We all know that spinach is full of iron and other good stuff, but it has an undeserved reputation for being … blech. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with the school cafeteria spinach I remember from my childhood, stewed within an inch of its life and left on steam tables for hours. Or perhaps it has to do with that 60s classic, canned creamed spinach. Yum…
Fortunately, these days, we have much better choices. Most supermarkets carry small-leaved ‘baby spinach‘, which is much like the spinach you will find in Italy and France. It has a wonderfully delicate flavor and cooks up in no time. And even old-fashioned, mature, dark green, crinkly spinach can be turned into something delicious if you treat it with respect.
This recipe for spinaci alla romana, or Roman-style spinach, will work perfectly with either variety, with some differences in technique. The spinach is laced with raisins and pine nuts, a classic combination in Italian cooking. As for so many leafy vegetable dishes, you cook the spinach ripassati in padella (sautéed), only this time the fat is either lard (the traditional way) or butter (for modern palates). I really like cooking in lard, as it gives savor and contrast to the sweetness of the raisins. Garlic is optional—I usually prefer to leave it out.
Serves 4-6 people as a side dish
- 1 kg (2 lbs.) spinach (see Notes)
- 3-4 heaping spoonfuls of lard, or butter, or a combination of butter and olive oil
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, slightly crushed (optional)
- 75-100g (2-1/2 to 3 oz.) raisins, softened in hot water for a few minutes and drained well
- 75-100g (2-1/2 to 3 oz) pine nuts
- Salt and pepper
Heat the fat over moderate heat in a large casserole able to contain all the spinach. If using the garlic, toss it in as the fat in heating up, and remove it as soon as it begins to color and give off its aroma.
If using pre-washed baby spinach: Add the raw spinach directly into the casserole. No need for liquid; the vegetable will steam in its natural moisture. Cover the casserole and let the spinach cook down. It will reduce enormously, down to a mere faction of its original bulk. Uncover and turn the spinach as it cooks, turning it in the fat so it is well covered all over.
If using mature spinach: Wash the spinach well to get any grit out. (If the vegetable is very gritty, you can soak it in a large bowl of cold water.) Then trim the leaves off their woody stems. Pre-cook the trimmed leaves in salted boiling water for a five minutes or so, drain immediately and run the spinach under cold water to stop the cooking. Squeeze out the liquid from the spinach and chop it up roughly. Add the chopped spinach to the fat in the pan, turning it over to impregnate it with the oil. (No need to cover the spinach.)
Now add the raisins and pine nuts to the spinach. Season with salt and pepper. Let the spinach simmer gently over moderate heat for, say 5-10 minutes, until the spinach is perfectly tender and the flavors have a chance to meld. If there is juice left in the pan, raise the heat to high and let it cook off. The spinach should moist, but not wet.
There’s not too much to say about spinaci alla romana—it’s really straight-forward. The only real tricks lie in the kind of spinach you choose to use, as indicated above, plus the fat you prefer to use. Baby spinach usually comes pre-washed and dried and ready to cook—a real godsend. Mature spinach usually has at least some grit caught in the wrinkly leaves or concave stems; better to wash it well, just in case. I don’t think the grit is likely to kill you, but it is unpleasant to bite into. (Trust me on this one…) You can also use defrosted frozen spinach (even Ada Boni endorses it!) as if you were using pre-cooked mature spinach. And, yes, defrost it, even if the package says you don’t have to, and squeeze the spinach dry. If it hasn’t been pre-chopped, then do so before adding it to the pan.
The measurements given to the raisins and pine nuts, by the way, shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Many Italian recipes just call for a ‘handful’ of each, and I usually just ‘eyeball’ it, adding as much as I feel like. Just make sure there’s enough so you can get a bit of raisin and pine nut along with each bite of spinach.
You can successfully make spinaci alla romana ahead of time; for a fresher taste, stop right after adding the raisins and pine nuts and leave the final simmer until just before you’re ready to serve.