Saturday, December 17, 2016

Spinach Triangles and the Circle of Life

Gentle readers, I know I’m not the first person to remark that 2016 sucked. We could list a million reasons, one of which I refuse to discuss because I’m still in denial. But let me just say to all of you who lamented Prince’s passing: That HAPPENED ON MY BIRTHDAY okay, so yeah THAT KIND OF SUCKED.

But wait, this year got way sadder. (Cue your Morrissey album of choice right now, seriously.) In November, I lost my beloved grandmother, Rose, a lifelong source of support, love, and spinach-feta triangles (as if there’s a difference).

From the time I was little, Mama inspired and encouraged me to express myself creatively via both writing and cooking, and breathed life into my imagination and appetite in all its forms. When I would stay overnight at her house, I got to watch the “Thriller” video every hour on MTV, drink Hawaiian Punch from a crystal goblet, eat Clams Casino off a TV tray, and bake cookies with her. Sometimes we also baked wee cakes in my Easy-Bake Oven. Had the phrase “like a boss” existed when I was a 7-year-old girl, I would have used it whenever I stayed with my grandmother.

To this day, my mother remains resentful of the fact that when she came to pick me up after my visits with Mama, I would run and hide so she couldn’t get me to leave and return to our non-cable-subscribing, high-fructose-corn-syrup-based-beverage-shunning home. In retrospect, I get why Mom felt dissed, seeing as how she was raising me and all. Can you blame me, though, gentle readers?

After passing peacefully at 89, surrounded by loved ones and loved by countless others, Mama lives on through years of memories and life lessons—and through her recipes.

I recently made these spinach triangles from her handwritten recipe, interpreted below. They freeze great; just under-bake them a little if you plan to reheat, as per the above picture.

Here is the recipe, as interpreted by me:

Thaw 2 10-oz. packages of frozen chopped spinach and a package of phyllo dough in the fridge. Squeeze the heck out of that spinach; I like to put it in a mesh strainer lined with coffee filters and placed over a bowl to catch the liquid. You can even cover with more coffee filters and set a stack of saucer-size plates on top to press out the water.

Mix with 2 beaten eggs, 8 oz. crumbled feta, and 8 oz. cream cheese. (Sorry Mama, you called for a full pound of feta, but it’s so much less expensive to do the second half with cream cheese. I also add a little grating of nutmeg, as I do with all spinach/dairy dishes.) (You could also add some finely diced onions that’ve been sautéed in butter. )

Speaking of butter, melt about a stick of it. Also, preheat the oven to 375°.

Mama calls for 2 tablespoons of “grated cheese.” This means Parmesan. As I clarify this, I feel her looking down on me and being annoyed at feeling patronized.

Now you need to deal with the phyllo dough, and I’m not going to lie, she is a cruel mistress. The main thing is to keep it moist enough so it doesn’t get dry and brittle and flaky, so you want to cover it with a damp towel, but that means the top sheets are going to get a bit gummy and unusable. It’s fine to discard them; you’re going to end up with an excess ratio of phyllo to filling anyway. (Viable excess phyllo can be twisted, brushed with butter, and baked for a little appetizer nosh.)

Use a sharp knife to cut the phyllo into four strips. This is where you cover it with the damp towel. And now, in the words of my grandmother, who used margarine instead of butter:

COAT TOP WITH DAB OF MARGARINE [i.e., brush with melted butter]

I love how she says to fold the dough as you would the American flag, it’s a perfect description. And the triangles do kind of get pink, weirdly enough. Again, if you’re freezing, err on the side of less golden brown.

I recommend freezing these on a sheet of wax paper, then gingerly rolling the bundle up and stuffing it into a Ziploc bag, so you can defrost a few triangles at a time.

Gentle readers, 2016 did have its silver lining. A month after that super-depressing birthday when Prince died, I met the man of my dreams. Turns out he was born on Prince’s birthday. It wasn't because of that that we fell in love, but somehow that weird cyclical connection struck us both as a karmic thing.

When Mama died, we were planning to leave for Massachusetts in a couple of weeks to spend Thanksgiving with my family. It broke my heart that he wouldn’t get the chance to meet her. But he assured me that he felt as if he already knew her, owing to all the stories about her I had shared. I realized, too, that he knows her through her influence on me: both the “food is love, let me feed you” sensibility I inherited from her, and the “Hey, pay attention to me, I have ideas and I like for everyone to hear them!” sensibility that she nurtured in me even though—or, more probably, because—being a Middle Eastern-American woman born in 1927, she never got that kind of affirmation or support for herself. (It crushed her when she had to drop out of high school to work at her parents’ store. Decades later, when her children were about grown, she went back to get her high school degree, and became valedictorian of her class.)

I like to think that everyone I ever cook for, or anyone who ever reads my writing, will feel my grandmother’s energy. And if you make this recipe, I feel certain that you will.

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