Popeye had it right.
As always, the brutish Bluto would have him at a disadvantage, beating him with his hammer-like arms and often choking him. Just before passing out — or worse yet, crying “uncle” — Popeye would magically produce a can of spinach, down its contents in one gulp, and instantly become strong enough to teach his dimwitted assailant a lesson.
That lesson, at least subliminally, was: Spinach is good for you.
And so it is. The leafy green vegetable is absolutely loaded with healthful minerals such as manganese, magnesium, and iron, and vitamins such as A, C, and K. It is also, as it happens, delicious.
I didn’t always think so. While I never had the fear of spinach, the tantrum-inducing hatred of it that infects many children, when I was young it was not on the long list of my favorite foods. But that all changed in early adulthood, when I first went to the Washington restaurant City Lights of China.
The restaurant, in the heart of the trendy Dupont Circle neighborhood, is located in a building’s basement — always a good sign for a Chinese restaurant. On the recommendation of a group of diners who were just leaving, we tried the stir-fried spinach. I have never looked at spinach the same way again.
These days, a lot of people have taken to cooking spinach with garlic in olive oil; the Mediterranean-styled preparation seems to bring out the best in all the flavors. But I first encountered it at City Lights of China, so when I make spinach in this most elemental way I usually give it an Asian flavor. I splash it with a bit of soy sauce and maybe, if I’m feeling decadent, a brief drizzle of toasted sesame oil.
It is incredibly fast and easy to make and will be gobbled up by everyone, even people who don’t like spinach.
And those who do enjoy spinach will want to share the love with a most wonderful party dish, spinach and artichoke-stuffed baguette slices. It is a clever hors d’oeuvre, courtesy of the Seattle Times, with a great taste but a presentation that may be even better.
The taste comes courtesy of the classic combination of spinach, walnuts, and salty cheese, this time combined appealingly with artichoke hearts. This forms a filling (and just try not to eat it straight out of the bowl) that you stuff into a hollowed-out baguette — you’ll either need a very long knife to hollow out the baguette or use two half-sized baguettes. You bake it for awhile to meld the flavors of the filling, then paint the baguette with olive oil and put it back in the oven to turn it a nice, golden brown.
When it is time to serve it at a party, you simply slice the baguette. Your happy but somewhat confused guests will then dine on a truly addictive filling surrounded by the crust of a baguette.
For a more traditional spinach-laced dish, I made a hearty Tuscan white bean and spinach soup. This one is particularly easy, and redolent of northern Italy. The base is a combination of chicken broth and tomatoes, punctuated with earthy tones of garlic and sautéed shallot. Cannellini beans are a must, and pasta shells add both a touch of carbohydrates and an additional hint of Italy.
Rosemary goes into the pot for authenticity, while the spinach, added at the end, provides a slightly bitter counterpoint to the natural sweetness of the tomatoes and the rustic beans. As with most soups, it is even better the next day, assuming any of it is even left by the next day.
Finally, I tried a Lebanese dish, fatteh sabanegh. This one takes some work, because it is layered and each layer has to be assembled separately. But it is well worth the effort precisely because it is layered; try serving it in glass bowls if you have them.
The bottom layer is essentially a spinach stew, a garlicky blend of spinach, onion, and cilantro, with minced lamb or other meat if you want it, combined with just a bit of pomegranate molasses (a versatile sweet/sour condiment, you can find it at Middle-Eastern markets). The middle layer is garlic-infused yogurt, flavored with tahini. And the top layer is the part that makes it so addictive: home-fried pita chips, pine nuts, or almonds.
I used all three. Believe me, it was hard to stop eating them straight out of my hand.
The chips and nuts provide a delightful crunch on top of the smooth yogurt, with a hearty helping of spinach underneath.
Popeye would definitely approve.
Contact Daniel Neman at: email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
Spinach with Garlic
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and add garlic. Sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds, and add spinach and soy sauce (add spinach in batches if necessary). Cook until wilted, occasionally stirring. This process will go faster if you can cover the skillet. Drizzle in sesame oil and a squeeze of lemon. Taste, and add salt if needed (remember, soy sauce is salty) and crushed red pepper.
Yield: 2-3 servings
Tuscan White Bean and Spinach Soup
Put oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, and sauté the garlic and shallot until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add 3 cups broth, tomatoes, beans, and rosemary. Season with black and red peppers. Raise heat to a boil. Add pasta and cook 12 minutes. If the soup is thicker than you like, add more broth.
Add spinach and cook until wilted. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan, if desired. Taste for seasoning and, if needed, add salt.
Yield: 4 servings; Source: Adapted from Food.com
Spinach and Artichoke-Stuffed Baguette Slices
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Heat a dry sauté pan over medium heat. Toss the walnuts in the hot pan until fragrant and a test bite is sort, warm, and a bit chewy. Transfer the walnuts to a large bowl to cool.
In the same pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer a bit, add the artichokes, spinach, chili powder, and nutmeg. Using tongs, toss until the spinach is wilted, about 5 minutes. Add to the bowl with the walnuts and allow to cool.
With a serrated knife, cut about 2 inches off one end of each baguette (or the one larger baguette) and reserve. Use the knife to hollow out the inside of each baguette, leaving just 1/8 inch of bread as a shell. Be careful not to puncture the outside of the bread from the inside while hollowing each baguette. Save the bread for breadcrumbs.
Add the feta and Parmesan cheese to the large bowl. Stir to combine. Taste for seasoning. Stuff each baguette with the filling, packing tightly. When done with each, invert the untrimmed, tapered end of each baguette into the open end to seal in the filling. Tightly wrap each baguette in aluminum foil and bake 25 minutes.
Remove from the oven and raise the temperature to 400°. Unwrap the aluminum foil and brush the baguettes with the remaining oil. Return to the oven uncovered and cook until golden, 5-8 more minutes.
Rest, slice, and serve. Allow the baguettes to cool until just warm. Using a serrated knife, cut 1-inch slices along the length of each baguette. If transporting the baguettes to a party, keep the slices in the form of a baguette and wrap them back up in the same aluminum foil. These are also great cold or at room temperature. Feel free to cool completely, slice, then rewrap and refrigerate.
Source: Adapted by The Seattle Times from Sunny's Kitchen: Easy Food for Real Life, by Sunny Anderson
Spinach, Yogurt, and Pita Croutons Casserole
Cook's note: Both pomegranate molasses and tahini are available at Middle Eastern markets, and tahini can be found in almost any grocery store.
Heat 1 cup oil for frying in a skillet until hot; it is ready when bubbles immediately begin forming around a piece of bread (or pita) dropped into it. Fry the pita until light brown, 1-2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon or spider to a plate covered with several paper towels. Set aside until needed, or store for up to a few days in an airtight container.
In a small skillet, melt the butter over medium heat and fry the pine nuts and almonds until golden. Dry on paper towels and set aside until needed, or store for up to a couple of days in an airtight container.
Mash the garlic with a bit of salt, or mince it finely. Add about one-quarter of the garlic to the yogurt (reserving the rest of the garlic). Add the tahini, mix together, and refrigerate until needed.
Set a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add the meat, if using, and fry until brown. Drain any excess fat. Add the remaining garlic and cilantro, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the spinach, pomegranate molasses if using, and ¼ cup water. Cover and cook until wilted. Add cinnamon, allspice, and pepper; cook 1 more minute.
When ready to serve, place hot or warm spinach in a large serving dish or individual goblets. Add yogurt, then the pita croutons, and top with toasted nuts.
Yield: 4-6 servings; Source: Adapted from Tasteofbeirut.com