Skillet pies –tiganokouloures or tiganopsoma in Greek, and gözleme or saç böreği in Turkish— have become our everyday project these days.
There are three reason for this late obsession of ours: First because Costas has almost completely mastered the art of rolling perfect phyllo and he is eager to use his new skill as often as possible; second, we gather plenty of wonderful, juicy spinach as well as chervil, fennel and other aromatic herbs from the garden; the third, and probably the most important reason of these repeated attempts is the newly acquired electric saç (hot-plate) that I brought from Istanbul.
Not that skillet pies cannot be cooked perfectly on a griddle or ridged skillet. They are ingenious creations of the frugal Mediterranean cooks who prepared in minutes a delicious snack or meal with whatever they happened to have at hand: wild or cultivated greens and herbs, grated zucchini or squash, eggplant, pepper or even cooked grains or beans, usually flavored with cheese and/or sausage. The recipe I have in my Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts can be prepared in any kitchen, either here, or on the other side of the Atlantic. And this has been proven, since David Tanis chose to publish it at the New York Times, calling it ‘Greek Pie on the Skinny Side’.
But during my recent trip to Istanbul I was determined to buy some kind of heavy metal convex surface, like the blackened saç I have seen used by Turkish women to grill the gözleme they rolled and folded in minutes, then sell to passers-by at street markets. They heated it over a small charcoal stove, and I was wondering how I could uniformly warm on my electric stove the various metal saç I did find at Tahtakale market –in the narrow streets that sold everything from pastirma and cheese, to herbal teas and bubble-wrap. This wonderful market, beyond the famous and almost empty Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Bazaar), was packed with locals, and as I was trying to decide what to get, my eye fell on this shiny red contraption that looked like a giant cake stand. It had an electric cord and as I lifted it up, I found it extremely light. Yet it seemed to be a serious appliance, with its black, equally shiny convex surface. It came in two sizes and it was obvious that I could not carry the large one on the plane, so I decided to get the smaller 36 cm. one (14.5 inch.) that could just fit into the now empty, sizeable bag I carried to Istanbul, bringing Greek wines and other drinks for my friends. Nazli Turker Piskin, the food historian friend who translates into Turkish my pieces published at Yemek ve Kültür –the prestigious food magazine— guided me through this marvelous market and helped me converse with the sellers who, like most here, spoke only Turkish. Thirty-five, was the reply, when I asked how match the hot-plate cost; I somehow assumed euros, although everything was sold in Turkish Lira (1 Euro =3,3 T. Lira, these days). I couldn’t imagine that it would only be just about 10 Euros! Once I realized how cheap it was, I became suspicious and asked the seller to plug it in to make sure it would get hot. But he declined, guaranteeing that the plastic-wrapped, untouched one he gave me would work perfectly. He was very excited when he learned that I was Greek –happens all the time in Istanbul— and he showered me with wishes of ‘happy and enjoyable cooking’ as he got the money and handed me the red electric saç.
Once Costas and I mastered the usual spinach, herb, and feta pies, we made quite a lot. But ours were not skinny, as we added more stuffing than the gözleme sold on the streets. We actually made real, and substantial instant spanakopites (spinach pies) and we devoured half of them for lunch, accompanied with thick yogurt, as is the custom.
While Costas was rolling the last three sheets of phyllo, I decided to make some sweet, dessert pies: I chopped bitter-sweet chocolate, added half a crumbled cinnamon-flavored, olive oil cookie, a cup of toasted almonds and walnuts, and a good sprinkling of cinnamon; I moistened the mixture with two teaspoons light cream, and with this filling we made the last six pies. The aroma, as they cooked on the hot-plate, was wonderful!
I am thrilled to report that my first attempt to make olive-oil-chocolate-and-nut pies on the saç was a total success! Even today, three days after, the cold pies are still crunchy and irresistible!
RECIPES: Spinach, Herb and Feta Skillet Pies