Friends Forever

I never met a vegetable I didn’t like.  Really. 

I mean, I’ve met a few vegetables that I may not consider BFFs, but truth be told, I like most of them when cooked properly.   And I think that Bengali cooking does justice to most vegetables, although we do cook them thoroughly.  The vegetable dishes of Bengal are not served raw, crunchy, or barely wilted.  Some dishes are elaborately spiced but still the personality of the vegetable shines through.  The prominence on vegetables in Bengali cooking often creates a kind of dissonance for my non-Indian friends, whose experience with Indian food may be limited to Indian restaurants, where the emphasis lies with rich, intensely-flavored sauces.  

In this post, I’d like to write about one of my vegetable BFFs: spinach with peas.  According to Wikipedia, spinach is native to the Indian subcontinent and may have been first domesticated there, which suggests that is has been historically plentiful. This assertion may explain its importance on the menu.  The traditional, multi-course Bengali meal is elaborate, consisting of several courses.  Spinach, or some other leafy green vegetable, is almost always served as the first or second course, preceding the dal. 

Spinach with Peas

This dish is an American adaptation of a more traditional Bengali dish, which is typically made with fresh mustard greens sautéed with crunchy fresh green peas in mustard oil.   My recipe includes frozen spinach because fresh spinach is not always available or very good during the winter months.  

This version of spinach with peas is easy to make and fresh-tasting.  It works well with both fresh or frozen spinach,  and is naturally sweet and full in the mouth.  If you use fresh, mature spinach, the cooking treatment is a little different and you may want to steam and wilt the spinach first.

Ingredients:

  • 16 oz. package of frozen chopped spinach (1 package) thawed, or
  • 2 bunches of fresh spinach leaves, sliced in a chiffonade, can also be used.  If using fresh spinach, wilt first by steaming or blanching.
  • 1 cup of frozen peas
  • 3 tablespoons of canola or olive oil
  • ½ tsp of panch phoron, or five-seed spice.  If you don’t have panch phoron, nigella seeds may be substituted.
  • 2 tsp. sour cream
  • 1 tsp. tomato paste
  • Salt to taste
  • Cayenne pepper to taste
  • A pinch of sugar for balance

Step 1:  Prepare the phoron (oil and seed) mixture

Add the oil to your sauté pan, heat for a minute and then add the five-seed spice or panch phoron.  Continue heating the oil until the phoron becomes fragrant (about 2 minutes). 

Step 2:  The spinach and peas

Add the spinach and sauté over medium heat.  As the spinach begins to cook, add sour cream, tomato paste, salt and cayenne pepper, and stir well to incorporate.   At this stage, you may find the spinach absorbs more oil that you would have thought.  If that is the case, add another tablespoon of oil and continue cooking.   Once the spinach in nearly cooked, approximately 10-12  minutes, add the peas and mash slightly with the back of a wooden spoon.  Stir well again.  Adjust salt, sugar and pepper to taste. Dish is finished once the peas are cooked.

Personal Note:  I’m not a fan of spinach that has been cooked into a greyish mass, and while this dish does require the spinach to be cooked through, rather than simply wilted, I prefer to pull it off when it develops a dark green shine, and the peas are bright green in contrast.  Ultimately, the texture should be creamy.

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