Spinach is a love or hate proposition. Most people can be divided into those who side with E.B. White or those who think Catherine de Medici got it right. Mr. White is the man who tossed off the famous New Yorker cartoon caption (“I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it”), apparently unaware that would turn the vegetable into a national joke that has lasted more than 80 years. Ms. de Medici was the Queen of France who was so enamored of spinach that she demanded it at every meal (which is why dishes made with spinach are still called “Florentine”).
Put me firmly in Queen Catherine’s corner; I think spinach is one of the world’s great vegetables. If you agree with Mr. White, I suspect it’s because you’ve never tasted spinach at its best. Here’s how to make it.
1. Spinach needs to be well washed. You’ve been told it’s pre-washed? Wash it anyway, because nothing ruins a meal faster than biting into grit. Spinach grows in sandy soil, which clings tenaciously to the leaves. Drop it into a big sink of cold water, lift the leaves and let the sandy water drain out. Rinse out the sink. Do it again. And again. Ignore recipes that tell you to sauté the spinach with water on the leaves; they end up too wet. Spin the leaves in a lettuce dryer or wrap them into towels. You want them fairly dry.
2. Trim the tough stems from the leaves. Compost them. One of the pleasures of spinach is how silky and tender it becomes when cooked, so don’t let the tough stems get in the way.
3. This is the most important part: cook your spinach in butter, which it will happily absorb. If you cook spinach in olive oil, the oil will just sit glumly on the surface of the leaves, making it greasy.
4. Spinach likes both salt and lemon; if you add finely grated lemon rind and diced anchovies to the butter, it will absorb those flavors along with the butter.
5. Never cover the pan when you sauté spinach. It will steam the leaves and give them a faintly metallic flavor.
6. Don’t cook spinach too long. Cook the leaves just until they wilt, and eat while they are still a vivid, joyful green.
Wonderful Sautéed Spinach
2 pounds fresh spinach
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 tablespoon anchovies, minced
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (about 1 lemon’s worth)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Prep spinach: Check the stems, and trim off any tough ones. Wash the spinach well in a sink full of water, drain, and spin fairly dry in a salad spinner or with towels.
Infuse the butter: Put the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat and wait for the foam to subside. Add the garlic, anchovies, and lemon zest and stir for a couple of minutes, until it is deliciously aromatic.
Wilt spinach: Add spinach and keep stirring until the leaves are wilted, but still tender and bright.
Season and serve: Add pepper. Taste. You should have enough salt from the anchovies, but if you want more, add salt (and next time use more anchovies). Serve right away.