Summer Veggin’: Spinach

website spinach

“Don’t you want to be strong like Popeye?”

My generation was one of the last to grow up on a diet of Popeye cartoons and canned spinach. We’d dutifully watch Popeye eat his spinach so he could be strong; and then our parents would pile canned spinach onto our plates, believing we’d magically like it simply because we watched Popeye eat it.

When I became older, I realized that it wasn’t spinach that I didn’t like. It was “canned” spinach which was the problem. As a general rule, canned vegetables are less appealing because the process necessary for canning makes the vegetables lose their vibrant color and natural vegetable smells and gives them a softer texture and a tinny taste.

There are valuable socio-economic reasons for canned vegetables, though, so I’m not here to knock canned vegetables. I am, however, saying that if you were a child of certain generations you may find that you actually like particular vegetables you never have before if they are freshly prepared as opposed to canned.

Spinach is one of those leafy greens which is not only quite high in necessary nutrients your body needs but it is extremely versatile. As well, if you still find that you’re not all that fond of the taste of spinach, even in it’s fresher form, spinach is easily disguised.

There are basically two general types of spinach, a thicker, more rippled variety and a smoother, flatter variety with hybrids of every variation in between. For folks who have may have some concerns about their spinach liking, I’d advise trying baby spinach first. Picked at a younger stage, baby spinach is more tender and slightly “sweeter”.

A common mistake folks make with spinach is overcooking it. Whether you boil, steam, saute, grill or broil spinach, you should always remove the spinach as soon as it begins to wilt. If you do so, the spinach will continue cooking from the residual heat and be at the perfect texture. If you let the spinach continue to cook until it’s entirely wilted, then when you remove it from the heat, it will continue to cook and become overdone.

Another mistake is that folks forget that fresh spinach will cook down to a fraction of the volume. A pound of fresh spinach will yield about a cup of cooked spinach. So, if you’re using a recipe that calls for cooked spinach, you need to make sure to purchase the appropriate corresponding fresh amount.

A cost-saving tip: If you are simply adding spinach as part of a cooked dish, like a soup or a lasagna or a frittata, go ahead and use frozen chopped spinach. It’s cheaper and just as nutritionally beneficial. Frozen spinach has also already been “cooked” so you don’t need to do anything to it, other than add it straight to your recipe.

Some ideas for using spinach:

1. Fresh in salads: Adding fresh spinach to a salad bumps the nutritional value of your salad and adds another dimension of taste. You can also make straight spinach salads. My children like to mix arugula and spinach, top it with roasted chicken and strawberries, and drizzle with a little bit of balsamic vinegar.

2. Additions to a main dish: You add flavor, texture, and nutrients if you add chopped spinach to just about anything you already make: lasagna, frittata, soup, seafood cakes, hamburgers, pasta salad, casseroles, bean dishes, etc…. There is no limit to what you can add spinach to. I especially like spinach on a pizza.

3. In desserts: Adding vegetables to desserts not only increases the nutritional value, but they tend to make moister desserts which also have a depth of flavor you don’t get without them. Pureed spinach can be used in cakes, cupcakes, brownies, puddings, etc…. Nowadays many recipes with spinach can even be found online, so you won’t even have to create your own.

4. Additions to dips and sauces: Spinach adds texture and flavor to any dip, salsa, or sauce. If you have a white sauce you really like, turn it into a spinach white sauce. If you have a sour cream dip recipe you like to make, add spinach. If there’s a salsa recipe you enjoy, add spinach. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll actually like these with spinach in them.

5. To boost smoothies: Smoothies are the popular thing now. Adding spinach to whatever type you’re making adds nutrients which you wouldn’t get just from a fruit smoothie.

6. Simply as is: Sauteed spinach is a wonderful side dish to a meal, and what’s really great is that you can create any flavor combination you want for sauteed spinach. You can saute spinach with a little bit of olive oil and garlic. You can saute spinach with sesame oil, ginger, and soy sauce. You can saute spinach with curry powder and butter. You can saute spinach with mustard seeds and chili peppers. You can saute spinach with other veggies like mushrooms or carrots or onions. Your creative cooking imagination can really kick into gear as you experiment to see what tastes you prefer.

 

 

Menu Suggestion: Stuffed Flounder

“We’d like to take you on a whale watch.”

Some friends of ours wanted to thank us for having been there for them over the years and suggested treating us to a whale watch, something the children had always said they wanted to do but which we’d never had.

The day was beautiful, and as we began the journey towards the open seas, the children had a great time watching the waves, feeling the wind, and chatting with our friends. Slowly, however, we began to realize that our children suffer from seasickness, and within an hour of the trip, the children were… well, let’s just say, their symptoms weren’t the pleasant kind.

While my daughters were old enough to fend for themselves, I ended up being caretaker for my son, holding him, watching his face, helping him to rinse his mouth, and the like. By the time it was clear there really wasn’t much else left to come out of him, he was just plain exhausted, and he fell into a deep sleep.

Just after he fell asleep is, of course, when we finally reached the deepest waters and amazingly enough there were three beautiful whales to be seen for a very long time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t rouse my sleeping son to see it. After his miserable experience, he wanted nothing to do with the whales and just kept pushing me away, insisting he’d rather sleep. In the end he missed what would probably have been one of the best experiences of his life.

Sometimes I feel people behave similarly when it comes to the idea of eating fish. They had a bad experience once or they ate some which didn’t taste to their liking or they don’t like the look and smell of fish in general, and they write off all fish and end up missing food which is not only very healthy for them but which can be incredibly tasty.

Recently we wanted to make a special meal for dinner, and I chose to make flounder. Flounder is one of those fishes you’ll often find on a restaurant menu because it’s very mild tasting. As a rule my children actually prefer salmon over most white fish, but I like to use flounder (or sole, as it’s sometimes called, too) when I want to make a nice stuffed dish for a special occasion.

What’s nice about flounder is that is has all the health benefits of fish while also being low in mercury which they’re always telling you to be wary of eating too much of. For stuffing purposes, it’s a nice fish because they’re thin and layer and roll well.

By now, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I’m a firm believer in making things as easy as possible. So, this post is about how to make a quick and easy stuffed flounder. There is no rolling of fish, no trying to hold the rolled fish and stuffing while trying to roll it in bread crumbs, too. This is my version of what is actually a very nice company dish, which you can adapt to your own tastes.

Tips for Stuffed Flounder:

1. The flounder: The two big debates you’ll always hear are “wild versus farmed” and “fresh versus frozen”. Generally speaking, people say that wild fish doesn’t have the types of chemicals you’ll find in farmed fish. Personally, I think you’re going to find both bad and good in anything you eat these days, from fruit and veggies covered in pesticides to milk produced from cows given growth hormones. Be wise about moderating what you, wash all your produce, and recognize that sometimes the good health benefits outweigh the possibility of ingesting something not as good. Fortunately, flounder isn’t as greatly farmed as salmon, so most flounder found in the stores are usually wild anyway.

As for fresh versus frozen, people make a big deal about frozen fish being second rate. I personally have never found anything to complain about. Frozen fish is cheaper and ready when you want to use it instead of having to eat it on its freshness timetable. The tip is to make sure that after you defrost it, you rinse the fillets and pat them completely dry. If you choose to purchase fresh flounder at a fish market or at the grocery store, make sure they’re fillets (unless you like skinning and boning a whole fish yourself, in which case, go for it) which are a nice white color, not graying, and which don’t smell – fresh flounder really doesn’t smell all that fishy.

2. The stuffing: You can use almost anything you want to stuff flounder. People will use bread crumbs, stuffing, rice, vegetables, even meat. I personally prefer to use vegetables, and the recipe I will be sharing uses frozen greens mixed with other sauteed vegetables.

So, you can choose spinach, kale, collards, turnip greens, your choice. For my recipe, it is important to use thawed frozen versions of these as opposed to fresh because you need the moisture from the frozen varieties for making the creamy sauce for the vegetable stuffing.

For other vegetables, any possible combination exists. My personal favorites are spinach and mushrooms or kale and zucchini and squash or collards and carrots, but you can use whatever foods you like best.

3. The topping: When you’re making a stuffed flounder, you can leave it bare or you can cover it. I prefer to cover the flounder because it helps to keep the flounder from drying out too much. Many recipes will call for either coating it in breadcrumbs or making a sauce to pour over it. I prefer to use a light breadcrumb topping because I’m not actually rolling the flounder to stuff it.

For a breadcrumb topping, I use a nice gluten free high fiber bread which I pulse into tiny breadcrumb pieces, but you can always use a gluten free packaged bread crumb mixture, too. The key is to not use as much as most recipes call for and to use a nice olive oil instead of butter and to mix it with lovely herbs for a great taste.

4. The preparation: Most stuffed flounder recipes tell you to individually roll the flounder around the stuffing, and it is true that those little rolled pieces of fish look quite pretty when you put them onto your company’s plate. The problem I find, though, is that it’s not always easy to roll the fish around the stuffing and to get it to stay rolled, and when you go to eat it, it’s actually quite a mess because the fish will fall apart and then you’re eating the fish and stuffing separately anyway.

So, what I do is to put a layer of fish on the bottom of a pan, put my stuffing on top of those fillets, and then cover the stuffing with a second layer of fillets. This way, you have fish on both sides of your stuffing without the hassle of rolling, and when you eat it, the tastes of the fish and the stuffing meld together in your mouth. In addition, when the fish is topped with bread crumbs, the final presentation is quite pretty and easy to serve.

Stuffed Flounder

(Recipe for a company crowd, can cut in half for a family)

Ingredients:

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 tbsp minced onions

16 oz sliced mushrooms or sliced zucchini and squash or sliced carrots

10 to 16 oz thawed frozen spinach or kale or collards:  Do NOT squeeze out any of the liquid.

1/4 tsp ground black pepper

1 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp dried crushed thyme

8 oz tofu cream cheese

14 thin flounder fillets

1 cup gluten free high fiber bread crumbs

1 to 2 tsp olive oil

2 tsp Italian herb blend

Cooking Instructions:

1.  Lightly grease an 11 x 15 pan and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. In a large sauteing pan, mix the olive oil with the garlic and onions and cook for about a minute over meduim low heat until fragrant.

3. Add the mushrooms or zucchini and squash or carrots and saute for 3 to 5 minutes until the vegetables are softer and beginning to cook through.

4. Add the spinach or kale or collards along with the pepper, oregano and thyme and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes until most but not all of the liquid has begun to evaporate.

5. Put the tofu cream cheese into the center of the vegetable mixture and continue to stir and mix the cream cheese into the vegetables over medium low heat until its completely melted and incorporated into the mixture. This usually takes about 2 to 4 minutes.

6. Layer seven flounder fillets on the bottom of the baking pan. Cover each fillet with the vegetable mixture. Cover the vegetable stuffing with the last seven fillets, and flatten the layered fish so it completely fills your pan and is even.

7. In the same pan you used for making the vegetable stuffing, mix the bread crumbs with just enough olive oil to moisten them and with the herb blend. Saute for a minute.

8. Evenly divide the bread crumbs over the top of the stuffed fillets and pat the crumbs down so they stick to the top of the fish.

9. Bake for about 20 minutes. The topping will be golden brown, the fish a nice white, and there will be some bubbling from the stuffed vegetable mixture.

If your oven runs hot, check it at 15 minutes. You don’t want to overcook the fish. If by some chance you do, overcook it a little bit, cover the pan with foil and let it sit, covered, until you’re about to serve it.  This will restore some of the moisture to the fish.

10. Serve the stuffed fish with a nice salad of mixed greens and herbs and enjoy!