Fab Greens

Yield: 4 servings
Prep and cooking time: 15 minutes
Difficulty: Beginner

Few vegetables are more often maligned than leafy greens, and few dishes can elicit more automatic revulsion than creamed spinach, which I am about to defend enthusiastically.  At its worst, it truly is a nasty bit of work: olive-drab in color, metallic in flavor, and slimy in texture.  But at its best, it’s a delight: bright green, silky and luscious, delicately crunchy, with a hint of natural bitterness to balance its inherent richness.  You just need to cook it right.

Admittedly, it’s a luxurious dish; one doesn’t eat it every day.  But the basic technique illustrated here can be applied to any greens recipe involving a pan sauce and the result will taste just as fresh.  You can easily adapt the trick we’re about to learn to any low-calorie sauce, such as chicken stock and white wine, chicken stock and oyster sauce, butter and soy sauce, and so on.  But here, we’re going for the calories.  And delicious calories they are.

Our chief problem is the enormous amount of water in all leafy greens, which has got to evaporate if you hope to end up with anything resembling a sauce.  The most common mistake is leaving the spinach in the pan while the liquid is reducing.  By the time you’ve got a sauce, the greens are ruined.

The solution is painfully obvious, and I’m amazed by the number of recipes that fail to recognize it.  All you need to do is wilt the spinach quickly, remove it, then squeeze the liquid from the leaves and reduce it in the pan along with the cream while the spinach rests.  When the sauce is done, you can return the spinach to the pan and quickly reheat it.

It’s crucial that you use mature, fresh spinach.  So-called “baby spinach,” however fresh it might be, is unacceptable.  It’s got no flavor and barely any nutritional value.  Growers love it because they can get it to market after only a brief time in the field.  In equatorial regions, where the growing season is twelve months long, “baby” vegetables are a real money maker.  What grower wouldn’t like a crop that he can plant four times a year?  Thus commercial “baby” vegetables are nothing more than a product of greed; don’t waste your money on them.  If you can’t get baby vegetables from a reputable local farm or from your own or a friend’s garden, pass on them altogether.

Frozen spinach is not fit to be eaten: it’s mostly stems which have no flavor at all.  Typically, the refuse from bagged spinach leaves is chopped up to create this disgraceful substance.

Look for bunches of fresh, mature spinach.  Ideally, the larger leaves should be, in area, about the size of an adult’s hand.  When it’s out of season, it will be shipped in from factory farms in a warm part of the world, and it will tend to be immature.  It’s not very good, but it’s all you’re likely to find off season.

This will be the case whether it’s organic or conventional.  Organic factory farmers are every bit as greedy as conventional ones, and they plant as often as possible, which allows harvesting as soon as possible.  All commercial spinach is over-irrigated and over-fertilized—the use of “organic” fertilizers notwithstanding—so it’s barely more flavorful than baby spinach.  But you won’t find better until it’s in season, and even then, you’ll have to get it from an honest local farm, not a supermarket chain.  Revealingly, in the companion video, I was forced to work with white chard, so dismal was the spinach available to me at the time.

All right; enough of the depressing facts of modern life.  Let’s make creamed spinach the right way, bearing in mind that the better the spinach is to begin with, the better this dish will be in the end.

2 lbs fresh spinach (two or three bunches)
1 tbsp unsalted whole butter
2 tbsp finely minced shallots
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup heavy cream, or 1/2 crème fraîche and 1/2 heavy cream
1/4 cup dry vermouth
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
4 lemon wedges

1. Wash the spinach well, dry it, and pull out the large stems and veins. Don’t chop it yet; if you do, it will clog the strainer when you squeeze out the liquid.

2. Put the butter into a large pan over medium heat, wait until the foam subsides, and add the minced shallots. Sweat the shallots with a pinch of salt for a few minutes. Don’t brown them.

3. When the shallots have softened, add the spinach, turn up the heat and cover the pan. The trapped steam will help it to wilt, but toss it occasionally to prevent scorching. Remain attentive at this point: you must remove the spinach as soon as it’s wilted. Don’t cook it a minute longer than necessary.

4. When the spinach is wilted, turn off the heat, put it into a strainer, and press out as much liquid as you can with the back of a spoon or a small ladle. The liquid is full of flavor, so don’t discard it. Squeeze it directly into the pan, then set the spinach aside.

5. To the spinach liquid, add the heavy cream or the crème fraîche and cream, and the vermouth, and reduce it uncovered over medium-high heat until it’s thickened.

6. While the sauce is reducing, you can chop the spinach if you like, but if the leaves are small, you needn’t bother.

7. The sauce should be slightly thicker than you would normally want because the spinach will express more liquid when you reheat it, and thin the sauce somewhat. When the sauce reaches a good consistency, you can add the spinach or you can hold the dish. If you prefer to hold it, simply turn off the heat and cover the pan. When you’re ready, bring the sauce back to a boil and add the spinach just before serving. Otherwise, add the spinach now and stir it through to reheat it. Then taste it and season it with salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed.

8. Serve it with a lemon wedge for each portion. The dish tastes wonderful as it is, although lemon juice and cream do make a fine pair. Therefore, I would supply the lemon and leave it optional.

The spinach will be bright green, and even retain a delicate crunch Although the vegetable itself might be mediocre, extracting the liquid and reducing it preserves what flavor it’s got. The hint of natural bitterness along with a few drops of lemon juice will balance the richness of the cream, while the flavor of shallots and black pepper in the background enhance the dish perfectly. This is simplicity, and luxury, at once. I doubt you could add a single ingredient to make it taste better. And of course, that’s a recurring theme for the Wired Gourmet: if you use quality ingredients, and cook them correctly, the thing itself always tastes good.

This method of preserving flavor and texture by setting the spinach aside as soon as it’s wilted, and extracting the liquid and reducing it while the spinach rests, can be applied to any recipe you like involving delicate leafy greens. But do try this once. It’s fattening, all right, but you’ll get more calories from a Big Mac or a Whopper—and what a waste of your calorie budget they are. So pass on the McRubbish at lunch, and instead, enjoy this fabulous side dish with dinner.  It’s a far better bargain.


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