A Harte Appetite: Spinach
“On the subject of spinach,” screenwriter Delia Ephron, younger sister of Nora, advises, “divide into little piles. Rearrange again into new piles. After five or six maneuvers, sit back and say you are full.” This directive, from Ephron’s book “How to Eat Like a Child,” reinforces the long-held stereotype that kids, and not a few adults, hate spinach.
They know better in Chester, Illinois, just fifty miles from where I sit. That’s because Chester is the home town of Elzie Crisler Segar, the creator of Popeye, one of the most famous cartoon characters of all time and a confirmed devotee of the green leafy vegetable, which is actually a member of the beet family. You may recall that Popeye regularly resorted to canned spinach as a way to boost his strength, especially when he tangled with Bluto, his nemesis.
In the fall of every year, at the annual Popeye Picnic in Chester, they celebrate Popeye’s birthday and you can bet there will be plenty of spinach to go around.
Because it turns out Popeye was right. He knew the benefits of spinach long before it was declared a nutritionally dense superfood. A 3.5 ounce serving of the stuff contains more iron than the same sized hamburger patty. Not bad for a food that is 91% water. Harold McGee, the world renowned authority on the chemistry of food, says it is the most important leaf vegetable other than lettuce. No wonder that as early as the 12th century an Arab writer called it the prince of vegetables.
Throughout that time people have learned that the green plant is not only good just eaten raw or cooked by itself, but that it is a worthy ingredient in a wide variety of dishes. Like carrots, you can even put it in a cake, just in case you want to celebrate Popeye’s birthday in style.
This elegant dish can be served either hot or cold. It is adapted from a beautiful book published some years ago by Missouri Mansion Preservation, Inc. to support restoration projects at the Missouri Governor’s Mansion. I was lucky enough to be invited to be one of the book’s recipe testers and have been happily savoring its many dishes on and off ever since.
½ cup chopped green onions, tops included
5 tablespoons butter, divided
2 pounds fresh spinach
3 egg yolks
1 and ½ cups heavy cream
¾ cup bread crumbs
¼ teaspoon ground pepper
5 tablespoons grated Parmesan
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Line bottoms of eight 6-ounce ramekins with parchment paper and spray with cooking spray. Chop and wilt spinach and squeeze out excess liquid. Saute onions in three tablespoons butter until soft. Beat together eggs and yolks. Whisk in cream, bread crumbs, pepper, Parmesan, salt, and nutmeg. Add wilted spinach and mix well. Spoon mixture into ramekins and bake in a water bath for 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees until mixture tests clean. Slice and sauté mushrooms in remaining two tablespoons butter until lightly browned. Unmold ramekins and top with sliced mushrooms.