Every autumn, the dishes that come out of my kitchen make a turn from the greens of late summer to the earthy hues of fall. Only then do I truly appreciate the dark sturdy color of winter spinach. Absent through summer, spinach returns like a loyal friend, waiting in the crisp autumn air. Compared to baby spinach, with its fragile leaves, crinkly-leaved spinach harvested after frost is so hearty in taste, texture, and color that I think of it as a different vegetable altogether. With leaves as big as your hand, juicy and curly with thick stems, this is what spinach is supposed to taste like.
Some spinach varieties bear smooth leaves, while others have crinkled, or savoyed, leaves. The ruffling tends to become more pronounced in fall—one reason I prefer the thicker, juicier savoyed varieties as temperatures drop. The leaves get darker and the flavor more concentrated because the plants convert their starches into sugars to lower their freezing temperature in order to survive the cold. It is common to have spinach produce beautiful leaves well past frost and, if protected by a cloche or floating row cover, well into winter. The longer days of late spring and summer prompt the plants to bolt, which makes the leaves less flavorful.
Key to success with winter spinach is planting the seeds early enough so they reach maturity before the first frost. Depending on the variety, spinach will begin to be ready to harvest in 5 to 8 weeks. The easiest way to harvest is to simply cut the entire plant. But spinach will provide an extended harvest if cared for properly. Snip off only the oldest, largest leaves, and the rest of the plant will continue to produce crunchy leaves for your winter stews. That is, if hungry rabbits don’t get to it first.
An alternative method is to cover the plants completely with mulch before winter, which will cause the plants to go dormant. Pull back the mulch as the days warm in early spring to prompt fresh growth. Doing this means you miss the crunchiest, sweetest leaves of winter, but it ensures that you’ll be the first one in the neighborhood cutting spinach in spring.
I get my winter spinach from a farmer in southern Indiana who pulls it out of the dirt the morning I ask for it. Because of its network of veins and crinkled leaves, savoyed spinach will always need thorough cleaning to wash out every last speck of dirt. The best method is to fill a large container with cold water and completely immerse the spinach in it. Move the leaves about to loosen the dirt, which will sink to the bottom. Slowly remove the spinach from the water and drain it on thick towels until completely dry. These are tough leaves, so don’t worry about being gentle. Place them in an airtight container in the refrigerator to keep them fresh for up to a week.
Winter spinach is as versatile as it is flavorful. I love it raw in salads; it is hearty enough to withstand big flavors like bacon, butternut squash, roasted beets, and even warm vinaigrettes. Try substituting it for lettuce in your next turkey sandwich. A quick sauté with garlic, butter, and nutmeg is a classic accompaniment to any winter roast. For a super-fancy garnish, deep-fry it in corn oil, drain it on paper towels, and sprinkle it with sea salt. I eat these like potato chips. But my favorite way to use winter spinach is to add it to stews or rice dishes at the last minute. Spinach is mostly water, which is why it wilts down so much when heated. Adding it to warm dishes last minute as a finishing touch preserves its unique texture and color. It is a wonderful platform to show off this most loyal winter crop.
Continue reading for delicious winter spinach recipes.
1. Melt the butter in a small pan. Add the shallots and walnuts and saute on medium heat for 3 minutes.
2. Add the mushrooms and soy sauce and saute for another 3 minutes.
3. Add the walnut oil and sherry vinegar. Remove from the heat and stir to combine. Keep warm until ready to serve.
Winter Spinach Sformato
Sformato, an Italian favorite, is somewhere between a baked custard and a souffle and can be savory or sweet. Most sformato recipes start with a bechamel or white sauce, but I substituted tofu to preserve as much of the clean bright flavor of the spinach as possible.
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Heat the butter in a large skillet. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute.
2. Add the spinach a handful at a time, stirring constantly just to wilt all the spinach, about 3 to 4 minutes. Set aside.
3. In a blender, place the tofu, milk, and cheese. Puree until smooth. Add the spinach and egg, and puree again until smooth.
4. Season with the nutmeg, salt, and pepper. This mixture makes 3 1/2 cups.
5. Spray eight 3-ounce ramekins with nonstick cooking spray. Pour in the batter. Place on a pan with a little water on the bottom and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
6. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 10 minutes to ensure they turn out without collapsing. Run a toothpick along the sides to release from the ramekins. Invert onto a plate. Top with the vinaigrette. Garnish with radishes and serve.
Makes 8 servings
Recipes by Edward Lee, owner and chef at 610 Magnolia Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky.