Once upon a time there was a king who ruled over a vast kingdom and when he died (some said he was murdered, most foul) a tumultuous power struggle vying for his throne ensued. In the midst of this bloody hiss va biss (or kerfuffle as we say in English) somehow the king’s daughter was crowned queen. Her name was PoranDokht and she reigned over the Persian empire for a bit more than a blink of an eye, yet just shy of two years. It was not that long – is what I’m saying.
Of significance regarding Queen Porandokht’s brief tenure, one is that she signed a peace treaty with the Romans (spoiler alert: it didn’t last) and another is that she inspired a craze of yogurt-based vegetarian food. This came about because the Queen did not care for meat but liked yogurt, so the court’s cook, trying to tickle the royal palette, made up a series of dishes, all of which were variations on one theme: a vegetable mixed with yogurt. In the bargain, inventing a new genre of Persian food initially called porani in a nod to the Queen (whose name you recall was PoranDokht) but which then down the road morphed into the word borani as we now know it.
At least, that’s the story one hears. Maman, resident part-time cynic, says: “Who knows if it is for real?” “Ein chiz hayee ‘yeh keh mardom mighand.“ (This is what they say.) Maman may have her doubts, but I believe. I. Believe!
The star in any type of borani dish is always a vegetable of one type or another — anything from eggplant to zucchini or mushroom or pumpkin to beets — that is either cooked, steamed or sauteed and is then combined with a yogurt dressing. Super simple! Super healthy. Super tasty!
Borani ‘ye esfenaj or spinach borani is a snap to make and you’d be surprised by the complexity of taste and texture found in such a simply prepared dish that calls for so very few ingredients: you only really need fresh spinach, strained yogurt, and salt. Walnuts and saffron and garlic are nice, but optional, and in a pinch can be done without. Since the spinach wilts to almost nothing in size and is mixed with creamy yogurt, this is a good dish to trick kids into eating tons of spinach. They’ll be distracted by the creamy texture while unbeknownst to themselves, they are consuming a ton of spinach, and you can watch them, twirl your mustache, and enjoy your tricky ways.
Integral to the success of this dish is to completely drain the spinach once you’ve blanched it. Otherwise it’ll weep – and then you’ll weep as well. To rid it of excess liquid, you are supposed to “wring” the blanched spinach, much as you would a freshly washed shirt. At least that’s the literal translation of “chelondan” in Farsi. But that doesn’t sound like something the poor spinach would like. So do as my mother does: drain wilted spinach in a soft-mesh colander and press the back of a wooden spoon against the spinach, as many times as needed, to force out all excess liquid. It works like a charm and if you do it gently enough, you won’t feel like such a brute against the poor wilted spinach.
- 10-12 cups of fresh baby spinach (wash and trim stems)
- 1 cup thick strained yogurt – ideally whole. (I used Greek Faje 2% since that’s what was available in store and it was delicious and creamy and just the right consistency)
- 1 small clove of garlic (crushed to smithereens)
- a few walnuts – coarsely chopped (optional, but in truth, would be a shame to go without)
- a smidgen of saffron – ground and dissolved in a thimble of hot water (optional, but a luxury you deserve)
- Blanch the spinach: bring a pot of lightly salted water to a rapid boil; add spinach, and blanch for approximately 30 seconds to no longer than a minute. Immediately remove spinach from heat and drain in colander and rinse with a cup of cold water.
- Place wilted spinach in a soft-mesh colander on top of a bowl and leave to drain for at least 15 minutes. Then, press the back of a wooden spoon against the spinach to force out any remaining excess liquid. Repeat this step as many times as necessary (at least a few times) until all excess liquid has been excised. You’ll be surprised by how many times you’ll have to do this to completely rid all excess liquid.
- Once spinach is “wrung” effectively, chop it – either coarse or fine – texture to your taste. ( I prefer the nether region between the coarse and fine – soft but still providing texture and chewiness.)
- Saute crushed garlic in a pan with just a dollop of olive oil till golden. Then, in the same pan, with the heat on medium, add spinach, sprinkle with a dash of salt, and give it a few whirls (no more than that) in the pan. (You can skip this step entirely if you are fond of a more simple and raw texture and taste.)
- Dilute yogurt with 1 tablespoon cold water, and stir with a fork. (It may seem perverse to use strained yogurt then attempt to dilute it but that’s how it goes and the process improves the texture of yogurt.)
- Transfer spinach to a big bowl, add yogurt, season with salt and pepper to taste, and gently mix all the ingredients. (I like to use a fork instead of a spoon to mix – for a gentler more delicate touch.)
- Cover bowl and place in the fridge for at least half an hour – allowing the borani to get well and cold and set. (If you have properly drained spinach, you can do up to this steap ahead of time and store for a day or so. If spinach is not drained completely though it will weep and ruin the texture if left unattended to its own devices. In practice, however, borani is best made close to serving time, so just aim for that.)
- When ready to eat, transfer to a serving bowl. Gently fluff it a bit with a fork to revive. Decorate with a drizzle of saffron water. Garnish with ground almonds. Serve.
Note: 10-12 cups of spinach may sound like an awful lot for two servings. But once spinach wilts and is “wrung”, it shrinks to almost next to nothing. Which makes this a great dish to trick kids into eating a ton of spinach while they are distracted by its creamy texture.
Borani is often meant to be a side dish or appetizer. Some people serve it as a dip. But allow yourself a hearty garnish of chopped walnuts and serve it with bread, and you’ve got yourself a light lunch or dinner bursting with nutrition and taste.
Make it, thank Queen PoranDokht for her fine and discerning taste, and noosh’eh jaan!