Yiayia’s Cooking Secrets (with Bonus Spinach Pie Recipe)

The first time my (now) husband took me to his parent’s house I didn’t get to meet them because they were out of the country, visiting their native Greece, but his yiayia (grandma) was there. She wore an ankle-length, dark navy dress, her usual attire as I would come to find, and her long gray hair was twisted into a bun that rested on the nape of her neck.  Her hands were thick and wide, strong from a lifetime of manual labor, the skin covering them was stretched out and creased and it would hold the shape of an object long after she pressed her hands down upon it; the elastin was long gone. They were also very soft. Maybe it was the muscle underneath, or maybe it was due to the fact she had been in the States for enough years for the calluses to wear away.

She walked slowly, but steadily, as she led me to the backyard and introduced me to her garden.  She spoke to me in Greek, which I couldn’t understand, but that didn’t deter her from chatting away and her not understanding English didn’t stop me from chatting right back.   She loved me from the get go, she smiled at me and held my hand and looked at my husband and winked as she rubbed my back.  We visited for a couple of hours and then prepared to leave to head back to campus.

“Meinete kai na fate (stay for lunch), she insisted.

Mr. Grouch tried to say no, but his weak protest didn’t do any good.  I was confused why he would say no.  We were college students and what college kid doesn’t want a free meal?  He relented, as it was clear he would, and she nodded and took my hand and led me to her garden again where she started picking the fresh onions, parsley, and spinach from the bed.  She washed and chopped the greens and then started mixing dough and began rolling it out into thin sheets with a narrow wooden dowel.  She was making homemade filo dough. For her, a “quick lunch” was making spanakopita (spinach pie) from scratch.  It was a solid six hours later before we were out of there.

But damn, that food was good.

I’ve learned that for a Greek mom (or yiayia), feeding her family is the ultimate expression of love. Feeding her family often.  Bottom line: The more food they offer you, the more they like you.  For my in-laws, it all stems from living as goat herders in the xorio (the village).  If they didn’t eat enough, they could literally die. They dealt with illness without doctors.  Exposure to the elements without shelter. Feasting because there could be famine.  Eating more food really could have meant the difference between survival and death. From this perspective, food is love never made more sense.

Once I met my now my mother-in-law I learned that she also created magic in the kitchen.  She makes simple dishes, yet they are so full of flavor that I usually want to eat half the pan. Okay, one time, I DID eat half the pan. I think I shocked her.  It was melizantes (eggplant and onions). I usually have some self-control, but that time I just couldn’t stop. She is such a great cook, and hostess, that we don’t ever alternate which side of the family we visit for Thanksgiving, we just always go to her house. Her food is the best.  And while she has much to be proud of, the downside is that she is a total food pusher.  It used to give me anxiety, to think of her basically force-feeding my children.  I’ve gotten over it, since we go over there and get free meals several times a month.  I have completely traded any worries about my children learning to eat when they aren’t hungry for homemade dolmades (grape leaves) and horta (cooked greens) and loukanika (sausage). I’ve even gotten to the point where I sometimes brag to her about how much I got my kids to eat so she’ll be proud of me. Which doesn’t usually work.

“She at two eggs today!”

“Hmmm, well that’s good she ate.  But so many eggs!  Too many.  All that cholesterol!”

Nevermind that after offering my daughter homemade spinach pie and french fries and koulourakia (cookies) and spaghetti and pancakes and sausage she will also offer McDonald’s and Cheeze-its and microwave popcorn and those ice cream sandwiches that don’t even melt in the Sun.  She will feed them anything to get those grandkids of hers to eat. And eat. And eat. And eat. And eat. And eat. And eat.  She can’t help herself.  Her grandchildren MUST SURVIVE.

I absolutely hate cooking, but her recipes truly are the kind of recipes that are worth taking the time to learn and make.  They are worth dirtying up a million dishes or having to chop for hours.  They are made from scratch and filled with love, and typically a lot of garlic and butter. They are heavenly.

If I am at home and I want to ask her about a recipe, it’s a gamble to try to call her on the phone and ask how to do something.  She can’t remember.  Or she can’t articulate it.  Or she assumes I know…anything about cooking.  When she cooks she relies on muscle memory.  It’s like her brain might not really know what she’s doing but her hands do.  And her eyes do.  They remember, even if her mouth doesn’t. This is a woman who consistently calls potholes, “potholders”, after all. If I want to know how to make a dish, I have to see her make something to ensure I’m getting accurate information.

When I do watch her make something, and jot down the directions as I observe, there is still much room for error.  You see, she doesn’t measure.  She doesn’t necessarily make things the same way every time, depending on what ingredients she has on hand, and, what is partly due to her naturally flippant speech, and partly due to English not being her native language, she sometimes (often…always…) says one thing and then contradicts herself and says the exact opposite thing.

I am 100% positive that at one point she told me you could bake baklava and freeze it, but you had to do this before adding the syrup.  Once the baklava was thawed, she told me, you could make the syrup and add it.  When I finally get around to making some baklava, and thinking maybe I could make extra to freeze for later, I asked her about this, but she told me she has no clue, and she has never done that.  Then, she tells me I could bake the baklava, add the syrup and then freeze it.   I know this is completely different information than I heard before, and it can’t be trusted.

I think maybe we’re having communication difficulties about this because when I asked her we were talking on the phone.  I wait until I see her next in person and ask her, “If I’m going to make baklava and freeze it, do I add the syrup before or after I put it in the freezer?.

Her response?  “Yes”.

I asked my husband’s sisters.  His cousins.  NO ONE KNOWS. Which I call total bullshit on.  But, unless you watch them do it, you’ll never learn how to cook like they do.  And, let’s be honest, even when I watch them, mine still tastes like MINE and theirs still tastes like THEIRS.  I’ll take it though, the MINE version is better than anything I would ever come up with on my own.  So, I periodically meet with my mother-in-law and watch her make a recipe I love so I can try to recreate it at home.

Here are a few classic scenarios that occur every time I am furiously scribbling one of her recipes down.

ONE:

“How much flour do I add?”

“A handful”

I look at her little elfish hands.  I look at my gigantic man hands.  *blink blink*

 

TWO:

“How many walnuts do you put in for one batch?”

“About four handfuls”

The old handful conversation again.

 

 

THREE:

“How much salt should I add?”

“Just a little” (said with a tone that implies I should understand what she means).

“A pinch?”

“Yeah, a pinch.  Not too much”.  She pours out how much she needs into her hands, and then transfers it into a measuring spoon so I can record the amount.

I nod my head in acknowledgment. A teaspoon.  I totally understand what a teaspoon is.

“But you need enough. Not too little either”.  She takes the salt shaker and pours an ungodly amount, unmeasured, into the mixing bowl.

I bang my head against the wall.

 

 

FOUR:

“See?”  She dips a spoon into the pot and lifts it up, letting the liquid pour back out. She’s trying to make me see the level of viscosity of the syrup.

I see pouring liquid.  I don’t see what I’m supposed to see.

“Um. How many minutes until it’s done?”

“Until it looks thick enough”.

I will my eyes to be smarter.  I stare harder.  I might as well have a blindfold on.  I’m cooking blind.

 

 

FIVE:

“So, I need three scoops?”

“Three scoops.  Full ones”.

“Got it”.  I put three scoops in and smile.  I did it!

She looks at it with a critical eye and says, “Maybe a little extra”.

 

 

BONUS:  YIAYIA’S SPINACH PIE RECIPE:

You will need:

Yiayia sized mixing bowl: She can curl up and fit in it. Yes, she’s only 4′ 10″, but still. You don’t have one this size, trust me.

Yiayia sized pan: Yiayia uses a dented pan made from an unknown metal that has been passed down from the women in her family since the late 1800’s.  Good luck finding one like that.  You could use a sheet cake pan. Or two large pans.  I can’t tell you what size because it depends how thick you  make your spinach pie.

Salt: Way more than you would ever guess. But definitely not too much.

Dill: Copious amounts. Full disclosure, Yiayia doesn’t put this in hers. Except for the times that she does.

Feta: A huge hunk. But not so much you ruin it by making it taste like there is too much feta.

Cottage Cheese: A one pound container.  The only thing you will know for sure.

Corn Meal: A large handful (a cup or so).

Green onions: Three bunches. Unless you forget to buy it, or don’t have it in your garden, in which case, zero bunches.

Yellow onions: If you want.

Parsley: Two bunches. If you’re chopping like Yiayia, take each leaf and carefully cut the stem off. If you’re cooking like me, hack away, and eat a million partial stems.

Spinach: A shitload. Rinse it in a sink full of water and keep draining and refilling the sink until there is no more dirt settling to the bottom.  Repeat stem-cutting steps as mentioned previously.

Butter: Melt a stick or two. The amount you need depends how dry the filo is.  If you’re like Yiayia, clarify the butter by scraping off the gunk from the top.  If you’re like me, don’t waste any time, or butter.

Filo: Bought. Because some family recipes are so much work you know you’ll never make them yourself.

Oregano: From a plant transplanted from a tiny Greek village high in the mountainside, picked fresh from the garden, dried in Yiayia’s guest bedroom and stored in a glass jar with a broken handle and ill-fitting lid that your husband won’t get rid of, no matter how many times you cut your hand on it.

Garlic powder: Never enough. Garlic can stream from your pores for days after eating and it still wouldn’t be enough.

You will do:

1. Chop the greens and onions until your hands are sore and you have newfound respect for the strength Yiayia possesses. Be nicer to her, because you realize she probably could kill someone by crushing their windpipe with her bare hands, based on this hand-strength metric.

2.  Add the corn meal and squeeze to soak up some of the water.

3. Combine the rest of the ingredients.

4. Butter the bottom of your pan(s) and place 8-10 layers of filo.

5. Alternate layers of spinach mixture, then three layers of filo, then layers of spinach mixture, etc…until all spinach mixture is used up.

6. Top with another 8-10 layers of filo.  Brush butter on top layers, and by brush I mean SOAK. Then add more. Pro tip: add a bit of olive oil on top of all that butter.

7.  Bake at 350 degrees until done.

Yiayia's authentic spinach pie recipe and secret cooking tips and tricks.

Yiayia’s authentic spinach pie recipe and secret cooking tips and tricks.

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10 thoughts on “Yiayia’s Cooking Secrets (with Bonus Spinach Pie Recipe)

  1. I enjoyed your article, made me laugh a lot of times …you need to meet Akrivoula here when you visit Greece….. anyway you can freeze baklava before the syrup and before you bake it! and it could be tastier if you add dill (anithos) or fennel (marathos) to the greens. Somehow you “make me” want to meet you.! filakia

  2. Oh dear lord. I snorted coffee through my nose, I laughed so hard. I learned to cook like your mother-in-law does. I had no clue what a recipe book was for until I was about 12. My mother cooked the same way. When we did start experimenting with written recipes later on in my teens for our little housekeeping/cooking for you business, lots of hilarity ensued as we tried to translate those handfuls and “just a little”s onto paper. My husband was a cook by profession, and the first time he saw me just go in and cook, he was quite flabbergasted that I did not use measuring cups or spoons and about had a cow. We both had a hand in teaching my daughter to cook. She’s 20 now. If I am in the kitchen with her, she just goes on and just cooks. If hubby is in there, she digs out the measuring cups and spoons while muttering to herself. (Yes, he has a cow if we don’t use them, even if I point out that the Chef I apprenticed to *LOVED* the fact that he’d tell me to go create a dish and I’d just go do it, ignoring the measuring implements, so what was the big deal?) The one thing I have learned about cooking is that if you go in and you create a meal with that whole mindset of you love your family and want to nourish them, it’s going to be a joy, not a chore. Good food to nourish the body prepared with love and care to nourish the heart and soul.

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