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.