It’s almost Valentine’s Day. So let’s talk about — spinach!
Last Tuesday night, Chef Brandon Ashby from the West Plains Bistro arrived at our Go Cooking kitchen with two enormous bags of spinach. I must admit that, before he started cooking, I eyed them a bit suspiciously.
I had never been a big fan of spinach, that rather bitter tasting, sometimes gritty, dark green stuff that traditionally delights in ending up stuck in shreds between your front teeth. In fact, there’s a very famous 1928 New Yorker cartoon by Carl Rose which expresses my childhood feelings perfectly.
You must be aware that this cartoon was composed in a pre-multi-vitamin era when children were exhorted to eat certain foods because they were good for their health. And, while I don’t quite go back to 1928, I do remember as a child having to swallow things such as cod liver oil and (ugh) oatmeal porridge and liver because “It’s good for you and will make you grow up big and strong!” Pop Eye, of course, was the poster boy for spinach.
My distaste for the vegetable lasted into adulthood when my Czech husband introduced me to spinach cooked the eastern European way. This involved chopping the leaves up fine, sautéing them with copious amounts of minced garlic and then cooking with flour and heavy cream until thickened. By that time, it was possible to buy pre-washed spinach which solved the “grit” problem, and the end result — a sort of béchamel sauce of dark green garlic and cream — was quite palatable.
The second step upward on my spinach epiphany was the advent of spinach salad. This occurred sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s, I believe and I’m remembering that the first spinach salads were served warm with vinegar and some kind of bacon fat in the dressing. I’m not at all certain of the history of the spinach salad but it seems to me that it must have links to German cuisine where the salads often have a sort of “sweet and sour” tang to them.
Anyway, classic spinach salad is delicious and while there are multitudes of variations, the basic ingredients always include crispy bacon bits, thinly sliced mushrooms and chopped hard-cooked eggs — along with the spinach, of course. Here’s a very good dressing for spinach salad.
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp. mayonnaise
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp sugar
1 small garlic clove, chopped finely
1 cup olive oil
Blend all ingredients in blender except for olive oil. Add oil in a stream, with motor running, until emulsified. Makes 1 1/4 cups that you can keep in the refrigerator.
I am somewhat bemused to note that spinach does retain its reputation as a health booster. I came upon a Huffington Post article which compared the health benefits of spinach to that trendy, power “veg du jour” – kale. The comparisons were made with one cup servings of each vegetable in its raw state and the Post looked at vitamins C, K, A and B6 as well as iron, fibre and calcium and other elements. To find the winner of the vitamin sweepstakes, check out.
Anyway, Chef Brandon made something called wilted spinach salad which formed part of a very complicated and delicious entrée involving phyllo wrapped salmon, lemon chive aioli and risotto cakes. The appetizers for this Chef’s meal also drew “oh’s” and “ah’s” and seemed more do-able at home, at least to me. These were individual phyllo and spinach pies that bore more than a passing resemblance to a dish that I’ve had in Greek restaurants called spanakopita. Spanakopita, however, is made only with feta cheese and the Chef’s pie was enriched with Gruyère which resulted in a much creamier consistency and a more piquant flavour. While he had made small individual pies ahead of time, he demonstrated how to make a larger single pie and the result was spectacular. So here’s his recipe and just think of how healthy you will be after eating all of that baby spinach.
Phyllo and Spinach Pie
1/2 cups pine nuts – toasted
1 lb feta cheese – crumbled
1 cup Gruyère – grated
knob of butter
1/4 tsp oregano
1 lb baby spinach – washed and dried
1 X 270 g pack of phyllo pastry
3 cloves of garlic
1 medium onion
1 lemon – zested
1 tbsp olive oil
salt and black pepper
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2) In a large mixing bowl combine eggs, feta, Gruyère, black pepper, salt, dried oregano, lemon zest, olive oil and pine nuts. Set aside.
3) In a sauté pan, over medium heat, melt 1 tbsp of butter then add spinach.
4) Stirring frequently, sauté until spinach wilts and darkens in colour. This will happen quickly and shouldn’t take more than a minute or 2, maximum. You may need to do this in batches. Set aside in a colander to drain excess juice and to cool. Once cool, add it to the egg mixture and combine until even.
5) Take phyllo out of the fridge.
6) In a well-greased 10″ pie pan, lay 2 sheets of phyllo so that they overlap in the centre of the pan and overhang the edges of the pie pan.
7) Gently press the phyllo into the corners of sides of the pie pan and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Repeat until you have 4 layers.
8) Pour the egg mixture into the phyllo draped pie pan and spread it out. Fold the overhanging phyllo sheets over the top to form the top of your pie.
9) Put pan into the oven on the top rack to cook for 18 to 20 minutes, or until golden and crisp.
As you can see from the picture above, this looked beautiful — and it tasted as good as it looks.