As a rule I like my spinach served simply. That is: washed and then cooked in a heavy pan under an equally heavy lid with nothing more than the water that still clings to its crinkled leaves, drained (well,) cooled (slightly) and served just warm on a white plate. I’ll dress it myself if you don’t mind, with extra virgin olive oil, coarse salt and a squeeze of lemon.
The dapper Signore sitting at the other end of our long table in the trattoria Sostanza likes his spinach this way too. Having finished his bistecca alla fiorentina he turned his attention to the small, oval dish of dark-green leaves, dressing them as stylishly as he had himself that morning – scatter, drip, flick, squeeze, twist. Then – having adjusted his napkin and sipped his red wine – he took his fork in one hand and a nub of bread in the other and ate his green mound. As his plates were lifted away our elegant table companion caught the waiters eye, murmured il solito (the usual) and seconds later was presented with five almond cantuccini and a small glass of vin santo. He ate and sipped and ate and sipped. Then, fingers dusted, mouth dapped and napkin folded, il signore made his way to the marble counter, exchanged intimate words with both waiters, paid, raised his hand to the kitchen and left leaving a domani (tomorrow) echoing around the small white-tiled trattoria.
It was during that same stay in Florence that I came across a book containing a spinach recipe enticing enough to make another exception to the rule. Luca and I were visiting my London friends Kitty, Cicely and Laura who were staying just outside the city. Lunch at Trattoria Sostanza – a clatter of plates to share: Sopressata, tortellini in brodo, penne al ragu, bistecca alla fiorentina, pollo al burro, tartino di carciofi, bollito with salsa verde, stracotto di manzo, porcini and copious red wine – followed by gelato had left us jocund and well sated. We really didn’t need any supper.
No supper that is, apart from the globe artichokes Laura simmered in a lemon scented bouillon, the arcs of fennel, curls of radicchio, new season olive oil, slices of glistening lardo on toast and squares of Kitty’s walnut studded Castagnaccio. We ate, drank vino novello and talked about food, tights and other people’s business. Then something in the conversation prompted Laura to pull a book from the shelf.
Now this is probably going to seem contradictory considering what I do and write here, but I have an odd relationship with recipe and food books these days, finding that most of them – however beautifully composed, photographed and styled – leave me both over and underwhelmed, stuffed, starved and strangely uninspired. That said – as with spinach – there are exceptions.
One such exception is the red book pulled from the shelf. A book I now possess. A book called Beaneaters and bread soup written by Laura’s friends (and employers at the Towpath in London) food writer Lori di Mori and photographer Jason Lowe. The book is a collection of evocatively written portraits of Tuscan food producers and craftsman whose work relates to the culinary arts, including a beekeeper, a shepherd and cheesemaker, a tripe vendor, a knife maker, a cook, a winemaker, a coffee roaster and a Lardo di Colonnata producer. Each portrait is followed by several appropriate recipes. The writing is exquisite and compelling, the photography stunning but utterly unpretentious and the food producers inspiring. I’ve decided I want to keep bees. And then there are the recipes: bean and bread soups aplenty, braises, intriguing pasta, plump grains, game, dark green vegetables, marvels with chestnuts, figs, apricots, almonds, chocolate and of course lashings of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. I want to make everything.
Lately I’ve become a little obsessed with boiled beef so I began with the bollito di manzo. I served it, as suggested with mayonnaise and salsa verde! It was the best I’ve ever made! At least I think it was, I’d consumed rather a lot of red wine so it’s possible my judgement was impaired. It was also far too dark to even consider taking pictures. I plan to make it again next week. I’ve also made the olive oil cake and the sformato di spinaci or spinach flan.
Actually this is my third in 10 days. It’s quite simply brilliant and delicious. How to describe it? Well, it’s a sort of superlative constructed creamed spinach. Or you could describe it as bed whose base is crisp breadcrumbs, whose mattress is a plump spinach soufflé and whose cover is a soft, warm, quivering blanket of béchamel. Does that make any sense? Maybe it’s best I explain how you make it.
First you make your béchamel: A good pan with a heavy base is important, remember the butter and flour roux should cook until thick without turning brown! Also keep whisking and whisking. Then while your béchamel is cooling you cook the spinach as usual – that is in heavy pan under a heavy lid with only the washing water still clinging to the leaves – until completely wilted. Once the spinach is cool enough, you squeeze out the access water, chop it coarsely and then mix it with 3 egg yolks, freshly grated parmesan, a dollop of the bechamel and season with salt and pepper before folding in the egg whites you have patiently mounted.
Now the layers. First the butter, smeared generously on the base and sides of your baking tin. Then a layer of fine breadcrumbs scattered on the butter. Next a layer of spinach on the breadcrumbs and after that a (glorious) layer of béchamel. To finish, a shower of grated parmesan. The flan needs about 25 minutes in the oven. It then needs – as so many dishes do – a rest, lets say 15 minutes, so the flavors can settle, the crumbs tighten, the egg-bound-spinach firm slightly and the bechamel settle into a soft but significant layer.
And to drink, the end of a very nice bottle of Isole e Olena Chianti.
The first of my three flans was made for an unpredictable supper with my parents two weeks ago. I prepared the flan in the afternoon. Then once I’d heard the plane had landed I slid the pale, slightly wobbly tinful into the oven and opened the wine. The airport pantomime and train journey from the airport to my flat took longer than expected, meaning the flan sat on top of the (still slightly warm) stove for 40 minutes and I drank rather too much of the wine. I considered warming the flan again, but I’m glad I didn’t as it was a just right and a pretty perfect supper with a fennel salad. Last thing – I am going to sing the praises of my enamel baking tin once again, it is the best kitchen purchase I have made in a long time. Romans we have Emanuela. Otherwise here.
Sformato di spinaci Spinach flan
Serves 4 (6 at a push but who the heck wants to push) as a main course.
Adapted from a recipe in Beaneaters and breadsoup by Lori di Mori and Jason Lowe
- 1.5 kg spinach
- 3 large eggs
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 50 g parmesan
- 1 litre / 2 pints whole milk
- bay leaf
- 80 g butter plus more for smearing the dish
- 80 g plain flour
- fine breadcrumbs for dusting the tin.
Set the oven to 180°
Make the béchamel. In small pan heat the milk and bay leaf until it almost reaches boiling point. Remove the milk from the heat and then leave to sit for 5 minutes. Heat the butter in a heavy based pan; as soon as it starts to foam, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking steadily for 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat. Add a little of the milk and whisk until you have a smooth paste. Return the pan to the heat and then add the rest of the milk, whisking continuously until the milk boils. Season with salt and black pepper. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring and whisking frequently for about 10 minutes or until the sauce is thick. Allow the sauce to sit for 10 minutes.
Pick over the spinach, discarding withered or discoloured leaves and particularly tough stalks. Wash it in several changes of cold water. Stuff the spinach in a large pan with no extra water (enough will be clinging to the leaves to stop it burning until the leaves start giving out their juice.) Put a heavy lid on the pan and then stand over a low/moderate flame. After about five minutes, give the leaves a prod and a stir. Raise the heat so the spinach cooks more rapidly. Continue cooking until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.
Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible.
Put the spinach in a large bowl and then chop it roughly with scissors. In a small bowl beat the three egg yolks lightly with a fork and then stir them into the spinach. Add 30 g of parmesan, 3 tablespoons of béchamel, salt, freshly ground black pepper and a good grating of nutmeg. In a clean dry bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the spinach mixture.
Smear your (23 x 30cm) baking tin generously with butter and then dust it with fine breadcrumbs. Spread the spinach mixture evenly over the breadcrumbs. Pour the béchamel evenly over the spinach. Scatter the remaining parmesan on top of the béchamel.
Bake for 25 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese golden. Let the flan rest for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour before serving.
Update – there have been a couple of helpful comments about the quantity of béchamel. There is a lot – 1 litre - which I think works with a large tin. I suggest you pour the béchamel cautiously, and don’t use it all if your dish is smaller or you feel it might be too much. Also the béchamel should be thick (but not stiff) and coating the back of a spoon (you know the way) so make sure you cook it enough.