Viva Banitsa: Why You Are What Your Neighbors Eat
The more I travel, the more I realize that food influences move across borders with astounding efficiency. Take, for example, the Moroccan b’stilla, a chicken pie of sorts consisting of thin layers of dough surrounding a saffron-scented filling of eggs, chicken and crushed almonds dusted with powdered sugar. It’s not so different from a Turkish borek, an English pasty, an Argentine empanada or even a French quiche.
Most Mediterranean cultures have some version of a savory pie that includes eggs, cheese, meat or vegetables. Greece and Bulgaria are neighbors, so you would expect the food to be similar, but even in a place far removed from the Mediterranean you find food influences that have traveled very far, stuck and been reinvented as another dish. Take the ubiquitous samosa of East Africa, for example. Like the b’stilla and borek, this much-loved Indian snack made of flaky pastry surrounding a savory filling is yet another version of a pie, but flavored with curry and coriander rather than cheese and eggs.
We are all made of the same stuff, just spiced a little bit differently.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in Israel, where the influences of the Middle East meet the influences of Asia and Europe. Because Israel is a small country, culinary influence tends to spread even faster. It is not unusual, for example, to find Libyan, Yemenite and French restaurants on the same block in Tel Aviv. The fact that Jews came from all over the world to settle in Israel created an exciting food culture where anything goes. The foods of Bulgaria, Thailand, Germany, Ethiopia and Morocco offer flavors Israelis understand and appreciate.
My childhood kitchen was no exception to this culinary mish-mash. Romanian, Bulgarian and Israeli influences created an abundance of special flavors that I crave to this day. My favorite, a Bulgarian staple called a banitsa, is a pie I grew up eating at family gatherings. Traditionally, Bulgarians stuff a banitsa with eggs, yogurt and Bulgarian feta called sirene.
Because most of my customers are Americans, I usually opt for a spinach and feta banitsa in my restaurant kitchen because it’s very similar to the better-known and loved Greek spanikopita. I like to form the banitsa into the traditional Bulgarian shape of a snail and make many individual servings so each person can have their own banitsa — or two.
Here is my spinach and feta filling recipe, but I encourage you to come up with new flavor combinations. Potato and cheese, mushrooms and herbs, pumpkin and goat cheese — your imagination is the only limit. My mother makes a banitsa with ground beef and potato that is beloved by all who try it. Just make sure your filling tastes delicious to begin with and is seasoned well enough with salt and pepper.
If you can, make the filling the night before you want to use it. Sometimes, I make three or four times the filling I need and freeze it in containers. That way, if the mood strikes for a banitsa or if I have last-minute company, I just need to defrost the phyllo and the filling in the refrigerator overnight and — presto! — the whole operation, including baking time, can be done in less than an hour.
In my restaurant kitchen, I always make extra already-filled pastries and store them in the freezer. If kept in a well-wrapped container, the frozen filled pastries can be taken directly from the freezer to the oven without defrosting and will come out just as perfect as freshly filled ones. Nothing beats a hot, crisp banitsa right out of the oven. Nothing!
If, like me, you love to re-create dishes you eat in your travels, it doesn’t take long to realize that we all are made of the same stuff, just spiced a bit differently.
Spinach and Feta Filling (recipe follows)
1 package (16 ounces) frozen phyllo pastry,
thawed in the refrigerator overnight
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup melted clarified butter (optional: use 1/2 cup of olive oil if you prefer)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (optional garnish)
Make Spinach and Feta Filling; set aside to cool.
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Take phyllo out of the refrigerator and gently remove from packaging. Working quickly, peel one sheet of dough away from the pack and place on a clean work surface. Keep a damp towel nearby for covering the dough you are not using because phyllo tends to dry out and crumble when exposed to air.
Take a small amount of your oil/butter mixture and either use a pastry brush or your hands to oil the pastry sheet. I find that my hands are the best tool for this job because I can control the amount of oil that goes on the pastry without overdoing it. You want a thin smear of oil, not a puddle. Don’t worry if the pastry tears; there is plenty more pastry when you roll it to patch up your mistakes.
Working with the longer side of the pastry sheet in front of you, place five tablespoons of the cooled Spinach and Feta Filling evenly along the length of the sheet, leaving a 1-inch border on both sides. Fold the sheet of pastry over the filling and then fold the right and left sides in, creating a cylindrical pouch.
Continue to roll firmly but not too tightly until you reach the end of the pastry sheet. The moisture in your filling will seal the pastry cylinder. Finally, starting from the right side of the cylinder, gently roll it into a snail shape.
Place your pastry snails touching one another on an ungreased baking tray. Continue rolling the remaining pastry sheets until the filling runs out. If desired, take a pastry brush with a small amount of oil/butter, brush the tops of the snails and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake in preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until the pastries are golden brown with a few darker spots here and there. In my family, we eat these with a dollop of tart yogurt on top and a simply dressed, crisp green salad on the side. If you don’t care to bake the banitsas on the spot, you can wrap them well, unbaked, and store them in the freezer for a rainy day.
Makes about 15 servings.
SPINACH AND FETA FILLING
18 ounces fresh or frozen spinach leaves
6 scallions (green and white parts),
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 whole eggs
8 ounces crumbled feta cheese
2 ounces small curd full-fat cottage cheese
1 ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon dry oregano
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons fresh dill (optional)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt (adjust depending on
the saltiness of the feta)
Pinch of nutmeg (optional)
Sauté spinach with scallions in olive oil until thoroughly wilted and soft. Put in a strainer and squeeze dry with both hands until the mixture is completely devoid of moisture. This is the most important step in the process because if you don’t get all the water out of the spinach mixture, you could end up with a soggy banitsa.
Chop dry spinach mixture finely and add the remaining ingredients, except for salt. The amount of additional salt you add depends on how salty the feta is. Set aside to cool in the refrigerator until ready to use — don’t use hot filling because it will melt the phyllo dough leaves together.
Makes about 5 cups.