Seriously Italian: Frittelle di Spinaci

Editor's note: On Thursdays, Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma checks in with Seriously Italian. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats. Take it away, Gina!

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Any serious student of Italian cuisine understands the relationship that Italians have with leafy greens. I can’t remember an evening meal, with my family or when I lived in Italy, without a pile of garlicky greens on the side; it could be dandelion, swiss chard, escarole, chicory, or my very favorite, spinach.

Spinach in Italy is beautiful: deep green, with an almost velvety appearance, and a distinctive, mineral-rich flavor. It only needs a minimalist approach to make it completely delicious. I could eat that fresh spinach of my dreams, sautéed with garlic in a bit of butter and olive oil, every single day of my life and never tire of it.

I miss that spinach. I’m finding it harder and harder to find really great, “adult” spinach in the produce section of our neighborhood supermarket. All I ever see now is baby spinach, picked way too young for my taste, bagged and crammed into the ever-expanding shelves of pre-washed, non-threatening, and overpriced salad stuff. Where is the real spinach of yesteryear, that tastes like the dirt it was grown in?

20090618spinach.jpgBagged baby spinach is such a turn-off in comparison. It may be tender, but it’s tasteless, and practically dissolves on contact with a hot pan. Even in a salad it seems nondescript and unexciting. Mature spinach, on the other hand, has true dimension of flavor, more color and nutrients; plus, it’s usually cheaper. Washing it does require a bit more attention than ripping open a polyethylene bag, but the taste payoff is significant.

Once you are working with spinach that actually has flavor, it becomes all the more versatile. Italians express their love of spinach by using it in pasta fillings and sauces, in gnocchi and crespelle, on pizza and in soups. Flavorless spinach just makes things green. Fantastic spinach makes things taste like spinach.

I bypass those bags of baby spinach altogether and look for bunched spinach if it is available in the produce section, or even better, head for the farmer’s market. This past weekend I passed by a stand with an overflowing basket of vibrant, green, just-picked, fully-grown spinach. Hello gorgeous!

20090618tall.jpgAfter getting my sautéed spinach fix, I was inspired to make these delectable little fritters. Packed with real spinach flavor and accented by a large handful of fresh herbs, they come together easily and can fit into a number of slots on a summer menu.

Make them teaspoon-sized for the hot antipasti tray or an elegant passed cocktail nibble. In larger format, they are fantastic with a dab of chunky tomato sauce and some grated, semi-soft cheese melted on top—think Fontina, Montasio, or smoked mozzarella. Unadorned, they stand alone as a tasty side dish for meat, fish or poultry. They heat nicely in a hot oven, so you can make them ahead of time. I’m giving proportions for 8 to 10 medium-sized fritters here, but you can easily double this recipe for a crowd.

Frittelle di Spinaci

- Makes 8 to 10 fritters, depending on size -

Ingredients

1 pound fresh, mature spinach
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil (not extra-virgin) plus more for frying the fritters
1 medium shallot, chopped
1/4–1/2 cup of fresh mixed herbs, such as parsley, thyme, basil, oregano, sage, chives or marjoram (this amount can vary according to your preference)
2 large eggs
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg
3 heaping tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Procedure

1. Separate the spinach leaves, removing most of the stem portion. Wash the spinach thoroughly by immersing it in a tub or basin of cold water; agitate it and let it sit for a few minutes, then gently lift the spinach out of the water and place it in a colander to drain.

2. Heat the butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, and add the chopped shallot. Sauté the shallot gently, stirring until it starts to turn translucent. Shake most of the water off the spinach and add it to the pan, using tongs to turn it as it wilts and cooks. Season the spinach with a pinch of salt.

3. After a minute or so of cooking, the spinach should be wilted and soft. Transfer the entire contents of the pan to a fine-meshed sieve and allow the spinach mixture to drain and cool.

4. In the meantime, finely chop the herbs and set aside.

5. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs lightly to break them up, then whisk in the flour, nutmeg, cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Mix in the herbs.

6. Turn out the spinach mixture onto a cutting board and run a chef’s knife through it two or three times to coarsely chop it. Add it to the batter and use a spatula to fold everything together.

7. In the same skillet, add enough olive oil to a depth of about 1/8 of an inch and heat it over medium heat until it is hot enough to make a test dab of batter sizzle. Drop tablespoonfuls of batter into the pan, spreading them slightly with the back of the spoon. Fry the fritters 4 or 5 at a time, turning them when they turn light golden brown

8. Drain the fritters on paper towels and serve hot or at room temperature. They may also be reheated in a hot oven, arranged in a single layer on a baking sheet.

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