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SIMPLE SIDES: Downsized Creamed Spinach
By Dennis Linden


Competing schedules in the day-to-day lives of a busy modern family make it difficult to share a home-cooked meal together, but not impossible. In fact, with a little planning, cooking together can become a fun family event and learning opportunity. This feature will focus on providing a child or a group of children, working together under the supervision of an adult, with one uncomplicated, healthy and delicious side dish recipe. The dishes will be centered on seasonal fresh produce items; the recipes will always contain tasks will allow even the youngest kitchen helper to contribute to the family meal. Parents should always read through each recipe carefully to judge the division of labor based on age and ability as well as to identify where adult attention might be especially needed.



Many of the recipes presented here will seem very basic -- this is by design. It is hoped that these simple preparations will provide the culinary foundation and confidence to inspire kids to try more challenging recipes as their experience in the kitchen develops. Melissa’s encourages parents to find the time to gather as a family unit at least once a week for a dinner that everyone pitches in to prepare. It’s a wonderful way to teach a child basic culinary skills and, more importantly, cooking with your children will build memories in all of your hearts forever.

Creamed spinach was a childhood favorite that I had not thought about in years until recently when I noticed that spinach was on sale at my local market. Strangely, the dish immediately flashed on the screen of my palate’s memory and, from that moment, all I could think about was preparing a big plate of the comfort food – just like mom used to make it. An impulse buy later, I was back in my home kitchen with several bunches of fresh spinach, calling the woman responsible for most all my childhood memories, asking for her recipe.

So the first shock came when she started recounting her ingredients list with several packages of FROZEN spinach. Birds Eye in a household whose bread winner worked in the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market Terminal with access to every exotic fresh produce item from around the world, let alone truckloads of common fresh spinach? To that surprise, she retorted that a stay-at-home mom with five kids in the 1950s was 24/7 support staff in all things including chief cook and bottle washer for three meals a day, so she took advantage of any and all short-cuts she could in the kitchen. Frozen spinach obviously being one and it fooled me.

And the reason this dish’s comforting goodness probably stuck on my tongue for all these years was the next two things on her short ingredient list – heavy cream and lots of butter. They call it the good ol’ days…but, fast forward, also they were no doubt partially responsible for my current daily regimen of prescriptions to combat high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure! Anyway, I had heard enough of mom’s recipe and decided that the prep of this simple dish, made with healthier ingredients, contains several culinary lessons for the novice cook--starting with always opting for fresh ingredients over frozen whenever possible!

While your kitchen helpers will be robbed of the experience of opening a package by not using the frozen version, fresh spinach does take some experience to handle correctly. Firstly, have the kids rinse each bunch thoroughly, like at least twice, to remove all the field dirt that is a part of this leafy green to avoid ending up with a gritty tasting dish. The most baffling thing about spinach, especially for a beginner cook, is how much volume it loses during the cooking process. For this recipe, I used three bunches of pre-trimmed fresh spinach, so there was no waste. Once chopped, the mountain of leaves that covered my cutting board gave me second thoughts about the measure. Yet, after being cooked and squeezed of liquid, I ended up with a large softball sized clump of greenness that barely made four heaping servings, which leaves nothing to appease the expected requests for seconds. Getting as much liquid out of the spinach, once it has been steamed and iced, is critical. The most efficient way to accomplish this is for your kitchen helpers to use their hands to squeeze small clumps at a time, then spread the spinach out on paper towels to absorb even further while making the sauce. BTW, as I have railed about this in past features, for maximum nutritional retention always lightly steam vegetables – never boil in water.

The recipe is really a simple three-part procedure. Prepare the spinach, prepare the sauce and then combine the two. For the sauce, by cutting down on the butter and replacing the heavy cream with a combination of fat-free milk and low-fat cream cheese, no flavor or creamy texture was lost -- only a considerable amount of fat calories. The sauce also comes with some culinary practice at layering flavors. This starts with one of the best aromas in the world: garlic and onions sizzling in butter on the stovetop; then add a little flour to make a roux before adding the liquid, cheeses and seasonings. Once the sauce is creamy smooth, the spinach is folded in, heated through and the dish ready. While creamed spinach is the traditional go-to side dish served in steak houses, the dish also pairs well with roasted chicken and looks beautiful on a plate with salmon. So enjoy preparing my childhood favorite, downsized calorically, with your own kids and just maybe you’ll instill a few memories along way too!

Lite Creamed Spinach
Yield: 6 servings




Ingredients
3 bunches fresh spinach, stemmed, chopped & steamed
1 TBS butter
½ cup shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1½ TBS All Purpose flour
1½ cups fat free milk
2 TBS Parmesan cheese, grated
¾ Tsp salt
¼ Tsp black pepper
4 oz. low-fat cream cheese

What the kids can do:



After rinsing thoroughly, slice off the stems and chop all three bunches of spinach leaves into bit-sized pieces.



Steam the spinach in a large pot with a small amount of water. Constantly stir with a wooden spoon until spinach softens and reduces in volume, about 5 minutes. Then plunge the leaves into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and lock in the bright green color. Squeeze as much excess water out as possible, a task best done by hand in small clumps, then set aside spread on paper towels.



In a large sauté pan, melt butter on a medium flame. Add onion and garlic, then cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the flour and cook 1 more minute. Reduce heat to low and whisk in milk, parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Add cream cheese and mix until thick and smooth.



Mix the cooked spinach into the sauce thoroughly. Cook for another few minutes to heat the cooled spinach through. Serve hot, garnished with a sprinkle of shredded Parmesan, family style.

What the supervising adult should do:

While this is a very easy recipe for a novice cook, its stovetop prep requires focused adult control throughout. The mincing of the garlic and shallots, as well as the less precise chopping of the spinach, presents a good opportunity for some practice for a child with cutlery experience - again, under close supervision.