You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.
-Erma Bombeck

Growing up, I always loved the Fourth of July: the fireworks, the food, the family gatherings. It’s a time when the heat starts to intensify and the flies are out in full force, but, somehow or another, a picnic always seems worth it. These last few years, however, I’ve been trapped in airports on this fine holiday…I tell people that I don’t mind–and I don’t; this is, after all, a choice–because I get a free fireworks show up in the sky, free from the crowds. But the one thing I can’t help but miss, at least a little, is the accompanying holiday picnic. Let me assure you that, unlike Bombeck’s quote, where I come from the potato salad is never iffy. See sample A below if you don’t believe me:

My grandma is an artiste in the kitchen; I like to think that I’ve inherited a small fraction of her talent. I remember watching her make this potato salad, year after year, for many summer picnics…I think the flower art out of green peppers and hard-boiled eggs emerged in response to my questions about why the potato salad always had to be yellow; you see, I wanted it to be pretty. From ages 7-12, I think my ideal potato salad with have been pink and purple, but I was told that “food should always look appetizing.” Those colors clearly weren’t going to make the cut, particularly in the realm of potato salad. But I quickly saw how, with a few creative adjustments, the food could be both pretty and appetizing and all through the help of its own essential ingredients. It was a lesson well learned.

The good news is that, due to my travel arrangements and the Greek’s visit, I guess you could say that, this year at least, I really didn’t miss out. We simply chose to celebrate the holiday a bit early. While it wasn’t a true Fourth of July picnic, It was instead a multi-purpose party that covered my being home, my grandparents’ 55th wedding anniversary (!!!) and Independence Day all in one…minus the fireworks. But who needs fireworks when you’ve got a spread of deliciousness?

There was a wonderful and festive blueberry tart–one of my favorites– made by my grandma. When I say that this tart basically melts in your mouth, believe me; the crust is flakey and buttery and contains a hidden surprise in the shape of chopped pecans or walnuts. While I’m certainly not even close to being a pie lover, if faced with chocolate cake and this dessert, I’d have a hard time choosing which I wanted to eat. Seriously.

The Greek and I also decided to whip up some spinach pie, or spanakopita , for the occasion. Partly because he wanted to cook authentic Greek food for my family (he was spoiling both my mother and brother with pancakes and the like!) and partly because, after a month of almost eating out exclusively, I wanted to cook something! To get back into the kitchen–it had been too long– and prepare and eat some of the things that I love…

While spanakopita might seem like a difficult thing to make, it really isn’t. Though a cheesy and silly joke, it really is as easy as pie (between me and you, I’ve never quite understood that saying since it’s much easier to ruin pie crust than a made-from-scratch cake recipe, but perhaps my cake allegiance just makes it seem easy?)!

Any difficulty stems from the phyllo–both handling and stacking it in the baking dish. One lesson I learned from this experience is that it’s important to have a baking dish that doesn’t require that you either cut or crumple the dough. It should lay flat and be amply brushed with melted butter or olive oil….Yes, that just might be why it tastes as good as it does!

And what you choose to do for the filling is a matter of taste. While I prefer good quality feta that is both moist and adequately salty, my mother is not a huge feta fan. To make the dish more palatable to her tastes, we used a log of goat cheese and half of a large chunk of feta; the resulting combination was creamy and flavorful. Some recipes also call for ricotta cheese, but mixing and matching can do wonders.

The finished product, I’m happy to report, was a huge success. I love the way the crispy texture of the phyllo combines with the creaminess of the spinach and cheese. Whenever I eat this, I can’t help but think that Popeye would be both proud and slightly envious of all the spinach alternatives that now exist for the average man. With something like spanakopita, canned spinach is simply left in the dust.

Spanakopita
Yields 10-12 pieces of savory delight

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup freshly chopped dill or dill weed
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds spinach, rinsed and chopped (we used a mix of frozen and fresh spinach, mainly due to time constraints)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
8 oz. crumbled goat cheese
4 oz. crumbled feta cheese
8-10 sheets phyllo dough
1/4 cup melted butter or olive oil (or a combination of the two)

-Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
-Lightly oil a 9×13 inch square baking pan.

For the filling:
-Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
-Saute onion and garlic, until soft and lightly browned.
-Stir in spinach and dill, and continue to saute until spinach is limp, about 2 minutes.
-Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
-In a medium bowl, mix together eggs, crumbled goat cheese, and feta. (I like to add a little more dill at this stage, but that’s because I’m a dill-aholic. I blame Russia.)
-Stir in spinach mixture.

For the pie:
– Lay 1 sheet of phyllo dough in prepared baking pan, and brush lightly with olive oil or melted butter.
– Lay another sheet of phyllo dough on top, brush with oil or butter, and repeat process with two more sheets of phyllo.
– Line the exposed sides of the cake pan with small strips of cut phyllo. Brush with butter or oil and stack at least 2-3 sheets of phyllo on each side of the rectangular pan.
– Spread spinach and cheese mixture into pan and fold overhanging dough (if any) over filling.
– Brush with oil or butter, then layer remaining 4 sheets of phyllo dough, brushing each.
-Tuck any overhanging dough into pan to seal filling.
-Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden brown.
-Cut into squares and serve while hot.

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