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Simply ... Entertaining: Tackle holiday projects with friends

Thursday, November 30, 2000

By Mary Miller

A few years ago my family had the privilege of spending an afternoon with an Amish family. We all returned home with a desire to return to a simpler life. A life of quilting bees and barn raisings. Of community chicken dinners and quiet evenings without the phone or television.

Our children, however, didn't really yearn for the 4 a.m. wake-up calls to milk cows and clean the barn.

Amish families often live miles from each other, but they still have a real sense of community. Inviting friends and family over to share in the day's work is commonplace. Jobs such as building a house, slaughtering chickens or canning vegetables move along quickly when there are many workers and lots of good conversation.

Like many of the Amish, I don't have any next-door neighbors, but, unlike these plain folk, I do have a phone (sad to admit, four of them) and access to e-mail on two different computers. Even with my high- tech communication tools, I'd bet that I see (and talk to) my friends less than the Amish do.

My communication is usually in the form of phone tag with answering machines and short e-mails.

For many of us, a sense of togetherness has been lost. What better time of year to bring some of it back? Asked to join some new friends for a morning of preholiday hors d'oeuvre making (kind of a suburban quilting bee, I guess), I hesitated because I had other things to do.

Basically, what I had to do was my typical Type A agenda -- make endless lists of, and then worry about, all the stuff I thought I had to do. But the thought of having a chat fest with Pam, Paulette, Stacy and Paula was tempting. Equally tempting was the thought of bringing home some of their amazing Greek pastries.

Our morning together was filled with laughter and camaraderie. The women, old pros after working behind the scenes at local Greek food festivals, arrived with bowls filled with spinach and cheese, pastry brushes, lots of butter, and a mission in mind: to make spanakopita -- phyllo dough stuffed with spinach and feta cheese.

We all worked together in the Cantwells' kitchen to make the triangle-shaped pastries. With our constant banter and with the help of a little caffeine, the morning sped by and we made nearly 400 savory little packages in no time. It would have been a lonely endeavor at home.

Each of us went home with a tray piled high with spanakopita for our own freezers to be served to some lucky guests during the holiday season.

This variation on the quilting bee theme works for other holiday tasks as well. Take holiday cards, for example. Do you dread finding the time to write cards, turning a gesture of friendship into something that you would rather avoid? How about giving an addressing party? Think how fun it could be to get your neighbors together for a few hours one evening in December.

Everyone brings cards, stamps and address books. Sitting around the dining room table addressing cards together with a cup of coffee and a few snacks will make this tedious job a lot more fun.

Cookie and candy exchanges are another good way to spend time with friends and reap big rewards. Have everyone bring a plate of favorite goodies for tasting, the required amount for sharing, and copies of the recipe.

Consider finding out what each guests will be bringing beforehand. This way you'll have a lot of different treats on your holiday dessert tray instead of 20 versions of chocolate chip or 10 types of fudge. Put on some festive music and you've got an instant party.

I like to give baskets filled with homemade food gifts, but finding time to make all the different goodies can be difficult. This year, a group of four friends have decided to split the job. We each will make four batches of our chosen recipes, package it in a festive way, and get together to trade treats. What a deal -- we each end up with enough stuff for four gift baskets and we get to spend time together.

Give yourself a gift this season. Get together with family or friends and get something accomplished at the same time. These recipes will help you to do just that.

Pam Showalter's Spanakopita Triangles

There are many variations to this recipe. At our spanakopita marathon, one cook used rice in the filling, one used a little cream cheese, and another used some cottage cheese. All were delicious.

4 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dill weed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 pound feta cheese, rinsed and crumbled
4 beaten eggs
3/4 pound butter, melted
1 pound phyllo dough, thawed according to package directions

If using frozen spinach, squeeze all of the excess water from the spinach -- it should be very dry. In a large frying pan, saute the onion over medium heat in the olive oil until onion is golden. Add spinach and cook until mixture becomes dry. Put spinach mixture in a large bowl and add salt, pepper, feta and eggs. Combine well with a wooden spoon.

Take one phyllo sheet and place it on a cutting board with the longer ends at the top and bottom of your cutting board. Spread some melted butter over entire sheet. Put another phyllo sheet on top. Butter this one, too. Then cut the sheet into six even strips, cutting from top to bottom of the cutting board.

Place a teaspoon of the spinach mixture at the end of the phyllo strip closest to you. Fold up into small triangles (like making paper footballs from elementary school or folding a flag) and then brush each triangle with butter, making sure to seal the loose ends. Repeat with each strip. If serving immediately, place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

The triangles may be frozen at this point -- freeze one layer on a cookie sheet and reheat in a 350-degree oven for about 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly brown. Makes about 4 dozen.

Phyllo tips

To ensure freshness, purchase phyllo from a store that sells a lot of it,such as Stamoolis Bros in The Strip.

fork Remove phyllo from refrigerator and leave unopened at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours before using.

Have a large workspace ready before you begin.

Unroll the sheets onto a dry surface like a clean countertop.

Keep the phyllo covered with plastic wrap or waxed paper while you work so that it doesn't dry out.

Mushroom Croustades

Here's a family favorite that can be made ahead and frozen. These bite-size appetizers disappear before your eyes.

1 loaf firm, square white bread (we use Pepperidge Farm)
1 1/4 cup butter, melted

3 tablespoons minced green onions
4 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 pound minced mushrooms
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons dried parsley
2 tablespoons dried chives
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Trim crusts from bread slices. With a rolling pin, flatten each bread slice and cut into 4 squares. Using a small size muffin tin or tassie pan, place 1 1/2 teaspoons melted butter into each muffin cup. Gently push each bread square into muffin cup.

Bake croustades at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes or until browned. Reserve until mushroom filling has been prepared.

Saute green onions in butter. Add minced mushrooms and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until moisture is gone. Remove from heat and add flour; stirring until well blended. Add heavy cream, bring to a boil, and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Add salt, cayenne, parsley, chives soaked in 2 tablespoons water, and lemon juice. Mix well and cool.

Using a small spoon, fill croustade cups. Freeze individual croustades on a cookie sheet, and when frozen transfer to a zip-lock bag. When needed, bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. Makes 4 1/2 dozen.

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