This vegetarian recipe for Greek greens pie, with a layer of leafy greens and feta cheese sandwiched between a polenta crust, is inspired by one of the healthiest (and tastiest!) cuisines in the world.
Crete, an island off the coast of Greece, is synonymous with health and longevity. It's also the scene of one of my favorite moments in nutrition history. I know, I actually have favorite moments in nutrition history. #NerdAlert
After WWII, war-torn Europe was in a major economic depression, Crete, already impoverished before the war, was in especially dire straits. Greece begged the Rockefeller Foundation to come and provide humanitarian aid and provide recommendations for improving the Cretan diet, thought to be inadequate due to extreme poverty. The Rockefeller Foundation obliged.
Researchers found the Cretan diet was plant-based, with most of the bulk coming from whole grains, like barley and wheat, and wild greens, often picked from their backyard. Crete is covered with more than 80 types of wild greens! Their diet was high in fat from local olive oil, Meat and dairy were consumed in limited amounts and typically used to flavor food rather than as a main course. Initially, researchers were extremely concerned about the inadequacy of their "spartan," mainly vegetarian diet, but they soon realized there was little malnutrition. In fact, the Cretans were much healthier than the researchers themselves!
Rather than learning something, the researchers wrote back with a detailed report on how to get more animal food into the Cretan diet. Sigh. Luckily, the study wasn't a complete waste. A researcher named Ancel Keys stumbled across the study, which inspired him to use Crete in the Seven Countries Study, the first to scientifically look at the relationship between diet, lifestyle and rate of heart disease among populations. The results showing an extremely low rate of heart disease in Crete in Crete are now the basis for the modern day Mediterranean diet, one of the most well studied (and healthiest!) eating patterns.
This recipe is a perfect example of the Cretan diet - lots of greens, whole grains and just a little bit of cheese to flavor. If you want to get hard core Cretan, I suppose you could gather some wild greens from your backyard. Dandelion greens are edible! However, if your backyard is covered in dog pee like mine, you best go to the farmer's market and choose whatever is fresh and seasonal.
To save money, use frozen greens. I've made this with a combination of frozen kale and spinach and it was quite delicious!
Greek Greens Pie
Adapted from New York Times.
- 2 lbs spinach, chard, kale or combination of greens, stemmed and rinsed
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
- 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 bunch scallions, chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cups 2% milk or almond milk
- 1 cup fine cornmeal or polenta
- 1 cup water, as needed
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the onion and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the scallions and cook for another minute. Stir in the greens and chopped herbs. If using a tougher green (i.e. chard or kale), add before the herbs, since it will take longer to cook, and add a little water before covering to help it steam. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes for a tender green and 10-15 minutes for a tougher green.
- Once cooked, season with salt and pepper. Place greens in a large bowl, add feta and stir together.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 10-in round baking dish or cake pan.
- Combine the milk and 1/2 cup water in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add cornmeal in a fine stream and whisk while pouring to break up any clumps.Lower the heat to medium-low. Stir and cook until the mixture is thick, about 15-20 minutes.
- Remove from heat and place half the mixture in the pan. Spread in an even layer with your spoon or wet fingers. Spread the greens over the bottom crust.
- Dilute the remaining cornmeal with water until it has the consistency of wet sand, using about 1/3 cup water. Mix in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Spread over polenta over the greens.
- Bake 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the top is browned. Remove from heat and allow to sit 30 minutes before slicing. Or dig right in and have ugly slices.