Sunday, June 03, 2007

It's a wild thing: hortapita or a Greek pie with wild greens

On a gorgeous Sunday in early May K. and I walked along the paths of my - sorry, our - childhood summers. Literally. And during that walk, we packed a small linen bag with young ground elder leaves. You see, ever since buying the book on the culinary use of wild herbs & weeds few months ago, I've been discovering new edible wild plants galore. Eating dandelion greens is almost conservative now. I've turned dandelion blossoms into dark and sticky syrup, thrown milk thistle leaves into my salads, and yes, eaten enough wild garlic leaves to provide me with vitamins for months, and yes, even made a pie out of ground-elder. I can see that not everybody gets excited about stuff like that - even my 87-year old grandmother was a bit suspicious of me collecting these weeds for human consumption. But luckily K. is very supportive, and doesn't mind being fed one 'interesting' dish after another.

Ground-elder (Aegopodium podagraria, also known as bishop's weed and goutweed in English, naat in Estonian) has a long history of being used for medicinal purposes, but it was also cultivated as a food crop in the Middle Ages, especially in Russia (and in Siberia in particular - the Russian Saint Seraphim of Sarov is said to have survived three years on eating mainly ground-elder while on self-exposed exile in a deep forest), Scandinavia, in Central Europe. Old Finno-Ugric peoples were keen consumers of ground elder, too. According to some sources, old traders wrapped their vegetables into ground elder leaves to keep them fresh looking and smelling - the leaves are high in essential oils and helped to keep the other produce fresh and aromatic, too. Young and tender ground-elder leaves can be added to soups, omelettes and stews. Blanched leaves can be mixed with cottage cheese and curd cheese. The leaves are high on Vitamin E, as well as vitamin C, they're rich in antioxidants, minerals, flavonoids and fibre. Dishes containing ground elder are easily digestible, and have cleansing properties - so they're good for that spring-time detoxing :)

A hortapita in Portaria, June 2006

I decided to make hortapita with my ground elder leaves. The wise Greek village women, you see, have been using wild greens - horta - for culinary purposes forever. I enjoyed hortapita in a shady cafe in Portaria (see the photo above) during my 2006 trip to Greece. Its slightly more elegant and modern version - spanakopita - is one of my favourite pies. Using my ground elder bounty for a Greek hortapita seemed like the most logical thing to do. The Greek villagers would use lots of other wild and bitter leaves for making hortopita (and other dishes too, obviously, like salads etc). Amaranth (vlita in Greek, one of the most popular horta's - rebashein), sow thistle (tsochos / piimaohakas), stinging nettles (tsouknithes / kõrvenõges), mallow (molocha / kassinaeris), dandelion, purslane ( glistrida or andrakles / portulak), wild carrots, as well as more familiar chicory, sorrel, mustard greens, rocket, endives and others. Ground elder makes as good a pie filling as any of the others mentioned - just a little bit bitter, gutsy and earthy.

The pastry recipe is from my friend Virve, who uses it to make a fabulously easy apple pie. It's the easiest pastry to work with and it tastes wonderful - it's easy, soft and pliable dough that procudes a flaky and wonderful pastry. The filling is inspired by my spanakopita recipe.

Hortapita or a Greek-style pie with wild greens
Serves 8

200 grams butter
200 grams sour cream
350 grams plain flour
a pinch of salt

3 Tbsp oil
200 grams young ground-elder leaves
100 grams onion, finely chopped
200 grams cottage cheese or feta cheese
1 egg
1 Tbsp dried oregano
salt and coarsely ground black pepper

First, prepare the pastry. Melt the butter on a medium heat, take off the heat and cool a little. Mix in sour cream, flour and salt. Knead until the pastry comes together - it'll be very soft and pliable, like plastiline. Wrap into cling film and put into the fridge for up to 30 minutes (leave it for much longer, and you'll have hard time rolling it!)
Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Wash the wild greens, dry thoroughly. Heat a non-stick frying pan and 'cook' the leaves until they 'wilt'. Then quickly rinse them under cold running water to stop them from cooking further. Press until dry, and chop the cooked leaves coarsely.
Heat the non-stick frying pan again, this time with oil on it. Add the onion and cook on a low heat for about 10 minutes, until onion starts to soften. Take off the heat.
Now add the other ingredients, mix thoroughly.
Roll the relaxed dough to a large rectangle about 4-5 mm thick, cut into 2 more or less equally sized rectangles. Place the smaller one on a medium-sized oven tray, spread the filling on top, and cover with the larger dough sheet. Pinch the edges firmly together, pierce with a fork couple of times and brush with whisked egg.
Bake at 200C for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Cool a little and cut into squares.

Hortopita / Naadipirukas


ScienceMel said...

That looks/sounds wonderful. But, I would be leary of identifying our green friends in the wild - I've never been good at that. =(

For your Edinburgh trip: I'm sure you're aware, but if not, Taste of Edinburgh is 7-10 June. See their site, again, if you haven't already, below:

Have a wonderful trip.

K and S said...

This looks delicious, I too would be careful about the wild stuff. Still, it makes walks fun and saves on buying greens :)

Anonymous said...

Lahe pirukas tõepoolest! Naati pole kunagi proovinud, küll aga hapuoblikat ja nõgest. Siiani on mul selgusetu, mis marjad on "elderberries", ja netis olevatest õnaraamatutest vastust pole leidnud.

Kalyn Denny said...

Wow, what a great post. I haven't heard of Elder, but when you mentioned Bishop's Weed, that's a plant I've heard of. It sounds great in the pie. I love Spanakopita, and have a Greek friend who makes it for me occasionally. Your crust with the sour cream sounds perfect for this recipe.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I recently discovered purslane in my front yard (along with morels -- lucky me!), so a combination of spinach and purslane might work for this dish. A nice summer lunch, I think! Thank you for the recipe.

Katie Zeller said...

I need to learn more about what's growing and edible. I invited a German friend to go on our regular walk in Andorra - we all packed lunches, she just nibbled as she walked on all the goodies supplied bu nature! I was so impressed...
Your pie looks fantastic!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Pille! You have a lovely, yummy blog! Glad I found you!

Freya said...

This looks great and good on you for using what's free and available!
p.s. Love the new banner!

Anonymous said...

Firstly...fabulous new banner! :)

Secondly...this is one of the things that make your site fascinating -- all the local foodstuff you set out to discover! :) You are lucky to be able to get all natural produce like that straight from the source (the earth!)! I can just imagine you a K with your linen bag of lovely greens in tow :) Jealous me! :)

Thirdly...I have nomindated you for the Thinking Blogger Award :) I know you have already been nominated but you make me think too! Just wanted you to know :)

Lauren said...

This is a fascinating idea - as a confirmed city dweller (and having lived in at least once city where you wouldn't want to eat anything you may find!) I've never really tried anything wild. Definitely something to consider for the future!

By the way, I'm a blog-less lurker who thought she should finally introduce herself. I really enjoy your blog, and I'm particularly fond of looking at the archives. I'm a PhD student in Edinburgh myself, and it's nice to see recipes where I know I'll be able to get the ingredients! (Luckily, I'm based in a food-loving department!)


Alanna Kellogg said...

Who knows where a walk in the woods can lead ...

Just fascinating, Pille!

cookiecrumb said...

What fun! I'm fascinated by foraging for wild food, and recently bought a book about it myself. But I'm still a little timid about identifying plants.
Your hortapita is a perfect "receptacle" for your finds.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Thanks for such an interesting post, Pille! I love dandelion greens in salad; they add a peppery quality that contrasts nicely with sweeter veggies. I also adore quickly cooked amaranth topped with lemon and olive oil. After reading this, I'd better put on some hiking boots and go searching for more edible plants!

Lucy said...

Ah, those bitter, wild greens. So beautiful. You both must be positively brimming with health, having eaten such incredibly healthful 'weeds'. Delicious pie.

Your new banner is wonderful by the way.

christine said...

I love how I learn so much from your posts, not only about Estonia (which I enjoy immensely) but also about local produce. I've never seen nor heard of ground elder, I think, so I find this very fascinatig. And the pastry looks excellent, I love the photos! :)

Anonymous said...

I love your "Hortapita or a Greek-style pie with wild greens".
That sounds so delicious!
You should post your recipe at!
It really sounds like the kind of recipes we are looking for!
I can't wait to try it!

thepassionatecook said...

aha... after reading up on wiki, ground-elder has got nothing to do with elderflower. i've never come across it, or maybe i haven't looked closely. will keep an eye open.
i must say you are very adventurous! and not even out of necessity... good on you. i'm less worried about feeding the family stuff they don't know, but the plants i'd find around here are probably drowned in the toxins a big city produces! so maybe in the summer, when i go hiking in the mountains?

Anonymous said...

Wow what a wonderful post and the photos too! Your blog is on my favorites now. I was amazed to find your article in the net refering to the edible greens. I am from Greece but living in the US for 30 years now. I grew up with this stuf! In May I will go out with my bag and knife in search of wild dandelions wich I just boil with water and eat as a salad with olive oil and lemon juice or as stew with zuchini.
I encourage everybody to go out and search for things like that. Nature is generous to us it is healthy and it is fun.

whisks said...

thank you for your wonderful blog! i am very much enjoying this new discovery.
however, to be different to the others who have commented, can i ask about the pastry? when mixing the butter, sour cream and flour together, is the butter still warm?
keep up the good work, and thanks again.

Pille said...

Sciencemel - with a good plant identification book you'll be fine! It was great catching up with you in Edinburgh, and yes, the Taste of Edinburgh was worth a visit!

K&S - thank you!

Ülle - kas Sa mõtled 'elderberries' all 'elderflower' nimelist puud? See on leedripuu eesti keeles. Mul kindel plaan oma tulevasse aeda paar tükki kasvama panna, saan leedripuujooki teha.

Kalyn - I'm sure your Greek friends spoils you with her spanakopita- it's such a great dish. But ask her to make a hortapita next time:)

Lydia - you're welcome! I've got a pot of purslane on my windowsill, but I suspect it might grow in Estonia, too. I need to ask my granny!

Katiez - I don't think I know enough to survive a whole day, but I could definitely complement my pack lunch with some wild stuff:)

Maninas - welcome!

Freya & Paul - believe me, I wasn't always as adventurous. Wild forest berries & wild mushrooms - these I've been forageing for & consuming since my childhood, but wild & bitter greens are new to me. And to K. too, I believe. We're really enjoying this, however.

Joey - thanks - I love the new banner, too! And thanks for nominating me for the Thinking Blogger Award - I'm flattered.

Lauren - thanks for de-lurking and I hope you continue enjoying the blog! I'm curious now about your Edinburgh department - any changes of telling me?

Alanna - indeed. We found some yellow morels on our last walk in the woods!

Cookiecrumb - K's mum wanted to borrow the book, but we had to refuse, as we're keen to try all those wild greens ourselves over the summer, and need the book to identify the plants correctly:)

Susan - I need to try amaranth - that's new to me!

Lucy - well, we're working on it. We've also got a small herb garden now, so at least we get to eat plenty of green stuff these days..

Christine - thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad you're enjoying learning about Estonia:)

Daily New - thanks!

Johanna - you're right, ground elder & elderflower are not related. And it should grow wildly in England, too. Re: being adventurous without necessity - it feels good:)

Anonymous - so nice to see a comment from a Greek person for this post! Thank you! And yes, I agree, we should be exploring more what the nature is offering to us.

Whisks - welcome, and pleased to hear you like what you're seeing. Thank you for the question - I've now specified in the post that the butter should be cooled a litte, so you wouldn't burn yourself, but it can be still warm, when you add the flour and sour cream. (Add flour first, then you can be sure it won't split). Hope you'll like this!!

Maria Verivaki said...

excellent post on wild greens in greece, i'm adding your blog to my list of eateries. well done with the greek food, and I must admit, you did a fantastic job with the tsoureki!

Mary Witzl said...

I've been digging this stuff out of our back garden for the past two months. It just won't quit, and it has almost done my back in. Oddly enough, I remember someone telling me you could eat it ages ago, though until someone told me about your post this morning, I'd completely forgotten that. It is also called Bishop's mitre here in the U.K. I was calling it a few other things yesterday, before reading this post. Perhaps I'll pick a little to eat one of these days; that pie looks good!