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