In my herb garden is a leafy fennel – not Roman bulb type, but the type that produces lots of feathery fronds that grow on stalks that can reach well over head height by the summer’s end. At the moment, with last year’s stalks cut down, it is a lovely mass of feathery greens just poking through the soil.
The fennel immediately put me in mind of the wild greens I cooked with during one January on Crete, at a time when the island was verdant with new growth. The greengrocers sold a mixture of “greens” called yiachnera – a category of wild and/or cultivated greens, containing wild fennel, mint and leek among other less easily identifiable plants. The mixture changed with the growing season and the availability of plants. More commonly, “greens” – whether wild or cultivated – are generically called horta in Greek.
Horta (including the yiachnera mixture) is often cooked and used as a filling in savoury pies (pites) – large ones, or smaller individual ones. The horta filling can be made up of many different types of greens, but there should be a balance between aromatic herbs, bitter wild greens (such as different species of chicory) and milder cultivated ones. I came up with an easily obtainable combination from my garden, but feel free to make up your own selection of horta. The resulting pies were good, but when making them again, I will increase the amount of aromatics – the fennel and mint.
Hortopites (“Greens” Pies)
These are also another form of kallitsounia – a word used to describe little pastries or pies. They are, however, unlike the sweet cheese ones I posted earlier that are a Cretan Easter tradition.
Makes approximately 2 to 2-1/2 dozen
- 2 to 3 spring onions
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 200 gr. (7 oz.) Swiss chard
- 6 fronds of fennel
- 8 to 10 wild garlic leaves
- Small handful of young dandelion leaves (wild ones are very bitter, so less is better)
- 1 sprig of mint (approximately 2 tablespoons finely chopped mint)
- 1/4 cup crumbled feta (optional)
Clean all the greens. Finely chop the spring onions and sauté in a low heat in a large pot. Clean the chard, removing the tough rib. Cut the chard, wild garlic and dandelion leaves (the mild cultivated and bitter wild greens) into fine shreds.
Add the chopped greens to the onions. Finely chop the fennel and mint leaves (the aromatics) and add to the mixture. Stir and cover. Let it steam on low heat for approximately 8 to 10 minutes.
The Cretans call this method of cooking sofegada – that is, cooking in its own steam. The term is not originally a Greek word, but is a Venetian Italian word meaning suffocation. Since Crete has a long history as a Venetian colony (from the 13th to the 17th centuries), its origin likely dates from that time. It may also be an example of culinary cultural borrowing, similar to traditional Italian cooking methods (such as in the production of soffritto).
The greens should have wilted. Remove the lid and continue cooking until any liquid has evaporated. Turn the greens out into a bowl. Once cool, stir in the feta. Set aside while you make the dough.
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup water
- Juice from 1/2 lemon
- 2 to 3 Tablespoons olive oil
Place the flour and salt in a mixer bowl. Pour the liquids (water, oil and lemon juice) and turn the mixer on. Add more oil if it appears too dry. Mix until a rough dough ball forms. You may need to form the final ball with your hands. Cut in two.
Assemble & Bake
- 1 egg
- 1 Tablespoon water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and prepare a baking tray by lining it with baking parchment. In a small bowl, beat the egg and water. Set aside.
Take one of your dough balls and roll out until it is very thin. Using a circular cookie or scone cutter (approximately 3 inches in diameter), cut out circles of dough. Place about 1 teaspoon of the filling on one side of the circle, keeping it away from the edge. With a pastry brush or your finger, dab on the egg wash on the edges. Fold the circle over the filling and pinch the edges and then crimp with the tines of a fork. Repeat the process for the remaining dough and filling.
Hortopites are generally made larger, but I made mine small to be served as mezze (“little nibbles”). They could almost be called hotopitakia – with the diminutive suffix added to the name. To make larger ones, keep the thickness of the dough thin as these smaller ones while increasing the amount of filling.
Place the semi-circular hotopites on the parchment lined baking tray. Brush the tops with the egg wash.
Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes until golden brown. Another method of cooking is to simply fry them in a little olive oil until browned on both sides. Serve warm or at room temperature.
- There is a good description of Cretan “greens” on Organically Cooked, an informative blog by a New Zealander transplanted to Hania, Crete.
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a variety of wild chicory – Cichorieae. Different types of cichorieae (which includes salsify, dandelion and common chicory) are standard ingredients in hortopites, providing the bitter element. Cultivated dandelion is available in some markets and is not as bitter as its wild cousin that lives in your lawn.
- When picking wild greens it is important that you are able to identify the plant and that you pick in areas where you are certain no pesticides were used.