Saturday, October 4, 2008

Cooking spinach

That incredible burst of spring growth that you get with the warmer weather, some welcome rain and longer daylight hours caught me out in the tastiest possible way this week. My 'salad' crop of baby spinach turned into my vegetable crop of mature leaves in little more than seven days. Last night I harvested a quarter of the crop and turned it into my favourite spinach dish, and this morning I harvested the rest, steamed it, divided it into three parcels and popped them in the freezer. And so I thought I'd blog a bit about cooking spinach while a bit more rain falls outside.

Here's the runaway spinach patch in all it lovely, leafy greenery.

And here's some of the leaves harvested and ready to be steamed. I cut off the stalks and pop them back into the composting bin for recycling, then wash the leaves well then toss them into a steamer.

That steamer full of buoyant leaves soon collapses and turns into an emerald puddle of delicious aromas. Though I steam it without adding any of spinach's usual accompaniments (eg, salt, pepper or nutmeg) the unadorned spinach gives off a swirl of 'eat me now' flavoured steam, and the colour isn't too bad, either.

Collapsed and tender, but not overcooked to green, muddy, oblivion – that's what I aim for. About 4-5 minutes' steaming get spinach to this condition. I always give the steaming spinach one 'stir' with tongs, to get the uppermost leaves down to the bottom of the heap, for even cooking throughout.

At the end of the process, three batches of cooked spinach, each a perfectly good side dish for two people. After being lovingly photographed by their cooking blogger, they go into freezer bags and then the freezer. When it comes time to use it, frozen spinach thaws rapidly once you remove it from the freezer.

While spinach really is at its best cooked fresh and eaten straight away, the thawed frozen stuff is extremely versatile, so I thought I'd blog on a bit about how I cook it. I'll include the formal recipes at the end of the blog.

This is a key part of last night's meal, where I steamed the spinach and flavoured it with a Japanese-style dressing. It's dashi, a fish stock made from bonito. It's used extensively in Japanese cooking, and I suspect that most Japanese housewives do the same as me and use the instant stock powder rather than going through the hassle of making their own fish stock from dried bonito flakes. To make enough stock for the dressing, I just boil some water in a kettle, add half a teaspoon of dashi powder to a bowl and pour over about a cup of boiling water, then let it cool. Getting the amounts right doesn't seem too critical – and there's no instructions on the package, either.

The other component of the dressing is soy sauce, and the formula is simple: two parts dashi to one part soy sauce. For my two-serve little batch of spinach, I go for two tablespoons dashi to one tablespoon soy. As soon as the spinach is cooked I toss it into a bowl then pour over the dressing and swirl it around so it combines with the spinach. Then, after 30 seconds, I drain the spinach in a colander while I cook the fish that I love to eat with this spinach – Teriyaki salmon (see below for the teriyaki marinade recipe, which is much nicer than the over-sweet bottled stuff from the supermarket, and so simple to make).

Another favourite way to cook fresh spinach is to stir-fry it with these ingredients – pine nuts and sultanas (although any of the dried fruits such as raisins and currants can be substituted). Add a grind of pepper and a grating of nutmeg, and it's very nice.

As for cooking the frozen stuff, I have several recipes that I make again and again, but I'll share just one favourite, an Indian 'saag' curry with a spinach sauce. First up, though, the Japanese-style salmon with spinach on the side...

Salmon Teriyaki with Spinach Salad (for two)

2 x Atlantic salmon pieces (I prefer very thick slabs)
1 bunch spinach

Teriyaki marinade
100ml soy sauce
40ml mirin or sake
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon crushed ginger
1 dessertspoon sugar

Dressing for spinach
2 tablespoons dashi (japanese bonito fish stock)
1 tablespoon soy sauce

Fish: make marinade for salmon by combining ingredients and stirring well until sugar is dissolved, then pour over the salmon and leave to marinate for at least 2 hours in the fridge. I cook salmon on a cast-iron griddle which I pre-heat to hot for 10 minutes, then turn down the heat to lowest setting. I prefer salmon undercooked (rare), so I give it only 3-4 minutes on either side, but I'll leave it up to you to figure out how to cook yours to your own liking. Tip: the teriyaki marinade is sweet and a bit sticky, so early on in the cooking, work a spatula under the fish and make sure it's not sticking to the cooking surface. If you like, baste the fish with a bit of the marinade as it cooks.
Spinach: wash spinach and remove stalks, then cook in a steamer for 4-5 minutes, until collapsed. Transfer cooked spinach to a bowl, and pour over the dashi-soy dressing and work it into the spinach for 30 seconds, then transfer to a colander, set over a bowl, to drain well. Serve as a side dish with the spinach. Tip: cook the spinach before you start cooking the fish.

Spinach with pine nuts and sultanas

splash olive oil
1 bunch spinach, washed, stems removed, chopped
1 good handful pine nuts
1 good handful dried sultanas
pinch nutmeg, plus salt and pepper

Heat a frying pan and splash in a bit of olive oil, then add the spinach leaves and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes, until the leaves wilt, then toss in the pine nuts, sultanas and stir-fry for a minute more. Then sprinkle over some nutmeg, a bit of salt and pepper to taste, and serve as a side dish.

Indian Saag Curry (serves 4)

Now, here's a favourite way to use frozen spinach, in an Indian curry sauce they call a "saag". I also use fresh spinach to make a saag sauce, but frozen is easy to work with, too, and the results are identically nice. It can be used with meat, chicken or vegetables. My favourite is probably chicken saag.

1 bunch fresh spinach, washed, stalks trimmed off, leaves chopped (or 1 quantity cooked and frozen spinach, about 250g)
2 medium potatoes (or you can use turnips or swedes or a combo of these root vegies)
1 tablespoon oil
1 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garam masala (an Indian spice powder mix)
500g of meat of your choice cut into 2-3cm pieces (ie, chicken, beef, lamb), or the same weight of vegetables of your choice (eg, a mixture of cauliflower florets, potato or sweet potato chunks, broccoli florets, broad beans, green beans, peas, etc)

1. If using fresh spinach, do this: chop the spinach and cut the potatoes (or turnips or swedes) into small dice, then cook all together in a steamer for 10 minutes, until the potato (or etc) is cooked. Put the cooked spinach and potatoes into a food processor or blender and puree.
2. If using frozen spinach, do this: cut the potatoes (or turnips or swedes) into small dice, then cook in a steamer for 8 minutes. Then add the thawed, frozen spinach and let it heat through for 2 minutes while the potatoes finish cooking. Then put the cooked spinach and potatoes into a food processor or blender, and puree.
Whether you use step 1 or step 2, you now have a lovely green sludge! Time to turn it into a curry sauce.
3. Heat the oil in a frypan or saucepan and cook the onion and ginger until it softens and starts to turn golden. Then add the chilli, turmeric, salt and garam masala and cook 1 minute more, stirring all the time.
4. Now add the meat of your choice and cook until it changes colour. If you're cooking lamb or beef, cook it well at this stage, for at least 10 minutes, stirring fairly often. Chicken doesn't need so much cooking. If you are making it a vego dish, add the vegetables and cook until all are softened and coated in the spice mix.
5. Now turn the heat on the cooktop as low as it can go, put a lid on top and let it cook gently for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. (The chicken will be done in less time, about 45 minutes; and the vegetables might be done after 20-25 minutes - and they might need a tiny splash or two of water to help them cook – the meats produce their own liquid and don't need any added liquid).
6. Finally, stir in the spinach sauce and let it warm through for 5 minutes. Serve with steamed rice.

And finally, a few little recipe credits! Of course all my recipes aren't mine – I get them from books, or adapt them or whatever. All keen cooks do it. For the teriyaki marinade, I found it in a Salmon cookbook by a US chef, James McNair. I found the dashi dressing in a little cookbook put out by the soy sauce company, Kikkoman. The stir-fried spinach is loosely based on one in a coffee table sized book with lots of good recipes called 'France the Beautiful Cookbook'. And the saag recipe uses a recipe in Charmaine Solomon's 'Complete Asian Cookbook' as its starting point, but isn't the same.

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