Sometimes, all I’m in the mood for is mom’s home cooking – and no, I’m not talking about the all-out feast-style food only whipped up on occasions or large family gatherings (although you won’t catch me turning away a plate of homemade grape leaves anytime soon!). But now, I’m talking about the craving you have on the way back home from work for the ‘vegetables-rice-and-protein combo’ that was so typical of your childhood dinner meal. A couple of days ago, I had this exact same craving for tabeekh – literally translated to ‘cooking’ in Arabic, but often discussed in reference to the popular method of cooking vegetables in the Middle East. In Egypt, tabeekh most commonly refers to veggies cooked in red sauce. ‘Which veggies?’ you may be wondering. The answer is ‘all veggies that you don’t know what else to do with!’ Joking aside, tabeekh starts in the Egyptian kitchen by crying (I just like to be melodramatic) … from chopping and sautéing a yellow onion, of course! Then, fresh tomato paste is mixed either with water (for a vegetarian dish) or with homemade broth (if you have it on hand) and spices that work with the vegetable being prepared. Then the veggies are added to the mix and simmered till they’re cooked. Of course, there are variations of tabeekh, but that’s the most basic framework. Simple enough, huh?
Back to my craving from last week. Fortunately, this time, I was home with mom. She looked through the fridge and dug out a large one pound (454 gram) container of organic baby spinach leaves. I hadn’t cooked spinach since … well, I had never cooked spinach. ‘Why make fresh leaves wilt on purpose?’ is the thought that always comes to mind. Knowing how healthy spinach is, I always add a generous heap of leaves to my salads. But in an effort to try making more traditional tabeekh, I decided to take my mom up on her offer and cook the spinach this time – especially since it was a large amount that could go bad quickly if unused. We’d cook it in red sauce of course. Dad overheard us discuss and suggested adding chickpeas to the dish, a la his mom’s home cooking!
In case you didn’t know, spinach has an excellent nutritional profile, full of vitamins (specifically vitamin K, vitamin C, and beta carotene) and antioxidants. I don’t recommend cooking them often because they aren’t as healthy as when eaten raw.
Since I’m not a believer in canned beans (they don’t seem fresh to me, ’cause they’re not!), I insisted that adding chickpeas would only work if we can soak the dried organic ones in the pantry overnight and make the dish the next day. Everyone agreed. Soaking dried beans before cooking them is essential, especially for hard-to-digest varieties like chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans). Most people don’t know this but legumes that are touted as healthy and a cheap protein source, also naturally harbor large amounts of antinutrients, substances like trysin inhibitors and lectins that bind to essential vitamins and minerals in other foods, making them very difficult to absorb in the digestive tract. Inedible when raw, legumes and grains were introduced very late into the human diet and require cooking in a specific way to become edible. While this doesn’t mean that one should avoid them entirely (after all, they represent a large part of the Middle Eastern traditional diets), we should take the time to prepare them traditionally from scratch in order to ensure that they will be digested in the best way possible, and with the least amount of – ahem – digestive side effects. After soaking the beans and changing the water a few times throughout, I go a step further to remove as many antinutrients as possible by boiling the beans for a few minutes and then throwing out even that water. Many water changes later, the beans should be ‘clean’ enough to start boiling.
Speaking of canned goods, tomato paste – incidentally used in almost every tabeekh dish – is particularly problematic. The acid naturally found in tomatoes doesn’t get along well with the lining of most cans, even those that are BPA-free (and many cans do have BPA in their lining). The problem is that in many of the BPA-free products, we’re not entirely sure that the replacements, which are other petroleum derivatives and chemical compounds, are actually safe! That’s why with tomato paste (and almost any other packaged items I buy), I make sure to purchase them in glass. This isn’t always easy to do because of the prevalence of plastic-wrapped or canned foods, but every little bit of change counts (and tomato sauce/paste is a good place to start!). The brand of the tomato paste in the image below, Bionaturae, is a particularly good one because it’s made from organic tomatoes with no additives whatsoever, and it’s packaged in safe glass. I end up using half the jar (about 100 grams from 200) for each ‘tabeekh’ meal, as you’ll see in the recipe below).
This recipe is a great combination of fresh vegetables, traditionally prepared legumes, and starch too if you wish. As a side to the spinach and hummus dish, I prepared brown rice that is boiled in beet water. As complex as that sounds, it takes absolutely no time to prepare: If you’ve recently boiled some beets (which we love in our salads!), don’t throw away the bright fuchsia water. Beet water has a lot of vitamins and minerals that are a shame to be dumped down the drain! Save it in a glass jar, and use it to cook your rice, which will turn into a fancy pink color when cooked.
Without further ado, here’s the first recipe for tabeekh on midEATS! Enjoy!
Cooked Spinach with Chickpeas in Red Sauce and Beet-Water Brown Rice (Sabanikh bil Hummus wil Roz el Asmar)
Prep Time: Soak beans overnight; cook beets 45 min to get water
Cook Time: 1 hour to cook the chickpeas, and 15 minutes for the meal
For the spinach dish:
- 1 pound (454 grams) of organic baby spinach (conventional spinach makes the ‘dirty dozen’ list every year because of the large amounts of pesticides absorbed in its porous surface. Opt for the organic spinach, which is surprisingly economical and free of chemical pesticides)
- 1/2 cup dried organic chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), soaked overnight in water mixed with a pinch of baking soda or apple cider vinegar
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 cup of homemade chicken broth, or bone broth (depending on what you have on hand). For a vegetarian version, use filtered water or vegetable broth.
- 1/4 cup (or 1/2 a small glass jar, about 100 grams) of organic tomato paste (I used this brand)
- 1 tablespoon of grass-fed organic ghee
- unrefined mineral salt (I use Himalayan)
- fresh black pepper
For the beet-water brown rice:
- 1/2 cup organic brown rice, soaked for a few hours prior to cooking
- 1 cup water reserved from boiled organic red beets
- 1 teaspoon of grass-fed organic ghee
- a pinch of unrefined mineral salt
(1) Soak the chickpeas and cook them. Wash the chickpeas under running water first, and then soak them in water with a pinch of baking soda or apple cider vinegar overnight. In the morning, change the water several times. Boil them for a minute or two and dump the water to get rid of any scum. Finally, boil some clean water and add the beans to it (don’t add cold water because that might slow down the cooking time). Simmer for about an hour until fully cooked.
(2) Sauté onion. Dice a medium yellow onion and sauté it in a spoonful of grass-fed ghee in a large pot. Stir often to make sure the onions don’t stick to the pot!
(3) Prepare sauce. Add a fourth of a cup of organic tomato paste to a cup of homemade chicken broth and stir until it has dissolved. Pour the resulting sauce into the pot with sautéing onions. Leave on low for 10 minutes. Add a dash of mineral salt and fresh black pepper.
(4) Add the cooked chickpeas. Drain the chickpeas from their cooking water and add them to the sauce. Stir well.
(5) Add the spinach. If the organic spinach comes prewashed, add it directly into the pot and mix well. If bought fresh from the farmers’ market, wash well with water to remove any mud or dirt. The spinach will look like a lot at first but the heat does a decent job of wilting it down to a fifth of its size or less. Mix well until sauce has covered the spinach. Don’t leave on heat too long after it’s mixed so that it doesn’t overcook.
(6) To cook the beet-water brown rice: Soak half a cup of organic brown rice for a couple of hours. When ready to cook, rinse the rice well and saute in a little bit of ghee. Add a cup of beet water (reserved from boiling beets) and stir well. Add a dash of salt, wait for the mixture to boil, and immediately turn to low heat. Leave covered for 20-30 minutes until water is absorbed and rice is cooked all the way through.
(7) Serve. Serve spinach and chickpeas dish with the pink rice on the side. You may wish to add a drop or two of lime juice on the spinach for extra tanginess! Enjoy!