In Our Backyard: Wrap up that Mediterranean taste

Eric Akis

If you enjoy Southern European-style flavours and flaky pastry, here’s welcome news: The two work marvellously together.

The proof is in my recipe for Mediterranean-style phyllo triangles. I call them “meal-sized” because, unlike smaller, two-bite-or-so phyllo triangles one would serve as an appetizer, these are larger. Set two on a plate with appropriate side dishes and you’ll create a nice, meat-free lunch or dinner.

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I say meat-free because the filling is rich with vegetables and herbs, such as spinach, carrot, garlic, zucchini and dill. It contains cheese — feta and Parmesan — as part of the Mediterranean-style ingredients used in the filling, which also includes olives and sun-dried tomatoes.

The phyllo pastry I used to wrap up the filling is sold in the frozen foods section of supermarkets. Thaw before using, and the best way to do that is by setting the box containing the phyllo in the refrigerator overnight. If you forget or buy it the day you need it, you can also thaw it by removing it from its box and setting it out, still sealed in its plastic packaging, at cool room temperature for a few hours, until thawed.

When layering the phyllo sheets together, filling and forming them, don’t get too stressed if the pastry frays in a few spots. Once folded into triangles, those spots usually end up being sealed inside.

To create a meal, serve the phyllo triangles with homemade (see recipe below) or store-bought tzatziki sauce and a side salad, such as Greek or Caesar, or some simple accents, such as cherry tomatoes, olives and tinned or bottled artichoke hearts.

Meal-sized Mediterranean-style Phyllo Triangles

Five types of vegetables, two types of cheese, olives and other welcoming tastes combine in these larger, two-per-serving phyllo triangles. A generous amount of raw spinach is called for in the recipe because once cooked, its volume greatly reduces.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: About 28 minutes

Makes: Four (two triangles each) servings

2 (5 oz./142 g) tubs fresh baby spinach

8 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, patted dry and then chopped

10 pitted black olives, chopped

1/2 cup grated carrot

1/2 cup grated zucchini

200 grams feta cheese, crumbled

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (not the dried, powdered type)

2 large eggs, beaten

2 Tbsp chopped fresh dill (see Eric’s options)

2 large garlic cloves, minced

• pinch ground nutmeg

• salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup melted butter

6 sheets thawed phyllo pastry

4 tsp sesame seeds

Pour 1/2 inch of water into a very large pot, set over high heat and bring to boil. Add spinach and cook until it just wilts. Drain the hot water from the spinach. Now cool spinach with cold water.

Drain spinach in a sieve. Using your hands, squeeze and firmly press out as much moisture from the spinach as you can. Set spinach on a cutting board, coarsely chop and then set in a bowl.

Add the tomatoes, olives, carrot, zucchini, feta, Parmesan, egg, dill, garlic, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and mix well to combine.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Put an oven-rack in the middle position. Preheat oven to 375 F.

Set one sheet of phyllo on a work surface and lightly, but evenly, coat with butter. Top with another sheet of phyllo and lightly coat it with butter. Set on one more sheet of phyllo and butter it.

Cut those layered sheets, widthwise, into four equal strips. Place 1/4 to 1/3 cup of spinach mixture at the bottom end of each strip.

Fold one corner of the phyllo over the spinach mixture so the bottom edge meets the side edge and forms a loose triangle. Continue folding the triangle sideways, and upward, to the end of strip. Set triangles, seamed-side-down, on the baking sheet. Keep the completed triangles covered with plastic wrap until the rest are made.

Layer, cut, fill and fold the remaining three sheets of phyllo as you did the first three. You should end up with eight triangles (see Eric options).

When done, brush the tops of all triangles with a little melted butter, then sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake the triangles 24 to 26 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown. They are best served warm, but these could also be eaten at room temperature.

Eric options: If you don’t care for dill, try another herb here, such as fresh basil or oregano.

If eight triangles are too many for you, you could half the recipe. Or make all eight and freeze the triangles, unbaked, you won’t eat now.

To do so, first freeze them solid on a baking sheet, and then transfer to an airtight container. When needed, bake from frozen, adding a few minutes more to the baking time. Don’t thaw them first or they’ll become too soggy.

Country-style Tzatziki

I call this “country-style” because rather than grate the cucumber, as I normally do when making it, I finely diced it. That made the tzatziki a little coarser in texture and more rustic.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: About 1 1/4 cups

3/4 cup finely diced English cucumber (about 1/3 medium cucumber)

2/3 cup thick, Greek-style yogurt

1 Tbsp chopped fresh dill or mint, or a mix of both

1 small garlic clove, minced

1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest

2 tsp lemon juice

• salt and white pepper to taste

Set a fine sieve over a bowl and set diced cucumber in it.

Firmly press on cucumber and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Discard liquid, and then put the pressed cucumber in the bowl. Mix in remaining ingredients.

Cover and refrigerate tzatziki until needed; it can be made several hours in advance.

Note: Finely diced in the recipe means to cut into small, 1/8-inch cubes.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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