Pkhali, Unearthed

Spinach Pkhali

I recently decided to re-organize my bookshelves. Actually it was a new cookbook that prompted this decision, since when I tried to find a spot for it on the right shelf, I realized I couldn’t; not only was the shelf full, the entire bookcase was too. Luckily the one across the room still had some space I could hijack, so I set to work redistributing and rearranging, and in the process, rediscovered a number of books I had completely forgotten I owned.

One of these books gave me a fright when I pulled it off the shelf. At first glance it looked like its top end had been stuck into a paper shredder; on closer inspection, though, I realized the book was just full of bookmarks, ragged little strips of paper poking out of the top like a shock of messy hair. Suddenly it came back to me: this book was a relic of a particular phase in my constantly-evolving recipe-bookmarking strategy. Circa late 2006 my modus operandi when I brought home a new cookbook was to sit down with it and diligently mark the location of each and every recipe I wanted to try with a little scrap of paper. At first I tried to be organized and bought an array of multicolored Post-It notes; when those ran out I moved on to carefully-cut rectangles of white printer paper, and when I could no longer be bothered to make those, scraps of whatever paper I could find lying around: old utility bills, supermarket receipts, used envelopes. The idea was, obviously, to be able to easily find those recipes again, but also to remind me whenever my gaze passed over the book on my shelf that there were dozens of worthy recipes inside patiently waiting to be made. What I didn’t take into account, though, is how quickly you become blind to something you see every day. The book in my hand, I realized as I turned it over, I had probably spent hours poring over, planning, salivating and bookmarking—and then never opened again.

Suddenly I felt very melancholy. I noticed as if for the first time how many books on my shelf still featured those little paper fringes, each tattered slip representing a potentially life-changing recipe I never got around to making. Not only that, this was only the visible tip of the iceberg; in all the un-bookmarked books (by far the vast majority) there are no doubt hundreds, even thousands more. Suddenly one of my most basic assumptions—that one day I’ll cook my way through each and every book on my shelves, mining it for gems, learning everything it has to teach me—seemed utterly absurd. At the rate I’m currently going, cooking just as often from the internet as from books, getting stuck on things I like and cooking them multiple times, and worst of all, constantly expanding my book collection(!), I’ll be lucky if I ever get around to making one one-hundredth of the recipes currently on my shelves. But even if I never bought a new cookbook, and made a new recipe out of these every single day of every single week of every single year, it would take me somewhere around 125 years to get through my whole library. In other words, my recipes have far outstripped my lifetime; I’ll die never knowing how most of these dishes taste.

But then I looked down at the book in my hand, at all those little scraps of paper crookedly saluting me, and I realized that maybe I was looking at things the wrong way. I may have more recipes than I can ever work through, but maybe that’s also the upside: I’ll never run of new ones to try. And feeling a little more cheerful, I finished my bookshelf reorganization, took that fringe-topped book into the kitchen, and made three of those long-ago-bookmarked recipes for dinner.

The cookbook I rediscovered that night was an early one by Anya von Bremzen called Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook. I don’t know if its non-enticing regional focus was the reason I ignored it for so many years, but in case you’re also in possession of this book don’t make the same mistake. In fact the title is more than a bit of a misnomer, since the scope of the book extends far beyond Russia to all the countries of the former Soviet Union. That in itself makes it a fascinating read; it was written just before that enormous and diverse country splintered apart and while it was still perfectly legitimate to pull together recipes ranging from Russian dumplings, Ukrainian borscht, Azerbaijani pilafs, Uzbek kebabs and Georgian salads into one collection. There’s really a lot of exotic stuff packed in here, but the best part is von Bremzen herself; if you’re familiar with any of her other books such as the phenomenal New Spanish Table, or her wonderful writing in Travel and Leisure, you know that she’s a gifted storyteller with fabulous taste. I count her among the few food writers I trust implicitly; when she says something is good, I’ve learned to listen.

The dishes I made for dinner were no exception. There was an Armenian pumpkin moussaka, layers of dense, sweet squash interspersed with spicy ground beef, crunchy pine nuts and creamy béchamel, and there was an apricot-laced red lentil soup, sour with lemon and warm with cumin. Our favorite by far, though, was the spinach pkhali. It’s a Georgian recipe, an intensely aromatic spinach salad/dip hybrid that features what I’ve come to recognize as the country’s holy trinity of flavors: walnuts, garlic, and a haunting herb-and-spice blend that offsets the biting freshness of cilantro and tarragon with the bitter, aromatic edge of fenugreek. Sprinkled with crunchy sweet-tart pomegranate seeds, the flavors were electrifying. I felt like my tastebuds were learning to speak a whole new language.

I was actually so enchanted by that pkhali that I woke up the next day determined to unearth as many of the recipe gems still lurking on my shelves as humanly possible in the years I have left. I felt so inspired, in fact, that the first thing I did was log on to amazon and order a whole bunch of new books to dig through.

Spinach Pkhali

Pkhali (the ‘kh’ is pronounced as a deep, guttural ‘h’) is a whole class of Georgian vegetable dishes that straddle the line between salad and dip. The constant is the walnut sauce, and the fact that the vegetable is cut very, very finely – almost (but not quite) to a puree. Beet pkhali is also very popular, and is often served alongside the spinach; to prepare beets this way, wrap 3 large ones in foil and bake until soft, then peel and finely chop (or pulse in a food processor) before mixing with the sauce. If you’d like to substitute frozen spinach in this recipe, I imagine it would work, though I’m not sure about the amount; maybe start with a pound (half a kilo) of the frozen stuff and add more as needed to balance out the flavors.
p.s. After making this again, I’ve decided I like a slightly smaller amount of spinach, to let the flavors of the walnut sauce really shine. Alternatively, you could use the full 2lbs and make one and a half times the sauce.
source: adapted from Anya von Bremzen’s Please to the Table
serves: 4-6 as an hors d’oeuvre or side dish

1.5-2 pounds (.75-1 kilo) fresh spinach, stems removed and washed in several changes of water
1 cup (100g) walnuts
4 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek
pinch cayenne
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, or to taste
1 small onion, minced
3 tablespoons finely-chopped fresh cilantro (coriander)
1 1/2 tablespoons finely-chopped fresh tarragon


pomegranate seeds, for garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the spinach and cook just until tender, about one minute. Drain well and let cool. When manageable, wrap the spinach in a clean kitchen towel and squeeze until nearly dry. Chop it as finely as possible (don’t use a food processor or blender, which may puree it; it should have texture) and set aside.

In a blender, combine the walnuts, garlic, coriander, fenugreek, cayenne and vinegar. Add 3 tablespoons of warm water and blend until you have a smooth, creamy sauce about the consistency of mayonnaise, adding a little more water if needed to get things moving.

Add the walnut sauce to the spinach and stir until thoroughly blended and smooth. Stir in the minced onion, cilantro and tarragon, and season with salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate for 6 to 8 hours to allow the flavors to blend. Taste again before serving and adjust the salt and vinegar if needed.

To serve, spread the pkhali on a plate and smooth the top with a spatula. With a knife, make a pattern of diamonds in the top, and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds (or, in a pinch, walnut pieces). Serve with bread.

Out of Africa, Into the Bowl

Senegalese Peanut Soup

In fourth grade there was a girl named Karen who I envied something fierce. Karen was cool and pretty, she beat the boys at every sport in PE, and everyone—regardless of gender—wanted to be her friend. The main reason I envied her, though, was for her lunches. In stark contrast to my tuna or egg salad on whole wheat and fruit-juice-sweetened granola bars, Karen’s lunchbags were a cornucopia of forbidden delights: Ritz crackers topped with canned Velveeta, Snack Pack pudding cups, tall stacks of Oreo cookies and the coup de grâce, fluffernutter sandwiches on squishy white bread*.

Fluffernutter. Just the name sent chills down my spine. I didn’t even know what it was, but I knew it must be heavenly. When I finally got up the courage to ask Karen for specifics she shrugged wearily, obviously bored to have to educate such culinary dilettantes, and sighed, “oh you know, just peanut butter and marshmallow creme.” Just peanut butter and marshmallow creme! The mere idea was so far outside my dietary reality that the only image I could conjure was of Karen’s mother standing over a big bowl of whipping cream, tossing in dollops of peanut butter and handfuls of marshmallows as she beat the cream to soft, billowy peaks. One day, I swore to myself, I’d save up enough allowance to buy cream, marshmallows and white bread, and I’d make a fluffernutter sandwich myself. The peanut butter would be no problem, of course; that was probably the one common thread between Karen’s kitchen and mine.

To this day I’m not quite sure why I was so transfixed by the idea of that fluffernutter sandwich, since I didn’t even like peanuts very much. I loved almonds and cashews and pecans and walnuts and everything containing them, but when I found peanuts in a nut assortment I would usually pick them out. I mean I didn’t hate peanuts, but I didn’t love them the way everyone else did: in a starring role on bread with jelly, honey and/or bananas, enrobed in chocolate or praline or even just roasted and salted. I often felt like the odd one out for my lack of enthusiasm for them, so perhaps I imagined that the fluffernutter was my ticket into the peanut-lovers’ club, the missing link between me and this national culinary heavyweight that no one except me could get enough of. Surely there must be some dish out there that would show me just what everyone else saw in those beany little pseudo-nuts.

There was, but it wasn’t a fluffernutter sandwich. It was a soup I made a few years later from a recipe in one of my mother’s cookbooks, Mollie Katzen’s charmingly-illustrated Enchanted Broccoli Forest. I was probably twelve or thirteen at the time and just learning to cook; the so-called “curried peanut soup” caught my eye because we had most of the ingredients already on hand—no small hurdle for an income-less, rural-dwelling, pre-teen. We were no doubt lacking a good few of the spices, and I seem to recall substituting regular milk for the specified buttermilk, but none of that detracted from the soup, which was a revelation; toasty and creamy and spicy, its warmth filled my belly and wrapped around me like the folds of a familiar blanket. Relegated to a supporting role alongside big, savory flavors, I had to admit that peanuts were actually quite wonderful.

From there, of course, there was a whole world of peanutty delicacies to fall in love with, from the sweet and salty saté dips of Southeast Asia to rich Indian curries and chunky chutneys, to the thick, chile-laced peanut sauces of Central and South America. I also kept a soft spot for spiced peanut soup, though it was several more years before I learned that this improbable dish is not just the brainchild of wooly-sweater-clad vegetarians in upstate New York, but a staple of West African cuisine. There, peanuts were introduced by Portuguese explorers in the sixteenth century and enthusiastically adopted into both sweet and savory dishes; interestingly, the West Africans’ attachment to the nuts was so great that when large numbers were forcibly transported to the New World as slaves, they brought peanuts with them, thereby setting the stage for the US to become a great peanut-loving nation as well. But back to the soup: encompassing enough local names and variations to fill an entire cookbook, what seems to be the common thread is a stewy juxtaposition of peanuts, vegetables, tomato and spice—a combination delicious enough to have not only won national dish status across half a continent, but inspired countless imitations from people who have most likely never set foot anywhere near there.

The following version, which I’ve adapted from Deborah Madison who in turn adapted it from James Peterson, may not be completely authentic, but it’s the best riff on the peanut soup theme I’ve yet tasted. Rich and nutty with a slow burn and a mellow sweetness from the coconut milk, it’s exciting yet strangely familiar at the same time. I’ve thrown in a few more veggies than called for in the original, which not only balances out the richness a little, but thickens it up enough to stand up to a scoop of cooked rice or millet. I’ve also discovered that an overnight rest before eating does wonders, allowing the flavors to mingle and plunge to new depths. If you can’t manage to think that far ahead, though—and let’s face it, I usually can’t—at least try to save some leftovers for lunch; not only will it inject a little unexpected warmth into your day, a bowl of this at school or the office will inspire a thousand times more envy than a boring old fluffernutter sandwich**.

*Mom, I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you for not giving me this kind of stuff for lunch. I may not have appreciated it then, but I sure do now.

**Which, by the way, I still have never tasted. Those of you who have, tell me: is this something I should rectify?

Senegalese Peanut Soup

My favorite additions to this spectacular soup-cum-stew are green chilies, carrots and spinach, but you could add pretty much anything under the sun. Sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cabbage, eggplant, corn and green beans would be naturals, as would chicken, shrimp or fish if you want some extra protein, all of which you can cook right in the soup. And don’t forget: the flavor really improves with age, so make this as far ahead of time as you can.
source: adapted from Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen
serves: 4-6

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, diced
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 fresh jalapeños, seeded and minced, or 1 green bell pepper, chopped
finely-chopped stems from 1 small bunch cilantro (coriander)
, about 1/4 cup chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
cayenne pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons curry powder
3 cups (750 ml) vegetable or chicken stock
2 (14oz/400g) cans crushed or diced tomatoes in juice
2/3 cup (150g) smooth natural peanut butter
1 cup (250ml) coconut milk
8 oz (250g) fresh spinach, tough stems discarded, washed and sliced into ribbons, or washed baby spinach
salt and pepper, to taste
handful chopped cilantro leaves for garnish

cooked rice, millet or couscous for serving

In a large, heavy pot warm the oil over medium heat, then add the onion, garlic, jalapeños or green pepper and cilantro stems. Cook until the onion has softened and turned golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in the carrots, cayenne and curry powder, and fry until the spices are fragrant, about a minute more.

Add the stock and tomatoes, including all their juices. Stir well and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let cook gently until the carrots are soft, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the peanut butter, coconut milk and spinach and continue cooking until the spinach is soft and the soup has thickened, about another ten minutes. Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve hot alongside the cooked grain of your choice, garnished with chopped cilantro.