Too late for tomatoes, though you still find them, sitting plump and pretty at the farmers market. And too early for Brussels sprouts, which sound great, but they’re not so easy to find yet. Zucchini still looks good, but who’s in the mood now that summer’s gone?
It’s a funny in-between time on the produce aisle. I’m craving vegetables, but nothing feels exactly right for the season.
And then I see spinach -- big, fat, dark-green leaves in a lusty-looking bunch. Yes, that’s what sounds good. Spinach, and lots of it.
There’s nothing easier to cook, and yet it’s not so obvious how to show it to its best advantage.
British chef Simon Hopkinson devotes a convincing chapter to this particular leafy green in “Roast Chicken and Other Stories.” (The American edition of this book, named “most useful cookbook of all time” by British magazine Waitrose Food Illustrated, was recently published.) Hopkinson is so right-on throughout so much of the book that when I see his take on it, I jump. “I have come to the conclusion,” he writes, “that there is only one way to eat spinach that respects its pure iron-packed goodness. That is to saute it briefly in nut-brown butter. It takes seconds using a good-sized frying pan or, even better, a wok-like receptacle. Season it with salt and pepper, and a grating of nutmeg if you like. The taste, as a result of this preparation, is sweet and nutty, and the glossy green leaves, shiny with butter, are what spinach is all about.”
Convincing? I can’t wait to try it. I cook butter to a gorgeous nut-brown, toss in the leaves, saute, season, grate nutmeg, just a bit. Yes, it’s delicious, but it gives up quite a lot of water. I drain it, but it keeps weeping. Good, but there must be a better way.
Creamed spinach! That dish never has the extra liquid problem because you squeeze the moisture out of the leaves. Just drop a couple of bunches of cleaned, trimmed spinach into a big pot with a couple of inches of boiling salted water. Cover and cook till it’s completely wilted. Drain it, and press out the excess water with paper towels, then chop it up and set it aside. Now make a quick bechamel sauce with a little onion: Finely chop about a quarter of a white onion, sweat it in two or three tablespoons of butter until the onion’s soft, then stir in a tablespoon and a half of flour and cook it, stirring, for two or three minutes. Add a cup of hot milk, a pinch each of salt and white pepper, and cook it, whisking like crazy, until it’s thick and smooth. Stir in the spinach, grate in a little nutmeg and adjust the seasoning. It’s hard to argue with.
An ideal spinach
But sometimes you just want sauteed spinach, practically naked and unabashed. I finally find the answer in the unlikeliest of places: Thomas Keller’s “Bouchon” cookbook. (OK, maybe that’s the likeliest of places.)
Keller’s simple recipe produces what for me is the Platonic ideal of spinach. Melt butter (not too much) in “the biggest skillet you have,” add a lot of minced shallots and saute gently. Then add only as much spinach as will fit in the skillet, using tongs to turn it in the butter, and as it wilts, add another handful, and so on. What’s great about Keller’s method is that you treat the very leaves with respect, and they keep their integrity. “The spinach,” he writes, “should be perfectly cooked -- not just wilted, but not overcooked either -- sauteed over gentle heat until the leaves are tender and bright.” The result is sauteed spinach with unparalleled body; you can really taste the leaves, but it all comes together irresistibly. The leaves don’t weep, probably because they’re added progressively.
Oh, one other little detail: When you drop in the first handful of spinach, you also drop in eight cloves of confit garlic (peeled garlic cloves cooked gently for 40 minutes in canola oil). Without it, the dish would still be wonderful, but with it, it’s remarkable: The silky-buttery texture and sweet flavor of the garlic provides the perfect counterpoint to the minerally leaves. Make much more of the garlic than you need; it will keep for a month.
Paul Bertolli’s recipe for spinach soup from “Chez Panisse Cooking” satisfies a primal craving for pure spinach flavor. It’s light and elegant, with no stock -- just water -- so it works for vegetarians, to boot. Bertolli’s technique is interesting: He melts butter, then adds water along with a mirepoix (diced carrot, celery and onion). He simmers the mirepoix for 20 minutes, adds more water and the spinach, cooks it for only about a minute, then purees. The emerald color is as gorgeous as the pure flavor.
Rich and elegant
For something dressier and richer, a fantastic spinach and mushroom gratin turns up in “Guy Savoy: Simple French Recipes for the Home Cook.” The recipe relies on heavy cream, and lots of it, so it’s not for everyone. But it’s smart: You reduce the cream way down, and pour it over boiled, drained and squeezed spinach topped with sauteed mushrooms and bake it briefly. It’s incredibly luscious and elegant.
And a perfect segue into gratin season. Mmm, gratin season. . . .
Clean the mushrooms and cut them into one-eighth-inch slices. In a medium skillet, heat the butter over high heat just until melted, then add the mushrooms and saute them until golden, about 10 minutes. Drain any liquid from the mushrooms and set them aside.
Place 2 quarts of water in a medium stock pot with one-half teaspoon salt. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then stir in the spinach and blanch for just a few seconds, until wilted and bright green in color. Remove the spinach using a slotted spoon to a large bowl of ice water until cool. Drain the spinach well, squeezing out any excess water.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Reduce the cream to one-half cup in a small saucepan over low heat. Strain the cream into a small bowl and season with a pinch each of salt and pepper.
Butter a small (2-quart) baking dish, and spread the spinach in the bottom in an even layer. Sprinkle the top of the spinach with one-eighth teaspoon salt. Arrange the mushroom slices over the spinach in a fish-scale pattern. Spoon the cream evenly over the top and bake for 5 to 10 minutes, until heated through. Serve immediately.
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