Spinach is a popular vegetable in the Middle East, India and many other global cuisines. But unlike Popeye the sailor man’s method (and many cooks who follow his example in the U.S.) these cuisines don’t serve spinach straight out of a can, or cooked forever with fatback. Maybe that’s why spinach is still a major part of their diets? Here are a couple of recipes showing the Persian treatment of spinach (esfanaj) with very tasty results.
Ghalieh Esfenaj (Spinach & lentils in pomegranate syrup)
1/2 c. lentils
2 c. water
1/2 tsp. salt
Bring the lentils to a boil in salted water, reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until tender.
1/2 onion, sliced
1 Tbsp. oil
10 oz. frozen spinach
2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses (or substitute yogurt for a similar tang, see note)
Meanwhile, saute onion in oil until golden brown. When lentils are tender, add onion, spinach and pomegranate molasses (see picture below). Cover and simmer lentils and spinach mixture on low heat for another 20 minutes. Stir occasionally and add a bit of water if necessary to keep from sticking. Adapted from “Persian Cooking: A Table of Exotic Delights”.
Note: if using yogurt instead of pomegranate molasses, wait to add it until just before serving, and mix with some of the hot broth first.
Pomegranate molasses is available in Middle Eastern grocery stores. I first came across this ingredient when making muhammara, a roasted red pepper dip from the region that brought us hummus and baba ghanouj. The first time I didn’t realize that you could buy pomegranate molasses, so I followed a recipe to boil down pomegranate juice until it was a syrupy consistency. Expensive and time consuming! Much easier to look for a prepared jar (I paid about $3.50 for it at Neomonde).
The second spinach dish is called Boryani-e esfanaj, a thick yogurt and spinach dip. This dip is very similar to Greek tzaziki sauce that is used in gyro sandwiches, except it’s made with spinach instead of cucumber. Simply blanch or steam some fresh spinach until it is wilted, then drain and squeeze out any excess liquid. Saute a bit of onion and garlic until it’s just starting to brown, then add the spinach and stir to mix. Remove from heat and cool the mixture to at least room temperature, or throw it in the fridge overnight. Then mix with the desired amount of drained/thickened yogurt (or I used Greek yogurt, which is thicker to start with), and season with salt and pepper to taste. Eat with pita or veggies as a dip, or spread it into a pita sandwich.