Amid all the talk about what is in season or whether or not an exotic ingredient is worth it, sometimes it's good to think about the staples, the standbys, the workhorses. Items like spinach. After all, this most common of leafy greens achieved its everyday status for a reason. It is grown locally year around and when cooked with care it can be even more delicious than those hard-to-procure types.
Of course, when the topic of spinach does roll around, so does its healthfulness. It's packed with vitamins, A for vision and C for immunity. Also, minerals including iron and magnesium for the heart, and potassium to combat stress. It even has a good amount of protein. All of these things are good for the body, and even better for us, good for the conscience. Especially since some of our favorite spinach dishes in L.A. feature cream, poached egg and a swim in the fryer.
Creamed Spinach is one of those classic dishes that can be found in fine steakhouses or neighborhood BBQ joints. More often that not though, it turns out to be a dish of thickened cream with specks of sodden spinach. Now, it does take a deft hand to make a creamed spinach that is super creamy yet does not destroy the texture or flavor of the spinach. But, what it doesn't take is an expensive restaurant to make it, as found our favorite version at Westside chain Gaby's Express
Being a Mediterranean restaurant, Gaby's creamed spinach seems more like an afterthought to round out meals of their rotisserie chicken and pita sandwiches. That is why we first ordered it, but since, our order has just been the spinach with pita wedges -- because it can stand all on its own. The spinach is well cooked, yet still maintains most of its bite and all of its distinctive flavor. The cream is well distributed, not weighty but still enough to make eating a whole plate feel like an indulgence.
Chefs seemingly delight in doing naughty things to raw spinach. There is the other spinach classic, the wilted salad that all can admit to simply being a carrier for bacon grease. It is this tradition that has spawned the baby spinach Caesar salad at The Fat Dog, which not only features roughly chopped pieces of thick bacon and one of the most pungent salad dressings in town, but also a plump and runny poached egg.
This is a salad that must be attacked with a knife and a fork. The yolk bleeds on to a thick slice of rustic toast. The toast is torn into the spinach leaves that are coated in a dressing that doesn't have a note of anchovy, but a symphony. Studded throughout are hunks of smokey bacon which are tempered only slightly by pickled red onions. Despite this onslaught of flavors, the meatiness of the raw spinach is always at the forefront. It doesn't unite the flavors; it keeps them in line.
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Spinach thrives on creative preparations: It can be baked, boiled and now even a few -- mostly Japanese -- restaurants are preparing it fried. Most use it as a kind of garnish, dropping leaves atop pre-sauced sashimi. At Little Tokyo's Aburiya Toranoko, their version of eared tuna with crispy baby spinach has much better composition. Here the fried spinach isn't just a curious aside, but an integral part of the dish.
Served together, but on opposite ends of the plate, the mound of translucent fried spinach look like panes of stained glass. There are the hints of greasiness that one would expect from basically frying vegetal paper. However, the flavor the spinach is clean and almost concentrated. When chased by a slab of the peppery and meaty tuna, the flavors have a heft that belie their physical weight.
As the richness of the tuna played off the earthiness of spinach, it didn't didn't take us long to realize why the flavors worked so well. The dish was a refinement of another classic combination: surf and turf. Proof that even the most prosaic of ingredients can breathe with new life.