Spinach soup can help take bite out of season's chill

October 07, 2001|By ROB KASPER

Some crops, like some people, thrive in cool weather. Spinach is one of them. It doesn't do well in the heat, but late in the year as the temperature drops, spinach prospers.

Last Sunday, for instance, the flatbed trailer that Les Pahl uses to haul produce to the farmers' market in downtown Baltimore was overflowing with spinach and other greens. A few weeks earlier that same trailer was stuffed with sweet corn. Last week, I was overcome by the vista of green bounty, and found myself walking away from Pahl's stand with a four-pound bag of spinach. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with it.

I wanted to come up with something more elaborate than spinach salad, which at our household often ends up as a leftover, a "fridge squatter."

I settled on spinach soup. I looked over recipes from several cookbooks before deciding to use one in Marcella Hazan's 1978 work, the Classic Italian Cook Book. This cookbook is an "old reliable" in our kitchen. By now its pages are stained with sauce, and its binding is failing. Those are good signs in a cookbook. I am wary of cookbooks that don't have any smudges, that are "picture-pretty." They don't look like they have ventured into the juicy, frequently messy world of cooking. I feel the same way about sparkling bright white kitchens. I don't trust them.

The soup recipe did not call for many complicated culinary techniques, just ordinary, tedious, hand labor. First the spinach had to be washed. Spinach, like small children, can hide sand in a thousand places. I filled the kitchen sink with cold water, dropped in the spinach and gave it several baths. I also snapped off the stems, leaving only the leaves.

Next I steamed it, dropping the washed spinach leaves in a covered pot, sprinkled with a little salt. The only moisture in the pot was the water clinging to the spinach leaves. Once the leaves had wilted, I let them cool, then squeezed them with my hands. As a kid I used to amuse myself by seeing how much water I could wring out of a wet washcloth. Squeezing the water out of the spinach reminded me of my old washcloth days.

After squeeze-drying the spinach, I chopped and tossed it into a pot with some melted butter, some chicken broth, some milk, and a touch of nutmeg. Some soups simmer for hours - not this one. It had simmered about a minute, when I added grated Parmesan cheese, some salt, then served it with toasted bread.

The spinach flavor was clean and light, and the warm, green soup knocked the edge off one the season's first chilly days.

Spinach Soup

Serves 6

2 pounds fresh spinach

4 tablespoons butter

2 cups broth composed of 1 cup canned chicken broth mixed with 1-cup water

2 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

5 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon salt

Wash spinach, removing stems and any brown leaves. Put spinach in covered pot, using only water clinging to leaves, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover under tender, about 15 minutes.

Allow spinach to cool. Squeeze water from it, then chop it roughly with a knife.

Put the chopped, cooked spinach in a large pot with four tablespoons butter. Saute the spinach over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the broth, milk, and nutmeg. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently.

Add the Parmesan and cook for 1 minute more, stirring two or three times. Taste for salt. Serve immediately with toast or sliced bread fried in olive oil.- From the Classic Italian Cook Book by Marcella Harzan (Knopf, 1978)

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