Passing by the refrigerated prepared-foods shelves in the produce section of my local Whole Foods a few days ago, I couldn’t help noticing a 24-oz tub of creamed spinach…for $8.99. Six dollars a pound. Given that most of their deli and salad bar foods are about $8/lb., maybe that’s a comparative bargain, but still. You could buy six 1-lb. bags of frozen spinach from the Trader Joe’s for that. At my local Latino supermarket, you could get at least six and maybe twelve bunches of spinach, turnip greens, mustard greens, kale, maybe chard or beet greens too. Of course then you’d have to wash it all. And chop it, and cook it. But you’d also get to decide how.
Standard creamed spinach is one of the easier and frankly quicker side dishes to put together. If you want the plain-o, Norman Rockwell version, go to an older American cookbook such as Joy of Cooking or even the Victory Garden Cookbook. Basically you sauté fresh chopped or thawed frozen spinach in a little butter, stir in a spoonful or so of flour until the white flecks disappear, add cream or milk and heat it up until the flour thickens it. Sprinkle salt and pepper and maybe grate some nutmeg over it.
But gawd, is it bland. Rich maybe, but bland.
I’m not a huge butter-and-cream fan, more because I can’t really stomach large amounts of it personally than for any particular virtues of character. If I’m going to have calories, I want them to come from a knockout dessert, not the spinach. So rich isn’t enough. I want it to taste like something.
Of course, I’m also speaking from the perspective of someone who grew up wondering “If there’s no garlic, is it really food?” No, don’t just laugh at me–think about it: most of Nigella Lawson’s recipes work precisely because she adds a clove of garlic to old-standard British stodge. You know–garlic smashed potatoes. Magic! If just adding a clove of garlic to a batch of boiled potatoes was such a big revelation, it’s no wonder the Brits fell so hard for Indian food. And Italian. And Greek. Of course, I’ve fallen hard for them too.
So of course the first thing to add to spinach is garlic. To my mind the second necessity is lemon, and the third is herbs or spices. And possibly some kind of white fresh cheese. Here are a couple of possibilities that taste satisfying without relying on heavy cream or butter, and they can be done either on the stove or in a microwave.
This works as a stand-alone dish or, with more milk and the use of a food processor, as a cream of spinach soup or–with more basil–a pasta sauce. You can make a good quick filling for tortelloni or lasagne by leaving out the flour and milk and just blending ricotta and a small piece of onion with everything else in a food processor.
- 1 lb fresh, loose-leaf frozen, or thawed box-frozen spinach
- 1 heaping soupspoonful (1-2 T) flour
- 1-2 c. milk (I use skim)
- 1 decent clove garlic, mashed, minced or grated
- 1 lemon, organic if possible, scrubbed well
- few leaves of fresh basil, chopped, optional
- parmesan and/or grated low-fat mozzarella, optional
Make a white sauce: put the flour in a cup and add a couple of spoonsful of milk, stir until it makes a smooth paste. Bring it up a little at a time with the rest of the milk so you don’t get lumps. In a nonstick frying pan, heat a little olive oil, add the spinach and garlic and when they’re hot or at least there are no more frozen bits, stir in the white sauce and cheese and keep cooking until the mixture thickens up. Grate some of the lemon peel into it with a zester or the fine holes on a regular grater, and add a grating or so of nutmeg (or a medium pinch of powdered nutmeg). If you have basil, chop it fine and add it in. Once the spinach is cooked and thickened, you can take it off the heat and add a little lemon juice to it without everything curdling, just as long as you don’t try to reboil.
Microwaved Palak Paneer (Indian spinach with cheese)
This is my untraditional way of getting the spinach ground down to a fine silt–I grind it in the food processor while still frozen. If all you have is block-frozen spinach, put the unwrapped block on a dinnerplate and microwave to defrost partway, just enough to break it up into small chunks without a lot of ice. The scalded milk is key especially for the soup version–it gives the immediate sense of a comfort food (as in hot cocoa) and then the hot pepper and other spices start to kick in.
- 1-2 c. milk
- 1-2 T. flour
- 1/2-1 lb. loose-frozen spinach
- 1/4 yellow onion
- big clove of garlic, mashed/grated/minced
- small handful fresh basil or cilantro leaves
- juice of a lemon
- 1-2 t. curry powder
- 1/2 t. each cumin and crushed/ground coriander seed
- 1/2 t. ground cardamom or crushed seeds from 7-8 green pods if you have them
- pinch nigella seed if you have it
- 1/2 inch dab of z’khug, or cayenne or hot pepper flakes to taste (optional)
- 1/2 lb. paneer, queso fresco, panela, feta, or tofu (not my favorite but), in half-inch cubes
Heat the milk by itself to boiling in a mug or pyrex bowl. In the food processor, grind the spinach, basil or cilantro, onion, mashed garlic, spices, flour, and lemon juice to a fine icy silt. Pour some of the milk in and blend, then add the rest of the milk and blend again. It should be very thick. Pour the whole thing into a pyrex mixing bowl, cover with a plate, and microwave 4 minutes. Stir and check to see that it’s cooked and thickened–if not, microwave another minute. Add the cubes of cheese or tofu and microwave another minute or two.
If you want to do this a more traditional way, scald the milk in a saucepan while frying the spices and flour in a frying pan with a little olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook a few minutes to brown, add the scalded milk and let thicken a bit, then add the spinach and basil or cilantro and cook through. Add the cheese or tofu in last with the lemon juice (lemon juice loses some of its acidity if it cooks too long).
If you want this as a soup, leave out the cheese or tofu and scald more milk as the base.
This is less for serving on its own than for use as the filling for spanakopita, bulemas, or fried stuffed tilapia, sole, or snapper fillets.
- 1/2-1 lb. loose-frozen spinach
- 5 to 10 quartered artichoke hearts (marinated or plain frozen)
- 1/4 yellow onion, chopped
- juice of a lemon
- few ounces crumbled feta cheese
- dill, fresh (preferable) or dried (also ok)–about a teaspoon
- clove garlic mashed, grated or chopped
- drizzle of olive oil
Microwave the spinach, artichoke hearts, and chopped onion for 4 minutes on high in a wide uncovered dish (a stoneware dinner plate works fine). Break up the artichoke heart quarters into smaller pieces and mix everything together with your hands.
If using for spanakopita or bulemas (single-sheet rollups version of spanakopita, so you don’t have to layer and stack the sheets), cool and squeeze out the spinach/artichoke mixture well before combining with the other ingredients and err on the side of adding more feta. I melt a tablespoon or so of butter in a bowl in the microwave, add a bit more olive oil, and use a sandwich baggie over my hand as the tool for dipping into the bowl and spreading the oil on the phyllo sheets–it’s faster and doesn’t tear them as badly as a brush, and it also seems to use less fat. Either stack 5 sheets of phyllo, pat on a layer of spinach, and stack 5 more in a baking dish, or lay out a single sheet, oil it, and put a line of filling along one edge, then roll up and fit in the pan, and continue with enough extra rolls to fill the pan. Cut the spanakopita or bulemas into serving pieces in the pan with a sharp knife before baking, brush a little of the oil over the top and bake at 350 F until golden brown, 30-45 minutes or so.
To stuff tilapia, slit a pocket in each of several tilapia fillets, shake them in a gallon-sized food bag with a few spoonsful of flour, a pinch of curry powder, some oregano or thyme and a little minced garlic or, and I know this is kind of a small sacrilege but it’s ok here, a pinch of garlic powder. Take the fish out and stuff the pockets with the spinach mixture, squeezing a little to get excess moisture out and press to firm up the fish around the filling. For sole or red snapper fillets, just bread them and either roll them around the filling or sandwich the spinach filling between them. Heat olive oil in a nonstick frying pan and place the fish packets gently. Let them brown on medium-high heat and then turn carefully with a spatula and the help of a soupspoon or fork on top. Fry on all sides until just cooked through and serve close to immediately.
Filed under: cooking, Dairy, DASH Diet, frugality, high-speed soup, Revised recipes, Vegetabalia | Tagged: artichoke hearts, microwave cooking, palak paneer, recipes, soups, spanakopita, spinach, vegetables |