IN THE KITCHEN : The Amazing Shrinking Leaf
Memory is a funny thing, absorbing some things and casting off others, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Lately I have been remembering spinach. More specifically, I’ve been trying to remember a method for cooking spinach that I read about years ago. I can’t exactly say where it’s from, but what I vividly recall is that it takes five days and incorporates almost a pound of butter.
Why can I remember that and not my phone number? My guess is that it has something to do with the way I feel about spinach.
Because spinach has been reviled by small minds for years, I will waste neither time nor space rising to its defense. If you don’t like spinach, I say the heck with you. (Of course, I’m talking here about fresh spinach, not the noxious canned stuff that looks more like something you’d find at the bottom of a pond.)
This is not to ignore the drawbacks to fresh spinach. For one thing, it takes careful cleaning. Apparently the only thing spinach absorbs more readily than butter is sand. And since it thrives in sandy, moist soil, it can take several washings to get rid of the grit. The best way I’ve found is to fill a sink with cold water and unbind the leaves directly into it. Swirl the spinach, then let stand. Pull the spinach to a colander and let the water out, rinsing the bottom of the sink. Repeat two or three times, until you no longer see sand.
Once it is dirt-free, spinach has to be stemmed. When people complain of having spinach between their teeth, that green social blot is almost certainly the fibrous stem, as the leaf itself melts away to next to nothing. There are two ways to eliminate this problem. The quick and lazy one is simply to take a knife and trim the stems at the bottoms of the leaves. This is less than sure-fire, because in large leaves the stems can be coarse clear up the back of the leaf. To be sure you get everything, fold the leaf double along the stem, with the ridged side of the leaf pointing out. Grasp the stem and pull up. It will bring all the tough parts with it. Of course, doing this for four or five bound bunches of spinach is pretty tough too.
But it’s effort well spent. With its verdant greenness, spinach is one of those foods that is nearly perfect in and of itself. It’s richly flavored and restorative. There are nights in the winter when I think about cooking up a couple of pounds of spinach and then eating it by myself, hunched over the bowl like some cranky old miser.
I never do, of course; I’m a good sharer. And my family would never let me get away with it. They love spinach too. So I make twice the normal amount for three people and we fight over the last scraps.
Spinach has a deep, green flavor with a metallic edge almost like the taste of a coin. Some feel that edge needs to be softened and they add cream or cheese (or even, in the celebrated case of French chef Michel Guerard, pureed pears!). But I like spinach best when it stands alone. A bit of garlic, perhaps . . . a grating of nutmeg, in some cases . . . butter (or olive oil), almost certainly. Anything more is risking over-complication.
There are exceptions, of course--I love the way spinach melts into ricotta cheese as a filling for stuffed pastas, and one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten was a simple plate of briefly cooked fresh spinach and lentils doused with neon-green recently pressed Umbrian olive oil. But those are exceptions.
Though spinach should be cooked simply, this is not strictly simple cooking. For one thing, never, ever cover it--either during or even after cooking. Spinach contains oxalic acid, which is heat-sensitive. When you put a cover on hot spinach, the acid collects in the condensation on the underside of the lid, then rains back down on the spinach, turning it a particularly drab shade of olive. Salt will do the same thing, if applied too early. It breaks down the leaf’s cell walls, spreading the acid.
More practically, you need to be sure you start spinach in a big enough pan. Spinach disappears more quickly than a memory. As the water cooks out of the vegetable, the leaves soften and crumple and end up nothing more than a lovely green near-puree. Just out of curiosity, the other day I measured spinach before and after cooking. Twenty cups of raw--enough to nearly overflow a normal-sized wok--concentrated to just less than two cups of cooked.
It’s at this point that you want to start adding the butter. Do it a bit at a time, over low heat. It’ll take a little while, but start with a couple of tablespoons and cook slowly. Within 10 minutes, or so, the butter will have disappeared. Add another couple of tablespoons and keep going.
Once I tried to go the full five days and pound of butter, but if memory serves, all the spinach vanished after only two.
MISER’S SPINACH 3 pounds spinach (about 3 bunches) 4 cloves garlic, minced 1/4 cup butter, cut in pieces Salt
Rinse loose spinach in sink full of cold water, draining water and repeating as often as necessary. Remove spinach, shake dry and remove leaves from stems, either by tearing or cutting. (It is not necessary for leaves to be completely dry.)
Heat wok or large skillet. Add spinach, with any water still clinging, and garlic. Wok will be very full of spinach, but spinach will cook down in about 5 minutes. Keep stirring and turning spinach to avoid burning and sticking. Add 2 tablespoons butter and continue cooking, stirring, about 10 minutes. Spinach will absorb butter. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter and continue cooking slowly until all butter is absorbed. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about: 180 calories; 461 mg sodium; 31 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 3.08 grams fiber.