Home Cooking for a 21st-Century Home Cook with Laurie Colwin
Open Road staffers made dishes from Laurie Colwin's classic Home Cooking.
Several of our staffers gathered in Brooklyn to try their hand at making dishes from Laurie Colwin’s classic Home Cooking. The “chefs,” seasoned and novice alike, will be sharing their experiences every Monday on the Open Road Media blog.
When a food writer has such an ardent fan base as Laurie Colwin, it can be intimidating to jump in and try to replicate her recipes in an unfamiliar kitchen for the camera and a dinner party of colleagues. So, I knew I wasn’t up to trying a main dish, as delicious as her mustard chicken may look (that’s an at-home experiment for another day). I’d read about Colwin’s creamed spinach in a New York Times piece last year; I was intrigued by her idea of adding pickled jalapeños to a comfort food I’ve eaten many times, but never made myself. In perusing her ingredients further, I also appreciated the fact that Laurie’s recipe called for timesaving frozen spinach. (Washing and chopping many pounds of spinach in a crowded kitchen seemed a little nutty.) So, for our cook-in, I settled on Laurie’s creamed spinach with jalapeño peppers. Below is her recipe, with my thoughts and process interspersed:
Creamed Spinach with Jalapeño Peppers
1. Cook two packages of frozen spinach. Drain, reserving one cup of liquid, and chop fine.
Right off the bat, I had a question: what size package? I assumed Laurie referred to the 10-ounce cardboard boxes of frozen spinach, but Whole Foods only had 16-ounce bags. I wound up using about 1.5 bags. The dish might’ve been healthier had I gone all-in on the spinach, but it sure wouldn’t have been as creamy. This step was done on the stovetop instead of in a microwave in order to ensure that I had enough cooking liquid for later.
2. Melt four tablespoons of butter in a saucepan and add two tablespoons of flour. Blend and cook a little. Do not brown.
Those italics made me nervous, but it wasn’t a terribly tough step. Just keep the burner lower than you might want. I’m normally a very impatient cook, especially with this type of thickening step, so it was a good exercise.
3. Add two tablespoons of chopped onion and one clove of minced garlic.
4. Add one cup of spinach liquid slowly, then add ½ cup of evaporated milk, some fresh black pepper, ¾ teaspoon of celery salt and six ounces of Monterey Jack cheese cut into cubes. Add one or more chopped jalapeño pepper (how many is a question of taste as well as what kind. I myself use the pickled kind, from a jar) and then the spinach. Cook until all is blended.
Everything was pretty easy here. We happened to have an 8-ounce block of cheese, so I upped that quantity a bit. And the pickled jalapeños were very large, so I just used two halves and the heat level seemed fine—enough to notice, but not so much that you couldn’t eat several bites of the finished product without breaking for bread or a beverage.
5. Turn into a buttered casserole topped with buttered bread crumbs and bake for about 45 minutes at 300°.
I used a 13-by-9-inch Pyrex, and it fit perfectly. Laurie didn’t have Panko when she wrote this recipe, but I used that and fingernail-sized pats of butter distributed around the top of the casserole. Other photos of this dish tell me that there’s room to add a lot more breadcrumbs than I did; next time, I’ll be a bit more liberal with them. The baking time was accurate, and it looked and smelled good coming out of the oven.
This dish was a hit with our little crowd, which included a first-time creamed spinach eater. The ratio of butter and cheese to spinach in this recipe is closer to even than I might want to admit, so it’s obviously quite rich, although it doesn’t taste it. The heat really sneaks up on you as you’re eating (spice lovers could certainly kick it up with another pepper or two), and it’s nice to pair with the beef stew. Very warm and comforting on a cold winter day by the fire!
Cooking Laurie’s creamed spinach was a good lesson. As a still-building-my-repertoire home cook, I tend to focus on the main events—the meat and potatoes—and make steamed or stir-fried vegetables. This was a treat: my sole job was to make this one side dish as well as possible. It wasn’t hard at all; it required a few more steps and cooking vessels than I would normally devote to spinach, but the product was exponentially better and more luxurious than plain steamed veggies. I would make it again—it’s easy to stock up on frozen spinach, and a jar of pickled jalapeños would certainly get used up in my house if I purchased it for this recipe.