Friday, May 21, 2010

Celebrating Spinach

After a lovely trip to Featherstone Farm, the farm with the CSA program in which we participate, we lucky subscribers were offered a parting gift of impossibly fresh lettuces or spinach. I had visions of a celebratory meal rather than the usual near-instant gratification of a gigantic salad with tender baby lettuces, and selected the spinach. It was a tough choice, but I was determined to learn to make soufflé this spring and the spinach was a prime flavoring candidate.

I can’t believe I’m getting this excited about a bundle of spinach, but boy, oh boy, was this great stuff! At least as tender as the so-called baby spinach you might buy in a plastic bag, but with large, deep-dark, curly leaves, so fresh as to be completely innocent of the concept of wilt. It almost seemed a shame to eat it. Perhaps I should have made it into a bouquet.

Anyway, I did get around that celebratory soufflé. I’d never made a soufflé of any kind before, but thanks to Alice Waters and her book, The Art of Simple Food, I was pretty confident that I knew what I was doing. This is a lovely book filled with basic (but by no means simplistic) recipes and guidelines for essential traditional dishes that feature high-quality ingredients and allow them to shine. The descriptions and instructions are so detailed, so minute, that you might just feel like a master before you even turn on the kitchen light. And so, with this book, I felt like I had learned how to make a soufflé and I just had to follow through.

The basic concept of the soufflé, sweet or savory, is a white sauce (or pastry cream for a sweet soufflé) flavored (in my case with fresh spinach and feta cheese), combined with egg yolks and folded together with foamy beaten egg whites. It seemed pretty complicated to me until The Art of Simple Food helped me to take everything apart and consider each step in the process individually. The good news is that each preliminary step can be done separately and the results held until you’re ready for them. There’s no real hurry from stage to stage. You have to fold the egg whites into the base as soon as they are beaten, but you don’t have to beat them until you are ready for that step.

The only thing you must do quickly is eat the soufflé when it comes out of the oven, which is the best part anyway. If you delay, this airy dish will deflate and your carefully planned procedure will have been for naught. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat a fallen (or even leftover) soufflé. It just means you’ll have something more like a frittata or a thick omelet.

For my first attempt at soufflé, this went extremely well. The spinach was beautiful and tasty and was complimented well by the intermittent pockets of semi-melted feta cheese. The dish was nice and puffy with a golden-brown surface, and I was glad that I had made some effort to find a nice round dish to make it in. A smaller dish (or bigger soufflé) would have allowed for more dramatic rising of the soufflé over the edges, but who needs drama? Especially when all you really want to do is celebrate the first fresh spinach of the season.

Spinach and Feta Souffle

Depending on how salty your feta cheese is, you might want to use less salt in this dish than I did. I prefer my egg dishes well-salted, so may have used more salt than you would like or need.

1 tablespoon butter, plus more for buttering the baking dish
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
1 cup milk
½ teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt (plus more for blanching spinach if desired)
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
8 ounces fresh spinach
4 eggs, separated
3 ounces crumbled feta cheese

1. In a medium-size saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and sauté about 1 minute. Whisk the flour into the butter mixture. Cook about 1 minute more, stirring frequently.

2. Slowly whisk in the milk. Try to keep the flour mixture (roux) from forming lumps. Cook, keeping the heat at about medium-low and stirring or whisking frequently, until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg. Remove from heat and set aside.

3. Bring a large pot of salted (if desired) water to a boil. Add the spinach and cook about 2 minutes or until wilted. Remove the spinach, drain and rinse in cold water or plunge into a bowl of ice water. Squeeze dry and chop. (You will not need the pot of water any more for this recipe.)

4. Pour the milk mixture (white sauce) into a large bowl. Whisk in the egg yolks one at a time. When each yolk has been incorporated, stir in the chopped spinach and feta cheese.

5. Butter the bottom and sides of a 1-1.5 liter (about 1 -1 ½ quart) soufflé dish. Preheat oven to 375 F.

6. With an electric mixer (or by hand, if you’re so inclined) beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. That is, when you lift the beater or whisk out of the egg white foam, it will stand up in peaks that do not collapse. Be careful not to overbeat the egg whites.

7. Fold the beaten egg whites into the base mixture, preferably with a rubber spatula or wide, flat spoon. To do this, spoon about one third of the whites at a time onto the base. Cut down through the whites with the edge of the spatula and turn it to bring some of the base up over the whites. Gently stir this way until the whites are incorporated with the base, leaving a puffy mixture. Try not to deflate the egg whites.

8. Spoon the mixture into the buttered soufflé dish. Bake at 375 F for 35 minutes or until the soufflé has puffed up significantly, but is still a bit wobbly if very gently shaken and the top is golden brown. Serve immediately.