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Working With Spinach

March 24, 2015 - Radio Kitchen - Working With Spinach  

I think a lot of us are eagerly awaiting those first warm days of Spring, and the return of the Farmers Markets.  One of the first items to make an appearance every year is spinach.  And that's really good news to cooks all over the place.

The first distinction we will make is between mature spinach and baby spinach.  This fast growing plant can be harvested early, say 20-35 days after planting... and that is your small leafed baby spinach.  Full term is something like 40-65 days, depending on variety.  The mature leaves are more pungent than the baby leaves, but nutritionally, they are pretty much the same.

Widely speaking, there are three types of spinach:  Savoy, semi-Savoy, and smooth leaf.  All spinach leaves have little veins, and what matters is how puffed up the leaf is around the veins, and how deep they run.  True Savoy spinach looks, well, like a bunch of miniature pillow sewn together.   Semi-Savoy is smoother, and smooth spinach is the flattest of all.  This matters, because the deeply textured Savoy spinach can be a bear to clean.

Which brings us to our next point; clean the spinach thoroughly.  The farmer will try to bring a fairly clean product to market, but they will not spend much time being pristine about it.  So pull the spinach apart, and wash it in the sink in cold water until there is no grit and dirt left in the water.

A note about trimming the spinach: All spinach can be eaten raw, but the tender baby spinach is best.  Mature spinach is better for cooking, but you need to do something with that stem.  It can be tough and fibrous.  Although it may be a chore, do you best to pull the stems off. 

Try this:  stack a bunch of leaves, all going in the same direction; fold them in half lengthwise; grab the stems, and yank or cut them off with a sharp knife.  You will be left with a bunch of tender half leaves.

A lot of work?  Well, yes, especially when you consider that a big old pound of spinach (about 9 cups raw) cooks down to just one little cup.  Since prices of spinach vary, I would be willing to spend top dollar on tender baby spinach for raw eating, and low ball the mature spinach that I'm going to cook.

Some famous recipes are simple spinach salads, spinach soups, spanakopita, creamed spinach, spinach soufflé, and one of my favorites, sautéed spinach with lavender.

Because of its color, spinach is used as a supporting ingredient in things like pasta.  If you want to make spinach pasta, remember you want the spinach for its color, not its liquids.  Most recipes call for a quick blanching of the spinach, but after it is drained through a colander, press it dry with paper towels to get rid of all of the water you can.

A food processor is the way to go.  Opinions vary as to the order of business, but simply toss the cooked spinach, flour, eggs, salt and olive oil into the blender and work it.  You want to end up with something that looks like oatmeal.  If it seems too wet, it is.  Add a little more "00" semolina flour. 

Too dry?  Add a very small amount of water.  Do not over process.  After that, the spinach should be thoroughly incorporated into the dough.  Precede as normal after that.

Spinach pasta is not great for thin noodles like spaghetti, but it works well with the broader shapes:  fettuccine, ravioli, and papparedelle are perfect choices.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.