Spinach is susceptible of receiving all imprints: It is the virgin wax of the kitchen.
~Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière

While there are many variations of spinach, generally speaking, there are four main types: savoy, semi-savoy, flat leaf, and baby. Savoy spinach has crinkly, dark green curly leaves. Flatleaf or smooth leaf spinach is unwrinkled and have spade-shaped leaves that are easier to clean than the curly types. The stalks are usually very narrow and tasty. Semi-savoy is a mix of the savoy and flat-leaf. Baby spinach leaves are of the flat-leaf variety and are usually no longer than three inches. These tender, sweet leaves are more expensive and are sold loose rather than in bunches.

Savoy spinach, a/k/a curly leaf spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is a cool season green which belongs botanically to the goosefoot family. It is thought to have first been cultivated in ancient Persia, later making its way to China. Ultimately, the Moors brought their beloved spinach to Spain during their several century conquest and occupation there. That began spinach’s journey across the continent.

Catherine de’ Medici, that major political and artistic mover and shaker of the 16th century, became a fervent patron of the French kitchen soon after she married Henri, Duc d’Orléans, the future Henri II of France. The arrival of this plump Italian teenager marked the nascency of classic French gastronomy, and even the revolutionary introduction of the fork to tables there. Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de’ Medici was so enamored with the leafy vegetable that when she married and moved to France she not only brought her personal chefs with their exquisite techniques, but also brought her adored Florentine spinach.

The English word for this delectable green—spinach—is derived from the middle French espinache from the old Provence espinarc, which is possibly via the Catalan espinac, from the Andalusian Arabic isbinakh, from the Arabic isbanakh, and originally from the old Persian aspanakh. A delightfully tortuous linguistic path. You can almost visualize those old snaky dotted lines tracking the trek of this green on an antiquated map.

The egg strumpet in me re-emerges with this recipe. But, that is another story that I don’t have time to tell.

POACHED EGGS WITH SAVOY SPINACH

2 large scallions, light green and white parts, thinly sliced (dark green reserved)
2 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 T unsalted butter
1 large bunch savoy spinach, stems trimmed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 C heavy whipping cream
4 large eggs, room temperature

Crushed red pepper flakes

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Add scallion and garlic sauté until sweated, about 2 minutes. Add spinach leaves, salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until spinach wilts, about 3 minutes. Stir in cream and let simmer for a couple of minutes to thicken some. Discard garlic cloves.

Carefully crack each egg into a bowl, then slide into the skillet, so they fit in one layer. Reduce heat to medium low and season with salt and pepper. Cover pan and let cook for 2 minutes, then turn off heat and let eggs rest, covered, about another 30 seconds until the whites cooked through and the yolks are runny. Season with a pinch or so of red pepper flakes and garnish with the reserved chopped scallions.

Carefully scoop eggs, spinach and sauce into shallow soup bowls over grilled or toasted artisanal bread which has been brushed with extra virgin olive oil.

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Bread Pudding & Alchemy

September 7, 2009

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. By a small sample we may judge of the whole piece.
~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Not for the cardiopathic or even faint of heart, bread pudding had its genesis in 13th century England. Known as “poor man’s pudding” it was created as a means of salvaging stale bread. Before it was baked, the bread was soaked in water, and then sugar, butter, fruit, and spices were added. The luscious, decadent modern version has been traced back to antebellum America when cooks began thickening custard based desserts with either powder or cornstarch and then flavoring them with vanilla, chocolate, nuts, or fruits. The powder and cornstarch were later replaced by bread.

Bain Marie (Mary’s bath) refers to the method of placing a pan of food in another pan with hot water in it to stabilize the heat reaching the food. Bain maries are rooted in the practice of alchemy as a means to heat materials slowly and gently. The term purportedly derived from the Italian bagno maria, named after a legendary medieval alchemist, Maria de’Cleofa, who developed the technique in Firenze in the 16th century. She was the reputed author of Tradtor della Distillazone (About Medicine, Magic, and Cookery). This thermodynamic concept was soon introduced to the French court’s kitchens by the cooks of Catherine de’ Medici. It has also been asserted that the process was named after Mary the Jewess (or Maria Prophetissima), an esteemed yet more ancient alchemist who was said to have discovered hydrochloric acid. Some have equated her to Moses’ sister Miriam—a chronologically disputed claim.

There are almost endless possibilities of added flavors and textures—chopped nuts, chocolate, citrus zest, brandy or rum, dried or fresh fruits. My weapons of choice for bread are brioche, boules, challah, or even croissants or buttermilk scones (Scones, May 23, 2009 post). To rachet up the richness, serve with crème anglaise (March 27, 2009 post).

BREAD PUDDING

10 C bread cubes, crusts removed, cut into 1″ cubes
4 large eggs
4 egg yolks
1 C granulated white sugar
1 1/2 t pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
4 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 C heavy whipping cream
2 C whole milk
3/4 C black currants, plumped in hot water, then drained
3/4 C walnuts, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 300 F

Lightly butter a 9″ x 13″ baking dish.

With an electric mixer or whisk beat the eggs, yolks and sugar until thick, ribboned and lemon colored. Beat in the vanilla extract, ground cinnamon and nutmeg. Then beat in the milk and cream.

Toss the bread cubes with the melted butter in the baking dish and strew the raisins and nuts over the bread. Gently pour the prepared custard over the bread cubes until completely covered. Press down the bread cubes some so they are covered with the custard.

Prepare a bain marie. Place the filled baking dish into a larger pan, such as a roasting pan. Carefully pour in enough hot water in the larger pan so that the water is halfway up sides of the baking pan. Bake until the custard sets, about 45 minutes to 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove and cool slightly before serving.