The forest stands as a shivering pillar for night/
and the silence is a silver cup where moments fall/
echoes distinct, whole, a careful chisel/
sustained by carved lines. . .
-George Seferis (“Erotikos Logos”)
I woke up today to darkness and rain. Boo! Needless to say, this weather is beyond depressing. It’s hard to believe that exactly a week ago, the sun was shining and it felt like early May. Last Thursday was a truly beautiful day, the kind of day when you want to sit outside and read, which, for the most part, is exactly what I did. My friend Huysmans, his boring anti-hero of a protagonist, des Esseintes, and I went outside and sat and sat and sat. We weren’t sitting aimlessly, however. We (well, really, I) were waiting to attend a lecture being given by Joyce Carol Oates that evening! Needless to say, it was worth every minute of the endless waiting (have I mentioned how much I hate waiting? Even if it involves sunshine and beautiful weather and a fortuitous meeting with a certain engineer?).
Oates was witty and charming, immediately captivating her audience with her random observations about literary history, authors’ complicated relationships with their parents (did you all know that Hemingway’s mother used to dress him up as a girl? Yep, just one of the fun facts I learned in my hour with JCO) and the concept of rejection–by both critics and parents. It was, admittedly, all a little Freudian, but nevertheless was a pleasure to get to attend. I’ve liked Oates’ fiction since I was 18 and freshly graduated from high school; We Were the Mulvaneys was my first and, since then, I’ve read several others, but, considering Oates has written over 50 novels, I can’t keep up. Who can? Something tells me she almost can’t keep up with herself; based on her presentation, it seemed that her mind always seems to be two steps ahead of the thought she’s articulating. It’s impressive. And kind of crazy. I enjoyed myself immensely.
What made the evening even better was the fact that I arrived home to both a cocktail (a Manhattan) and a meal warm enough to take the chill from my bones (in this part of the world after 5, it’s almost like the sun doesn’t even exist. Instead, the fog reigns supreme) . You see, in my fortuitous meeting with a certain engineer, my keys were handed over and dinner was entirely in his hands. After having had this dish at a Mediterranean restaurant in Berkeley the week before, the plan had been to make our very own Lemon Chicken Soup (or Avgolemono) but, clearly, if you’re getting out of a talk at only 7:30 p.m., even to consider boiling a whole chicken by the time you get home is madness….Dinner wouldn’t be ready until at least 10 p.m.! And who can wait that long for lemony broth, especially after waiting all day for Oates?!
And once you’ve cooked a whole chicken for the sake of making broth and shredding some of the meat into a soup, you’ve got to find something to do with it. Considering chicken’s versatility, there were many roads that could have been taken, but the one that the Greek suggested (clearly, yours truly was having an uninspired culinary week) immediately captured my imagination: a Chicken Pie. But not just any chicken pie and certainly nothing resembling Chicken Pot Pie (which I do love; I’ve always been a sucker for gravy); what he was suggesting was basically a chicken and leek quiche wrapped in phyllo dough. Yes, please! How can you go wrong with that?
All it really takes is time: time to painstakingly clean and chop the leeks, not to mention the onions. After blanching the vegetables, you turn your attention elsewhere and brown the chicken. Once you have things simmering on the stove and creating some juice, you can attack the monster that is phyllo. Truly, I’ll never get over it–how delicate it is, how careful you have to be so that it doesn’t crumble in your hands and how, after brushing it with enough butter to cause a mild heart attack (apparently, according to the Greek’s mother’s mother, this is the only way to treat phyllo, to transform it into that melt in your mouth flakey, crispy crust we all know and love…Those who fear butter need not even try to conquer this beast), it yields and turns into something you could never get tired of eating.
It’s funny. All those years ago at Columbia, when my friends and I used to go to Symposium (where I even had my graduation dinner!) and order and eat Greek dips, pies and salads, I never dreamed that I would one day be preparing such dishes in my own kitchen. Life would be boring if it were predictable. And, truly, with Vefa’s help, any Greek dish is possible. I kid you not when I say that this is the best cookbook ever. It’s so thorough, so broad in its coverage, so ready and able to surprise you on each and every page.
From Homer to Vefa, those Greeks are classic. 🙂
Slightly adapted from Vefa’s Kitchen
Yields 12 melt-in-your-mouth pieces
For the phyllo:
Butter, for greasing
1 lb. Ready-made phyllo
1 stick butter, melted
For the filling:
3 onions, sliced
3 leeks, white parts only, cut into short lengths
4 Tbsp. Butter
1 large chicken, skinned and jointed into quarters
10 allspice berries
10 black peppercorns
2-3 bay leaves
salt and pepper (to taste)
6 eggs, lightly beaten
-Blanch the onions and leeks for 2-3 minutes in boiling water and drain.
-Melt the butter in a large pan.
-Add the chicken pieces and cook over medium heat, turning frequently, until lightly browned all over (10-15 minutes).
-Add the onions, leeks, allspice berries, peppercorns and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper.
-Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. (NB: If your chicken, like mine, was already boiled, this part can be cut in half. If, however, you are starting out with a raw chicken, follow these directions).
-Remove the chicken from the pan and discard the bay leaves and allspice.
-Let the chicken cool.
-Preheat the oven to 350 and grease either a cake pan (rectangular) or 16-inch round baking pan with butter.
-Remove and discard the bones from the chicken and shred the meat.
-Return the meat to the pan, together with the beaten eggs, the leeks and onions and mix well.
-At this stage, don’t forget to salt and pepper the egg mixture; you won’t have another chance!
-In the meantime, melt one stick of butter.
-Then, lay one sheet of phyllo on the base of the pan, scrunching it to fit (NB: as you can see from our picture, we failed to scrunch. Or we failed at scrunching. I say, “Just do what you can.“), and brush it generously with butter.
-Repeat this process with half of the phyllo dough sheets to form the bottom of the pie.
-Spread the filling over it and cover with the remaining phyllo dough, scrunching each sheet to fit and then brushing each with butter before placing the next one on top.
-Score the pie into serving pieces with a sharp knife.
-Bake for 1 hour or until golden brown.
-Serve hot and enjoy!