Like everybody else, I'm thrilled with the return of sun and light and longer days after what felt like an extended dark, wet winter. Spring brings with it greens and the opening of midweek farmers markets across the Triangle, where you can buy spinach or chard for frittata and main-dish salads, and tender lettuce and arugula that look like flower bouquets. They satisfy deep hungers for fresh food that tastes of spring itself.
I was recently on a writing residency in Southern Pines and had the good fortune to meet Amey Miller, a fellow writer and culture worker. She has a gift for solitude, and one element of that is how well she feeds herself while on a writing retreat—without spending all her time cooking. Amey brings herself a roasted chicken, several pounds of fresh veggies, best quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar and pasta. I've known other writers to bring similar gourmet comfort foods, which, when the loot is being unloaded look like a recipe for health and the pleasures of the palate.
One night when we were in the kitchen of the old house, Amey invited me to join her in eating a mammoth salad. She told me that this was a salad she had a concept for: It's a type of Russian flavors composition, and the ingredients that are at peak season now in North Carolina are available only during the height of summer in those far northern climates.
I've made it several times since then as a composed dinner salad, and I find it a wonderful way to enjoy abundant radishes and greens. Amplified by the protein in the hard-boiled egg and the tang of marinated olives and artichokes, this dish sings of spring.
Following Amey's Concept Salad is an adaptation of the Barefoot Contessa's Spinach Pie; I made it for an Easter dinner that served 10. After working late one night in Raleigh and getting takeout spanakopita from Jasmine's on Hillsborough Street to see me through my deadline, I was determined to make some version of this dish to celebrate the seasonal spinach in my garden and at the markets.
It was a hit—beyond just pastry-covered spinach. My oldest son, who hates nuts of any kind, loved this with pine nuts and pecans. Make sure you use the best cheese you can afford. The better the cheese, the better the tangy taste.
Amey's Concept Salad
Serves four; doubles easily
2 generous handfuls of mixed salad greens per person, thoroughly washed and spun dry (see shopping note)
1 bunch of slender green onions (4 to 8 in a bundle) cut in 1/4-inch slices
1 bunch radishes (approximately 1 pound), white and green parts sliced into thin rounds
1 bunch slender asparagus, steamed 1–2 minutes until bright green and cooled
8 hard-boiled eggs, chilled then peeled and quartered (see cook's note)
1 pound of marinated olives and artichokes from your favorite olive bar OR 1 each 8-ounce jar marinated artichokes and marinated olives, well drained and sliced
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar to pass or vinaigrette of choice
Just before serving time, on each of four dinner plates make a bed of the lettuces and greens. Layer on onions and radishes. Arrange asparagus and eggs.
If artichokes and olives are still too wet after draining, pat dry with paper towels, then arrange on salad. At the table, pass oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with chewy fresh bread followed by strawberries for dessert.
Shopping note: An average gallon bag of greens from the farmers market or one average-size head of lettuce is enough for 4 main dish servings.
Cook's note: Peel farm-fresh eggs right after chilling. Otherwise, shells stick to the cooked whites.
Crusty Spinach Pie
Serves four as a main or six to eight as a side dish
1 pound of fresh spinach (two plastic bags from farmers market)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup chopped spring onions, white and light green parts (1–2 bundles, depending on size)
1/2 cup good quality parmesan cheese
1/2 cup toasted pecans or pine nuts, chopped
1/2 cup basic bread crumbs, no added seasonings
Kosher salt and pepper to taste (at least one teaspoon each)
1/3 cup local goat cheese, coarsely crumbled or cut into half-inch chunks
1/2 stick butter, melted, plus extra for buttering the baking dish
5–6 sheets phyllo dough, defrosted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Thoroughly wash spinach. Use a salad spinner to dry it in small batches. In a very large, heavy-bottomed skillet with a lid, heat olive over moderate heat for one minute; add onions and cook until translucent, 2 minutes.
Add spinach. (Careful, water droplets may pop in the hot oil.) Cover until spinach is wilted, 1–2 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking until moisture is mostly evaporated and oil is mostly absorbed, another 2–5 minutes. The spinach should be cooked down and appear as if it is starting to dry out. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, in food processor fitted with steel blade, place eggs and parmesan; gently pulse to combine (three quick pulses, max). Add pecans or pine nuts, bread crumbs, salt, pepper and pulse twice to combine with egg-cheese mixture. Add completely cooled spinach and process very briefly until mixture is uniformly green, 10–15 seconds. Do not overprocess.
Butter a 9-inch baking dish. Place half of spinach mixture on the bottom, then crumble on half of the goat cheese, another layer of spinach, then remaining goat cheese. One by one, unroll sheets of phyllo dough. Place a sheet of phyllo on top of spinach filling, brush it with the melted butter and repeat until all the sheets and butter are used up. If the phyllo dough hangs over the edges of your baking dish, fold it within the edges of the pan and add another swab of melted butter. Brush the top with remaining melted butter.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until eggs are set. Cool for at least an hour. Serve at room temperature. Should you have leftovers that need reheating, microwave the desired serving for 20–30 seconds, depending on portion size, and then give it five minutes in a toaster oven to crisp the crust.