There's nothing like a warm, home-cooked meal to bring everyone to the table. And in her new cookbook Carla's Comfort Foods, Chef Carla Hall celebrates the meals that unite us — no matter where we're from.
Hall is one of the hosts of ABC's talk show The Chew and was a finalist on the reality TV show Top Chef. She invited NPR's David Greene over to bake spanakopita — a Greek dish, and just one of the many recipes she loves from around the world.
Hall says her book follows common threads of flavor through different cultures; she believes food connects us. When it comes to cooking techniques and flavors, cultures are never too far apart, she says — the kitchen is a place where in many ways, we're all the same.
"Your nose doesn't have to look like mine. Your skin doesn't have to look like mine, but I can still celebrate you," Hall says.
Spanakopita is basically spinach and feta cheese tucked into a flaky phyllo pocket. Hall also adds lemon because she loves a "good pucker": "I love anything sour and tart," she says. "You just can't get too tart for me."
Instead of making those little pocket hors d'oeuvres, Hall shows us how to make spanakopita the traditional Greek way — as a big casserole. Click the audio link above to hear Greene and Hall's culinary adventures. And you can find Hall's recipe for spanakopita below.
Spanakopita: Lemon-Scented Spinach And Feta Pie
Every Greek restaurant has a version of this savory greens and cheese pie. My little twist is to spike the mixture with lemon zest; it adds a level of freshness. I experimented with this dish many times, trying to prevent the phyllo from getting soggy by the time the whole thing cools, and this recipe comes pretty close. I switched from a cake pan to a shallow one, added an egg to the filling, drained the cheese, and squeezed every last drop of liquid out of the spinach. The real secret, though, is to eat it when it's still hot so the top is all shattery, the center creamy and the bottom crisp.
Olive oil cooking spray
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch scallions (green onions), trimmed and thinly sliced
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds baby spinach
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup ricotta cheese, drained
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Ten 18-by-13-inch sheets phyllo dough, thawed if frozen
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly coat a 13-by-9-by-1-inch baking pan with olive oil spray.
2. Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the scallions, shallot, garlic and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until softened and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the spinach, parsley and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until the spinach wilts, about 2 minutes. Drain in a fine-mesh colander, squeezing the spinach as dry as possible. Finely chop the spinach.
3. In a large bowl, stir together the egg, feta, ricotta, lemon zest and nutmeg until smooth. Stir in the spinach mixture until well-blended.
4. Lay 1 phyllo sheet in the prepared pan, aligning one short edge with the length of the pan. Spray the sheet, then fold it in half so that it covers the bottom of the pan. Repeat, laying, spraying and folding 4 times, so that you've used 5 phyllo sheets total, forming 10 layers. Spread the spinach evenly over the phyllo stack. Then repeat the laying, spraying and folding with the remaining 5 phyllo sheets.
5. Fold any overhanging edges of phyllo over the filling. Use an offset spatula to tightly tuck the folded edges against the filling by placing the spatula's edge where the ends of the sheets meet the edge of the pan and gently pressing the sheets toward the bottom of the pan. Repeat all around the perimeter of the pan to encase the filling. Coat the top with the oil spray.
6. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes. Cool slightly in the pan on a rack, then cut into pieces and serve hot.
You may not be able to fit all the spinach into the skillet at once. If you can't, add half and stir until it wilts, then add the rest. It's amazing how such a huge amount of spinach will shrink!
Be sure to squeeze the spinach dry before layering it. If it's too wet, it'll make the phyllo soggy.
From Carla's Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World by Carla Hall and Genevieve Ko. Copyright 2014 Carla Hall. Excerpted by permission of Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here in Washington, D.C. it's been a little colder than usual.
CARLA HALL: Oh, my God. It's 21 degrees.
GREENE: How are you? I'm David.
HALL: Hi, David.
GREENE: Nice to meet you.
HALL: Nice to meet you...
GREENE: So a few of us at MORNING EDITION decided to go cook up something warm with Carla Hall. Carla is one of the hosts of ABC's talk show "The Chew," and she was a finalist on the reality TV show "Top Chef." We are over at her house to test out a recipe from her new cookbook.
Should we follow you into the kitchen?
HALL: Yeah, come on in.
GREENE: The book is called "Carla's Comfort Foods." And she put it together with cooking writer Genevieve Ko.
Today, we are going to make spanakopita. It's Greek but the book is full of dishes she loves from around the world. She says she follows threads of flavor through different cultures, because food is what connects us. Whether it be cooking techniques or flavors, cultures never feel too far apart.
HALL: Your nose doesn't have to look like mine. Your skin doesn't have to look like my, but I can still celebrate you.
GREENE: And you feel like the kitchen is a place where you see that we're all the same in many ways.
GREENE: For people who don't know, give me the nuts and bolts of spanakopita.
HALL: It has spinach and feta cheese and it's in this little filo pocket.
GREENE: It's flaky and you can't stop yourself.
HALL: Right, exactly. You just keep eating them.
GREENE: You spread it around...
HALL: Yes, and every time you'll say: Yes, I'll have that.
HALL: When I was catering, I would make a dish but I would have lemon 'cause I love a good pucker. And I love lemon.
GREENE: You love a good pucker.
HALL: I - oh, my gosh. I love anything, like, sour and tart. And you just can't get to chart for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Now, instead of making those little pocket hors d'oeuvres - the spanakopita - we're going to make it the more traditional Greek way, as a big casserole.
HALL: I thought about how much time it takes to make the recipes. I thought about how many pots and pans you're going to use to make the dishes. I really wanted people to want to do it.
GREENE: I want to do it.
HALL: Do you want to do it?
GREENE: I want to - I want to do it.
HALL: Let's do it, David.
GREENE: So we start the oven.
HALL: Let's do 345. Just press three and a four...
GREENE: Give me the basics here.
HALL: ...and a five.
GREENE: I like that, OK.
HALL: And then: Start.
GREENE: And line up our ingredients.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HALL: A shallot.
HALL: Yeah, those are shallots.
GREENE: I knew that. Done.
GREENE: Got the garlic.
HALL: And perfect.
GREENE: Also: an egg, crumbled feta, ricotta cheese, nutmeg, spinach, parsley, and we've got a problem.
HALL: Filo sheets - are we using filo or puff pastry?
GREENE: Puff pastry?
Yeah, we brought puff pastry. Who knew that was different from filo dough?
HALL: This is what happens. No, you make it work.
GREENE: Because this is puff pastry, pastry dough sheets your saying this is not what you would normally use.
HALL: No. But this is what we're going to do, because I'm all about the go and be moment. So what we're going to do is actually roll our puff pastry out. We will brush it with egg wash and we will bake it.
GREENE: With a new plan and confidence we get going again.
HALL: How good are you with a knife?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Well, no - I am not. But Carla is, so she chops up the scallions and the shallots and garlic.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)
HALL: Let me get the pan on. And what we're going to do is sweat all of our onions and garlic and shallots down.
GREENE: OK. Talk to me about sweating.
HALL: So all I'm saying is you just want them translucent - no color. They're just a little tamed down.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)
HALL: I'm going to have you put some, what I call, compliments.
HALL: So you're going to do a nice pinch.
HALL: And I called him compliments, which is salt, because if you don't use it you ain't going to get no compliments.
GREENE: I like that. You're pro-salt.
HALL: I'm pro-salt but too many compliments is an insult.
GREENE: Now, at this point, Carla adds two pounds of spinach to our salty, sweating mixture. I'm stirring it up as the leaves wilt down with some success.
HALL: Do you want tongs?
GREENE: Oh, I was just thinking that tongs would be very helpful. Yeah, thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF UTENSILS)
GREENE: This is really -that - I feel more in control now.
HALL: Now you're good, yeah.
GREENE: Thank you.
HALL: The tongs are one of my favorite tools in the kitchen because...
GREENE: Why didn't we go to the tongs in the beginning?
HALL: Because you wouldn't appreciate the tongs as much as you do now, if I'd started...
GREENE: All right, so we've got the spinach wilting on the stove. And over on the table, we're mixing up the feta and ricotta in a bowl.
HALL: We're going to add our lemon zest to this ricotta and feta mixture. Lemon and spinach, they love each other. And another thing that loves any kind of milk or creamy goodness is nutmeg. So would you do the honors of doing the nutmeg?
GREENE: I'm just going to run this...
HALL: Yet, just shh-shh-shh-shh-shh.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRATING)
GREENE: That smells good.
HALL: Does that smell good?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: OK, mixture done and Carla is rolling out the substitute dough. And it seems to be working despite our hiccup. Next, we prebaked the dough a little. We stuck it altogether with the spinach mixture squeezed dry of water. We put it all together and it all goes in the oven.
(SOUNDBITE OF AN OVEN DOOR)
GREENE: There's something about Carla Hall. You almost forget that she's a celebrity chef. Here we are in her home kitchen, where she's been cooking for 16 years. Now, maybe your kitchen isn't perfectly stocked like the kitchens you see on television, and Carla Hall likes to set an example that you can cook her recipes right there. She says it's important for her to stay flexible and nimble while she's cooking.
Even though she's part of the whole celebrity chef culture, she has some concerns about the message that's being sent to aspiring young chefs.
HALL: Kids are going to culinary school, saying: What do you want to do. Oh, we want to be on television. And they don't realize all the work that a lot of those people were doing, 15, 20 years in the business and working at their craft. Some of these kids want to make food that looks good and looks pretty. But at the end of the day, you have to eat it and you're feeding people. And it is an honor to feed people. This is not a flash in the pan career.
I'm not saying that's everybody, but that's a lot of people going to culinary school now.
GREENE: And by this point, our spanakopita is almost ready to come out of the oven.
HALL: OK, I'm going to have some.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLICING)
GREENE: Oh, that's beautiful.
GREENE: You OK?
HALL: No, that's me being happy.
GREENE: I thought you burn yourself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLICING)
HALL: I love it. I love it. I wonder if it's too late to change the recipe in the book.
GREENE: You like mixing it up this way.
HALL: I do. I do. I like it.
HALL: Doesn't it make you do a happy dance?
GREENE: We were spending time with Chef Carla Hall. Her recipe for spanakopita is at our website, NPR.org. Her latest cookbook is called "Carla's Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes From Around the World."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Hope you're hungry. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.