Wednesday, September 26, 2007

spinach... it's not just for Popeye anymore

All right, I know. The rest of the civilized world has been enjoying the taste and health benefits of spinach for some time now, but it's just hard for me to learn to eat cooked vegetables. When I was growing up, all the cooked vegetables that came to our dinner table started out as frozen bricks in the freezer with "Birdseye" on their labels. The spinach (served weekly with a particularly awful homemade macaroni-and-cheese that had nothing to do with creamy) was one of the worst. The texture was incredibly slimy, exactly like the seaweed that wraps around your ankles when you walk in the surf. As I well remember, if you let the spinach get stone-cold sitting on your plate, it doesn't smell as bad, but it does make you gag when you try to eat it. So, cooked spinach has been verboten for me for a long time.

We do occasionally eat spinach in salads, but we find that we cannot finish a whole bag of it before it starts to go bad, unless Julie is home, and then she eats most of it. I have had a lot of success adding spinach to different recipes. We really like it mixed in with couscous, and I have added it to a variety of homemade soups. It is really good in fried rice, as well. The fact of the matter is, it pretty much disappears in these dishes, and that is what makes it palatable to me. I had some cooked spinach at a restaurant last week, however, that was so good that I am on a mission to replicate it at home.

When Ben and I were finally able to go out to dinner to celebrate his birthday (that's a whole other story) we went to Mangiamo in Twin Lakes, where we frequently like to eat on special occasions. Here is the link: (Again, sorry that I don't know how to pretty that up.) Anyway. We have eaten there many times since they opened, but I think I had the best meal ever there last week. In keeping with my healthy eating regimen, I ordered the "Pan-roasted Atlantic Salmon", which you will see if you check the menu. My dinner included lobster-chive risotto and crispy baby spinach with balsamic drizzle.

My meal was delicious. As I said, probably the best I've ever had there. Here's the thing, though: every component was perfect, even the spinach. It was like crisp little pieces of parchment that dissolved on my tongue. The familiar spinach flavor was negligible, and the balsamic drizzle was the perfect accent. I resolved to make spinach just like it at home.

When we went grocery-shopping, the bags of baby spinach were buy-one-get-one-free, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity for experimentation. I checked on line for recipes for "crispy spinach", and I found quite a few, actually. The bad news was that they uniformly called for the spinach to be deep-fried. Now, I have never owned a deep fryer, and have no desire to have one now. Here's where the experimentation comes in.

Using one of the bags of spinach I spread it out in a thin layer over two cookie sheets. (There was too much spinach for one sheet.) I drizzled enough extra virgin olive oil over the spinach to coat it all, and also to prevent it from sticking to the cookie sheet as it dried out. I tossed the spinach with my hands to make sure it was coated, then sprinkled it with sea salt and freshly-ground pepper. I put it in a pre-heated 400 degree oven, and I watched it carefully. It wilted pretty quickly, but I could see that it still held a lot of water, and I wanted to drive that all out. When I noticed that a couple of spinach leaves had turned brown (as if they had burned) I removed the spinach from the oven. I drizzled the spinach with balsamic vinegar, and Ben and I ate every bit of it - a whole bag of spinach.

I have to say that the "recipe" is not perfected. I think the next time maybe I would keep it in the oven longer at a lower temperature since the object as I see it is to dehydrate the spinach as much as possible. If you have any suggestions, please don't hesitate to send them along.

Who knows? Maybe I'll be eating asparagus next... Na-a-ah!


tom said...

Mmm. Asparagus is best done like so:

Drizzle with olive oil
Season with salt & pepper
Grill over charcoal for 5-10 minutes until it becomes tender

It's not just palatable, it's tasty!

Also, one need not have a deep fryer in order to a little bit of deep frying if the objection is on technical rather than aesthetic grounds. We've done some very successful tonkatsu using an inch or two of vegetable or peanut oil in a wok (or thin-bottomed pot) over a gas burner.

/eats his greens!

anne mancine said...

Not suggestions for cooking asparagus! That will never happen. I am glad to know, however, that you are learning to enjoy vegetables, because you sure never had to eat them at home. I will take the blame/credit for that.

Yeah, I know I could rig something similar to deep-frying. I guess I was thinking it would be healthier to make it in the oven. Also, I'm kind of scared of all that hot oil.

Bryan said...

Ooh, your recipe sounds interesting. I might have to give that a shot sometime.

My mom also serves Birdseye spinach from the characteristic frozen block, and up until a few years ago, the only way I could eat it was by squeezing out the water with the serving spoon, and mixing in a lot of salt. And I mean A LOT of salt! Probably enough to negate whatever health benefit the spinach had.

Then, almost by accident, one day I discovered that it was more palatable when sprinkled with, of all things, powdered Parmesan cheese.

My mom took this idea and added dried bread crumbs, garlic salt, and a few other seasonings, and we sprinkle it on to our liking. Now I LOVE spinach! It still takes quite a bit of the seasoning to completely balance out the natural taste of the spinach, but now I actually look forward to it. Plus, the bread crumbs help soak up most of the remaining water.

Tom's right about grilling asparagus, although I enjoy it best with lemon pepper or Mrs. Dash.

I've sometimes wondered if kids (or Nicks) would eat more vegetables if only they were seasoned properly rather than just served with butter and salt.

anne mancine said...

Bryan - I can see how adding lots of tasty stuff might actually make Birdseye spinach tasty, but as you said, I would have to add so much that it would probably totally compromise the reason one presumably eats spinach - because it's "good for you". Also, there's that whole slimy texture thing.

Kristy - That is especially true with tomatoes, which I know you and Tom don't like. A couple of weeks ago, the guy I always buy tomatoes from at the farmer's market sold me some store-bought tomatoes without saying so. I thought they looked too pretty when I bought them, and when I got them home, I knew for sure he hadn't grown them himself as the texture was mealy and they had no flavor. I don't buy from him anymore.

tom said...

Too bad about the shady tomato guy, but it's awesome that you've got a farm market near you to shop at. We always try our best to take advantage of ours, although given, well, mornings, we don't get to it as often as we'd like.

Ben said...

We agreed that "Shady Tomato" was a delightful phrase. Maybe a musician, or a detective novel, or a nom de plume for Sounding Off to the local paper.

We've been buying these odd "heirloom" cherry tomatoes from a lady at the local farm market and - boy howdy - they are tasty and not good looking. The taste is just amazinng- revealing, you might say.