January 9, 2013
Have you noticed the baby boom going on in the greens section of the supermarket? Mature heads of lettuce are increasingly relegated to rapidly dwindling shelf space, while bags or plastic containers of baby arugula, baby romaine, baby spinach, and even baby kale, not to mention mixes of all the above, hog a bigger share of the produce aisle. The switch from bunches of adult greens to miniature leaves is most noticeable with spinach. As short as a decade ago, spinach was more likely to be sold in bunches, and with a choice of curly or flat-leaf. Middle-aged curly spinach came packed in sturdy, puffed-up cellophane bags, the leaves a deep, dark green inside. Whether you had a bunch or a bag, the stems needed trimming and the leaves needed multiple dunks in a large bowl of water to dislodge the recalcitrant sandy grit. If you were in a hurry, that added at least 15 minutes to your prep time. In our current 24/7, hurry-up lifestyle, 15 minutes may be fleeting for fame, but it's a significant chunk of time to devote to a side dish, and few of us have the luxury of losing ourselves in the zen of cleaning spinach. Forget the zen! It's more like a major irritation to be avoided. When bags of pre-washed baby spinach began to flood the market, it wasn't long before I realized, along with everyone else, that sautéed spinach was only five minutes away instead of 30. Simply cook some garlic in olive oil, upend a bag of baby spinach into the skillet, and stir it with tongs for a couple of minutes until it's wilted. Done. I didn't think much about my super-fast spinach routine until I saw a bag of prepubescent curly spinach the other day. All the other baby spinach we tend to see is flat-leaf, most likely because it's easily packed in bags and plastic containers. But I missed the mineral-rich flavor of the curly spinach of my childhood. So two bags of baby spinach came home with me: one curly, the other flat-leaf. I cooked them up separately, then called in my husband and younger daughter for a blind taste test. But there was no contest; their thumbs immediately went up for the curly. They found the baby flat-leaf almost swampy, while the curly practically screamed spinach. I tried a similar experiment a few days later with my Epicurious colleagues. This time I bought a bunch of adult flat-leaf spinach and a bag of adult curly spinach (I was shocked to find it, but so happy to see it), and again cooked them separately. It was another blind taste test, but this time the outcome was totally different. The flat-leaf brought smiles and positive comments, while the curly got blasted with "tannic" and "bitter." Me? I could appreciate the sweetness in the flat-leaf, but it was boring. The curly was strong in a good way, almost gamy in its assertive flavor. You can count me in...
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