New Year Visions: Vegan Spanakopita

Happy New Year!

A friend of mine wrote in on December 31, 2017, that this was a day where all the adults living (as in over 18) were born in the 20th century (1900s) and all the minors (under 18) were born in the 21st century (2000s). It made me think about the changes I’ve seen in life from the 1970’s until now and also consider what I’d like to see going forward into 2018. The result was an ABC’s of wishes I wrote. If folks are interested in reading it, feel free to click here: Wishes

In addition, I thought about all the ways food has changed from the 70’s until now.  Cheese Whiz to organic, artisan cheeses… Chef Boyardee ravioli to whole wheat, butternut squash, kale ravioli…white flour noodles to gluten free quinoa pasta… Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies to Enjoy Life cookies free of 12 major food allergens. The list goes on, and the point is the same: what we consider to be “normal” eating conventions is different going into 2018.

This was evident in our home as we were deciding what to make for a New Year’s dinner we were hosting with some friends. Between food allergies and vegan children, coming up with a satisfying entree wasn’t easy. In the end we opted to make a vegan spanakopita which would have protein, fit dietary needs, and be a satisfying holiday-ish entree for the folks who neither have food allergies or are vegan. To make the dish, though, required work, specifically how best to alter a “normal” spanakopita recipe.

For folks not as familiar with spanakopita, it is a traditionally Greek dish which mixes spinach and feta cheese as a filling to go between layers of phyllo or filo dough which are thin sheets of a low-fat flour dough. Folks with gluten or wheat issues cannot use the filo dough found in stores, and folks with dairy issues cannot eat the cheese, so in the past, these folks could not have spanakopita, but those days are now gone.

How to make spanakopita:

  1. The filo dough: Folks with no wheat or gluten issues can purchase filo dough at the store. A variety of companies sell them in sheets of 20 which is what you usually need (10 sheets for the bottom and 10 sheets for the top). If people want to make their own, The Spruce has a good recipe: Filo Dough Recipe.  If folks have allergies, though, the only option currently is to make your own gluten free filo sheets.  Gluten Free on a Shoestring has the best recipe that I have tried: Gluten Free Filo Dough Recipe . It is not really all that hard, and it is worth the work.
  2. The cheese: Traditionally, spanakopita uses feta cheese. Some folks combine feta and ricotta. Others combine feta and cottage cheese, but feta is always a key ingredient. If there are no food restrictions, there are plenty of recipes online using feta which one can follow. If dairy is an issue or one is vegan, there are basically two options for replacing the cheese: nut or tofu, both of which require making your own “cheese”. For folks who might be allergic to both nuts and tofu, I have not tried any of the cheese, but One Green Planet has “cheese” recipes made from other food like zucchini and hemp and paprika which might be worth trying: Nut and Dairy Free Cheese Recipes
    1. Nut “feta”: Folks who do not have nut allergies can consider making “feta cheese” out of cashews. You simply soak cashews overnight, drain them, and crumble in a food processor with lemon juice, salt and nutritional yeast to your taste and liking and to a feta consistency.
    2. Tofu “feta”: Folks with nut allergies can crumble firm tofu into a bowl to resemble feta chunks, and mix with lemon juice, nutritional yeast, white miso and/or apple cider vinegar, and salt to your taste and liking. I have found that to get the most “feta-like” texture, that it also helps to add a little bit of “milk”. (I usually use soy milk.)
    3. “Ricotta”: If you want to have the texture of “feta” with the texture of “ricotta” in your spanakopita, you can make your own ricotta, too. For tofu ricotta, puree tofu with lemon juice and nutritional yeast to taste and until smooth. For cashew ricotta, soak cashews overnight and then puree with lemon juice, water or “milk”, and nutritional yeast to taste and liking.
  3. The filling:  Usually spanakopita is a mixture of the cheese with cooked spinach which you combine with just enough beaten eggs to hold it together. You can saute fresh spinach. You can use thawed frozen spinach. Your choice. If using frozen spinach, it is best to squeeze out as much of the excess liquid as possible.  When I made our spanakopita, however, I wasn’t going to be using eggs because I needed it to be vegan, so I used a combination of thawed frozen spinach and kale and didn’t squeeze out the liquid. Instead, I added extra nutritional yeast as well as ground flaxseed to absorb the liquid and help bind the “cheese” and veggies which worked incredibly well.
  4. The seasonings: Spanakopita traditionally uses garlic and onions to season the dish. Recipes will vary as to what else is added. Oregano and basil and black pepper are common but it really depends on your tastes and liking. You can experiment and see what you prefer.
  5. Assembling the dish: To make spanakopita, you layer the filo sheets on the bottom of your dish (at least a 9 x 13; I use an 11 x 15 pan) by brushing the dish with olive oil or melted butter, layering on a sheet, brushing the sheet with olive oil or melted butter, and repeating until the top of the last sheet has been brushed with oil or butter. (Olive oil is a healthier fat and you can brush a thinner layer of it than butter so you end up using much less than you would of the butter.) Then you spread the spinach-cheese mixture onto the filo layers and begin the process of layering filo dough on top of the spinach mixture. If your filo dough is larger than your pan, simply tuck the excess into the sides. It is important to be sure to brush the top and final sheet of filo dough with oil or butter.
  6. Baking the dish: Because the filo dough crisps and fluffs up, it can be difficult to cut after it is cooked, so it’s best to cut through the top layers before you put the spanakopita into the oven. Don’t cut through to the bottom, though. Just the top. Then when it cooks, it puffs up around your cuts and makes it easy for you to cut the final slices after it is done. You can bake the spanakopita at any temperature between 325 degrees and 375 degrees. Depending on the temperature you choose, it will take between a half an hour and a hour usually to brown and crisp.

Paula’s Vegan Spanakopita Recipe:

Ingredients:

Tofu Ricotta: 14 oz firm tofu, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1/4 cup nutritional yeast

Tofu Feta: 14 oz firm tofu, 2 tbsp nutritional yeast, 2 tsp lemon juice, 2 tsp apple cider vinegar, 1/4 cup soy milk, 1/4 tsp salt

Seasonings: 1 tbsp minced garlic, 1/2 cup chopped onions, 1 tsp oregano, 1 tsp basil, 1/2 tsp black pepper

Veggies: 10 oz thawed frozen chopped kale, 32 oz thawed frozen chopped spinach

Filling Binders: 1/4 cup nutritional yeast, 1/4 cup ground flax seed, 8 oz Daiya mozzarella

Olive oil

20 sheets preferred type of filo dough

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Make the tofu ricotta by pureeing all the ingredients together in a food processor. Set aside.
  2. Make the tofu feta by crumbling the tofu into feta size chunks and mixing it with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl. Set aside.
  3. In a small pan, saute the seasonings with a small amount of olive oil just until fragrant. Set aside to cool.
  4. In a small bowl, mix the filling binders together and set aside.
  5. In a large bowl, combine the thawed kale and spinach with the ricotta and feta and seasonings. Add the filling binder.
  6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  7. Brush an 11 by 15 pan with olive oil. Just enough to very lightly coat it.
  8. Layer a filo sheet and lightly brush the layer with olive oil. Repeat until ten sheets have been done.
  9. Spread the spinach mixture atop the filo layers.
  10. Layer a filo sheet and lightly brush the layer with olive oil. Repeat until ten sheets have been done. Be sure to brush the top layer.
  11. Cut the spanakopita into slices, slicing only through the top layers of filo dough and not the bottom.
  12. Bake in the preheated oven 30 minutes, then turn the spanakopita around and bake for another 15 to 30 minutes, until the top has browned and crisped and the filling is hot.
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