Authors: A Veggie Venture
Today's extra-special spinach recipe: A gratin that starts with a layer of potato, then is topped with a thick layer of the best "creamed spinach" I've ever made (or tasted). The secret? The spinach is mixed with asparagus! What a spring treat!
Three or four times a year, we share a dinner with a group of food-savvy friends who are the culinary branch of the Missouri Mycological Society. Each dinner carries a theme. Last month, we celebrated a "Greek Orthodox Easter" by cooking a whole lamb (note to vegetarians) at a green-as-summer outdoor venue west of St. Louis, part of Shaw Nature Reserve. I love-love-love this group! It's plain fun to cook with/for smart and food-obsessedlike-minded food people and I also appreciate the forum to cook dishes slightly more complicated. Plus I always learn something!
And here's what I learned with our assigned dish, a vegetarian casserole called σπανάκι με σπαράγγια ογκρατέν, that's Spinaki me Sparaggia Orgraten [pronounced spah-NAH-kee meh spah-RAHG-yah oh-grah-TEN]. Spinach and asparagus are one very magical combination! The combination makes the very best – by far – creamed spinach I've ever tasted. I wondered if the bottom layer of potatoes might be gratuitous – but once the creaminess drops to the bottom to cook the potatoes, oh my, the potatoes are good too.
This dish is a production, for sure. It took two hours plus clean-up to make a double batch for 40 people. But this is a stand-out dish, one I will definitely make again. I wouldn't hesitate to serve it as a vegetarian main course during asparagus season. Plus since many families actually serve asparagus at Thanksgiving and Christmas (and thus it's available in the grocery stores, even though out of season), I'd also make it for a special-occasion holiday meal. Another idea would be to cook frozen artichokes to substitute for the asparagus, I think that might work too.
Could we make it lower in calories? Yes. I used half the oil the inspiring recipe called for; but the leeks and asparagus could be cooked with still less oil, just a little for browning and flavor, using water to supplement as needed to avoid burning. We could use half & half or whole milk instead of cream without too much affect, I think; I wouldn't recommend fat-free half & half, it doesn't have the thickening properties that are needed here. Less cheese? Sure. But me, I'll make this again just like the recipe says, it's that good. And then again? I just finished the nutrition calculations and it would be worth playing with the ingredients.
HOW FUNNY IS THIS? We attended our first dinner with this group more than a year ago, but the ingredients for Greek Spinach-Asparagus-Potato Gratin and what we made then, Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi with Creamy Tomato Sauce, are much the same!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Happy Birthday to my cousin Barb Kellogg who's a talented nature and pet photographer in central Minnesota. See her work at Barb Kellogg Photography and Sweet Clover Pet Photography.
RECIPE for GREEK SPINACH-ASPARAGUS-POTATO GRATIN
Hands-on time: 2 hours (it took me 2 hours for a double batch)
Time to table: 3 hours
Makes 11 cups
3 pounds frozen chopped spinach, thawed
2 inches well-salted water
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 leeks, cleaned well (how to clean leeks), white and light green parts only, cut into half moons
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound fresh asparagus, peeled, woody ends cut off, cut into one-inch lengths, keeping the tips separate
4 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped fine
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
8 ounces ricotta
1/2 pound grated cheese (you'll need another 1/2 pound during assembly)
1 cup heavy cream
TO ASSEMBLE - IN THIS ORDER
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, skins on, grated to yield about 3 cups
1/4 pound grated cheese
1/4 pound feta, crumbled
1/4 pound grated cheese
COOK SPINACH Let spinach thaw. Bring salted water to a boil. Add the spinach and return to a boil. Cook for 3 - 4 minutes until fully cooked but still bright green. Drain well.
COOK LEEKS In a large heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil on MEDIUM heat until shimmery, add leeks and stir well to coat with fat. Cook, stirring often, until leeks are cooked but not yet turning color. Lift leeks out of skillet into a "large bowl" that will be used to mix the Spinach-Asparagus mixture.
COOK ASPARAGUS If garnishing the top with asparagus tips, set aside. In the same skillet, add another 2 tablespoons oil and heat til shimmery. Add the asparagus lengths and cook until cooked and quite soft but still bright green, stirring often. Lift these out into the "large bowl". Add the asparagus tips to the skillet and cook until done. Lift out and set aside.
DRY SPINACH This purpose of this step is to remove excess liquid from the spinach. Add the spinach to the skillet, stir in the dill, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Let cook, stirring often, until liquid is removed from the spinach. Taste and adjust seasonings. Transfer to the "large bowl".
MIX SPINACH-ASPARAGUS MIXTURE Stir ricotta into the large bowl, then 1/2 pound grated cheese and heavy cream.
TO ASSEMBLE Spread grated potatoes in the bottom of a large casserole dish. Sprinkle 1/4 pound grated cheese and feta crumbles over top. Spread Spinach-Asparagus mixture over top. Sprinkle last 1/4 pound grated cheese over top. Arrange asparagus tips decoratively atop the cheese.
TO BAKE RIGHT AWAY Preheat oven to 350F and bake for about 1 hour. (Timing is an estimate, since I made this ahead of time.)
TO MAKE AHEAD Cover and refrigerate for one or two days. Return to room temperature, allowing a good couple of hours. Turn oven to 350F and bake for 90 - 120 minutes or until mixture is hot all the way through and turning gold on top.
TO MAKE AHEAD & REWARM I baked these in the late morning, kept at room temperature, then rewarmed at 200F for about 30 minutes. Perfect!
LEFTOVERS Rewarm beautifully.
ALANNA's TIPS & KITCHEN NOTES
SERVINGS This makes enough to serve 20-25 as a side in large multi-course meal or about 10 main-dish servings.
FRESH SPINACH The inspiring recipe called for fresh spinach. To use fresh spinach, choose "curly" leaf spinach (baby spinach is too tender for cooking). To allow for cutting off the stems, you'll need to purchase 4 or even 5 pounds to yield 3 pounds of leaves. Wash very well, chop and then cook in well-salted water until fully cooked but still bright green.
THAWING FROZEN SPINACH After 24 hours in the fridge, the spinach was still a touch frosty but was ready to cook.
ASPARAGUS I used pencil-thin asparagus because I thought the thin spears would cook more quickly in the skillet. Next time, I'd probably choose fat asparagus. In either case, I recommend using a vegetable peeler on the skins for this dish.
RICOTTA I used this beautiful Homemade Ricotta, the Creamy Ricotta. A single batch yields about 14 ounces.
GRATED CHEESE You want a good melting cheese, not something oily like a cheddar but something creamy like gruyere. I used kasseri, a Greek cheese, and it was fabulous, slightly sour and nutty. I wouldn't use all feta, it doesn't melt well enough.
FETA Good feta is worth seeking out, it should come in a brick, not crumbles.
POTATOES Grate the potatoes just before placing in the casserole dish, otherwise they'll turn brown. Another time, I might do a second layer of potatoes, or split the potato layer into two, for a more "striped" effect.
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