While we’re at the tail end of our cold spring days–or so I hope, I still crave warm, rich flavors. On hot summer days, I often steam spinach and then dress it lightly with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, but when I arrive home soaked with rain, I want something more comforting. That’s how spinach ends up married to pomegranate molasses and honey in my kitchen. It’s a light dish, but its flavor is bold and lush.
Pomegranate molasses is a trendy ingredient right now with chefs, but it’s a traditional ingredient in Eastern countries, from Turkey to Iran. I first tried it at the table of my Azeri relatives, and I’ve been in love ever since. In Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea, this tart condiment is commonly served as a dipping sauce and in numerous vegetable preparations. In the Ukraine of my childhood, where mayonnaise was the most exotic condiment, it seemed like something out of One Thousand and One Nights. But before long it became as ubiquitous in my pantry as mustard.
In the Azeri language, pomegranate molasses is called narsharab, from nar, “pomegranate”, and sharab, “wine”, suggesting an ambrosial potion. Technically, it’s neither molasses nor wine, but a concentrated syrup made from a special variety of sour pomegranates, and yes, it’s addictive. The flavor is tart and bright at first, but as soon as your mouth starts to water, you notices hints of dried plums, apricots and dark caramel.
You can use pomegranate molasses* in the same way you use balsamic vinegar–in vinaigrette, marinades, dressings, and sauces. It uplifts something as simple as a bean salad. It tenderizes meat and makes grilled chicken even more delectable. Drizzle it over baked salmon. Mix it with minced coriander (cilantro) leaves and shallot and serve this quick sauce with steak. Try roasting some bell peppers and tossing them with a spoonful of molasses, olive oil and a bit of garlic. Pomegranate molasses can also be diluted in water for a refreshing summer drink.
Spinach has a mild flavor, but it can easily support bold ingredients. In the recipe that follows, the caramel accents of cooked down onions and pomegranate molasses add richness, while honey tones down the astringency of this leafy vegetable.
The dish can be served as is, but I like an added crunch of either pomegranate seeds or toasted nuts. The choice is up to you and your larder. Mine usually yields pine nuts and almonds, although the green on green effect when using pistachios is fetching too.
Spinach with Pomegranate Molasses, Honey and Caramelized Onions
Serves 4 as a side dish
If you don’t have pomegranate molasses, you can substitute balsamic vinegar. It has a similar fruity note, and its combination with caramelized onions is a classic one in its own right. You can serve this spinach as an appetizer or as a vegetable side dish. You can keep it for a couple of days, but it will lose its vibrant green color.
Variation: I love recipes that can be adapted in different ways, and here is one of my variations. Skip the spinach, caramelize the onions and dress them with honey and pomegranate molasses. Now you have an onion jam to eat with cheese, grilled meat, or simply on a piece of bread.
1 lb (500g) fresh spinach, stemmed and washed
1 large onion, sliced in thin slivers
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon pomegranate molasses (or balsamic vinegar)
1/2 Tablespoon honey
pomegranate seeds or toasted nuts (pine nuts, almonds, or pistachios) for garnish (optional)
Put the spinach into a large pot and wilt it over medium heat. You might have to do it in batches if your pot is not large enough. The water clinging to the spinach leaves will be enough for steaming. Drain and chop coarsely. If you’re using baby spinach leaves, you can leave them whole.
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet and add the sliced onion. Stir often, until the onions are pale golden and smell sweet, about 10 minutes. (If using balsamic vinegar, add it right now to reduce it and deepen its flavor). Add the spinach, salt and pepper to taste, molasses, honey and stir together. Remove from the heat. Serve warm or room temperature. Decorate with pomegranate seeds or nuts before serving.
*Shopping Notes: Look for brands that include only pomegranate juice in their ingredient lists. It might also be called pomegranate concentrate. Since pomegranate molasses is the condiment of the moment, you may be able to find it at natural food stores, gourmet shops, and even well-stocked supermarkets. It’s commonly sold at Middle Eastern and Iranian grocery stores. Online, it’s available at Amazon.com, Sadaf.com, Kalustyans.com. Keeps indefinitely in the fridge.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin