Even considering my pre-2006 turkey ambivalence -- and even though I had no trouble loading up my Thanksgiving plate with mashed potatoes, stuffing cooked outside the bird, salad, green beans, etc. -- my vegetarian self still craved a centerpiece dish. Something lovely and large-scale to "take the place" of the turkey I wasn't eating. I found the recipe I was looking for in the pages of an old-school issue of "Vegetarian Times."
The magazine titles the recipe "Torta rustica" and describes it as a "satisfying, rustic Italian pie." Whatever you call it, it is a show-stopper. A golden brown, rustic looking beauty, this pie weighs nearly five pounds and is a good three inches tall -- a work of culinary art sure to impress even the meat-eaters at the table. And my, will the vegetarians thank you! If they're anything like I used to be, they are probably wary of "the vegetarian option" presented to them during otherwise meat-heavy gatherings. They're probably expecting some grilled vegetables. Or bland pasta. Or maybe they're looking at the silver lining and anticipating filling up on Thanksgiving side dishes. But they probably aren't expecting a main dish they can call their own.
The pie is a layered study in color: the meaty and earthy brown mushrooms, speckled with the dark green of thyme; the white and bright greens of the spinach and ricotta layer; the deep red of the roasted red peppers; the rich amber of the pastry enveloping the filling. But it's not just about looks. This pie is delicious and, as promised, satisfying. Its component flavors benefit from an hour spent in a hot oven together, commingling. Spinach and nutmeg, mushrooms and thyme, red peppers and Pecorino, flour and shortening, all playing well with each other in the service of a great meal. It's almost as though the ingredients are thankful to have each other. Thankful to offer what they can share based on their own stores and strengths.
Thankful to give that gigantic bird a run for its money.
SPINACH, MUSHROOM AND RICOTTA PIE
Adapted from "Vegetarian Times"
For the pastry:
2 1/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/4 butter (1/2 stick), chilled and cut into pieces
1/4 c. vegetable shortening
6-8 T. ice water
For the filling:
4 T. olive oil
1 c. shallots, chopped
2 lbs. cremini mushrooms, roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. fresh thyme, finely chopped
3/4 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
15-oz. container of low-fat ricotta cheese
3 10-oz. packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
4 large egg whites
1/2 t. freshly-grated nutmeg
1/4 t. crushed red pepper flakes
6 oz. roasted red peppers
1 c. grated Pecorino cheese, divided
First, make the pastry. In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut in the butter and shortening until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in just enough ice water to allow the mixture to form a ball (it's easiest to form the ball with your hands, instead of a spoon). Form the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic and chill in the refrigerator while you make the filling.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and garlic and cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms release their liquid and it evaporates, about 15 minutes. Stir in the thyme, salt and pepper. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
In a large bowl, mix the ricotta cheese, spinach, 3 egg whites, nutmeg and red pepper flakes until well combined.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
On a lightly floured surface, roll about 2/3 of the chilled dough into a 12-inch round. Place the dough in a 9-inch springform pan, pressing it up the sides of the pan. Using a fork, beat the remaining egg white and brush over crust. Sprinkle the panko over the crust.
Stir 1/4 c. of the grated Pecorino cheese into the mushroom mixture and another 1/4 c. cheese into the ricotta mixture. Spoon the mushroom mixture into the pastry crust and pat into an even, relatively compact, layer. Spoon the ricotta mixture on top of the mushrooms and pat into an even layer. Arrange strips of roasted red pepper over the spinach mixture. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 c. Pecorino cheese evenly over the peppers.
Roll out the remaining dough to a 10-inch round. Cut slits in the dough, for ventilation, and place the dough over the assembled pie. Fold the edges under to meet the top of the bottom piece of pastry; press to seal.
Place the pie on a baking sheet, and bake until the crust is golden brown, about 50 minutes. Remove the side of the springform pan and bake until the sides are golden brown, about 10-15 minutes more. Remove to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Cut into wedges using a serrated knife and gentle, but firm, pressure. Serve, and enjoy!
Makes 10 servings.