2009 March: Spinach Special

2009 March: Spinach SpecialLove it or hate it, spinach has the potential to be a big hit on your menu and can be utilized in appetizers, pizza, pasta and entrées. I have loved spinach since I was a kid. In sixth grade, at recess, when most kids went across the street with their pocket full of change to buy candy, I would cross with them but then go to the bakery next to the candy store to buy a spinach pie. Yes, it’s the truth … that’s how much I love spinach.

And, I love my spinach pies as well. They’re like a mini calzone made with bread dough. Here’s the awesome thing: my kids love them, too. I just made them 24 spinach pies to enjoy during their week off from school and they gobbled them up. To prove even more that I’m a true spinach geek, when I got my first car, a ’72 Ford Pinto and then got a CB radio, my handle (radio name) was actually “Spinach Man”. While cooking in an upscale restaurant when I was a junior and senior in high school, I’d look forward to going out after work at one in the morning, sharing a spinach pizza with my buddy, Sean. Yep, spinach is the life for me!

I get so happy when I can convert others who claim to hate spinach but then love one of my spinach creations, like a sampling of my Spanikopita. Spinach is like artichoke hearts in a sense that it doesn’t have a pile of flavor on its own, but really becomes a wonderful ingredient when it’s seasoned well or mixed with other ingredients. I’ll tell you right now that spinach and garlic is a match made in heaven. They belong together with a pinch of salt (of course). Now, keep one thing in mind. Don’t ever, ever use canned spinach for anything. I need you to promise! Canned spinach has no value to me whatsoever. It’s brown and mushy and doesn’t do spinach any justice. The people who claim to hate spinach, I’m convinced, are the same people whose parents tried to force canned spinach on them as a child. The two ways that I would suggest you buy spinach is either fresh or frozen. I prefer fresh, and for the last couple of years I’ve been buying the baby spinach. I like the baby fl at leaf for two reasons: it’s already washed and because the stems are so small the spinach is totally ready to use. I used to use washed spinach that was leafier, but there were lots of places for dirt and sand to hide and it usually needed extra washing.

Most people don’t realize what high water content spinach has. So, if you’re going to use fresh spinach in cooked dishes like pasta and pizza, understand that it really cooks down, wilting in volume about 80 percent. Frozen chopped spinach is a good alternative, especially if you’re going to offer hearty spinach pizzas. I’ve ordered a spinach pizza before and it looked like a sprinkling of parsley. Know that if a spinach lover orders it on their pizza, they really want some spinach.

Here’s the best way to handle and prepare frozen chopped spinach to top pizza or to add to an Alfredo dish: First, thaw the spinach under refrigeration, and then drain it very well by squeezing the excess water out. It’s important to add a little bit of vegetable oil or olive oil to the spinach to make it easier to work with. I like to add some salt and either fresh chopped or granulated garlic. For a two-pound box of thawed and drained spinach, I’d add ½ cup of oil, 2 teaspoons of salt and 2 teaspoons of garlic. This mixture can also be used perfectly well in calzones and the spinach pies that I love so much. If you really want to use fresh uncooked spinach on a pizza, you need to make sure it is placed on the pizza before the cheese. If you add fresh spinach on the top of a pizza, it will first wilt and then burn.

If you order fresh spinach, you want to check it to make sure none of it is wilted or slimy. If it is, refuse it. Even a little bit of slimy spinach in the corner of the bag can contaminate the rest of the spinach very quickly. If your spinach comes in real fresh and your refrigeration is working properly, your spinach should last a week. As I’ve shared when talking about menu development, if you’re going to bring in a new ingredient, make sure you use it in more than just one dish. I use spinach on my menu in five different dishes. ?

Roman Vegetarian Pizza

1 16-inch pizza dough
6 ounces of Alfredo sauce (hot or cold)
10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, drained
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon granulated garlic
2 plum tomatoes sliced
2 ounces sliced black or Kalamata olives
8-10 pieces of artichoke heart quarters 1½ tablespoons of chopped garlic
8 ounces of your favorite pizza cheese blend

Stretch your dough, spread the Alfredo sauce. Mix the spinach, oil, garlic and salt, then kind of dollop the spinach onto the pizza, spreading it out as much as you can for the best coverage. Spread the sliced tomatoes and artichoke hearts. Sprinkle the olives and chopped garlic with the pizza cheese on top. Bake (the average deck oven at 550 F will take approximately 8-12 minutes).

Jeffrey Freehof, owner of The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia, is Pizza Today’s resident expert.

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