Yet Another Way to Eat Your Spinach
Tunisian Jews make a condiment called pkaila or bkeila, which is extraordinary. It is prepared by cooking down plenty of spinach for hours in a generous quantity of oil. The spinach — Swiss chard is often used as well — loses all its water, and very slowly fries in the oil, resulting in a small amount of greasy paste as black as crude oil, which is used to flavor all kinds of soups and stews.
I have known about this method of cooking spinach for years, but I could never quite bring myself to try it. It seemed strange to cook a leaf for so long, and until it goes entirely black. What flavor could possibly be left? It was counterintuitive, particularly to someone like me, who has been pleading with people for years to please not overcook their vegetables.
Still, I tried, and after putting a tiny spoonful in my mouth, I thought: Wow, I don’t think I’ve actually tasted spinach before. The long process distilled the flavor to its essence. It was pure spinach, and absolutely wonderful. I couldn’t have much of it — it was superrich — but I then cooked my own version of tfina pkaila, a beef, bean and pkaila stew, served on Saturdays and special occasions in Tunisian homes. Mine had oxtail and butterbeans, with the pkaila imparting a spinachy magic all over. As I was devouring it, all I wanted to do was add more and more pkaila.
These days, many Tunisian cooks use a shortcut: In France, where large numbers of Tunisians have settled over the years, you can get a jarred version that saves hours of cooking and stirring.
For this column, I am cooking halibut in a mild version of pkaila, which won’t overwhelm the fish but still maintains the brilliant effect of the fried spinach. I altered the method to make the process shorter and added some aromatics. Persian lime is there because tfina pkaila really reminds me of the Iranian stew ghormeh sabzi, but you can easily leave it out.
My second recipe is a fresher play, with a similar set of ingredients. The fish is quickly seared and served with cooling yogurt. Even though the spinach isn’t cooked at all (sending me back to my old comfort zone), its flavor is amplified by chile, spring onion and some of my favorite herbs and spices.