We’re into the joy of the growing season now as we begin to expect new arrivals each week from one of our favorite local farmers John from Gill Farms. A few days ago he showed up with an enormous bag of freshly picked spinach. It’s so great to see the beginnings of what is in store for us in the coming months.
The first thing we do with the spinach is cut off the tip of the stem and discard. Then we separate the stems from the upper leaf, putting all the leaves into a sink full of water. Let them soak for a bit, gently swishing them around to dislodge any bits of sand that may still be clinging to the leaves. To be safe, we usually drain in a collander and then wash them one more time in clean water. Then spin dry.
As I was cleaning the spinach I remembered a dish we used to do years ago with the stems: a gratin! There’s nothing more satisfying to a chef then making use of all of a plant or any food item. “Nose to tail eating” as Fergus Henderson says. In a professional kitchen, or any kitchen for that matter, nothing should go to waste!
Spinach Stem Gratin
We start with a basic bechamel sauce: 1 cup flour, 1 cup butter, and two quarts of milk flavored with a bay leaf and freshly grated nutmeg (a great base). Next we cut the stems in half, clean them in several changes of water, and blanch them in boiling salted water. Next, we grate a mixture of cheeses: cheddar, gruyere or fontina work the best, ricotta is good also, stay away from mozzarella as it gets stringy. Mix a couple of eggs into the sauce, a couple cups of grated cheese, a bit of Parmesan never hurts, and pour into a gratin dish with the seasoned blanched stems. I like to add a bit of the cooked spinach leaves (chopped) as well for color. Now top with bread crumbs tossed with a bit of garlic, butter and parsley. Bake until set, about 30 to 45 minutes at 350 depending on the size of your gratin dish. This is a delicious side for a summer meal, or would make a fabulous vegetarian entree. Enjoy!