By MARK BITTMAN
Published: April 5, 2012
If spinach has the reputation of being the homework of vegetables, it was not helped by its ’70s “revival” in the form of raw spinach salads. Spinach has many charms — truly singular flavor, the ability to be transformed by cooking in myriad ways, its famous health benefits — but salad is probably the least convincing.
Here, spinach undergoes four completely distinct treatments: superfast wilting in a pan; not-much- slower steaming in a pot; braised and almost a full meal; and superslow, a technique I really love, and one that results in astonishingly fine creamed spinach and the like. (These are generally so high-fat that they effectively neutralize spinach’s supposed health benefits, an interesting paradox.)
A few pointers: fresh spinach is a given, but really fresh spinach — dirty spinach, in bundles rather than bags — is preferable, especially if it comes in bunches, still attached to the little pink “crowns” that attach leaves to root. (Eat those; they’re good.) Two pounds is not too much for four people; less than a pound is not enough. (These recipes were tested with one and a half pounds.) Do not forget salt.
In these groups, the wilted and the braised are more likely to make satisfying main dishes; the other two, steamed and superslow, produce dishes that feel like sides, although they’re hardy enough, especially those in the last group. The differences among them are quite stark.
I have left out other options: you can flash-fry spinach, tossing it into a hot wok or pan with a bit of oil and some chilies and garlic; it’s done in seconds. You can also plunge it into boiling water, cool it, squeeze it dry and top with lemon and olive oil or soy sauce and sesame oil.
In short, this isn’t the end of the options. Only when you reach that end should you start messing around with the salads.
With Skirt Steak
Sear 8 ounces skirt steak in a large skillet over high heat, turning once. Remove, let pan cool a bit, then add 2 tablespoons butter and chopped spinach; stir until it wilts, 30 seconds or so. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 2 chopped tomatoes and 1/2 chopped red onion and cook another minute. Toss and top with the sliced steak; 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese makes a nice garnish.
Render 4 thick bacon slices in olive oil until nearly crisp, then remove. Toss spinach with a sprig of tarragon in the rendered fat to wilt; add 1/2 pound chopped mushrooms instead of tomatoes and onion; skip the cheese and top with bacon.
Substitute chicken breast for steak; cook in olive oil, browning well. Wipe pan clean. Melt 3 tablespoons butter and add spinach to wilt. Add tomatoes and a handful of chopped scallions; skip the rest. Top with sliced chicken and fresh lemon juice.
Put washed-and-still-wet spinach in a covered pot over medium-high heat. Put 2 to 4 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over medium heat; stir occasionally until foam subsides and butter turns nut brown. When spinach is tender, after 3 to 5 minutes, drain, drizzle with butter and add 1/2 cup each toasted bread crumbs and shaved Parmesan; toss to combine.
With or Without Anchovies
Toast 2 cloves garlic in the butter, then add 1/2 cup raisins and 2 tablespoons pine nuts. (Anchovy lovers: now’s your chance.) Toss the spinach with this mixture instead of the bread crumbs and cheese.
Use 2 tablespoons sesame oil instead of butter, and stir in 1 chopped green chili. Add 3/4 cup cashews; cook until the cashews brown lightly. Toss with spinach, then add ¼ cup chopped scallions and 2 tablespoons lime juice. Garnish: Lime wedges.
Put 4 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. When it melts, add spinach, one handful at a time, stirring, and sauté until it wilts, about 5 minutes. Form 4 nests in the spinach and crack an egg in each. Cover and cook until egg whites are set, about 4 minutes. Garnish: Shaved Parmesan.
Chop 1 white onion and sauté it in the melted butter; add 3 tablespoons white wine. Cook spinach in this as above, and substitute 1 pound mussels for the eggs; cook until they open. Garnish: Fresh parsley.
With Soy and Ginger
Skip the butter. Put 2 tablespoons sesame oil in a large saucepan, along with 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger and 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Add spinach and braise until completely wilted and soft, about 10 minutes.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a deep skillet over medium-low heat; add a quarter of the spinach and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach has absorbed the butter; then add another tablespoon butter and more spinach and stir; repeat until the spinach is all used. Add 1 cup cream and cook until the cream is thick, at least 15 minutes. Optional: Grated nutmeg to taste.
With Indian Spices
Skip butter; use neutral oil. Sauté 2 onions and 1 clove minced garlic with 1 teaspoon each cumin, coriander and cardamom. Add 1 cup coconut milk, a few tablespoons at a time, alternating with handfuls of spinach. Cook, stirring occasionally, until coconut milk is thick, 1 hour. Add 1/2 cup chickpeas and heat through.
With Rice and Carrots
Put 1/2 pound carrots and 6 cups water in a pan on high heat. Bring to a boil, then add 1/2 cup rice. When it returns to a boil, add spinach and simmer. Cook, stirring, until carrots are tender, 1/2 hour. Add 3 cloves minced garlic and 2 tablespoons butter.