Have you ever had one of those moments where you finally get what all the fuss is about? I happened to me when I heard Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” the first time I caught a wave on a surfboard, and with a swallow of cognac from a 150 year old distillery near my father-in-law’s family home. For years, I hadn’t understood why people obsessed over Adele, surfing, or any alcohol in the whisky-burbon-scotch-cognac family, and then, in an instant, I did.
This dish was my moment with spinach. I like spinach, and I eat plenty of it in salads or mixed in with a variety of rice and pasta dishes, but I had never thought of it as much of a star player on its own. Spinach is just not that interesting of a flavor, right? Boy, was I wrong. In this dish, the flavor of spinach becomes strong and deeply verdant; the leaves around the edges of the pan crisp up and mix with crisped cheese to make little spinach nachos; the soft velvet texture of spinach is offset by breadcrumbs; this dish is spinach, seriously good. Not that we have a cultural obsession with spinach, but maybe we should. Maybe if we all ate this dish, we’d have a unanimous A-ha moment about just how good this little green leaf can taste.
Before you go, I wanted to share my second A-ha moment about spinach, which was really more about organic food. I buy organic food as often as possible, which is easy these days, especially if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with lots of farmer’s markets. Sometimes, though, I have to admit, I find myself holding two packs of other wise identical raisins, two bunches of bananas, surveying two farmer’s market stands, and the organic and conventional produce looks just the same, except there is huge price (ok, sometimes 10-cent) difference, and I find myself wondering why I am emptying my pockets for this organic label. I know that organic is often better for the planet. I also know that sometimes it is not. I know I don’t want to eat too many pesticides, but how many pesticides are inside the banana, really? Under that peel? Do you have this dilema? Do you sometimes save the 10 cents, or really wish that you had? In particular, I had a special weakness for buying the giant bag of conventionally-grown spinach from Costco, because it is so insanely cheap.
Recently a friend send me an article (cited below) out of UC Davis about spinach, of all foods, that compared the nutrient content of 27 varieties of spinach grown using conventional and organic practices. The study found that spinach grown with organic methods had higher levels of vitamin C (in the form of ascorbic acid) and flavonoids. You know that vitamin C is good for you. The literature on flavonoids is more mixed, but they are a class of antioxidant that may have anti-cancer effects in humans.
Organic spinach is more nutritious! Honestly, I had not considered that organic food might be better for you beyond the lack of pesticides. But here it is, organically grown food may contain more vitamins and minerals than conventionally grown produce. Makes the price difference start to seem pretty small, especially if you consider the cost of vitamins and supplements. Since I read the spinach article, I’ve had a much easier time spending the extra 10, 20, even 50 cents for the organic option.
But whatever kind of spinach you buy, I think you’ll find this dish tasty. It’s a good side dish for a meat; we had it with bacon and eggs.
Adapted from Julia Child by Deb Pearlman of Smitten Kitchen A
dapted again, barely, here
Makes 6 servings
3 pounds spinach
3 tbs olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 cup veggie or chicken stock (I’ve used each, they both work well, but I would recommend veggie)
1/4-3/4 cup grated cheese, I used Parmesan; Smitten Kitchen recommends swiss
3-4 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 375 deg F.
Rinse and de-stem spinach. Prepare a bowl of ice water. Cook still-damp in a large pan over medium heat until spinach wilts, about 5 minutes (alternatively, you can cook the spinach in boiling water, but it elongates the next step considerably). Dunk cooked spinach in ice water to stop the cooking. Clean out the cooking pan and use it in the next step.
Remove spinach from water in handfulls, gently squeeze out excess water, move to a cutting board and roughly chop. Add oil to the pan, heat briefly, and add the spinach. Cook for about 4 minutes, until the spinach is dry and begins to stick to the pan (this step will take longer if you’ve boiled the spinach; be patient and wait for it to stick). Reduce heat, add flour, and stir. Cook for about 2 minutes.
Add stock to the spinach, slowly, stirring as you go. Turn off heat, and stir in most (about 3/4) of the cheese you plan to use. Add salt to taste. Transfer spinach mixture to a shallow, greased baking dish. Cover with the remaining cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake for about 30 minutes.
Notes to vegans or others who wish to avoid cheese: I’ve made this dish using only the smallest token amount of cheese, as it was all we had left – probably less than 1/4 cup – and the dish was still good. I am pretty sure you could omit it altogether.
Koh, Eunmi; Suthawan Charoenprasert, and Alyson E. Mitchell. 2012. Effect of Organic and Conventional Cropping Systems on Ascorbic Acid, Vitamin C, Flavonoids, Nitrate and Oxalate in 27 Varieties of Spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.). Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, accepted.