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Mediterranean Cooking from the Garden with Linda Dalal Sawaya—balila and spanokopita (without the "pita")

posted on: Feb 24, 2016


the two balilas (on the left, the “disaster” and on the right, the redone version © linda dalal sawaya 2016

Balila is an Arabic word that rolls off the tongue in a musical way. And as music is filled with variation, this Middle Eastern dish is as varied as the region from which it comes. My mother’s version is also called hommous mtabbal, and it is quite simple: cooked chick peas, garlic, salt, lemon, and olive oil. It is like hommous b’tahini, but it is only partially puréed and is without the tahini.

salata balila © linda dalal sawaya 2016

Many prefer to use cumin with it, and no garlic; others use sautéed pine nuts as a garnish, which sounds lovely. My variation has chopped fresh Italian parsley from the garden, which starts to approximate balila salata which begins the same way, but has the addition of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes.

I am grateful that I began writing and cooking for this article a day ahead of time, as a small disaster took place in my kitchen as I was cooking. I began with canned chick peas rather than starting with soaking dry beans over night. It is traditional to add a small amount of baking soda to the chick peas to speed up their cooking—even when using canned beans, they require a bit of cooking. Not having made balila for years, I proceeded following the recipe in Alice’s Kitchen, but didn’t follow it exactly. I added the lemon juice to some of the beans that I’d smashed to thicken the sauce. Then I added the remaining beans and broth. Can you imagine what happened? The mixture began to foam up, and look pretty awful! Certainly not photogenic for my typically beautiful food photos.


soaked chick peas double in size, mashed cooked beans, beans that reacted with lemon © linda dalal sawaya 2016

In avoidance, I left the kitchen for about an hour, as I was mortified. Thankfully things had actually calmed down a bit when I returned. I took a few photos, and transformed the failed warm balila into a the delicious balila salata with Italian parsley from the garden and cucumbers and tomatoes.

Today, I cooked another batch of garbanzos that I had soaked over night, and did not get the baking soda involved, which meant for rather slow cooking. Then, my Lebanese friend and cookbook consultant, Josephine advised me that if using baking soda to speed the cooking of garbanzos, use it for the first few minutes of cooking, then drain and rinse the beans, add more water, and proceed with cooking until the beans are tender. This way speeds the cooking but saves the broth from any residual baking soda to react with the acid of the lemon juice. Cooking is an art and a science and there’s always something to learn!


garlic and lemon, Italian parsley from the garden for balila © linda dalal sawaya 2016

As the worst of winter seems to have passed and the days have lengthened, the greens in my garden that survived the bit of snow and ice we had have been flourishing. Even some of the peas I planted last week are coming up! I gathered young, tender red and green chard, a bit of various types of kale, Italian parsley, and using a bag of baby spinach and a big chunk of French sheep milk feta cheese found in my fridge, my longing for spanokopita was sure to become a reality as I had all the ingredients necessary. The Greeks, I have read, also do this: use other greens growing in their gardens to augment the spinach.


organic greens from the garden for spanokopita, red onions, eggs, feta cheese and seasonings mixed in © linda dalal sawaya 2016

Mostly being gluten free, I decided to make of version of this famous Greek dish with the “spanaki” (spinach) but without the “pita” (dough), until I can make a gluten free filo. My longing came from recently watching an acquaintance who had lived many years in Turkey making the paper thin dough for borek, which is very much like filo. As he threw the dough on the big oiled table top, he said gluten is the key to making this pastry. I have found an online recipe for making a GF filo, which I most certainly will attempt and promise to share the results with you—failure or not! I know many people in the U.S. are sensitive to and are avoiding gluten, so this will be a beneficial experiment for many of us!


spanokopita unbaked and baked © linda dalal sawaya 2016

My mother told me that they used to make filo in the old country (Lebanon), but I’ve never thought to make it. Seeing this borek afficionado make it in person, I’m now interested in the creative challenge this presents and it looks like a lot of fun!

my spanokopita without the pita © linda dalal sawaya 2016

The spanokopita version I made today is certainly not the Lenten version, as I used eggs and feta cheese, while the Lenten version would be vegan; but it is gluten free. It was baked in an oven casserole from Germany made by Thomas, called Flammfest, which I found for a great price at a thrift store—and it tasted fantastic, fulfilling my longing for this spring garden Greek specialty along with balila! Many people would prefer to sauté the greens before baking, but I prefer to not overcook them, and allow their juices to evaporate in the baking.

As you can see, the result was perfectly textured, with as many nutrients preserved as possible for something baked. For seasoning, I added a little salt since the feta is salty, black and cayenne pepper, dill, oregano, nutmeg, and sumac in place of adding lemon juice. It was scrumptious and will be enjoyed at room temperature tomorrow.

salata balila © linda dalal sawaya 2016

I hope you enjoy the variations on both of these musical sounding words—Arabic balila and Greek spanokopita—and cook them with love and enjoy them with your family and friends.

Happy cooking and sahtein!

Linda Dalal Sawaya is a Portland artist, cook, Master Gardener, daughter of Lebanese immigrants, and author of Alice’s Kitchen: Traditional Lebanese Cooking   

Remember, as my mother Alice said, “If you make it with love, it will be delicious!”

story and all photos © linda dalal sawaya 2016