It’s been more than ten years since I was learning to make this exotic dish, which is perfect for Lent. My late husband did not keep Lent but he liked it very much, too. He had a hard time believing that there was no sour cream in the mix. I am re-posting the recipe and my notes unchanged since then. I hope I can make at least one batch this year.
The main ingredient is spinach, but the other ingredients in this dish, which can be a vegetable side or a spread for bread or crackers, make it very unusual and in my case, addictive. I know, eating in an uncontrolled manner is the opposite of what Lent is about, but maybe overdoing it on spinach is not as bad as some things. And to reduce temptation, so far I have made sure to take this dish to potlucks where I would be embarrassed to hover over the plate and reveal my piggishness.
The origin of pkhali is the Republic of Georgia. Though I have a Georgian acquaintance at church, I found the recipe on The Traveler’s Lunchbox blog, about a year ago. I’ve made it several times since then, at least twice using frozen chopped spinach, and most recently with fresh spinach.
The recipe, pasted from the link above:
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. [I used 2 -10 oz. packages, which was a bit much. -GJ]
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
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 [I used a food processor. -GJ], 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.
(Me again) Using the fresh vegetable took more time, though boxes of Costco baby spinach make it easy; the result was definitely a refinement of the dish, as it did away with the many pieces of stem that you get in the frozen greens. As to quantities of all the ingredients, they are fairly flexible, and I did a lot of tasting at the end to make sure there was enough salt and spreadability.
The last time I took it to a community dinner, I also brought along a loaf of the Eritrean flatbread called himbasha, which dark-skinned parishioners in flowing white gauze bring to our church dinners every week to pass around in baskets. I always make sure to reach in and tear off a piece.
It was the first time I’d tried making it at my house. My loaf came out a little thick compared to what I think are the best versions I’ve eaten, because I didn’t notice I was supposed to make 2 loaves with the dough, and I put the whole thing into one large skillet. But it was wonderfully chewy and flavorful all the same, and my tasters loved it still warm from the pan with some of the pkhali spread on.
Here is that recipe from a book I helped to compile, a small collection of international dishes that are cooked and served by members of each ethnic community (we are truly a pan-Orthodox group) for my church’s yearly food festival.
Makes two 12″ round breads
3 pounds flour
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cups water, at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
1. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, yeast and sugar. Dissolve salt in water. Add oil and water/salt mixture to flour mixture, and mix until you have a stiff dough. Add raisins and mix until incorporated.
2. Cover and let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board. Form into one or two large circles the diameter of your frying pans and up to 1″ thick.
4. Lightly grease electric frying pan or cast iron skillet or paella pan. Heat over medium heat (about 300 degrees on an electric skillet) until a drop of water dances on it. Place dough carefully in pan, cover and cook about 15 minutes, until bottom is golden brown. Turn and cook another 15 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool on wire rack.
And at right, a photo of the last plate of pkhali I accomplished. Pomegranates were not to be found in the supermarkets in March, so I used the walnut option for garnishing.
You can see the little pieces of onion that I hadn’t minced finely enough….I thought they would overwhelm the dish, but no, it was as addictive as ever. Still, I might put the onions in the food processor with the walnuts next time.
Will I have time to make this again during Lent? Probably not — but we spinach lovers don’t need to be fasting to enjoy something so yummy.