Dining In: Plasto Revisited, the slow-cooker version

When things get hectic and I don’t want to think too much about meal-planning, there are certain recipes I reach for, metaphorically anyway because some of them I can do from muscle memory — I’ve made them so often! Piccata-style chicken or pork is one such dish, and pasta with tuna and capers is another (we really do like capers, don’t we?). Fortunately, I can still rely on these stand-bys even when cooking on a hotel (yes, we’re still here) two-burner cooktop.

Lately, though, we’ve had a hankering for another favorite that normally requires an oven — the Greek cornbread layered with greens known as Plasto (see photo). Plasto has been a regular part of our menus since we were first introduced to it way back in 2007 by Laurie at Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska. Following Laurie’s recipe, wild and other leafy greens are long-cooked with onions, garlic and herbs, then mixed with cheeses and sandwiched between layers of cornbread dough and baked. It’s a scrumptious meat-less meal, and is equally good warm from the oven or cold while hiking or traveling.

But being oven-less here in a hotel, we needed a way to adapt the recipe for a slow-cooker. Actually, I often cook the greens in a slow-cooker anyway when I’m planning to make Plasto. Once the greens are cooked and cooled, they will keep in the fridge for 2-3 days until the day I want to bake, then I have only to add the cheese, make the cornbread dough, and bake.

Although I had never tried one, I had seen recipes for quickbreads made in a slow-cooker so I was certain I could find a cornbread or cornmeal dumpling recipe that would work. I knew I wanted to cook the cornbread with the greens — part of what makes Plasto so tasty is that the bread absorbs some of the savory liquid from the soupy greens while it bakes, otherwise we’re just be eating greens with a side of cornbread. Don’t get me wrong, I love cornbread and greens, too, but Plasto is a different taste and texture experience. Anyway, a long perusal of the internet revealed one key difference between breads/biscuits that are baked in an oven, and those baked in a slow-cooker on top of a liquid — be they stews, soups, chili, or whatever: and that was 1/3 less chemical leavening, as the added steam from the liquid below it gives the dough a helpful lift as it also bakes.

And it worked! Once the greens were completely cooked and filled the room with their savory aroma and whiffs of dill and oregano, I stirred in feta cheese, then topped it with my usual cornbread dough minus one teaspoon of baking powder. The result was perfect — just the right mix of greens and cornbread to satisfy our craving for Plasto. The biggest difference we noticed was in the texture of the bread — it was much lighter and more moist due to the steam-action, but that wasn’t a bad thing. It was also different not to have the corn-y flavor coming from both sides of the greens, and of course this version is not as portable as the original either. But it’s definitely a keeper for days when I know I can cook the greens the same day the dish will be served. It is also a nice alternative to turning on an oven during the hot summer months.

Another concession I made in this Plasto, given the limits of the micro-kitchen, is that all the greens (turnip, collard, kale) were frozen. A time-saver and sanity saver when counter space is nonexistent and colanders are limited. One of the things that we love about Plasto is the complexity of flavor that comes from using a mix of greens, especially if a couple of them have a bitter edge like the mustards, endives, or kales. At minimum I try to use 3 different greens but have been known to use as many as 5, and at least 2 greens in the mix will always have a bite.

PLASTO, THE SLOW-COOK METHOD
(With thanks to Laurie for introducing us to the original version, which is now firmly in our culinary DNA, and from which this is adapted)
Serves 4 persons

For the Greens:
3 lbs (1.36kg) cleaned weight mixture of greens: kale, spinach, collard, chicory, mustard, turnip, Chinese mustard, rapini, watercress, etc. (unless you’re using frozen vegetables that are already cleaned and weighed, you’re going to have to eye-ball the approximate pre-clean weight of each green: consider that kales, western mustard and turnip greens, and collards have heavy, thick stems that will be discarded; while almost the entire bunch of spinach, chicories, Asian greens, rapini and cresses is edible)
2-3 sprigs fresh oregano, or 1/2 tsp dried
4-5 sprigs fresh dill, or 1 tsp dried
1/2 cup (120ml) water or broth
sea salt to taste
fresh ground black pepper
1/2 – 1 tsp Aleppo pepper (Korean pepper flakes can substitute)
3 TBL olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thinly
3-5 cloves garlic, minced

Combine all greens, oregano, dill, water, salt, and peppers in a 6qt/L slow-cooker, and set on LOW.

Meanwhile, cook onions and olive oil in a separate skillet set over medium heat until the onions are translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking until garlic is fragrant, abour 4 minutes. Add cooked aromatics to the greens and stir in well.

Cover and leave greens on LOW for 7-8 hours. When cooked, you can continue with the recipe below, or cool the greens completely and refrigerate until needed, then mix in the cheese and sandwich between layers of your favorite cornbread dough in an 8” round cake pan and bake.


To Finish:
1 cup (8oz/240g) sheep’s milk feta
1 quantity Cornbread Topping (below)

Once greens are cooked, combine crumbled feta with greens. TURN Slow-cooker to HIGH.

Top with cornbread dough, keeping away from the edges of the pot to give the dough room to rise as it bakes. Cover, and do not peek for at least 30 minutes. Check with toothpick to see if cornbread is cooked through. May need another 10 minutes to finish.

Remove cover to allow steam to escape so it does not drip back onto your bread while it cools and sets for 15 minutes.

Serve with extra feta and olives, or your favorite green salad.

CORNBREAD TOPPING, FOR THE SLOW-COOKER
1 cup (100g) all-purpose flour (do not substitute self-rising) 1 cup (170g) medium-grind cornmeal 3 TBL (36g) granulated sugar 2 tsp (7.5g) baking powder 1/3 cup (78ml) olive oil, or melted butter 1 cup (236ml) milk 1 lg. egg, beaten

Combine dry ingredients and mix well. Combine oil, milk and egg and beat well to blend. Add wet ingredients to dry and mix just enough to combine — do not overmix.

Add as directed above, or use to top your favorite slow-cook chili, soup or stew. Cook as directed above.

To adapt this recipe for baking in a conventional oven, add 1 more tsp. of baking powder to the dry ingredients and bake in a square cake pan, or better yet, a pre-heated 8” skillet with 1 TBL of butter melted and swirled to coat the sides. Bake at 400F/200C for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes away clean.