Once again and auspiciously, life has taken a major turn to the better. At forty, even though I know the best route out of a stressful situation, sometimes my lack of impulse control gets the best of me. I needed to be mindful, to take a step back, to ask for support and to listen. All is well in this house and by association in my tiny yellow kitchen.
The last couple of months have been hectic, impulse control has gone on a rampage and my fridge has been awkwardly fully stocked with enough produce to feed a whole village. With the exception of ridges potato chips, I have been buying exceptionally healthy food, like dark leafy greens. My body knows and craves best, I guess.
Dark leafy greens are the darlings of the healthful eating movement. They are high in fiber, vitamins K, A, C, and Bs, along with minerals such as calcium. You can eat them raw in a salad or a smoothie, steamed, braised, baked into chips, and ultimately more relevant to my childhood … stuffed and rolled!
Most infamous, the poster child of Mediterranean cuisine, is the grape leaf (Wara’ Inab ورق عنب). Next comes the ever- changeable cabbage (Alkarinb الكرنب) — spunky and bitey while raw, but sweet and silky when cooked. Cabbage rolls (Malfoof ملفوف) are a staple in cultures across Africa, Eurasia, and South America.
Spinach (Sabanikh سبانخ), originally from Persia until it made its way into every kitchen in the world, has dominated the health world throughout culinary history. Only recently has spinach yielded to a long list of more robust and nutritious sisters, such as watercress, chinese cabbage and chard.
My mother, and Arabic culinary culture in general, is a big fan of leafy green vegetables. Mama rolls everything she can get her hands on; most notably are beet greens (Wara’ Shamandar ورق شمندر), collard greens (Lakhneh لخنة), and borage (Lsan Ilthor لسان الثور) which is an intensely dark and rough leaf with a highly addictive and deep earthy flavor. Borage is native to the Mediterranean, its flower is dainty and violet, and its seed is the richest known source of omega-6 fatty acids (gamma-linolenic acid).
A proud carnivore, Mama has a passion for in-season locally grown greens. Winter in Amman is a time when she will prepare an appetizer made of hedge mustard leaves, Sisymbrium officinale (Huweirneh حويرنة), mixed in an involved and lengthy process with labaneh (Arabic sour cream). As its name eludes, this green has a sharp flavor unlike anything I have ever tasted, and it remains one of my favorite foods to eat.
Jute, or the leaves of Corchorus spp. (Mulokhieh ملوخية ), is my least favorite of all of my mother’s dishes, though it’s a favorite of all my siblings. When cooked, this green leaf results in a pleasing smoky flavor, and a not-so-pleasing slimy, or more technically, mucilaginous texture. The word Mulokhieh stirs up mischievous childhood memories of my brother Yousef and I, along with neighborhood kids, smoking its de-leafed stems. Even though this experience was hilarious, it was incredibly unpleasant.
Purslane, or Portulaca oleraceapurslane (Baqleh بقلة), contains more omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid in particular) than any other leafy vegetable. Sometimes referred to as a succulent, purslane’s mucilaginous quality is overcome by its pleasant sour and slightly salty taste, especially when eaten raw in Fattoosh (فتوش) — a Ramadani salad with toasted Arabic bread and sumac.
Then there is Akkoob (عكوب), Gundelia tournefortii, a plant in the sunflower family, not really a leafy green but a green stem, which deserves an entire post on its own.
French hollyhock, or Malva sylvestris (Khubbeizeh خبيزة), and chicory (Hindbeh هندبة) are both eaten using the Arabic, fervent, and communal act of eating with one’s fingers by pinching and scooping food with bread (Taghmees تغميس). When cooked, these two greens typically glisten with olive oil, and their deep flavor is sometimes accented by the lovely tartness of tomatoes.
It is not surprising that my love for Arabic food can only be rivaled by my addiction to Indian food. Arabic culinary techniques and ingredients are very similar to those of their Indian counterparts. Saag, for instance, is similar in its flavor and texture to Hindbeh. Uniquely, Arabic cooks caramelize onion and garlic and garnish their leafy greens with fried cilantro. By comparison, Indian cooks use ginger and fenugreek and use more cinnamon.
Saag is a versatile and easy recipe, which combines bunches of leafy greens into a pleasantly silky and nutritious stew.
PREP TIME 5 mins COOK TIME 40 mins
Note: Saag is usually made of a mixture of leafy greens, most commonly: mustard greens, spinach and fenugreek leaves. If you can’t find fenugreek leaves (a small bunch to be exact) I recommend you at least use fenugreek powder, the flavor is unique and essential. Its sister dish “Palak Paneer” is solely made out of palak– spinach.
- 140 g. Baby Spinach
- 120 g. Beet Greens, de-stemmed and chopped
- 100 g. Baby Arugula
- ½ Tsp. Fenugreek Powder
- 1 Tsp. Corn Meal mixed in 1 Tbsps. Water
- 2 Tbsps. Ghee, Butter or Olive Oil
- 1 Medium Yellow Onion, diced
- 3 Tsps. Fresh Ginger, grated
- 1 Fresh Garlic Clove, crushed
- 1 Hot Green Chili Pepper, or any hot pepper to taste (spicier is best)
- 3 Medium Tomatoes, finely chopped
- ¼ Cup Cream or Whisked Yogurt (optional)
- 2 Tsps. Salt
- ¼ Tsp. Garam Masala or Cinnamon
- ¼ Tsp. Turmeric
- 1 Tsp. Cumin Seeds, Toasted
- 340 g. Paneer, cubed 1 inch.
- Bring 1 cup of water to a boil
- Add fenugreek and the greens, simmer covered – 20 minutes
- Sauté onion in ghee until a little browned — 10 minutes
- Add ginger, garlic and hot pepper and stir — 2 minutes
- Stir in tomatoes, cover — 10 minutes
- Pour the cornmeal to the greens and mash with a potato masher, cover and set aside
- Gently mix yogurt with the tomatoes and simmer, covered — 5 minutes
- Add cumin seeds, salt, turmeric and garam masala, simmer covered — 5 minutes
- Add paneer, and cover — 5 minutes
- Serve over rice
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