Why, you might ask, am I thinking about summer food in the crackly depths of the Johannesburg winter? Well, although it gets cold here at night, the afternoons are often gloriously warm and sunny, and the ineffable blue of a winter Highveld sky makes it difficult not to think of spring.
This light, summery roll of phyllo pastry and crunchy little vegetables in a lemony butter makes a lovely starter or lunch. You can prepare this in under 25 minutes, if you buy packs of pre-cut, crisp baby vegetables, and if you use spray-on olive oil (see my notes here), instead of melted butter, to glaze the phyllo sheets.
You can use any combination of quick-cooking, crisp baby vegetables for this recipe: I used two Woolworths packs of mixed vegetable pieces: baby corn, asparagus, green beans, carrot and butternut batons, courgettes and mangetout.
It is important not to overcook the veggies during the quick initial stir-fry, or they will lose their colour and crunch in the oven. Any fresh herb can be used to flavour the dressing, but I think that the combination of dill and lemon is sublime. I am a devoted fan of this most ethereal of herbs, and have discovered that you can freeze fresh dill for use during the dill-less winter months. See my note at the end of this post.
This parcel goes into a very hot oven so that the pastry crisps quickly, and the vegetables don't overcook: watch your parcel like a hawk as it bakes.
Quick Baby Vegetable and Feta 'Strudel' with Lemon and Dill Sauce
2 T (30 ml) butter
1 T (15 ml) olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and cut into pieces the size of your pinky finger
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
4 cups of crisp baby vegetables (see notes above), cut into pieces
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
the juice of half a lemon
3 T (45 ml) freshly chopped parsley
salt and milled black pepper
4 sheets of phyllo pastry
spray-on olive oil, or olive oil, or melted butter
1 and 1/2 wheels (or a block the size of a deck of cards) of feta cheese, cubed
For the sauce:
1/2 cup (125 ml) good mayonnaise (Hellman's or home-made)
1/2 cup (125 ml) thick plain white yoghurt
1 T (15 ml) finely chopped fresh dill *
the juice of half a lemon
1 small clove garlic, crushed
salt and freshly milled black pepper
Preheat the oven to 210°C. Heat the butter and olive oil in a frying pan and add the carrot and the thyme sprigs. Cook over a fairly brisk heat, tossing often, for four minutes. Now add all the remaining baby vegetables, and stir-fry them for two minutes, until they are brightly coloured. Remove the pan from the heat and mix in the garlic, lemon juice and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside and allow to cool.
Cover a large chopping board or a baking sheet with a sheet of phyllo pastry. Brush all over with melted butter, or olive oil, or - the quick way - coat with spray-on olive oil. Add another sheet of pastry, and continue layering in this way until you've used all four sheets. Pile the cooked vegetables in a strip down the middle of the pastry, leaving a gap of an inch or so at either end of the pile. Arrange the cubed feta along the top and sides of the vegetables, and sprinkle with a little more olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Pick up the long edge of the pastry closest to you and flip it over the vegetables. Brush with more fat, and then fold the other long side towards you, as if you are wrapping a present. Now fold the shorter sides of the pastry inwards (don't pleat them first) to make a neat parcel.
Place a greased baking sheet, face-down, on top of the parcel, hold it and the chopping board firmly, and flip the whole thing over so the pastry parcel lies smooth-side up on the baking sheet and the fold seams are on the bottom. Brush with more butter or oil and place in the hot oven for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the ferocity of your oven) or until the phyllo pastry is crisp and just turning golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
While the parcel is cooking, make the dressing: put all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk until well combined. Place in the fridge.
Using a serrated knife, cut into thick slices and serve warm, with a big dollop of cool dill dressing.
Serves 4 as a light meal, or 6 as a starter.
Freezing dill: It is common wisdom that fresh dill is too fragile to freeze. Well, I beg to differ. You can freeze fresh dill, provided that you have a very cold and reliable freezer. Sure, it will darken and crisp, and it won't be suitable for salads or for garnishes, but it will retain its lovely, delicate aniseed flavour for up to two months in the freezer, and can be used in salad dressings, sauces and the like without losing any pungency. Some pointers: buy the dill in a plastic 'pillow pack' or box. Don't open or unwrap it, or rinse it: place the whole package into the freezer. If you're have bought a bunch of fresh dill, put it into a freezer bag and use a drinking straw to suck out any air. Seal tightly and freeze. When you take it out of the freezer, quickly remove however much you need and immediately crumble it directly into your sauce or dressing (it thaws in seconds).
Did you notice that the picture above has six layers of phyllo, not four? That's because I tore the parcel when I flipped it over, using two spatulas, and had to patch it with two more sheets. I don't recommend using six sheets: far too much pastry. But the filling tasted good!