Welcome to the March edition of Cucina Conversations! Last month, we shared indulgent recipes to celebrate during the weeks of carnevale. This month, the bloggers of Cucina Conversations are bringing you recipes from Italy’s cucina magra (the lean kitchen), vegetarian recipes that can be eaten during the current period of la quaresima, the forty days of Lent. One of the important aspects of this period in the Christian liturgical calendar is adherence to certain dietary rules which include fasting and abstaining from eating meat every Friday of Lent (only fish is allowed). My contribution for this month’s topic is a spinach torta rustica (rustic spinach pie), which in Italian is generically referred to as a torta salata (savory pie). Baking has always been my first love and I am particularly passionate about savory baking because it combines my love for baking (especially dough-making) and cooking to produce a satisfying and versatile meal.
The word torta in Italian can often be confusing to those not fluent in the language because it has multiple meanings and derivatives. In her book The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley clarifies the meaning of the word torta and explains that it can refer to a pie (covered or uncovered) made with a savory filling, or it can also refer to a baked, crust-less layered dish (usually made with vegetables) and is often referred to as a tortino. The word torta can also have a third meaning and refer to a sweet cake, such as Italy’s famous torta caprese. Thankfully, the confusion with the use of the word torta is easily avoided given how descriptive most Italian recipe titles are and how willing many Italian bar, bakery, and pastry shop proprietors are to explain their offerings to genuinely curious visitors still learning about Italian language and food.
The torte rustiche of Italy are varied and the fillings change with the seasons and often reflect the region in which they are made. They are enjoyed as a snack or to accompany an aperitivo, but they are also perfect for a light main course. To make this, I used two of my favorite grocery store shortcuts: frozen puff pastry and pre-washed baby spinach. I have yet to learn how to make puff pastry from scratch, so until I tackle this personal kitchen goal of mine, I have no qualms using good quality store-bought frozen puff pastry, a package of which is always in my freezer. Pre-washed baby spinach is another grocery store staple I always buy because washing spinach in umpteen changes of cold water to remove the grit is not my idea of time well spent in the kitchen, even though I’m far from lazy when it comes to prepping produce.
The ingredients for the spinach filling are simple and classic Italian: Parmigiano-Reggiano, nutmeg, ricotta, parsley, carrot, and eggs. The filling settles snugly into the puff pastry crust and is topped with a lattice so its vibrant green color pops through the golden criss-crossed strips. As the torta bakes, the aroma of buttery puff pastry, cheese, and nutmeg will fill your kitchen.
Although this month’s recipes are on the leaner side, they are no less delicious and satisfying, and my fellow Cucina Conversations bloggers are all sharing some lovely vegetarian recipes that will not make you miss eating meat during the remaining days of the Lenten season. Daniela made one of my favorites, pasta al forno con ricotta e cicoria (baked pasta with ricotta and chicory greens); Francesca is sharing spaghetti and asparagus frittata, a recipe that showcases Italian’s creative way of reinventing leftovers into a delectable new meal; Carmen made beautiful crocchette di patate e cicoria (potato and chicory greens croquettes); Marialuisa is sharing a pasticcio di bieta e formaggio (chard and cheese pasty); Rosemarie made a classic springtime side dish, carciofi trifolati (pan-sautéed artichokes with garlic and parsley); and Lisa is sharing a beautiful torta salata with pumpkin and radicchio.
Enjoy our recipes!
Spinach Torta Rustica
Adapted from Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill
Thaw the frozen puff pastry overnight in the refrigerator and keep it cold until you are ready to roll it out. If it is too difficult to roll out straight out of the refrigerator, let the dough stand at room temperature for 10-15 minutes to soften slightly, but do not let it get too warm or it will become too sticky to roll out.
1 kg (2¼ lb) pre-washed baby spinach
20 grams (approx. 1½ Tablespoons) Kosher Salt (to season the cooking water for the spinach)
30 ml (2 Tablespoons) extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, small dice
8 grams (3 Tablespoons) finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 small carrot, finely grated
140 grams (1¼ cups) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
226 grams (approx. 1 cup) whole milk ricotta, drained
4 grams (½ teaspoon) fine sea salt
2 grams (1 teaspoon) black pepper
4 large eggs
490 grams (1.1 lb) package frozen puff pastry, thawed in the refrigerator (such as Pepperidge Farm)
All-purpose flour (to flour the work surface)
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat and add in the Kosher salt. Once the salt has dissolved, add in the spinach and blanch for 1 minute. Drain the spinach through a colander and allow it to cool for about 20 minutes. Place the spinach in a large, clean dish towel and squeeze out the excess water until the spinach is as dry as possible. Transfer the spinach to a cutting board and chop it finely.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook it until it is softened and translucent, adjusting the heat as necessary to prevent the onion from burning. Add in the chopped spinach and cook until heated through and tender, about 15 minutes.
Transfer the onion-spinach mixture to a large mixing bowl and add in the parsley, carrot, Parmigiano-Reggiano, ricotta, sea salt, pepper, and three eggs. Using a fork, mix well and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line the bottom of a 25 x 5 cm (10 x 2-inch) round pie dish with parchment paper.
In a small bowl, beat the remaining egg and set aside.
On a lightly floured board, roll out one sheet of the puff pastry into a 30 cm (approx. 12-inch) round. Place the pastry into the prepared pie plate, gently pressing it into the edges. Trim the excess dough off with a knife, but leave enough dough resting on the edge of the pie dish.
Spoon the spinach filling into the pastry and level it off with a spatula.
Roll out the second sheet of puff pastry into a 30 x 20 cm (approx. 12 x 8-inch) rectangle. Using a knife or fluted pastry wheel, cut the pastry into twelve 1 cm (approx. ½-inch) strips. Arrange the strips to make a lattice on top of the spinach filling. Trim the excess strips off the edge and press the ends of each strip to the dough overhang using a fork or your fingers to crimp them together. Brush the lattice and the crust along the rim of the pie dish with the beaten egg.
Bake the torta for 40-45 minutes, or until the puff pastry is a deep golden brown.
Remove the torta from the oven and let it rest for at least 30 minutes before serving. The flavor of the torta is best at room temperature.
Storage: Store well covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. If serving at room temperature, remove the torta from the refrigerator 1 hour prior to serving. The torta can also be warmed in the oven at 150°C (300°F) for a few minutes until just warmed through.