There are times when we get so tripped up in the nomenclature we forget that diets stressing vegetarian or vegan practices embrace dishes we already create or eat. Instead we think of them as eliminating something–in the case of vegetarianism it’s meat, of course–and not bringing something absolutely delicious to the table. Dishes already in our considerable repertoire.

Knowing that not everyone in my circle eats meat–and that I, while an omnivore, have cut down substantially on meat–I turn to dishes that feature vegetables combined with other proteins. But, admittedly, I don’t really think of them that way. It’s vegetarian, just food I enjoy. Dishes like eggplant soufflé. Salads and sides with ancient grains.

And spanakopita.

Mediterranean cuisines in particular are great sources of beloved everyday dishes that happen to fall into the vegetarian category. As chefs you’re already well are of them. Spanakopita is one of my favorites–big greens, almost always spinach, combined with cheese and herbs and eggs, enveloped in a crunchy crust of phyllo. It’s impossible not to love this dish. And, for personal chefs who will freeze portions for clients to reheat, it’s a perfect freezer candidate. I always store my leftovers in the freezer and reheat individual slices in the oven or toaster oven.

Spanakopita is also the perfect entertaining dish. It’s like a casserole–only prettier. The two challenges, of course, are cooking down the greens–I do it in batches using a wok to take advantage of its depth–and working with phyllo. Brushing the phyllo with oil or melted butter and layering it repeatedly is a bit time consuming but not a deal breaker. Just remember to keep the phyllo, which has a tendency to dry out, covered with a damp towel when you aren’t pulling off a sheet.

While traditionally, spanakopita is made with spinach, there’s no reason you can’t substitute the spinach with other greens like kale or Swiss chard. Or combine them. Take advantage, especially in spring and summer, of bright herbs like mint and dill, and earthier herbs like Greek oregano. Add a unique spin to onion by using leeks instead. You could also include sliced kalamata olives or artichoke hearts to make the recipe your own. Just be sure that the greens and other additions are drained of as much liquid as possible before you mix them with the eggs, feta, and seasonings. Otherwise you’ll get a soggy bottom.

Spanakopita
Serves 8 to 12

You have a choice of olive oil versus melted butter to brush the phyllo leaves. I used olive oil but butter will add a rich flavor to it. And a tip here: Cooking down 2 pounds of spinach requires some skillet space. I use my wok because it gives me the cooking elbow room it needs. This part also just takes the most time. Once that’s done the rest will go by fairly quickly, even with the phyllo. Don’t worry about tears in the phyllo. It’s all very forgiving, thanks to all the layers.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, preferably Greek, or melted butter, plus a lot extra for brushing filo
3 leeks, white and light green parts, chopped and rinsed
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds fresh spinach or other greens, well rinsed and dried
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ pound Greek feta cheese, crumbled or diced
½ cup fresh dill weed, minced
½ cup fresh mint, minced
¼ cup fresh oregano, minced
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 pound phyllo, defrosted overnight in refrigerator

Directions
Preheat oven to 375° and place rack in middle of oven.

In a large skillet, heat oil or butter over medium-high heat. Add leeks and garlic and sauté until fragrant and soft, about 4 minutes. Add spinach in handfuls, stirring in as you add each batch. Let it wilt and cook down before adding the next handful. Once all of the spinach is in the pan, season with salt and pepper.

Remove from heat and spoon mixture into a colander. Place over sink and, using the back of a large spoon, press down to release excess liquid. Set aside to cool.

Once spinach mixture is at room temperature, add feta cheese, dill, mint, oregano, and eggs. Fold together until well incorporated. Set aside.

Brush the bottom and sides of a 9”-by-13” baking dish with olive oil. Keep ½ cup of olive oil (or melted butter) nearby. Unroll the phyllo and lay flat. Carefully pull the top sheet and place it into the baking dish with ends hanging well over the sides. Brush lightly with oil. Continue placing sheets one at a time into the dish at different angles so the entire pan is lined with sheet ends hanging down over the sides. Do this until you have only 3 sheets left.

Pour the filling into the dish, then fold over the hanging ends to cover the filling and brush with oil. Layer the remaining 3 sheets on top, brushing each sheet with oil. Fold the excess into the sides of the pan.

Use a sharp knife to cut through the layers to the filling in a few place. Brush the top with oil or butter and bake for 50 minutes until the top is puffed and golden brown. Let sit on counter for 10 minutes. Then cut into squares and serve warm.

As we segue from winter to spring, it’s sometimes challenging to come up with dishes that can make the transition with us from chilly to warm weather. I’ve found that lentils are terrific to cook with year round. And they’re one of those nutritionally perfect foods–high in fiber, high in folate, and a good source of non-meat protein. And studies are showing that adding lentils to the diet of people with diabetes can slightly lower blood pressure and improve blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.

And they can taste so delicious.

Food writer and friend Caron Golden shared with me our mutual friend Chef Flor Franco’s recipe for Moroccan Spiced Lentil Soup, which she recently made with Caron’s mother and served for lunch with roast chicken, rice, salad, and fresh fruit. Flor is the owner of Indulge Catering and has created programs in San Diego that teach low-income women to prepare healthy, low-cost meals for their families.

The soup is an amalgam of lentils and split peas infused with fragrant cumin, coriander, turmeric, Spanish paprika, and cayenne. Add roasted tomatoes, garlic, and onions; fresh minced parsley and cilantro; and a splash of olive oil and that’s about it. The result is a richly flavored but very healthy dish that can be eaten as soup or spread over a steaming mound of rice, depending on how thick or loose you want it. Just add or take out water. For those of you who have vegetarian or vegan clients, you can add this to your repertoire.

Spices

And, here’s a tip, combine the spices in larger quantities in advance and keep in an airtight container to make preparation faster if you plan on making this soup regularly.

lunch

Flor Franco’s Moroccan Spiced Lentil Soup
Yield: about 5 servings

15 cups of water
2 cups lentils
2 cups yellow split peas
2 cups green split peas
5 tomatoes (plum tomatoes are good for this)
2 large onions, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Moroccan spice mix
2 tablespoons cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne
3 dried Chinese chiles

salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup fresh minced parsley
1/2 cup fresh minced cilantro

Preheat the broiler.

Add the lentils and split peas to a large pot with the water. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook about 35 minutes until soft.

Broil the tomatoes, onions, and garlic until they start to brown and soften. Remove from the oven and peel the skin from the tomatoes.

Roasted tomatoes

When the legumes are ready you can remove some of the liquid if you want this mixture to be very thick (so you can mound the dish on a bed of rice) or add more water if you want it more like soup. Then add the rest of the ingredients except the salt, pepper, parsley, and cilantro. Cook for another 10 minutes, then add salt and pepper to taste. Serve and sprinkle with the parsley and cilantro.

Flor's lentils

Do you  have a go-to favorite recipe for clients that’s healthy and nutritious? Please leave a comment and let us know.

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