Holiday gift to hope for: spinach

December 07, 2005|By ROB KASPER

It is a little early, but already I know one thing I want for Christmas: a pot full of spinach.

That is not quite as sorry a request as it sounds.

As I envision Christmas festivities, this spinach would be part of a perfect holiday meal. It would sit on the Christmas table, a proud testimony to homegrown goodness.

This holiday spinach would be grown from seeds, seeds that I planted some weeks ago in a large black pot in the backyard. The pot, which has been passed down to our family from grandparents, was once a soap-making vessel. In recent years it has been filled with dirt and has functioned as a flowerpot.

The flowers that usually occupy the pot are pansies. Despite their frail-sounding name, pansies are tougher than an NFL interior lineman. Cold weather has almost no effect on them. They shrug off the snow.

In prior years, our pansies have been close to indestructible, blooming well into winter. But this year, thanks to a home construction project, the pansies didn't get planted. Nothing grew in the pot.

About a month ago, I got the bright idea of sowing spinach on that vacant ground. I scratched the soil, sprinkled on a little fertilizer and emptied a packet of spinach seeds. I sprayed a little water on the seeds, but mostly relied on nature to provide moisture.

I was hoping to have a crop by Thanksgiving. But that failed to develop. Initially green shoots sprang up, but they have stayed in a skinny, beanpole state for several weeks.

Lately, I have changed growing strategies. Instead of relying solely on nature, I have begun watering the shoots and talking to them in encouraging tones. So far the skinny spinach shoots have weathered a couple of cold snaps. I still have high hopes of their fattening up in time for Christmas.

Christmas is filled with expectations, many of them ridiculously lofty. I was reminded of this the other day when I leafed through a couple of cookbooks, gleaning ideas for holiday meals, especially Christmas Day dinner. The theme of the Christmas meal pushed by some authors seemed to be to serve roast beef, roasted vegetables and lots of greenery.

Most of the edible greenery was spinach. The rest of it, the inedible stuff, was pine needles. They were everywhere: on the table, in bowls holding candles and - my favorite ploy - in wreaths hanging from the dining-room ceiling.

The idea of dangling greenery from the ceiling came from Katie Brown Entertains, a book written by a woman who has a show, All Year Round With Katie Brown, on cable television. She has, according to the flier that accompanied the book, a degree from Cornell University, where she majored in art history. But her forte, it appears, is the glue gun.

Once she heats up her glue gun, she is one hot mama. She glues moss - yes, moss! - to 3-inch metal washers that function as decorative holders of skinny dinner-table candles. She glues pine boughs to terra-cotta pots so they can function as decorative holders of fat dinner-table candles, pine cones and cranberries. She glued linen pockets to the linen-covered backs of dining-room chairs so the pockets could hold bottles of maple syrup. I am not sure why.

But the endeavor that temporarily caught my fancy was when she hung wreaths from the dining-room ceiling, right over the Christmas table. These so-called Halos of Pine were two wreaths of pine garland, one 30 inches in diameter, another 20 inches in diameter. They were hung horizontally, the larger wreath on top of the smaller. Strands of wire, sheathed in more pine garland, connected the wreaths to one another.

Christmas makes you crazy, and for a time I was loony enough to see myself hanging Halos of Pine above our dining-room table. Then reality set in and I recalled that pine needles have a nasty habit of drying out and shedding. The prospect of pine needles raining down on my roast beef did not strike me as appetizing.

Then there was the question of how these halos were going to stay aloft. The book glosses over that detail. I couldn't see drilling holes in the dining-room ceiling just to accommodate a one-day decoration.

Abandoning the idea of pine needles dangling from the ceiling, I concentrated on the other Christmas greenery, the spinach dish.

I found a likely looking one in a book called Perfect Party Food. It was written by Diane Phillips, a woman who has served as spokeswoman for Lipton Recipe Secrets and Pepperidge Farm.

Her book did not mention glue guns or pine halos. Instead, it concentrated on dishes that a cook could make ahead of time and heat up, right before serving. This was especially important on Christmas Day, she wrote, when there is already plenty to do.

I am going to try her Spinach-Parmesan Casserole. If I get my Christmas wish and my crop comes in, I will use fresh spinach. If not, I will buy some frozen.

Some holiday dreams, such as hanging garlands from the dining-room ceiling, are best deferred.

Spinach-Parmesan Casserole

Serves 10

1/2 stick unsalted butter

1/4 cup chopped shallots

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