Why you should try crustless pies this spring
In summer, I find myself leaning vegetarian for the most part. I want ultra-simple meals: feta, tomatoes, olive oil, bread. They seem to somehow veer Greek, more often than not, and I want to eat them outdoors, in a shady spot.
Whenever I’m looking for inspiration for cooking in a Hellenic direction, I turn to my friend and colleague Aglaia Kremezi, a well-known Greek food writer. Her cookbook Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts is the kind that makes my mouth water, evoking Eastern Mediterranean aromas on every page.
It was there I learned about these little Greek-style pies, called asmapita. The recipe, one for pies wrapped in grape leaves, spoke to me. The filling is made with yoghurt, perfumed with dill and mint. When the pies are served warm, the filling is akin to a fresh cheese, she said.
I was fascinated and needed to know more. In an email exchange, I peppered her with queries: Why are they called pies? Wouldn’t you normally use phyllo? Why no cheese or eggs?
According to Kremezi, “pie” is the translation of the Greek term “pita”, which can be used for all kinds of flat tarts and pies, phyllo-wrapped or not. So tyropita are cheese pies; spanakopita have a spinach filling. When made smaller, they are called pitakia.
The traditional northern Greek asmapita is a skillet-size, grape-leaf-wrapped pie that is pan-fried with olive oil and flipped, much like a flat omelet. In the old days, most Greek pies, even the phyllo ones, were fried or griddled (home kitchens lacked ovens); now they are usually baked.
Kremezi explained it as an easy way for home cooks to make a frugal and inexpensive pie, using grape leaves instead of phyllo, and yoghurt thickened with cornmeal instead of costly cheese and eggs. And it does taste very cheese-like. The grape leaves impart a particular tangy acidity that pairs perfectly with the herb-flecked filling.
I, however, couldn’t leave well enough alone. There were bunches of beautiful rainbow chard at the market, and I was determined to use them instead of grape leaves. Blanched briefly, the large veiny leaves made perfect wrappers for my version of the little pies. (I also blanched the colourful stems and sliced them for a salad, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.)
The simple recipe nearly begs for a little improvisation. You can double the amount of herbs, or add cooked chopped chard, or supplement the yoghurt with feta or other Greek cheeses.
You could even bake the filling in ramekins with no wrapper at all and serve it with garlic toast. But in that case, it may be best not to call it a pie.
The New York Times