Moosewood salad is fresh approach to old foe, spinach

October 19, 2005|By ROB KASPER

Until recently, I had two problems with spinach -- its hygiene and its history.

Spinach leaves could be gritty. Sometimes you ended up giving fresh spinach leaves more baths than you did a dog that had been skunked.

I also had several bad spinach "taste memory" incidents lurking in my past. These incidents revolved around being held hostage at a grammar school lunch table by a portion of galling canned spinach that, according to the authorities, had to be eaten before I could go to recess. This left me with a bitter taste toward the vegetable.

Yet recently, I came across a spinach dish -- a wilted salad with nuts, cheese and raisins -- that overcame these objections. This dish was so good that I was able to toss aside the pungent memories of acrimony and sand I once associated with spinach. Instead, I reveled in its tasty, good-looking presence.

The spinach-salad recipe came from Ithaca, N.Y. This upstate community is not exactly the gardening capital of America (rumor has it that it snows there in June). But it is home to the Moosewood Collective.

This is a group of 19 people who own and operate Moosewood Restaurant in downtown Ithaca, who publish vegetarian cookbooks and who recently began selling a line of heat-and-eat vegetarian dishes in grocery stores, including Whole Foods and Wegmans.

The group, which has been around since 1973, makes its major decisions collectively. Reaching a consensus requires many meetings, but, according to the group's Web site, the meetings have "gotten a lot better over the years."

Their cookbooks, 11 of them, also have improved. The latest, Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers (Clarkson Potter, $32.50), is where I found the recipe for wilted spinach salad with pecans and Asiago. Like most recipes in the book, this one is aimed at producing quick, imaginative dishes for weeknight suppers. This recipe hit the mark.

A key is that it used baby spinach leaves. These leaves, according to Moosewood's Wynnie Stein, are both smaller than the "big-boy spinach leaves" -- the ones that require several baths -- and have a delicate flavor.

Stein, who is the restaurant's cook, said that while Moosewood has never reached a group consensus on its favorite vegetable, spinach, with its healthful vitamins and minerals, would certainly be in the running.

"I feel good after I eat spinach, like I am getting its iron immediately," she said.

Singing the praises of spinach, she went on to say that it is a versatile vegetable. It is an ingredient "that spans many cultures." Spinach and feta cheese is a common combination in Middle Eastern dishes, she said, and creamed spinach made with coconut milk is popular in Thailand. In addition, Stein said, spinach can be used "almost like an herb," adding it at the end of the cooking process.

Of course, another reason Stein and her collective are fond of spinach is that it is a hardy cool-weather crop and Ithaca gets plenty of that kind of weather. Speaking by telephone from her office in Ithaca, Stein reported that that particular October afternoon was cool and rainy. Prime conditions, in other words, for spinach-growing.

While conceding that Ithaca is colder than Baltimore, a city she visited as a teenager and where she still has relatives, Stein flatly denied that it snows there in June. It does snow in November, she said, but only slightly, at least by upstate New York standards.

The spinach crop in local gardens "hangs in there" during upstate Novembers, she said, with a note of admiration in her voice for the resilient vegetable.

Being forced to eat canned spinach as a child could, Stein agreed, scar a person's palate. But she seemed to have little sympathy for my other issue that spinach leaves could be difficult to wash.

"I just run a sink full of cold water and do a lot of swishing," she said.

Baby spinach leaves, however, are easier to present in an unsullied state than their older, leafier relatives, she said.

Sure enough, the baby leaves I bought at the Sunday morning farmers' market in downtown Baltimore were well-washed.

Just to be safe, when I got them home I gave them a quick run in the salad spinner. Then I dropped them in a warm skillet on top of garlic slices sizzling in olive oil. The wilted spinach leaves would be served topped with toasted nuts and raisins.

But before transferring them to a salad bowl, I paused to watch the wilting process. Spinach, a nemesis in my childhood, now bowed before me. It looked good. It tasted even better.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Wilted Spinach salad with pecans and Asiago

Serves 4

10 cups loosely packed fresh (baby) spinach leaves

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/4 cup raisins or currants

1 cup toasted pecans

1/2 cup finely grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese

salt and pepper

lemon wedges

Rinse and drain spinach. Heat the oil in skillet or saucepan and cook the garlic for a few seconds until sizzling. Add as much spinach as the pan will hold and cook, stirring often. As the spinach wilts, keep adding more until it is all in the pan. Cook until just wilted but still bright green.

Put the spinach in a serving bowl or on individual plates and top with raisins, pecans and grated cheese. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve with lemon wedges.

Per serving: 350 calories, 11 grams protein, 29 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 18 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 12 milligrams cholesterol, 147 milligrams sodium.

From "Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers" (Clarkson Potter, 2005)

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