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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Paella

February 13, 2009

A morsel eaten selfishly does not gain a friend.
~Spanish proverb

Too long overlooked by a broader audience, Spanish gastronomy is at the forefront of the Western food cosmos. With its broad range of dishes, flavors and ingredients from the simple and rustic to the refined, artful and elegant, Spain is becoming the food destination. This “newly discovered” and somewhat overdue appreciation is likely due to the influx of tapas and paella restaurants as well as the famed chefs such as Ferran Adrià at El Bulli with his outside the box techniques. Like maestro Adrià, several of his countrymen also covet the prestigious three star designation awarded by the Michelin Guide.

Historically, paella was born from the fusion of Roman and Arab culinary heritages. Despite systematic, and often brutal, efforts by Christian clergy to systematically quash Moorish history and identity, much of the Iberian cuisine and culture has been heavily influenced by the Muslim conquest and a several century rule of Spain. Beginning in the 8th Century, the Moors developed a highly civilized land they called Al Andalus.

Outside some of the more obvious Moorish contributions—magnificent architecture, spendid landscaping and fountains, the introduction of paper, music, advanced academics, mathematics and sophisticated astronomy—the marked influence on cuisine is also indisputable. The Moors cultivated olives and oranges and also brought rice, cumin, saffron, almonds, peppers and other spices to Spain.

Now perhaps the most widely known dish in traditional Spanish cuisine, paella is often cooked over an open wood and vine fire in a broad round two handed paella pan. Paella pans of several sizes are available at cooking stores (one of my favored haunts), but it also can also be made in a large sauté pan. The dish is served right out of the pan at the table, family style, sharing the bounty with all.

Controlling the fire—the heat intensity—is paramount. The dish should not be disturbed during the process or you will cause the rice to cook unevenly. The idea is to cook the rice underneath to form the classic crust called soccorat on the bottom.

Several versions of paella exist often depending on region and available meat, game, fish and seasonal produce. The one constant, the leading lady, is the rice which should be the short grain variety, preferably Valencia, Bomba or Calasparra…even Arborio. Long grain rice simply is a “no no”.

PAELLA

4 chicken leg thighs, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons pimenton or sweet paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil

Spanish chorizo sausage, sliced

4 jumbo shrimp, peeled, but with heads and tails on
2 lobster tails, cut into medallions
Several squid, cleaned and rinsed
12 mussels, cleaned and scrubbed

4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 medium onion, diced
1 (16-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and hand crushed
1 t sea salt
1 t sugar

1 cup valencia or arborio rice
1 teaspoon saffron threads
2 bay leafs
1/4 C dry white wine
3 cups stock
1/2 cup sweet peas, frozen and thawed
Fresh cilantro

Rinse the chicken pieces and pat them dry. Mix the oregano and paprika with some salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture all over the pieces of chicken and marinate for 30 minutes or more.

Heat the olive oil in a paella pan or wide shallow skillet over medium high heat. Place the chicken in the pan, until brown on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Add the chorizo and continue to cook until the oil is a vibrant red color. Temporarily remove the chicken and sausage to a platter.

Sear the lobster tails and shrimp for one minute over high heat. Add the squid to the pan and sear for 15-20 seconds. Set aside.

Make a sofrito—saute the garlic, onion, and tomatoes sprinkled with some salt, pepper and sugar; cook until the mixture caramelizes a bit and the flavors meld. Remove and set aside.

Return the chicken and sausage to the pan and lower the heat to medium. Pour in the white wine and cook until it is reduced by half, about 1-2 minutes. Add the sofrito and cook 3 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Crush the saffron and add to the pan along with the bay leaf. Season with salt.

Fold in the rice, carefully spreading it evenly around the pan. Cook for 5 minutes on high, stirring and gently moving the pan around so the rice cooks evenly and absorbs the liquid. The rice will float about in the pan.

Nestle in the reserved shrimp, lobster, and mussels. Reduce the heat to low and cook at a slow boil for 10 minutes. Near the last couple of minutes of this cooking process, scatter the squid and peas on top. During this entire stage, do not cover, disturb or stir or the rice will cook unevenly.

The stock should be absorbed by the now fluffy rice and there should be a nice shimmer to the top of the paella. Remember, the ideal paella has a toasted, caramelized rice “bottom crust” called socarrat. Allow to rest off the heat for 3-5 minutes, garnish with cilantro, then serve.

Pourboires: mix it up with other ingredients to change the character of the paella, including green beans, broad beans, zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, mushrooms, serrano ham, chicken livers, rabbit, clams, snails