Strong to the finish

Spinach suppers are a favorite from Popeye to Paris to Punjab.

wknd spinach (photo credit: )
wknd spinach
(photo credit: )
I love spinach cooked the French way. It's easy: You boil the leaves briefly, drain them, then heat them with butter, salt and pepper, and perhaps a spoonful of creme fraiche or a sprinkling of grated cheese and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. Prepared this way, the spinach is delicious as a side dish with just about any food. When I tasted Indian spinach in a Punjabi restaurant, the spicy Indian greens were very different from the subtle spinach dishes I had learned to cook in Paris, and they did not have the vivid green hue of the French spinach dishes. But they, too, had a creamy texture. In fact, when I asked an Indian cook what she put in her spinach, one of the ingredients was milk. There also was a generous amount of slowly sauteed onions, which contributed to the richness of the dish. Like the French, Indian cooks pair spinach with cheese, but not the meltable kinds like Parmesan or Gruyere. My friend Neelam Batra, author of 1,000 Indian Recipes, cooks spinach with Indian paneer cheese. The spinach cooks slowly for about 30 minutes, is flavored with ginger and spices fried in oil and ghee (clarified butter), and is enriched with yogurt, which makes it creamy. The long, slow Indian cooking method is unlike the way the French cook spinach today - as briefly as possible over high heat to keep its color bright. Usually it takes only a few minutes. Yet some old-fashioned recipes called for lengthy cooking. Marie-Claude Bisson, author of La Bonne Cuisine Francaise, cooked spinach with butter, creme fraiche and parsley over low heat for 40 minutes. The result is closer to the sauce-like consistency of Indian spinach. We all know spinach makes a tasty filling for all sorts of foods, from burekas to crepes to omelets to mushrooms to fish. But spinach is satisfying enough that it is sometimes the focus of supper. Indians are masters in turning vegetables into entrees, and eating Indian meals made me realize that spinach could play a more central role in menus. There are many possibilities for using it to vary meatless supper menus, even when the spinach is prepared in the European style. Spinach with paneer cheese is popular on Indian menus, but one of my favorite items is often labeled simply "spinach," for which the greens are cooked at length with sauteed onions, hot pepper and other spices. You spread it on warm naan (oval Indian pita) or eat it with basmati rice, and it makes a deliciously simple supper. In fact, you could do the same with French spinach. I have sometimes simmered it with a little extra cream, added a little grated Gruyere and tossed it with hot pasta. Potato cubes often cook with spinach in Indian kitchens, and they are good with French spinach, too. A few spoonfuls of cooked legumes are another way to boost the protein and make the spinach more satisfying - a popular addition in both India and the Mideast. An easy addition to spinach is tofu, which resembles paneer cheese in texture and is often used by vegans as a substitute. Now is a good time to enjoy spinach. Although it is available year round, it has a better, more delicate taste during the cooler months. Remember that spinach leaves reduce greatly in volume as they cook, and you should allow about 225 grams of uncooked spinach per serving. For a much quicker option, use cleaned or frozen spinach. Frozen spinach is already cooked, and only needs to be heated with the seasonings. About 300 grams of frozen spinach is the equivalent to 700 grams of fresh spinach (weight including stems). Because frozen spinach is already blanched, it does not require cooking in water, but simply thawing in the refrigerator; to save time, you can cook it in the microwave or in a pan of boiling water until it thaws, then drain it and continue with the recipe. Fresh spinach can be very sandy and should be washed thoroughly. To prepare spinach, remove the thick stems and rinse spinach by putting it in a large bowl of cold water. Do not simply rinse the spinach in a strainer, as the dirt may stay stuck to the leaves. Lift the leaves from the water, drain off the water and, if it is sandy, replace with new water and rinse spinach leaves again. Usually it needs at least two rinses. SPINACH WITH CHICKPEAS AND VEGETABLES This tasty dish is inspired by an Indian recipe that cooks for about two hours. To save time, I use canned chickpeas and add the spinach at the end of cooking. Serve it with pita or other flat bread or with basmati rice. Makes 4 servings
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 1⁄2 tsp. turmeric
  • Salt to taste
  • 900 gr. fresh spinach, leaves and small stems only, rinsed thoroughly, cut in bite-size pieces
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1⁄2 tsp. ground poppy seeds
  • 2 fresh green or red hot peppers, seeds discarded for a milder result
  • 1 or 2 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 to 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil, ghee (clarified butter) or butter
  • 1 large onion, halved, sliced
  • 2 400-gr. cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
  • 1⁄2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) In a saucepan, combine carrot slices with 1 cup water, turmeric and pinch of salt. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat 7 minutes. With pan on low heat, add spinach in 3 batches, covering briefly after each addition so spinach wilts. After adding all of spinach, simmer uncovered about 5 minutes or until spinach is very tender. In a mini food processor or blender, grind hot peppers and garlic to a paste, or chop them finely with a knife. Combine with cumin, coriander and poppy seeds. Heat oil in a deep skillet, add onion and saute over medium heat 7 minutes. Add hot-pepper-garlic-spice paste and stir over low heat 3 minutes. With slotted spoon, add carrot-spinach mixture, then pour in 1⁄2 cup of its cooking liquid. Add chickpeas and bring to a boil. If desired, simmer uncovered 2 to 3 minutes to thicken slightly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled generously with cilantro. NUTMEG-SCENTED SPINACH This classic French dish is one of my favorite ways to prepare spinach. You can also add grated Gruyere cheese at the last minute, or simmer the spinach with a little extra cream and serve it as a sauce for pasta. The spinach is great topped with fried eggs or, like the Indian spinach, served with pita or rice pilaf. Makes 4 servings
  • 900 gr. fresh spinach
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 to 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 to 3 Tbsp. heavy cream or creme fraiche
  • Freshly grated nutmeg to taste Discard spinach stems and rinse leaves thoroughly. Add spinach to a large saucepan of boiling salted water and boil uncovered over high heat 3 minutes or until wilted and just tender. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water and drain well. Squeeze spinach by handfuls to remove as much liquid as possible. Chop spinach coarsely with a knife. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add spinach and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Stir in cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook, stirring, until cream is absorbed. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot. Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.