By Jan Roberts-Dominguez Herald Columnist
I’ve always embraced spinach salads. They’re fresh with a nice amount of crunch and flavor. But combine this hearty green with a little heat and moisture and the results can be a little more challenging to appreciate. Cooked spinach has a tendency to get so darned slimy.
For years, it was an extreme bias. Then I encountered a plateful of creamed spinach that was pleasantly textured. Instead of long, slippery strings of dark green foliage, the mixture was light and fresh with emerald flecks mingling against a creamy base.
Even the flavor was superior; rich and elegant, with no bitter aftertaste. It so inspired the inner cook in me that I decided to devote a little time with the raw product to see if I could duplicate the recipe.
The first try involved sauteing a bit of onion in a bit of oil, then piling on a mountain of fresh, well-rinsed spinach and stirring until the leaves shrivelled and shrank. I then combined the mixture with a bit of cream in my blender.
From my days in a San Francisco test kitchen, I’ve learned that the first go-round may appear doubtful, but usually provides the most insight into the solution.
My youngest son, who hadn’t fledged the roost yet, wasn’t bringing similar professional experience to the dinner table. But thankfully, his critique was brief: “How can you even consider eating that? It looks gross.”
True, it seemed a little too green (more of an Andy Warhol interpretation of creamed spinach than the real deal), and simply too smooth and soupy (unless I was developing recipes for Gerber’s).
But the flavor was good, which was encouraging. So the following day I did a little more research to learn how creamed spinach is approached from a classic-cooking sense.
In “Mastering The Art of French Cooking,” Child, Bertholle and Beck encourage the reader to first blanch the leaves, and then, when all of the water is pressed out, to simmer the vegetable in butter, meat stock or cream.
Well, I tried that, even though I suspected that it was exactly this classic treatment that I had gone great lengths to avoid all through childhood.
My instincts were correct. Simmering the spinach in a liquid — even after coarsely chopping the leaves — in no way alters the unalterable fact that the key ingredient will be slimy. This dish would have gagged any youngster with a keen imagination.
However, further review convinced me that blanching the spinach then wringing it dry was an important first step.
Finally, real progress was made when I switched from blender to food processor in the all-important act of de-sliming the long strands of spinach. The short-but-powerful bursts from the blade in my food processor effectively minced the leaves into small-but-visible specks rather than soup.
In between the blanching and processing came a bit of sauteing of onions and garlic, and simmering of cream.
Ultimately, I was uttering the cry of victory: Voila! That’s French for “It’s not slimy, the color is good and it tastes marvelous.”
Taking my screamed spinach to another level is quite simple, beyond that, consider the creamed spinach soup that I’m also providing. It’s a great meal in and unto itself:
•Scrape the creamed spinach into a shallow oven-proof dish and sprinkle with a mixture of grated Swiss and Parmesan cheese (about 1/4 cup of each). Broil until golden and serve.
For a simple make-ahead spinach casserole, whisk 1 lightly beaten egg and 1/2 cup shredded cheese (cheddar, swiss or Monterey jack, for example) into a batch of cooled creamed spinach (may be prepared up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated). Bake in 350 degree oven until lightly puffed and a thin knife inserted in center comes out relatively clean, about 25 minutes.
For a calorie-and-fat-reduced version, substitute milk, light cream or chicken broth for the heavy cream and reduce the butter or oil to 1 tablespoon.
2-3 pounds fresh spinach
1/2cup chopped yellow onion
1clove garlic, pressed or finely minced
2tablespoons butter or olive oil (or combination of both)
1cup heavy cream
1/2teaspoon salt (more or less to taste)
1/8teaspoon white pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
Wash the spinach thoroughly in a large amount of water to remove the grit; trim away tough stems and withered or yellowed leaves.
Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the spinach, a handful at a time so that the water will remain at a boil. Once all of the spinach has been added, boil for 1 to 2 minutes (if the leaves seem old and tough, give them the full 2 minutes, otherwise, 1 minute is fine). Remove the pot from the burner and carefully place it in the sink and run cold tap water into the pot. Continue doing this until the spinach is floating in very cold water, which will stop the cooking and set the color.
Strain the cold spinach into a colander, then firmly squeeze the leaves to remove all of the water (if you can’t bring yourself to allow so many nutrients to escape, do this last process over a bowl and save the liquid for soup or stew). At this point, the spinach can be covered and refrigerated for later preparation.
When ready to proceed, chop enough of the blanched spinach to measure about 2 cups; set aside.
Saute the onions and garlic in the butter over medium heat until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped spinach and continue cooking for a few minutes, then sprinkle on the flour and stir to blend into the spinach. Add the cream, salt, and pepper and continue cooking and stirring over medium to medium-high heat until the cream sauce has reduced and thickened slightly.
Remove the spinach from the heat, carefully scrape it into a food processor (without burning yourself), and process the mixture using the “Pulse” switch or an “On-Off” action to avoid over-processing the mixture. The idea is to bring the mixture to a stage in which some dark-green flecks of spinach remain; it shouldn’t look like cream of spinach soup. Serve immediately or gently reheat.
Yields about 2 2/3 cups, which is enough for 6 servings.
Cream of spinach soup
2-3 pounds fresh spinach
1cup finely chopped yellow onion
6cups chicken broth
2cups (2 medium) Yukon Gold potatoes (peeled or unpeeled)
1cup half and half
1cup shredded Jarlsberg cheese
1/4teaspoon ground white pepper
Trim spinach, then stack the leaves together and slice into slender strips. In a large skillet, melt the butter and saute the onions until soft and golden. Add the spinach and continue to saute until the leaves have wilted, about 1 minute; set aside.
In a large pot, heat the broth to boiling, along with the potatoes, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the potatoes are very soft, about 20 minutes. Scrape the spinach mixture into the pot to combine. Using a hand-held blender or your food processor, blend the mixture to cream the potatoes and spinach, but don’t over-process; you want bits of spinach and potato to remain as a part of the soup’s texture.
Add the half and half and gently re-heat the soup, then drop the shredded cheese into the pot, a little at a time, stirring after each addition until the cheese melts. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.