Cooking Classes at the Flower Fields
Last year I wrote a piece on Mary Papoulias-Platis for the May-June issue that looked ahead to her role as culinary director of North 40 Urban Farm in Carlsbad. The project is still under construction so in the meantime the longtime cooking teacher and food blogger/cookbook author launched yet another project: teaching at the Kitchen Gardens at the Flower Fields in Carlsbad.
While Mary's focus has long been on Greek cuisine (her blog is called California Greek Girl), her classes extend beyond that. In fact, her next class is a plant-based culinary event, the first in a series of classes emphasizing high nutrition meals. Mary, a Plant-Based Certified Chef, will be doing a demonstration on making a vegetarian stock. Also on the menu will be an Avocado Salad with Crisp Greens and a Nutritional Fresh Cabbage Soup.
That, however, is a different type of class than the one I attended earlier this month. This was Mary in all her Greekness, sharing how to make spanakopita in a two-hour, hands-on tutorial.
The first thing you'll notice is your surroundings. This is really a come for the gardens, stay for the food experience. The al fresco class is tucked away under a tent behind an Armstrong Garden Center. The tables were set up in a U shape to face Mary and behind her is an aviary filled with chattering birds and the flower fields. Alright, in February there wasn't much to look at there but just behind Mary were gardens, including a miniature rose garden and organic demonstration garden, filled with greenery. Enough to let you sigh and take a break from the drama of life.
Now the logistics of the space have required some creativity on Mary's part. There is no refrigerator and no oven. How, you may ask, can a group of a dozen people make quarter sheets of spanakopita? Well, this is the cool part. Mary prepared samples of the recipes in advance for us to taste. She and her volunteers (very sweet Flower Fields docents) had pre-measured the spices, olive oil, cheeses, and grains. Mary demonstrated how to prepare the dish, which we all then prepared on our own. And then each of our quarter sheets were wrapped in plastic and foil to take home, where we could bake it or freeze it for later. Brilliant!
Mary is a terrific teacher, something she gained experience in from a career as a teacher of young kids. One of the interesting tidbits she shared with us was the difference between traditional Greek spanakopita and the one she created for American tastes (see the recipe below).
"In Greece, spanakopita drips with olive oil," she pointed out. "And it's made with all feta, which seems to be too salty for American tastes."
For her version, she offers a choice of using melted butter or olive oil and marries the feta with ricotta for a creamier filling. Mary had prepared examples of both for us, along with a marvelously garlicky Roasted Pepper Appetizer with Balsamic Vinegar.
The class, which costs $45, is relaxed and a lot of fun. You can't beat the setting. And the recipes are very doable for home cooks. Currently classes are held on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. She'll be moving them to Saturdays soon, so stay tuned.
To learn about upcoming classes and buy tickets, visit Mary's blog, California Greek Girl, which will direct you to her Eventbrite page for that class.
Mary Platis' Spanokopita Recipe
Yield: ½ sheet
- 3-4 bunches fresh spinach, washed and dried, roughly chopped
- 1 pound feta, crumbled
- 6 eggs
- 2 pounds full-fat ricotta cheese
- 1 onion, diced ½ bunch dill weed fresh or 1 tablespoon dried ½ cup bulgur, rice, quinoa: any grain salt and pepper
- 2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound phyllo dough
- 1 pound sweet butter, melted or 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in a medium pan on low. Remove.
2. In a large bowl add the eggs and whisk until blended. Add the ricotta, onions, feta, dill, salt and pepper, bulgur (or other grain) and olive oil. Mix thoroughly. Add the chopped spinach and mix thoroughly. Set aside.
3. Place the phyllo sheets on a clean towel. Butter the sheet pan. Layer half the phyllo in the pan, buttering each sheet. Spread the spinach mixture over phyllo. Layer the remaining phyllo on the spinach mixture. Score the top of the phyllo only, to indicate cutting lines. (At this point you can freeze the pie.)
4. Bake in the oven for 45-60 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly. If you bake it straight from the freezer, add another 15-20 minutes. Let the spinach pie cool for 30 minutes or more before cutting.