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Deirdre Bourdet, Offbeat Eats: It’s a Pkhali holiday: Colorful veggies to light up the table

From the 5 easy, holiday-friendly meals to try this week series
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Georgian Spinach Pkhali

Georgian Spinach Pkhali

Can you locate the country of Georgia on a world map? I sure couldn’t, until I caught wind of their amazing culinary and wine traditions and started doing some reading.

The people of Georgia care a lot about their food and wine, and with good reason: it’s awesome. Georgians have a knack for creating richly flavored, complex dishes out of the humblest of ingredients, and every dish is brilliant with wine.

Don’t just take it from me. Pick up a copy of “The Georgian Feast” by Darra Goldstein and start cooking. If you’re looking for a unique and colorful snack for a holiday happy hour, Georgia has you covered. Pick a vegetable and make some pkhali.

Pkhali are essentially vegetable pâtés – highly seasoned cooked veggies and ground nuts molded into fun shapes (balls, diamonds, hearts, etc.) or presented as a thick slab on a platter with some sort of decorative flourish.

Traditionally, you’d eat pkhali straight as a rich appetizer salad, but you can also enjoy it spread on crackers, crostini, sandwiches, wraps, flatbreads, tacos, lettuce wraps, Beef Wellington, and anywhere else you want a burst of earthy deliciousness.

Georgians make pkhali out of whatever seasonal vegetables they’ve got around, using the same general technique: Cook the vegetable to get rid of the water and tenderize it, chop or grate it finely, then mix in ground nuts, spices, and whatever herb(s) you have at hand. It’s a fantastically versatile and forgiving dish, and really tastes best when it’s made a few hours or even a day ahead. All of this makes pkhali ideal for holiday feasts.

I’ve really enjoyed beet pkhali, mushroom pkhali and roasted shallot pkhali, but my favorite December variation is the classic spinach edition rolled into bite-sized balls, and garnished with gleaming pomegranate seeds.

Use whatever kind of leafy greens you like – kale, collards, beet greens, cauliflower greens, broccoli greens, turnip greens, etc. will all work. Just be sure to cook your greens until they’re completely tender, and let them cool down before mixing in the nuts and herbs.

A pkhali of leafy greens looks impressive just packed into a ring mold and garnished with pomegranate seeds and/or walnuts, but I’m hard pressed to think of a more festive, interesting, and satisfying snack to pair with holiday libations than these bright little green and red baubles.

The first recipe that follows was adapted from Darra Goldstein’s excellent book of Georgian recipes. But just in case you’re already eating Georgian food every day and are weary of its charms, I’m including a second recipe that’s a vegan mash-up of spinach pkhali and palak paneer. Happy holidays and stay healthy, everyone.

Georgian Spinach Pkhali

Adapted from Darra Goldstein’s “The Georgian Feast”

Makes 18 bite-sized balls; serves 6 as an appetizer

If you don’t like cilantro, swap in fresh mint leaves, fennel fronds, tarragon, or a combination of those alternatives instead.

1 lb. fresh spinach (or frozen, thawed and with water squeezed out)

2 Tbsp. olive oil

⅛ tsp. dried red pepper flakes

3 cloves garlic, minced or grated

⅓ cup walnuts

¼ tsp. ground coriander

¼ tsp. dried savory

⅛ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

½ cup packed cilantro (leaves and stems)

½ cup packed flat-leaf parsley (leaves and tender stems only)

1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar, to taste

fine sea salt to taste

¼ cup fresh pomegranate seeds

Wash and drain fresh spinach, then chop well. Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium-low heat. Stir in the pepper flakes and garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then stir in the chopped spinach. Cook, stirring often, until the greens have given off all their water and are tender; let cool to room temperature. Meanwhile put the walnuts, coriander, savory and pepper in a small food processor or grinder and process until the nuts are finely ground; transfer the sandy-looking mixture to a large mixing bowl. Finely chop the cilantro and parsley and add to the bowl, along with the cooked spinach. Stir well with a spatula and/or clean hands to incorporate all of the ingredients. Season to taste with the vinegar and salt. Shape the mixture however you like and let it sit 20 minutes (or refrigerate overnight) to let the flavors blend. Serve at room temperature, garnished with pomegranate seeds.

Palak Pkhali (Indian-spiced spinach pkahli) Makes 18 bite-sized balls; serves 6 as an appetizer This recipe swaps in buttery pecans for the walnuts and seasonings like you’d find in the classic Punjabi dish palak paneer. If you don’t like cilantro, swap in fresh mint leaves or parsley (or a combo) instead. 1 lb. fresh spinach (or frozen, thawed and with water squeezed out) 2 Tbsp. olive oil 2 tsp. ground coriander 1 tsp. ground cumin ¼ tsp. ground turmeric ¼ tsp. ground black pepper 3 cloves garlic, minced or grated 1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger ⅓ cup pecans 1 Tbsp. dried fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi) (optional) 1 tsp. sliced fresh serrano chili ¼—½ tsp. cayenne, to taste ½ cup packed cilantro (leaves and stems) ½ cup packed fresh fennel fronds 1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice, to taste Fine sea salt to taste

¼ cup fresh pomegranate seeds

Wash and drain fresh spinach, then chop well. Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium-low heat.

Stir in the coriander, cumin, turmeric, and black pepper and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the garlic and ginger, cook another 30 seconds, then stir in the chopped spinach. Cook, stirring often, until the greens have given off all their water and are tender; let cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile put the pecans, dried fenugreek leaves (if using), fresh chili and cayenne in a small food processor or grinder and process until the nuts are finely ground; transfer the sandy-looking mixture to a large mixing bowl.

Finely chop the cilantro and the fennel fronds and add to the bowl, along with the cooked spinach and fresh lime juice. Stir well with a spatula and/or clean hands to incorporate all of the ingredients.

Season to taste with salt and more lime juice if desired. Shape the mixture however you like and let it sit 20 minutes (or refrigerate overnight) to let the flavors blend.

Serve at room temperature, garnished with pomegranate seeds.

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Deirdre Bourdet is a food and wine wordsmith, recipe developer and author of the Hedonism Eats cookbook series and blog. For more, visit hedonism-eats.com

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