Creamed spinach fascinates me. I can even tell you the first time I encountered the dish. It was in a steakhouse in Washington, DC. A fellow diner ordered it. I actually thought she was crazy to order spinach in a steakhouse.
See, the spinach of my childhood generally arrived at the table as a boiled blob in a bowl with a cruet of vinegar on the side. I detested it.
When the spinach arrived at the table, I have to say I was surprised. It wasn’t a blob in a bowl. Rather, it appeared creamy and gooey with cheese. My co-worker encouraged me to at least attempt a taste. From the moment of that first bite, I have been fascinated with the dish.
My fascination has caused me to order creamed spinach in any and every steakhouse I have dined. One would think the dish could not possibly vary too much from dining establishment to dining establishment. Well, I am here to tell you it can.
I have enjoyed some incredibly flavorful versions and, then, experienced a few where I would not go past the first bite. Whatever the end flavor, each restaurant seemed to put their personal stamp on the dish. However, the most delicious versions seemed to be served at steakhouses.
Of course, all of this sent me on a quest to create the perfect creamed spinach dish; one that would be steakhouse worthy.
I experimented with the foundation. Is fresh spinach better than frozen spinach? The easy answer, yes., but frozen will provide an acceptable substitute if it truly is the only thing available.
Should the liquid be milk, half and half, cream or a combination of these? Well, cream provides the “creamiest” version, but it is also the highest in fat. However, using milk, especially skim milk, produced an unacceptable, much less flavorful version. One would think the solution would be the half and half, but even it did not produce that silky, creamy, flavorful version I sought. Since I generally only prepared creamed spinach when serving a steak, I opted to stay with the cream and indulge myself.
What about the thickening agent? Most versions use flour to thicken the sauce, but it can result in a “pasty” flavor if not thoroughly browned prior to adding the liquid. Through experimentation, though, I learned cornstarch or tapioca starch or potato starch resulted in a smoother sauce and did not leave behind a pasty flavor. Besides, all of them created a gluten free version.
Should there be cheese in creamed spinach? Absolutely! The cheese definitely contributed to the overall appearance of the dish as well as a flavor tier that provided this rustic finish. I worked with swiss, white cheddar, blue and Parmigiano-Riggiano. I even attempted a feta version given my love affair with a spinach feta cranberry salad. Feta definitely does not work in creamed spinach. The cheese testing resulted in use of Parmigiano-Riggiano for a version which remained creamy while providing the rustic, cheesy flavor I was seeking.
Should herbs be involved? The majority of the versions I have tasted through the years did not include herbs of any type. Onions, salt and pepper were the basic flavor enhancers. In fact, the reaction of most chefs and cooks when I inquired about the use of herbs in the dish was comparable to a reaction you would receive from a two year old if you took away their pacifier, not pleasant. That said, the most flavorful creamed spinach dish I experienced in a steakhouse included several herbs. As I experimented with various herbs and herb combinations, I chose what I consider a lighter herb – thyme. Rosemary tended to overwhelm and sage created almost too much depth. Thyme provided the perfect balance of flavor while allowing the spinach to remain center stage.
What about the fat? Should it be butter or extra virgin olive oil? I worked with both and received acceptable results. It was when I added thyme as an ingredient that I experimented with thyme infused olive oil. The result was incredibly flavorful but I missed the richness the butter provided. I finally combined the two and the result was both flavorful and rich.
Finally, we come to the presentation. I always felt when I was served a dish of creamed spinach in a steakhouse there was something not quite right. It is a steakhouse. The dish should be presented as bold and rustic to hold up to the steak. It was the incredible browning I missed. Once I began placing the dish under the boiler for a quick finish prior to serving, I realized here was a dish worthy of any steak dinner.
All the experimentation resulted in a wonderfully flavorful creamed spinach dish and caused me to consume an incredible amount of spinach. I am here to tell you, Popeye has nothing on me these days.
The most important preparation element of creating creamed spinach is removing the liquid from the spinach after it has been cooked. Repeatedly pressing the spinach in paper towels is essential. If all the liquid has not been removed, it will alter the texture and flavor of the final dish. Rather than be creamy, it will not hold any structure and dilute the final flavor.
1 pound fresh spinach
1 ½ T unsalted butter
1 ½ T thyme infused olive oil
½ c finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T cornstarch
1 ¼ c cream (may substitute half and half)
1 t dried or 1 T fresh thyme, chopped
½ c + 1 T Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 T lemon zest
Line a medium, microwave safe bowl with paper towels. Place spinach in bowl. Microwave for 1 minute on high. Toss spinach and microwave 30 seconds. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
Remove spinach from bowl with paper towels. Roll paper towels around spinach and squeeze to remove moisture.
Repeat with additional paper towels until most of the moisture has been removed and the spinach clumps together. Using a kitchen sheers, cut up spinach into small shreds and separate.
In a large skillet, place butter, olive oil, onion and garlic. Sauté over medium high heat until onion is transparent.
Stir cornstarch into onions and garlic until corn starch is slightly browned.
Add cream slowly while stirring continuously until completely added.
Add the spinach, thyme and ½ cup cheese to the cream mixture. Stir to blend and melt the cheese.
Heat oven to broil. Evenly divide the spinach mix between four custard cups or similar sized bowls. Evenly divide remaining cheese and lemon zest between the bowls. Set bowls on a sided baking sheet. Place under broiler for 3-4 minutes until lightly browned on top.