Meatless Monday: Spring Into Spinach 'n' Rice

It is precisely at this time of year when we all could use a burst of green -- both on the front lawn and on our dinner plates. At long last, Mother Nature has opened the gates of spring, but we all know from experience that the early weeks of the new season can be downright moody, with one foot breaking ground in the vegetable garden while the other is still in need of woolies.

(Kim O'Donnel)

Before the farm market debut of asparagus, which most home cooks associate with spring, there’s a parade of greens -- watercress, nettles, Russian baby kale, and maybe the first bit of spinach, depending on where you live. The days are longer, but the nights are still plenty cool, which heartier greens enjoy.

Here at the Casa, I’m still on the prowl for supper mains to warm the belly as I incorporate flecks of green and other harbingers of spring. Thanks to “The Greek Vegetarian” by Greek cooking all-star Diane Kochilas, I’m all set while I ride out the seasonal transition. Her version for the Greek classic spanakorizo (spinach and rice pilaf) is just the thing for this time of year -- bright and full of promise yet hearty enough for those cool eves. I liken it to a Greek risotto, creamy and starchy but without the constant stirring of its Italian counterpart.

Start to finish, you need just about an hour; it's about 45 minutes with a cooking partner. There is nothing complicated about this dish, and as you’ll see in my recipe notes, it’s quite forgiving, allowing for a fair amount of substitutions and adjustments. Best of all, the flavors are bright as a daffodil, a reminder that we’ll be eating outdoors in no time.

Spinach and Rice Pilaf (Spanakorizo)
Adapted from “The Greek Vegetarian” by Diane Kochilas

½ cup olive oil (KOD: You may not need all of this)
2 large red onions, finely chopped (KOD: I used what I had on hand, a mix of yellow and red onions)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 cup basmati rice (KOD: I substituted jasmine rice)
1 pound fresh spinach, trimmed and coarsely chopped (about 8 cups)
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup chopped fresh dill
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Strained juice of 1 lemon
¼ pound hard feta (KOD: If you can't something on the hard side, don't fret.)

In a large casserole or stew pot, heat ¼ cup of olive oil and cook onions and garlic over medium-low heat for 10-12 minutes, until onions are soft and wilted. Do not brown. Add rice and stir, 1-2 minutes.

Add spinach in batches of about 2 cups, tossing (and coating) after each addition, waiting a few minutes for each batch to wilt and shrink a little so that it all fits in the pot. Season with salt.

Add 1 cup of water. Cover and simmer for 40 minutes (KOD: For me, it was closer to 30 minutes), stirring occasionally, adding more water if necessary to keep mixture moist. Add dill and nutmeg and continue to cook for another 20 minutes (KOD: maybe even less time), or until all the liquid has been absorbed and the spinach-rice pilaf is smooth and creamy. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, the add lemon juice and remaining olive oil (KOD: I used only a portion).

Spread spanakorizo on a platter. Using a vegetable peeler, shave feta on top. (KOD: I used a small box grater) Serve either warm or at room temperature.

Makes four servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 30, 2009; 7:28 AM ET Meatless Monday
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This looks really yummy! Do you think it'll be ok to use frozen spinach also? And instead of cheese, can I add a little milk or cream to add creaminess?

Posted by: msmurtle | March 30, 2009 9:18 AM

Hi Kim,

I was wondering - could I use brown rice for this? Its all I have on hand and I actually prefer it to white rice. Should I adjust the time or water?

Posted by: TerpsGirl | March 30, 2009 9:54 AM

TerpsGirl, I'm going to say yes, but without confirmation. Yes, you should absolutely expect it to take longer and you'll likely need more water. Keep me posted!

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | March 30, 2009 11:08 AM

Msmurtle, Good question about the froz spinach -- I noticed in Kochilas's book that she used frozen spinach for some recipes, fresh for others, such as this one. I'm betting b/c of the water that will be released when frozen spinach thaws. Worth a try, tho. You may find you don't need any dairy whatsoever, the end result is pretty creamy, but I think it would respond to a small amount at the end.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | March 30, 2009 11:10 AM

Does the end product have a strong dill taste? It sounded delicious until I got to the part where one whole cup of dill was's not my favorite spice, but in small doses I can handle it.

Posted by: rc4me03 | March 30, 2009 11:33 AM

rc4me03, no it doesn't have a strong dill flavor -- obviously it's there, but it acts as a complementary note, not as the star of the show...

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | March 30, 2009 11:41 AM

Another one to consider is Deborah Madison's "Sauteed Mushrooms with Spinach and Pepper" (*Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,* p. 390). Served on toast. Fast, and yummy.

Posted by: CentreOfNowhere1 | March 30, 2009 12:00 PM

I like the idea. I'll admit my only reservation--I LOVE (love love love love) spinach risotto.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | March 30, 2009 8:12 PM

I can't stand dill, even as a complementary taste. It seems to me that parsley should work, yes?

I'm going to try this in my rice cooker: saute on stove, simmer in cooker. We'll see what happens.

Posted by: fitday19550 | March 31, 2009 9:17 AM

We made this for dinner last night. It was delicious. We used a brown-and-red rice blend, so the rice didn't cook out quite as soft, but that was fine and the texture was still quite pleasing. We couldn't find hard feta at our grocery store, but we crumbled some soft peppercorn feta on top and it was amazing- the whole batch was quickly devoured.

Posted by: tiffanyjoy | March 31, 2009 9:24 AM

Tiffanyjoy, another great example of going with the improv flow...

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | March 31, 2009 10:51 AM

I think I'm going to try this with toasted pine nuts in the mix.

Posted by: mistee | March 31, 2009 12:28 PM

Well, I certainly know what I'll be making this weekend ... anything Greek-inspired with spinach is impossible for me to resist :)

Posted by: nicspir | March 31, 2009 1:21 PM

This sounds delicious, but as with many meatless dishes, there is very little protein. One of my standby strategies is adding a bag of Morningstar Farms imitation meat products. In this case, I think veggie crumbles (faux ground beef) would work nicely.

Posted by: TheCounter | April 1, 2009 8:14 AM

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