Why It Works
- Low, slow cooking reduces the spinach juices to concentrate their flavor.
- Crème fraîche added right at the end lends brightness.
When I'm working on a new version of a classic recipe, my first instinct is skepticism. Take creamed spinach, for instance. The classic dish is made by slowly cooking down spinach in a lightly thickened mixture of heavy cream seasoned with onions and nutmeg. Simple. But does the spinach need to cook that long? What if I blanched it first? Perhaps cream is not actually the best medium—why not, say, cream cheese or sour cream, or even a purée of some kind? Would it still taste like creamed spinach if I kept the spinach bright green and a little crunchy, or does it need to achieve that army-green, totally tender consistency?
Once you start down rabbit holes like this, it's really easy to get lost in them and emerge at the other end in a place that you don't even recognize. I've seen it happen to recipes before. You get so carried away with upgrading, deconstructing, and reinterpreting that by the time you slap it all together, it's barely identifiable as the dish you started with. I'm guilty of the same thing. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, even as a recipe writer, sometimes you get so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you don't stop to think if you should.
Experimenting with creamed spinach for me, then, was really an exercise in reeling it in. In test after test, I found that every supposed "upgrade" to the recipe I could think of (or find in other people's recipes) created a dish that, while it might have been tasty, failed to hit the buttons that creamed spinach needs to hit. Turns out I want my creamed spinach to be a little stodgy. I want it to be drab army green. I want it to completely melt on my tongue as I eat it.
So the bare bones of the creamed spinach recipe in my book are pretty straightforward and classic. The spinach is cooked low and slow to gradually concentrate its juices. Combined with a creamy béchamel sauce, it reduces into a rich, thick coating with a near pudding-like texture. The only minor embellishments are a doubling-up of the alliums (I use shallots and garlic) and a last-minute shot of crème fraîche, which serves a function similar to when it's added to creamy scrambled eggs at the last minute: a final dose of creaminess and fresh flavor. For the absolute ultimate holiday side dish, broil the whole shebang topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Sections of this article are reprinted from The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science with permission from W. W. Norton.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, finely minced (about 1/2 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced or grated on a Microplane (about 2 teaspoons)
2 pounds curly spinach, trimmed, washed, and drained
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup store-bought or homemade crème fraîche
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated (about 1 cup; optional)
Melt butter in a Dutch oven or large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and garlic and cook, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add spinach in 4 batches, turning each batch with tongs or a rubber spatula and allowing it to wilt before adding the next.
Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until no dry flour remains. Slowly stir in heavy cream and milk. Bring to a simmer, stirring, then reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is completely softened and the sauce has thickened, about 1 1/2 hours.
Stir in nutmeg and crème fraîche and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.
If desired, preheat the broiler to high. Transfer creamed spinach to a 1-quart oval or round casserole dish and top it with the cheese. Broil until spinach is bubbly and cheese has formed a well-browned crust, about 2 minutes. Serve.
Dutch oven or large saucepan
For a homemade version, learn how to make your crème fraîche from scratch.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 49g||63%|
|Saturated Fat 31g||153%|
|Total Carbohydrate 20g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 7g||23%|
|Total Sugars 8g|
|Vitamin C 26mg||129%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|