I just spent a glorious week in Belgrade, Serbia. Not an obvious choice for a vacation, but I traveled for a baseball tournament and found myself in an city not quite on the European tourist map, and I could not have been happier. Turns out that this underappreciated and underrated city one of the world’s great culinary gems. The restaurants are all beautifully appointed, each with its own distinct design flair. You have to look very far to find a run of the mill diner or coffee shop. In a week of schlepping around, I did not see one. Then there’s the food. Wow! Serbians have a way with it. Their local cuisine, while heavy on the meat, also embraces cheeses, pastas and vegetables, all fresh and handled with great affection. Their historic and geographic connections with Greece and Italy have turnd Serbia into a hub for great food. Step aside Paris and Rome – Belgrade is the upstart culinary heart of Europe.
One of the many delicious dishes I tasted was the traditional Serbian spinach pie, known locally as Pita Zeljanica (no actual pita is involved). This dish is a cousin of the Greek spanakopita with a more delicate cheese flavor. A waiter in a restaurant insisted we try it – Serbian wait staff are amazing when it comes to recommending the right thing to eat. You tell them what you want and then then tell you to order something else, and they’re always right. Trust them.
When I got home, I had to share this experience with my kids. Here’s a recipe that’s not exactly like what I ate because there’s less dough and more filling, but I like that, so I’m sharing here. I like the filling to be less salty, so I don’t add salty cheese but you can experiment with half cottage and half feta. Most of the process is simple, until you get to the filo, which is a bit finicky, but worth it. This pie is huge, and it’s quite heavy so it serves a bunch of people. And added bonus, it reheats really well. Keep this one on file for Shavuot.
Serbian Spinach Pie (Pita Zeljanica)
1.2kg (2.5lb) fresh spinach, cleaned, torn into smaller pieces
500g (1lb) grated hard yellow cheese
500g (1lb) cottage cheese (use high fat) – you can substitute half with feta cheese.
3 tablespoons sour cream
½ cup milk
6 large beaten eggs
½ cup flour
½ cup yellow corn meal
1 teaspoon salt and some fresh ground black pepper
8 sheets thawed filo dough (read instructions for thawing on the box)
75g (3oz) melted butter
How to do it
- In a large pan or wok, sautee the spinach until its completely wilted (about 3 minutes). I do it in batches so it’s easier to deal with such a large quantity. Place the spinach in a strainer when it’s done to drain all fluids. Allow to cool off. Then squeeze as much of the excess water off as you can.
- Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (350°F)
- In a large bowl, combine the cheeses, sour cream, milk, eggs, flour, corn meal, salt, pepper and spinach.
- Melt the butter in a small pot on the stove over low heat.
- Lightly brush a 34x22cm (13×9-inch) baking pan with a little of the melted butter. Lay down 1 sheet of the filo dough, lightly brush it all over with butter. Continue with another 3 sheets, buttering each layer as you go
- Spread filling over filo base. Lay down another sheet of filo dough, brush it with butter and add 3 more sheets of filo, buttering each layer, and butter the top layer generously. Trim the excess edges of the filo and tuck whatever you can trim into the pie.
- Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the top is goldenbrown and the filling is set (when a knife inserted comes out clean).
- Allow to cool down a little before serving.
Serve with a crisp green salad.
Serves about 8.