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, mine 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.
During my days in a San Francisco test kitchen, I learned that the first go-around 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). 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," Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck encourage readers to first blanch the leaves and then, when all the water is pressed out, to simmer the vegetable in butter, stock or cream. Well I tried that, even though I suspected it was exactly this classic treatment that I had gone to 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 desliming 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 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 creamed spinach to another level is quite simple. Beyond the following tips, consider the creamed spinach soup that I'm also providing. It's a great meal in and unto itself:
Scrape creamed spinach into a shallow, ovenproof 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 a 350-degree oven until lightly puffed and a thin knife inserted in center comes out relatively clean, about 25 minutes.
For a reduced-calorie and -fat version, substitute milk, light cream or chicken broth for the heavy cream and reduce the butter/oil to 1 tablespoon.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis 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.