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Ispanak Ezmesi – Turkish Spinach with Pine Nuts & Yogurt

October 19, 2013

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I wrote yesterday about making Imam Bayildi and how I’d wanted to recreate the lunch I had in Istanbul three weeks ago on my first day there. I’d chosen to have just a couple of meze – appetisers – with some Turkish pide bread for a light lunch.

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The spinach was wrapped in lots of garlicky yogurt – much like a spinach tzatziki. The Imam Bayildi had been made in the dried – and then reconstituted – aubergine shells that are seen everywhere in Istanbul markets.

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Our guide on the second day told us that this was a traditional way of storing aubergines to use out of season. The middle part is removed – and made into something else – and the shells are dried. We’d see them hanging in long strips, along with dried peppers, everywhere we went. Linda and I talked about bringing some home but how did one fit even half a strip in our suitcases!  On the basis of this growing interest in Turkish cooking, I bought Ghillie Basan’s Classic Turkish Cooking once home. I’ve got a number of her books and they’re great for Middle Eastern and Moroccan cooking.

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I looked at her and other recipes for the Imam Bayildi but when looking for the spinach and yogurt I found something different to my lunch in Istanbul that sounded very delicious – Ispanak Ezmesi. In this recipe the spinach is the thing; the yogurt a topping, rather than the yogurt dominating the dish. It sounded so delicious, I had to try it. And I’m very glad I did! I slightly changed her recipe, cooking the spinach in the onion and spice mix directly rather than pre-steaming. I like my spinach barely cooked and it also seemed easier to do it all in the same pan. First of all, finely chop 1 small red onion and soften it in a pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle over 1 teaspoon sugar – that will caramelise the onion. Also add 1/2 teaspoon crushed cumin seeds. Once the onion has softened – but not coloured – add 1 teaspoon currants (I added a bit more and also raisins as I’d run out of currants – but currants would be better), 1 tablespoon pine nuts and about 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika and a pinch of chilli flakes or cayenne. In Turkey they use kirmizi biker – a mixed spice – but Ghillie recommends a paprika and cayenne alternative. Season with salt and pepper. Stir round and cook for a couple of minutes.

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Now add the spinach – 200g. I did it in a couple of lots, stirring round in between so the spinach started to wilt and there was enough room in the pan for it all.

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Once the spinach has wilted right down, transfer to a serving dish.

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Now make the yogurt dressing. This is really very simple and very quick. Put 2 tablespoons of Greek (preferably Total) yogurt in a bowl. Crush 1 clove garlic with some salt and add that and mix well. Now squeeze in some fresh lemon juice. Taste to check the amount. Dollop the yogurt on top of the spinach and, if you like, sprinkle over a little paprika to serve.

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I ate this with the Imam Bayildi and some fougasse – Turkish pide not being easy to find in SW London (though probably in north London, where there are lots of Turkish shops). And you can sample pide at Tas Pide in central London, by Southwark Bridge.

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It was so delicious, actually much nicer than just a little spinach in a lot of yogurt. I loved the spicy sweetness of the spinach with the currants, pine nuts and cumin and it combined wonderfully with the tangy, garlicky yogurt. It was fabulous and brought back lovely memories of all the fantastic food we enjoyed in Istanbul. These dishes make great snacks or can be part of a mixed meze starter, though often light meals consist of just a large collection of meze with no main course. And that’s definitely one of my favourite ways of eating Turkish food.

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