Ioanna tried her first green food—a mash of peas, potatoes and cauliflower—when she was six months old. The puree had been bright, the color of Easter grass, and her eyes followed the spoon in my hand until it reached her mouth. She “mmmed” appreciatively when she tasted it and ate her portion, plus a few extra spoons. Cheese was another of the mash’s ingredients and I’m sure it influenced her reaction, but I like to think that she also appreciated the color. In general, Ioanna has been ok with vegetables, especially green ones. This gave me some hope, last week, when I decided to make Spanakorizo, a vegan Greek dish that I remembered my kindergarten students had brought (and mostly ate), to school for lunch.
Spankorizo, or spinach rice, is a spinach-heavy rice dish that’s pretty common as a home-cooked meal in Greece. The versions I’ve tried have been like spinach stews; delicate greens simmered with herbs—sometimes flavored with tomato—and just a handful of rice. It’s a light dish, the kind that makes you feel good about eating it and maybe even about eating lots of it, as I do. For heft, Greeks serve feta or a few spoons of yogurt alongside. Without the dairy, it’s also a popular dish during the Orthodox fasting periods which prohibit meat, cheese, dairy and fish. I thought it would be a suitable, healthy dish all three of us could enjoy.
Healthiness aside, I had my doubts that Ioanna would accept a spinach-based stew, so I planned some modifications. First, I would increase the quantity of rice. Even the most compliant toddlers, I imagined, would have difficulty when faced with a plate of stewed spinach. Then, instead of adding coarsely chopped spinach leaves, I’d thaw, then puree, frozen spinach. Mashed spinach, I reasoned, would be less stringy and easier to for Ioanna to swallow.
With these ideas, I got to work. Like Kokkoras Kokinistos, Spanakorizo requires few chopped ingredients—only a couple onions and some garlic—but is quick to make. After I cooked the chopped vegetables, I added the rice, spinach and water and brought everything to a boil. In thirty minutes it was ready, and I gave it a taste test. It had become sweet and herbaceous, with very little seasoning and just a few, inexpensive, ingredients. I realized that Spanakorizo, like so many Greek dishes, is the product of poverty and making what you have, stretch.
It wasn’t much of a stretch for us to like this dish. Spyros and I had it for dinner with some feta and chicken thighs. The next day, Ioanna and I had it for a vegetarian lunch. I served myself a bowl with a slice of feta. On Ioanna’s portion, I stirred in some full-fat Greek yogurt to make it stickier and, hence, more likely that it would stay on her spoon.
When I placed Ioanna’s bowl on her feeding tray, she eyed it, then mine. I filled her spoon with a small mound of rice, then left it in the bowl for her to take. She clenched the spoon, brought it to her mouth and made her approving ‘mmmm’ sounds. She ate another spoonful, then another. Soon she had eaten her entire portion and was ready to continue playing. I thought of my former students, of their conscientious families who ensured they ate their vegetables. I silently thanked them for the inspiration, the model.
1 1/2 cups frozen spinach, thawed and slightly drained—it’s not necessary to be dry
¼ cup olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
11/2 cups white rice
4 cups water
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste (since I made this with Ioanna in mind, I didn’t add salt and found that it tasted fine, but you might prefer a more seasoned version)
Heat the olive oil and the onions over medium heat and cook until soft. Meanwhile, puree the spinach in a food processor.
Stir in the garlic, salt, pepper, oregano and sauté, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds or until fragrant.
Pour in the rice and cook, stirring well, for about five minutes until opaque.
Add the water and spinach and bring the mixture to a low boil. Reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer and cover for 25-30 minutes.
Once all of the liquid has been absorbed, stir the rice and cover the pan again. Set it aside, off the heat for another 15 minutes.
Serve drizzled with feta or Greek yogurt and drizzle with a little olive oil. Also makes a nice side dish to chicken or meat.