Have you ever thought why spinach and other green vegetables are portrayed as undesirable in children's books and shows? It dawned to me when travelling in Romania in the winter of 1991. (Sounds like a hundred years ago!) The country was still in a transition after the revolution and execution of President Ceausescu. The shops were empty. Only canned, preserved spinach was available for cooking. It was far from fresh, had a suspicious odour and looked like sewage. We ate it for two weeks. The bad reputation of greens must originate from a similar source. It wrongfully defames spinach that is newly picked from the garden.
AN ENCOUNTER WITH DRACULA?
Since we are on the memory lane, let me tell a little more about the trip. Other than foodwise, it was adventurous. I accompanied two Romanians and a Dane in a van turned into a-camper-sort-of-a-car. It looked like a DIY invention a long before recycling had become popular.
The route from Sofia (Bulgaria) to Timisoara (Romania) seemed a good idea, and much shorter, on a map. Factually, it was about 400 kilometres (250 miles) of rattling ride in a tin jar on wheels. After barely crossing the mountains we entered Transylvania at the crest of night. I say barely, because the vehicle was huffing and puffing, as if suffering from a shortage of breath. Soon we were out of breath, too.
I still had my reading glasses on when I dozed off for a moment. BAM! My glasses broke. However, the jingling sound came from the windshield. The car had hit a tree. Tad-Adina, who was sitting on the back with me, had a cut on her forehead. Her husband, our driver, pulled us out quickly. The Dane panicked. The tree that had stopped us was rooted on the edge of a cliff.
Because horror or thriller is not my taste of emotion, I was not affected by the fable of Dracula in Transylvania. The Dane, on the other hand, seemed to have more vivid imagination and insisted we will die: if not naturally, then unnaturally. Although I assumed it was his shock speaking, I had to agree there was an unusual atmosphere and vibe. Not pleasant. There was something unsettling in the air, dark on a metaphysical way. Perhaps it was ignorance and fear of unknown.
We collected our belongings and walked to the roadside. There were no streetlights, housing or traffic. We tried to keep the Dane calm, took out the prayer-beads and did what we always do: anywhere and everywhere; in happiness and distress; whether day or night. Meditation is such a natural, non anxiety way of passing time, even in the most unexpected circumstance. It changes the direction of thinking, feeling and willing. It happens in the comfortable zone of heart, beyond the temporary ups and downs that have nothing to do with the reality of the self. Accidents happen to the body, not to the soul. Ananda, bliss, is the language of soul.
Since I’m writing about the incident over twenty years later, we survived. We were not snatched by the Dracula. Instead, a tractor with a wagon (oh, how convenient!) passed by at one point and took us to an old watch-tower of militia, a reminiscent of the communistic era, where we spent the rest of the night. In the morning a tall man with our teacher, whom we had come to assist in establishing a yoga-centre, came to pick us up. Little did I know, the tall man became my husband three years later. Was he my Prince in armour? At least he was driving a car that wasn’t falling apart!
In retrospect, maybe it was a blessing there was only slimy spinach available after such an eventful arrival in Timisoara. It created stability to eat it every day.
Eventually, the tall man and our teacher dropped me off in Hungary, where I climbed in an airplane and flew back to Bulgaria. During the flight two men attempted to hijack the plane but were pushed on the floor and handcuffed by the flight attendants. I will tell the story if I ever post about airplane food! Which, by the way, I don't touch even with a stick :-)
For some reason (read karma) my visits to Romania have always triggered dangerous encounters. Once I hopped in a bus in Athens (Greece) only to be arrested on the Serbian border. I had been told in the Embassy of Serbia, as a Finn, I didn’t need a transit visa in passing through to Romania. The border guards disagreed and threw me in jail. The next morning a compassionate bus-driver, a Greek (efharisto!), saw me shaken by the experience and took me back to Athens for free. Two days later I successfully crossed all the borders with a proper visa and reached Timisoara again. Needless to say, my knees were soft on the Serbian border.
THE MIDLIFE LETHARGY
The recent years have brought me under the safe planetary influences and my life is boring by all standards. I like it this way and wouldn’t have the energy for pioneering I was so keen in youth. The wildest excursions I partake are to the Indian and Turkish markets twenty minutes bike ride from home. They carry the spices I need and offer an occasional shipment of fresh vegetables. As unfair and ecologically concerning as it sounds, the quality and prices are often way better. Besides, we have Finnish vegetables, spinach included, available for about a month per year. For the rest: turnips, cabbage and snow. Yay!
No, no says the tall man, pumps my bike and sends me to the market. It is my pleasure to serve him rice, dal (lentil soup), simple spinach with paneer (fresh cheese) and roasted carrots for lunch. His eyes are smiling. As a husband, he has turned out to be much more than a safe driver. The Prince in armour? Who knows.
SPINACH & PANEER
Ghee or oil
Fresh ginger, grated, juice squeezed out
Fresh Chili cut in half or tiny pieces
Whey from cheese making
Here comes an exercise of reasoning! I had a ¾ shopping bag full of spinach. No idea about the weight. It was quite a lot. When I blanched it, it shrank to the size of two palms. Please, adjust the spices according to the amount of spinach you have. Oh, I’m useless with recipes...sorry!
Wash the spinach by soaking in plenty of water and rinse it a few times
Blanch the spinach in boiling water for about a minute
Chop it finely
Heat up the ghee or oil
Add the fresh ginger (without juice) and fresh chili
When the ginger is turning golden, add coriander powder, nutmeg, hing, black pepper and sugar
Turn once, add the spinach
If it sticks to the bottom, add whey or water
Cook it for about 10 minutes
Finally add the paneer and salt
If it was for guests or for a special occasion, I would add cream to the recipe. I would also lightly fry the paneer to give it a more pronoun texture and crispiness.
There are many ways to spice spinach. This one has an emphasis on nutmeg. It adores spinach! It is a fresh, nutty and warm spice.
HOW TO MAKE PANEER
3 litres milk
1 litre cultured buttermilk
Bring the milk to boil
Add the buttermilk
Collect the cheese curd to a sieve or cotton cloth
Press under a weight for 10 minutes (longer pressing will result a dryer cheese, we want it moist and rich)
Cut into cubes
Add to the spinach
Cultured buttermilk is different from the buttermilk that comes from butter churning. It is fermented and thick as yoghurt but has a different taste. It might be a Scandinavian product; I’ve never seen it outside. Kefir is similar to it.
Instead of cultured buttermilk you can use yoghurt or lemon to separate curd from whey. The whey should have a clear, light and greenish hue. Always save it! It is excellent in baking and cooking (use it for boiling rice or as a base for soups and stews, for example). Sometimes it happens there is too much whey left. Let your plants drink it and they will thank you.
Wash, peel and cut the carrots
Roast in 220 C until they look fantastic!