Monday, July 14, 2008
One of the earliest local vegetables one can find now is spinach. Many farmers start the plants in their greenhouses and have beautiful plants ready for harvest during May. It is a cool weather plant, which tends to bolt in hot weather, going to seed with few leaves to harvest. Following a series of spring crops, look for it return in the fall as the weather cools and leaf production returns.
Spinacia oleracea, a member of the beet family, originated in Persia where it was cultivated as early as the 4th century AD. It arrived in Europe, via China and Tibet, in the 11th century when Arabic invaders conquered Spain. It took until the 16th century for it to become established as more than a novelty in Italy, where it is widely grown and consumed today.
As a mild laxative due to the oxalic acid it contains, it was originally used for medicinal purposes. The nutritional benefits of spinach, primarily due to its high iron content, are widely recognized today. It is also a source for Vitamin A and contains phenolic antioxidants and compounds that reduce potential cancer causing damage to our DNA. Also, folic acid, an extremely important vitamin of the B complex, converts a by-product of our cells metabolism, homocysteine, into the amino acid methionine, which prevents blood level increases in homocycteine which can cause damage to blood vessels, and possibly contribute to heart disease and stroke. So eat your spinach not only for its mild taste, but also for its benefits on your health.
Spinach is cooked primarily by steaming or blanching in a large pot of boiling water. When cooked, its volume is significantly reduced by approximately 2/3s. My experience is that cooked spinach is about ½ the weight of uncooked spinach, so 1 lb. of fresh, leafy spinach will yield ½ lb cooked, drained and squeezed dry spinach.
We eat spinach in a variety of ways; chopped cooked spinach combines nicely with ricotta cheese, a little Parmigiano-Reggiano and a sprinkling of fresh nutmeg to fill homemade raviolis or as a stuffing for lasagna, giant shells or manicotti. Spinach braises nicely with butter, which it tends to absorb, making it a rich vegetable accompaniment for chicken or beef. Creamed spinach is a classic in steak houses, and we like ours with a shot of Pernod mixed in. However, one of our favorite ways to enjoy spinach is in a spinach pie. There are numerous spinach pie recipes including Greek style with feta, garlic and Kalamata olives baked in puff pastry, but the following Italian version has been a big hit with my family as well as the patrons of Boldo’s, our now closed eating establishment in Fairlee. This was one of those recipes we made almost every day, and rarely was there any left at closing. So try this recipe out and it will become a signature dish in your repertoire.
Makes one 9” pie in a fluted, false-bottom tart pan, which should be buttered.
The pie dough is made with 2 cups all purpose flour, ½ tsp. salt, 10 tbl. butter, 3 eggs and 2-3 tbl. water, if needed. Mix the flour and salt together, cut in the butter, mixing with the flour until the pieces of butter are the size of small peas. Blend in the eggs and gather into a dough. Add the extra water if necessary to bring the dough together. Knead very briefly as you don’t want a lot of gluten formation, pat into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour while preparing the filling.
The spinach filling consists of 1 cup of currants, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes, 2 tbl. olive oil, 1 cup of pine nuts (or use walnuts), 2 large Spanish onions, minced, 3 cloves garlic, minced, 3 lb. fresh spinach, blanched, drained, squeezed dry and chopped, salt, pepper and fresh nutmeg, 2 eggs, beaten, 2 cups of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated, and one egg, beaten, to wash the top of the pie before baking.
Toast the pine nuts in a large skillet for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently so they don’t burn. Remove the pine nuts to a bowl and add the olive oil, onions and garlic to the skillet. Saute a few minutes until wilted, but not colored. Add the aromatics to the toasted pine nuts, then add the chopped spinach, seasoned with salt, pepper and a good grating of nutmeg. Stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, two beaten eggs and the currants, drained. Mix well until thoroughly combined.
Remove the dough from the fridge and lop off about 1/3 of the disk, reserving for the top. Roll out the rest of the dough until about 1/8th inch thick and line a buttered false-bottomed tart tin with the dough. Leave about 1” overhang. Fill the tart pan with the spinach mixture, evening it off with a spatula. Roll out the rest of the dough into a circle, and cover the top. Crimp the edge all around, brush the top with beaten egg, cut some air vents in the top crust, and bake in a 375 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden brown and delicious.
It is wonderful warm or at room temperature. This recipe feeds 8 generously or even more if served as an appetizer.