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, it 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.
From my days in a San Francisco test kitchen, I’ve learned that the first go-round 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’s). 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,” Child, Bertholle and Beck encourage the reader to first blanch the leaves, and then, when all of the water is pressed out, to simmer the vegetable in butter, meat stock or cream. Well I tried that, even though I suspected that 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 de-sliming 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 the 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.”