence of more obvious bits of interest.

After a thorough going over, a splash in the waterfall, picture taking and a fine Minas style lunch at a wood fire buffet we called it a day and headed back to Ouro Preto.

This is the delivery entrance to the town's appliance store.

If you plan a visit I must warn you that the mountain area surrounding the town is pretty torn up by big mining companies gouging into the hillside for iron ore. It’s pretty nasty. But fear not. Once you get close to the town the mining fades into the background and you are transported back in history.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Carnaval adventure in Ouro Preto

Spectacular Ouro Preto

Each year in Brazil Carnaval comes around and takes many cities by storm. Communities come alive with pride and tradition. Musicians hit the streets. Youth enjoy the sanctioned excuse to drink. Drag queens (and their wannabe secret admirers) dust off colorful aging separates and concoct new fabulous outfits. And most of all, in places like Rio, businesses and politicians alike roll out the red carpet for visiting tourists seeking an over-the-top bucket list party extravaganza, preferably in English.

The main event in Rio.

Rio’s Carnaval scene has been evolving over the years. The world famous Carnaval parade has continued to expand while still staying anchored in neighborhood pride and local competitive determination. The neighborhood street party (or bloco) scene has seen a serious resurgence of late with this year’s calendar sporting more than 500 separate events all over the city. This year in particular it appeared that restaurants were test driving their spiffy new English language dinner menus as a prelude to the upcoming World Cup crush.

It’s all good.

Praça Tiradentes in Ouro Preto.

This time around Luiz and I found ourselves seeking an out of town alternative to Rio’s big event after learning that many among our group of friends with which we typically take in the big parade at the Sambadrome were going either to the States to do some shopping or to visit family in distant cities. So we returned to Ouro Preto (OP).

Ouro Preto, an historic, colonial, mountain town of less than 80,000 people, is rather famous nowadays for its raucous city-wide Carnaval celebration. The party starts in earnest on Saturday and continues every night through Tuesday. The local municipality sponsors several live music stages throughout the historic district offering a variety of musical styles for every taste. Every night the streets are PACKED with people coming out to let loose for a while and just have some fun.

A big driver behind the crowds is the fact that Ouro Preto is a significant university town. In 1969 two highly respected and long standing institutions: the School of Pharmacy of Ouro Preto, founded in 1839, and School of Mines of Ouro Preto, founded in 1876, were merged to form the Federal University of Ouro Preto.  Today it is one of the most respected universities in the state and the country. And that university comes with A LOT of college kids ready to party.

To further froth up the mix, there are a good number of “Republicas” (much like fraternity houses) throughout the city occupying large residential buildings which get a temporary make-over for Carnaval to host thousands of visiting young people. Some of these Republicas have begun to sponsor their own ticketed weekend events complete with serious sound systems and endless flowing alcohol. If the drunken college scene really turns you off you may want to reconsider your plans for Carnaval in Ouro Preto. There are definitely ways to steer clear (mostly) of the worst of it, but the reality is that the city-wide event is most definitely geared toward this scene.

The view from Carlinhos and Du's sala window.

At any rate, we went to spend some time with our good friends Carlinhos and Du, who live in OP. They’ve got a big apartment with an even bigger view – and it is nowhere near a raucous Republica. They were (again) hosting a crowd from Belo Horizontes. To our delight, Luiz and I rated a bedroom and real bed, in contrast to so many others sleeping on inflatable mattresses on the floors of other bedrooms and a living room. Lucky us.

The weekend was filed with bountiful Minas breakfasts, noisy group chatter, afternoon cooking marathons, naps, costume changes and repeated visits into the heart of the seemingly non-stop street party surrounding us.

Here are some highlights. The photos are from trips to the street while there was still sunlight. Things definitely cranked up later into the night, but my camera ceases to record events once the sun goes down.

When we weren't in the streets we were usually cooking. I brought some ingredients so Carlos and I could prepare fresh corn tortillas and a full on Mexican taco spread with refried beans and guacamole. Big hit. On another night it was chicken with Thai red curry sauce. And just to push it a bit further, I showed Carlos how to whip up a batch of homemade tofu and walked his niece and nephew through a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

After 10 days camping out at Carlos and Du's we said our farewells and returned to Niterói. Another Carnaval well played.