Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Swiss chard, feta and filo pie

Continuing the Moroccan theme from my last post, but this time on a savoury note. I'm rather conscious of the fact that many of the recipes I've posted recently have been sweet ones. If I were trying to write a baking blog, that would be fine, but I'm not.

Sometimes I wonder if I'd get more hits if I styled Nutmegs, seven as a baking blog. Correct me if I'm wrong, but a large majority of the most popular blogs out there do seem to be baking blogs. I can see why - the fact is that photos of cupcakes, pies, tarts and artfully styled, seven-tier, buttercream-smothered layer cakes with sugar flowers are just much more visually appealing than a picture of, say, a roast chicken or a muddy-coloured stew. Your latest beef casserole recipe may taste heavenly, but a photo of a brown mass clinging to some rice on a plate isn't going to create the same wow factor as a trio of neat pastel cupcakes, crowned with a plump raspberry, sticky pink icing dribbling artfully down the sides, glistening enticingly for the camera like a page three model.

I'm the first to admit that when I'm scrolling through the foodgawker app on my iPhone, gawking - as the name suggests - at food (like food? Get the app, it's brilliant - and free), I linger for a few fractions of a second longer on the dessert recipes than on the savoury salads, salsas and stews. You can also tell from my 'favourites', the recipes I've bookmarked to try - at least 70% are sweet.

I suppose that's also the reason so many people snack on sweet things - even when you're not particularly hungry, sugary foods often whet the appetite. If someone offers you a biscuit an hour after breakfast or lunch, you're more likely to accept absent-mindedly than if someone offers you a pot of hummus with crudités. This is actually the basis of the test I give myself when I think I'm hungry and need a piece of cake. I ask myself if I'd be equally happy to eat raw red peppers (the reason for this being that if I'm really hungry, I'll often nibble ingredients as I cook, and raw red peppers are a favourite for this). If the answer is yes, then I'm actually hungry. If the answer is no, I'm just greedy.

It's a good test, actually. I should write some sort of diet book based on it. Maybe that would help kick start my food writing career.

The main reason I don't write a baking blog, to be honest, is that I don't feel particularly qualified to do so. As mentioned in my rambling preface to these apple and blackberry crumble squares, I don't eat very much butter. I never really eat cream. Recipes with more than 100g of either usually tend to go in the mental "sounds delicious, but I like myself thin, thanks" bin: dauphinoise, tiramisu, banoffee pie, pie in general, macaroni cheese, frangipane, brownies... (All of which I will happily eat if served to me in a restaurant, and I am blissfully ignorant of their contents).

I'm ever so slightly envious of all the beautiful, slim baking bloggers out there, and the metabolisms that allow them to bake every day without showing the consequences. But I don't want you to think I'm bitter. Instead, I find it an exciting challenge, coming up with baking and dessert recipes that taste fabulous but are a bit more easy on the waistline than your average cream cake or cookies. Sure, it would be nice to eat brownies every day, but it doesn't bother me enormously that I can't.

The main reason for the proliferation of dessert and baking recipes on this blog lately is simply that I'm trying really hard at the moment to improve my photography, and baked goods just behave so much better. They can sit around quite happily without getting cold while you snap away, move a few crumbs here, artfully throw a few blackberries there, change angles, aperture, exposure. I can bake things in the morning and photograph in the afternoon so that I can take advantage of the wonderful natural light streaming in through my kitchen window. I can also do it in private, without people thinking I'm a bit ridiculous for wanting that piece of cake or fork or napkin in just the right place.

With dinner, there are usually three or four hungry mouths awaiting it; the lighting in the evening isn't brilliant now that autumn has started to set in, so nothing looks as nice when photographed; I feel a bit of a fool standing there in front of my family rearranging bits of salad and chunks of meat, particularly if we have guests who don't know about my food blogging. And, as mentioned, savoury food just doesn't look as good.

You can perhaps see this, if you compare my photos of this pie to my previous photos of the orange and polenta cake. I debated whether to post about it at all, as I'm not 100% happy with the pictures. But I'd hate to get to the point where I became more concerned with style over substance. Ultimately, food blogging should be about taste. If the recipe is delicious, the world should know. That's how I feel about this pie.

This recipe originated from a desperate attempt to use up an enormous bunch of rainbow Swiss chard from the market. I think they shouldn't be allowed to sell it so cheaply in such large quantities; it's most impractical trying to do the rest of your shopping carrying a plastic bag that has at least two feet of bushy green leaves protruding from it, waving casually in the wind like a horse's tail as you try and look cool browsing through harem pants in Zara. While I can think of lots of ways to use Swiss chard (pasta, salads, as a side dish, this delicious pearl barley risotto), none of them require more than a couple of stalks. Enter the Swiss chard pie, which used about two-thirds of my huge hoard.

It's very loosely based on a Moroccan pastilla, a fascinating culinary creation that I sampled when in Marrakesh. The pastilla normally contains pigeon meat and raisins in a filo-like pastry dough, but what's really interesting about it is that it's sweet, dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. This shouldn't actually be too weird for an English person; our beloved Christmas mince pies were originally made, as the name suggests, with mince. They apparently originated as a result of the Crusades, taking inspiration from the Middle Eastern combination of fruit, spices and meat in various dishes, and were called "shrid pies" in Tudor times before being named "Christmas pies", containing 13 ingredients representative of Christ and his Apostles.

The history of the humble mince pie is fascinating, incidentally; I'd recommend giving this Wikipedia article a read if you're remotely interested. They were banned, like many things, by the Puritans during the English Civil War, on account of their supposed connection with Catholicism. The Quakers believed them "an Invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, an Hodge-Podge of Superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his Works". That makes them all the more tempting, if you ask me.

Anyway, moving swiftly on from scarlet whores and the devil. This filo pie has a few things in common with bastilla. It also consists of a filling involving raisins cooked in a crispy filo dough. The filling is bound together with beaten egg. It is sprinkled with cinnamon before serving. There, the comparisons end, but I still think it's fairly reminiscent of the beloved Moroccan pie in its combining of the sweet and the savoury (raisins and feta cheese).

This is a delicious way to use up a glut of chard, or you could also use spinach or maybe even courgettes instead (if using courgettes, grate and fry them rather than boil them). The filling has a lovely tang to it from the salty feta cheese and the use of lemon zest, which balances out the iron-rich flavour of the chard. The raisins stop the savoury flavour cloying too much and give a lovely little burst of sweetness, while the final dusting of cinnamon is - almost literally - the icing on the cake. The contrast between the crispy pastry and the soft, juicy interior is really wonderful.

The best thing about this pie is that it can be served hot or cold, and is great cut into wedges to take on a picnic or - more realistically, given our English summer this year - as a packed lunch. It makes a really delicious and unusual vegetarian main course, substantial enough to serve alongside a simple salad.

Swiss chard, feta and filo pie (serves 6):

6 sheets filo pastry
50g currants
50g raisins
1 bundle of chard, about 800g
1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
3 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp pine nuts
100g Parmesan
2 lightly beaten eggs
100g feta, crumbled
Zest of a lemon
1/2 tsp cinnamon, plus more for dusting
70g melted butter

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Cover the currants and raisins in boiling water. Brown the pine nuts in the oven until golden brown. Run a knife along the chard stalks to remove the leaves. Wash and slice the stalks into strips, then wash and cut the leaves into large strips.

In a pan heat the oil and soften the onion and garlic, seasoning with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, blanch first the stalks and then the leaves in boiling water until tender and drain well. Add this to the onion mixture and heat through to evaporate any excess liquid.

Drain the currants and raisins and add to the chard along with the pine nuts. Remove from the heat and add the parmesan, feta, eggs, cinnamon and lemon zest and allow to cool.

Grease a fry pan with an ovenproof handle or a shallow round baking dish (about 20-25cm wide) with melted butter. Lay five sheets of filo pastry in the pan at angles, brushing them with butter as you go, making sure that some of sheets hang over the sides. Now fill the pastry with the chard mixture.

Place the last piece of filo on top of the filling and fold the overhanging pieces of pastry over the filling. Brush again with the melted butter and bake for 20-30 mins or until the pastry is golden. If you like, transfer to the hob and heat for a few minutes to ensure that the bottom is crisp.

Either serve from the pan or slide out on to a large plate, and dust lightly with cinnamon.

(Adapted from Thomasina Miers in The Times, here)
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  1. Great taht you made thsi amazingly good looking pie.I jsut read other day on a blog how to preserve chard stalks:))

  2. After only reading the first few lines of your post I feel obliged to comment right away: do not, I repeat do not, stop writing savoury posts please!! I live for them!

  3. Oooh I remember sampling some pastilla when I was in Morocco too. My dad wanted to try some as he'd tasted a delicious one in a fancy restaurant in France at some point and thought it would be even better in Morocco. I found the taste very unusual but delicious!

    I can understand how taking photos of savoury goods can be a bit challenging but I hope you'll continue to delight us with risottos, stews, tagines, and the likes.. xx

  4. Thanks Annie, that's so nice! I remember the pastilla being a bit odd as well, but I really enjoyed it. I had it at one of the street food stalls that come out at night in the main square in Marrakesh. I wasn't expecting it to be sweet as I'd made a chicken version from a recipe book at home which was savoury...but you know how I love my sweet and savoury combinations, so I loved it!

  5. I must agree with Annie. There are so many baking blogs but I dislike most sweet things, I would far rather have a savoury meal or snack. Your picture of the raw Chard is excellent.

  6. Definitely! If I had the choice, i probably would only cook sweet & savoury dishes! I cannot express how much I love them and I'll be thanking my family forever for educating us culinary wise. We ate so many different foods while growing up (well, like you, once I got passed the "I don't like" phase where I wouldn't eat anything except chocolate, milk, and fish fingers) and I remember that whenever we had guests, they never left without having discovered something new, wether it was (is that grammatically correct?) curry, tagine, garlic bread, or even tiramisu.

  7. Just tried this, very tasty though only needed half the chard. Great way to use up a job load of the stuff!


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