On a beach vacation that already feels like it was too long ago, I tucked into the collection of letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto and realized I’d inadvertently brought on vacation with me the very best book ever for my current brand of mental unevenness. Apparently, even the great Julia Child went a little insane writing her cookbook. She fretted over if varied and uneven ingredients would keep her recipes from working as she wanted them to in others’ kitchens and even had occasional bouts of frustration with her tiny, ill-equipped kitchens. And Julia is like my superhero! I was no less than 10 pages in when I already felt better about my choices, the work I had left, life itself, the universe at large… or perhaps it was just those no-good piña coladas and that blue-meets-blue horizon working their magic on me. Nevertheless, I thanked Julia.
In one of my favorite early letters, Julia gushes about the produce in France: “Strawberries, for instance, are dreamberries, but extremely fragile.* Beans are so deliciously beany…” and goes on to explain that the French hadn’t really gotten onto the system of growing hardier produce that would keep longer in the markets. Amusingly, however, she found U.S. packages of spinach at the grocery store and it from there that she went on a tangent about a French “system” for spinach which she found “terribly good” and went on to describe a gentle cooking of spinach, stewing it in a very small amount of roux for a little binding and broth before stirring in a small amount of cheese and baking it in a dish topped with breadcrumbs.
I pined for it immediately. I even briefly counted how many days (poor me) of sleeping, sunning and abject laziness I had left before I could get back in my kitchen and have at it. I may have been ever-so-briefly distracted by goldfish and cocktail cakes but finally on Sunday, my mother and I de-stemmed three pounds of spinach (while Jacob helped, kinda) and yesterday, I finally made it happen. It sounds like a gratin, yes? But missing is the quarter-pound of butter, cups of cream and therefore, the idea that you cannot make just because you crave it. I think it tastes better than a traditional gratin, anyhow, as the flavors are not muffled under all of that butterfat. It’s really just the best spinach we’ve ever had.
* Amusingly, Alex and I had the exact same reaction when we were last in Paris. I declared the strawberries the best I’d ever eaten in my entire life and swore I’d just stop eating any others until I could go back and get more. Alas, that didn’t happen.
I think a lot of us are fixated on the idea that that gratins must always be insanely unhealthy — swimming in cream, broiled in cheese, topped with butter — and that ones made with anything less are simply inferior gratins. It’s a shame really, because I think it keeps us away from them on weekday nights, when they could be our best friends, as they can be made in advance, reheat like a dream and can be spooned off as needed. They can be side dishes to a roast, cutlet or fish or they can be the bed in which you nest a poached egg, tear off pieces of a baguette and call it a heavenly meal.
About the recipe: When I got home, I pulled out my copy of MtAoFC and tried to find this recipe. I actually found four that, strung together, led to what she’d discussed: Blanched, Chopped Spinach; Spinach Braised in Butter; Spinach Braised in Cream and Spinach Gratineed with Cheese. I happen to love cooking directly from recipes in that book; I know they’re fussy and have a lot of steps but that kind of careful preparation is almost meditative, and leads to amazing dishes that are just right every time. Nevertheless, when it came down to the tiny window I had to prepare this, function overtook form and I ended up streamlining the recipe a lot to save time. It was still the best spinach we’d ever eaten and hope you’ll agree.
3 pounds fresh spinach
3 1/2 to 4 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 cup stock (your choice; Julia recommends beef) or cream (I used stock; it doesn’t *need* cream)
3/4 cup grated Swiss cheese
2 tablespoons fine, dry breadcrumbs
Stem and wash your spinach (see Tips below) well but no need to spin or pat it dry. Place spinach in a large pot over high heat. Cook, covered, with just the water clinging to leaves, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 2 to 4 minutes for baby spinach and 4 to 6 minutes for regular spinach. Transfer to a colander, immediately fill pot with cold water, transfer it back to the pot of cold water to shock it (stop the cooking) and drain again. Squeeze a small amount of the spinach at a time in your hands to extract as much water as possible. Chop the spinach coarsely. You should have about 3 cups of chopped spinach, or about 1 cup per pound.
Wipe out pot then melt 2 tablespoons butter over moderately high heat and stir in the spinach. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until all of the moisture from the spinach has boiled off — you’ll know you’re done when the spinach begins to stick to the pan.
Lower the heat and sprinkle with flour and stir for 2 minutes to cook the flour. Add 2/3 of your stock or cream, a tiny bit at a time, scraping up any stuck spinach as you do. Once the liquid is added, simmer for another minute or two, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. If you’re feeling especially indulgent, stir in one more tablespoon of butter. If needed, add all or part of remaining liquid. Season with salt (I found 1/2 teaspoon table salt about right) and pepper.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a shallow 1-quart baking dish. Stir 1/2 cup cheese into the spinach and pour it into the baking dish. Mix the remaining cheese with breadcrumbs and sprinkle on spinach. Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons remaining butter and pour it over the top. Bake until heated through and slightly brown on the top, about 30 minutes.
Serve with steaks, chops, veal, chicken, broiled fish or, if you’re us, eggs, glorious eggs.
Do ahead: Spinach can be blanched and chopped several hours or a day in advance. Cover and refrigerate until needed. Gratin can be fully assembled and 30 minutes before needed, placed in a preheated 375 degree oven to bake, then served.
To stem spinach, as per Julia: If spinach is young and tender, remove the stems at the base of the leaf. If more mature, fold the leaf vertically with its underside up, grasp the leaf in one hand and the stem in the other and and rip it off toward the tip of the leaf, removing the stem and the tough tendrils. Discard any wilted or yellow leaves.
How I wash greens: Fill a large bowl or basin with cold water. Drop in the spinach and swish it around a few times so it deposits any sand and grit before lifting it out of the bowl (leaving any grit/dirt at the bottom of the bowl and not dragging the clean leaves through it) and drop it in a colander. No need to dry it for this recipe, but in others, I either spread it out on towels or run it through a salad spinner.