Chef Paul C. Reilly is the co-owner of Beast + Bottle and Coperta as well as a member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition's leadership group. On westword.com, Reilly will be sharing his thoughts regularly on the restaurant industry and looking into local, seasonal ingredients to enhance your home cooking with tips and recipes.
Colorado’s Front Range has a very fickle growing season. Our highly calcareous soils take their sweet time to warm up and make field plantings difficult to yield harvest until later in the season. As spring temperatures begin to roll in, our palates naturally gravitate toward the bright-green vegetables associated with the season, including asparagus, peas and fava beans. In actuality, as we approach April, most of what our farmers have to offer remains the same as what passed in December, whether a majority of local chefs want to admit that or not.
Scour a farm product list this time of year and you'll see that you're still stuck with the same sweet and often drab flavors of winter squashes, daikon radishes and potatoes. Some greenhouse lettuces start to make an appearance, alongside microgreens. However, there is one exception to this rule that graces us with its presence right around now: overwintered spinach. The deep-green crop is field spinach that has been planted in late autumn and allowed to sit in the ground through the winter, where it goes into hibernation, germinates and becomes super sweet in the ground until it is ready to eat come spring. Winter spinach is the first field crop available to local chefs for the new season on the Front Range, and its arrival is heralded with great enthusiasm in both of my restaurants’ kitchens.
Mark Guttridge of Ollin Farms in Longmont is still digging out from the epic March 14 blizzard; he says the fields at the farm will not be visible for another couple of weeks. Still, perennial plantings are happening at the farm, and Mark and his family are also getting geared up for the spinach season. “The real magic with the spinach,” he says, “is the cool weather it endures, making it a lot sweeter.”
Ollin Farm grows four varieties of curly-leafed Savoy spinach. Guttridge's favorite is the Hammerhead spinach, because of its wavy, dark-green leaves and noticeably sweeter flavor component than its supermarket baby spinach cousins. Not only is Hammerhead spinach great raw, but the flavor truly shines in braised greens and long-cooked curries. The farmer notes that his spinach “is always something special at the first farmers' markets in April."
The field-spinach season at Ollin this year is slated for mid-April until late May or early June, when it tends to bolt in weather above 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Farther south in Boulder County, Mark DeRespinis of Esoterra Culinary Garden is ready to sell his overwintered spinach to metro-area restaurants as early as next week. Mark wants Colorado to “celebrate” this crop every spring. He says the spinach “wakes me up as a farmer. It has survived everything, just like we have.”
Esoterra's abundant, candy-like crop has been the first available field crop we've cooked in the restaurants each of the last three growing seasons. DeRespinis favors the longstanding Bloomsdale variety of winter spinach as the archetypal Savoy breed. He, too, notes the crinkle and darker color and texture of winter spinach as what sets it apart from the commodity types. Esoterra also grows a beautiful red-veined spinach called Red Kitten, which is a constant in the farm's signature salad mix sold throughout the growing season.
Back in our restaurant kitchens, we have heralded the arrival of the overwintered spinaches as akin to the big bang of the Colorado growing season. Like the Beaujolais Nouveau celebration in November in France, we honor its seasonal stretch by using it in multiple preparations on our menus. I would describe the flavor as green, robust and hearty. But you cannot ignore winter spinach’s decadently sweet flavor profile. Colorado diners want taste, they want a story, and they want a connection to the land. Winter spinach checks all these boxes — and it tastes delicious. Elevating winter spinach as a harbinger of the season, the same way we do for peaches and tomatoes in the summertime, is my goal in the versatile recipes shared below:
Winter Spinach Pasta Dough
This is an easy dough to put together, and it wows with a vibrant green color. The key is that the cooked spinach must be very dry before you add it to the flour. This pasta dough can really go with any sauce you like. Two favorites for me would be a braised meat ragu or a very simple butter, parmesan and lemon zest topping.
8 ounces fresh spinach, any large stems removed
5 eggs, beaten
1 pound doppio zero flour (Italian 00 flour, which can be found in most specialty markets)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a generous amount of salt. When the salt dissolves, work in batches to cook the spinach. Cook each batch for 30 seconds, then remove from the water with a slotted spoon and let it drain in a colander. Continue working until all your spinach is cooked. Press down on the spinach in the colander to squeeze out some of the water.
Allow the spinach to cool. When it's easy to handle, wring out the excess water from spinach with a paper towel. It should be as dry as you can possibly get it. If you think it's dry, wring it out some more. In the bowl of a food processor, blend the spinach with eggs and set aside. Don’t worry if all the spinach is not puréed completely.
In a kitchen mixer fitted with a dough hook, add in the flour and salt (to taste) and mix on low speed for one minute. Pour in the egg-spinach mixture and mix on medium speed until the dough comes together, 3 to 5 minutes. If the dough seems too wet, sprinkle in a little extra flour. Once the dough is in a single mass, mix it further on medium speed for 3 to 4 minutes to activate gluten (which gives the dough its elasticity); it should become a smooth mass. Wrap the dough tightly with plastic wrap and allow to rest for 15 minutes before rolling out in your pasta machine. This dough will work for any shape: fettuccine, lasagna sheets and ravioli are a few of my favorites.
Winter Spinach Saag
This is one of the few recipes we have run at Beast + Bottle multiple times because it highlights a spring ingredient but is simultaneously warm and comforting when the Colorado “spring” shows its winter face. You can add any cooked protein to the final dish such as tofu, chicken or shrimp. It's great with a side of basmati rice or roasted potatoes. A hallmark of Indian cuisine is the use of both whole and ground spices in a single dish.
2 pounds winter spinach, chopped
4 ounces butter or ghee
1 large yellow onion, sliced thin
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, minced
1 ½ teaspoons cumin seed, toasted
1 ½ teaspoons caraway seed. toasted
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon red chili flake
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup heavy cream
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, in their juice
Juice of half a lime
Cilantro to garnish
Protein of your choice (optional)
In a large microwave-safe bowl, add in chopped spinach with a healthy pinch of salt and a quarter-cup of water. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave on high 1 minute until spinach wilts. Drain spinach and wring out excess water. Set aside.
In a large sauté pan or cast-iron pan, melt butter or ghee over medium heat. Add in onion and cook until wilted, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add in garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, no more than one minute. Turn heat down and add in all spices and allow to cook in the mixture 1 to 2 minutes. Add in cream and tomatoes, then bring to a boil. Fold in the chopped, cooked spinach, bring to a simmer and allow mixture to cook and thicken, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from heat. Add in lime juice. Fold in proteins if using and serve immediately with cilantro to garnish.
Amish Style Winter Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette
This makes for an incredibly satisfying light dinner with crusty bread. For visual appeal, I separate the cooked egg yolk from the cooked egg white and chop them separately. When rendering bacon, I never cook it all the way because then it just tastes like salt, and the nuances of well raised pork get lost.
For the dressing:
6 ounces thick cut bacon, chopped (I like the local brand from River Bear)
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
In a sauté pan, render the bacon until cooked but not totally crispy. Remove bacon pieces with a slotted spoon and allow to drain on a paper towel. Reserve for a later use. Leave the bacon fat in the pan. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly, three minutes or so. Then whisk in remaining dressing ingredients. Keep hot.
For the salad:
8 ounces winter spinach, stems removed and large leaves torn
½ teaspoon salt
4 large button mushrooms, sliced thin
2 ounces red onion, sliced thin and allowed to sit in cold water for 5 minutes
2 hard-boiled eggs, egg yolk and egg white separated and chopped
Wash and dry the spinach. Toss the spinach with salt and the hot bacon dressing. Allow heat of dressing to wilt spinach slightly. Toss salad again with reserved bacon pieces and mushrooms. Plate salad. Drain red onion from cold water and top salad with red onion and cooked egg yolk and egg white. Serve immediately.
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