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Friday, July 19

Gapers Block

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I love it when people give me a cooking challenge. I don't really feel the need to compete with anyone else when it comes to cooking, nor do I judge other people's cooking (unless something truly is inedible, I'm just going to be grateful that you care about me enough to cook for me). But when someone says, "I need you to help me figure out how to make more spinach dishes," the part of my soul that loves a challenge gets all fired up.

This friend is recovering from some medical procedures so when she said, "I need to eat a lot of leafy greens, and lean protein," I got wickedly excited. I realized I'd never written much about spinach. I mean it is the most reviled food of American children. I doubt many parents cook liver and onions these days; that would be up there, too. But spinach?

I'm sure there are many of you adults out there who also have squeamish thoughts when I mention that word. But rest assured, that I may not make you love boiled spinach, but I bet I can show you one or two ways to sneak it into your diet so you don't hate that you're eating it. And, rest assured, I say this as someone who as a kid sat at the table for several hours with a cold, overly-green lump of untouched spinach staring me in the eye. I've known dislike for Popeye's favorite food, but now I have some love for it.

I have Indian food to thank for that. The first time someone suggested we order Palak Paneer, I shrugged and nodded. And then when it arrived and my friend raved about how this was the best spinach on Devon, I felt like I had to get over my dislike of this vegetable to try at least a bite. And, well, I had more than my fair share of the dish by the end of the evening. It was glorious! Richly flavored. Creamy without being greasy. And none of that over-boiled, bland, bitter flavor that I remembered from my childhood. And like so many other things, I began to realize that I liked this vegetable, I just didn't like how it had been prepared for me in the past.

So the first dish I'll describe for you is very similar to many Indian dishes. It's easily tweakable to suit your tastes. The second dish is the traditional creamed spinach. It's not a low-fat dish, and it doesn't suit my friend's wishes for a low-fat, high protein spinach dish, but it's good enough that you might want to try it if you're really squeamish about spinach. And Spinach Enchiladas are a great casserole style dish that tastes better the next day, but are plenty good the first day.

Palak Paneer
"Palak" means "spinach" and "paneer" means "fresh cheese."

1 pound of frozen spinach
1 small yellow onion
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil or ghee
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1 teaspoon of cumin seeds
1 teaspoon of garam masala powder
1 green chile, minced (optional)
1 clove of minced garlic
1 roma tomato
1 large handful of chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon of salt
12 ounces of chicken or vegetable broth
8 ounces of cubed paneer, feta or tofu (If using tofu, add one more clove of garlic, one more teaspoon of garam masala powder and more salt.)

Thaw the spinach in the microwave. Place a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and the oil and stir until the onion starts to get soft. Now add the dried spices. Stir continuously for about two minutes to cook the spices and get them to be really flavorful. Chop the spinach into small pieces if it isn't already chopped. Squeeze some of the water out of the spinach and add it to the skillet. Stir to combine and add the garlic, tomato, cilantro and chile. Now cook everything for about 10 minutes. Add the salt to the skillet and stir to combine. If the spinach seems dry, add the broth and let it cook until it seems to have a desirable texture. Not dry, but not soupy. Add the cheese or tofu and toss quickly until the cheese is warmed through. Serve immediately over basmati rice that has been steamed with a cinnamon stick.
Makes 4 side dishes, or 2 entrees.

Creamed Spinach
Not health food by any stretch of the imagination, but comforting indeed.

2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of flour
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of pepper
1 dash of ground nutmeg
1/2 cup of half and half or heavy cream
2 ounces of cream cheese
1 small onion, minced
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 10-12 ounce package of frozen spinach
2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese

Place a saucepan over medium-low heat and add the butter, flour, salt, pepper and the nutmeg. Stir until the mixture has thickened a bit. Slowly whisk in the cream. Once the cream is combined, stir in the cream cheese and increase the heat to medium. Whisk constantly until the sauce is thick and smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside.

Place a skillet over medium-high heat and add the onions, olive oil, and garlic. Once the onion is transparent, stir in the spinach. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Stir it occasionally for about 8-10 minutes. Place the saucepan over medium-low heat again and whisk to make it creamy. Pour the spinach into the sauce and stir until the sauce is warmed and the spinach is completely coated. Remove it from the heat and stir in the parmesan cheese. Serve it immediately.
Makes 4 side dish servings.

Spinach Enchiladas
To make the enchilada sauce, you need:
3 tablespoons of chili powder
2 tablespoons of flour
1 teaspoon of cocoa
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 cup of water
1 can of tomato sauce

Combine all of the dried ingredients in a small sauce pan and stir. Slowly add enough water until you get a thin paste. Whisk in the rest of the water and turn the heat to medium-high. As the sauce warms up, it should thicken so stir constantly or it will burn. Once it seems fairly thick, add the can of tomato sauce and turn off the heat. Stir until everything is thoroughly combined.

1 tablespoon of vegetable or olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 clove of garlic (or 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder)
salt to taste
large pinch of crushed red pepper
4 cups of fresh spinach that have the stems cut off and are chopped
3 cups of shredded anejo cheese
12 corn tortillas

Preheat your oven to 375° F. Place a skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and the onion and cook until the onions are clear. Stir frequently so they don't brown. Now add the cumin, garlic, salt, and the crushed red pepper. Stir continuously for 1 minute. Now add the spinach and 1/2 cup of the enchilada sauce. Cover and reduce the heat to low. The spinach should wilt after about 2-3 minutes and then you can stir it. Let it cook for another minute and then turn off the heat. Stir one cup of shredded cheese into the spinach. Place a tortilla into the saucepan that contains the sauce. Let it soften for 30 seconds to a minute and then fish it out. Place it on a plate and spread about a couple of spoonfuls of the mixture down the tortilla. Roll it up and place it into a greased casserole dish with the seam-side down. Repeat until you have all of the tortillas in the skillet. Pour the remaining sauce evenly over the enchiladas and then sprinkle the sauce over the top. Bake it in the oven for about 15-20 minutes, or until the sauce starts to bubble around the edges.

If you like you could also finely chop up some tofu and add it to the spinach during the last few minutes of cooking. Or you could chop some mushrooms and cook them with the onions.
Makes 4-6 servings.

I can't promise that you'll learn to love spinach if you've hated it all your life. But I bet if the only way you've ever had cooked spinach is in a lump from a can, or even a clump that was frozen, thawed and sprinkled with salt, then you'll like these dishes even better. Maybe not enough to eat it all the time, but maybe enough to make you feel like a grownup who can proudly tell mom that you ate spinach, on your own, and you cooked it, too.

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jennifer / March 9, 2008 7:19 PM

my family didn't eat much spinach, so my first proper introduction to the leaf was in college. and I love spinach! I always feel guilty if I don't have spinach as the base of my salads, because just how can you pass up all of its good nutrients?

thanks for the yummy recipes. looking forward to trying them out.

Michelle / March 10, 2008 12:57 PM

With regards to creamed spinach, I have never followed a recipe and have found that just a bit of butter and 2% milk and maybe a little cheese goes a long way.

Different products for sure, but good cooking doesn't have to have a ton of butter and fat to add flavor. I keep seeing whacked ratios in recipes such as mashed potatoes from otherwise good bloggers (amateur gourmet comes to mind) who miss the point of home cooking when they go overboard.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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