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Spinach

Spanakopita (spinach pies) on a white plate
Sodexo USA via Flickr
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We've gotten into the habit of ordering carry out from our local Indian restaurant up in Parkville. One of my favorite dishes is the famous palak paneer, an Indian sort of creamed spinach with cheese. And Chef Jerry Pellegrino, that got me thinking: winter is a great time for spinach, maybe we should talk about a few different ways of enjoying it.

A few basics first. Winter grown spinach (which we do have in Maryland) is much sweeter than its summer counterpart. The cold temperatures intensify the sugars in the leaves and improve the flavors considerably.

When buying spinach you have several choices. Spinach by the bunch usually features mature spinach, often sandy, complete with tough, fibrous stems that should be cut off. This is a waste factor. Bagged mature spinach is already well trimmed and well washed and is a better buy. Baby spinach is very clean and tender, but much milder in flavor. If you make palak paneer with baby spinach it will have very little true spinach flavor. For general cooking, frozen spinach is a good idea. It is trimmed, cleaned and easy to use.

Spinach is famous for wilting substantially while cooking, so you may need more than you'd think for your recipes. So with all that being said, let's look at a few recipe ideas.

One terrifically easy way to use spinach is to add it to your favorite pasta sauce. Wait until the very end so it won't completely wilt away, and serve it immediately. Toss in a few cut up cherry tomatoes and you'll have a colorful plate.

Wraps are popular these days. Try making one with raw spinach, julienned sautéed red bell peppers, a little hummus and a sprinkling of feta cheese. Drizzle with a tangy vinaigrette for a mouthful of flavor.

Spinach can replace basil in a pesto recipe. If you decide to cook it, blanch it very briefly so that it will retain its bright green color. You might want to use your spinach pesto as a base for spinach pistou, a south of France condiment that features in the lovely pistou soup, a vegetable tour de force.

While we're on the subject of spinach pesto, consider using it as a filling for fresh home-made ravioli. A creamy, cheesy sauce with minced mushrooms would be a fabulous accompaniment to the pasta.

If you want to try something easy, whip up a batch of creamed spinach, and consider tossing in a handful of crushed hazelnuts. The earthiness of the one brings out the sweet earthiness of the other. This is always a welcome addition to a steak dinner.

Of course there are thousands of ideas using spinach in salads. One that we came across looked particularly appealing: spinach, beet and lentil salad. Toss in some ribbons of carrot and some dried berries and you have a healthy, satisfying dish.

If you love baking, you ought to give spanakopita a try. This is the celebrated Greek spinach and pastry pie, and it is good for breakfast, lunch or dinner, as a main course or as an appetizer. You will want a very fluffy, flaky crust for this, so you can go classic and use phyllo dough, or play it safer with sheets of puff pastry. Either way, it's a two crust pie with a filling that features spinach, onions, garlic, and aromatic herbs, plus feta cheese (this is non-negotiable) all bound together with a few eggs. I would strongly encourage you to watch a YouTube video before trying it, just to pick up a few little "how-to" tips. This is a great dish to take to a party, since it should be cut up into plate-size squares.

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.