Midsummer Spinach

MIDSUMMER SPINACH

Or in Australia, that would be mid-winter spinach. And Hungarian Creamed Spinach is a dish better suited to winter than summer, since it is rich, warm and garlicky. Though I have to say that it slipped down very well here in Jerusalem, where we are formally coming to the end of spring. I know that technically, today is the first day of summer in the Northern hemisphere, and already into winter in the Southern hemisphere, but I like the more romantic idea of mid summer's eve, the longest day of the year, which our ancestors celebrated in their villages, with drinking and games, and maidens dancing till dawn.

I love this time of year, because it is not yet that full on unforgiving Middle East heat – in fact, this year, it is still almost cool – but the light lasts till late and has a special limpid quality, quite different from the other seasons. And at sunset, you feel as if you can see forever! It is a sheer pleasure to watch the summer fruits like figs and pomegranates ripening in the valley beneath my house.

raw ingredients

Unlike the fruit busily growing in the valley, the spinach we used is not home grown, it comes from the markets, and is paler than Australian spinach. You can use any variety of spinach: swiss chard, mangold, baby leaves. Whatever you have really. Even frozen, pre-chopped will do at a pinch!

We've prepared this Hungarian classic in 2 kitchens, one in Melbourne and one in Jerusalem and the results in both were great.

It's relatively simple, with few ingredients, and doesn't take long, but it has a wonderful rich garlicky taste that makes it seems you've done more work than you have. 

DAIRY, NON-DAIRY, GLUTEN FREE

We've made 3 versions: dairy, dairy free and gluten free.

The dairy free version is the way that Food is Love grandmother Agi Adler makes it, with eggs and flour instead of butter and milk. Dairy free is actually the kosher version, since meat and milk cannot be served together in one meal, and in a Hungarian Jewish home creamed spinach would often be served with a meat dish such as  beef goulash or schnitzel.

HISTORY

Agi is not even sure who taught her how to make this dish. 

Her mother couldn't, as she had died by the time Agi was 14. It was during World War Two,  late in 1944, and Agi's mother was on the last transport of Jewish prisoners the Nazis took from Budapest. She never returned. (You can read more of this story and find the recipe here.)

By the end of the war, Agi was an orphan. In 1950, 20 years old and alone, she sailed into Sydney as a refugee on a ship called the Cyrenia, to make a new life.  In Australia she taught herself to recreate the rich cuisine of Budapest, the city where she grew up. These are the dishes she cooks for her daughters and her grandchildren.

 Agi Adler with her daughters Lisa and Joann

Agi Adler with her daughters Lisa and Joann

Hungarian Creamed Spinach

Dairy-Free version

Serves 6 as a side or 2 as a main dish

Prep time: 15 minutes   /   Cook time: 15 minutes

INGREDIENTS  

  •  500 g / 1 lb fresh spinach (Agi's supermarket sells bags this size with pre-washed leaves) NOTE: Agi would never do this, but if you are stuck, you can use frozen spinach. 
  • 3 thin slices white bread, crust removed, soaked in water – then squeezed
  • 3 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup plain flour.  Agi  uses something called Continental flour, which from the ingredients appears to be plain flour mixed with semolina. She believes it makes a difference. "This flour is manufactured here by someone who was with me on the boat to Australia," she says after examining the packet. 
  • salt and pepper
  • nutmeg - optional

METHOD

1. Remove crusts from bread, and cover with water. When you are ready to use it, squeeze out ALL the water. (It is important to do this step properly, or you risk creating spinach glue!)

 2. Make a roux. Usually you do this with butter and flour, but in this case, it is oil and flour, which is a bit more work. Fry the garlic in the oil over a low heat, for about 30 seconds or so. Add the flour "just before the garlic browns." If the garlic goes brown, the dish will be bitter, so this step is important!

3..  Stir over a low heat for 5-10 minutes.  Watch the consistency. You want it thick. When you leave it, and it bubbles up it is ready. Set aside. 

4. Wilt the spinach in a pan with only the water adhering to the leaves after you rinsed them. It will be enough, as the spinach will make its own liquid. Cook with a lid for 3-4 minutes or until the spinach has crumpled down and cooked. 

5.. Put the boiled spinach into the food processor with the wet-then-squeezed-out bread and the roux. The spinach has to be hot when you add the roux. When the bread, the roux and the spinach are well mixed, add the eggs and salt and pepper. Sprinkle with nutmeg, if desired.

TEST KITCHEN

It's the second time I've made this dish according to Agi's recipe, having watched Agi prepare it,  and I've learnt hat you have to be very careful with the quantities, most especially the bread and flour. If you are not sure eg how thick should you slice the bread, err on the side of caution and use less, not more.

I think maybe this time I made it a bit too bready, and not quite garlicky enough. But I was uncharacteristically restrained with the garlic, as I usually don’t like a “hint of garlic” I like to be hit over the head with it! Still by the next day, all the tastes had melded, and what little was left over was delicious. 

Dairy Version 

Serves 4 as a side or 2 as a main dish

Prep time 15 minutes   /   Cook time 10 minutes

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 lb. of fresh spinach cooked, well drained and chopped 
  • 3 cloves garlic, crused
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour - you can use gluten free flour, it works
  • 3/4 cup milk - you can use cream if you want a richer result
  • s and p, optional nutmeg

method

1. Melt the butter and add the chopped garlic. As above, you only want it to infuse the butter, and to cook slightly before you add the flour. Cook for 30 seconds or so and add the flour, blending to make a roux. Stir constantly for 5-10 minutes  When it's bubbled 

2. Remove the pan from the heat, and add a little of the milk (or cream) stirring till blended, Add all the milk gradually, and return it to the heat, stirring until the mixture is smooth and thick. 

3. Prepare the spinach, cooking from raw as in step 4 above. You can use a food processor or simply a knife to chip. 

3. Add the chopped spinach to the sauce, mix well, add s and p, and nutmeg if you are using, and serve. 

 

test kitchen

Amanda made this version in her gluten free kitchen in Melbourne. She used gf flour - that's how we know it works, thanks Amanda! - and milk not cream.

"I didn't think the roux would work the same, and glad I stuck with it! Hahaha!! The aroma was unbelievable and reminded me of a restaurant we used to go with my late grandparents, where the staple sides were creamed spinach and creamed mushrooms."

Amanda is lucky enough to have married into the family of our Food is Love grandmothers, Ruth Hampel, so she still has that lovely grandmotherly presence in her life, and her children have a great grandmother! They are also lucky because all the women in this family are great cooks. 

VERDICT 

Amanda made her spinach more liquid, too. She served it for Friday night dinner, along with chicken soup, roast vegetables, quinoa salad with chopped up veggies and a vinaigrette dressing, pumpkin sweet potato and ricotta lasagne (with gf pasta sheets) and almond crackers that she baked herself. 

"Simple and Deeelish! i served it with dinner tonight and it was devoured :-) Big, big hit. So much so I now need to forward the recipe. Hahahah!!!
Hempel 319.jpg
Next week: cauliflower