These vegan kale spanakopita bites are a unique spin on traditional spanakopita, and assembled in individual cigar shapes, they’re a fantastic holiday appetizer. The kale spanakopita tastes lovely on its own, but to kick it up a notch further, serve it with harissa sauce. Before I get to the recipe, a cookbook review!
A few weeks ago I received a copy of Tal Ronnen‘s new Crossroads cookbook. I’m familiar with his work as one of the co-founders of Kite Hill, one of the best vegan cheese products available in my area. But being pretty firmly planted on the East Coast of the USA at the moment means that I have yet to have the fortune of dining at the famous Crossroads restaurant. I have heard nothing but raves about the restaurant and visiting it (among others) as part of a vegan tour of LA is definitely something for my bucket list.
The first thing I will mention right off the bat is that this cookbook is absolutely stunning. This would make an excellent addition to any coffee table. The book is full of beautiful full-size, full-color pictures on glossy, high-quality paper, with a sturdy and professional hardcover binding. More so than any other cookbooks I have reviewed on this site, the craftmanship of the book brings it to a level beyond its contents. For that reason I think it would make an excellent holiday gift for a loved one.
My parents agree! I had my dad (who is generally somewhat skeptical of vegan food) visit me recently and he was drawn to the beautiful Crossroads cookbook sitting on my dining room shelf. He proceeded to flip through every page with frequent mutterings of “huh, that looks really good”. My mom visited separately a couple of weeks later, and she too found the cookbook catching her eye – at which point she said that dad had specifically told her about the awesome vegan cookbook on my mantle.
Mom was enthusiastic about trying out recipes from the book together, so she helped me assemble and cook these kale spanakopita. The recipes in Crossroads are pretty well suited to weekend cooking projects, where cooking is more an activity rather than a way to efficiently get food on the table. Most recipes have several homemade components involved. For example, for the kale spanakopita, I was to cook the kale filling, wrap and bake the phyllo cigars, prepare the harissa sauce, and finally make a mint oil to use for garnishing the harissa sauce.
These are restaurant recipes, after all, so it’s expected that they would consist of multiple complementary parts, which would probably be prepared in advance in batches in a restaurant setting. And by that same token, the cookbook isn’t exactly full of health food. Fat is flavor, and several of the recipes call for quite a lot of oil or vegan butter. Having a brother who is a professional chef I have come to understand that restaurant food is on the richer side, so consider this a caveat rather than an outright critique. That said, there are also quite a few recipes in the book that are much more in the realm of the amount of oil I use in my personal cooking (a tablespoon here and there), and I had success reducing the oil even further.
Most of the flavors found in Crossroads are Mediterranean-inspired (think za’atar, harissa, couscous, almonds, olives, fava beans…). The recipes that I tried were absolute successes and were incredibly flavorful and delicious. Although I fear my review comes too late for Thanksgiving menu planning, these recipes would be wonderful additions to holiday tables or other special occasion meals. They truly impress. Here is a selection of other recipes that particularly caught my eye:
From the ‘snacks and spreads’ chapter: harissa potato chips; skillet lentil bread; warm kale and artichoke dip (I prepared this one and it was absolutely divine)
From the ‘salads’ chapter: spicy Moroccan carrot salad with chili and cumin; shaved Brussels sprouts with za’atar, lemon and pine nuts; Israeli couscous with champagne grapes, haricots verts, and Marcona almonds. This chapter is simply a master class in combine fresh ingredients beautifully and flavorfully.
From the ‘flatbreads’ chapter: a basic flatbread dough, with iterations including roasted cauliflower flatbread with pistachio-kalamata tapenade; and charred okra flatbread with sweet corn puree
From the ‘soups’ chapter: cream of fava bean soup; and cauliflower bisque with fried capers (which I prepared and loved – I substituted olive oil for the Earth Balance and reduced the oil by more than half, and the soup was still amazing)
From the ‘small plates’ chapter: hearts of palm “calamari” with lemon-caper aioli; sweet potato latkes with spiked applesauce (find the recipe on Connoisseurus Veg); roasted fennel with clementine beurre blanc and toasted buckwheat; and the kale spanakopita of course!
From the ‘pasta’ chapter: a basic fresh pasta dough, with ways to use it including chive fettuccine with asparagus and prosecco sauce; acorn squash ravioli with black garlic sauce; and a showstopping garden vegetable lasagna puttanesca
And finally, from the ‘desserts’ selection: dark chocolate rice pudding with pine nuts and raspberries; and oat florentine cookies
The book also includes a section on cocktails and another section on some basic recipes (such as walnut ‘parmesan’).
There is one last thing to note before I share the kale spanakopita recipe. Recipes in the book frequently call for Earth Balance vegan butter products. There are also many recipes that call for Kite Hill products, and some other brand name vegan alternatives like Field Roast, Follow Your Heart and Ener-G make occasional appearances as well. If you don’t generally cook with store-bought substitutes then you probably already have an idea of how you would adapt a recipe to your cooking style. For example, in addition to the olive-oil-for-Earth-Balance substitution I used my own homemade cauliflower ricotta in place of the Kite Hill ricotta.
Printed here is the kale spanakopita as it appears in the book. See my notes for what adjustments I made.
Kale Spanakopita with Harissa Sauce and Mint Oil (from the Crossroads cookbook)
For the kale filling:
- 3 tbsp grapeseed oil
- 1 large onion chopped
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 2 lb kale washed, dried, tough center ribs removed, and leaves finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups Kite Hill almond ricotta crumbled (about 14 ounces)
- 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh dill
- 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint
For the kale spanakopita:
- 8 tbsp Earth Balance butter stick melted (1 stick)
- 1/2 lb premade filo dough (such as Athens) (eighteen 9-by-14 inch sheets), thawed but kept refrigerated
- harissa sauce (recipe follows)
- 1/4 cup mint oil (recipe follows)
For the harissa sauce (makes 1 and 1/2 cups):
- 2 tbsp Earth Balance butter stick
- 2 pints cherry tomatoes stemmed
- 1 shallot chopped
- 2 garlic cloves chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 1/2 tbsp nutritional yeast (see note)
- 2 tbsp harissa spice mix (see note)
For the mint oil (makes 1/2 cup):
- 1 cup fresh mint leaves with tender stems
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/8 tsp kosher salt
For the kale spanakopita:
- Put a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the grapeseed oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion and garlic and sauté until very soft, about 4 minutes. Add the kale in handfuls, folding the leaves over with a spoon until each batch is wilted before adding more. Once all the kale is in the pan, season with the red pepper flakes, salt, and black pepper.
- Transfer the kale mixture to a colander set over a bowl or in the sink. Using the back of a spoon, gently press out all of the excess liquid. Spread the kale out on a baking sheet and set aside to cool; the kale needs to be completely cool to prevent the dough from becoming soggy. (The kale can be prepared a couple of hours in advance, covered, and refrigerated.)
- Transfer the cooled kale to a cutting board and coarsely chop. Then transfer to a mixing bowl and stir in the almond ricotta, dill, and mint until well combined. Season with salt and black pepper.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Brush two baking sheets with some of the melted butter substitute.
- Unroll the filo dough and lay one sheet on a work surface. (Keep the remaining filo covered with a damp—not wet—towel as you work to prevent it from drying out and becoming brittle.) Brush the sheet with melted butter substitute. Stack a second sheet of filo on top and brush with melted butter substitute, then repeat the process with another sheet of filo, so you have three buttered layers.
- With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut the sheets lengthwise into 3-inch-wide strips. Cut the pieces crosswise in half, so you end up with 6 pieces. Place a heaping tablespoon of the kale-ricotta filling near the bottom of one filo strip. Fold the sides over, then fold the bottom up to encase the filling. Tightly roll up the filo away from you, to form a cigar-shaped spanakopita. Place on one of the prepared baking sheets, seam side down, and cover with plastic wrap while you fill and roll the remaining strips. Repeat the process until all of the filo sheets are layered, cut, filled, and rolled.
- Brush the tops of the spanakopita cigars with the remaining melted butter substitute. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until crisp and golden. Serve hot or warm, with the harissa sauce, dotted with the mint oil, on the side for dipping.
For the harissa sauce:
- Put a large sauté pan over medium heat and add the butter substitute. When it has melted, add the tomatoes, shallot, and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes soften and collapse, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Pour in the wine and cook until the liquid is almost evaporated, about 2 minutes. Stir in the nutritional yeast flakes and remove from the heat.
- Working in batches, carefully ladle the mixture into a blender, filling it no more than halfway, and adding half the harissa spice mix and a pinch of salt and pepper to each batch. (If you have an immersion blender, this is a great time to use it.)
- Puree the sauce for a few seconds, until completely smooth (be sure to hold down the lid with a kitchen towel for safety). Pour the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer to remove the solids.
- The sauce keeps covered in the refrigerator for up to 5 days; reheat gently before serving.
For the mint oil:
- Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over high heat. Prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl halfway with water and adding a tray of ice cubes.
- Blanch the mint in the boiling water for about 20 seconds and then, using a slotted spoon, transfer to the ice bath to cool quickly. Drain again, wrap the mint in cheesecloth or a dish towel, and twist it tightly to wring out the excess liquid.
- Put the mint in a blender and pour in the oil. Puree until well blended and dark green, about 2 minutes. Pour the oil through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl or container, pressing down on the mint with the back of a wooden spoon to extract as much flavor as possible; discard the leaves. Season the herb oil with the salt.
A vibrant seasoning used in Moroccan cuisine, harissa is a spice blend made primarily from hot chilies, paprika, garlic, cumin, and coriander. You can find harissa in the dry spice aisle of most grocery stores. It comes as a paste too.
While I don’t recommend refrigerating the assembled spanakopita (it becomes soggy), it can be made ahead and frozen: Arrange the spanakopita in a single layer on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze until solid. Transfer to a resealable plastic bag and store in the freezer for up to 2 months. You do not need to thaw the spanakopita before baking.
I used a 50-50 blend of Earth Balance and olive oil for assembling the pastry, and 1 teaspoon of olive oil instead of Earth Balance in the sauce. I also reduced the oil used for cooking the kale to 1/2 tablespoon. Finally, instead of the Kite Hill brand ricotta I used homemade cauliflower ricotta.
I recommend using a brush with very fine and gentle bristles for working with the pastry. This will allow you to coat the pastry evenly without using too much vegan butter or breaking the pastry.
I made my own harissa spice blend from a recipe I found online and made the mistake of adding the entire two tablespoons at once before tasting the sauce. It was overwhelmingly spicy. Be careful! I ended up mixing in some ketchup to tone down the spice, which Tal Ronnen may have frowned upon...
Nutrition facts exclude the harissa sauce and mint oil.
The Crossroads cookbook is available on Amazon and everywhere else books are sold!
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this cookbook for review from the publisher. All writing and opinions are my own, aside from explicitly marked excerpts.