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June, 2011

Ingredient Challenge: Fresh Spinach

By Dennis Linden

Gretchen Allison, chef/owner of Duck Soup Inn on San Juan Island in Washington State, lists her wonderfully rich Warm Spinach and Ricotta Bread Pudding in the Appetizer section of the restaurant’s menu
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Chef Gretchen Allison

However, this rustically elegant dish could easily be served as a first course, in place of a soup; or save the best for last as a grand finale dessert paired with an appropriate brandy or even a good cup of coffee to round out the evening’s fare. Make extra so there are leftovers and this writer can definitely bear witness that Gretchen’s dish can also inspire turning the kitchen lights back on for a quick reheat as the ultimate late night comfort food. In fact, the dish is perfectly balanced -- just rich enough to satisfy the decadent gene in all of us, while starring a very nutritional ingredient that will help keep guilt to a minimum!

For readers tending a summer garden, here’s a delicious way to use the bounty from your own herb and spinach patches. Chef Gretchen decides much of her menu at Duck Soup based on what is happening in her own extensive home garden. So, if you planted early enough and the weather has cooperated, June should bring on your first harvest of spinach, one of nature’s most flavorful and healthy leafy greens. Pick the leaves when they are young and tender. Spinach is also readily available in retail produce departments twelve months of the year.

The health benefits connected with leafy greens generally, spinach specifically, are too numerous to list here completely. However, a few should be included if only to counter-balance the aforementioned guilt factor that the luscious taste of this dish will evoke. Studies have shown that consumption of spinach may slow age-related decline in brain function. Spinach also is high in the mineral potassium and low in sodium, which makes it an effective defense against high blood pressure (hypertension) and heart attack. Popeye’s favorite is not only the equal to carrots in terms of beta carotene content, which is vital to healthy eyesight, it is vastly superior to carrots in another eye-beneficial nutrient called lutein. As an antioxidant, lutein protects eye tissue by filtering the damaging UV radiation of sunlight. So just think of this recipe as therapy for the head, heart, eyes and, of course, tastebuds. And guilt free!

Whether home grown or store bought, fresh spinach needs a bit of special handling. Cut off the thick stems and discard. Spinach tends to pick up sand and field dirt. To clean, fill your sink with water and soak the leaves until the water discolors. Drain the spinach and repeat this soaking process a second time. Use a salad spinner to remove any excess moisture.

Spinach
Raw spinach has a mildly bitter, salt and peppery taste. A one-minute steam will release a large amount of the vegetable’s acidity, tenderizing the leaves and adding a slight sweetness while retaining the green’s pleasant tang. The lutein mentioned earlier is unlocked only when spinach is cooked. The story behind tacking on the word “Florentine” to any dish in which spinach plays a starring role was first coined in the 16th century. Apparently the Queen of France, who was actually born in Florence, had such a thing for spinach that she insisted it be served at every meal.

Gretchen’s dish is really three very simple preparations – a bread pudding, a tomato vinegar sauce and an herb salad. Practical for restaurant service and home entertaining alike, the pudding and sauce can be made a day or two ahead of time. Actually, you will want to double up on the chef’s deceptively simple sauce that has a huge flavor. The grape tomatoes bring a unique sweetness that cannot be matched by any other commercial tomato variety. Late in the summer, you might try swapping in an heirloom tomato out of your own garden or local farmers market. I also used this versatile sauce on a cold pasta salad with tasty results.

As the recipe states, the herbs in the recipe have a bit of flexibility depending upon what is available seasonally. The herb mix certainly adds eye appeal to an already delicious looking plate, but it is also a key flavor component. The spinach, cheese, tomato and vinegar pair well with any of the mild Mediterranean herbs and Gretchen’s selections are all readily available fresh from retail grocers year-round.

Of course, center stage is the chef’s “decadently healthy” spinach bread pudding. I did two taste tests of this dish, increasing the amount of spinach by half again in the second prep, which I preferred over the chef’s more even balanced pudding-spinach ratio. However, the spinach measurement can be a matter of taste and may also have something to do with one’s own personal guilt ratio. Happy forks!

Spinach Ricotta Bread Pudding
Spinach Ricotta Bread Pudding
Serves 10

Ingredients:

Bread Pudding
1 lb. fresh spinach (about 1 1/2 cups when cooked)
2 cups fresh sourdough bread cubes
2 Tbsp. melted butter
2 fresh eggs
½ cup cream
1½ cups milk
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
1-1/2 cups ricotta cheese

Herb Salad
Italian parsley
Cilantro
Tarragon
Baby Dill
Basil

Chervil [option: Sweet Cicely]
Celery leaves [option: Lovage]
Chives

Tomato vinegar sauce
1 cup grape tomatoes
1 Tb olive oil
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar big pinch pepper
2 tsp red wine vinegar

Preparation
Bread Pudding:
• Preheat oven to 350°F. Place 10 1-cup soufflé dishes or soup cups on a sheet pan and coat each with cooking spray or butter well.
• Steam the spinach. Cool and drain the extra moisture by giving it a light squeeze.
• Toss the bread cubes with the melted butter, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, then bake until light brown.
• Whisk together the eggs, cream, milk, salt, pepper and lemon zest. Into that stir the spinach, toasted bread cubes and ricotta.
• Allow to sit for a few minutes for the bread to absorb some of the liquid, and then scoop 2/3 cup portions of the mixture into the baking cups. Try to distribute the spinach and bread evenly.
• Bake for about 1 hour, until the centers are not runny.
• Cool for a few minutes then invert them on the baking sheet. You may need to slice around the side to loosen but usually they will tap right out.
• They can be eaten now or cooled and reheated in a 375°F oven for 20 minutes. Leave them upside-down, sprinkle them with good parmesan before putting them back in the oven and heat through.

Herb salad:
Tear all the herbs into small pieces and drizzle with a little olive oil. Herb mix can be flexible based on seasonal availability.

Tomato vinegar sauce:
Toss all ingredients together, place in a shallow roasting pan and bake in a 450°F oven until the tomatoes start to brown on top. Cool and chop roughly in a food processor.

Plating:
To serve, spoon some tomato vinegar sauce around the plate, place the pudding in the center and dress with 2 tablespoons of herb salad.