I am immensely fond of spinach, fresh, lively, gloriously bright green spinach, the kind that bounces, crunches and squeaks in a most unruly way as you try to stuff it into your shopping bag.
Most of the time I like spinach served simply, so as to appreciate its sweet, leafy, ever so slightly bitter goodness, a nod to Popeye. We often have a little pile of spinach for lunch after the pasta, steamed or blanched briefly in fiercely boiling water, drained and then dressed with coarse salt, olive oil and lemon. I like it sautéed in nut-brown butter then seasoned with salt, pepper and a flick of nutmeg. I almost can’t contain my excitement at the thought of a certain French recipe in which spinach is cooked and reheated over 5 days, each day more butter is added, so by the end, half a kilo of spinach has absorbed an impressive 300g of butter and you have a purèe so rich, delicious and full of flavour you need only a very small spoonful beside your grilled lamb chop. I like spinach in soups, salads and soufflès – what am I talking about ? I don’t think I’ve ever had a spinach soufflè, but I would very much like to - dumplings, gnocchi, as filling for ravioli, filo pastry pies, curries, stir frys and tarts. I like a little pile of buttery, glossy spinach under a poached egg and a quivering blob of Hollandaise.
Last but not least, I like Creamed spinach; wilted, drained spinach, mixed with a little carefully made bechamel which has been spiked with musky nutmeg and tangy, sweet- salty parmesan, topped with more parmesan and flashed under the grill.
Creamed spinach has been on my mind and in my note-book for few months now, ever since Friday 2nd October to be precise, when my Dad took all of us for dinner at Rowley Leigh’s wonderful restaurant Le Café Anglais in London, the evening before my brother Benjamin married Kate. It was a night of happy company and gloriously good and memorable food. Everything was delicious, but two things really stood out; firstly, a little ramekin of parmesan custard served with anchovy toasts; secondly, a shallow dish of seductive creamed spinach. As I placed spoonful after spoonful beside my fine roast beef, I found myself wondering if creamed spinach is one of the best vegetable dishes ever invented, ambrosial, warm, soft and deeply comforting, food which manages to be both humble and elegant at the same time.
As the black cab raced us past the Georgian stucco terraces and garden squares of Bayswater, home to my sister’s flat in Shepherd’s Bush, I wrote in my notebook – scribbled incoherently actually, the cab driver took some impressive corners - make creamed spinach ! and underlined it.
Creamed spinach is a good companion for roasted or grilled meat, especially lamb. It’s nice with grilled fish or beside a big blob of mashed potato topped with a poached or fried egg. I like it best just so, with some good bread.
I wouldn’t bother making creamed spinach if I didn’t have some really nice, fresh spinach from a proper market, frozen spinach is too sloppy and I don’t bother with plastic bags of ready washed very neat and suffocated spinach from the supermarket, however organic it claims to be, haven’t you noticed the slightly funny smell that accompanies the opening of each bag regardless of the date. Hunt down some good fresh, loose spinach, you won’t regret it, oh and remember Jane Grigsons advice when you choose ‘assess its liveliness, spinach should have a bouncing, bright appearance. As you stuff it in your bag. it should crunch and squeak‘
Serves 2 (very well) for lunch or 4 – 6 as vegetable side dish or course.
- 1 kg/2 llb bright green, bouncing very fresh spinach- not baby spinach.
- 30g butter
- 30g plain flour
- 300ml whole milk
- freshly grated nutmeg
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 heaped tablespoons freshly grated parmesan for bechamel
- 2 heaped tablespoons freshly grated parmesan for sprinkling on top
First cook the spinach
Pick over the spinach and discard any withered, discoloured leaves or very tough stalks. Wash the spinach in several changes of water. Stuff the spinach in a large pan with no more water than clings to its leaves, cover with a lid and put the pan on a medium flame. After about five minutes, give the whole thing a stir and a shake, the spinach will have started to wilt and release lots of green liquid. Raise the heat a little so the spinach cooks more rapidly for another minute or so and the spinach has wilted to about 1/10 of its orignal volume. Turn the spinach into a colander and soon as it is cool enough to handle, squeeze gently to get rid of most of the moisture. Chop the spinach very coarsely and then set it aside while you…
Make your bechamel.
Warm the milk in a small pan but don’t let it boil. In another pan melt the butter over a low flame and add the flour, cook, stirring with a wooden spoon for a couple of minutes but do not let it colour. Remove both pans from the heat and slowly pour the milk into the butter and flour pan a little at a time, whisking (a metal balloon whisk does this job beautifully) well between each addition. Place the sauce back on the heat and keep stirring without interruption until the sauce is dense like thick cream which should take about 8 minutes. Add the parmesan, taste, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and freshly grated nutmeg, taste again.
Add the chopped spinach to the bechamel and mix gently and throughly, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
Turn the mixture -while it is still warm – into a shallow, buttered oven proof dish , I use an 7″ earthenware dish, sprinkle with parmesan and put under a hot grill for a minute or two and the parmesan is melted and golden.
Spinach, described as the ‘Prince of vegetables’ by the 12th century Arab writer Ibn al-Awan, originated in Persia and was domesticated by the Persians in the 4th century AD maybe earlier. Over time it crept eastwards, first to China via Nepal in the 7th century then in the 11th century it was brought westwards to Europe by the Arabs when they invaded Spain.It only became established and accepted as a food plant in Europe in the middle of the 16th century.
It is generally agreed that eating spinach makes you strong like Popeye.
I really hope you had a happy and merry christmas.