One thing I think we who are interested in Jewish food forget is that Jews themselves have heavily influenced “non-Jewish cuisines.” From cocido in Spain to the existence of dishes like kugelis in Lithuania, Jews have left their mark on so much of European and North African cuisine. In a day and age in which a certain sort of nationalist particularism determines culinary tradition – and that of Jews too – this sort of history is often forgotten. Many a “traditional” Jewish dish, I have noted here thus far, is not so Jewish – but many a “gentile” dish is! This delicacy – spinach with raisins, or spinaci con passerine – is one such dish. Though often considered an Italian specialty, this delightful vegetable medley has deep Jewish roots.
The recipe seems classically “Mediterranean,” but it is so precisely because of Jews. The fact that this dish is eaten in Italy, in Greece, and in Spain is traceable directly to the migration of Catalan Jews following the Inquisition in 1492 – and with the memories of Spain (often longed for alongside or more than the Holy Land) and the Ladino language, Sephardim brought culinary traditions with them to their new countries. Spinach with raisins was not the only dish that travelled: Mark Mazower notes that in the 20th century, Spanish Christian travelers in Greece were stunned to find Sephardim in Greece exchanging membrillo, quince paste, four hundred years after expulsion from Spain. Yet in the discussions of “Mediterranean” cooking, the role of diaspora – especially Jewish, but also Greek and Lebanese and Roma – seems to be forgotten.
I have written out the recipe here with two options: pine nuts and sunflower seeds. I strongly suggest that you use the former; the latter is an option in the case of nut allergies. I have also adjusted the spicing a little – I find that the black pepper really brings out the sweetness of the raisins. Enjoy!
Spinaci con Passerine / Spinach With Raisins
2 tbsp raisins
1 small-to-medium onion, chopped
2 tbsp pine nuts or shelled sunflower seeds – roasted or unroasted
1 tsp ground salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp white wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar
1 pound fresh spinach, lightly chopped
2 tbsp water
2 tbsp olive oil for frying
- Soak the raisins in hot water for 15 minutes to plump them up and make them less dry. Drain and set aside.
- Heat a wide skillet, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and pine nuts/sunflower seeds and sauté until the onions are slightly soft. Use a sturdy spoon.
- Add the raisins and spices and mix in thoroughly. Add the vinegar and continue to sauté until the onions are very soft and just beginning to brown.
- Add the spinach a fistful at a time and mix thoroughly with the onions. Add the water once all spinach is added and mix in.
- Keep sautéing as you move the mixture around the pan quickly – the spinach cooks rapidly, so quick movement allows for even cooking.
- When the spinach is soft and has wilted, remove the skillet form the heat. Serve warm or at room temperature – though I should note that the former is far better.