The Emperor loved Spinach

T
When you ask people if they like spinach, you rarely get a wishy washy answer, its usually either a spontaneous - I adore spinach or an equally passionate yuk-I loathe spinach followed by graphic and harrowing tales of being forced to eat spinach as a child by a well meaning mama or nanny.

Everyone knew it was chock full of the vital vitamins and minerals, particularly iron essential for healthy growth, after all, look what spinach did for Popeye, he could wipe out all-comers and win the adulation of Olive Oyl after he had glugged down a can of spinach!

Some grown-ups have managed to erase and overcome their childhood experience, but others won’t let a mouthful of spinach pass their lips for the rest of their lives!

Now we hear that all the suffering was for nought - you've guessed it, apparently current wisdom says that too much spinach is positively bad for children - too much oxalic acid apparently - so there you are now!

Well, never mind, as far as I'm concerned a little of what you fancy always does you good, and many French, Italian, Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern cooks rate Spinach as the best leaf vegetable of all. It has certainly stood the test of time. The first reference to it would seem to be in 647. History relates that in this year the great T'ang Emperor T'ai Tsung requested his tributary rulers to send him the best plants their country grew and lo and behold the King of Nepal decided to send him spinach which had recently been introduced to his country from Persia and was causing quite a stir. 

Nowadays, there are two main types of spinach, summer spinach and perpetual spinach, the texture of the former is meltingly tender and has a very much finer flavour, but the latter has the advantage of growing on and on, the more you pick the more it grows. It can also stand extremes of heat and frost and doesn't seem to bolt at the end of the Summer like the annual spinach. However, the flavour is stronger and the texture is coarser. Nonetheless, its a very worthwhile vegetable to grow as a stand-by as indeed are its cousins Swiss Chard and Ruby Chard.

We use spinach not only as a vegetable, but also for soups, torn up in green salads and salade tiede, in savoury tarts and quiches, roulades, frittatas and in a thick Middle Eastern omelette called Kuku. It can also be fun to use blanched leaves to line ramekins for warm mousses or to wrap around rough country pates. The baby spinach leaves now so widely available are perfect for salads and wilted greens.

Pork, Spinach and Herb Terrine

This terrine tastes different every time we make it, depending on the variety of herbs used. It should be highly seasoned before it is cooked otherwise it may taste bland when cold. Use organically produced spinach, meat and herbs if possible.

Serves 20 approx. as a starter, 10 as a main course - makes two loaves of patê

12 lbs (675g) spinach ( weight after large stalk is removed )
2 oz (15g/c stick) butter
8 ozs (225g) medium onion, finely chopped
2 lbs (900g) nice fat streaky pork
8 ozs (225g) pig's liver
6 ozs (170g) smoked lean bacon
6 ozs (170g) unsmoked streaky bacon
2 medium cloves of garlic, crushed
2 free range eggs
Salt, freshly ground black pepper and grated nutmeg to taste
4 tablespoons (5 American tablespoons + 1 teaspoon) approx. freshly chopped herbs - rosemary, thyme, basil, marjoram, parsley and chives

2 terrines, 7½ x 5½ inch (19 x 13.5cm) or two 8 x 4 inch (20.5 x 10cm) loaf tins.

Mince the meat. 

String the spinach leaves , wash and drain. Put into a heavy saucepan on a very low heat, season and cover tightly. After a few minutes, stir and replace the lid. As soon as the spinach is cooked (5 – 8 mins. approx.) strain off the copious amount of liquid that spinach releases and press until dry. Chop the spinach, allow to get cold.

Melt the butter on a gentle heat, add the finely chopped onions and sweat until soft but not coloured. Allow to cool.

Mix all the ingredients together thoroughly, in a large bowl. Season generously with freshly ground pepper and nutmeg. Fry a tiny piece of the mixture on a pan. Taste and correct seasoning and add salt if necessary. It should taste quite highly seasoned.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/regulo 4.

Divide the mixture between the two terrines or loaf tins, cover with lids or tin foil. 

Bake for 1 hour approx. in the preheated oven. Remove the cover about 15 mins. before the end of cooking time to allow the top to brown slightly. Serve warm or cold. 

Serving Suggestions
When we serve this on a buffet we put the whole terrine on a timber board on a bed of crisp and curly lettuces and salad leaves. Then we tuck in a few sprigs of the herbs included in the terrine, preferably in flower – pale grey sage with purply-blue flowers, little branches of thyme leaves, some tarragon, flat parsley and perhaps a few chive flowers when they are in season. The terrine looks wonderfully appetising as it is, but also looks great wrapped in blanched spinach leaves as an alternative presentation.

For plate presentation put a generous ¼ inch thick slice of terrine on a main course plate, a little green salad of lettuces and tender leaves, a spoonful of both onion marmalade and beetroot relish and perhaps a little cucumber salad.

Serve with warm crusty white bread.

Spanakopitta

(Greek Spinach and Cheese Pie)
Serves 6-8
1 lb fresh spinach, stalks removed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 ozs (110 g) onion, finely chopped
2 scallions with greenery, finely sliced
Salt, freshly ground pepper and nutmeg
2 tablespoons flat parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons dill, chopped
4 ozs (110 g) Feta cheese, crumbled 
OR
3 ozs (85 g) Feta and 1 oz (30 g) Parmesan, grated
OR
2 ozs (55 g) Feta and 2 ozs (55 g) Gruyére, grated
1-2 eggs, preferably free range
6-8 sheets of filo pastry
4 ozs (110 g/1 stick) butter, melted 
OR
150 ml (¼ pint/generous ½ cup) olive oil

Wash and chop the spinach. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan, add the finely chopped onion and scallions. Cover and sweat on a low heat until soft but not coloured. Increase the heat, add spinach, toss, season with salt, freshly ground pepper and nutmeg. Add the chopped parsley and dill and continue to cook for 4 or 5 minutes or until spinach is fully cooked.

Turn into a colander and drain and cool. Mix the crumbled Feta and grated cheese with the beaten egg. Add the well drained spinach, taste and correct seasoning. Purée in a food processor for a smooth texture, otherwise use immediately as a more robust filling. To assemble lay one sheet of filo on the work top, brush with melted butter. Lay a strip of filling about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick along the long side of the sheet of filo, about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in from the edge. Roll up and bend into an accordian shape and then roll up into a ‘snail’. Put the ‘snail’ on the buttered baking sheet, continue to make more ‘snails’ with the rest of the filo and filling. Brush each one with egg wash and then with melted butter. Bake in a preheated moderate oven 180C/350F/regulo 4 for approx 30 minutes or until crisp and golden. Serve immediately.

Spinach Soup

if water or vegetable stock is used
The trick with these green soups is not to add the greens until the last minute, otherwise it will overcook and you will lose the fresh taste and bright lively colour.
Serves 6-8
2 ozs (55g) butter
5 ozs (140g) potatoes, chopped
4 ozs (110g) onion, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
15-20 floz (425-600ml) creamy milk (3 cream and : milk)
16-20 floz (450-600ml) home-made chicken stock, vegetable stock or water 
8-12 ozs (225-340g) spinach, chopped (destalked)
Freshly grated nutmeg

Garnish
2 tablespoons whipped cream (optional)
Freshly chopped parsley

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. When it foams add the onions and potatoes and turn them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. Add the boiling stock and milk, bring back to the boil and simmer until the potatoes and onions are fully cooked. Add the spinach and boil with the lid off for about 3-5 minutes, until the spinach is tender. Do not overcook or the soup will lose its fresh green colour. 

Liquidise, taste and add some freshly grated nutmeg. Serve in warm bowls garnished with a blob of whipped cream and some chopped parsley.

Variation
Spinach and Rosemary Soup
Add 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary to the soup just before it is liquidized. Garnish with a blob of whipped cream and some rosemary.
Note:
This is an excellent formula for basic green soup – cabbage, kale, watercress, lettuce, fresh herbs, radish leaves, broad bean shoots …….may also be used- be careful not to over cook and keep the lid off to preserve the fresh green colour

Spinach Timbale  
This mousse makes a delicious vegetarian starter, it can also be served as an accompaniment.
Serves 6

Spinach Mousse

8 fl ozs (250ml) whipping cream
1 clove of garlic, peeled
1 lb (450g) spinach
2 ozs (55g) butter
3 eggs
salt, freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
For the Mousse: simmer the whipping cream with the garlic for 15 
minutes, then leave to cool.

Wash the spinach and remove the stalks. Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large saute pan, until it turns golden brown. Add the spinach and cook rapidly for about 1 minute, stirring all the time. Put it in a colander to drain off any excess juices - leave to cool. Remove the garlic from the cream and discard. Put the cream and spinach into a liquidiser, add the eggs, 2 level teaspoons of salt, ½ teaspoon of pepper and a good grating of fresh nutmeg, liquidise.

Use the rest of the butter to grease 6 x 3 fl ozs (75ml) ramekins lightly and place a round of paper buttered on both sides in the bottom. Divide the mousse between the ramekins and cook in a bain-marie lined with kitchen paper with the water reaching to two-thirds of the height of the ramekins. Cover with greaseproof paper and cook at 160C\325F\regulo 3 for 25-40 minutes - the mousses should feel firm when lightly pressed.

To Serve: Run a knife around the ramekins to free the mousses, then turn out on to the plates and remove the round of paper. Serve immediately. 

Back to basics 

Buttered Spinach

Here are three different methods of cooking spinach.
Serves 4-6

2 lbs (900g) fresh Spinach (with stalks removed)
salt, freshly ground pepper and a little freshly grated nutmeg
2-4 ozs (55g-110g/2-1 stick) butter
Remove the stalk from each leaf.

Method 1

Melt a scrap of butter in a wide frying pan, toss in as much spinach as will fit easily, season with salt and freshly ground pepper. As soon as the spinach wilts and becomes tender, strain off excess liquid, increase the heat and add some butter and freshly grated nutmeg. Serve immediately.

Method 2

Wash the spinach and drain. Put into a heavy saucepan on a very low heat, season and cover tightly. After a few minutes, stir and replace the lid. As soon as the spinach is cooked, about 5-8 minutes, drain off the copious amount of liquid that spinach releases and press out until almost dry. Chop or puree in a food processor if you like a smooth texture. Increase the heat, add butter, correct seasoning and add a little freshly grated nutmeg to taste.

Method 3

Cook the spinach uncovered in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until soft, 4-5 minutes approx. Drain and press out all the water. Continue as in method 2. Method 3 produces a brighter coloured spinach.
Creamed Spinach 

Cook spinach either way and drain very well. Chop or puree in a food processor. Add 8-12 ozs (250-350/1-12 cups) cream to the spinach and bring to the boil, stir well and thicken with a little roux if desired, otherwise stir over the heat until the spinach has absorbed most of the cream. Season with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to taste. Spinach a la creme may be cooked ahead of time and reheated.

Oeufs Florentine 

A classic and one of the most delicious combinations.
Serve freshly poached free range eggs on top of Spinach a la creme - one of our favourite lunch or supper dishes.

HOT TIPS

· Real Food Lovers in Dublin 4 have known about The Butler’s Pantry for years – yummy take out food made from carefully sourced seasonal ingredients. Recently it’s founder, Eileen Bergin, won the small business award at the inaugural Bord Bia Food and Drink Industry awards. The company, according to the citation “ demonstrated sustainability, product and marketing innovation and a planned approach to the development of the business”. There are now 3 outlets in the Dublin area. 

53 Mount Merrion Ave., Blackrock, Co. Dublin (01) 2885505
1A Montpellier Place, Temple Hill, Blackrock, Co. Dublin (01) 2843944
97B Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, Dublin 4 (01) 6608490

· The 2003-2004 edition of the Clare Good Food Guide was launched recently – designed to enhance the visitor experience by identifying a range of dining options. Don’t forget to look out for local Cratloe sheep’s milk cheese and St. Tola goat’s milk cheese while in the area. Wilde’s Irish Hand made chocolates from Tuamgraney are also worth making a detour for.

For copies of the guide email: kehellyo@shannondev.ie
· For an organic experience, stop by Wildways Organic Café, Prince’s St., Cork, recently extended. Now, bigger and better with a wide selection of organic dishes including vegetarian soups, warm sandwiches with scrumptious fillings, organic sweet treats – now serving breakfast for a taste of fresh organic eggs and Gubbeen bacon in the morning. Coffee lovers must try Wildways Guatamalen Organic Fair Trade coffee! Open Mon-Sat 8.00am to 5.30pm Tel: 021 4272199 www.wildways.net

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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