I love my family more than anything in the world, but after braving the gizzards and innards of Thanksgiving Day, I decided to have my own holiday feast.
A week later, the menu was set. I’d already OD’ed on the oven-charred vegetables, heavy sauces and starchy sides of the season, so I went for a light-yet-festive Mediterranean theme. The centerpiece was going to be seitan kebabs.
On feast day, I prepared a marinade and opened the packets of seitan expecting solid blocks, like tofu, that I could cut-up. What I found resembled shredded chicken. Skewer that?! I took a deep breath, stepped back, and went to my bookshelf.
Salvation came from one of my favorite cookbooks, Greek Culinary Tradition; the Past Lingers On, purchased years back from a tiny bookstore near the Saturday vegetable market in Athens. The book’s glossy, warm-colored pictures had my mouth watering, especially when I found the recipe for dakos (bread salad)–my favorite food from the trip. I also loved how the chapters were divided by region.
The recipe I picked was a savory pie from Crete. Called Tsoulamas, the filling included rice, liver, raisins & walnuts. Each layer of the surrounding, flaky, homemade phyllo was to be sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. I thought this touch of aromatic sweetness would make it decadent enough for the holidays.
While Greek Culinary Tradition‘s illustrations were lavish, the text was minimal. Each recipe was distilled down to the most essential steps. Some even listed ingredients with no amounts (take that, foodpickle!). After some initial panic, I discovered that this allowed for a more instinctual cooking style; which I thrived on.
Check out the phyllo recipe:350 grams flour 50 ml olive oil water salt
“Put the flour, olive oil and salt in a bowl. Slowly add water to make elastic dough. Divide into 3 parts and roll out with the rolling pin to make 3 separate sheets.”
…The end! Although I’d prepared perfect doughs from this book without cheating, I watched some YouTube phyllo rolling videos before diving in, just to make sure it was possible to get this one done before the guests arrived (or for that matter, went home).
It was. And I had fun doing it. Even rolled paper-thin, the sheets were surprisingly pliable, unlike frozen, store-bought phyllo sheets that must be handled like ancient Greek scrolls. Instead of the constant tearing and crumbling I associated with phyllo, I only dealt with 2 or 3 dime-sized holes, easily sealed-up with a dab of water.
I adapted the pie recipe to satisfy my vegan persuasion, substituted some ingredients for what I had on hand, and added a few extras. So you may notice that my version is not as beautifully simplistic as the one above.
This is kind of a medium-advanced recipe but I encourage everyone to try it. Like me, you can use sites like YouTube and Epicurious to supplement your skills. The payoff is big: This was the best thing I made in 2010.
Greek Rice and Seitan Pie
(serves 4)1 lb. package plain seitan (marinated in 2 tbp each olive oil + lemon juice, seasoned to taste) 120 g olive oil 300 g rice 800 g vegetable broth, warmed (I use Seitenbacher’s seasoning and water) 1 yellow onion, finely chopped 1/2 tsp each cumin, caraway and coriander seeds
3 cloves garlic, minced 1 cup white wine
120 g sundried tomatoes, finely chopped 120 g toasted pistachios, finely chopped seasonal herbs of your choice salt, pepper 50 g sugar cinnamon phyllo dough (double the recipe above), divided into 6 portions
In a saucepan, heat 3 tbp. of the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the onions until slightly brown and caramelized. Add the seed spices and allow them to toast for a minute. Add the garlic and cook until translucent. Deglaze the pan with the wine and allow the alcohol to cook off and the liquid to reduce. Stir in the rice and continuously stir until the grains are translucent. Add the warm broth and return the pot to a boil.
Cover and turn heat to lowest setting. Adjust seasoning, if necessary. Allow to cook 15-20 minutes until liquid is absorbed. Throw the sundried tomatoes, pistachios and herbs into the pot and allow to just sit atop the rice while you prep the crust.
Roll out one sheet of phyllo to size and lay in an oiled pie dish or tart mold (I used the latter), allowing the extra to drop over the sides. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with about 1 tbp of the cinnamon sugar. Repeat with 2 more layers.
Add the seitan and marinade to the pan of rice, which should be cooled a bit by now, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Fill the pie shell with the rice mixture and smooth the top.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Roll another layer of phyllo and place it atop the pie. Repeat with the 5th layer. Roll and place the last layer. Trim, fold and crimp the top and bottom layers together around the edges. Cut slits in the top, in a pattern that pleases you, for steam to escape. Brush the pie with oil and sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon sugar.
Bake about 40 minutes until the pastry is golden brown. Allow to cool slightly and serve. Garnishes could include tzatziki (try the Veganomicon version), green olives, or roasted pepper sauce.