It has seemed to me for a while, that the arrival on the world’s dinner tables of Italian risotto has been an uncontested battle. Don’t get me wrong – I do love risotto. The creamy consistency, the still ‘al dente‘ grains of arborio or carnaroli rice, the wonderful intensity of flavour; and there is something rather satisfying in all that stirring. But THAT is the problem – there is so much stirring! We stand there at our cookers, wooden spoon in hand, for what seems an age, slowly combining hot stock and rice. What has been overlooked by international gourmets and chefs is the absolute panoply of easy,vegetable ‘pilaffs’ that Greek home cooking has to offer.
The evolution of most dishes in the Greek repertoire is fairly obvious. In the past, when families lived mainly off what they could grow, forage or catch, meals came from the need to feed a family with what was in abundance. Meat, on the whole, was saved for high days and holidays and,in this world, vegetables reigned supreme. As I have said before in these pages, in a lot of Greek dishes, the vegetable is the star, not the ‘walk-on’.
The most well-known of these vegetable ‘pilafs’ is probably my particular favourite, ‘spanakórizo’. This is a dish of gently braised spinach, long grain rice, a little tomato, chopped onion, parsley, and dill and – of course – a generous glug of good olive oil. To start with the spinach is cooked alone with all the ingredients save for the rice. The rice is partly cooked in a separate pan, then drained and added to the vegetables. The whole thing then gently bubbles away until the rice is cooked through – with minimal stirring!
The result is a comforting, fragrant, tasty dish; the staple of most Greek housewives’ daily dishes. To serve it needs nothing more than a little grated hard cheese, or a good salty feta and plenty of ground black pepper.
So the time has come, I would say, to hang up the risotto spoons for a while and try these lighter, fresher Greek versions – and there are many. Recently, I have tried a few variations; summery courgette-rice is popular in the island of Kithnos. Leek-rice I made for the first time yesterday and it was wonderful. Cabbage-rice sounds a bit utilitarian but is, in fact, very subtle and reminds me of steamy kitchen windows in the winter. For me though, spinach-rice rules supreme – enjoy!
Spanakórizo – Spinach Rice
1 kg spinach, washed well ( if you want a really fast version, use ‘Ready Washed’!)
1 medium onion, or 2 leeks, diced
200 ml ‘V8’ juice or tomato juice
180 – 200 gm long grain rice – preferably ‘easy cook’
A small handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 – 3 tabs. chopped dill
150 ml olive oil
Ground black pepper
In a good sized casserole pan heat a few tablespoonfuls of the olive oil, sauté the chopped onion (or leeks ) until soft and starting to turn golden.
Add the washed spinach and allow to wilt slightly. Add the herbs and mix well; now add the tomato juice,remaining olive oil and seasoning.
Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and allow to cook for about 15 minutes.It may be necessary to adding a little water.
Put the rice in a separate saucepan with plenty of water and a teaspoon of salt. Bring to the boil and allow to cook for 5 minutes. Drain well.
Add the drained rice to the spinach-tomato mixture and allow to simmer for a further 10-15 minutes or until the rice is cooked, stirring occasionally to ensure that the rice doesn’t stick – add a little water as required.
Serve with a drizzle of olive oil, and plenty of ground black pepper.
The perfect side dish is a good, firm feta cheese and bread.