The words “creamed spinach” do not, I have been informed, elicit the same emotions in every reader. No words do, I suppose, but “warm chocolate cake” probably come pretty close. The Adkins adherent may feel fear and the diabetic a pang of melancholy, but these barely register compared to the collective mouth-water of desire that “warm chocolate cake” conjures in the rest of us.
“Creamed spinach” to me means silken luxury, rich and salty, offering just enough resistance to make a forkful pause in your mouth and fill it with garlic, parmesan, onion, a bare hint of nutmeg, and the earthy sweet taste of spinach merged with cream. (Deb Perelman over at Smitten Kitchen can show you how to make it.)
But there are those who read “creamed spinach” with a shiver of repulsion. What happened to these people? Stringy, under-seasoned spinach? Spinach overcooked to mud-flavor and color, in a pasty white sauce? A salt bomb posing as a side dish? Something to do with condensed cream-of-mushroom soup?
I am reluctant to speculate on the tragedies that befall the average American eater. In an ideal world, “creamed spinach” should represent for us all not just exquisite pleasure for the palate, but a certain intellectual pleasure as well, the gentle joke of linking the word that stands for the height of indulgence—the cream in your coffee, crème de la crème, cream on top!—with the word that connotes nutritional rectitude: Eat your spinach!
“Creamed spinach” also happens to be shorthand for my culinary philosophy, which holds that raw materials can be rendered luscious with the simple application of effort, skill, and fat.
This is why I’m suspicious of fruit. (Well it’s not the only reason: fruit can be deeply disappointing: the mealy apple, the bland melon, the sour kiwi, the pulpy orange, the overripe pineapple that smells faintly of vomit.) Vegetables make a cook feel needed; fruit makes a cook feel redundant. A great piece of fruit needs only to be washed and handed over—there’s really nothing I can do to improve it. That’s hell on my self-esteem. I need something I can work with. Eggplant, for instance. Gorgeous to look at, but you wouldn’t just take a bite, would you? No, you need me to fix it first, don’t you?
Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll slice it, salt it, rinse it, bread it (flour, egg, breadcrumbs), and bake it, on a slick of olive oil preheated in a really hot oven, turning each slice when its bottom is browned. You’re welcome.
Oh, are those collard greens a little tough right out of the garden? I’ll wash them, wilt them, squeeze them dry, sauté them in bacon fat, and braise them till tender with onion and a little white wine. That should do it.
As for broccoli, sure, you could eat it raw, I guess. But wouldn’t you like to enjoy it? Because I would be happy to toss it with lemon, mustard, olive oil, and salt, and roast it in a very hot oven for twenty minutes until the edges are brown and crispy. Really happy.
Mmm: roasted broccoli.