Spinach has come a long way since its Popeye days

November 18, 2022

As I began planning for our turkey day menu, the subject of side dishes became my focus. Of course, we would have dressing (only called stuffing if it’s cooked inside the bird), fresh cranberry relish, mashed potatoes and gravy. For something green, I considered asparagus in hollandaise and then recalled my introduction to creamed spinach.

On my first visit to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse 25 years ago, I was thrilled by the short list of side dishes because creamed spinach was one of the few options. To test whether that might be a good choice for our Thanksgiving Day menu, I conducted a (very) unofficial poll. When asked their thoughts about spinach, I heard “only if it’s creamed,” “only in a salad” or closed eyes and a head shake which took the subject off the table.

Food historians assert that spinach (called aspanakh) originated in Persia (now Iran) about 2,000 years ago. The green, leafy vegetable found its way across Asia and Europe. During medieval times, the green pigment extracted from spinach was used as ink for artwork. By the early 19th century, spinach was introduced to North America. Within a hundred years, the cartoon character Popeye caused a huge surge in spinach consumption, as he downed an entire can of spinach whenever he was in a perilous situation.

The spinach we saw on our elementary school cafeteria trays likely had the same watery, gloppy consistency as the cans that rescued Popeye. This is so very different from the tender leaves of fresh baby spinach, perfect in a salad. Spinach grows in clumps on slender stems, which are quite edible when young, but should be discarded from more mature leaves.

If you can’t get fresh spinach from a local grower, the clamshell boxes or cellophane bags at the market are a reasonable alternative. Just be sure to ignore the statement “triple washed, ready to eat.” Always take the greens through a rinse cycle and the salad spinner. This will give you the chance to remove any undesirable or damaged leaves and potential contaminants.

When you choose a recipe for a cooked dish that features spinach, keep in mind the high moisture content causes the leaves to shrink drastically. The contents of that soup pot or skillet filled to the brim will shrink to an amount one-tenth of the original. If you must turn to frozen spinach, cook it with very little water, so most of the liquid will evaporate and not dilute any sauce you’re planning to add.

Spinach has a mild flavor profile, although your teeth may sense its high oxalic acid content. As the spinach cooks, the cell walls break down and release oxalic acid, which coats the inside of your mouth. It feels almost as if your teeth have been lightly scratched. I have found this more noticeable in commercial spinach than in organic and locally grown supplies.

The creamed spinach in the photo comes together in just a few minutes. Be sure to taste-test the mixture, as it will present a flat flavor profile without the right amount of salt. A combination of spinach and goat cheese makes a lovely brunch soufflé to serve with slices of crusty sourdough bread. And, if you prefer your spinach raw, toss baby leaves with crumbled bacon, sliced red onion, hard-boiled egg and your favorite vinaigrette. Popeye would approve!

Creamed Spinach

1 lb spinach, stems trimmed
2 T butter
1 minced shallot
2 T flour
2/3 C cream
1/4 t grated nutmeg
salt & pepper, to taste
2 T grated Parmesan cheese

Steam, drain and chop the spinach; place in a serving dish and set aside. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the shallot and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle in flour and stir until blended; do not brown. Add cream, whisking to combine. Cook over low, stirring constantly until thickened. Stir in nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pour cream sauce over spinach and stir to blend. Taste to make sure there is enough salt. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve. Yield: 4 servings.

Spinach Soufflé*

1 t softened butter
1 T grated Parmesan cheese
5 small garlic cloves, minced
1 C cream
1 thyme sprig
1 bunch spinach, stemmed
4 T butter
4 T flour
1 1/3 C milk
1 t salt
1 C goat cheese
3 T grated Parmesan cheese
4 egg yolks
6 egg whites

Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter the inside of a 6-cup soufflé dish and dust with Parmesan; set aside. Combine garlic, thyme and cream in a small saucepan; heat over low to a boil. Turn off burner, cover and allow to steep for 15 minutes; discard the thyme sprig before adding to the spinach. Wash and drain the spinach; wilt it in a nonstick skillet. Drain in a colander, pressing out the moisture. Finely chop and set aside. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in milk and stir until thickened. Stir in salt, goat cheese and Parmesan. Turn off heat and whisk in egg yolks, spinach and garlic cream mixture; set aside. Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form firm, soft peaks. Fold egg whites and base mixture together; scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until golden and set, about 25 to 30 minutes. Yield: 6 servings. *Adapted from “Local Flavors” by Deborah Madison.


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