In the kitchen

Fall phyllo strudel

A step-by-step guide to a special dish for the holidays

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People often ask me, "What's your favorite food to cook?" To tell the truth, I am really hard-pressed to answer that question, because so many dishes come to mind. But as far as ingredients go, I would have to say that one of my very favorites is phyllo. Phyllo (pronounced FEE-lo) is a thin flaky pastry dough which, when brushed with butter and layered with filling, is the ambrosia of the gods. Whether making something savory, such as a spanakopita, or sweet, like an enticing baklava, using phyllo elevates a dish from ordinary to sublime.

Growing up in a Greek family meant frequently enjoying foods wrapped in phyllo. We would never think of celebrating a holiday or special occasion without a pita -- pita, in this case, means a type of pie made with this delectable pastry as the crust, not the Mediterranean flatbread. No gathering was complete without a "phyllo-pita" -- a savory or sweet pasty pie. Even having visitors was unthinkable without having some tiropites (cheese hand-pies) as part of the mezedes (appetizers) to be presented as a welcome gesture. A phyllo triangle, for example, filled with sautéed spinach, onions, eggs and feta cheese is a perfect appetizer, or even a light meal. And from an early age, thank goodness, we were taught to cook with it as well as eat it!

When I was very young, phyllo was made by the aunts and grandmothers who brought the skill from the old country. These women rolled the thin fragile sheets of dough by hand, using a broomstick. As they rolled, they raised the broomstick in the air, with the phyllo wrapped partially around it, then stretched it lightly as they brought it down to the floured table, eventually stretching it thin enough to bring the approval of the most critical grandmother. When enough phyllo was completed, the sheets were brushed with butter and layered in a large, usually round, pan with fillings as simple as feta cheese and eggs, or as complex as sautéed meat and onions. Or, strips of phyllo were cut, layered one on top of another and folded up flag-like into triangles to create delectable mini-pitas that could easily be eaten out of hand.

While this is a great childhood memory, nobody really makes their own phyllo anymore. Today, store-bought phyllo pastry is excellent. Boxes of phyllo can be easily found in the freezer of your local grocery store in packages containing about 20 sheets of paper thin dough. (As a matter of fact, the word phyllo literally means "sheet.") Some brands offer whole sheet rolls -- when unwrapped and unrolled, the sheets are about double the size of a sheet of paper. Other brands offer two rolls of sheets that are precut in half -- a very convenient package, especially if you aren't going to use all of the phyllo at once. And by the way, if you don't to use it all in a single recipe, phyllo can be wrapped tightly in plastic and refrozen, so you can have some on hand for another day.

For an elegant addition to your cooking repertoire, and for results to wow your guests, I highly recommend giving phyllo a whirl. Cooking with phyllo is surprisingly easy despite how fragile it is. In this article, I will walk you through the steps to creating a very special vegetable strudel that might be a scene-stealer at the holiday dinner show.

First of all, the day before you plan to use the phyllo, remove it from your freezer and place it in the refrigerator. A gradual thaw helps ensure that the dough won't stick together when you unroll it for use.

At least two hours before you want to start using the phyllo, take it out of the refrigerator and place the package on your counter, but don't unwrap it yet. All of your ingredients for the filling must be ready to go before you unwrap and unroll the phyllo. You will work quickly to keep it from drying out. Once you've mastered this strudel, you can branch out to many other ways of using it, and you can enjoy it as often as you please.

The filling for this particular strudel calls for sautéed and stewed squashes, peppers and onions. I've even added some roasted chopped green chile in a nod to my New Mexico home. You can add other vegetables to suit your fancy, such as cooked greens or broccoli--just make sure they're drained well, or you might make your pastry soggy. I think that the choice of vegetables depends on your taste, but I looked for compatible flavors that would stand out on their own to complement a holiday turkey, and also as a hearty vegetarian option for guests.

Once your filling is ready to go, set it aside to cool. Gather the remaining ingredients, such as shredded cheese, and have them ready. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and place near your work surface. Line your baking sheet with parchment. And now open the package and unwrap the phyllo, unrolling it and laying it flat on a clean counter, board or table. Some people like to keep phyllo covered with a damp cloth. You can do this if you wish, but what I do is lay a sheet of plastic wrap over the top, which also works well. (Note: If you're using full sheet phyllo, you might cut it in half for convenience; otherwise, you may fold it in half as you go. For the purposes of this story, I am using half-sheets. A single recipe will use about a half-box of phyllo.)

To begin, lay a sheet of phyllo lengthwise on the parchment, and lightly brush with melted butter. Repeat the layers until you have used about 10-12 sheets, or half the phyllo. Don't worry if it's not perfect or beautiful -- it will be when it cooks. Butter the top sheet, and place a line of filling a quarter of the way from one long edge of the stack. and halfway from the other. Carefully roll up the short edge, and roll towards the wider edge, overlapping with the wider edge. Brush with butter, and flip so the overlapped edge is on the bottom of the roll. in Pinch and tuck in the edges to close it up so the filling doesn't spill out. Butter the second side well. Cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining phyllo. You will now have 2 strudel rolls, enough for 8 as a main course and 12 as a side dish. If you have a large crowd, you can double the recipe, and make 4 rolls. Cover with plastic wrap until ready to cook. With a sharp knife, lightly slash the top in two or three places just before baking.

Once you've baked the phyllo strudel, you can keep it warm at the lowest setting in an oven for 30 minutes or so. But you should remove it from the oven at least 10 minutes before serving to allow it to set. To serve, use two large flat spatulas to remove from the pan to a board. Or lift the parchment to the board, and carefully slide the rolls off the parchment. Use a serrated bread knife to cut each strudel into eight slices. Sprinkle with a little chopped parsley, and serve!

Festive and delicious, this savory vegetable phyllo strudel might be the new star of your holiday table.

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