One of the things that I love about Mediterranean food is that it is so approachable. What do I mean by approachable? I mean that the food is good, wholesome ingredients with relatively simple preparation. Finally, the flavors are at once different but similar. With that, i am always looking for dishes the represent the different Mediterranean cultures. I search food that can easily be made and enjoyed by anyone. So is is with today’s dish, Pirinçli Ispanak. If you are not from Turkey, the name makes it sound exotic. But in reality it is Turkish rice and spinach. Two ingredients that are used in much of the Mediterranean, so easy to recognize. But it offers a distinctly Turkish Flair.
It is hard for me not to get too excited when trying a new meal with ingredients that are already familiar to me. What I love is discovering how different cultures combine ingredients, or season them, or both to create unique dishes. There are few ingredients much more universal than rice — only corn is used more around the world. Adding a new dish to my rotation based on rice is exciting for me. I admit it – I’m a food nerd
Discovering Turkish Cuisine
I first came across a recipe for Turkish rice and spinach in Rebecca Seal’s cookbook Istanbul: Recipes from the Heart of Turkey. This was the first Turkish cookbook I bought, maybe six or seven years ago. It was on a bargain shelf at a local Williams Sonoma that was getting ready to move. I thought why not give it a try. I had never even had any Turkish food at this point, but knew I wanted to explore the cuisine. But the book just sat on the shelf.
It was several years later before I went to my first Turkish restaurant, in London. It was wonderful, and as soon as I got home, I broke out Rebecca’s book, and began trying Turkish recipes. I liked almost everything I tried. In fact, in some ways this helped me begin to understand the shared roots of Mediterranean foods. This dish has always stuck out to me as one that anyone can like, so I am happy to share it here.
Over the years I have taken the original recipe and adapted it to my own skills and tastes. It compares favorably versions I’ve tried in Turkish restaurants. However, It would but unfair for me to say this is exactly what you would find in the restaurants in Ismir or Istanbul. It has become my version and I hope you like it. I also hope that it is respectful of its original Turkish roots.
Common Ingredients, Uncommon Flavor
Turkish rice and spinach makes use of some very common ingredients. But you put these ingredients together with a few tricks that makes it delicious. It starts with how you prepare both the rice and the spinach for this dish. First, with the rice, you need to set aside a few minutes to wash and soak the rice before you do anything else with it. The reason you want to do this is to set your rice up for later in the finished dish. You want nice, individual grains later when the dish is complete, instead of a sticky mass.
The washing part helps to rinse away any excess starch in the rice to keep it from being ‘sticky’ later on in the process. The rice then gets soaked for thirty minutes or so (while cooking the rest of the dish). Soaking rice speeds up the cooking by kick-starting the absorption of water. This gives it a head start the rice even enters the pan. That in turn keeps the cooking time down, and reduced the risk of it over cooking into a gummy ball.
Wash the Rice
To wash the rice, I take a small hand strainer and a small bowl that the strainer fits inside of. I put the rice in the strainer, and then cover it with water. I shake the rice around a bit. You will notice that the water turns a milky white color. This is the excess starch from the rice washing away. After about 10 – 15 second of swirling the rice around, I remove the strainer, drain the rice, and pour away the starchy water (someday I will find a use for it!). Repeat the process three more times. After the third rinse, put the strainer with the rice back in your bowl and cover the rice with clean water. By leaving it in the strainer, when you are ready to add it to the dish, you just take the strainer from bowl to pot, leaving the soaking water behind.
Pre Cook the Spinach
As for the spinach, you cook and wilt the spinach before making any of the rest of the dish. When you first add the spinach to your saute pan, it will be overflowing. In just two to three minutes, you will begin to see it starting to wilt. Once it starts, it goes quite quickly so don’t walk away. Once the spinach has reduced to the point it is only about ⅓ the size it was to begin with, remove the pan from the heat. Transfer the spinach to a small bowl or plate and set aside until you need it later.
You may find yourself asking why you cook the spinach first, and not at the end with the rest of the dish. I know I asked myself that when I first made the dish. But after having made the dish a number of times, I think I understand why. When you set the spinach aside, you will notice that it continues to cook just a bit and release some liquid. If you add the spinach at the end, once the rice is set, you will be introducing more liquid to the dish. That would run the risk of over wetting the rice and turning it mushy and gummy. With lots of practice you could learn how to account for the extra liquid. But for the first time(s) out, it is easier to avoid that. I still do it this way.
Not that I throw that liquid away. In fact I incorporate it into the vegetable stock that I prepare for cooking the rice. I start by pouring whatever liquid collects on my plate of spinach into a measuring cup. Then I add the vegetable stock to bring it up to the cup and quarter that I need for this recipe. That way, I collect the flavor from the spinach, as well as any nutrients that may be lost right back into the dish. Why throw that great flavor away!!
The Rest of the Dish
You want to fully cook the onion without browning before adding the rice and spinach. To achieve this, the onion is first salted to drain away some of its water. This allows the onion to slow cook a bit longer without burning. You want the onion to fully release its flavor without burning, so this trick helps with that. That is also why you add the tomato paste before adding the rice. In both cases, it is akin to cooking a sofrito before adding rice. By time you add the rice and stock, the flavors have had time to really develop and help create a richness to the dish.
Once the onions and tomato paste are cooked, add the chopped tomato. Cook until softened and then add the rice. I like to give the rice a quick stir in the pan with the other ingredients before I add any liquid. This fully coats the rice with some of the flavors and colors of the prepared onions and tomatoes. When I add the liquid, I don’t add it all at once. I add about half to start with. I let the rice cook until the liquid is almost fully absorbed, then I add about half of what remains. Again, let it fully absorb into the rice. Then test the rice to see how ‘done’ it is. If necessary, add more liquid, a little at a time until the rice is done. Let the liquid fully absorb each time.
Getting the Rice Just Right
Again, why do I do that and not just add the liquid all at once? Because there is not absolute formula for the liquid when the rice is added at this point. You don’t know how much liquid has been released into the ‘sauce’ by the onions and the tomatoes. The rice will absorb this too. You’re not sure how old the rice is, so how dry is it? Will it need more or less water? No real way to tell. And then there was the soaking step, which has its own impact on the rice. How much water did the rice absorb soaking? Because of all these variables, I find that I never use the same exact amount of water each time I make this dish (or similar dishes). So don’t just dump all your liquid in at once.
When I finish cooking the rice, I like to remove the pan from the heat and add the spinach that we set aside earlier. Fully stir the spinach into the rice. Taste the dish for seasoning, and add salt and pepper at this point to get the flavor that you are looking for. Again, add a little at a time, stir thoroughly, then taste. You will get exactly the balance you are looking for if you take the time to season and taste the food.
A Side Dish!? A Meal!? Both!!
Once Turkish rice and spinach is done it makes a wonderful side. It brings both a starch and vegetables in a single side. The spinach is so well ‘hidden’ that it might even go unnoticed by those not so sure about the green stuff. This dish will make a nice side to go with koftas. It also works well with seafood, and would be a nice side for some steamed mussels.
Beyond being a great side, this dish can make a great base for a complete meal. Turn it into a meal and keep it vegetarian by adding chickpeas, or tofu. Even edamame could work here. Although that starts moving away from the Mediterranean based ingredients. But feel free to make it your own!
If you are not concerned about keeping the meal vegetarian, try adding some grilled chicken thigh cut in strips. Or perhaps some seasoned and grilled shrimp would make a good addition. The point is you can easily stretch the Turkish Rice and Spinach to be more than just a side dish and turn it into a one dish meal.
However you choose to have, Turkish rice and spinach, or Pirinçli Ispanak, is a great way to experience Turkish flavors in a way that is approachable. You will find the meal at once familiar and exotic, and that is just the type of meal that makes Mediterreanean cuisine so exciting!
Turkish Rice and Spinach: Pirinçli Ispanak,
- 80 g long grain rice about ⅓ cup
- ½ cuo onion chopped
- 1 clove garlic chopped
- ½ tsp kosher salt plus more to taste
- 1 bunch spinach stems removed, washed, drained and roughly chopped
- 1 TBS extra virgin olive oil
- 1 TBS tomato paste
- ¾ tsp smoked paprika or sweet paprika
- 1 large tomato seeded and chopped
- 1 ¼ cup vegetable stock warmed
- fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Rinse the rice in three changes of cold water, and then set aside to soak for about 30 minutes
- Heat a large skillet over medium high heat
- Add spinach to skillet and saute, turning occasionally until spinach has wilted to about ⅓ its original volumeRemove from pan and set aside
- Place chopped onion in a small bowl and sprinkle ½ tsp of kosher salt over the onion. Stir to combine and let sit for about 30 minutes
- Return the skillet to the heat, and add olive oil
- Add onion to pan and cook slowly until just softened and translucent. Do not allow to brown, about 8 – 10 minutes
- Add garlic and cook until just softened and fragrant, 2 – 3 minutes
- Add tomato paste and paprika and stir well to fully coat onions and garlic. Allow to cook until color just begins to darken, 2 – 3 minutes
- Add chopped tomato and stir to fully incorporate and cook for 2 -3 minutes
- Add any accumulated liquid from the bowl of wilted spinach to the vegetable stock
- Add the rice and stir with other ingredients to fully coat rice with color
- Pour about ½ of the vegetable stock into the skillet, stir and bring to a simmer
- Allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed by the rice
- Pour about ½ of the remaining vegetable stock to the skillet, stir, and bring to a simmer
- Allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed by the rice. At this point, sample the rice for doneness. If necessary, continue adding vegetable stock about 1 TBS at a time and repeat until rice is fully cooked. Total time for rice will be about 20 – 25 minutes. You may not use all of the vegetable stock
- Remove rice from heat and add the spinach. Stir well to fully incorporate spinach with the rice
- Season with salt and pepper to taste
- Serve immediately and enjoy!