Spinach is one of my favorite vegetables, and I think part of that is due to reading Popeye comics when I was a child. (Although I don't think I ever ate the canned spinach, which is what Popeye ate). Whenever his lady-love, Olive Oyl, was in peril, or he was facing some other danger, Popeye would open a can of spinach, toss the contents down his throat, and immediately his muscles would pop out alarmingly and he would perform daring feats of strength. I am not sure if my parents told me that I would grow up to be big and strong if I ate spinach like a good little girl, but I think I have always believed it, and I always think of Popeye when I eat spinach. I love the flavor of it, the faintly bitter tang of it, the deep green of cooked spinach.
Sometimes I make creamed spinach with frozen chopped spinach. Heat some butter and olive oil in a deep sauté pan, cook a handful of finely chopped onion until translucent and just turning golden, scattering flour over the foaming butter, stirring the flour-coated onions until the flour is beginning to brown, pouring in milk (or cream) and cooking everything until it begins to thicken into a béchamel. Add the spinach and stir, seasoning with salt and pepper and a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg. It becomes a flecked green-beige mass, thick and creamy, to which I add some grated parmeggiano-Reggiano, or perhaps Gruyére. The cheese melts and melds with the creamy sauce, the finely chopped spinach and onion, a savory pudding, eaten with steak or lamb chops or roast chicken, or just alone, in a bowl.
It was in Greece in the mid-nineties that I discovered spanakopita (or perhaps I had discovered it long before), chopped spinach mixed with feta cheese and wrapped in phyllo dough. It is my firm belief that anything mixed with cheese and wrapped in a flaky crust is automatically delicious, and spanakopita is no exception. At some point - probably the 80's - triangle-shaped turnovers of spinach and feta cheese became popular hors'd'oeurves. I have always longed to make my own spanakopita, laying sheets of phyllo dough (bought frozen) out on a floured countertop, brushing each layer with melted butter, spreading out the filling in a neat rectangle. It is some culinary fantasy, like making boeuf bourgignon or a Charlotte Russe, which has never quite materialized.
But tonight, there is simply sautéed spinach, one of the first things I learned how to cook, washing the mud-encrusting leaves in a sinkful of water, changing the water again and again until no more grit could be washed away. (I could buy the bagged stuff, but it doesn't taste as good, somehow). I've poured some oil into a pan, waited for it to shimmer, tossed in the bright green leaves. Before my eyes, they begin to wilt and shrivel away, like magic, until all that is left is a sad huddle of shriveled leaves, an intense, deep green. There is roast chicken and good bread from my favorite bakery, and it is time for dinner.