We’re eating meatless until Easter, and with an active vegetable garden that’s no hardship. This is a great time of year for greens, and one of my favorite ways to eat a lot of greens is in a hortapita, or borek, a wild-greens pie found under various names throughout the Mediterranean. For a complete and scholarly exploration of the borek, see Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens, which is full of delicious recipes. My own method is rough and unscholarly (surprise!) , but produces tasty greens pies thoughout the season with a minimum of fuss.
First, catch your greens. You need somewhere between 1.5 and 2 pounds of them. My most recent borek was made with chard, nettles, bolted arugula, mustard greens, chicory, green onions, and herbs because that’s what I had a lot of at the moment. I try for a ratio of about half strong-flavored and half mild-flavored greens, but many people may prefer more mild greens. Chard and nettles are mild, while mustard, chicory, and bolted arugula are strong-tasting, so I was careful not to let strong exceed mild in bulk. If you’re buying your greens, a bunch each of chard, dandelion (which is actually chicory) and some zippy green like aruguloa or watercress should come out to the right amount. For flavoring, fennel fronds are a necessity in my book. A handful of the nonbulbing kind, or two handfuls of the relatively weak-flavored fronds of bulb fennel, plus a handful of parsley is always a good start. If you can’t get fennel fronds, use a small handful of dill. Then add other herbs to taste. A tablespoon each of thyme leaves and oregano leaves is my go-to addition, but savory, marjoram, shallot greens, sage (in very small quantities) and tarragon are all possibilities. Just make sure to taste the finished greens mixture carefully for any needed adjustments.
First, chop 2-4 cloves of garlic depending on your taste for garlic, and the white parts of 6-7 green onions (chop the green parts separately and reserve them for later.) Saute the garlic and onion bottoms over low/medium heat in olive oil (about a quarter cup) in a very large skillet or a large flat-bottomed saucepan. Meanwhile, lay all your well-washed greens on a cutting board, one bundle or large handful at a time, and slice them crosswise into thin strips. When the garlic is cooked but not colored at all, add the greens. It will make a huge pile, and this is why you need a big skillet. Continue to cook, turning every few minutes, until the greens are thoroughly wilted. Now add the herbs, finely chopped, and the chopped onion greens. Cook and stir for another few minutes. Now remove from the heat, and either proceed with your borek or refrigerate until later. You can keep the greens mixture for up to two days refrigerated.
When you’re ready to proceed, thaw a package of phyllo pastry and put some olive oil in a bowl at your workspace. Keep the phyllo covered with a barely-damp towel when you aren’t working with it. Taste your greens mixture, salt to taste, add a few more herbs if needed, and decide whether you want to add cheese. Crumbled feta is good, as is nearly any grated cheese if it has no added flavorings. Consult Ms. Wolfert if you are a stickler for authenticity. If not, think about what would taste good to you. Some grated Parmesan is a completely inauthentic addition, but quite delicious. The amount to be added depends on the flavor of the cheese. Add a little to the greens, mix in well, taste, add a little more, taste again. No set amount will work, since you’ll be using a different greens mixture every time you make this dish. If you prefer not to add cheese, a handful of toasted pine nuts is very tasty.
Lay out one sheet on a large baking sheet, brush it lightly with olive oil, lay another sheet on top, brush with oil, repeat. When you have six sheets in place, put the greens mixture in the center and spread it out until it’s about an inch thick. Turn the excess phyllo around the sides over the top. Now brush another sheet with oil, roughly fold it in half, and layer it over the top. Continue until your top “crust” is six layers thick, and tuck the overhang under the edges of the borek. Bake at 350 degrees until gold and crisp on top. Eat hot, warm, or at room temperature. A little bowl of Lemon Oregano Jam, which will be posted soon on my recipe page, is a lovely addition and freshens the flavor wonderfully.
The variations are endless: bread dough crust rather than pastry, different greens, different herbs, different cheeses, and additions of cooked grains like bulgur are all possibilities. I recommend against adding very strong-flavored greens like kale or turnip greens, but if you’re very fond of those greens, be my guest. Green leafy vegetables are among the very healthiest foods that you can eat, packed full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and anything that induces you to eat more of them is on the side of the angels.
For more about greens for hortapitas,
Regarding foraged greens, never eat something wild until you’re sure that you’ve identified it correctly. There are a lot of fairly good books about wild foods on the market. Steve Brill’s books tend to have the best illustrations, in my opinion, and good illustrations are key to knowing what you’re eating. When in doubt, do without, just like your grandmother said. This goes equally for eating parts of cultivated vegetables that you’re unfamiliar with. Carrot and radish greens are edible when cooked, while tomato and potato greens will make you very sick indeed, so don’t experiment without doing some reading first.
I divide greens into three categories: mild, moderately strong, and very strong. Every hortapita needs a balanced mixture. Therefore, it’s important to know the season for each, so that in every season you can pick your balanced mixture.
MILD:spinach (not the baby spinach sold in bags, which is fine and tender for salads but lacks flavor), Swiss chard, stinging nettles, curly mallow and lambs-quarters(see my page “Special Vegetables for New Mexico” for these two), sow thistle, salsify and scorzonera greens, New Zealand spinach, young mulberry shoots, purslane (wild or cultivated). Chard, mallow, lambs-quarters, and New Zealand spinach are the workhorses in this group, pickable from early summer until at least November in our area. Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells seed for a delicious Asian Green called “Vitamin Green,” which is an excellent fall and winter staple.
MODERATELY STRONG: young arugula, young mustard and young wild mustard, carrot greens (no kidding, but chop them finely before cooking), radish tops, borage (small amounts only), lettuce that’s starting to bolt, young curled dock, nasturtium leaves, young dandelion and chicory, watercress.
VERY STRONG: blanch these in boiling salted water for a minute or two, drain, and squeeze dry before cooking along with the other greens, and don’t use them as more than 1/4 of the total mixture. Turnip greens, beet greens, mature mustard (not mature wild mustard, which is inedibly strong in my opinion), kale, outer leaves of radicchio (available only if you grow it yourself), and mature cultivated dandelion, which is really a chicory. Mature wild dandelion is inedibly bitter.