When I first started working on the farm, I was on the fence about spinach. My perception was that spinach, as an ingredient didn’t possess much to get excited about. In my experience working in restaurants, spinach nearly always skulked about in a state of bland rawness, banished to the mundane role of salad green, often accompanied by an uninspired sprinkling of goat cheese. As a diner, if you were really lucky, you might be able to slap on a piece of grilled, dried-out salmon or chicken breast for an exorbitant upcharge. As fairly green, idealistic cook working the cold line at a crumbling restaurant, you start to question your sanity as you mindlessly build plate after plate of what ultimately amounts to expensive rabbit food.
Many restaurants have no choice in the matter. In order to elevate spinach, you have to apply heat to it, greatly reducing its volume as most of its watery bulk evaporates into nothingness. If a chef wants to support local farms by featuring their produce on your menu, the price tag makes the situation even more dire, as it is hard to justify paying top dollar for something that nearly vanishes when you cook it. This invariably leads line cooks to develop a fatalistic attitude about the potential for spinach becoming anything more than crude, leafy filler, its banishment determined by the austere economic realities of running a bistro.
My attitude has changed a lot since I made the switch from line cook to farmer, the most pronounced being my flexibility in regard to the ingredients we grow and my relative enthusiasm for cooking them. This is not to say that I wasn’t a passionate devotee to vegetable cookery; if anything, I wanted to become a farmer in order to further improve my understanding of vegetables and how to prepare them by being immersed in every stage of their growth. It has made me realize how vastly different the prerogatives of a restaurant are in comparison to a farm, even though the success of one is essential to the existence of the other.
Restaurants have the advantage of bending time and geography to their will. When asparagus is “in season”, what that really means is that it is growing somewhere in the world, and can be delivered to your door in less than 24 hours with a single phone call. It can become a central ingredient on a menu item for months, or if you grow tired of it, you can move on to the next flavor of the month. Time and geography are a constant here, and when you plant something, not only do you have to wait for it, you are committed to it. So you open your mind and acquiesce that you will be dealing with spinach for the entirety of winter. The future of food is recognizing that we cannot simply exercise choice at every turn, manifesting ingredients as we see fit. When we concede that selection dictated by the seasons is a blessing and not a curse, it allows us to approach cuisine with a more determined creativity as we are encouraged by nature to come up with many different preparations of the same ingredient.
Needless to say, I am very excited about growing tons of spinach this winter, so here is my favorite preparation of this delicious, iron-rich vegetable.
Espinaca con Garbanzos
This is a super tasty, traditional spanish dish. I don’t claim to have an authentic recipe here, but who does? All you need to make it VIP is smoked paprika, almonds, and homemade bread crumbs.
at least 6 oz. spinach, washed and dried
one cup dried chickpeas
chicken or vegetable stock
one onion, diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
zest and juice from one lemon
one cup stale bread
¼ cup almond slivers
one teaspoon smoked paprika
salt and pepper
one tablespoon sherry vinegar (if you don’t have this, use apple cider vinegar, but if you can find it, it’s totally worth it)
You’ll need to start this dish by soaking the chickpeas overnight with just enough water to cover them. When you want to start cooking, simply drain into a colander and rinse off the foam that forms when legumes are soaked in water. Cook them in enough stock to cover them, keeping them at a low simmer and adding more liquid during the cooking process if need be. They should be tender within 30 minutes. At this point, set them aside and focus on making the delicious topping.
Get a pan hot and add enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Add bread crumbs and almonds, toasting them until they are golden-brown and aromatic. Finish by adding paprika and lemon zest, and pour onto a baking sheet lined with paper towels to cool. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Using the same pan, add an equal amount of olive oil, and begin sauteing the onion and garlic, just until it begins to brown. When it has caramelized nicely, add all the spinach, immediately followed by the vinegar and lemon juice. This should allow you to wilt the greens very quickly, after which you should incorporate the cooked chickpeas. Stir everything together, just until the whole dish is warm and the spinach is fully wilted, about one minute. Finish by seasoning to your taste with salt and pepper and by sprinkling the almond/bread/paprika mixture all over it.
Spinach should stay good for at least a week, especially because ours is freshly harvested. If you have the ability to, take them out of the bag and put them in a tupperware lined with a paper towel. Don’t wash it until you plan on using it immediately. You’ll only diminish its half-life by washing it and putting it back in the cooler. Moisture is the enemy. Also abstain from storing in the back corners of your fridge, as these tend to be the coldest parts and can potentially leave you with frozen greens.