Welcome to Recipe Off-Roading, where the recipe isn’t in charge—you are. In this series of articles, we’re celebrating how cooks take liberties in the kitchen, whether that’s substituting an ingredient, adapting a technique, or doubling the salt (because you’re wild like that). So buckle up and let’s go for a ride.
Stella Parks is known for dessert. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, she went on to be named one of the country’s best new pastry chefs by Food & Wine, to become the “pastry wizard” at Serious Eats, and to win a James Beard Award for her book, Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts.
But she still has to eat dinner.
“After tasting so many cookies and cakes and pies during the day, I'm not really keen on anything that's too starch-centric, like pasta or potatoes or rice or bread,” she told me when I reached out to her for our Recipe Off-Roading series and asked what she cooks off-hours. “Dairy-heavy meals can be a bit much on some days, too, so we don't do super cheesy or creamy dishes very often.”
So what does she do very often? Spanakopita. Specifically, Sohla El-Waylly’s spanakopita, which Stella described as “super loaded with greens and herbs, so it feels very nutritious and satisfying.” Sold! In the recipe headnote, Sohla writes:
Feel free to mix and match whatever quick-cooking greens you have on hand—we recommend a combination of spinach, watercress, Swiss chard, and arugula, but as long as you avoid hearty greens, like kale and collards, any mix can work in this pie.
That anything-goes attitude is why Stella loves this recipe. “It’s built with this wide margin of variation,” she said. “So it's nice to have a recipe that gives you permission to experiment up front.”
Stella has tried a mix of chard and dandelion greens, mustard greens and beet tops. And she’s even “used it to get rid of salad greens that were past their prime.”
What’s more: The grain and cheese components of the spanakopita can also be off-roaded. For the grain, Sohla recommends trahanas, “made from a fermented porridge of grain and dairy, which is then dried and broken up into small, rice-sized pieces,” but notes that “rice, barley, or couscous” all work as substitutes. Stella often reaches for whole-wheat couscous (“so absorbent!”), and I can’t wait to try quinoa. While Sohla calls for salty-briny feta, Stella has successfully tried milder, creamier “goat cheese and ricotta,” which makes me want to take queso fresco and blue (?!) for a whirl.
Whatever you swap in, it’s the sort of carefree dinner that satisfies Stella’s “powerful craving for salty vegetables and fresh greens.” And you don’t need to be an award-winning baker to relate to that.
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.