Articles in Vegan
The person who taught me to cook, my beloved stepmother Mary, died in January at the age of 95. She came into my life when I was 14 and motherless, lost in a sea of boys. Our family was in a state of disarray, and with amazing grace, she put it back together again.
Mary, aka Mumsie (my stepsister, who was also part of this wonderful bargain, called her Mumsie, as in “Mumsie and Daughtsie,” so I did too), was a woman of tremendous style and fun. She was also a great cook. I will never grasp how she managed to go seamlessly from being a single mother of one for 15 years to being a wife and mother of five; from turning out meals for two to preparing festive family dinners for seven or more every night when we were all home during school vacations. The French would say of those evenings, “c’était la fête tous les soirs“: It was a party every night.
She made dishes you just didn’t see in mid-1960s suburban Connecticut: ratatouille, pan-cooked Italian peppers, arugula salads. She roasted lamb rare. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were not for Christmas dinner; they were for dinner … maybe once a week! So much meat. I always said, when I became a vegetarian in the ’70s, that the reason had nothing to do with principles; I simply had had my quota of meat by then.
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Mary tricked my father, who was vegetable-phobic, into eating vegetables. One August night during the summer after they were married, he told her that he didn’t eat corn on the cob because it gave him stomach trouble (he was convinced that all vegetables gave him stomach trouble). She took a paring knife and deftly scored each row down the middle of the kernels. “If you score the kernels,” she told my father, “the corn will be much more digestible.” This was totally bogus, but he fell for it, and from then on we would have amazing corn fests every night throughout the summer. “It’s a short season,” we would say, as we passed the platter around the table for the fourth time, butter dripping down our chins.
My education in the kitchen began with salads. “Go in the kitchen and help Mary with the salad,” my father would say to me and my sister, while he and my brothers carried on in the den. She gave me the ingredients for a vinaigrette, some measuring spoons and a whisk, and told me what to do with them (3 parts oil to 1 part lemon juice or vinegar, dry mustard, salt, pinch of sugar, marjoram, pepper). This was much more fun than washing and drying lettuce (three different kinds — romaine, red leaf and Boston — unlike the iceberg salads with Russian dressing of my childhood), a task I learned early on to relegate to my sister and friends. There were no salad spinners then; we had a folding mesh lettuce basket that you swung around outside, weather permitting, hoping you would not dislocate your shoulder. I learned to slice the mushrooms and the radishes thin, to score the sides of the cucumber before slicing it; I discovered the avocado.
I didn’t grow up cooking by my mother’s side, as some girls did. I was a teenager before I became interested. Then Mary taught me by giving me the tools and telling me what to do or pointing me to a recipe, sometimes from afar. The summer I started cooking (beyond vinaigrette and salads) was the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I was 17, I had a job at the local newspaper, and my parents were not around much because my father, a writer, was working on a play in New York City. I told Mary I wanted to learn to cook.
“What do you want to cook?”
“The things we eat,” I responded.
I do remember Mary walking me through a very simple spaghetti sauce — showing me how to cook the onion and add the garlic, then brown the meat, etc. But mainly, I would tell Mary what I wanted to cook, and she would tell me what book the recipe was in, the most frequently used being Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” Irma Mazza’s “Accent on Seasoning” and Mildred Knopf’s “Cook, My Darling Daughter.” If I wanted to make something really simple, like broiled lamb chops, she’d just tell me what to buy at the butcher’s and how long to broil the chops on each side.
Every day after work, I would go to the market (and charge the food to my parents), then go home and make dinner for myself and my sister, and whoever else was around (our boyfriends, who knew a good deal when they saw it). Cooking was fun for me, and easy; my food tasted good because I’d had such good food at home, I knew what I wanted it to taste like. By summer’s end I was giving dinner parties, and continued to do this when I returned to boarding school, where I would borrow a teacher’s house from time to time. But it never occurred to me then that I’d make a career of this passion.
My sister and I have always been amused by Mumsie’s adoring, proud line about my work, something she said when I was promoting my second cookbook in the early 1980s. I was preparing a press luncheon that my parents hosted in their beautiful Los Angeles apartment (they had moved to L.A. in the mid-’70s), and she exclaimed — “she took a frying pan and a piece of paper and forged a career!” But it was Mary who gave me the frying pan … and the wok … and the casserole … and the Sabatier knife, and the food memories and first recipes … and always, the support and encouragement.
Spinach Salad With Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing
The dressing is a slight variation on the recipe for Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing that I published in my first cookbook, “The Vegetarian Feast.” The spinach salad recipe is one I found scrawled on the endpapers of “Accent on Seasoning,” a cookbook Mary used so often that the cover fell off when I removed it from the shelf as I was cleaning out her apartment.
For Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing:
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white or red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ to ½ teaspoon dry mustard or 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 small garlic clove, put through a press or puréed in a mortar and pestle
½ teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon chopped fresh herbs (such as tarragon, parsley, dill; optional)
9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or a mixture of grapeseed or sunflower oil and olive oil
For the salad:
10 ounces (1 bag) fresh spinach (this was before baby spinach; 1 bag baby spinach could be substituted today)
6 strips crisp bacon
1 bunch scallions, sliced
¼ pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1. Whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, salt, mustard, pepper, garlic and herbs. Whisk in the oil or oils.
2. Stem, wash and dry spinach (Mary underlined “dry” in her handwritten recipe). Put in bowl, crumble bacon over top, add sliced scallions and mushrooms. Chill until ready to serve.
3. Toss with dressing and serve.
Variation: In the recipe scrawled inside Mary’s book, she includes an egg yolk in the vinaigrette.
Top photo: Mumsie, in the kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Martha Rose Shulman
Everyone claims to want to cook simple food. As soon as we’re in the kitchen, things aren’t so simple. It’s actually hard to cook simple dishes because we cooks always want to fiddle or add things or just not stand around looking at “simple,” because simple doesn’t require much, that’s why it’s called simple.
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The irony is that once we start our fiddling and the simple dish becomes more complicated, it often ends up not the best thing in the world. Here’s the deal, I think. You’ve got to trust your food. You’ve got to trust that raw food is actually delicious without you manipulating it beyond recognition. You’re not Ferran Adrià, and furthermore, that’s a style of cooking that should not necessarily be replicated.
So in this recipe I’m going to ask you to force yourself not to work too hard, which will mean you’ll have to resist the temptation to add herbs, spices or other stuff, such as truffle oil or kale or whatever. In this simple dish you’ve got to do nothing. There are only six ingredients (if you count the salt), but how they interact is the magic of cooking.
In this preparation, you’ll sauté the escarole, a slightly bitter green when eaten raw. It’s also called chicory since it’s a kind of chicory, along with Savoy cabbage, which is crinkly leafed cabbage with leaves that are more tender than the common green cabbage. Finally you’ll stir in the spinach for the briefest of moments, just until the leaves wilt. Now eat it — don’t do anything else. Don’t garnish it.
Simple Escarole, Cabbage and Spinach
Serves 4 as a side dish
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
¾ pound escarole (chicory), washed well and thinly sliced
¾ pound Savoy cabbage, thinly sliced
½ pound spinach leaves
1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium-high heat until the garlic starts sizzling.
2. Add the escarole and cabbage and cook, stirring frequently, until a minute past wilted, 4 to 5 minutes.
3. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, only until it is wilted, about 1 minute.
4. Salt to your taste and serve hot.
Top photo: Escarole, cabbage and spinach. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
It’s Oscars time, and in addition to dressing for the occasion, we always like to set the table with award-worthy snacks. Some years required black-tie starters like Champagne and oysters. Other years, California-made cheeses like Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog and the wonderfully stinky Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery competed for Best Cheese in a Supporting Role. But this year, we plan to honor the movies with their best-loved partner, popcorn.
Of course, because it’s the Oscars, it couldn’t be just any microwaved popcorn. Last week when I found some dried popcorn being cut off the cob at the farmers’ market, I knew it was time to use my newly inspired love for spices to elevate popcorn to a starring role.
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Next, your choice of salt is critical to the perfect box of popcorn. It’s got to be soft enough to cling to the kernels, but crunchy enough to hold its own on the palate. I found that the moisture of grey sea salt fit the bill perfectly.
Finally, adding variety with ground spices, grated cheeses and even cocoa powder creates an interesting mix of options for movie-loving guests. Any blend of favorite flavors will do, but my winning combination was hot salted popcorn tossed with grated pecorino romano cheese, sprinkled with Aleppo pepper flakes and doused with another healthy drizzle of olive oil.
Old-Fashioned, New-Flavored Popcorn
½ cup popcorn kernels
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Sea salt, to taste
Grated hard or semi-hard cheese
Aleppo or Marash chili pepper
Cocoa powder mixed with sugar
Freshly ground peppercorns
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 3-quart, deep saucepan. As soon as the oil melts and spreads evenly, add enough kernels to fill one layer on the bottom. Cover and increase heat to high flame. As soon as the corn starts popping, shake rigorously over heat until popping is complete.
2. Immediately dress with olive oil and salt and toss to coat.
3. If you are adding grated cheese, do so immediately after removing from heat to ensure that cheese clings to popcorn.
4. Sprinkle with other seasonings to taste.
Top photo: Spiced popcorn. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
It’s so easy to gobble up a big bowl of guacamole. Just mash a dozen avocados, add some spiced-up tomatoes, garlic and citrus juice. When surrounded by a pile of fresh tortilla chips, nothing disappears faster in our house when it comes to party starters.
But what to do when you don’t happen to have an avocado tree in your backyard and the price of out-of-season green globes starts climbing into the stratosphere? Sweet peas, fresh or frozen, provide an amazingly tasty alternative when made a little creamier with extra virgin olive oil. If you blindfolded your guests, they would be hard pressed to name the main ingredient, but they’d be just as happy with the flavor.
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Best of all, sweet pea guacamole doesn’t turn that nasty brownish gray color over time like avocados do as they oxidize. You can even make it a day or two before the party and it will look and taste just as fresh as the moment you created it.
I have Michelin-starred chef María José San Román to thank for my first introduction to this simple swap when I joined her at Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ Amorolio event in Tuscany. As English shelling pea season kicks into high gear this spring, I’m going to be digging into my own riff with this nonclassical composition.
Sweet Pea Guacamole
Jalapeños can be very hot or mild, so test the level of spice before adding to your dish, according to your preference.
1 pound fresh sweet peas, shelled
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 jalapeño peppers or to taste, chopped
Juice of 2 limes
2 ripe avocados (optional)
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup cilantro, minced
1. Steam peas until tender, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, cool.
2. In a blender or food processor, purée peas, olive oil, shallot, garlic, jalapeños and lime juice until almost smooth but still a bit chunky.
3. In a medium bowl, combine mashed avocado, if using, with pea mixture, leaving chunky. Add salt to taste. Garnish with cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips.
Top photo: Sweet pea guacamole. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
The variety of dried legumes used in Indian cooking can become quite mind-boggling. When you are in an Indian market, you may find yourself walking back and forth in the aisle trying to figure out what’s what.
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When I was writing my book “Some Like It Hot: Spicy Favorites from the World’s Hot Zones,” I came up with some explanations I hope are helpful.
The best known Indian dish using dried legumes is called dal and although that word simply means legume, the prepared form is a kind of mushy side dish made with the legumes, spices and chilies. Many Indian dishes also use dried legumes as a kind of seasoning, sometimes calling for as little as half a teaspoon in other, more complex, concoctions.
Some dal favorites include red gram, black gram and green gram. Sometimes the word dal specifically refers to split dried legumes. Adding to the confusion, Indian authors writing in English sometimes use the same word for two different legumes. Here’s a little guide to help (or confuse) you more. Arhal dal or tur dal (toor dal) are either split red gram or pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan L.). But tur dal, and also thuvar dal, is used by some authors to mean yellow split peas (Pisum sativum L. var. hortense). The English word gram derives from the Portuguese word for grain, which is what the early Portuguese voyagers to India called these little dried legumes in India.
More on sorting out Indian dal
Gram generally means chickpea (Cicer arietinum L .), specifically Bengal gram (also channa dal), but can also mean any dried legume.
Channa dal is the whole or split chickpea although some writers use it to refer to yellow split pea.
Black gram (Vigna mungo L. syn. Phaseolus mungo) is urad dal known also as urd, and sometimes called horse bean, horse gram, Madras gram, sword bean and jackbean (bada-sem). This is complicated by the fact that those last five identified as urad dal are a different species, Canavalia ensiformis L. and also called kulthi dal. Urad dhuli dal is the white version or split white gram.
Sometimes chowli or chowla dal or lobia is the cowpea, also known as black-eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata L. subsp. unguiculata syn. V. sinensis), although chowla dal also refers to the related Vigna catjang.
Green gram (Vigna radiata L. syn. Phaseolus aureus and P. radiatus) is more familiarly known as mung bean and in India is known as moong dal. Kesari dal (Lathyrus sativus L.), or grass pea. If you eat too much of it, grass pea causes a crippling disease called lathyrism.
Masoor dal is split red or yellow lentils (Lens culinaris Medikus syn. L. esculenta; Ervum lens; or Vicia lens).
To round out the dals, matki is moth or mat bean (Vigna acontifolia), sem (also valpapdi, avarai) is hyacinth bean (Lablab purpurus [purpureus] (L.) Sweet. syn. L. niger Medik. and Dolichos lablab L.) and sutari is rice bean (Vigna umbellate).
OK, got that? Personally, no matter what a recipe you’re following says, I find that the cooking of all this is quite easy. It’s only if you were to write a recipe for someone else that it gets confusing.
Beginner’s Dal Sauté
3 tablespoons black gram (urad dal)
3 tablespoons green gram (moong dal)
3 tablespoons dried chickpeas
3 tablespoons red lentils (masoor dal)
3 tablespoons pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal)
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1. Place all the legumes in a saucepan and cover with cold water by several inches. Turn the heat to high and once it comes to a boil, cook, salting lightly, until tender, 45 to 60 minutes.
2. Drain and place in a sauté pan with the olive oil and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve hot.
Top photo: Legumes, clockwise from top: chickpeas, brown lentils, red lentils (masoor dal), green gram (moong dal), black gram (urd dal), pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
These app reviews will teach you to become a vegan in 21 days or to mix perfect cocktails from sight alone. There’s also a complete guide to garden herbs (perfect for a farmers market) and finally, a tool to identify the hottest peppers. Enjoy!
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Eyeball those cocktails
Clinq takes a strikingly different approach to the cocktail recipe. Instead of listing shot measures, Clinq shows you the ratio of ingredients, each represented by a different color. The idea being, whether you’re making one drink or 20, you’ll get the measures right without counting shots. The stunning yet simple visuals add to the app’s appeal. The home page gives you a choice of five different spirits (gin, vodka, whiskey, bourbon and rum) spelled out in stylish black typeface on a white background. Once you touch the screen to make your choice the screen slides to the left, revealing the outlines of four different glass shapes (highball, martini, hurricane and lowball). Choose your glass and you are given a choice of cocktails — there are over 140 listed. Once the color-coded ratio is shown, you can press the screen for a few seconds and the ingredient names are revealed, then hold it again for a few more and the cocktail making procedure is shown. It may take a few times to get used to the controls, but this has to be one the more creative apps around. Happy mixing!
99 cents on iTunes
Help for the Virgin Vegan
Just how does one become a vegan? The first step is probably the most difficult, but if you want to take it, 21-Day Vegan Kickstart might just be the app you need. Designed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the app provides you with daily food lists and recipes to help you along your vegan route. You are able to see what ingredients you’ll need a week in advance, then each day you are given a plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a snack (one I imagine you will look forward to each day). Click on the meal and the page flips, providing you with the recipe and nutritional information. All in all, a very resourceful app that is simple to use and follow. It might just change the way you eat, forever …
Free on on iTunes
How hot is that pepper?
Say you’re cooking up a vindaloo curry or making a salsa, and you want to calibrate the heat that you’ll be bringing. When you’re talking peppers, you need to know one word: Scoville. That’s the name of the scale that measures a pepper’s spiciness. Every pepper has a Scoville rating, from the slightly sweet bell (0 units) to the burn-your-head-off habanero (100,000 to 350,000 units). The scale was invented by Wilbur Scoville a century ago — and no, he didn’t assign the heat levels by chomping his way through the world’s chilis. He got other people to do it for him. Scoville the app lists pretty much every pepper in existence, its Scoville rating, and tasting notes or other background information. The “Jamaican hot,” for example, has flavors of apples, apricots and citrus (under a furnace-like heat on your palate, one presumes) and is mainly used for hot sauces in the Caribbean. In fact, after a quick browse, it seems that everything higher on the scale than the habanero has some sort of health warning and can only be eaten in the tiniest of quantities, with a pint of milk at the ready. One of the hottest peppers, the terrifyingly named Naga Viper, has a Scoville rating of up to 1,382,118 units. It is usually dabbed on food with a toothpick, so as to only use a tiny drop – that is hot to the point of pain!
$1.99 on iTunes
Apps field guide to kitchen herbs
Most of us can tell the difference between rosemary and basil … but to the untrained eye (especially my own), telling lavender from sage can sometimes prove difficult. That’s where Herbs+ fragrantly wafts in. This app would be particularly good for finding fresh herbs in the wild. The entry for each herb offers gardening tips, culinary ideas, medicinal uses and an image to help you identify the herb.
There’s also a handy link to Wikipedia, which you can access without leaving the app. In the “Herb Garden,” you’ll find basic guidelines for how to launch your garden successfully as well as sections on harvesting, preserving, propagating and winterizing your herbs. There are also useful tips — did you know dill doesn’t grow well if planted near fennel? No, neither did I. All in all, a very good app to spice up your phone and quite possibly your next dinner too!
$2.99 on iTunes
Top image, clockwise from top left: logos for Clinq, Scoville, Herbs+ and 21-Day Vegan Kickstart.
It never fails to astound me just how heated conversations can become when a carnivore and a vegetarian or vegan talk about their respective diets. Fights have been started, punches have been thrown and families ripped asunder! Can’t we all just get along as conscientious eaters and learn to respect the ingredients?
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Eating a plant-based diet or one that includes animal flesh and the foods animals produce can be a cultural or religious decision, a moral decision, a decision based on dietary allergies, or just a lifestyle choice. With that many options, there are bound to be clashes, even within the groups themselves.
A vegan may have issues with a lacto-ovo vegetarian, because they include eggs and dairy in their diets. A pescatarian includes fish in their vegetarian lifestyle. A flexatarian eats mainly a vegetarian diet, but will occasionally eat meat. And then there are the raw foodists, who don’t eat food that has been heated above 115 F, because they think the cooked food loses most of its nutritional values and is harmful to the human body. I’m not even going to try to explain all the vagaries of the macrobiotic diet, but just know there are a lot of rules.
Losing touch with our food’s origins
A plant-based diet is great for your health, your heart (plants don’t have artery-clogging cholesterol) and even the environment. The United States Department of Agriculture’s new food guidelines, going from a pyramid to a plate model, propose having one half of the plate consisting of fruits and vegetables, with the remaining quarters divided between proteins and whole grains. Without argument, it’s a very sensible and healthy way of eating.
And then there are people like me who will basically eat anything. I try not to eat anything while it is still moving, but if a girl gets hungry I make no promises! I am not a big fan of organ meats, but that is strictly a matter of taste and I don’t like the taste. As humans we need to respect the animal enough to consume it entirely if we have killed it for food. I will respectfully transform those organ meats into a sensational pâté or mousse, and serve it to someone else.
I saw a picture of a sign on Facebook that read “Native Americans had a name for vegetarians. They called them bad hunters.” If most of us had to hunt, kill, clean and preserve our meat, the number of vegetarians would surely rise. We live in a society now where children think meat is a shrink-wrapped package from the supermarket. The origin of that meat is not a thought. Some are not even aware a hamburger comes from a cow or a chicken nugget comes from, well, I don’t really know where the nugget is on the chicken. (Joking, of course.)
While in culinary school I had to take a meat fabrication class, taught by Butcher Bob, an old-school butcher from San Francisco. I remember Butcher Bob took a chainsaw and broke down a half cow carcass as a demonstration. We also had to fillet whole fish, which sometimes contained their last meal in their stomachs, including smaller fish, sand dollars, starfish and more. It was like a treasure hunt. I also learned to cut a whole chicken up in less than minute. But mainly, I learned to respect those animals we killed in order to feed others and ourselves.
In stark contrast, when I taught at a culinary school, meat fabrication classes no longer existed. The primal cuts came in Cryovac packages, so we could not truly show the students the reality of where their meat came from. The only demonstration we did was break down a half lamb carcass, which both fascinated and repulsed students. I had one student who was raised a vegan, and that poor girl turned the whitest shade of pale I have ever seen. Needless to say, I excused her from the demo.
Everyone can make conscientious food choices
The American system of raising animals for food is broken and in need of repair. But that is a subject worthy of another essay, or a book. Actually, just watch the film “Food, Inc.,” or read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” for excellent coverage of that subject. But you can work around the industrial food system: Buy from small local farmers in your area, or even order online from farms that sell naturally raised and/or organic products.
This strategy works for vegans and vegetarians. Go to local farmers markets to buy organic, local produce. The large amount of pesticides used on our plants is appalling, so it is important to avoid them if you can. Certain pesticides that have been banned in the United States are still being sold by our mega-corporations to other countries, who then turn around and import cancer-causing, pesticide-covered produce to the United States.
There is no right or wrong way to eat, but some ways are gentler on the Earth and our bodies. As an avowed omnivore, a vegan diet would not work for me. But I do eat vegetarian meals often, and even grow organic vegetables in my back yard. Unfortunately, the gophers seem to be enjoying my organic vegetables more than I am this season.
This simple recipe for spicy carrot and yam soup makes a belly-warming and satisfying meal. This version is vegetarian, but can easily be converted to a vegan recipe by substituting the dairy products with coconut, soy or almond milk. The flavor profile would be altered, but the resulting taste would be just as delicious.
Spicy Carrot and Yam Soup
5 ounces carrots, about 4 small, peeled and sliced into large chunks
1½ pound yam, peeled and cubed
4 cups vegetable broth
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
1 to 1 ½ cups milk, half and half or cream
1. In a medium saucepan over medium low heat, simmer the carrots, yam, broth and spices about 30 minutes, until tender.
2. Purée the soup with an inversion blender or in a food processor.
3. Stir in the milk to thin the soup, until at the desired consistency.
4. Adjust the seasoning, if needed.
Top photo: Spicy carrot and yam soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
In the ’90s, prewashed and bagged baby salad greens changed salad eating in America forever. I was as excited about bagged baby spinach as the next person. No more endless washing of bunch spinach, only to end up with a handful after I cooked it. I averted my eyes from the price tags on the 6-ounce bags and found great bargains at my local Iranian market for big bags packed tight with 2½ pounds of the small flat leaves.
But over the past year or two, I’ve stopped cooking with baby spinach. I’m not inspired by the flavor and I don’t like the little stems — I don’t even like them in salads — or the stringy aspect of the little leaves once they’re wilted. Moreover, I’ve fallen in love with the lush bunches of spinach I find at the farmers market. All it took was one generous bunch, blushing pink at the stem ends, to remind me what spinach can be — perky, toothsome leaves that are thick and substantial and have a deep, mineral-rich flavor. They do lose their volume when you cook them, but they don’t reduce to a bunch of stems with skinny limp leaves.
I’ve had my spinach epiphany, and now I enjoy the time that I spend at the sink stemming and washing my farmers market spinach, in the same way that I enjoy shelling English peas; the prize is worth the task. I admire the feel and look of it as I break off the stems and rub the gritty but lush sandy leaf bottoms where they meet the stems between my fingers. The inner leaves are often light at the stem end, pink or purple in some varieties (I ask the farmer what the variety is, but I never remember the names). The sand departs easily from the leaves when you swish them around in a bowl of water, lift them out, drain the water, and swish them around again in a second bowl. The leaves, no longer gritty, feel plush in my hands.
Delicious spinach plain or buttered up
When I wilt spinach, I have to keep myself from eating it right away if it’s destined for a particular dish. For I love a pile of blanched or wilted spinach unadorned, or enhanced with little more than olive oil or butter, salt, pepper and sometimes garlic. This penchant began in earnest when I lived in France. My neighborhood brasserie was Le Muniche in the rue de Buci — alas, now gone — and my standard meal there was a simple piece of grilled salmon or a plate of marinated saumon crue aux baies roses (raw salmon with red peppercorns), always served with pommes de terre vapeur and a generous helping of spinach, blanched, buttered and salted. There must have been one poor young soul in the Le Muniche kitchen brigade whose only job was to stem, wash and blanch kilos of spinach all day, every day.
Spinach, more than any other green, changes when you cook it for too long, and not for the better. That’s why Popeye had the job of trying to make kids eat their spinach way back in the days when canned spinach was the norm. It loses its forest green color, fading to olive drab, and its flavor becomes drab too, even downright unappealing, a strong metallic aftertaste overcoming the freshness and promise that was once there. Twenty seconds of blanching is all it needs, or a minute in a steamer. You can wilt it in a pan or wok in the steam created by the water left on the leaves after washing, but with the exception of stir-fries I rarely use this method because it’s easier to cook the spinach evenly, in one quick go, if I blanch it.
Plain or Seasoned Spinach
Blanching is my preferred method of wilting spinach because it’s so efficient. People will tell me that I’m losing nutrients in the boiling water, but it’s such a quick blanch — 20 seconds. If you prefer to steam, see the directions below.
Serves 2 to 4
1 or 2 generous bunches spinach
Salt to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Optional: 1 to 2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
1. Stem the spinach and wash well in two changes of water. Meanwhile, if blanching, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously.
2. Fill a bowl with cold water before you add the spinach to the boiling water, as it wilts immediately. Add the spinach to the boiling water and blanch for about 15 to 20 seconds.
3. With a large skimmer transfer to the cold water, then drain and squeeze dry by the handful. Don’t be dismayed by how little spinach those lush bunches have yielded. Just enjoy what’s there. It’s so nutrient-dense, a small serving is quite satisfying.
4. Chop the wilted spinach medium fine or leave the leaves whole.
5. To steam the spinach, add to a steamer set above 1 inch of boiling water and cover. The spinach will wilt in 1 minute. Rinse with cold water and squeeze dry by the handful.
6. To season, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons (depending on the amount of spinach you have) olive oil over medium heat in a heavy, medium size or large skillet and add 1 to 2 minced garlic cloves.
7. Cook until the garlic begins to sizzle and smell fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute. Add the herbs if using, spinach and salt and pepper to taste, and stir and toss in the pan for about a minute, until nicely infused with the oil, garlic and herbs. Remove from the heat.
Top photo: Spinach at the farmers market. Credit: iStockphoto