I couldn’t start my first cooking blog with my best friend Véra without starting with the dish that represents the Tunisian Jewish cuisine by itself: the quintessential pkaila. Pkaila is not necessarily a national dish because it is really only known to the Jewish community.
However, there is a very close variation of this dish that was adopted by the Tunis residents. This variant, called madfoun is characterized by ground beef instead of beef cuts used in the recipe of the traditional pkaila. Tunisois also prefer Swiss chard over spinach in most recipes of madfoun. I personally never ate madfoun but this could be the subject of another post. I also often make ghormeh sabzi, a typical Persian dish, which follows the same concept of fried herbs (parsley, coriander, fenugreek, chives, dill this time) as a base with the meat and beans as well.
Often cooked for Saturday lunch in traditional Tunisian Jewish families, the pkaila is a festive dish more than anything. The origin of the pkaila is not very clear but the main ingredient and method of frying suggest that it was probably inspired by Italian cuisine (like many Tunisian dishes). Indeed, the cultivation of spinach requires a cool, damp climate. Such climate is not characteristic of the countries of North Africa.
Even if the pkaila recipe generally asks for osbane, sort of a sausage of tripe prepared into a casing of beef, I personally never cooked it because it is virtually impossible to find tripe in the United States.
The pkaila is kind of my Proust madeleine. This dish was often prepared by my grandmother. I do not recall my mother making spinach confit from scratch as that is very long to prepare. I have memories of mom using the confit that my grandma was making or I can still see her use pre-made confit jars you can find in stores in France but not in the United States. Today, most women cook their pkaila with these preparations but as these cannot be found in the United States, I always prepare my confit in advance and in large quantities.
I usually use the ‘long’ recipe i.e. I prepare my confit myself and then cook the pkaila in a Dutch oven for 3 to 4 hours. A shorter alternative is to cook the pkaila in a pressure cooker for 1h15.
Last week, my buddy’s father who I respect for his culinary recommendations (he is a pastry consultant and gourmet chef) told me about a recipe for spinach confit that could prepared in the microwave oven. The purist in me was very skeptical but I had to try the recipe to compare.
- 1 lb dry white beans , soaked overnight
- 2 lb spinach (fresh or frozen)
- Vegetable oil
- 1 onion , minced
- 6 cloves garlic , mashed
- 2 lb beef shank (or cheek), cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 beef foot (or calf foot)
- 1 tablespoon harissa
- 1 bunch mint , minced
- 1 bunch cilantro , minced
- use the ready-made spinach confit can if you live in France
Place the 2 lb of (previously drained) frozen spinach on a plate. Pour 5 spoons of vegetable oil (or olive oil) on top. Heat in microwave oven for 15 minutes. Repeat this step 3 times. Just stir a bit and add 5 tablespoons of oil in between each heating in the microwave. Once this is complete, chop the spinach confit in the blender, pour into a jar and cover with oil. In the end, you should get a spinach confit that you can store in the fridge for at least three months.
- Chop fresh spinach (or use frozen chopped spinach). Cook over medium heat in Dutch oven and stir quite regularly with a wooden spoon. Once spinach is almost done with releasing steam, start adding oil. Continue to stir and add oil fairly regularly (for about 1 to 1½ hours) until color turns black but spinach is not burnt.
- Drain the spinach to extract the oil. Sauté the garlic, onion, harissa, the cow's (or calf's) foot, the beef in this oil for a few minutes. Then add the beans, spinach, salt, pepper and cover with water.
- Simmer covered on low heat for at least 2 to 3 hours or until the meat is tender. Add mint and cilantro 30 minutes before the end of cooking.
- Cook for 1h15 in a pressure cooker. Add mint and cilantro and simmer for another 10 minutes or until you reach desired consistency.
Pkaila is most generally accompanied by couscous but can also be served without couscous and with Tunisian bread aka "Italian bread" .